A fresh initiative for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to Kashmir has been set in motion. On June 12, a delegation of the Pandits met Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, who is custodian of the historic Jamia Masjid and chairman of Awami Action Committee (AAC), a faction of the separatist Hurriyat Conference. The delegation sought the help of the Mirwaiz for the resettlement of Pandits. The two sides agreed to form an inter-community committee to take the initiative forward.
Satish Mahaldar, who led the Pandit delegation, told THE WEEK that the committee will also discuss peace and development of Kashmir. Some Pandits have been calling for a separate homeland within Kashmir; Mahaldar said he was aware of the demands of the “fringe” elements. “Whether today or tomorrow, everybody has to fall in line for the sake of peace,” he said. He said that creating separate colonies for Pandits is impractical and not achievable. “We have proposed that some land be allotted in six to seven districts in Kashmir where Pandits can live in flats in multi-storey apartments. That is workable and noncontroversial.”
After the 2014 Kashmir floods, the AAC paid for the reconstruction of 100 houses in Srinagar. The first house it chose was that of professor Moti Lal, a Kashmiri Pandit, at Basant Bagh in Srinagar. Lal was among a few thousand Pandits who stayed put in Kashmir braving militancy and fear. “Kashmiri Pandits whose children are well settled outside will not return,” Lal said. “They took the right decision to leave Kashmir.” He said it was a wrong decision for him to stay put. “My wife is the only Kashmiri Pandit woman who continues to wear a sari,” he said.
The BJP's plan to build separate colonies for Kashmiri Pandits has not won the support of the separatists or successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir. The separatists are wary that the BJP will use the resettlement of Pandits as a ploy to implement its agenda. If the state uses its power to bring them back, it is likely to leave resident Kashmiris anxious. Thus, the Mirwaiz's fresh initiative to explore their return is the state's best bet.
This initiative comes at a time when the BJP government at the Centre has come down hard on separatists. Except for Mirwaiz Farooq and the ailing Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads the other faction of the Hurriyat, most members of the two groups have been arrested for terror funding and disrupting peace. They have worked under the banner of the Joint Resistance Leadership (JRL) since the 2016 uprising triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. Since 2017, security forces have killed 733 militants in Kashmir, including 35 senior commanders.
The Centre has initiated a multi-agency crackdown against persons
involved in terror funding and stone pelting. Mirwaiz Farooq was also
questioned in Delhi by the National Investigation Agency. In an exclusive interview to THE WEEK, the first after he was questioned by the NIA, the Mirwaiz spoke on a range of issues. Excerpts:
Q/ What was discussed at the recent meeting with the delegation of Kashmiri Pandits?
A/ We decided to form a committee to take the initiative forward. We will try to get representation from all sections of society in the committee, including religious organisations, traders and political forces like the Hurriyat Conference, to build trust and restore communication that has broken down for many years between the two communities. We believe the interaction between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have to increase through people-to-people contact. Everybody across the board believes this is a humanitarian issue. We believe we must not link the return of Kashmiri Pandits to Kashmir with the resolution of the Kashmir issue as it will take time.
Q/ Do you think this initiative will counter the feeling that separatists are opposed to their return?
A/ I think so. A wrong perception has been created that Kashmiri Muslims are against the return of Pandits. I can tell you that there is a consensus among all sections of society in Kashmir that they need to come back. Separate colonies and ghettoisation of Kashmiri Pandits will defeat the purpose. That will not give them that feeling of being home.
Q/ You command influence in Kashmir, but does the delegation you met enjoy the backing of their community?
A/ I think it is important to distinguish between people who want to come back and live here and those who are using this issue for their own self-interest. Some of them [from the second set] can be seen on television. I firmly believe that such people are harming the cause of Kashmiri Pandits by increasing the acrimony between the two communities. The delegation that met us acknowledged it. They said they do not represent them. They said they want to take the initiative forward and work with the people in Kashmir. Nobody can accuse us of playing politics on this issue. We are neither contesting any election nor do we want to win any seats. The delegation said they are disappointed in the Peoples Democratic Party, the National Conference and others. Whoever has come back in the last 20 years has come on their own. The government has done nothing for them.
Q/ The ACC helped rebuild many houses that were damaged in the 2014 floods. The first one was of a Kashmiri Pandit.
A/ Yes. We also helped some Pandit families settle [down] back in Budgam. Their land had been usurped, and we ensured it was returned to them. We believe that Kashmiri Pandits will also have to take a call and not get exploited [by people with agendas].
Q/ Do you think this initiative will help soften the stand of hardliners in New Delhi, and they would think of the Hurriyat as an entity they can do business with?
