Friday, January 9, 2015

Kashmiri Pandits and the BJP: A cut most unkind - Sushil Pandit

In J&K, with its Mission 44+, the BJP had mounted its most audacious attempt at power yet. Arguably, more ambitious than even the Mission 272+. With 25 seats and 11 lakh-odd votes, no less than the party president, Amit Shah, declared victory. Seemed all right. After all, 25 seats is more than twice their best ever tally, of 11 seats won during the last elections. And, at 11 lakh-odd votes, the BJP also has the highest number of votes among all the parties that contested the elections this time in the state. So, on the face of it, there are no issues left to be joined. But, then, there is a lot beneath the surface. Some of it was presented a day after the election results, on December 23.
On January 1, at a lunch in Delhi, talking informally, the president of the BJP is reported to have alluded to Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) not turning out to vote for the BJP in the J&K elections this time. His allusion had a sense of disappointment, of being let down by an entire community when they were expected to deliver his party a few seats in the Valley. He is not the only one. Some enterprising journalists from the Valley, on the very day of the results, floated this theory that the "real boycotters" in these elections were actually the Kashmiri Pandits who had failed to turn up and vote. They attributed the BJP's dashed hopes in the Valley to these reluctant KPs. Those in a hurry to look for easy scapegoats will find this proposition quite handy. Those who aren't can continue reading.
Just an aside, designating electoral contests as missions seems like a smart way to vest the contests with a sense of urgency. A well defined target is always a prerequisite for the much needed focus. Especially, when you have to coalesce a disparate bunch into a winning team. Till the Mission 272+, and its spectacular success, the BJP did not describe the elections it fought as "missions", even if it fought some of them in that mode. The Vidhan Sabha polls for Haryana and Maharashtra, that followed the Lok Sabha polls too, were thus named. Hence, by the time Assembly polls for Jammu & Kashmir and Jharkhand were due, calling them yet another mission by the BJP had already acquired an element of predictability. There was a bit of palpable exaggeration though about the "mission" in J&K. 44+ seemed a distant proposition initially, even to the most die-hard optimist within the Parivar. As the campaigning progressed, a few looked eager to believe in it, even at the risk of sounding somewhat cocky.
Comparisons with Haryana and Maharashtra are in order. The tasks in these two states didn't look so far fetched when the respective 'missions' were announced there. This was despite an adverse history of earlier contests posing a big question mark on the viability of these "missions". Primarily, because the pre-poll surveys in those states gave the BJP a reasonable chance to make a success of these 'missions'. There was a similar possibility this time about Jharkhand too. But the J&K polls had a different air about them. Different, because of a plethora of reasons.
One, because J&K is more heterogeneous than all the states of India. Its three regions - Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh - differ in terrain, climate, language, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, attitude and narrative so much that they are an antithesis of the very criteria that went into the formation of states in the Union of India. This has, historically, impacted the politics of each of these regions, often playing out in conflict vis-a-vis the Valley that always seeks to dominate. In such a gridlock of interests, getting a majority by crossing the mark of 44, for any party not just the BJP, is just too unlikely.
Two, because of violent secessionism, fomented and fuelled by Islamist jihad, aided and abetted by Pakistan. This disruption, carrying on for the last 25 years, has led to boycotts or low and erratic turnout of voters in the Valley, often impacting normal politics in the Valley, and election results even more so, given that the Valley is the largest contributing region to the J&K Assembly.
Three, because of the emergence of the BJP. The last Lok Sabha polls, just as in the rest of India, threw up the BJP as the single largest party in J&K as well. Not only in terms of votes polled (11.56 lakh) but also ahead of the principal Valley parties, NC and PDP, even if put together. BJP also swept all the three non-Valley seats as it had never done before. BJP's resurgence spearheaded by Narendra Modi, evident during the Lok Sabha polls, showed no signs of abating during the subsequent Assembly polls in Haryana and Maharashtra. The impact of the imminent rise of BJP as a dominant player in J&K had to be factored by all concerned.
