Missing Link in Kashmir Portal: Muslim Protectors of Pandit Properties

A man looking at KP house. Image courtesy, Catch News.

Raj Bhavan’s determined web launch to register and retrieve Kashmiri Pandit property across the valley might be already mobilizing men and machinery, but it fails to record the brotherhood fuelling Kashmiri Muslims to shield their migrant neighbours’ properties from the last three decades now.

TOUSEEF Bhoda vividly remembers the day when Kashmiri Pandit Vishwanath Bhatt’s wife approached her “brother” and neighbour, Abdul Rashid Bodha, for taking care of her family property at Wanpoh, Mughal Bagh area of South Kashmir’s Kulgam district.

It was 1989, and some political killings in the “heartland of dissent”—the summer capital Srinagar—that year had unnerved the Kashmiri Pandits so much that most of them left in what came to be known as “historic huff”.

That day, Touseef saw his father assuring his KP sister that his family would guard the pandit property till they come back to their home.

“But 32 years have already passed and our neighbours are yet to return,” Touseef told Kashmir Observer.

“The headman Vishwanath Bhatt also expired in exile a few years ago. But that won’t stop us taking care of their two-storied house, which lies in the adjacent of our home.”

The Bhatt family of Kulgam was among the 60,000 Kashmir Pandit families that migrated from Kashmir during early nineties. While majority of them settled in Jammu and its adjoining areas, around 23000 migrant families found home outside Jammu and Kashmir.

Sensing the lingering dispute, a large number of Kashmiri Pandits sold their property to their Muslim brethren, while many made their Muslims neighbours and friends custodian of their properties.

However, in year 1997, the Jammu and Kashmir government led by then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah enacted the Migrant Immovable Property Act, 1997, in a bid to preserve, protect and restrain distress sales of the immovable property of the migrants.

Under this Act, the district magistrate has been designated as the custodian of the migrant properties.

But even as a number of Kashmiri Muslims are continuously looking after the migrant Pandit properties as community caretakers since 1990s, on September 7, 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir administration started retrieving/freeing the migrant KP properties across Kashmir.

The move came after Lieutenant Governor of J&K Manoj Sinha launched an online portal for time-bound redressal of grievances related to Kashmir migrants’ immovable properties.

The portal provides a platform to the distressed Kashmiri migrants whose immovable properties were encroached or were forced for distress sale in the 1990s. The information so provided is being shared by the Department of Disaster Management, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction with the Department of Revenue for necessary action for resolution of the grievance in a fixed time frame.

However, Touseef says, Kashmiri Muslims in his township never occupied or encroached the property of Pandits.

“We shared meals, moments and memories with our migrated Pandit neighbours before their unfortunate migration from the valley,” Touseef said.

“Even today, whenever we go to Jammu during winters, we stay at their home. They don’t allow us to stay at any hotel. Our brotherhood is still intact.”

Abandoned KP house in Kashmir.

A few meters away from Touseef’s house, Javid Ahmad is guarding another abandoned Kashmiri Pandit property.

The two-storied house belongs to Bushan Lal and his brother Ashok Kumar. Bushan lives in Jammu, while Ashok in Srinagar.

During 1990s, both the brothers approached the father of Javid Ahmad and requested him to take care of their property till they return.

“Since last 30 years, they haven’t come back to settle down here,” Javid told Kashmir Observer. “But we’re in touch with them.”

Guarding their migrated brethren’s property with a sense of moral duty, Javid’s family ensures that the house remains safe and in a good condition.

“We don’t live in this Pandit house, neither allows anyone to trespass or encroach it,” Javid says.

“We take care of it with this hope that one day its owners will return and find it in the same condition. Even the two Pandit brothers know that their neighbours are there to protect their property. So there’s no question of encroaching it.”

To check the veracity of Javid’s claims, Kashmir Observer contacted Ashok Kumar.

“Our property is in safe hands,” Ashok said. “We regularly keep a tab on it and are grateful to our Muslim neighbours for keeping it safe.”

But since Ashok’s family is now settled in different parts of the country, he intends to sell his ancestral house in Kashmir. “We’ll sell it to Javid only because he’s a good neighbour who took care of it all these years,” the Pandit said.

Debunking the ongoing narrative wherein some rightwing elements outside the valley are accusing Kashmiri Muslims of forcibly occupying and encroaching the Kashmiri Pandit property, Ashok said that the majority of migrated KPs sold their properties with their will in 1990s.

“Nobody forced them to do so,” he said. “Barring some violations, no Pandit property was illegally occupied or encroached.”

But despite these admissions, there’re attempts to mislead the public opinion and paint the Muslims of Kashmir as plunderers of their Pandit brethren’s property. The upshot of this rightwing-flogged narrative was lately seen in Anantnag.

For years, many Kashmiri Muslims have been guarding these houses.

