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Caught in a Vise: Displaced Kashmiris in Jammu Camps
Kashmir Today, March-April, 2001, Vol VI, No. 2, USA

Muthi camp is about seven kilometers from Jammu. Actually Muthi has two camps -- Muthi, Phase I and Muthi Phase II, each of which houses about 500 Kashmiri Hindu families who fled the Valley soon after terrorism struck Kashmir. Each family in these camps, as in many other similar camps around Jammu, is cramped in a room of about 10 feet by 10 feet regardless of the size of the family. Muthi Pahase I is a string of one room tenement dwellings lined along the main road through Muthi. The dwellings have common brick walls and galvanized iron roofs, but no ceiling to act as insulation between the roof and the floor. In winter months, when we visited Muthi, this does not pose a serious problem but in the 45 degrees celsius summer heat of Jammu, these rooms turn into unlivable ovens.

Yet Muthi residents are luckier than those in other camps. When the refugee exodus began in early 1990, people fleeing Kashmir from terrorism were dumped into barren wastelands inhabited by snakes and mosquitoes. The tents they got to cover themselves gave them some semblance of privacy but nothing else. There was no electricity. Water had to be brought in water-trucks. There were no schools or medical facilities to start with. Many died in the beginning of snakebites and heat strokes. Years later, these tented camps graduated into what Muthi looks like today. Muthi residents had to wait one year for these dwellings. Others waited many more years.

Of the other camps around Jammu the one at Mishriwal is the largest housing about 1200 families. Mishriwal is about 15 km from Jammu. Nagrota, about 25 km away from Jammu, houses another 900 families and Purku at 12 km distance from Jammu is as big as any of the Muthi camps.  There is a camp at Udhampur too, about 60km from Jammu on the national highway to Srinagar. In all, there are about 30,000 people living in these camps.

According to Chaman Lal, the Camp Commander for Muthi, Phase I, most of the residents of these camps are the land-based villagers from Kashmir Valley. There are some from Kashmir’s urban areas as his colleague, Badri Nath reminds us. But they are few. Badri Nath is from Srinagar. His  brother was killed by terrorists just before the exodus began.

Eleven years after the exodus, there is still uncertainty that surrounds the future of camp residents. There is no will or desire on part of both the State and the Central administrations to steer them out of this uncertainty by rehabilitating them and settling them for good outside the Valley. Neither can they return to the Valley where they become soft targets for the terrorists.

If violence were to end in the valley, Chaman Lal is prepared to move back in spite of the immense difficulties that he will face in recovering his land and property from trespassers, and settling down. “Kashmir belongs to us too,” he emphasizes. But caught between the unliklihood of terrorism ending soon and the uncertainity of their future and the future of their children, camp residents have little choice but to carry on as they have for the last decade.

The life in the camps takes a heavy toll of children. There are camp schools but poorly equipped. “There are enough teachers, but overcrowded classes, no supplies, no laboratories, no support structure,” Chaman Lal complains. A younger resident, Inder Kishen of 29 years age is an example of the tragedy of the yonger residents. He left Vichar Nag, a small township on the outskirts of Srinagar soon after fundamentalist terror hit the valley in 1990. His education came to an abrupt end. His bitterness is evident. “We have been ruined,” he says referring to the many young people like him who had to abandon their education and struggle for a livelihood to support their families. State government provided no jobs for them. “In 1996, the State government made 40 to 50 thousand new appointments in the State services,” explains Prof. K.N. Pandita, a long time human rights activist and General Secretary of Jammu based Friends of  Kashmir International, “but not even 100 jobs went to the displaced Kashmiri Hindus.”

The situation has been equally bad or worse in the prior years. When the young Kashmiri Hindus landed in Jammu in the early 1990s, they took whatever jobs they could find in the private sector. Inder Kishen too took odd jobs, engaged in small time trades, and, over the years, saved enough money to qualify for a loan that enabled him to own a scooter rickshaw (three wheeler taxi).  But even now there is no end to the difficulties he is facing. Now he faces discrimination from Jammu’s local residents. The Jammu taxi drivers shun him and other Kashmiri Hindus who have began similar ventures. Muthi tax-stand is off-limits to him even though he is a Muthi resident. So his customers do not come to him, he has to look for them by always being on the move.  He too would return to the Valley and reclaim his four-story family house, even though vandalized, burgled and illegally occupied, that he and his family were forced to leave, if the violence in the Valley were to come to an end.

Partly because of their rural background, they have little political clout. Whatever little influence Kashmiri Hindus have, whether in the State or at the Center, is wielded by the urban Kashmiri Hindus, supposedly on behalf of the rural folks in the camps. Most of these urban Kashmiris live in Jammu city and do not suffer the degradation that the camp residents face. These are the people who are capable of demanding attention not only in the State and at the Center but even in the U.S. They organize rallies and protest demonstrations, and send delegations to powers that be. The camp residents enthusiastically support such activities. They add their weight by their numbers and little else. The decision making stays with the urban folks even though it is mostly the rural-based camp residents that have maximum at stake.

“The decision making must actively involve the camp residents through their representatives, the camp commanders,” explains Prof. Pandita. “A correct approach would have been to set up an umbrella organization seeking inputs directly from the camp residents. At present the effort is disjointed and the camp residents are not involved at all. The base should be the camps.” Chaman Lal and Badri Nath both agree with Prof. Pandita’s assessment.

But the camps are not the base of many political organizations which supposedly represent them. The camp residents, certainly the older ones, with land as their livlihood, little or no savings, and poor marketable skills, are a sharp contrast with the urban Hindus. The latter, by and large, are educated, have their State government jobs intact and have savings they can dip into. They could have voluntarily come forward with material help to their community members in distress. In particular, those well-to-do Kashmiri Hindus,  who left Kashmir long before the exodus, and their organizations, could have made a significant improvement in the living conditions of camp residents, had they pooled their efforts and resources and worked in a focused and well-coordinated manner to help the camp resident. Will rare exceptions, however, they stayed aloof from this humanitarian task.

If terrorism in the Valley continues for another decade or so, a new generation, grown up in the camps, will take the place of their elders. The only home known to these younger people is the camp, unlike those who suffered the trauma of forced dislocation and who live a life suspended between their home in the Valley and the harsh reality of the camps. For this growing new generation, there will be little to remember about the Valley, the land of their elders, and little desire to go back to their roots. Economic compulsions will drive them to find their future outside the Valley. That is already happening, but as the years roll by, this movement will acquire a momentum of its own which will be almost impossible to reverse. The tug-of-war between various political groups, State and Central administrations, and various Kashmiri Hindu organizations will then cease, since the central character about whom everybody talks and few act -- the dislocated camp resident -- would then have withered away. Communalism in the Valley would then have triumphed and the elusive Kashmiriyat which so many Indian liberals never tire of reminding us about will have found its lasting burial.

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