Narendra Modi must talk to Kashmiri Hindus

The summer has arrived in Kashmir. Tourism is picking up in valley after the devastating floods. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his deputy Dr. Nirmal Singh was in Mumbai recently for promoting the state as prime tourist destination and shooting location for Bollywood movies. Meanwhile, Kashmiri separatists are back in action in valley, protesting against the proposed plan of the resettlement of Kashmiri Hindus in ‘composite townships’. The separatists’ views are echoed by the mainstream political parties like National Conference and Indian National Congress.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani has issued a diktat that the annual Amarnath yatra should be restricted to 30 days for “safety of pilgrims and protection of environment”. In the summer season, hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees from all over the country arrive in Jammu and Kashmir to take part in pilgrimage to a holy mountain shrine – Amarnath Cave. This year, the yatra to the holy shrine will be for 59 days starting from July 2. These Kashmiri separatists and their supporters have a habit of fomenting controversies and trouble whenever the holy Amarnath Yatra is going to take place – a routine exercise every year.

Amidst this entire hubbub, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits gathered today in sweltering heat at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi demanding from the Indian Government that the community of Kashmiri Hindus must be consulted and taken in to confidence before proposing any plan for their return. For the return and rehabilitation of the minority Hindus back in Kashmir, there are only two stakeholders – the Government of India and the community of Kashmiri Hindus. No one else has a say in this. I reiterate – no one else.

Kashmiri Hindus don’t have faith in present Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Whatever little faith was there with the formation of new government in J&K state, it was marred by controversies like thanking separatists and Pakistan for successful elections in the state, release of separatist Masarat Alam, doing a U-turn on the townships for Pandits in Kashmir etc.

Frankly speaking, Pandits don’t trust Kashmiri politicians – be it Abdullahs, Muftis or others – because of their demeanour in the last two and half decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA government need to understand that. The onus lies on Narendra Modi on whom the Pandit community placed faith in resolving their issues as he emerged as a person of hope and optimism not only for Pandits but also for the entire country.

The return plan of Kashmiri Hindus must include the following key things:

  1. Setting up of a commission/inquiry committee for probing the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus
  2. Prosecution of those responsible for the killings and the forced mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from Kashmir
  3. Restoration of all the desecrated temples and shrines of Kashmiri Hindus in valley

In addition to that, the issues of those Kashmiri Pandits who chose to stay back in Kashmir need to be addressed. These non-displaced Pandits are very much part of the community and their demands – social, political or economic – need to be taken in to account. They are also part of the larger debate of the resettlement of the ethnic Pandit community in Kashmir once and for all and must not be ignored.

On the return of Hindus back to Kashmir, there are divergent views. Panun Kashmir, one of the frontline organizations of the community, demands separate homeland to be carved out for Kashmiri Hindus in valley which will be a union territory without any fetters of Article 370. There are others who don’t subscribe to this view. Though, there may be difference in opinion but one thing is common cutting across all the Pandit organizations – safe and dignified return back to Kashmir valley.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi must talk to the community of Kashmiri Hindus – all the Kashmiri Hindu organizations – before formulating any plan for their resettlement. A one-on-one discussion between the Prime Minister of India and the Kashmiri Hindu community is a must without any meddling by the separatists or valley-based mainstream politicians.

A placard in today’s protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi sums up very well the current predicament – Modi blinks, hope sinks.

(Published in The Newsminute)

Kashmiri Pandits and the rhetoric of their return

On April 7, 2015, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister (CM) Mufti Mohammad Sayeed called on Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh in New Delhi. In the meeting, the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back to the Kashmir valley was discussed, among other things. Union Home Minister has reportedly asked the CM to provide land for composite townships for Kashmiri Pandits. The CM, in return, gave assurance to the Home Minister on this issue and has reportedly stated that it will be done at the earliest.

As soon as the news of townships for Pandits was out, Yasin Malik, Chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, held a press conference and vehemently opposed it. Malik is accused in more than 20 cases, including the killing of four Indian Air force officers in 1989.

