When Balasaheb Thackeray safeguarded the future of a displaced community

By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, March 19 (IANS)
More than three decades ago, when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits fled the terror nightmare in their homeland in 1990 to seek refuge elsewhere in India, many landed in Mumbai, the City of Dreams, and Pune, the academic capital of Maharashtra.
A majority of the uprooted Kashmiri Pandits, with their parents, wife and children, escaped from certain death with hardly anything more than the clothes they wore, and spent months in agony and uncertainty over how to rebuild their future from scratch in strange surroundings.
Maharashtra was the only state which opened its doors, hearts, wiped their tears and helped the Kashmiri Pandits grow new roots in this state, over a couple of thousand kms away from their birthplace.
“At that time, a group of Kashmiri Pandits met the roaring tiger of Shiv Sena, Balasaheb Thackeray. Led by the late Lt Gen (Retd) P.N. Hoon, the delegation discussed the entire issue of Kashmiri Pandits threadbare with the Sena Pramukh,” said Sanjay Nahar, who runs an NGO, Sarhad, in Pune.
Acclaimed author-journalist Rahul Pandita, a teen then, recalls how the Kashmiri Pandits — though penniless — did not seek monetary aid from Balasaheb Thackeray, but wanted something that could help them stand on their feet and make them independent in the long run.
Nahar said the delegation requested Balasaheb Thackeray to use his good offices and offer the Kashmiri Pandits reservations in technical or engineering courses in various academic institutions here.
Interestingly, the meeting was facilitated by a reserved, young journo — Sanjay Raut — now the stormy petrel of the Sena and its chief spokesperson.
Balasaheb Thackeray readily agreed to the proposal — though some opposition parties then had sniggered — and sowed the seeds for affording a stable future to an entire generation of Kashmiri Pandits.
Amit Wanchoo — the grandson of the legendary H.N. Wanchoo who was assassinated by terrorists in December 1992 — said that it was only Balasaheb Thackeray then “who threw a lifeline to Kashmiri Pandits” when they had nobody to call their own.
“Many had no funds or friends, spent months in dirty cattle-sheds or slums, worrying about their future. We always believed that education is important for children, but educating them away from their homeland was a big challenge,” said Wanchoo.
He is among the few who decided to remain in Kashmir despite the near-total exodus by his fraternity.
With Balasaheb Thackeray throwing open all the higher-technical-engineering institutions for Kashmiri Pandits, thousands took advantage to enrol themselves and encounter the future with confidence, and around 7,000-8,000 have benefitted, said Nahar.
More importantly, Pandita said that the gesture came without any ‘strings attached’, and Balasaheb Thackeray never treated them as any kind of ‘a political vote-bank or a bargaining tool’, and it remained a totally unselfish measure.
Sena MP Raut remembers the days when Balasaheb Thackeray was the sole person who spoke for the Kashmiri Pandits when the rest of the country kept quiet in dread of the terrorists.
“When the delegation met Balasaheb Thackeray, he openly advocated giving arms to the Kashmiri Pandits for their self-defence… Instead, they asked for educational quotas, which he readily agreed to and allowed 5 per cent reservation in the state. Nobody knows the pain of the Kashmiri Pandits more than the Shiv Sena,” Raut said.
Pandita and Wanchoo point out how many Kashmiri Pandits occupying top positions in Indian government or in leading companies worldwide had benefited from Maharashtra’s generosity in their darkest hour.
Wanchoo said that inspired by Balasaheb Thackeray, even Maharashtra proved magnanimous towards Kashmiri Pandits and contributed their mite to wipe the tears of their brethren from the snowy Valley.
“I met him in 1994 and he was surprised to learn that some — like me — still opted to live on in Kashmir. There were many young students living in home-stays, rentals or as paying guests in Maharashtra. But when they couldn’t afford to pay their dues, the local owners/families quietly waived them off,” said Wanchoo.
Nahar recalled the times when many Kashmiris — Pandits, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — who became ‘refugees’ overnight, had problems with even basics like food and clothes and many NGOs came forward in Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Nashik and other cities to care for them.
According to Pandita and Wanchoo, “we are indebted to Balasaheb Thackeray and till now, we consider Maharashtra as our ‘second home’ for all practical purposes”.
Years later, Balasaheb Thackeray’s initiative bloomed across the country with other states and even the Centre coming up with various reservations, quotas, grace marks, certain privileges etc. for the Kashmiri Pandits/Muslims/Sikhs, that ensured the displaced persons secured a firm foothold in life.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at: q.najmi@ians.in)

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