Four, and perhaps the most crucial, was about the BJP beginning to, seriously and conspicuously, fancy its chances in the Valley without which the Mission 44+ would have, in any case, been an impossibility. To make this fourth factor a potent one, the BJP needed an elaborate logic to sell it internally within the Parivar. This is where a lot of time, effort and ingenuity were invested. In the process, some untested and unverified hypotheses were thrown up as facts, and/or exaggerated as factors.
One of them is part of a familiar argument, repeatedly tossed at separatists, to question their claims of being a movement representing a cross-section of Muslims. The crux of it was that the Kashmiri Muslims were not a monolith and that there were various cleavages, such as Shia versus Sunni, Saiyed versus Sheikh, Gujjars/Bakarwals versus urbane/elite. Nothing wrong with it. To use it as an argument in a TV studio, to score debating points, is perhaps kosher. But to make a leap of faith and turn it into an electoral "opportunity" perhaps wasn't. Those who have been seriously tracking Muslim politics and observing their voting behaviour would know better. And when you're operating in a zone of serious attrition like Kashmir, it gets even trickier. But such a dubious stratagem was at the core of drawing large segments of Muslim voters into the BJP. Forget Shia pockets like Zadibal and Budgam, even the overwhelmingly Shia Kargil turned its back on the BJP. As it turned out, the party seemed an eager and willing victim of its own propaganda.
But, this was just one. Another one was relying on the separatists' call for boycott. It is a fact that the separatists oppose elections in the state, dubbing them as an "irrelevant" exercise till such time as their "political" grievances are addressed. Over the past two decades, a large section in the Valley, often out of fear but many out of conviction too, pay heed to the separatists' call and stay home on polling day. Thus, the separatists try to showcase to the world their relevance and clout in the Valley. But those who understand Kashmir also know that the secessionists keep a hawk's eye on the politics and the political processes of the state. They wield control over elected political offices through such proxies who do their bidding as the so-called mainstream politicians. Separatists are not so naive as to let go of their leverage in the political power structure, and that too to the BJP, just to pull off a successful boycott. And that is what happened when almost twice as many voted in the Valley compared to the Lok Sabha. But the BJP being the BJP, was smug right through about the boycott being a big opportunity. And, this is still not all.
The third dimension of the "strategy" was to peddle ambiguity about its stand on Article 370. Now, here is a party that since its inception, has used this issue as the very core of its being. The founder president of the Jana Sangh, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, was killed in detention, when jailed in Kashmir protesting against this provision, in 1953. Ever since, every manifesto of the BJP commits itself to repealing Article 370, including the last one for the April-May polls to the Lok Sabha. You know what, the smart ones in the BJP recommended not to have a manifesto this time. They wanted to kill two birds with one stone. By not doing the manifesto, they spared themselves the ignominy of omitting Article 370. And by doing a "Vision Document" instead that had nothing on Article 370, they thought they could convince the Muslims of the Valley about their 'reasonableness' on the issue. And guess what, they actually killed both the birds. The two they had in both their hands, for the one in the bush. Nice and proper!
Almost one lakh votes were lost in Jammu and Ladakh compared to the Lok Sabha polls. That accounts for almost 10 per cent of the votes polled by the BJP in these two regions in the Lok Sabha polls. In Ladakh, which BJP represents in the Lok Sabha, on the promise of delivering the UT status, BJP not only lost all, it was not even in the reckoning in three out of the four seats there. In the Jammu region, the BJP came third in Udhampur, the second largest town of the region, and lost two seats to, of all the parties, the NC. It had won all these three segments in the Lok Sabha polls. Besides the 25 seats won by the BJP, it came second only in 7. Of these 5 were in Jammu region and one each in the Valley and Ladakh. In this Mission 44+, the BJP was actually in serious contest (top two positions), only in 32 seats. And, for all the bending over backwards for the Muslim vote in the Valley, it earned a grand total of a little over 50,000 votes and lost its deposit in 33 out of the 34 seats it contested there. For every single vote gained in the Valley, the BJP lost two in Jammu/Ladakh. While the votes gained in the Valley were not good enough to save the deposits, the votes lost in Jammu/Ladakh cost the BJP several winnable seats.
