Kashmiri Pandit leaders say lower rhetoric, delink rehabilitation and jobs

The murder of Rahul Bhat, an employee of the revenue department in Kashmir’s Chandoora region in Budgam district, on Thursday was not only a setback for the Central and Union Territory government’s plans for the return and rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, but also their oft-repeated assertion of an improvement in the situation there.

Nearly a dozen Kashmiri Pandits, including three government employees, have been killed by militants since the central government decided in August 2019 to divide Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories and repealed Article 370, which guaranteed a special status to the old state.

Even migrant pundits attribute the wave of targeted killings to rhetoric created by mainstream politicians, including the BJP. A Pandit community leader, King C Bharti, based in Jammu but active in the valley, said: “Although none of them have anything to do with politics, the rhetoric of some, especially pro-government politicians, that they broke the backbone of militancy into sacrificing goats. Militants target them in order to make their presence felt.

Another Kashmiri Pandit leader said the strident rhetoric is also inciting the valley’s majority Muslim population to come together, citing “atrocities” against the community in Kashmir and elsewhere, leaving minorities even more precarious.

It is estimated that around 6,000 migrant Kashmiri Pandits are assigned to different locations in the valley under a 2008 Prime Minister’s Jobs Scheme, many of whom live there with their families. Bhat’s murder has reignited questions about the ‘futileness’ of these low-paying, high-risk jobs.

Kashmiri pundits are protesting recent killings in the valley. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

“We are posted there in the name of jobs, only to be killed, and that too for peanuts,” said a Pandit government employee, who wished not to be named.

He said those appointed under the Prime Minister’s program were not even considered equal to those chosen by UT’s service selection committee and therefore only got a consolidated salary from Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 for the first two years.

In case they die in a militant attack, the rules don’t even provide for government employment to the next of kin as compensation. Except for Deepak Chand, whose next of kin got a job last year, the other slain have so far only gotten Rs 1 lakh ex gratia, a government official belonging to the migrant community. On Friday, the government announced a government job for Bhat’s wife.

Now the government has assured that it will provide employment to the closest relatives of the deceased, said Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Ashok Pandita, the nodal agency which deals with the issues of migrant Kashmiri Pandits. “Otherwise, the provisions of SRO 43 which provide for the employment of the next of kin of an employee killed in service do not apply, as migrant employees are appointed under the PM package against supernumerary positions which end in death,” he said.

The police disperse the demonstrators. (Express photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

Most Pandit migrant workers stationed in the valley live in private rental accommodation, with many saying at least Rs 8,000 a month is spent on rent alone. In addition, at the time of appointment, they must agree not to request a transfer anywhere other than in the Valley.

“If the government is so serious about our welfare, it should decouple the employment program from the issue of our return and rehabilitation in the valley,” said a Kashmiri pandit. “The UT government continues to assign us to vulnerable locations, despite requests…The attitude of the administration, coupled with the killings, has brought us to a point where we are thinking of returning to Jammu.

National Conference provincial chairman Rattan Lal Gupta has accused the BJP of exploiting Kashmiri Pandits for political gain. “For the past eight years the party has been in power in both the Center and the J&K, but what has it done for the migrant community other than making false promises? he asked, adding that the government should have ensured the safety of Kashmiri pandits living in the valley.

Pradesh Youth Congress spokesman Dr Jahanzaib Sirwal questioned the government’s claims of normality. “If there had been normality, there would have been no need for an increased troop presence in the valley,” he said. “If a pundit was killed in the valley yesterday, a Muslim policeman died today,” Sirwal said, adding that the government had failed to provide security for anyone and should focus on governance rather than “a cosmetic normality”.

After a government schoolteacher, Deepak Chand, was killed in October 2021, a large number of migrant workers had actually returned from the valley to Jammu. Later, many joined the service on the promise of complete security.

Chand, although not a Pandit, was a migrant. The other pandits killed were a prominent businessman, store clerks and elected panchs and sarpanchs, who had traveled to the valley to contest the rural local corps polls, leaving their families in Jammu.

Renowned journalist and political analyst Zafar Choudhary said the situation on the ground in Kashmir is complex and the government needs to open its eyes to this. Claims for peace based on a good tourist season were misplaced and many other factors would determine that, he said.

A Pandit leader from Kashmir said the most urgent need was to restore a sense of brotherhood between majority and minority communities in the valley. However, the two still look at each other warily. The leader hoped the government would lay down accountability and ensure some heads roll to restore confidence among Kashmiri Pandit employees.

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