On the heels of Raj Bhavan’s portal launch, locals of Anantnag’s Aishmuqam area contested a claim of Pandit property encroachment. The Muslim landowner said that he bought the land from a Kashmir Pandit, with the documents of attorney, agreement to sell, and sale deed duly being attested by a first-class Magistrate in presence of the owner in Jammu in 1999.

“All codal formalities laid down by the Government in Migrant Act 1999 were completed in the court,” the locals said. “And yet, a fake complaint has been filed by some Kashmir Pandit after 22 years calling the sale of land as illegal.”

Notably, the progeny of migrated Kashmiri Pandits, mostly born and brought up outside the valley, are misusing the online grievance portal by filing fake complaints to lay claim on the land their grandparents have willfully sold to people in Kashmir.

“We’ve not come across any genuine complaint where an individual has illegally occupied a Kashmiri Pandit land or any other property in Kashmir,” a revenue department official said. “In the majority of the complaints, we found the land or house has been sold willfully, with complete legal documentation.”

Backing their case, the Aishmuqam locals said the land alienation permission from Divisional Commissioner Kashmir for Mutation was also granted. But even then, the landowner came to know through concerned Patwari that a complaint has been filed by the grandson of the seller alleging that the documents are fake.

After ascertaining the documents of land, the revenue officials find them correct and intact, resulting in the dismissal of the complaint.

“A lot of people in Kashmir have bought migrant Pandit land and property legally and through rightful means under Migrant Property Act,” the revenue official said. “But some unscrupulous persons are filing fake complaints on the portal which is overburdened our staff. Only genuine complaints must be filed so that we utilize our time and staff in a judicious way.”

Amidst these bogus claims, the local Muslims are coordinating with the administration in clearing some bottlenecks on Pandit property in Kashmir.

Only in Anantnag district, the administration has retrieved over 40 kanals, an official told Kashmir Observer, with the community support.

“We lately received a complaint on the portal and set free around 22 kanal of land belonging to a Kashmir Pandit namely ML Dhar in Thajiwara area of Bijbehara tehsil,” Ghulam Rasool Bhat, Tehsildar Bijbehara told Kashmir Observer. “We didn’t face any resistance from anyone.”

The officials also retrieved 1.3 kanal in Jablipora area of Anantnag and are in the process of retrieving more land. “The land at Jablipora belongs to Bansi Lal Dhar,” Tehsildar Bhat who led a team of revenue officials of Bijbehara said.

Another revenue official from the Mattan Anantnag told Kashmir Observer that Kashmiri Muslims cooperated with the officials and made the process smooth.

“I mean you could face resistance when the property would be occupied, but people made it a very convenient process for us when we marked a KP land in Mattan,” the official said.

Even to their surprise, the revenue official said, the Muslim caretakers of the KP property are coming forward to handover the custody.

“The other day, a person approached us saying that he was looking after a Pandit agrarian land measuring 3 kanals and that he wants to handover the land to the revenue department,” the official said. “Although these commoners have been taking care of these lands since years now, they don’t want to come across as encroachers when a lot of things are being said on social media and during prime time TV discussions.”

The various revenue officials Kashmir Observer contacted to understand the gravity of grievances said that the encroachments weren’t of serious type.

“So far we could only dismantle a temporary shed installed on a Pandit land without permission,” Tehsildar Bhat said.

Out of 73 complaints of encroachment received from the Kashmiri Pandits, Bhat said 45 have been disposed of.

Interestingly, following the portal launch, the revenue officials have categorized the encroachment land in three categories—Green, Yellow and Red.

“The land which hasn’t been encroached falls under the Green category, which is easy for us to retrieve,” a top revenue official told Kashmir Observer.

“The land on which there’s less construction or temporary sheds falls under Yellow, while the land on which there’s massive construction or building comes under Red category.”

Based on the complaints, the revenue department has largely retrieved the land falling under the Green category, the official said.

Kashmiri Muslim women walking in the backdrop of KP house.

Amid these ground realities, Pandurang K. Pole, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, told Kashmir Observer that a robust mechanism has been put in place for redressal of the portal complaints as per law and in a time-bound manner. “Our deputy commissioners are on job and the process is going on,” Pole said.

By September 30, District Administration Srinagar had resolved as many as 660 complaints, out of which 390 grievances alleging alienation by fraud or distress sale.

“Similarly,” Aijaz Asad, Deputy Commissioner Srinagar, said, “129 grievances alleging encroachments on migrant properties were also verified and resolved. Out of grievances of encroachment, the necessary demarcation of 20 cases has been done and necessary eviction notices have also been issued, though 12 of them are sub-judice before the High Court.”

But while the law is taking its own course in the valley, Touseef’s family is still waiting for their neighbours whose property they have been guarding for last 32 years.

“Even if the Bhatt family comes after 50 years, they will find their home intact here,” the Muslim custodian says.

“Whenever they visited us during these years, they left satisfied knowing that their property is in safe hands.”

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Auqib Javeed

Auqib Javeed is special correspondent with Kashmir Observer and tweets @AuqibJaveed

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