A soldier stands guard as Hindu pilgrims take part in the annual Amarnath Yatra. Photo: Muneeb/ Pacific/ Barcroft
A soldier stands guard as Hindu pilgrims take part in the annual Amarnath Yatra. Photo: Muneeb/ Pacific/ Barcroft

A controversial edict issued by the government of Jammu and Kashmir now requires the minority Kashmiri Pandits to file “consent forms” before going on a pilgrimage in the state.

The Kashmiri Pandits, who hail from the conflict-ridden state in India’s far north, were specifically targeted by Islamic militants in the early 1990s and driven out of Muslim-dominated areas. An estimated 100,000 Hindus left the Kashmir Valley after the armed insurgency started. Most continue to live as displaced migrants in other parts of the country.

Ironically, the order has been issued by a two-party government that includes the BJP, a party that has embraced Hindutva and tacitly champions majoritarian politics across the country. They are in a coalition with the regional People’s Democratic Party (PDP), led by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. Kashmir is India’s lone Muslim-majority state, while its northern and western parts have been administered by Pakistan since the “first” war in 1947-48.

The state government issued a formal notice asking members of the migrant Hindu community to submit “consent” about their prospective travel to Kashmir to attend Mela Khir Bhawani – an important festival of Kashmiri Pandits, associated with the Hindu Goddess Ragnya Devi. It is celebrated annually in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. The orders will also apply for similar religious events celebrated in other parts of the Kashmir Valley by the Pandit community.

A copy of the state government notification asking Kashmiri Pandits to file consent forms before going on the pilgrimage. Photo: Majid Hyderi
A copy of the state government notice asking Kashmiri Pandits to file consent forms before going on a pilgrimage in the state. Photo: Majid Hyderi

The Office of Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner (Migrant) in Jammu issued a formal notice in this regard. “All Kashmir migrants desirous of undertaking pilgrimage to Mata Khir Bhawani Tulmulla (Ganderbal) / Tikker (Kupwara)/ Manzgam (Kulgam), Mattan (Anantnag) during the current financial year of the ensuing Zeistha Ashthami which falls on 20-06-2018 are requested to provide their consent on the following format to the concerned zonal officer/camp commandant by or before 20-05-2018,” reads the order issued by KK Sidha, Deputy Commissioner Relief, Jammu.

Despite being displaced from Kashmir when the armed insurgency began in 1990, many from the community occasionally visit the Valley to attend the annual Mata Khir Bhawani celebrations. But the latest order directing them to seek consent is a development that has outraged the Pandit community.

Professor Renuka Dhar, a noted academic and prominent voice of Kashmir Pandits, who teaches at Delhi University, described the state order as an embargo.

“Another farman [edict] from the Jammu & Kashmir government.  Now internally displaced Kashmiri Pandits have to fill out forms and get permission before going to Tulmul for Zyeth Aethem. Are the self-declared ‘custodians’ of Kashmir planning to impose an embargo on the number of pilgrims?” Dhar said in a phone interview. “Well, I am also wondering what kind of coalition partner would allow such an unfair order? But the government insists that the orders are aimed at providing ‘better facilities, more security and to make the pilgrimage more convenient’.

KK Sidha, Deputy Commissioner Relief Jammu, said: “Previously we didn’t have such elaborate arrangements. Only the bus facility was provided. But now, besides transportation, we looked ahead at providing security, accommodation, and refreshments. When we need to make such elaborate arrangements, we need their number.”

However, this did not clarify why the notice asks the Pandits to seek “consent” before visiting the state.

The Kashmiri Pandits’ issue has dogged governments for decades. The Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government has promised the Pandits a safe return to the Valley. However, there has been little or no action on the ground to start the process for their return. Indeed, observers say the Pandits are unlikely to return to the state unless the armed insurgency ends.

In March 2010, the government told the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly that 219 Kashmiri Pandits had been killed by militants since 1989 (not 209, as previously reported by the police). A year later, however, the Kashmiri Pandith Sangarsh Samiti, a Srinagar-based organization known as the KPSS, said at least 399 Pandits had been killed.

The community has been seeking an impartial investigation into all such killings but the Indian Supreme Court rejected a public interest lawsuit last July that sought a fresh probe into murders of the Pandits.

The petitioners told the court they need a “sense of justice” in the case. “The community has legitimate expectations. Successive governments have repeatedly made fake promises that the Pandits could return [to their homeland]. No one is protecting them,” they said.

But the apex court dismissed the Public Interest Litigation filed by NGO “Roots in Kashmir”, saying it would be difficult to probe as evidence “is unlikely to be available”. “Almost 27 years have gone by… Where will the evidence will come from? Such a plea should have been moved a long time ago,” the Supreme Court said.