“The Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits was Ethnic Cleansing. Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave Kashmir Valley, Kashmiri Muslims must accept,” says Mr.Vijay Bakaya, ex-Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir and leader of National Conference (NC) on The Straight Line Talks with Pallavi Sareen and Renu Kotwal.
Pallavi Sareen: You are retired now so what are you up to now? Are you writing a book or planning to contest the next elections?
Mr.Bakaya: I am a part of National Conference and so, I work in it as a party worker and senior leader. Of course, I am trying to jot things down, the things with my career which I think should be told to posterity. There have been thick and thins during the peak of militancy before, so I think I’ll write my memoir but for now, I am only organising my thoughts.
Pallavi Sareen: When Farooq Abdullah became Chief Minister what position did you hold at that time and how was the situation in Jammu and Kashmir?
Mr.Bakaya: You mean after militancy? Between 90-96 that was the time when militancy was at its peak. We had what we have now, that is president rule for six years. All of us were holding senior positions Farooq Sahab was of course not here.
In 1996, we had gained a lot of control over the situation. Militancy had declined and people could roam around freely. Farooq Sahab was the only political man who agreed to fight an election and he won. That time I was holding senior positions. I was Industries commissioner and Grievance commissioner made by the Governor administration. Thereafter, I became the Planning Commissioner. That’s how it happened after 1996 till 2002.
Pallavi Sareen: How was that entire period for the state for Jammu and Kashmir?
Mr Bakaya: Between 1996 and 2002 Farooq Sahab took over, we had a very daunting task because normalcy had just appeared to return. We had to rebuild what had been destroyed in the last six years. Infrastructure had been destroyed, schools, buildings and bridges had been destroyed and roads were in bad condition. Our task and CM’s task was to mobilise resources to ensure that this damaged infrastructure gets restored. That’s what we managed to do. Whatever we got from the centre, we had to deploy in rebuilding infrastructure.
Pallavi Sareen: You spent time as Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Secretary and you were also a member of Legislative Council. Since you belong to a community of Kashmiri Pandits, during your tenure what did you do for Kashmiri Pandits?
Mr Bakaya: Kashmiri Pandits had all kinds of problems. The main problem arose in 1990 when migration took place. The whole of the Valley erupted into turmoil. That time I was the divisional commissioner here. The Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave through various stratagems. There were calls from the mosque asking to leave and anonymous phone calls. That created an atmosphere of fear.
There was nobody to stop them and they decided to leave and came to Jammu. The task for me was to see that somehow they are sheltered. We set up the camps, we gave them cash relief so that they could carry out their day to day life, to take care of the school children and the college students who left their studies half-way. We opened evening colleges and tried to contain the restlessness. To contain the disappointment and anger of the people. Everyone was asking, “Why have we been forced to leave?” After that, things began to settle down and Kashmiri Pandits began to rebuild their lives.
Pallavi Sareen: The entire exodus happened back in the 1990s but even today the international community does not recognise Kashmiri Pandits as a refugee in their own land. In your tenure, you haven’t been able to convince people that they are refugees in their own land. Don’t you think it is kind of your defeat as well?
Mr Bakaya: All kinds of organisations here in the state and in the country and in the diaspora have been making relentless efforts to communicate with various forums who form opinions to make them agree that this was ethnic cleansing. This was not just one of the things which happened because of fear. It’s not like since there was an environment of fear, people started to leave temporarily with intention of returning. It was ethnic cleansing.
Let me make it very clear that the whole of the Kashmir population was not involved in it. It was a section of people in that time who had taken the leadership role, who had decided that Kashmiri Pandits should not remain there. They created the condition for them to leave. And this was, therefore, ethnic cleansing.
After this Kashmiri pandits began to stay in tenements and people from all over the world came and recognised the facts that they had been displaced, they were refugees in their own land and there was ethnic cleansing. Many of the organisations are now focusing on that the world admits that this was ethnic cleansing. And this was also genocide so the attempts are continuing. But meanwhile, the displaced people have by large carried forward their day-to-day life taking care of their children education.
Pallavi Sareen: I have been to the Relief Commissioner’s office. I saw that many old Kashmiri Pandits have to struggle there for the bifurcation of the ration cards. If the leaders of your community cannot solve minutest and normal problems of Kashmiri Pandits, then what are they doing? What is being done for your community?
