Unsettling Developments

The coalition government’s attempts to set up Sainik Colonies and separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits could lead to a new agitation in the Kashmir valley, says Bilal Kuchay.

The proposal of setting up of Sainik Colonies for retired armed forces personnel and “separate townships” for migrant Kashmiri Pandits are the newest contentious issues in the Kashmir valley. Separatists have already warned the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP-BJP coalition government of a 2008-like unrest if it planned to go with any such proposals, which they believe would change the demography of the state and “create an Israel-Palestine like situation” in Jammu and Kashmir. The opposition says that any move made by the Mehbooba government that violates the state subject laws or Article 370, which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir within the Union of India, will be resisted.

On 8 May 2015, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Tarun Vijay moved a proposal seeking “a piece of land or a well-built apartment on a 99-year lease” in the Kashmir valley for soldiers or the kin of those who have been killed while battling insurgency in Kashmir. According to reports, the Rajya Sainik Board, an organisation whose purpose, the government says, is to safeguard the rights of the retired soldiers living in Jammu and Kashmir, has approved the establishment of a Sainik Colony in Budgam, close to the old airport. In 2015, an estimated area of 173 kanals (eight kanals make an acre) of land was identified for the controversial colony, and an approval sought from then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. The proposal was fast-tracked when the state was under Governor NN Vohra’s rule, following the death of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in January this year.

Soon after Mehbooba Mufti took charge, letters from the home department, which is headed by the chief minister herself, have been sent to the deputy commissioners of Srinagar and Budgam to expedite the process of identification and allotment of land, as the requirement of land has increased from 173 kanals to 350 kanals following huge response by the soldiers willing to settle in these colonies. According to a government order copy tweeted by former chief minister Omar Abdullah, as many as 26 officers, 125 JCOs and 900 others have given their consent to settle in the Sainik Colony in Srinagar.

Soon after Mehbooba Mufti took charge, letters from the home department, which is headed by the chief minister herself, have been sent to the deputy commissioners of Srinagar and Budgam to expedite the process of identification and allotment of land, as the requirement of land has increased from 173 kanals to 350 kanals following huge response by the soldiers willing to settle in these colonies.

Junaid Azim Mattoo, spokesperson of the National Conference, said that the Mehbooba Mufti government has issued two statements regarding the issue of Sainik Colonies, one that no land identification process has started and the other, there is nothing wrong in setting up sainik colonies in the state. “Our question to the state government is simple,” Mattoo said, “that will these Sanik Colonies be exclusively for state subjects, or as per the statement of BJP, are you thinking of settling the non-subjects as well in these colonies?”

He added that National Conference has no objection to the government’s plan of establishing any colony as far as it doesn’t violate state laws. “Anything that violates the constitution of the state or the state subject laws is unacceptable to National Conference. If there is a colony which doesn’t violate any law, National Conference will not oppose that.”

The PDP, however, says that it was not setting up any Sainik Colony in the Kashmir valley, and has already told the Raj Sainik Board that there was no land available in Srinagar. The ruling party also blamed the previous government led by Omar Abdullah for initiating the process to establish these colonies in the valley. Senior PDP leader and minister for education, Naeem Akhter, said during a press conference that “the whole business has started in the 73rd meeting of J&K Raj Sainik Board,” which Akhter said was held on 1 March 2011.

The PDP, however, says that it was not setting up any Sainik Colony in the Kashmir valley, and has already told the Raj Sainik Board that there was no land available in Srinagar. The ruling party also blamed the previous government led by Omar Abdullah for initiating the process to establish these colonies in the valley.

Akhter further said that in the 76th meeting of the Raj Sainik Board, held on 21 April 2014, “[the] secretary of the Raj Sainik Board briefed that the Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir had agreed for allotment in the old airfield area, and accordingly the required documents were under preparation for acquisition of said land for establishment of sainik colony at Srinagar.” He made it clear that “no sanik colony will be established in Srinagar or in Budgam” but admitted that there was a demand from the armed forces for the said colonies.

