Rahul Bhat, who was shot dead by militants in Budgam on May 11, was working under a Prime Minister employment package for migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Of the total 6,000 posts provided for Pandit migrants under the scheme, a total of 5,928 are filled up. No more than 1,037 of them live in secure accommodations.
The remaining are compelled to rent quarters outside the secure zones meant for them. They also travel long distances without security, on a daily basis, for work.
The Valley has been seeing protests by Kashmiri Pandits regarding their security following Bhat’s killing. A Revenue Department employee, Bhat lived in a secure accommodation at Sheikhpora, Budgam – Kashmir’s oldest and biggest such colony for Pandits — but was shot at his office, some distance away.
Posts such as the one Bhat held were announced in 2008 by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with the aim of drawing Pandit migrants back to the Valley and their eventual return and rehabilitation there. The salaries of these officials were to come from the Ministry of Home Affairs. While initially 3,000 posts were announced, 3,000 more were added later, with almost all getting filled up.
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Incidentally, while the Narendra Modi government swears by the cause of Kashmiri Pandits, and says steps like abrogation of Article 370 are a means to ensure their reintegration in the Valley, it has not introduced any scheme per se meant for the community.
The 2008 job package was itself part of an earlier scheme for return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits formulated in 2002-04, when the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government was in office at the Centre and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was heading a coalition government with the Congress in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state.
As per the policy, each migrant Kashmiri Pandit family wanting to return to the Valley was to be paid Rs 7.5 lakh for rebuilding their houses. The Sheikhpora accommodation, along with one at Vessu in Kulgam, had come up under this scheme. The families were also promised financial assistance for agricultural land if they wanted to do farming, says Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Ashok Pandita. However, that particular scheme had failed, with only three families opting for it and moving to Sheikhpora.
Later, after the PM employment package was announced, the same accommodations were roped in for migrants who took up the offered jobs, Pandita says.
The 72 of the 6,000 posts that remain vacant under this scheme are entangled in litigation, he adds. The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission is the nodal agency taking care of the affairs of migrant Kashmiri Pandits staying across the country.
Apart from safety, the protesters who hit the streets following Bhat’s killing also raised questions regarding the low salaries they are paid (which are in line with what the other government staff get), particularly given the risk. Kashmiri Pandit leader King C Bharti also questions the undertaking Pandits have to give that they will work in the Valley and not seek posting outside Kashmir, accusing the government of sending people desperate for jobs into risky positions for such meagre amounts.
Pandita says the government is cognizant of the problems and at least 5,000 more quarters are being readied for Kashmiri Pandits in secure zones “to house all employees”. “This July, we will hand over some of them. By December, we will have all the 6,700 quarters ready and accommodate all the migrant employees.”
In the interim, Pandita adds, they want the authorities to post the Class IV employees to Jammu. At a meeting with political parties in Srinagar Saturday, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha ruled out such a possibility.
On Monday, protests by Kashmiri Pandits over Bhat’s killing continued in Ganderbal and Anatnag districts. In Anantnag, protesters set fire to effigies depicting the present government.
A resident, who was part of the protests at Sheikhpora, said they felt caged, with no freedom to move freely, or without fear. “At times, there seems no purpose to these gated colonies. Every day, we have to move out for work, without any security. Our children have to go to school. We may be safe during the night, but we are vulnerable during the day.”
Talking about fellow Pandit teachers killed earlier, a schoolteacher said that despite years of service, and becoming used to living in gated colonies, “one can’t live in constant fear”.
Following the killing of a non-Pandit Kashmiri migrant teacher and a principal at the Government Higher Secondary School in Srinagar’s Idgah area in October last year, a large number of Pandits posted in the Valley under the PM’s employment package had, in fact, returned to Jammu, where most have families.
However, under the threat of losing their jobs, they had returned to their places of posting after some days.
With Bhat’s family accusing the government of making Kashmiri Pandits “scapegoats”, J&K BJP vice-president Yudvir Sethi insists that their security is paramount for the party… “more than taking them back to the Valley”.
Pointing out that the first-ever policy offering financial packages to Pandits who wanted to return home was framed under the Vajpayee-led NDA government at the Centre, he said: “The BJP stands for return and rehabilitation of Pandits to the Valley with honour and dignity. Our government will soon come out with a policy in this direction.”
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