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Bitter Kashmiri Hindus to boycott assembly polls

Bitter Kashmiri Hindus to boycott assembly polls

Author: Sugita Katyal
Publication: Yahoo News
Date: September 1, 2002
URL: http://in.news.yahoo.com/020901/137/1unzj.html

Shakti Bhan Khanna will never forget the night she fled her home in Kashmir 12 years ago.

"A screaming mob was at my door in the middle of the night. I somehow slipped out of the back door, got into my car and drove straight to Delhi, leaving all my belongings in my house in Srinagar," she recalls.

Khanna is one of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits or Hindus who fled Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state after a bloody revolt against Indian rule broke out at the end of 1989.

It was one of the largest migrations in India since its independence from Britain in 1947.

Disillusioned and bitter about living like refugees in their own country, the Hindus say they will boycott elections in the Himalayan state beginning later this month to express their anger with the government.

"Why should we participate in these elections again and again when the earlier ones have not changed our destiny one bit?" asked Bushan Lal, a former businessman from Srinagar who now lives in near poverty in Jammu.

Khanna, the spokeswoman of Panun Kashmir, a group representing Kashmiri Pandits, agreed.

"If the elections had held the promise of returning to our homeland we would have cared.

"But when we're living in exile how can we vote for somebody in the (Kashmir) valley who is not going to help?" wondered Khanna, whose group is campaigning for a separate area for Pandits called Panun Kashmir or Our Kashmir.


Thousands like Khanna dream of going home to the apple orchards and towering mountains they left behind but foresee a grim future.

They are angry the Hindu-nationalist led government in New Delhi has done little to help the Kashmiri Hindu community, which has given India two prime ministers -- Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

The Indian government is hoping the Kashmir polls will bolster the legitimacy of its rule in Jammu and Kashmir state, which is at the heart of a military stand-off between Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India and the source of decades of mistrust between the neighbours.

India accuses its neighbour of arming and funding militants who are helping drive the revolt in Jammu and Kashmir state. Pakistan denies this and has pledged to stop the militants crossing into Indian-ruled Kashmir.

India sees the Himalayan territory as an integral part of the country, while Pakistan wants Kashmiris to decide their own future.

Kashmiri Hindus feel caught in the middle and don't understand why they have been forgotten.

According to the National Human Rights Commission, about 300,000 Pandits have been forced to leave Kashmir because of the rebellion. Panun Kashmir's Khanna puts the number closer to 500,000.

Officials say the exodus began at the start of 1990 after a sudden rise in the killings of Hindus and attacks on Pandit homes by Muslim militants.

While some Kashmiri Hindus have made their way to Delhi and other parts of the country, about 200,000 Pandits who left their homes are still languishing in Jammu, the state's winter capital.

About 25,000 live in abysmal conditions in Jammu with families of five to six people often packed into one room.

Living as refugees has taken its toll. Their culture is dying, the incidence of health problems such as insomnia, depression and hypertension has risen and the birth rate has declined.

They say the election commission's decision to make arrangements for Hindu migrants to vote from outside will only institutionalise their migrant status.

"The move to allow migrant Hindu Pandits to vote at their respective refugee camps only reinforces the mindset that there are no chances for them to return to their homes, ever," said Sunil Shakder, president of the Kashmiri Samiti, a social organisation fighting for the rights of displaced Kashmiri Hindus.

Even for the Pandits who want to vote, some doubt they will be able to cast their ballots.

"How is it possible that out of over half a million population we have just 100,000 voters?" asks Agnishekhar, president of Panun Kashmir.

Election commission officials said the rolls were being updated and authorities were making adequate security arrangements for the Pandits to vote.

"Earlier, a lot of votes were lost because of the postal ballot system. But this time we are setting up electronic voting machines to ensure that no votes are lost," deputy election commissioner A.N. Jha told Reuters.


Despite years of distrust, Kashmiri separatist leaders have travelled to New Delhi for the first time for public discussions with a government-backed group.

On Friday, the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party, Shabir Shah, said he was ready to run in the polls if New Delhi promised talks on the future of the contested region. He had earlier ruled out contesting the election.

India wants a large voter turnout and widespread participation in what is only the second election since a discredited poll in 1987 turned simmering resentment into outright rebellion within two years.

For the Pandits, though, all that matters is returning home and rebuilding their identity in a Muslim-dominated homeland.

"In this huge land we have been more than marginalised. We may not even form a part of the history of the times because we have been denied a presence, a voice. We are truly invisible," says an unknown Pandit in a diary that was published recently.

"What about my fate? Will I survive to tell what it has been like with me, and how I felt about it?" says the anonymous Pandit in "Under the Shadow of Militancy: The Diary of an Unknown Kashmiri."

(With additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan in Jammu)

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