As India’s National Highway 1A winds its way towards the soaring peaks of the Pir Panjal Range, changes in the cultural landscape are difficult to miss. Vishnoi dhaba stalls selling “pure veg” fare cede to rickety roadside hotels manned by vendors clad in the distinctive Kashmiri pheran. The 2.85-kilometer Jawahar tunnel – the namesake of the country’s venerated patriarch Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru – effectively bifurcates the two worlds. Security becomes overweening, and the demographic transition coarse. This wasn’t always the case.
Between the late 1980s and the present approximately 137,000 Hindu Pandits left the Kashmir valley. Their departure, facilitated by state forces, was a result of multiple factors, including intimidation and violence related to the onset of the separatist insurgency, as well as economic and social concerns. In a 1999 ruling of the National Human Rights Commission, the factors motivating the community’s dislocation were said to have fallen short of those present during acts of genocide. On the basis of this judgment, Kashmiri Pandits have since been denied status as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). India’s recognition of IDP rights – whether in Manipur, Gujarat or Assam – has, however, been uniformly poor: politics, rather than principle, has been decisive.
With the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance in May, the abrogation of Article 370 (the constitutional bridge by which the state of J&K is linked to the Union) has been a stated objective at the Centre, while the BJP’s longstanding mission to finalize the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits has become a national priority. In the wake of a June 20 meeting between Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, reports detailing plans to allocate 16,800 kanals (840 hectares) of land in Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar for the construction of securitized “satellite colonies” confirmed for many what is perceived as a deliberate policy to debase Kashmir’s special status and affect concentrated demographic change. Reaction was both swift and decisive. A general strike was announced, and the Valley shut down.
Reflecting on the implications of the Centre’s alleged plans, Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist at the Jammu & Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, told The Diplomat, “This is an experience they have learned from other places. One example is in Northern Ireland – it’s a failure there. These securitized places, these ghettoes where people live – it is not a solution… It will not help in reconciliation. The problem is that this creation of separate ghettoized structures is institutionalizing communalism. It’s also a slur against the people of Jammu and Kashmir – that we are communal and that they [Pandits] need to be protected.”
Both mainstream and separatist actors have made their positions clear. In June, Mehbooba Mufti, president of the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP), was unequivocal: “Everyone wants the Kashmiri Pandits back, but they [the government] want to make their rehabilitation like a fist in the face of the Kashmiris… they are going about it the wrong way.”
In similarly blunt fashion, just two weeks out from State Assembly polls, Altaf Khan, spokesperson for the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, told The Diplomat, “They want to communalize Kashmir, as they have communalized Jammu… Pandit return as per the government’s plans, in separate areas and security zones, is not good. It will lead to the communalization of society.”
In the absence of a clear directive from the Centre, concerns regarding Pandit resettlement are premised on the veracity of reports emerging from “high-placed” sources and conjecture as to the underlying motivations of the NDA government.
Despite the BJP’s provocative stance vis-à-vis Article 370 (the abrogation of which would jeopardize the legal basis of the state’s accession to the Union) and the party’s commitment to the resettlement of Pandits, little in the way of hard policy has been promulgated. Though in August Defence and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated 500 crore ($80.5 million) of the Union budget to Pandit rehabilitation, and lifted the per-family resettlement incentive from 7.5 lakh ($12,076) to 20 lakh ($32,202), the same increase had been requested (unsuccessfully) of the previous UPA government. State authorities remain responsible for the implementation of policy, making Assembly elections crucial to the future shape of Kashmir’s demography.
The first of a five-phase election process got underway on November 25. Based on Lok Sabha polling in May, the BJP stands to pick up 24 out of a possible 37 seats in Jammu, while in Ladakh the party has fielded candidates in all four of the region’s seats. The abundance of independent and minor parties will aid the BJP’s cause, though the party’s success is dependent on its making tangible inroads in the Valley. While a separatist boycott will diminish the influence of those opposed to the party, the achievement of “Mission 44 plus” – the number of seats required to win a majority in the Assembly – remains ambitious. The party has compromised key aspects of its ideological moorings in courting Valley-based votes.
At the BJP’s Rajbagh headquarters, party spokesperson Altaf Thakur told The Diplomat, “There is no option that they [Pandits] will live in colonies… the BJP has only one policy: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, all are one – Nationalists. We all are Nationalists.”
According to Thakur, the construction of securitized colonies is needless. “There is no problem for security…. We are brothers – it is the history of Kashmiri people. Hindus and Muslims, we are all brothers, and we are waiting for them to come and join us.”
In addition to its conciliatory tone on Pandit resettlement, the party has soft-pedaled its stance on Article 370. Though the Article’s repeal remains in the party’s election manifesto, the emphasis is on discussion and negotiation. “Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka vikas” (together with all, development for all) remains the campaign’s focal point.
This is with good reason. While the party’s own Valley-based candidates have opposed any changes to the state’s constitutional status, the prospect of securitized colonies have proved universally unpopular. Such a policy is unlikely to mobilize Pandit voters in constituencies within Kashmir in which the BJP is competitive, such as Amira Kadal, Habba Kadal, Sopore, Pulwama, Tral and Shopian.
Beyond electoral concerns, many Valley-based Pandits see the discourse as an exercise in political cynicism. Speaking to The Diplomat, Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Valley-based Pandit advocacy organization Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, stated, “The BJP has always used the miseries of our community to gain the maximum vote bank, to gain the maximum support from the Hindu fundamentalists.”
While dismissing the notion of a collective “Kashmiryat” culture, Tickoo was forthright in his assessment of the practical implications of a securitized approach to resettlement and its negative effect on the long-term interests of Pandits: “I don’t want ghettoes. I am much safer in my locality where I am still living, I never migrated from that place… the ghetto will become a political target whenever state and non-state actors like. I don’t want Philistine and Israel in the Valley.”
Though militarization within Kashmir is nothing new, the extent to which questions of demography and the return of a dislocated community compel securitized solutions is critical. As recent strategizing demonstrates, whatever ambitions the BJP may have in Kashmir will be checked by the competitive realities of electoral politics and the trappings of political power. Democracy, however imperfect, will serve its purpose.
Michael Vurens van Es is a Kathmandu-based journalist. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Livemint & The Wall Street Journal, and Himal Southasian among others.