By Sheikh Mushtaq
SRINAGAR, India, April 29 (Reuters) - They left their ancestral homes in droves 19 years ago when a bloody rebellion broke out against New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir.
Now, encouraged by a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan, authorities in the disputed Himalayan region are making plans to help thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, or Pandits, return home.
"Kashmiri Pandit migrant families who had to sell their property in distress and were desirous to return to the Valley would be given assistance of 750,000 rupees ($18,600)," Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced during his weekend visit to the troubled region.
Many Hindus who fled Kashmir have sold their homes, officials say.
Singh asked the Kashmir government to identify land to set up community housing projects and offered to provide jobs to 6,000 Kashmiri migrant Hindu youth.
"The package was decided on the principle that everyone had the right to resettle with peace and dignity on the land of his forefathers," Singh added.
Authorities say the situation in Muslim-majority Kashmir has improved as violence had declined after India and Pakistan launched a peace process in 2004.
While some Kashmiri Hindus have made their way to Delhi and other parts of the country, thousands of Pandit migrants live in the state’s winter capital, Jammu.
"I always wanted to return and here is an opportunity. Going back home will obviously be the last wish of even a dying Kashmiri Pandit," said Bushan Lal Bhat, 62, a retired government employee.
"In this terrible heat I always miss the cool breeze of my Kashmir," he said in Jammu.
"A DISTANT DREAM"
Some Pandit groups are demanding a separate, guarded homeland within the Kashmir Valley, while others complained that Singh was not meeting their security concerns.
"The central leadership appears to be oblivious of the ground realities in Kashmir," says Nana Ji Koul, a shop worker. "The situation for our return is still a distant dream."
The name "Pandit", from Sanskrit, means learned person. The Pandits’ roots in the Himalayan region go back about 5,000 years. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, came from Pandit stock, considered the learned elite of the Valley.
From the 13th century, when Islam became a majority religion in Kashmir, until 1989, Muslims lived side-by-side with Pandits.
But nearly 250,000 Kashmiri Pandits left for safer places in India because of a sharp rise in killings of Hindus and attacks on their homes at the start of a rebellion by Muslim militants in 1989.
It was the largest migration since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent into mainly Hindu India and Islamic Pakistan.
Kashmiri separatists have repeatedly urged Hindus to return to Kashmir where more than 43,000 people have died in the revolt, but have urged them to live side by side with Muslims rather than in "security zones".
Though the government has been urging them to return for years, the Pandits have been deterred by a series of attacks by suspected militants fighting New Delhi’s rule in Kashmir.
In one of the bigger and more brutal attacks, guerrillas shot dead 24 Pandits, including 11 women and two children, in southern Kashmir in 2003, provoking outrage across India.
Many Pandits are sceptical about their return to a valley which was their homeland for centuries.
"Memories are still fresh ... my father was in a pool of blood when terrorists fired at him. I was helplessly watching," said Anju Koul who lives with her family in the Hindu-dominated area of Jammu. "No, I don’t want to return." (Additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan in Jammu; Editing by Simon Denyer and David Fogarty)