Indian American Kashmiri Hindu Pandits who had fled their homes 30 years ago under threat of violence, cheered the Indian Government’s Aug. 5 decision to scrap Articles 370 and 35A, which effectively revoked the state’s special autonomous status it had held for 72 years.
“This is a very welcome change. I’m feeling extremely elated that something like this has happened in my lifetime,” Jeevan Zutshi, an Indian American Kashmiri Pandit, told India-West.
“Kashmir is now a part of India, where everyone can go freely. Even I am thinking of returning and buying a place there,” he said.
Zutshi is a founding member of the Indo American Kashmir Forum, which has highlighted the plight of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits for several years. Beginning in December 1989, more than 200,000 Hindus fled Kashmir in a mass exodus, under threats of violence. Many lived as refugees in neighboring Jammu, and were effectively banned from returning to Kashmir. The IAKF has been heavily involved in the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandit refugees.
Zutshi noted that refugees are unlikely to be able to return to their former homes, which have mostly been scrapped to create new dwellings, but told India-West: “Kashmiris around the world can return to their state.”
India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced the decision Aug. 5 in a quick speech, which was met by condemnation from several human rights organizations, and cheers from nationalists within his own Bharatiya Janata Party. The move was expected to elicit unrest and violence in Kashmir, known as one of the deadliest regions in the world in the decades-long battle between India and Pakistan to establish control over the region.
The Print reported that the Indian Government had long been considering the plan and had alerted the U.S. as far back as February of 2019, after the Pulwama attacks.
India’s Parliament passed a related measure Aug. 5, known as the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization bill, which creates a new Union Territory in Jammu and Kashmir, and another Union Territory in Ladakh, which will include Kargil and Leh. J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik will now serve as the new Lieutenant Governor of both new Union territories.
The new Union Territories will have representation in the Lok Sabha: the Union Territory of J&K will have five Lok Sabha seats, while the Union Territory of Ladakh will have one.
The Lok Sabha passed the measure Aug. 6.
Zutshi noted that the bill does away with a special flag for J&K; creates a new system of reservations for minorities in the state, including Hindus and Sikhs; scraps prohibitive measures which prevented Kashmiri women from marrying men outside the state; and allows non-Kashmiris to purchase land in the new Union Territory.
Zutshi wants to go one step farther and get reparations for the land once owned by his grandfather, once the biggest landlord in the region with seven estates. When India passed its Land Act of 1952, it compensated landlords properly for the land it took from them, said Zutshi. Not so in Kashmir, he told India-West, noting that Kashmiri landlords were never paid for their land.
A case was brought before India’s Supreme Court, but because of Kashmir’s special autonomous status, the Supreme Court could not rule in favor of the landowners, noted Zutshi, who added that he now intends to take the case afresh through the courts.
Vijay Sazawal, founding member of the IAKF who now serves as the organization’s international coordinator, told India-West: “This is one of the best days for Kashmir in a very long time.”
“Kashmir is a failed project in the Indian Union. It is the only state where the spark did not ignite,” said Sazawal.
The Indian American, who served in the Obama administration’s Commerce Department and is credited with crafting the India-U.S. civil nuclear deal, said he has a vision for the new Kashmir, as a smart city which would attract 50-60,000 young Kashmiri Pandits back to the region to participate in an economy fueled by entrepreneurship and private enterprise.
Kashmir’s economy is currently in shambles, said Sazawal, noting unemployment rates as high as 30 percent among the urban population. Most available jobs are within the broad government structure, tourism, or roadside vending, he told India-West.
“We do not want a bureaucrat-driven economy,” said Sazawal, who added that he has already begun talks with leaders in India’s private sector to invest in the region.
Sectors that are ripe for investment and development include health care, education, and information technology, said Sazawal, noting that much work also needs to be done in environmental concerns, such as addressing rampant deforestation, and saving the renowned Dal Lake.
The Hindu American Foundation also cheered the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A, noting the plight of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits, which, it said, had been “ethnically cleansed” from the state.
HAF managing director Samir Kalra stated in a press release: “As a secular pluralistic democracy, it is vital that all citizens of India enjoy the same rights and are subject to the same laws, regardless of where in the country they reside.”
“We believe that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, which were only intended as temporary provisions, is an important step in this direction. It will help better integrate the residents of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh into the rest of India and apply one set of equal laws across the country.”
“Moreover, it will help create conditions for the full rehabilitation and resettlement of the Kashmiri Pandits in the Kashmir Valley,” said Kalra.
HAF urged the U.S. to support the decision and to put pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting cross-border terrorism.