Muslims Guard Pandits In This Valley Village
2 April 2003
The Indian Express
Balhama: As the sun sets, fear and the night chill creep back, hand in hand, to this hamlet surrounded by almond orchards and vast dry paddy fields. And the six Kashmiri Pandit families here have decided to stay put not because of the administration's pleas but because of their neighbours. The unarmed Muslim villagers here have decided to become human shields to protect them. 'All these years we stayed back only because of our faith in our neighbours. This time, after Nadimarg, it was too scary. But then the entire village turned up with the promise to guard us. Since then they come to our houses every evening, sit with us, talk to us and make us feel safe,' said Jeevan Lal, who teaches at a local private school. 'We are sure if those killers decide to come for us, our neighbours will sacrifice their lives to protect us,' he said. In the old Kashmiri brick-and-mud house, as Jeevan Lal spoke of his faith in his neighbours, it was evident that there was nothing else for these families to draw confidence from. The government has provided three policemen to each family but, unlike Nadimarg, there is no police post or sandbag bunker here. The policemen come every evening and stay with the families. 'This is hardly any security. The policemen are here because the government does not want to take the blame if another Nadimarg happens,' said Jeevan. 'The other day there was some firing nearby and I saw these policemen shivering. They were so scared that they ran up to my room. ' In fact, the policemen had yet to arrive when this correspondent knocked on Jeevan's door. And before he could peep out of the window to check, a group of his Muslim neighbours, sitting on the pavement outside, had already questioned us. 'We have told them that anybody who wants to harm them will have to go over our dead bodies first,' said one of the neighbours, Shoukat Hussain. 'The entire village is vigilant. They are part of us. They have lived with us for generations and stood by us in everything. Now it is our turn to be there with them,' he said. Jeevan's uncle, Girdhari Lal, recalled: 'One of our Muslim neighbours had a heart attack after watching pictures of the Nadimarg massacre. We are lucky that humanity is still well and alive in our village.' Girdhari Lal is a teacher who is much revered in this rural belt, 15 km from Srinagar, for having taught an entire generation. 'In the early 90s, I came across a militant commander. He was smoking, and when he saw me, he quickly stubbed off his cigarette and came running to me. He had been my student. We have contributed to this area and our neighbours remember that and show respect,' he said. The families have one significant advantage. They don't live in a cluster; each house is sandwiched between Muslim houses. 'If anybody knocks on our door, we know they will come running,' said Girdhari Lal. On the outskirts of the village is the temple of goddess Bala Devi - the village is named after her. As one steps inside, a smiling, 14-year-old boy greets you and reveals in the process that the roots of Kashmir's traditional composite culture have survived 14 years of violence here. Liyaqat Hussain Dar is the chowkidar of the temple. He has inherited his job from his grandfather and takes pride in it. 'Nobody has ever told me not to guard this temple,' he says, ushering you in.