Kashmir valley observed a complete shutdown on  April 11 against the government’s plan to create “composite townships” in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits, who are in exile from the past 25 years. A day before the shutdown, on April 10, there were protests in Srinagar led by Malik.

Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani while opposing the proposed Pandit resettlement plan, termed it an “RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] plan of creating Israeli-type settlements in Jammu and Kashmir.” The separatists were joined by mainstream opposition parties in opposing separate townships in the Kashmir valley for Pandits.

The J&K CM, succumbing to the pressure from separatist groups, said in the Assembly on April 9 that there won’t be any separate townships for the Pandits in the Kashmir valley.

The comparison of townships for Kashmiri Pandits with Israeli settlements is repugnant. Kashmiri Pandits are no Israeli-settlers. They are rightful settlers, the original aborigines of the Kashmir valley with a history of 5,000 years. Kashmiri Pandits have a right of “home” in the valley.

On the subject of Kashmiri Pandits, there seems to be no difference between mainstream politicians and the separatists of the valley. All are united under the garb of so-called Kashmiriyat. Look at the charade of these politicians and separatists. They say Kashmiri Pandits are their brethren and they are welcome in valley. At the same time, they dictate terms to Pandits for their resettlement in Kashmir. If anyone should have a say on how to return back to their homeland, it should be the exiled community of Kashmiri Pandits. They are the ones who got uprooted, they should be the ones who should be consulted and taken into confidence before proposing any plan for their return and rehabilitation.

So far, there’s only been a meeting between a state CM and Union Home Minister. There is just a proposal for townships for resettlement of Pandits. Nothing tangible has been promised to Pandits yet and the valley has erupted over it. This exhibits that communal fanaticism is still prevalent in Kashmir valley (though not all are fanatics) even after more than two decades of armed insurgency.

Time and again, the displacement of Kashmiri Hindu community from Kashmir has been trivialised. Rubbing salt to the wound, Engineer Rashid, Member of Legislative Assembly from Langate constituency of Kupwara district, has demanded an unconditional apology from the minority Pandits for their forced migration from Kashmir. These obnoxious statements from Rashid are not new, who is known for his anti-India propensities even as he holds an office under the Constitution.

The exiled community of Pandits hoped that with the change in the government at the Centre, there would be a positive change concerning issues related to the community. Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government will complete one year in power on May 26. Kashmiri Pandits are yet to hear from their Prime Minister, who claims to be the Pradhan Sevak.

What happened to KashmiriyatInsaniyat and Jamhooriyat which the PM talked about?

The Bharatiya Janata Party is in power in J&K as well. The common minimum programme on which both BJP and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have agreed to govern the state has nothing substantial about Kashmiri Hindus. It says, “Protecting and fostering ethnic and religious diversity by ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits with dignity based on their rights as state subjects and reintegrating as well as absorbing them in the Kashmiri milieu. Reintegration will be a process that will start within the State as well as the civil society, by taking the community into confidence.”

For the resettlement of Pandits, creating a safe environment for them in the valley is indispensable. How will that environment be created? That environment will be created when people like Malik and Bitta Karate are brought to book. That atmosphere will be created when the likes of Geelani will be prosecuted for their role in the Pandit exodus of 1990. Creating a safe environment for Pandits in Kashmir will entail punishing those who are responsible for the homelessness of Pandits. For laying the foundation of a safe future, the past needs to be corrected. Before asking Kashmiri Pandits to move forward, let there be justice first.

The talk of the return of Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir is exasperating. These return and rehabilitation plans are humbug till the time the fundamental issue of ethnic cleansing is not addressed. Talking about the resettlement of Pandits in Kashmir, where will the Kashmiri Pandits go? The homes of majority of Pandits were either burned, ransacked, or encroached on. Many Pandits sold their land under duress when they were living in exile under extremely difficult circumstances. Whether it will be townships, smart cities or a separate homeland for Pandits, this ought to be debated extensively by the government with the exiled community.