And, now where did the KPs' vote go? Consider the following:
1. It is 25 years since the KPs, over four lakh, were chased out of Kashmir. They have little knowledge or interest in the constituencies they have been away from for so long.
2. Ever since their exodus, the electoral rolls were revised several times and KPs' names were routinely deleted, mutilated, jumbled with wrong addresses, with errors about gender, age, surnames and relationships. Many do not know, or care, if they are even enrolled because in none of the constituencies did they ever matter numerically to alter the outcome. Also, they have other pressing issues to attend to when uprooted and living in exile.
3. Only in one constituency, Habba Kadal, have they lived in a large enough number to make some impact. Yet, the Jana Sangh/BJP has never won this seat in the past. The voter list there had 16,000 KPs. Besides the reasons mentioned in points no. 1 and 2, the KPs in exile are spread all over India and indeed abroad as well. But to vote, they are required to come to a place in Delhi or Jammu. Otherwise, they are expected to go through a cumbersome and time consuming documentation process to seek a postal ballot. Once that is delivered to them by post and on time, if it really is, then they have to mark it send it back by registered post.
4. But the biggest factor of them all was that the state bureaucracy, manning the state's Election Commission, was most reluctant to let the exiled Hindus vote in any substantial number. KPs' applications were either rejected or kept pending and delayed and thus made redundant. While all this was underway, Valley politicians were whipping up a scare to engineer a backlash, exaggerating that the KPs were being mobilised by the BJP to upstage the Muslim dominance of the Valley.
5. Finally, most KP voters, no matter where, how outnumbered, impoverished or disempowered, have been encouraged and persuaded by the BJP itself all these decades to register as voters in places of their exile, locally. And the BJP knows that the KPs have been not only overwhelmingly voting for them but also campaigning actively. The clean sweep by the BJP in Jammu city, incidentally, reflects that.
So when the party president himself alludes to the entire KP community letting down the BJP, it comes across as a cut most unkind.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Roots in Kashmir 

Kashmiri Pandits need justice, not Rs 40 lakh flats.

As I sat to write this piece, I received a WhatsApp message on my phone. It said Kashmiri Pandits would be given Rs 40,00,000 flats in Srinagar. The news item published in The Economic Times talked about how Kashmiri Pandits will be provided “quality flats”, which it said would be a far cry from the shabby two room accommodation provided to them in Jammu. The story also mentioned that 1,000 such flats would be made on a 20 acre plot of land in Srinagar city. The newspaper report sums up what exactly is wrong with the government’s thinking on the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. That anyone in the government believes that Kashmiri Pandits would be lured by “quality flats” has either no knowledge of what led to the Pandit exodus from the Valley or is simply blind to the facts. No wonder most governments have been barking up the wrong tree.
On the onset of insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir in the year 1989-90 a small but significant ethnic minority called Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes. Though estimates vary on the number of those who were forced to leave Kashmir Valley in the winter of 1989-90, it is broadly believed, on the basis of various figures available with the government, that a total of 61,000 plus families were forced to seek refuge in the plains of India. The exodus which was preceded by a spate of killings, torture, massacres, rape apart from burning of Pandit houses, desecration and destruction of places of religious worship was described by the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) as “akin to genocide”.
There is a huge gap between what the problem is and how various governments have perceived the problem to be. The issue of rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits is not the same as that of the rehabilitation of let us say a populace who may have been displaced by a natural calamity. Rehabilitation forms just one component of the return policy. The government first of all needs to address the issue of sense of security (not security, Kashmiri Pandits understand that government can’t place a policeman outside every home) which is a prerequisite to any resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits back in Kashmir. For this it is imperative that the government first accepts that Kashmiri Pandits were ethnically cleansed out of their home. More than 500 Kashmiri Pandits have been killed by terrorists, though the official figure as per J&K Police is only 209. Whatever be the number of people killed there have been no convictions in the killings of Kashmiri Pandits. A self confessed killer of Kashmiri Pandits by the name Farooq Ahmed Dar alias Bitta Karate was freed for lack of evidence. That there has been no closure in any of the Pandit killings is the first stumbling block to return.