Mr. Bakaya: To a large extent, things have been streamlined in the Relief Commissioner’s office. Yes, it is a problem. Bifurcation has rules and procedures that have to be followed and in doing that, it’s necessary that those dealing with it in the Relief Commissioner’s office should have empathy as they belong to the same community which got displaced. By and large, things are moving smoothly. Their day to day matters has been resolved. For instance, their registration in databank, their relief is being sent to their accounts. Their ration cards bifurcations is sometimes a problem because there are certain grey areas which the relief commissioner wants to ascertain so that takes time.
As far as possible the relief commissioner and the government have been trying to make life comfortable for them. They can’t get back the life they left in Kashmir. Those who have built their houses are living in the way they want to but others are living in two-room tenements like in Jagti, in Mutthi, in Purkho and Nagrota.
Pallavi Sareen: BJP made a promise that if they came to power they will send back Kashmiri Pandits back to the valley. As of now, where does the Kashmiri Pandit community stand?
Mr Bakaya: BJP did make this commitment that they would like for the Kashmiri Pandits to go back but unfortunately there was an unexpected reaction from the valley. Kashmiri Pandits have sold off most their property, most of his land. He doesn’t have anything left to go back to in the villages or towns they left behind. They would like to go back and settle in clusters, to give them a sense of security and sense of identity.
But there is an objection in a section of society there, to this kind of resettlement. Therefore, BJP also developed cold feet and didn’t pursue this matter further. But yes, Kashmiri Pandits want to go back with dignity, want to go back on their own terms because Kashmiri Pandit community is a very deeply hurt community, traumatised. The wounds are healing but even the scars pain, you see. So it is an unprecedented event that took place in the recent history of India.
Pallavi Sareen: You talk about going back to the valley. A parliamentary report says that 1400 families applied to go back to the valley but only one went. Is it because of the situation in the valley? Do Kashmiri pandits fear a violent reaction?
Mr Bakaya: There is no reassurance that they will be comfortable. Although the Kashmiri Pandit per se has not been harassed and not been asked to leave. There have been 3000 Kashmiri Pandit youth who are working there who went there in the package. They are living in accommodation provided by the government and even in private accommodations. They are going to government offices and working there except when there is a storm of violence in valley occasionally that sweep the valley, where they are also targeted. By and large, they lead a normal life.
But those who said they would like to go back to valley responded to an advertisement from the Relief Commissioner. At that time they had these plans of sending them back in clusters but then that plan failed and BJP and Central government did nothing to pursue this plan.
Pallavi Sareen: There are Kashmiri Pandit organisations that demand “Homeland”, that a separate portion of Kashmir should be made into a Union territory or just a portion kept for Kashmiri Pandits. Do you think it is a feasible wish? Can it happen?
Mr Bakaya: At some future date, it could happen. It happened to the Jews. It is a dream and there is no harm in dreaming because a displaced community especially when it has been displaced for no fault of its own and it has lived from thousands of years in that valley in peace. They would not like to go back to villages, to the towns because their belief is that if they go back now, nobody would know them.
The generation they left behind has passed out. The new generation wouldn’t know them and maybe endanger the lives of those who are living there. So, they would like to live in clusters. Like the people who came from Kashmir to Jammu also live in clusters. And homeland is a dream, if we want to go back. This is giving some kind of enthusiasm and energy to the Kashmiri Pandits. It is one of the movements which keeps the hopes alive that we are going to go back and it keeps this belief alive that, that is my homeland and we are going to go back.
Pallavi Sareen: You talked about the young generation. When the exodus happened, many Kashmiri Pandits moved here and they couldn’t handle the temperature changes and died. What would happen if the young generation who hasn’t lived in that area, who don’t belong to that area went back to the valley and couldn’t handle the temperature?. The young generation of Kashmir doesn’t know about this community that follows a different religion and customs. Wouldn’t it create a different sort of tension?
Mr Bakaya: That can happen but then as I said about the 3000 youths who have already gone there in the package, from last 7 to 8 years. They are living there throughout the year. They have adjusted with the cold and with the conditions. They have taken their children along and they have also adjusted to the kind of climate. Afterall, they are genetically Kashmiri. In fact, it took them a long time to adjust to the heat of Jammu. I believe it won’t be difficult for them to adjust to the cold of Kashmir. Afterall it comes naturally to them. That can be a problem in future but homeland is a dream which the entire Kashmiri pandit community dreams and that gives them hope also.
Pallavi Sareen: Another thing is that the Kashmiri pandits who at that time lived in interiors of Kashmir or rural areas are now working in multi-national companies. There are some who don’t want to go back so shouldn’t it be that instead of selling the false belief that you will go back to the valley because the situation is such, attempts should be made to rehabilitate them in Jammu?
