Anantnag, Indian-administered Kashmir – Standing in the dusty courtyard of their partly rebuilt house in Mattan town of Indian-administered Kashmir’s Anantnag district, the Bhat family poses for a picture.
This was in September last year, right at the cusp of autumn in the picturesque valley, when dozens of abandoned homes owned by Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Pandits, were undergoing repairs in hopes that they will return to what had been their homeland for centuries.
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Mattan is about 80km (50 miles) from the region’s main city of Srinagar.
The Bhats were among 44,167 Kashmiri Pandit families forced to abandon their homes in an exodus in early 1990 as an armed rebellion against New Delhi’s rule and targeted killings of Hindus, and even Muslims aligned with the government, gripped the valley.
It was in May 2016 that the Bhats decided to rebuild their home, soon after a family member landed a government job in Mattan under the Prime Minister’s rehabilitation package – first announced in April 2008 by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – to facilitate the resettlement of displaced Kashmiri Pandits and other victims of the armed rebellion.
The initiative, which dragged on for years, gathered pace after August 2019 when a new government, headed by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scrapped Indian-administered Kashmir’s limited autonomy guaranteed by the Indian constitution and divided the Muslim-majority region – also claimed by neighbouring Pakistan – into two federally governed territories.
Emboldened by New Delhi’s move, which included a renewed push to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, the Bhats decided to return to their ancestral home.
But it took only a month for the family to get cold feet again as a spate of targeted killings caused fear among the valley’s Hindu and Sikh communities last year.
“Things in Kashmir are no longer the same as they were in September,” a member of the Bhat family told Al Jazeera during a phone call from the region’s Jammu city in October.
The Bhats requested their names or photographs should not be published with this report.
Since 2019, the Modi government has been boasting of a “new era” in Indian-administered Kashmir.
In her speech in parliament on March 14, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed how the abrogation of the region’s autonomy helped bring “real normalcy” and fulfil promises to the Pandit community with jobs and transit accommodations.
However, many people employed under the prime minister’s package for the region as well as the Kashmiri Pandits who did not migrate remain critical of the government’s moves after August 2019, which they say have derailed their resettlement.
“The rehabilitation policy should have been implemented in a phased and calibrated fashion. But the false bravado of the present government and the ruling party has pitted a vulnerable minority against the majority community,” a government official in Anantnag who did not want to be named told Al Jazeera.
“Kashmir Files, which depicts a one-sided story of the Kashmir conflict, has also deepened distrust between the two communities,” the official said, referring to a recent Bollywood film’s controversial take on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits.
Aggressive push for resettlement
In November 2006, a petition in India’s Supreme Court was filed by a New Delhi-based Kashmiri Pandit group seeking constitutional protection for the lives and property of more than 350,000 community members forced to leave the valley in the 1990s.
After nearly a decade in March 2016, the petition was transferred to the high court in Indian-administered Kashmir. Following the abrogation of the region’s special status, the court in March 2020 asked the local administration what steps had been taken to rehabilitate Pandits.
On August 13 that year, the local administration issued an order seeking to protect properties owned and abandoned by Pandits. A month later, on September 7, the region’s governor Manoj Sinha inaugurated a website for the Pandits to submit their claims.
“This initiative will put an end to the plight of the migrants who have been suffering since the 1990s,” Sinha said while inaugurating the website.
This was followed by an aggressive anti-encroachment drive by the local administration. Last month, the government claimed it had restored more than 600 properties belonging to Kashmiri Pandits in the past five years.
The targeted killings of Pandits and Sikhs by suspected Kashmiri rebels in autumn last year, however, slowed down the drive. Intelligence agencies blamed the administration’s drive to reclaim Pandit-owned properties for the spate of killings, according to Indian media reports.
Still, the aggressive push to resettle Pandits ended up exposing old fault lines in the restive region.
“The way the policy to restore the properties of migrants has been executed, it has dented the relationship between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims,” Sanjay Tickoo, a prominent Pandit activist based in Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.
Tickoo, who chose to stay in the valley despite threats from rebels, alleged that many complaints filed by Pandits turned out to be false.
“Not all Kashmiri Pandits sold their properties in distress. The government must process the complaints only after ascertaining their authenticity,” he said.
Reclaiming lost property
Of the total 7,659 complaints filed through the newly launched website to date – most dealing with land grabs and encroachment after the exodus – more than 5,000 have been processed, according to local officials.
“In as many as 2,500 cases, the encroachment has been removed and the land handed over to the local government custodians … At least 2,586 cases have been closed after the land was retrieved in some cases and in the others, the complaints were rejected on a merit basis,” Ashok Kumar Pandita, the relief and rehabilitation commissioner (migrants) in Indian-administered Kashmir, told Al Jazeera.
While the administration assures a speedy redress, Pandits such as Yoginder Kandhari, a retired army colonel who lives in Jammu, are struggling to get any relief.
Kandhari said he has been trying unsuccessfully for 16 years to take possession of his land in Srinagar’s Natipora area – but it is occupied by the government. He turned to the website with fresh hope.
“Ultimately, [an] eviction has to be carried out by the ground staff and there is an entrenched nexus of Kashmiri society and government officials for that to happen,” Kandhari told Al Jazeera.
On September 22 last year, in response to Kandhari’s complaint, the administration admitted that a portion of his land was occupied by the government’s Power Development Department.
“There is no option available for filing an appeal against the closure of my complaint. The whole handling [of the complaint] is an eyewash,” said Kandhari.
In December 2020, the region’s Rural Development Department even issued an order asking its officials to desist from building on the land of migrants without their approval.
Despite the struggle, many Kashmiri Pandits feel this might be the right time for them to reclaim their lost properties.
“The properties of migrant Pandits will get encroached again if they don’t go back and take possession. Those who have benefitted from our exodus and made millions are not going to let go of our properties so easily,” Tej Tickoo of All India Kashmiri Society told Al Jazeera.
Others such as Shadi Lal Pandita, who lives in a migrant camp near Jammu, believe the government should first create separate townships for Pandits and move them to their original homes afterwards.
“If encroachments are removed suddenly and by force, it will trigger acrimony,” said Pandita.
According to India’s home ministry, of a total of 6,000 government posts announced under the 2008 Prime Minister’s rehabilitation package, about 5,797 migrants have been given employment so far.
The other components of the package, however, are yet to be implemented.
While 6,000 transit accommodations required for such employees were to be constructed across Indian-administered Kashmir, the government has managed to complete only 1,025 dwellings so far. Another 1,488 units are under construction.
“The families of employees from the migrant community are forced to live in cramped accommodations of the existing transit camps,” a member of the PM’s package employees’ association, told Al Jazeera, requesting anonymity.
“We are caught between the devil and the deep sea situation,” he said.
In Jammu, meanwhile, leaders of the migrant Pandit community refuse to accept employment under the PM Package scheme as a marker of rehabilitation.
“The resettlement is a political issue and employment is an issue of economic subsistence,” Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, a migrant Pandit and member of the local BJP unit, told Al Jazeera.
“The government lacks a clear vision regarding our rehabilitation. It couldn’t resettle even the internally displaced, militancy-affected people in the Jammu province,” he said.
“Post-retirement, these employees are likely to leave Kashmir and settle elsewhere.”
Back in Mattan, amid uncertainties, rebuilding old homes has turned into a risky investment for migrant Pandits.
“There is no question of renovating the upper portion of the home now,” said Sahil Bhat, who remains stationed in Mattan but has sent his family to their Jammu house for now.
(This story has been supported by Land Conflict Watch, a New Delhi-based data research agency that tracks disputes on natural resources. Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees.)