A/ You cannot ignore the fact that the Kashmir problem has a humanitarian angle. There are Kashmiri Pandits, divided families straddling the Line of Control, missing persons and refugees. We have made a [start] and we will take this process forward. We had a very cordial meeting with this delegation. Next time they come, I am going to call the ulema, traders and the civil society for interaction. We will take this forward step by step.
Q/ The Centre recently said dialogue with the Hurriyat will be held within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, after you expressed readiness for talks.
A/ I think it is for the BJP to decide what course they want to take. The election rhetoric is over and the BJP won comfortably. I think they are in a much better position than Atal Behari Vajpayee, in terms of strength and numbers. I think it is a test of [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi's leadership whether he can graduate from being a leader to a statesman. I honestly believe that Vajpayee had laid a foundation on which we can engage with each other. Not only with Delhi but also with Islamabad. One thing is very clear that there is no military solution to this problem. The BJP is using the media to somehow brush aside all the historical aspects of the Kashmir issue. The latest UN report on human rights in Kashmir has firmly said that the Kashmiri struggle is based on certain legal aspects, and justice has to be done with the right of self-determination. So, no matter how hard they try to ignore the realities of the Kashmir dispute, they cannot do so. The only way forward is engagement. If there is a forward movement from New Delhi, the Hurriyat will give a positive response.
Q/ You said Modi has the mandate, but what according to you is holding him back on Kashmir?
A/ Many people say he needs time. It has been only a month or so since he won a second term. Time is key here, because in times of relative peace you build a process. Unfortunately, the Kashmir situation is so unpredictable that tomorrow we will be in a situation where we will be firefighting again. When you have anger on the streets, you cannot engage with each other. New Delhi has to understand that this problem will not go away by arresting Hurriyat leaders, maligning them, using the NIA, the Enforcement Directorate and other pressures tactics. They should have appreciated the fact that the Hurriyat Conference, to some extent, was a buffer for them. In the last 10 years, we have seen the rise of militancy and the anger of the youth. In the last 10 years, New Delhi has completely sidelined the Hurriyat Conference. They have to understand that the more they push the political forces aside, the more difficult it will be for them to deal with the situation on the ground. And tomorrow, there will be nobody to talk to them.
Q/ How do you manage to carry on when most of your colleagues have been arrested?
A/ It is difficult. The police and the Criminal Investigation Department are always on the prowl. In the long run, this issue is not going to go away. We do not want our youth and another generation to get consumed in this conflict. We want a peaceful solution. And I believe if there was some movement forward on the political level, we can even try to get those young boys to engage politically rather than militarily. But right now, there is absolutely no initiative. They want to continue with the iron fist policy, which is not helping. They claim every day this or that area is militant-free, yet we see young boys leaving families, academics and careers to join militant ranks. That is a big challenge for all of us as a community.
Q/ Have you arranged for a legal defence for your colleagues who have been arrested?
A/ Yes, we have. But the process is very slow. At the end of the day, it is a political call. It is very clear that the NIA and other agencies are working under the instructions of the government. The process is so slow that even in the main case the hearing has not started as yet. It is political vendetta. There is nothing they can prove against our colleagues who are in jail and they are trying to prolong their detention on one pretext or the other.
Q/ Will the Hurriyat be able to draw young boys away from militancy if the Centre offers talks on Kashmir?
A/ I think the Hurriyat Conference is the only platform or party that can play a role because it represents the sentiment and aspirations of the people. Even parties like the BJP acknowledge that fact.
Q/ Do you think there is any common ground between the Hurriyat and political parties regarding Article 35A?
A/ Certain guarantees were given to [mainstream parties] by the government of India, [during the accession]. It is for them now to [take to the streets]. Article 35A ensures that demographic changes will not happen. People who are saying Article 370 is temporary must know it was temporary because a plebiscite was to be held. People are watching how the NC and PDP will follow up on this.
Q/ How do you see the rise of the BJP in J&K? The RSS is planning to open units in Kashmir also.
A/ They are definitely trying to make inroads. They have the resources and are using the system to their benefit. I do not know how far they will be successful, but it is very clear that people are also becoming aware. The BJP has completely polarised the state. The Hurriyat Conference has always rejected a solution on communal grounds. As a Mirwaiz, I have always maintained that Kashmir is a political problem. But we are seeing that the BJP and RSS are trying to whip up emotions and are giving the issue a Hindu-Muslim colour.
Q/ Last December, a few Islamic State (IS) members had barged into Jamia Masjid, of which you are the custodian. Is the threat of IS gaining ground in Kashmir?
A/ Because of the lingering conflict in Kashmir, a few youth are driven by this ideology. They have access to social media and have come to their own understanding. It is very important for us to [make it] clear that our struggle has no international agenda. It is a political problem which is rooted in the history of the subcontinent. It has a context and a background. And in that context and background, we want to address it as per the aspirations of the people.