Government of India has many times in the past announced packages for “return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits”. The most ambitious of such packages was the one announced by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2008. The package envisaged a lump sum of Rs 7,50,000 for each family for reconstruction of house apart from providing transit accommodation during the time the house is reconstructed. Under the PM’s package 6,000 jobs for Kashmiri Pandits were also announced. The government was expecting a huge response to the package. However not even one Kashmiri Pandit family has gone back to Kashmir. Even the response to the jobs was lukewarm. Only 1,600 posts have been filled so far.
It shouldn’t have been difficult for anyone to figure out as to why even the poorest of the Kashmiri Pandits have not taken up the economic package. The reasons are simple. Kashmiri Pandits did not leave the Valley because they wanted a better life in the rest of the country. They did not leave because they did not have economic opportunities in Kashmir. Economic packages would be meaningless unless the basic question of justice and security of the small ethnic minority is addressed. First of all the nomenclature of the problem needs to be changed from “Resettlement and Rehabilitation” to “Justice, Resettlement and Rehabilitation”.
Kashmiri Pandits are wary of any proposals to settle them in their original places in Kashmir. They say this would mean living with the same neighbours who burnt their homes, encroached on their land and were overtly or covertly responsible for their exodus. Besides where do they go back to is a common refrain because most do not own the houses that once belonged to them. They were either gutted by the rioters belonging to the majority community or sold as distress sales or have been encroached upon. More than 450 shrines and temples of Kashmiri Pandits have been either partially or completed destroyed and sans a few most have been desecrated. Even cremation grounds have not been spared.
Today there are five transit camps in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits who took up jobs under the PM’s scheme. Except for the Sheikhpora camp in Badgam and the one inside the Kheer Bhavani temple complex the rest are prefabricated settlements. They are fenced by barbed wires and the Kashmiri Pandits living there are always vulnerable. The facilities in these transit camps are terrible to say the least. The last time India defeated Pakistan in a one-day match, the camp in Hall near Shopian received a volley of stones. Now what is the use of making another such camp even if the flats are going to be “high quality”? Only those in dire need of jobs will live in these camps because they have no other options of livelihood available to them. But such settlements would be coerced if not forced settlements.
Kashmiri Pandits have time and again told various governments that resettlement has to be en masse and not piece-meal. The various proposals submitted by Kashmiri Pandits organisations have talked of one enclave of Panun Kashmir or one satellite city for the Pandits. There is almost complete unanimity among Kashmiri Pandits on this issue. There could be a difference of opinion on whether this should be centrally administered area or a notified area or a cantonment board or a smart city. Kashmiri Pandits believe that only a separate enclave will give them a required sense of security. Till the time the government acquires land for this, they could re-open cases against killers of Kashmiri Pandits. The conviction of Bitta Karate alone would convince more people about the seriousness of the government’s rehabilitation policy than any “quality flats for Rs 40,00,000 each” would.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Roots in Kashmir

Yes the BJP made a mark in J&K but was it worth the compromise?

People of Jammu and Kashmir have given a fractured mandate. The emergence of BJP as a formidable force should ideally have been the biggest takeaway of this election because the PDP hasn’t done as well as it was supposed to. But the fractured mandate has thrown up more questions than this election was supposed to answer. Omar Abdullah ran a very spirited campaign although odds were heavily pitted against him, not just on account of poor governance but also because of his failure to provide succour to people during floods. The virtually non-existent Congress campaign wasn’t such a damp squib after all.
