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Invisible Exiles: Kashmiri Pandits

Invisible Exiles: Kashmiri Pandits

Author: Rashneek Kher
Publication: Vijayvaani.com
Date: May 6, 2009
URL: http://www.vijayvaani.com/FrmPublicDisplayArticle.aspx?id=552

[On Sunday, 3 May 2009, Roots in Kashmir organised a silent sit-in at Jantar Mantar, to protest the en mass removal of evicted families from the electoral rolls and the discrimination in providing the Internally Displaced Persons facilities to vote on a nation-wide basis. As the Election Commission collects accolades for conducting free and fair elections in the world's most complex democracy, this is a painful blot on an otherwise sterling body - Editor]

The present crisis in Sri Lanka has once again brought to fore the issue of internally displaced people. Everyone from the United Nations to the European Union to the Foreign Ministers of Britain and France wants to visit the refugee camps of the Tamils, displaced by the war between LTTE and the Sri Lankan army.

The Indian Government seems so over-concerned about the safety, security and well-being of Lankan Tamils that it has sent two topmost secretaries to meet the Sri Lankan President. What is more, almost every now and then one senior functionary of the Government of India issues statements and puts pressure on Colombo to ensure the best relief and rehabilitation measures for the internally displaced Tamil refugees. This solicitude is utterly missing when it comes to India's own displaced refugees - the Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits).

Pandits internally displaced: UN

The same Indian government steadfastly refuses to accept Kashmiri Hindus as internally displaced people (IDP). This is despite the fact that the UN has clearly said it accepts that the Pandits are internally displaced people, but it has no power to make the Indian Government accord IDP-status upon the Pandits.

New Delhi does not want to give Kashmiri Hindus IDP-status because then it would have to allow International Aid agencies like the Red Cross, UNICEF, and others to visit Pandit refugee camps. This would involve severe censure of the Government of India at the hands of the Aid agencies because of the way the Pandits are forced to live in uninhabitable refugee camps, bereft of the most basic facilities. To give the reader an idea about how terrible the facilities are - there is one toilet per hundred people!
In 1947, Pandits comprised nearly 25% of the total population of the Kashmir Valley. The discriminatory policies of the State Government forced them to look for alternatives outside the Valley. Many families silently migrated to Jammu and Delhi, leading to a huge fall in their numbers in the Valley. At the onset of the Islamic insurgency, close to half a million Kashmiri Hindus were forced to leave; this was a great blot on the face of a nation that prides itself on its multicultural ethnicity.

Excised from electoral rolls

On 30 April 2009, when people in Anantnag were casting their votes, the State Police was busy mercilessly beating Kashmiri Pandits in the squalid refugee camps. Their fault - they wanted to vote. In 1996, there were 147,000 voters among Kashmiri Hindus all over the country; in 2002, the number went down to 117,000; and during the Assembly elections last year it was only 71,000.

It was this huge deletion of Pandits from the electoral rolls that the refugee-Pandits were protesting against. The State, known for its ineptitude in handling mobs in Kashmir, unleashed its full power on peaceful Hindu protestors.

In an era when registering as a voter is a mere mouse-click away, the Election Commission has ensured that Pandits undergo the most difficult process to qualify as voters. One doesn't know if the Election Commission is acting on its own, or someone is guiding it. Imagine how our liberal English news channels would cry hoarse if 70,000 Muslims in "Modi's Gujarat" were denied the right to vote. It doesn't bother their conscience when Pandits are denied the same rights and avenues to justice.

Form M

Kashmiri Hindus have to undergo a very cumbersome process to get voter ID cards. It almost makes them feel like second-class citizens, because unlike the rest of their countrymen, they have to fill a Form "M" [Migrant Form].

Form M by itself is a misnomer, because Pandits are not migrants, but refugees. Anyway, they have to get this form signed from a gazetted officer, and this has been made mandatory even as there are other documents on the basis of which voter ID cards could be issued to the Pandits.

Anyone who has to obtain the M-form has to get it from the Relief Commissioner's office in Jammu, and later get it attested by an officer called the Zonal Migration Officer. So someone now living in Mumbai has to take at least a week off to just complete the procedure required for filling an application for being a voter.

Jai Ho! I bet Bangladeshis in India have it easier.

Now could someone explain why such a procedure is needed in the first place, unless the only aim of the Election Commission is to dissuade Pandits from voting?

One would expect that the Election Commission's sadism would end with this, but the troubles might just have begun.

No all-India right to vote

The Election Commission sets up election booths only in Jammu and Delhi for refugee Pandits to cast their votes. There are more than 50,000 Pandits who live in other cities, such as Chandigarh, Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Jaipur. How are they to vote, may we ask the Election Commission?

When the Election Commission has set up election booth for even a single voter in some places, what stops it from doing the same for Pandits? It is nobody's case that the Election Commission should go every nook and corner looking for refugee-Pandits, but it can surely set up booths at places where more than 500 Pandits live. One could also ask the Election Commission if the Kashmiri Hindus are given a day off to vote like the rest of their compatriots? If not, how can they vote?

Facilitating exile

Kashmiri Hindus are a severely marginalized community. They had to face the wrath of Islamist insurgents (some of their killers are being hosted by the Indian Government and the so-called intelligentsia of this nation) and an unsympathetic government. Are they paying a price for being Indians? So it seems. In a State which is already largely Islamized and where Sharia is the law for personal disputes, the space for Pandits is already shrinking. At such a moment, the Election Commission should have left no stone unturned to ensure that Pandits get the most basic of their rights - the Right to Vote.

Perhaps the Election Commission is not aware of an Article numbered 370. This Article will soon come into play if Pandits no longer have the Voter ID cards of their place of origin. Soon Islamists, including so-called mainstream separatists like the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party will say Pandits don't belong to Kashmir. There then will be no way the Hindus can reclaim their lands or even think of buying property in a land of which they are the indigenous people.

This fear is driving Pandits across the nation to demonstrate against the actions of the Election Commission. They fear the Election Commission is silently accomplishing the task of the Islamists.

- The writer is co-founder of the Kashmiri Pandit Group - Roots in Kashmir

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