India has announced plans to help thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits, return to "composite townships" in India-administered Kashmir, from which they fled in hordes 25 years ago after an armed rebellion broke out against New Delhi's rule.
The plan is opposed by pro-independence groups as well as a segment of Kashmiri Hindus in the Muslim-majority region who see it as a replication of Israeli settlements constructed for Jewish inhabitants in occupied Palestinian territory. They worry that the controversial proposal will incite renewed violence between Muslims and Hindus in a volatile region.
Last week Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh and a key leader of the ruling nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) held talks with the region's Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to discuss the party's pledge to "resettle" Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir.
"The chief minister assured the union home minister that the state government will acquire and provide land at the earliest for composite townships in the valley," a government statement said.
The proposal sparked street protests in Kashmir — demonstrators voicing opposition to the townships clashed with police in the Maisuma area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Meanwhile, questions were raised whether the "composite townships" — which will have shopping areas, schools, and hospitals — would be inclusive of members of all religions or exclusively for Kashmiri Hindus. The immediate impression given by the government was that the townships would essentially be heavily guarded colonies for Hindus.
Sayeed, whose People's Democratic Party (PDP) runs a government in alliance with the BJP, was quick to declare that he would not allow "Israeli-type settlements" in Kashmir.
"It is being floated that a separate homeland will be created. That is not possible," Sayeed told the state assembly last week. Muslims and Pandits, he said, "can't stay separately."
Circumstances threaten to spiral out of control in the disputed region, where anti-Indian sentiments run deep. Since 1989, more than a dozen rebel groups have been fighting an asymmetric battle against half-a-million Indian soldiers for independence or merger of the territory with neighboring Pakistan.
India accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels — a charge the government in Islamabad denies, countering that it only offers political and diplomatic support to the locals' bid to decide their future in a referendum, which a United Nations resolution called for in 1948.
Since winning independence in 1947, both countries have fought two of their three wars over the region, which they both claim in full but rule in portions divided by a highly militarized ceasefire line called the Line of Control.
"Why separate settlements for Pandits when Sikhs, Punjabis, and some Pandits who stayed back in Kashmir during the peak of resistance never faced problems from Muslim neighbors?" Yasin Malik, the region's top pro-independence leader, remarked to VICE News. He was speaking over phone from a detention center in south Kashmir, where he is being held for leading a protest march against the government plan.
Malik, a former commander of that rebel group Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front who has fought for Kashmir's independence non-violently since 1994, added that "Israeli-type" settlements will create an atmosphere of fear and animosity in the region.
"Look at Middle East today," he said. "Edward Said once argued, 'separate colonies are walls of hatred. History proved him right."
But members of a powerful pro-India Pandit group based outside of Kashmir valley have applauded the Indian government for "finally" recognizing their demand for a separate homeland within Kashmir.
"Hopefully we'll have territorial position," Ashwani Chrungoo of Panun Kashmir, or Our Kashmir, told VICE News. "All the 500,000 Kashmiri Pandits scattered across the globe should be able to resettle in Kashmir."
"We have witnessed 26 years of exile, genocide and mass exodus," he added. "Our return is long overdue."
The Hindu minority in Kashmir fell from an estimated 125,000 in the early 1980s to a mere 19,865 by 1998 as relations soured between Pandits and Muslims, who have primarily led the fight against New Delhi in a conflict that has left over 70,000 people dead — mostly civilians — and thousands disappeared.
Officially, 219 Pandits have been killed since 1989 — a local Pandit group puts the number at more than 600 Pandits — while some 124,381 Kashmiri Hindus who migrated from the region are registered with the state government's revenue and relief ministry.
Some of Kashmir's anti-India groups have repeatedly encouraged Hindus to return, but they want them live side by side with Muslims rather than in "security zones."
Roughly 7200 Pandits live in Kashmir today. With violence at an ebb, some of those who migrated to Jammu and the Indian plains plan to return.
Vivek Raina's family is one of many who migrated from Srinagar to Jammu at the height of armed rebellion in April 1990. He recalled fear setting in when two Pandit men from his locality were killed.
"My family thought the violence will end very soon," Raina, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and social activist in New Delhi, told VICE News. "But it didn't cease for years, and we lost track of time and our homes as well."
He said that he has already purchased a house in Kashmir without government support, but noted that "there are many who do need it and should be provided with it."
But some young Pandits argue that those looking for promising future and good careers have no place in Kashmir.
The family of Sagar Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit and a New Delhi-based journalist, had briefly migrated to Jammu after a Pandit neighbor was shot dead, but an affection for Kashmir and encouragement from Muslim friends and neighbors brought them back to the region, where he was raised.
"There are not enough jobs, infrastructure, and healthcare facilities," Kaul told VICE News. "For these reasons many Kashmiris, both Pandits and Muslims, have left the valley and settled in different parts of India and the world already."
The displacement of Kashmiri Pandits has always been a controversial subject in Kashmir.
Many migrants from the region blame their flight from the region on Muslim rebels, accusing their old neighbors of being mute spectators as they fled.
On the other hand, many Kashmiri Muslims say that the authorities deliberately vacated them from Kashmir to effectively contain the rebellion, which was led predominantly by Muslim guerrillas.
"That thinking is very strong here," Dr. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a top political analyst and a human rights professor at the Central University of Kashmir, told VICE News.
Showkat said that the proposed townships have stoked fears of demographic changes that aren't unfounded.
"Statements of top BJP leaders have argued for settling a million ex-servicemen or loyal population in Kashmir," he noted. "People here compare events in occupied Palestine and Xinjiang Province, where China altered the demography."
Showkat added that the militarization of Kashmir has also triggered a series of Muslim migrations from the region, which some also want to see addressed.
"In 1947 Muslims of Jammu were forced from homes — 1.5 million of them live in Pakistan and its controlled areas today," he said. "In 1965, some 200,000 Muslims migrated to Pakistan-administered Kashmir… and in 1990, Pandits left the valley as well as thousands of Muslims. None of these migrations should be taken, treated, and addressed in isolation."
Panun Kashmir leaders acknowledged that their group has not considered the homecoming of Muslim refugees while addressing their own issues.
"We've not applied our minds to their problem," Chrungoo said. "They'll have to put forward their demand in their own way,"
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