 

On 23 May, Mohammed Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, met Syed Ali Geelani and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, among other separatist leaders, to chalk out a joint strategy to resist any such moves. “When a government employee or any police official retires, he doesn’t live in a government colony,” he says. “He goes back to his home. So why Sainik Colony for retired armed personnel?”

He fears that the government of India is trying to create an Isreal-Palestine like situation in Kashmir while setting up colonies for armed forces or the Kashmiri Pandits in the state. “There are more than 10,000 Pandits living in Kashmir, Punjabis who have come to Kashmir before 1947 live here. They don’t have complaints. But, the government wants to create an Israel-Palestine like situation here while setting-up Sainik Colonies, separate townships for Pandits, which we will not allow to happen.”

“When a government employee or any police official retires, he doesn’t live in a government colony,” he says. “He goes back to his home. So why Sainik Colony for retired armed personnel?”

Chairman of the Hurriyat Conference (G), Syed Ali Geelani says that under international law, Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory and that India has “no legal or moral justification” in settling ex-servicemen in Kashmir. “It is a resist-or-die-like situation for the Kashmiri people and any carelessness on this sensitive issue will prove to be the proverbial a final nail in the coffin of our existence, identity and our freedom struggle and we will become strangers in our own land,” Geelani has warned.

The issue seems to have united the separatist leaders in Kashmir, who are now mulling a joint strategy to oppose the controversial moves of the government. A statement issued after the 23 May meeting at Geelani’s Hyderpora residence said that “India is doing all this to strengthen its forced military occupation in Kashmir and it is need of the hour to oppose and resist these dangerous policies.” The leaders said that policy makers of India are systematically trying to change the demography of the state and convert Muslims into minorities, and that the local pro-India parties, particularly the PDP, are extending them every possible support.

“Sooner or later, India has to accept the plebiscite demand of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, and India also understands that the end result of the referendum process will not be in their favour,” the statement says. “The policy makers of India want to settle non-state subjects in the state. Creation of Sainik colonies and separate townships for Pandits is a part of this policy.”

 

This is not the first time the PDP has found itself in the line of fire in issues related to the violation of state land laws. It was part of the coalition government that in 2008 approved the diversion of 39.88 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. When the decision became public, the party distanced itself from the move and pulled out from the coalition on 28 June 2008. (The order was withdrawn by the state cabinet on 2 July.) However, on 25 June, then chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad accused two PDP leaders, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh and Qazi Muhammad Afzal, for the land transfer. Over 60 people were killed during the protests that followed the deal.

The issue of separate townships for displaced Kashmiri Pandits also flared up after reports that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had agreed to the Indian government’s demand for the same, drawing a sharp reaction not only from the pro-freedom leadership but also from civil society and opposition leaders. Separatists called for a shutdown and in the assembly, opposition leaders created a ruckus. Sayeed himself had to clear the air, saying there was no such proposal in place. “There is no such proposal to set up separate clusters for migrant Pandits in Kashmir valley. We want Kashmiri Pandits to return to their native places and live honorably among Muslim neighbours.” He had also denied reports that there was any proposal under the government’s consideration to acquire 500 kanals of land for setting up composite townships for Pandits in the Valley.

There is almost universal acceptance to the return of the Pandits in Kashmir, but the method of their repatriation is under dispute. “Kashmiri Pandits are an inseparable part of Kashmiri society, and their return to Valley would be welcomed by one and all, but an attempt to divide people by separating them on religious or sectarian basis would be strongly opposed by the Hurriyat,” Mirwaiz Umer Farooq said.

Mehbooba Mufti’s government managed the situation after five civilians were killed in Handwara following the allegation that a soldier molested a local girl. But she has to go beyond the perception management and jackboot policy to prevent this situation from getting out of hand. Can she allay the fears of the local population while continuing her alliance with the BJP, is the common question asked in Kashmir nowadays.

Bilal Kuchay is a freelance journalist, who has been featured in Express Tribune, Himal Southasian and The Kashmir Monitor. He tweets as @BilalKuchayj

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