J&K is not an easy state to govern: Release political prisoners from illegal captivity and they will call you anti-national, disapprove of those hoisting Pakistani flags in Kashmir and they will call you a stooge of the Indian state: or worse still, think of ways to rehabilitate a minuscule minority in the Kashmir Valley and you will be accused of attempting to change Kashmir's ethnic composition.
Take, for instance, the proposed return of Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) to the Kashmir Valley. As is the case with most other issues in Kashmir, rationality, sensitivity and facts seem to be missing from the discussions on this politically sensitive issue. Extremists within the KP community demand that they be given 'exclusive KP only' colonies within Kashmir; Separatists within Kashmir, such as Ali Shah Geelani, seem to argue that creating colonies for KPs, even if they are not exclusive, will amount to ethnic cleansing in Kashmir! The middle position taken by the Mufti government, a reasonable one in my opinion, that these settlements will be inclusive in nature with Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs living in such settlements, has been lost in this unfortunate war of attrition among the extremists on both sides.
One, do KPs belong to Kashmir and do they have a right to return to their homeland with dignity and honour? The answer is clearly 'Yes', and to my mind answering 'No' would be both factually incorrect and politically insensitive. If they belong(ed) to Kashmir, they have every right to come back to their homeland. Indeed, not letting the KPs come back to their homeland in a dignified manner goes against the very spirit of human rights.
The second question is whether the KPs left Kashmir Valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s under extreme duress. Again, the answer, to my mind is a resounding Yes. One can go on debating about the character of those extraneous circumstances (role of Pakistan, militants, government of India etc.) that led to the painful exodus of the minority Pandit community from the Valley, but it would be silly to not recognise the simple fact that the KPs left the Valley under duress, and that the political/security context of that era was not of their making. If the KP community was a victim of circumstances, they do deserve their share of justice.
Thirdly, is there a conducive atmosphere today to revisit the question of their rightful return to the Valley? Of course. We have just had a free and fair election in the State and militancy is at an all time low with steadily decreasing militancy-related killing. Also there is a government composed of differing ideologies and so any decision will have to be 'democratically' arrived at. There has never been in history a better and opportune moment than today to initiate a dialogue on the return of KPs to Kashmir. It's now or never.
Four, is it desirable to create favourable conditions and provide adequate infrastructure for the return of Kashmiri Pandits? Why not just allow the KPs to go back to their original homes which they left behind in late 80s and early 90s? Would that not resolve the problems?
Differently put, should the government take any lead in their return at all? This seems to be the essence of the critics' objections to the government-sponsored settlements. I think the government has a moral responsibility to provide the necessary wherewithal to those who have lost their homes so that they can return to their homeland with dignity. The reality is that a number of KPs have lost their land, houses and belongings and won't be able to afford to be back in the Valley on their own.
That is where the role of the government becomes important. Moreover, given the passage of time, ownership of houses and lands has changed hands (in some cases properties have been taken over by others etc.), and so it is not possible to tell them to go back to their original homes: many simply don't have any homes to go back to.
Five, should there be exclusive townships for Kashmir Pandits? That is certainly not a good idea. Constructing exclusive townships for KPs is a recipe for disaster. If the declared aim of the government is to bring back the glorious days of Kashmiriyat, then exclusive settlements will definitively defeat such a noble purpose.
Does the dignified return of KPs lead to "ethnic cleansing" as claimed by Pakistan and some elements in Kashmir? This is a ridiculous argument, to say the least. How can the return of Kashmiris change the ethnic composition of Kashmir, numerically or culturally? Numerically, the KPs are a minority whichever data set you refer to, and ethnically they are very much part of Kashmir.
Therefore, bringing them back to Kashmir won't change the ethnic composition in any way. If indeed, the government has plans to bring non-Kashmiris (Hindus, Muslims, Biharis, or Delhities for that matter) to Kashmir and settle them there, that should be opposed. In any case, that is not legally possible due to the conditions imposed by Article 370. The government of India has already clarified that there will be no separate townships for KPs in the Valley.
Are the protests against the settlements justified? In so far as the anti-settlement protesters are asking for consultations within Kashmir prior to taking a final decision on the KP rehabilitation, they are justified. But to argue that there should not be inclusive settlements for KPs in Kashmir cannot be justified.
Eight, what about the demands for exclusive settlements for KPs in Kashmir? Exclusive settlements are impractical and unjustified. Ghettoization of any community in any part of a democratic state is undesirable. Just as India is not for Hindus alone, as Kashmir is not for Muslims alone, the settlements should not be for KPs alone.
Finally, should the J&K government hold consultations with all shades of opinion before finalizing its plans for rehabilitation? That indeed is a good idea. It would be impossible to resettle the KPs in Kashmir without the warmth and welcoming attitude of the majority community and hence there should be wide-ranging consultations before the resettlement plans are finalized.