Separatist groups in Indian-administered Kashmir are due to hold a silent march on Wednesday to oppose a government decision to resettle displaced Kashmiri Hindus in exclusive colonies. The BBC’s Geeta Pandey reports on the controversy from Srinagar, the Muslim majority state’s summer capital.
Varsha Kaul was 15 days old in April 1990 when her family fled Srinagar.
“One evening, the terrorists came to our house and surrounded it. They took away my uncle Bharat Bhushan Kaul saying they wanted to ask him some questions. They threatened to shoot anyone who intervened. Everyone was very afraid,” she says.
At dawn, Kaul’s body was found hanging from a tree outside their home. The 28-year-old government employee had just been engaged and was to get married a month later.
In the late 1980s, an armed rebellion broke out in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, seeking independence from India. The militants often targeted the minority Hindus and attacks and threats saw most of the 350,000 Pandits, as they are also known, fleeing for safety to the Jammu region and elsewhere in India. Today, there are only 2,764 Hindus left there.
“My family was planning to go to Jammu as the situation in the valley had deteriorated. They thought they’d go for a few months and return once the situation improved. But after my uncle was killed, they performed his last rites, loaded their belongings onto a truck and left,” Ms Kaul says.
“The situation here kept worsening and we could not return. We were afraid that if we came back, we would meet the same fate as my uncle.”
It took her 26 years to visit the valley again – I met Ms Kaul and her mother Kiran Kaul last week while they were visiting their former neighbours in their village in Budgam district, not far from Srinagar.
Although they are on a short visit, hopes have been rekindled that they can return permanently to the valley.
The state government – a coalition of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party and the regional People’s Democratic Party – has vowed to bring the Pandits back.
The authorities said they would set up secure enclaves for returning migrants where they can live safely, but the plan has hit a roadblock, with many accusing the government of trying to create “Israeli-type settlements in Palestine”.
Following criticism, the government did an about-turn – Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti insisted that she was only talking about providing the Pandits with transit lodging until they built their own homes, but not many in the valley are willing to take her word for it.
And in what could prove a big headache for the authorities, rival Kashmiri separatist leaders Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik and Syed Ali Shah Geelani have, in a rare show of unity, joined hands to oppose the plan.
“We want the Pandits to come back, every Kashmiri Muslim agrees on that. We believe that it’s a humanitarian issue. The Pandits have every right to return and the government should give them handsome compensation to help them settle,” Mirwaiz Farooq told the BBC.
“But we are opposed to the exclusive settlements because that will create a deep wedge in the Kashmiri society. Keeping the Pandits segregated in secluded areas with security barricades will create walls of hatred, this is not the right approach.”
At the Friday prayers at Srinagar’s Jamia Mosque, he tells his supporters about the government plan and explains why they need to be opposed. His followers nod in agreement.
Surprisingly, also in agreement with Mirwaiz Farooq are many of the Pandits who chose to remain in the valley during the quarter century while militancy raged or who returned in the last few years.
Lalita Dhar, 65-year-old retired schoolteacher who relocated to Jammu in 1989 after threats from Muslim militants, has been living for the past 18 months in the Sheikhpora camp set up by the government for the returning Hindu migrants.
In a two-bedroom apartment that she and her daughter share with another family, Mrs Dhar says she feels like she has been “caged”.
“Before we left, we lived in Srinagar and we had excellent relations with our Muslim neighbours. They helped us, protected us against the militants. I want to go back and live there but we had to sell the family house to survive. I don’t like it in the camp here. I feel like a caged bird,” she says.
“People from all religions and communities should live together, we should be able to mingle freely. Then we can fly like free birds.”
Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, who decided to stay on, get married and raise two children in the volatile valley despite death threats from militants, says 95% of Hindus who migrated have sold their homes and land, so obviously they can’t return to their previous homes.
Also, he says there is little connection between the Pandits and the present generation of Muslim youths, which means the returning Hindus will not find the going easy.
In the past few years, the insurgency has abated, Kashmir is largely bustling, and the summer months have seen tens of thousands of happy Indian tourists descending on the picturesque valley, but, as Mr Tickoo says, things can go wrong in a moment.
“In 2008, there were days of protests over a government decision to allot some land to the Amarnath Hindu shrine board. As a Hindu then, I felt very unsafe here. My Muslim neighbours looked at me in a way which made me feel like I was back in the 1990s when the militancy was at its peak.”
Mr Tickoo says the people who migrated will not be able to deal with the pressures of life in the valley and are likely to run away again at the first sight of trouble.
“The authorities will have to support them, they will not be able to live scattered in the valley so they will need to be given space,” he says, but adds that “we don’t want to live in ghettos”.
“I think the answer is in creating smart cities where 50% of homes should be reserved for the Pandits, the remaining can house Muslims, Sikhs or anyone else who chooses to stay there. Then we will be able to rebuild a truly composite society here.”