Srinagar: Sunny Raina was four years old in 1990 when his family fled their home nestled in the scenic rural landscape of Kokernag in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, travelling more than 200 kilometres to move into a hot and squalid tenement in Jammu’s barren and dusty outskirts.
The Raina’s were among the estimated 44,167 families, of whom 39,782 are Hindus and almost all Kashmiri Pandits, displaced by the insurgency mounted by secessionist militants who were calling for the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley to be cleansed of them. Over 100 Pandits were killed at the time. With more than 150,000 people pouring into the refugee camps over the next few years, it was the largest internal displacement after independence.
Raina spent the next 15 years in the Muthi camp, with his brother, their parents, and grandparents in a single room, whose ceiling he recalled was barely above their heads. Those days were behind them after the family built a house in another Jammu suburb but it still felt like a temporary address.
In 1991, the Rainas heard from their lifelong Kashmiri Muslim neighbours that their home was burnt down, but they never found out whether the arsonists were militants or local goons.
“Our home is in Kashmir,” said Raina, 35, explaining why even though he had few childhood memories of the place, he returned to the conflict-ridden valley in 2011 to work as a mechanical engineer in the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) engineering department.
When then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced an Rs- 1,600 crore rehabilitation package for Kashmiri migrants in 2008, it gave hope to many including the Rainas.
The core elements of the package issued by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government commonly referred to as the PM package, were the creation of 6,000 government jobs, temporary housing in transit accommodations, financial incentives for self-employment in Kashmir and assistance in rebuilding homes.
Raina and his older brother Sandeep Raina, both engineers who secured admissions to an engineering college in Nagpur, thanks to the reservation for Kashmiri Pandits first introduced by the Maharashtra government on the instructions of then Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, applied for the jobs in 2010 and returned to their homeland the following year.
When Article 14 spoke with Raina in April 2022, he was living in a single-room accommodation with his wife and daughter in the Vessu migrant colony, which has a dozen identical buildings built in two lines, guarded by high walls covered with razor wire and a fortified entrance next to a military base along the highway in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district.
These single-room homes were a far cry from the often spacious homes they had to leave behind: the Vessu colony, housing about 400 families, looks like a government office or an army camp if it was not for the board announcing it as a colony of migrants.
Raina said that he had worked for more than a decade without a promotion or any future prospects of one.
The posts created under the 2008 package, paid for by the ministry of home affairs, do not yield promotions because they are treated over and above the sanctioned capacity of the state (now a union territory).
Even though the package employees are paid as per J&K civil service rules, their salaries are often delayed due to the late release of funds and the denial of promotions means the salary they receive isn’t commensurate with the seniority and corresponding salaries they feel they deserve.
For Raina, who left his job as a site engineer with a real estate developer in New Delhi, the twelve years of his “rehabilitation” in Kashmir have closed doors to better opportunities for him.
After 15 years in a single-room tenement in Jammu, he has lived nearly that long in a one-room quarter in the Kashmiri Pandit colony. With his six-year-old daughter enrolled in a local school and him being 35-years-old, Raina feels he has no option but to continue living unhappily in Kashmir until his retirement.
“I thought after five, six years of hardship, I would get a promotion and things would get better,” said Raina.
“It was a good bridge but they couldn't implement it. This programme is without a roadmap,” he said of the PM package. “Now we can’t even go back. Instead of applying balm on our wounds, they have rubbed salt.”
Politicisation Of The Kashmiri Pandit Tragedy
Among the first responders to the exodus, were activists of the militant Hindutva organisation the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and over the years, critics said they weaponized the tragedy for fueling the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party built in large measure on Islamophobia and Hindu nationalism.
The weaponization of the tragedy—the most recent instance of which was the ruling party’s endorsement of the Kashmir Files—a movie about the exodus that triggered shocking displays of bigotry in cinema halls— continues while the majority of those who fled are still living outside Kashmir and those within, like Raina, remain confined to fortified ghettos in their homeland, feeling stranded in the absence of any roadmap for the reintegration.
Pandits in the migrant colonies in Kashmir that Article 14 spoke with said that after three decades of political rhetoric from the BJP, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had exhibited no original thinking on the crucial question of rehabilitation or even fine-tuned the implementation of the existing policy.