Does the chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest) have the guts to take on these anti-national separatists head on? Does the chhappan inch ki chhati have the guts to challenge the Islamic fanatic hegemony in the Kashmir valley?

(Published in Newslaundry)

Book Review: A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories by Siddhartha Gigoo is a collection of short stories which takes you to the world of turbulence and banishment. The short-stories are about the loss of human lives, longing for the home, the resurrection of the exiled people, old friendships, memories, desolation and sufferings. The stories will move your heart, make you shudder and think about the happenings described in them.

The book begins with a story The Search which is about a researcher interested in histories and biographies of banished people. His study in the museum library leads him to the discovery of a disappearing clan. The story is attributed to extinct human species of Kashmir valley – Kashmiri Hindus. The author hints at loss of culture, language, and desecration of ancient Hindu heritage in Kashmir. In this story, the author mentions about eleven original specimens left in the entire world. The author actually refers to the time in Kashmir, centuries ago, when only eleven Hindu families survived in valley during foreign Islamic rule.

Another story titled The Last Haircut is the depiction of time in Kashmir when the Pandits were getting killed by their acquaintances. The two young boys who have taken to guns were given the task of killing their teacher who was a Kashmiri Pandit. But they didn’t succeed as the teacher never returned home that day. After some days, the young boys came to know by a chance encounter with the teacher’s wife that he never returned back to his home that day when the boys had planned to kill him. This story highlights the period in Kashmir of 1989-1990 when Hindu families were planning to leave their homes after selective killings of their community members.

In Poison, Nectar, the author narrates poignantly about a family of Kashmiri Hindu refugees living in squalid camp in exile away from their home. Around two years ago, the author has made a short-film The Last Day based on this story.

There are, in total, sixteen stories in the book which portray the different aspects of the lives of human beings. The book ends with a story A Secret Life which is about a monk, who upon having a chance encounter with a young man at a railway station, doubts his own knowledge and understanding of human nature and life.

Siddhartha’s stories are very allegorical. Even without mentioning Kashmir explicitly, he narrates very well the varied narratives of people who faced turmoil without taking any sides. Through fiction, the author has tried to paint the cataclysm of the land – to which he belongs – on paper. The stories talk about conflict societies, and how the conflict takes toll on the people and changes their lives. His stories unravel the predicament people face in conflict regions. These stories are the author’s stunning imagination put on paper.

While some stories are easily understandable, deciphering of a few stories is not so easy. There are some stories which you may not understand in first reading. Nevertheless, the effort you take to read those stories again and interpret them is worthy.

This book is a beautiful addition to Indian writing in English, more so, an addition to the literature on Kashmir. Read this book for its metaphorical writing and stunning imagination and of course, for Kashmir.

(Published in DNA)

BJP’s gamble in Jammu and Kashmir

On 1st March 2015, People’s Democratic Party’s founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took oath as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. This being his second stint as chief minister of the troubled state after 2002. He was the Home Minister of India in the VP Singh government. After around two months of talks and consultations, BJP tied the political knot with PDP. It was given the official stamp when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed met Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi on February 27, 2015. While talking to the media, Mufti Sayeed termed the BJP-PDP alliance as the meeting of North Pole and South Pole. He added emphatically that the BJP-PDP alliance is a political alliance first and then an alliance for governance.

Prime Minister Modi while campaigning for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir had termed PDP as the party of Baap-Beti. The mandate given by the people of the state made BJP and PDP to join hands and form the government. We saw the same Modi hugging the Baap of PDP.

