New Delhi: Twenty-seven Kashmiri Pandit families, evicted this month from newly constructed secure accommodation in the Vessu transit camp in southern Kashmir by court orders, are now living in tents, community representatives have told ThePrint.
The families, which include 20 small children and 12 elderly people, say they are currently camped out in the lawns of the transit camp in Kulgam despite driving rain, at the mercy of the elements.
Three-year-old Natasha, one of the youngest members of the group and daughter of an evicted Pandit, is said to have been running a high fever since 22 July, when she got drenched in the rain. “We have literally been living without a roof over our heads for the last one week but nobody cares,” said her father, who did not want to be named.
Approximately 5,000 Kashmiri Pandits returned to the troubled region in 2010 after being given government jobs under a scheme set up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008, but only a fifth have so far received housing in protected transit camps meant to house them.
In spite of terrorist attacks that have targeted Pandits and other civilians since last year, most continue to live in rented homes near their places of work.
The 27 families had been housed in prefabricated accommodation at the Vessu transit camp, with most allocated an independent unit. The ordeal of their eviction, the employees say, began with the brutal 2020-21 winter that allegedly led to cracks developing in the prefabricated accommodation.
They later moved into a permanent multi-storied building being built on the premises of the transit camp for returning Pandits — at the instance of BJP’s Kulgam district president Aabid Hussain Khan — but found themselves at the receiving end of an FIR filed by the then Jammu and Kashmir Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner for Migrants, T.K. Bhat. In his complaint, Bhat accused the Pandits of “trespassing” into government property.
A legal battle ensued, and the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh ordered the families’ eviction earlier this month, saying they had violated rules governing the allocation of permanent apartments to Kashmiri Pandits. The prefab huts, meanwhile, have since been allocated to 40 other families.
Reached for comment, J&K Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Kuldeep Krishan Sidha said “just because they are Kashmiri Pandits does not mean they can play their emotional card to do illegal things”.
“We will see what best we can do to accommodate them,” he added.
The families’ ordeal
At the Vessu transit camp, many families alleged, the inclement weather led to cracks in the prefab accommodation, with the roofs developing leaks as well.
Sunny Raina, president of the Vessu Welfare Committee and a Pandit government employee, wrote about the matter to the district magistrate of Kulgam, requesting either repairs or shifting of the families to new permanent buildings coming up on the premises, but allegedly did not receive a response.
His letter, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, said: “The prefab huts made in 2010 have outlived their lives and can collapse anytime in the harsh weather. There are small kids, old women and many pregnant ladies living in the transit accommodations for whom it has become difficult to survive in these accommodations. We request you to shift us to the new buildings.”
BJP’s Kulgam district president Aabid Hussain Khan corroborated the version. He told ThePrint that he was the one who suggested, in January 2021, that the families move from the prefab accommodation into the under-construction multi-storied secure quarters at Vessu.
Work on these permanent structures had started in 2015 to house the returning Kashmiri Pandits.
Khan claimed he also apprised the deputy commissioner of Kulgam about the situation.
“There was 7-8 feet of snow, and entry points were shut due to that,” Khan added. “Water was entering the houses from the roof. Little kids were getting drenched. I could not bear to see their condition, so I took the families to these under-construction houses in the multi-storied building, opened the locks and accommodated them there. The houses were vacant at that point of time.”
The then Jammu and Kashmir Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner for Migrants, T.K. Bhat, responded to the move by filing an FIR.
According to documents submitted in court, Bhat asked the respective government departments to initiate an inquiry against the employees. Some of the employees who had shifted to the secure multi-storied houses were also not paid salaries for January.
In response to the FIR and departmental action, the families moved court, which gave the families interim protection against police action, and allowed them to remain in the apartments until it heard the matter. The court also ordered the government to pay their salaries.
Soon afterwards, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner rolled out an allocation list with 208 names of employees who had been awarded quarters in the multi-storied building.
The 27 families claimed in court that many of the individuals on the list had arrived in the Valley in 2018 — long after them.
In July this year, however, the court ordered the J&K government to evict the Pandit families.
In his order, Justice Sanjeev Kumar of the high court said it was “true that accommodation provided to the petitioners is a prefab structure… but if at all, the petitioners were dissatisfied with the accommodation allotted to them or they were of the view that the accommodation allotted to them [was] sans basic amenities, they could have thrown challenge to government order”.
“But they thought that they are law unto themselves and being migrants are permitted to violate law and occupy the government property wherever they find it existing,” the judge said, reportedly adding that the petitioners took possession of the quarters constructed by the government while retaining their earlier accommodation.
“Such lawlessness, if permitted by the courts, will lead to chaos in the society which, in turn, would put the rule of law in peril,” he added. “It is, thus, necessary for the police power of the state to come heavily on those for whom the breach of law is like playing with a toy.”
According to Khan, at least eight of the under-construction apartments have been occupied by BJP councillors and a sarpanch since 2018. “They have been living in these buildings since 2018, which is totally illegal because the houses are only meant for PM’s special package employees,” he said.
Satish Zutshi, a BJP councillor in Kulgam, said party councillors including him were shifted to the apartments in 2018 by the administration because of security threats.
In March 2022, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh directed the Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner not to evict the councillors from the flats until their threat perception was properly assessed based on security inputs, and alternative accommodation provided.
‘What are these families supposed to do now?’
The 27 families camping on the lawns cannot go back to their prefabricated accommodation because they were allotted by the authorities to 40 other Pandit families in May 2021.
“The government promised us it would build new houses for us if it could not get our property back (in the Valley),” said Sunny Raina. “These transit camps were meant to be temporary but they are on the brink of collapse. I have a small kid, and old parents. We shifted to the new houses because we had no other alternative. If the roofs of the houses fell on us, who would be responsible for our deaths?”
Raina said they had been “left in the lurch”.
“Our old accommodations have been given to someone else and the new ones have been locked. We cannot even go back to Jammu because the government has locked us inside the transit camps because they cannot guarantee us protection outside from militancy,” he added. “What are we supposed to do now?”
Salih Peerzada, a lawyer who represents the families, alleged that “the government is not even letting my clients go back to Jammu, just to save its own image”.
“Now what are these people supposed to do? Die of militancy, die of a roof collapse or die in harsh weather?” he added.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)