The 2008 package remains the only rehabilitation policy, where the delivery of the six thousand jobs and accommodation has been a tedious process, mired in bureaucratic red tapes and inefficiency, and litigation. While the Modi government agreed to fund the 3,000 jobs of the state government’s share in the 2008 package and hiked the monthly cash relief to the migrants to 3,250 rupees bringing it up to 13,000 per family, the Pandits said there has been no improvement from the successive governments that failed to make it possible for them to return home.
Not only are PM package employees not willing to stay on after the completion of their services in various state government departments, but Pandits who stayed are also considering leaving because of the poor economic opportunities and the spate of attacks, killing 14 Pandits and non-locals, after the Modi government’s abrogation of J&K’s semi-autonomous status and its demotion to a union territory on 5 August 2019. With joblessness being endemic in Kashmir, non-migrant Pandits have for a long time been demanding that 500 jobs under the PM’s package be earmarked for them. The unemployment rate in the valley reached 25% in the first quarter of 2022, the highest since 29.9% in 2016.
The BJP-promoted movie took the debate to the beginning of the problem but left out the last eight years of the BJP’s failures in addressing the issue, said Omar Abdullah, J&K’s chief minister between 2008 and early 2015. (The 2008 package was announced in consultation with the Peoples Democratic Party-Congress coalition government and implemented by the Abdullah’s National Conference- Congress government in the erstwhile state).
The BJP “weighs everything from a political weighing scale”, Abdullah told Article 14, adding that the promotion of the film at a grand scale had cleverly shifted goal posts and helped the ruling party evade accountability on its performance.”
“Eight years into the BJP government led by prime minister Modi, the question shouldn’t be what happened thirty years ago. The question should be what has this government done,” he said. “The answer is very little.”
‘As Long As There Is Insecurity, Limit To What A Government Can Do’
Manoj Joshi, an expert on internal conflicts and national politics at the New Delhi based Observer Research Foundation, who has authored the book The Lost Rebellion on the Kashmir conflict, said it was only natural that Kashmiri Pandits were opting for economic opportunities outside Kashmir instead of returning to an uncertain and volatile security environment.
“As long as there is insecurity, there is a limit to what a government can do,” said Joshi, adding that addressing the “insecurity and violence means settling the Kashmir dispute,” but New Delhi wasn’t making any effort towards that end. “In the present situation where there is insecurity and alternative [economic] options, the Pandits are not going to come back.”
“The point is not to do anything about the Kashmiri Pandits but to say that you are doing something,” he said. “Raising the issue of resettlement of Kashmir,” he added, was “tempting the terrorists to attack the Pandits because you don’t have the ability to protect every individual.”
In 2008, the policy intended to rehabilitate an estimated 15,000 unemployed Kashmiri Pandits through six thousand jobs and grants of up to Rs 5 lakhs for self-employment to the remaining, but in January 2021, more than 30,000 youth—including Raina’s cousin—applied for a batch of 1,997 posts.
Ankur Datta, assistant professor in the department of sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi, and author of On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu Camps, said the Kashmiri Pandits returning to the Valley were likely doing so out of economic compulsions.
The youth signing up for jobs in Kashmir, Datta said, “might be the section who may not have had that much social or cultural capital in terms of family network and connections or the kind of educational capital for upward mobility.”
“It's Humiliating For Us When Our Junior Batches Are Being Promoted”
In April 2022, the Modi government said that 3,000 jobs had been created under the “Prime Minister’s Development Package, 2015,” of which 2,828 migrants have been elected and 1,913 have been appointed, and almost all the 3,000 jobs under former PM Manmohan Singh’s package had been filled.
Currently, according to the relief commissioner, who oversees relief disbursements to displaced persons, Ashok Pandita, based in Jammu, 162 posts are still open, with applications open for 95 and litigation pending for 67.
After more than ten years in service, Sumit Razdan, 35, a mechanical engineer living in the Sheikhpura migrant colony, a migrant colony in Budgam, near Srinagar, is now working under the supervision of those who joined the service much later than him.
“It's humiliating for us when our junior batches are being promoted,” he said. “The bureaucracy is simply finding flaws in the SROs [government orders] issued for our selection to halt our promotions.”