Mr. Bakaya: Well, to some extent it is true that they have settled in Jammu; those people who have made a house here and sold the property in Kashmir and settled here. But then what are roots about? You look for your roots and your roots lie in Kashmir. And your psyche is nourished by the thought of those roots.
Pallavi Sareen: But isn’t it a false dream? And wouldn’t it better to tell the young generation that this is your home now?
Mr. Bakaya: Yes, it is. But it is a pragmatic view to take. A young man or a youngster or the other generation would not like to believe that his claim on his homeland has been totally demolished. He should be sure that whenever he wants to go back, it is his home as much as anybody else’s. In fact, he has been living there from thousands of years. So, he should not get the feeling of cut off from his roots for no fault of his. May be he will not go but he should know that he can go anytime with dignity.
Pallavi Sareen: You belong to NC and it has been in power for a long time. So, what has your party done for Kashmiri pandit community?
Mr. Bakaya: You see the package Mr. Manmohan Singh declared, it was because of NC that Omar Abdullah implemented that package. The Congress did not. It is the NC which said okay and the implementation started almost 3 years after the package was announced. That too because the government of Omar Abdullah set up a mechanism through which all this was monitored. There was an apex committee set up by his government which was represented by all the organisational heads. And there, all the nitty-gritty problems of Kashmiri pandits got highlighted and action was taken. Employments were provided. Medical relief was provided to the needy by the government and their problems were highlighted in Delhi.
Pallavi Sareen: Whether you talk about the Jagti quarters, the employment package , the medical relief by the government that is initiated for the Kashmiri Pandit community. It has always been the centre’s initiative- BJP or Congress who have done it. Then why is it that your community is not willing to vote for National parties? They prefer voting for NC and PDP.
Mr. Bakaya: Kashmiri Pandit community doesn’t prefer to vote for any party. They are not traditionalists or have historically voted for any party. The Kashmiri Pandit community got seven mandates in the valley. They all lost their deposits because Kashmiri Pandit did not vote. Kashmiri pandits are taking a plea that its voting rights had been denied because he had to fill up a form indicating his preference to the polling booth and that is a very tedious process so he prefers not to vote. Unlike any other voter, he doesn’t have to come out and straight away go to the polling station and cast the vote. He has to first fill up a form then deposit the form that is one reason but traditionally Kashmiri pandit has not been voting. But Kashmiri Pandit has recognised that the party which is close to his heart is National Conference. National Conference is recognised along the Kashmiri Pandit, it has played a role in the history of Kashmir, in the economy of Kashmir, in the society of Kashmir.
Pallavi Sareen: What do you think is next to the Kashmiri Pandit community? You say that the homeland is a dream, it’s a far away dream. BJP made a promise but did not deliver. So, what next?
Mr. Bakaya: Homeland is a dream. It bind them together. What next? Kashmiri Pandit has done well for himself despite stupendous adversity. The children have done well for themselves except those who couldn’t compete at the national level who were send in the package to Kashmir. They have shown their metal everywhere in the world wherever they have gone.
But the desire to go back and settle still persist and that is still there. I hope in future, a government will come along and say okay so the civil society in Kashmir also will arise and say okay. There are societies un Kashmir who had said you are welcome. They have said that you are welcome to go back to the village you left behind. That is not a practical solution.
Kashmiri societies should give reassurance by not raising false narratives. The narrative like you were not forced to leave, you left on your own. That is the narrative that is going on and that is hurting. Because it is a recorded fact and the historians will record that. That the Kashmiri Pandits were asked to leave. Many of them were killed brutally and mercilessly to create conditions for them to leave totally. But if the narrative is, ‘No, you were driven under the conspiracy of someone and you left on your own.’ That does not build confidence.
Those people who have not lived that nightmare, the generation who was born after the 90s doesn’t know what scenario that was. There was a crescendo rising from every Mosques asking Kashmiri Pandits to leave and raising slogans like ”Hum kya Chahtey? Azadi” and there was nobody to stop these people. No administration. Kashmiri Pandits left at the night with whatever they could take along. There was a sense of fear. Whatever they had in their baggage they dumped in the trucks and left but that has to be acknowledged. That situation was created in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits to leave.
Pallavi Sareen: Has the situation gotten better or worse in recent years?
Mr. Bakaya: The situation is definitely not what it was in the 1990s. It is definitely much better for Kashmiri Pandit civilians who are living there. The brotherhood between the Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri pandits never got tattered. It remained. Of course, there were misgivings, disillusionment, fear and hatred also but the brotherhood and the sense of belonging to each other continued. And that is a ray of hope. The new generation needs to come closer and it would heal these wounds to some extent.