The Assembly elections, as and when they are held in Jammu and Kashmir, do not have much significance for the beleaguered Kashmiri Pandit community. Their scattered population hardly counts in the vote arithmetic of the now defunct state.
Forced out of Kashmir, the community of over seven lakhs has shrunk to a few lakhs in the Union Territory with a major concentration in Jammu and a nominal presence in Kashmir, the place of their origin. Most of the community members are living in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and other parts of the country and in other countries also. The scattering has totally reduced the community’s significance in the political power play.
Before the 1989-1990 terror onslaught, the community had a sizeable presence in pockets of all Kashmir districts with a major concentration in Srinagar. Their leaders were given space in the political set up and were made ministers as well.
The major political parties, the National Conference and the Congress, had good representations from the minority community. Late Pyarelal Handoo was a minister in the Farooq Abdullah government and was an MP in the ninth Lok Sabha.
Khem Lata Wakhlu held important political positions in the National Conference, the Awami National Conference and later in the Congress. She also served as a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly for 12 years and was the state minister of tourism from 1984 to 1986. She was the chairperson of the state’s social welfare board with the status of a minister of cabinet rank from 2010 to 2014.
Prior to them, there were stalwarts like D.P. Dhar, who was the Chairman of Policy Planning in the External Affairs Ministry and played a crucial role in the 1971 India-Pakistan war leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
He was a member of the Jammu and Kashmir State Constituent Assembly from 1951 to 1957 which endorsed Kashmir’s accession to India. He was also a member of the state Assembly from 1957 to 1967, and was appointed as cabinet minister.
Makhan Lal Fotedar, who was initiated into the Congress by Jawaharlal Nehru, became a political advisor to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
The Kashmiri Pandits had a big say in the Centre and the erstwhile state politics. But all this changed as the terrorists targeted the community in late 1980s which finally led to their exodus. The community fled to Jammu first, and from there they migrated to other parts of the country and world. With the dispersion, the community’s political strength also nosedived.
Since their exodus in 1990, Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed elections to Assembly, Parliament, Panchayat and the District Development Council (DDC) as well. In the elections held in the ’90s, the community’s participation declined both as contestants as well as voters.
Post exodus, only a few Kashmiri Pandits have managed to enter the political arena. Raman Mattoo, an independent candidate who won the elections in 2002, became a minister in the Congress-led PDP coalition government.
Former Vice Chancellor of University of Jammu, Amitabh Mattoo, served as an advisor to late J&K Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed till his death and later to Mehbooba Mufti.
Then there is J&K BJP chief Ravinder Raina, who is seen more as a hardcore RSS man from Jammu than a Kashmiri Pandit.
With declining political voice, the community also laments that since 1990, the Kashmiri Pandits have not been able to exercise their bona fide democratic right to vote as well. The members, who have been living outside the Valley, are registered voters from the constituencies they originated from in Kashmir, but they are unable to vote as they cannot go back to the Valley out of fear.
The Election Commission does have polling booths for the migrants in Jammu or New Delhi, where the Kashmiri Pandits can exercise their franchise. In Jammu, the Jagti camp sees a booth every time there is an election. The residents vote as voters from the constituencies they were registered in Kashmir. This means that they have to vote for a candidate who stays and works in that particular seat in Kashmir. And, he or she who finally wins is least concerned about the voters from who live in Jagti.
The Jagti migrants’ camp has around 5,000 families, but they have no say in electoral power politics. Similar is the case with other migrant camps and the community members scattered all over.
In the 2000s, the community again tried to seek its space in the Valley. There are thousands of Kashmiri Pandits who want to return, and in the past decade many have taken up jobs and are living with their families in the Valley. The trend started during the UPA regime under Manmohan Singh when the Centre took a number of steps to create a conducive atmosphere in the Valley for the Kashmiri Pandits.
According to estimates, a few thousand migrant Kashmiri Pandit families, including the employees, are residing in the Valley.
The panchayat elections in 2019 and the DDC polls later saw participation of the community. But the intermittent targeted killings have ensured no major return of Kashmiri Pandits.
The Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre has also failed to come out with a rehabilitation plan, thus leaving the community to its fate.
The younger generation of Kashmiri Pandits, born after migration, have not been listed as voters in Kashmir. The government and the Election Commission have made no arrangements that could help enlist new voters from the community. This had added to the already dwindling numbers of the Kashmiri Pandit voters.
With no numbers to reckon with as a vote bank, the Kashmiri Pandits have no say in J&K’s power politics. Their plight is a weapon for the political parties to whip the sentiments, but beyond that there is no significant plan for making the community an electoral force.
The community, which has scattered in pursuit of jobs and sustenance, has also failed to produce a leadership that could raise its voice on different platforms.
In the absence of electoral strength and lack of internal leadership, Kashmiri Pandits have no say in Kashmir’s vote politics.