Pandita, the relief commissioner, said the employees aren’t considered part of the J&K government, and “they won’t get promotions unless they are absorbed in the state establishment.” However, austerity measures—denial of allowances in addition to basic pay—announced by the J&K government were applied to them regardless.
The obstructions in their path of integration into the society as well as their jobs are uncalled for, Razdan said.
“A rehabilitation package is meant to integrate a lost community back into the society. My father’s generation will return only if we have a hassle-free life to create a foothold in Kashmir,” he said. “The government has never sought feedback because they have never cared.”
“We Would Leave If Age Was On Our Side”
Successive governments that fund the PM’s package and the state governments which implement it have failed them, said Pankaj Koul, a 34-year-old mechanical engineer living in the Sheikhpura migrant colony.
“They thought nobody would come back,” said Koul, who left his job as an engineer with a large private firm in Pune in 2010 with the hope of a stable career in government service at a time of global recession. “When they saw there was a flow, they decided to derail it to discourage us.”
Koul said his wife’s appointment under the package was first delayed as state personnel processing her papers weren’t aware of the rules governing appointments to supernumerary posts. Then, she was posted as a teacher in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, more than 60 kilometres away, while the couple lived in Sheikhpura.
In 2022, Kashmir still doesn’t have a strong public transport infrastructure as most of it winds up at sundown owing to the ever-volatile security situation, making inter-district travel almost impossible for those who don’t own a private vehicle.
“We would leave the jobs if age was on our side. Now, we won’t get a better option,” said Koul, who was barely old enough to remember the displacement in 1990. Having grown up in Jammu, where his parents and extended family still live, returning to Kashmir has felt like a displacement. “We hadn’t seen migration then. We saw it when we came from Jammu to here. At that time  at least families migrated together, today families have been separated.”
The Last Development Work Was In 2014
Last year, Raina, who is the head of the colony’s residents' welfare association, said they had to petition a local court in Kulgam to seek the removal of accumulated snow after pleading with local authorities in vain. This forced some families to move into unfinished apartment buildings, completing them at their own expense, he said.
As maintenance works remain slow in the colonies, Raina said the last time local administration had carried out major works was when the Vessu colony was given a facelift in early 2014, a day before a delegation of Members of Parliament were to visit.
“The roads in the colony were blacktopped at 6 pm. The entire colony was given a facelift but nothing has been done since then,” he said, pointing to the unfinished flats that were a more pressing need of the residents.
Pandita, the relief commissioner, told Article 14 that development and maintenance work in the migrant colonies had slowed after the relief department’s own engineering wing was wound up after J&K became a union territory. Now, Pandita said his office has to send written requests to the main government departments—such as the waterworks or engineering departments—for carrying out these works.
Of the 6,000 quarters for as many government employees, successive governments have so far only been able to provide about 1,000 quarters and 4,000 are expected to be completed by the end of this year, Pandita said.
The Modi government in March 2022 said that only 17% of the proposed accommodation had been completed in the past seven years, construction of more than 50% of the units was yet to start and these would be completed by 2023.
Meanwhile, many of the employees and their families are still sharing flats or prefabricated shelters. Their desperation for a better quality of life is perhaps surmised in the jostling for the new two-room apartments being constructed in Vessu. Several employees—some from another migrant colony in Mattan, not far from Vessu—forcibly moved into these apartments, some still incomplete.
“Because of that we had to even allot flats whose construction is yet to begin,” said Pandita. The allotments were, however, stayed by the J&K High Court in 2021.
“The confidence I had in the government in 2010, that it will do something, I no longer have that,” said Raina, adding that “if things continue as such, nobody will stay in Kashmir after retirement.”
Pinning Lack Of Progress On The Pandemic
Ashok Kaul, general secretary of the BJP's J&K unit, and a Kashmiri Pandit said that the implementation of the 2008 policy only began after 2014 when Modi came to power in the centre, and he claimed more than 80% of the housing infrastructure for returning migrants was completed since then and the rest would be finished within the next six months.
Pandita said that only 1,000 flats have been allotted so far.
Even as Kaul claimed “visible improvement” in security since the abrogation of J&K's semi-autonomy in 2019, leading to the disintegration of the Hurriyat Conference—an alliance of separatists who wielded considerable influence and routinely called for shutdowns—the BJP leader said the “selective killings of non-locals, labourers, many killings of police and paramilitary forces” might discourage the migrants from returning.
