It's been two decades since the flight of many Kashmiri Hindus after an insurgency targeted them. Now even Kashmir Muslims want them to return.
JAMMUÂ —Â Avtar Krishan used to own a large house and a successful fruit business in the Indian-administered Kashmir. ButÂ in the 1990s, he was forced out ofÂ his home after anti-India armed insurgency eruptedÂ in the region.
Kashmir is a disputed territoryÂ between India and Pakistan since the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947. The two neighbors, both nuclear powers, have fought three bloody wars to gain control over the region.Â
Krishan now lives in a small room with his mother, his wife and their three grown children in a refugee camp in the northern city of Jammu, India. "We have seen many ups and downs, suffered a lot, but our emotional bond with Kashmir remains intact," he says.Â "That is the land of our ancestors, that's where we were born and brought up, that's where our language, culture and our unique history are based. And all at once, one day, we were deprived of all that and forced into a life of misery and misfortune. We live here, but we don't belong here, and it is so painful to be uprooted like this,"Â he said.
Some 300,000 other Hindus from KashmirÂ have similar stories. They say they no longer felt safe in the valleyÂ after the uprising.Â The murder of Hindus by Kashmiri militants further reinforced their sense of insecurity, triggering a mass migration.
Writer Smriti Kak, who also left her home, says they thought they would return. "We knew that we were coming back," she says.Â "Every week we used to just shift the goal posts that, next week, next month, we are going to be backÂ home, or at best six months. We thought the government would announce that the militants hadÂ all been flushed out and that thereÂ would beÂ no more tension, no more armed conflict, so everybody who hadÂ left could comeÂ back home.Â Nobody expected it to be this long."
Kashmiri Hindus make up nearly 5%Â of the valley's total population.Â For centuries, theyÂ lived side by side with their Muslim neighbors in peace and harmony.Â Their flight from the valley was thereforeÂ a major blow to Kashmir's old tradition of tolerance and communal harmony.Â It created a cultural void, prompting calls from the Muslim majority for their return.
"They are our own people," saysÂ ZareefÂ Ahmad,Â aÂ KashmiriÂ Muslim poet.Â "This land is as much theirs as it is ours.Â We have been appealing to them to come back because this is our shared home, and we are incomplete without each other.Â It is true that there is a political problem here, but that can't stop us from living together."
Over the years, ordinary Kashmiri Muslims, political leaders and almost all separatist groups have been urging the Kashmiri Hindus to return to their homes.Â But apart from a few hundred families, the community remained hesitant, citing security concerns.
Sushil Pandit is a member ofÂ the Kashmiri Hindu group Roots in Kashmir. "We moved out because there was a threat to our life," he says.Â "Today we're not going back just because there is a house all over again and a job and some cash thrown at us. The point is, what kind of Kashmir are we going back to?Â We are not waiting for an invitation to go back.Â Whenever the conditions are fine, we will go back."
The ruling Hindu nationalist party BJP wants to create separate townships in Kashmir where Hindus could live protected by government security forces.Â The Indian government plans to resettle tens of thousands of Hindus in three new townships in Muslim-dominated Kashmir.
"The very idea of addressing the problems of the communities that have been uprooted is to ensure for them a place of rehabilitation with respectability," saysÂ JatinderÂ Singh, a junior minister inÂ the prime minister's office.Â "We, as a party and as a government, are committed to a respectable and dignified return of KashmiriÂ HindusÂ to their place of origin, and there'sÂ no going back on that."
Many mainstream Kashmiri politicians and separatist groups fiercely opposeÂ the plan.Â They argue that it will further divide the two communities and make peace almost impossible. "It will be a recipe for disaster because it will create an atmosphere of fear and leave behind a legacy of hate and mistrust," saysÂ MohammadÂ YasinÂ Malik, chairman ofÂ theÂ JammuÂ and Kashmir Liberation Front.Â "Our coming generations that should go to school, play and grow up together — instead they will remain strangers and might even become enemies. We won't allow them to erect these walls of hatred and divide us."Â
The state government, which initially approved the plan, has since changed its position. "A separate homeland for Kashmiri Hindus is just not possible,"Â saysÂ Kashmir's Chief Minister Mufti MohammadÂ Sayeed.Â Whoever wants to come will have to live with us as before. We won't create separate clusters like they did in Israel. We won't allow our shared history to end like this."
Analysts say that the government should instead focus on resolving the conflict. More than 100,000 people have died in Kashmir since the beginning of anti-India militancy two decades ago.