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A FEW GOOD MEN IN THE VALLEY

It was a gathering rarely seen in recent times. Kashmiri Pandits were celebrating Mahashivratri, the biggest festival of the Shaivite Kashmiris, as popular as Id is among the Muslims. For Kashmiri Pandits who are living as migrants since their bitter migration of 1990, the 14-day festival has been reduced to a tiny celebration. What was rare this year was an invitation, some of them in Delhi received, to celebrate “Shivratri Milan”, just as is done for Id Milan or Holi Milan. The host was the new chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed.

It seemed at first that the invitation would not click because the timing was wrong. Shivratri is a festival celebrated at home with friends and relatives. Would anyone come to celebrate the occasion at the Heritage Centre' Besides, it was the day India was playing Pakistan in the World Cup. Yet a large gathering turned up at Mufti’s invitation. He could not have expected better.

Other than the favourite Kashmiri dishes, Mufti also offered them an invitation to go back to Kashmir and resume their lives there. It was a graceful move, perhaps a trifle late, but successful nonetheless. What Mufti said sprung from a new feeling among the people in Kashmir that the Pandits should not have been made to leave.

Did they have to go'

Most of the people see no reason why the Pandits have been treated badly, in spite of the centuries of goodwill between Muslims and Hindus in the valley.

A clear objective of Pakistan-sponsored militancy was to cleanse Kashmir of the Pandits, after which, it was assumed, the valley would automatically become a fundamentalist zone and easy to be manipulated by Pakistan.

The question of bringing back the Pandits to the valley is not a new one. Even Farooq Abdullah had promised to work towards the same goal. Unfortunately, his efforts came to nothing. Hardly anything was done even though his ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was ruling at the Centre. If a few came back, they were killed by the militants. Large groups of Sikhs and Pandits were killed in villages, making it impossible for others to think of coming back.

Sayeed’s government chalked out a plan to have two pockets where Kashmiri Pandits could take up residence — at Mattan, on the way to Amarnath, and near the temple of Kheerbhavani. The plan was to build houses there to resettle the Pandits, after which they could slowly spread to the areas where they lived earlier.

Massacre of hope

Even when they migrated, it was thought that the Pandits should not have been moved further from Indira Nagar, near the Badami Bagh cantonment in Srinagar, from where they could go back to their homes when conditions improved. It is difficult to say if this would have worked. There was also the demand for a Kashmiri Pandit homeland floated by Panun Kashmir. Being an essentially divisive idea, this would certainly not have worked.

Barely two weeks after Sayeed’s dinner, 24 Pandits — including 11 women and two children — were killed in the Nadimarg village. The entire process of rehabilitating the Pandits immediately went several steps back.

Kashmiri Pandits would ultimately have to go back to their homes in the city and the villages. But the question that arises after the Nadimarg massacre is: will this happen' And how soon'

There are a few logistical questions too: of finding them houses, since most of their original houses have either been destroyed or sold off or occupied by others. There is no question of them sitting for an eternity in Muttan and Kheerbhavani. They must be given jobs and business opportunities too. Above all, they must be ensured safety.

Kashmiri Pandits have shown great resilience. After coming away from Kashmir, many of them have found new careers. But many others continue to live miserably in the camps. Sayeed has taken up a major challenge, and already suffered a huge setback. He will have to be prepared for tougher tests of patience.

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