Kaul blamed the lack of progress in the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits on two years of the Covid-19 pandemic that hit India in March 2020, adding that "two or three more years of Covid" still lay ahead.
“Lack of attention. Lack of Concern”
Wajahat Habibullah, who was the divisional commissioner in Kashmir from 1990 to 1993 and later part of the Congress government’s rehabilitation plan for the Kashmiri Pandits, said successive governments have failed in convincing Kashmiri Pandits that the environment was safe to return to.
Habibullah, a retired IAS officer, India’s first chief information commissioner, and a former chairperson of the national commission for minorities, said there were hopes from the BJP to work for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits but it did little and instead promoted a film that made non-migrants insecure in their own homes.
The Kashmiri Pandits are “politically not an important constituent and that cuts across all lines,” said Habibullah. “You can use the distress of the Kashmiri Pandits to try and excite people in other parts of the country and do nothing for the Kashmiri Pandits.”
Habibullah said there have been several bouts of central rule over J&K, including the longest governor’s rule of 1990-1996 and the current one beginning in 2018 but the issues of the Kashmiri Pandit’s displacement were never addressed by any government in the centre.
“Lack of attention. Lack of concern,” he said, adding that this was true of victims of majoritarian violence all over the country. “It's a failure of governance and no political party can claim that they [have acted differently].”
‘It's A Very Basic Practical Thing’
Return, however, is a complex issue. For the generation of Kashmiri Pandits that have never known Kashmir as home, returning to the valley would mean having their lives uprooted again. Those who have tried found there is no home left to go back to. Those still willing to try find no way to fulfil their life’s goals and aspirations.
“It's a very basic practical thing because the jobs are here,” said B, a 28-year-old researcher in New Delhi, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“If you are in a job for 20 years and you want to retire properly, you can’t just pick up bags and leave because you used to live there once,” she said.
According to the official figures, migrants left behind 11,639 homes across Kashmir, more than 65% of which were estimated to have been sold by 2014 while the rest remain dilapidated in neglect.
Several properties left behind by Kashmir Pandits became targets of arson attacks and theft, some were encroached on and usurped by their neighbours. In September last year, the J&K administration launched an online portal for Kashmiri Pandits to lodge complaints against distress sales and encroachments of their properties in the Valley.
However, officials later said more than 95% of the initial complaints were bogus.
The Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a group of non-migrants in Srinagar, directly linked the portal to a spree of target killings of minorities last October.
At the time, B said, Kashmiri Pandits everywhere were glued to their television sets, scanning the news for more information on why Kashmiri Pandits, among them Makhan Lal Bindroo, a prominent pharmacist who never migrated, were killed. They wondered if it was the 1990s all over again.
“People can understand a sarpanch [being killed] is a political thing but what did the chemist do? If as a chemist you can't go and have a job there, those who are being sent by the Indian government, with the stamp of an Indian government job, what is the guarantee that nothing will happen to them?” said B.
For the generation that saw the 1990s, B said there was consensus on the motives behind the killings: “a message to not return.”
Education & Marriage
B’s father renovated their home in south Kashmir just months before they migrated. Today it lies in ruins, used by pastoralists as a shelter during the summer season.
“All those homes there, unless somebody was a single child, even the properties are worth nothing because they get divided among six, seven, eight people,” B said.
“Eventually, everyone decides to sell it together instead of taking these small pieces [in inheritance] which have no value unless sold together and even if it’s sold, you won’t get the kind of money to buy another property,” she said.
The money from disposing of their properties had gone into the education of Kashmiri pandit children and their subsequent marriages, said B.
“That’s where the KPs money is going,” she said. “We don’t have generational wealth or savings, all of that went away because we had to start everything from scratch again.”
And even if they choose to return, B, who is aspiring to a career in publishing, said the lack of opportunities in Kashmir was a hindrance.
“What is there to go back to? We don't even have our homes,” she said. “Eventually you want to be at a place, even if it isn’t Kashmir, where you feel at peace, where our next generations can prosper.”
(Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Srinagar. He tweets at @rayan_naqash)