While some say BJP allying with PDP is opportunism and greed for power, others argue that it is their best chance to be in power. I tend to agree with the latter part. BJP-PDP alliance represents the three regions of the state. If it works, well. If it doesn’t, then also fine. BJP’s alliance with PDP in J&K is a gamble for the party. The two parties are poles apart ideologically — BJP being a nationalist party while PDP being a soft separatist one. The two parties have agreed to govern the state on a common minimum programme.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed raked up controversy on day one when he credited separatist outfit Hurriyat Conference, terrorists and people from across the border for allowing peaceful elections in Jammu and Kashmir. There was not a word for people of the state, security forces or the election commission. It left BJP, which was for the first time in power in the state, red faced. At a failed attempt in the beginning to defend the indefensible, BJP had to dissociate from the statement of J&K CM later. Even Prime Minister Modi, during his reply to discussion on motion of thanks in Rajya Sabha, disapproved Mufti’s statement without naming him. He reiterated that there will be zero tolerance towards terrorism and government in J&K is formed on the basis of common minimum programme.

The second day of the government, there was another controversy. A group of PDP Legislators along with MLA from Langate constituency, who is known for his separatist tendencies, Engineer Rashid demanded that the mortal remains of executed Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru be handed over to his family. It was rejected by Ministry of Home Affairs. Afzal Guru was hanged on February 9, 2013 inside Tihar Jail in New Delhi.

It has been only a week since Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took oath as CM of J&K and he has reportedly ordered release of so-called political prisoners lodged in jails of the state.

On Saturday, chief of J&K Muslim League and Hurriyat Conference leader Masarat Alam, who had organised anti-India protests in Kashmir which resulted in the death of more than 100 people in the summer of 2010, was released from Baramulla jail. Mufti Sayeed has also directed the DGP of J&K Police to prepare a comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation of surrendered and released militants so that they are integrated into the mainstream of the society of the state. It looks like Mufti Sayeed is back with his ‘healing touch’ policy.

Certainly, these moves are aimed at pandering to the separatist Muslim vote bank in the Kashmir valley which was displeased by PDP’s alliance with ‘communal Hindu’ BJP. These controversies won’t affect PDP as much as they dent BJP’s image in Jammu, Ladakh and rest of India. Giving the position of Chief Minister to PDP by BJP has already been seen as a compromise which was further added to by no change in constitutional status (Article 370) of Jammu & Kashmir. On the issues of West Pakistan refugees as well as the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir which BJP claims to be their priority, there is hardly anything substantial in the common minimum programme. In addition to that, the major cabinet berths have gone to PDP in the state council of ministers.

While Mufti Sayeed’s moves will consolidate PDP’s position in Kashmir, it will have a reverse implication for BJP in Jammu and Ladakh. The more the PDP treads the path of soft-separatism, the more the BJP moves away from the trajectory of national interest. BJP is as much responsible for the action of J&K government as much as PDP. They can’t do away with it as they are in power. Before it gets too late, Modi needs to put a restraint to Mufti’s adventurism. Though it is too early to judge BJP-PDP government’s policies and performance in J&K, if such adventuristic moves and controversies continue to happen time and again, it will be a gamble in which BJP will lose each passing day till the time the party is in power in the state.

If BJP continues to be a weakling in the alliance while Mufti continues his adventurism and separatist-friendly policies in the name of reconciliation, then it will pose a security threat to the state as well as the nation. New Delhi’s position in Kashmir will be weakened. Governance and development will take a back seat then. The relative peace in the valley is hard-earned and has entailed sacrifices of our security forces. We can’t afford to have turbulent a valley.

(Published in Mid Day)

Fractured Mandate in J&K: Case for Division of State?

In the last two days, the PDP and the BJP leaders have separately met NN Vohra, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, for talks about government formation in the state. Both the parties want to be in the power though there is no decision between the two on an alliance yet. The PDP sent feelers to the BJP for forming an alliance by praising former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s approach towards Kashmir imbroglio which was welcomed by the BJP. At the same time, the NC has offered unconditional support to the PDP. The Congress party is desperate to be part of the government and has invoked “secularism” to keep the “communal” BJP away from power. In the coming days, hopefully, the deadlock over government formation will be broken.

