Kashmiri Pandits throw their hat in the election ring

November 19th, 2008 - 11:18 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata PartyJammu, Nov 19 (IANS) They know they will not win a single seat in the Jammu and Kashmir assmbly. But Kashmiri Pandits, forced to flee their homes when Muslim militancy erupted two decades ago, are contesting elections in a big way to highlight their suffering — and to prove a point.For the first time, a political party founded by and for the Kashmiri Pandits — Hindus who have always been seen as a political elite — has thrown its hat into the election ring in their original home, the scenic but troubled Kashmir Valley.

The Jammu Kashmir National United Front (JKNUF) will field about 15 candidates of the community in various assembly constituencies all across the valley, where the first round of balloting took place Monday.

Besides the JKNUF, there are 18 other Kashmir Pandit candidates in the staggered elections that end Dec 24. All are independents barring two, who have secured nomination from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Lok Jan Shakti party.

JKNUF president A.K. Diwani explains the reasons why Pandits are in the fray.

In the mosaic of ethnic and religious diversity in Jammu and Kashmir, some 300,000 Pandits fled the Kashmir Valley from 1989 as Muslim militancy peaked, at times targeting members of the community.

Today, most of them live in Jammu, New Delhi, Chandigarh, Bangalore and Mumbai. Only about 3,000 still reside in the Kashmir Valley.

“Except for giving a pittance as relief to us, no one has made any effort to bring the migrants out of the morass they are in. We do not have political representation. We do not have political power either,” Diwani despairs.

He said fielding Pandit candidates was a step towards “self empowerment politically”.

“We are fielding candidates not with the objective of winning… We might not win any seat but we will convey the message that Kashmir belongs more to us than anybody else,” Diwani told IANS.

“This is first time our candidates will jump in the electoral fray though some independents have contested earlier,” he said.

In the 2002 elections, Raman Mattoo was elected to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly from Habba Kadal constituency in Srinagar. He was an independent and secured Pandit votes en masse — while Muslims largely stayed away in response to a boycott call by separatists.

The JKNUF says there are only 72,000 registered Kashmiri Pandit migrant voters in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Just imagine! We were over two lakhs (200,000) when we migrated in 1990 from Kashmir. Our names have been gradually deleted,” complains Ajay Chrangoo, a Pandit leader.

Only about 12,000 voters have managed to get their names back on the lists, according to Chrangoo and his colleagues.

A senior election official in the state confirmed that the figure brandied by Pandit activists was more or less right.

The Pandits cast their votes where they are living now through postal ballot or at polling stations set up in migrant camps. Interestingly, they vote for constituencies they belonged to in the Kashmir Valley — even if they don’t live there.

Many Pandits today live in makeshift houses and in crowded camps in places like Jammu for years. The unending militancy has only made many of them more bitter than they were earlier.

Yet, they remain a divided lot. Not every Pandit activist is with the JKNUF.

Agnishekher, a Pandit migrant leader, said: “Taking part in elections when the community is faced with unprecedented and unending hardships is absolutely meaningless.” But he felt that asking Pandits to boycott the election would not be in national interest.

Chrangoo and Agnishekher pointed out that Pandits vote for candidates in constituencies in the Kashmir Valley, which many of them have not visited for long.

A spokesman for Panun Kashmir, a vocal group of Kashmiri Pandits, has this to say about JKNUF: “It is an attempt by a group of Kashmiri Pandits to form a political party but it does not have the mandate of the whole community to do so.”

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