Are displaced Kashmiri Hindus returning to their homeland?
Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, locally known as Pandits, fled their ancestral homes in droves 20 years ago after a bloody rebellion broke out against New Delhi’s rule in India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Now encouraged by the sharp decline in rebel violence across the Himalayan region, authorities have formally launched plans to help Pandits return home.
Will Pandits, who say they “live in exile in different parts of their own country” return to their homeland in Kashmir where two decades of violence has left nothing untouched and brought misery to the scenic region, its people and its once easy-going society?
Earlier this month, the government constituted a high level committee led by Kashmir’s Revenue Minister, Raman Bhalla, which will monitor the return of displaced Hindus and effective implementation of New Delhi’s rehabilitation package which includes financial assistance of 750,000 rupees for house construction.
The initiative is driven by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s package of 16,000 million rupees last year for the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Hindus living as migrants in several parts of the country, mostly in Jammu, the Hindu-dominated winter capital of the state.
Many Hindus who fled Kashmir have sold their homes or lost their kin in the violence that has also killed more than 47, 000 people including Muslim militants and civilians.
Some Pandit groups who have opposed the initiative are demanding a separate, guarded homeland within the Kashmir Valley while others complained that authorities are not meeting their security concerns.
In the largest migration since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into mainly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan, nearly 250,000 Kashmiri Pandits left for safer places in India after a bloody insurgency broke out in 1989.
In the past, Pandits have been deterred by a series of attacks by suspected militants. At least 209 Hindus have been also killed since 1989.
Though Kashmiri separatists have made fresh appeals urging Hindus to return to the Valley, they have asked them to live side by side with Muslims rather than in “security zones”.
Bhalla says 15,000 families have agreed to return and at least 200 apartments have been contracted so far.
Will Kashmiri Pandits return to their homes in Kashmir, where still almost daily gun battles, between troops and Muslim rebels, and occasional bomb explosions take place?
(PHOTO: A Kashmiri Pandit holds a lighted earthen lamp at a shrine in Khirbhawani, 30 km east of Srinagar May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Danish Ismail)