As per the mandate, the BJP and the PDP should form the government in Jammu and Kashmir as people voted against the NC and the Congress. However, if no consensus is achieved between the BJP and the PDP, the PDP has an option to go with the NC and the Congress while the BJP will sit in Opposition. That alliance would be considered as the domination of Kashmir Valley over the politics of J&K which has been the case in the state. Since the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Union of India in 1947, the Valley has controlled the political scene in the state. Except Ghulam Nabi Azad’s nearly three years stint as chief minister from November 2005 to July 2008, the chief minister of the state has always been from the Kashmir region.

Perhaps, this is for the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir that hegemony of Kashmir over the politics of entire state has been challenged so audaciously. The credit goes to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for their “Mission 44+” campaign. The party was aspiring to form the government of its own in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. The party campaigned in full force in the Valley and banked on displaced Kashmiri Pandit votes. The BJP softened its stand on abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

There were contrary views from the party on this issue. BJP’s candidate from Amirakadal constituency of Srinagar, Dr Hina Shafi Bhat, grabbed media attention the most with her comments about Article 370. She said that she will be the first one to pick the gun if there is an attempt made to abrogate Article 370. She even alleged the rigging in elections in Kashmir. BJP’s campaigning was so strong that Dr Mehboob Beig, who quitted the National Conference and openly supported PDP, remarked that BJP’s Yalgaar could be stopped by only one person in the Valley and that is Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. However, “Mission 44+” was not achieved as the party couldn’t get even a single seat in Kashmir region. Also, the party surprisingly couldn’t win in Ladakh region which has four assembly seats of Leh, Kargil, Zanskar and Nubra.

These elections marginalised the separatist voices of Kashmir valley as people voted out in large numbers. In this election, Sajjad Gani Lone who is a separatist-turned-mainstream politician tried his luck and won from Handwara constituency of North Kashmir. His party won two seats in these Assembly elections. The irony is that his brother is a member of separatist organisation Hurriyat Conference and he is married to a Pakistani who is the daughter of Amanullah Khan, founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

It is said that high voter turnout was because of the fear of Hindu CM in the state and preventing the BJP from winning in the Valley. Even if Kashmiris voted out to keep the BJP out of the Valley, their participation in democratic process is a success. However, it should not be inferred that separatist voices have totally been rejected. That would be stupidity but overall such high voter turnout of 65 per cent is a step towards the mainstream.

The election results exhibited regional as well as religious polarisation with Jammu region majorly voting for the BJP while Kashmir region for the PDP. Ladakh surprisingly voted for the Congress party which bagged three out of four Assembly seats in the region.

The fractured mandate of Jammu and Kashmir illustrates the divergent political aspirations of the state. We have witnessed that in 2008 during Amarnath agitation and 2010 summer unrest. It should not be forgotten that the religion (read Islam) forms the basis of Jammu and Kashmir conflict which cannot be ignored.

As the political parties are busy in number games and discussions to form government in Jammu and Kashmir, it won’t be inappropriate to think and debate on the political reorganisation of the state. The three regions of state differ culturally, geographically, linguistically and politically. Statehood for Jammu region has been voiced many times. In case, the BJP doesn’t become part of the new government in J&K, it will add fuel to the debate over political reorganisation of the state. Union territory status for Ladakh has been demanded so as to end the abandonment of this particular region of the state.

Is trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State the solution to address the regional imbalance? In the past, the Centre’s interlocutors — Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar, and MM Ansari — have recommended creation of three regional councils, one each for Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, with legislative, executive and financial powers.

For the displaced community of Kashmiri Pandits, some Pandits advocate the creation of separate homeland to be carved out of present Kashmir. The cause of separate homeland is championed by organisation named Panun Kashmir which recently commemorated “Homeland Day” in New Delhi on December 28, 2014. If their demand is taken into account, then it would lead to quadrification of the Jammu & Kashmir state — Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Panun Kashmir. However, not all displaced Kashmiri Pandits favour that formula of separate homeland in Kashmir for reversal of their exodus which occurred in 1990.

Whichever political parties join hands to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir, the regional imbalance in the state should be seriously addressed. Is division of the J&K state an answer? Let there be a debate over it.

(Published in Daily O)