BJP’s Mission 44+ took off in Jammu but failed to cross the Jawahar Tunnel. They managed to get only less than two per cent of the vote in the Valley. This was despite the fact that they made all kinds of ideological compromises, some completely unnecessary. Their meetings with obscurantist Islamist figureheads like the Grand Mufti or Engineer Rashid (the MLA from Langate) was something they could have done without. They toned down their stated position on Article 370 to tailor their campaign to what they thought were the “aspirations” of Kashmiris (read Kashmiri Muslims). Credit was taken for punishing the army personnel “responsible” for killings of innocent Kashmiris, by no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself. There was a passing reference to the settlement of Kashmiri Pandits and no word on the Temples Bill. Forget Vande Matram, the PM found it unnecessary even to say Jai Hind in his maiden rally in Srinagar. Its strident nationalist discourse in Jammu was, however, on course and observers were heard saying the BJP is a different party in Kashmir than the one in Jammu. Be that as it may, its ascendancy in J&K’s political scene is a watershed event.
The PDP did well in its traditional bastions of South Kashmir and also managed to edge out National Conference from Srinagar city apart from making some inroads into the hilly areas of Rajouri and Poonch. Needless to say its campaign was more targeted against the NC but acerbic against the “Hindu invasion” by BJP. Complacency however did it in. Somehow it believed that Omar’s poor governance meant people would queue up to vote for PDP, which definitely wasn’t the case. The losses in Pampore and Tral were unexpected and indicated how things had gone wrong.
The NC was the underdog in this election. They knew they were up against a wall especially after the flood. They tried convincing the Election Commission to postpone the election in order to buy some time and gain some goodwill. In the ten days that I spent in the State during the second and third phase of polling I saw the NC campaign at work. They were fighting this election as if it was their last. Their rallies were well attended, even the filing of nominations by their candidates were events by themselves. Despite massive erosion of goodwill, they still managed to win 17 seats (including two independents backed by it), a number they themselves would have been surprised with.
The only solace for the non-existent Congress campaign was their candidates, who won more on their individual goodwill rather than the name of the party.
By the evening of December 23, the ideological barriers had crumbled. All “options are on the table” was the oft heard comment from spokespersons of all political parties. The courting was happening publicly, doors were kept open and none seemed to be untouchable except the Congress whom no one wanted to touch even with a barge pole. Sensing the mood of its erstwhile allies, the Congress spokespersons fell back upon how secularism needed to be protected in the sensitive state of J&K or how otherwise armies of rabid Hindutvavadis would convert the entire Valley via its Ghar Vapasi programme. They were joined by the die-hard political pundits who one after another told the PDP spokespersons how aligning with a communal BJP would amount to disrespecting the mandate of the Kashmiris. All those who vociferously supported PDP all through now were criticising it because it was seen as cozying up not just to its enemy but the enemy of the liberals.
There was a powerful rumour on the eve of counting day, that Mehbooba Mufti had supposedly met BJP leaders. The talk of an understanding between the PDP and the BJP had even surfaced during the General Elections as well. An alliance between the BJP and the PDP is always going to be difficult not because of ideological issues but regional issues. BJP has shown its ideological flexibility during the campaign itself. As for PDP, it understands the importance of being with a party which is in power in the Centre. By allying with the BJP, PDP would ensure that Omar is out of power for six years. This combination would perhaps be the only one representing the largest section of the population of J&K.
The NC is very keen to join hands with whoever takes its support and gives it crumbs of power. One would stretch the argument too far if one says Omar and NC wouldn’t survive without power for six years but one cannot deny that the NC is possibly at its lowest ebb today. Its fiercest supporters, the Gandhis, are themselves touching a new political low with every election and Omar knows his best chance lies with the BJP. How keen is the BJP for his support and what terms they set and whether those terms are acceptable to Omar remains to be seen. As I write this, Omar Abdullah is meeting “communal” BJP leaders in Delhi. In Srinagar he would do everything possible to keep communal forces at bay even if that means tying up with his arch rival the PDP. The PDP is keeping the offer of NC support on a slow burner.
The Azadi and the boycottwalas feel left out in the cold and are dubbing any alliance with the BJP as unholy. No doubt there are no good options for any political party in J&K right now, not even the BJP. There will be a lot of explaining to do if “soft separatism” ties a knot with "nationalism”. For now expect no progress on “contentious” issues like Article 370, self rule, rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, delimitation and AFSPA. We will have six years to figure out whether all this is in the national interest or in the interest of the people of the State of J&K.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author  and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Roots in Kashmir