Kashmiri Pandits: Is A Homecoming Possible?

19 January 2015
Livemint
Nikita Doval

New Delhi: In a cricket field on the outskirts of Srinagar, three Kashmiri pandit boys wait for their friends, all Kashmiri Muslims, to turn up for their daily game. Their wait is futile. An 11-year-old girl in Srinagar's Rainawari neighbourhood goes to bed with her shoes on. The family wants to be ready to leave at short notice. In the downtown neighbourhood of Safa Kadal, a former student comes to visit his college professor with a request: 'Leave. Even I can't guarantee your safety.' A young boy escapes with his family in a truck, the driver playing Bollywood's biggest chartbuster of the year on loop: Mere haathon mein nau nau choodiya hain from the Bollywood film Chandni. It is 19 January 1989, the day the trickle of Kashmiri pandits leaving the valley that had always been their home turned into a flood. By 1990, there were almost none left in the valley. Around 300,000 pandits left all behind. The date 19 January 1989 marked the culmination of a campaign of intimidation and terror mounted by extremist organizations against the minority Hindu community in the state known as the pandits. Public address systems of mosques were taken over to chant anti-India slogans. 'There had been disturbing incidents throughout that year. There were diktats issued about how Hindu men and women were supposed to dress. All of us had to set our watch back by half an hour to Pakistan's time,' said Rashneek Kher. 'We were forbidden from watching Ramayan on Sunday morning (on Doordarshan). Vigilantes would come to check if we were defying orders. There were public announcements in newspapers asking pandits to leave. But it was that night onwards that everything changed,' he recalled. Kher's mother, grandmother, aunt and two cousins, one two years old, and the other a mere baby were in the kitchen as the villagers they had spent years with marched outside their window. Based in Delhi now, Kher was one of the three boys who had waited for his friends to play cricket with. Today he is one of the founder members of Roots in Kashmir, a pandit organization seeking to 'reclaim' the community's roots in the valley. In a 2010 paper written by Khalid Wasim Hassan, titled Migration of Kashmiri pandits: Kashmiriyat Challenged?, the author says, 'More than the real attacks it was the atmosphere and threat perception from the 'other' that played a major role in driving Kashmiri pandits from the valley in large numbers.' He quotes a report in the Economic and Political Weekly (uncited) during that time which stated 'Muslims claim and refugees agree that there were no communal incidents or burning and looting of houses.' Interestingly, there is another strand to the narrative of the exodus which states that it was the then governor of the state, Jagmohan (who uses only one name), who engineered it in order to facilitate a large-scale crackdown by the security forces on the locals. It is a charge that agitates people like Delhi University lecturer Renuka Dhar Bazaz even today. 'We were so persecuted. The community mostly held salaried jobs, but everything, be it admissions in medical colleges or government jobs, was a struggle. There was such discrimination,' she recalls. Troubling memories Most pandit families who left the valley thought the exile would be temporary. They expected to return and pick up the threads of their life. Some made their way to Delhi; others went farther. Most ended up in relief camps in Jammu and Udhampur. According to the Jammu and Kashmir revenue and relief ministry, 38,119 families are still registered with it. Kher lived in a camp for three months and the memory of those days still troubles him. 'There were 10-12 people in a tent. There was no provision for toilets,' he says. In a paper on Conflict Induced Displacement in a journal on Conflict Trends in 2009, Seema Shekhawat writes, 'More than 8,000 displaced people died prematurely during the first 10 years of displacement. The causes of death have been exposure to hostile environment, snake bites, sun strokes.' In 1999, the National Human Rights Commission said that 'the commission is constrained to observe that while acts akin to genocide have occurred with respect to Kashmiri pandits and that, indeed, in the minds and utterances of some of the millitants a genocide type design may exist, the crimes against the Kashmiri pandits are near-genocide and not genocide.' Writer Siddhartha Gigoo (the boy who left in a truck) was 15 years old that February in 1990 when his parents decided to send him and his nine-year-old sister to Jammu. At first he thought it was quite like an adventure. Then reality kicked in. 'There were months of depression and it lasted almost five to six years,' he says, referring to his immediate family. His first book, The Garden of Solitude, dealt with the exodus while his second book, a collection of short stories, is set in a fictional place in the valley. 'I look upon Kashmir as a part of my identity. There is within me the strangest desire to reclaim what has been losta consciousness of exile,' he says. For Gigoo, claiming part of his heritage is not a physical act. After all, there isn't much to claim. Some families managed distress sales of their homes, others had their property either burned, vandalized or taken over. Kashmiriyat Artist Veer Munshi shot a series of photographs titled Pandit Houses which he compiled into a series. 'These houses stood by themselvesforlorn, lost. I visited the site where my house once wasit was burnt earlier and though I toyed with the idea of painting them, I finally did a series of photographs.' Despite religious differences, both the Muslim and Hindu communities shared a cultural and historical bond which is often referred to as Kashmiriyat. It was during the rule of Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in the late 14th century that Kashmir became a predominantly Muslim region with both conversions and large-scale migration of Hindus. He was succeeded to the throne by Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin. 'He respected the learnings of Kashmiri pandits and played a huge role in nurturing the community. Some of his closest advisers were community members. So if there is a Kashmiri pandit community today, it is because a big role was played by a Muslim king,' says sociologist T.N. Madan. On an individual level, the relationship between people was not just cordial, but extremely warm. 'However, they never intermarried or even interdined. Muslims were mostly service providers like plumbers, drivers, family retainers, but never cooks,' adds Madan. But for some families, the camaraderie and old ties proved fragile when it came to the crunch. 'My neighbour's house was first looted and then set fire to by the villagers. I watched it all happen from my window,' recalls Kher. His home met the same fate after the family left. He learnt about it from a newspaper report after the family moved to Jammu. 'Today I have a jar filled with some scorched earth from where my house once stood,' Kher says. Over the years, a few attempts have been made to rehabilitate Kashmiri pandits in their homeland. Jobs were offered and, as recently as last month, the government declared its intent to provide 1,000 'good quality' apartments for Rs.40 lakh each for those wishing to return. But the offers came with riders. The terms of rehabilitation specified that those getting a job would not seek an inter-district transfer; anyone leaving the valley would lose the job immediately. Monetary incentives were also not adequate enough for the otherwise prosperous community. 'Kashmir is my home and I want to go back as and when I please. I don't want to be told 'you are welcome here', but it is very difficult in the present circumstances,' says Bazaz. Panun Kashmir According to official figures, 219 pandits were killed in the valley before the exodus of 1989, but no one was convicted and punished. 'The most important part of rehabilitation is justice. There were cases filed against people like former militant Bitta Karate, who were let off due to the failure of the prosecution to build a convincing case. We need confidence-building measures,' says Kher. There is a section within the community that advocates the idea of a Panun Kashmir, a separate homeland for pandits. Their proposal includes areas like Srinagar, Anantnag, Sopore, etc. 'It is not possible for us to live in the valley the way it is now. Men can blend in, but our women dress in a certain manner, there is a certain expectation of life which is not possible in present-day Kashmir,' says Kher. If not a Union Territory, then make it a notified area, a Cantonment Board, 'anything. Don't call it Panun Kashmir, but we need a separate region. Islands within cities are just ghettos', he says, referring to resettlement colonies set up by the government. But for others like Munshi, this is not a solution. 'Kashmir is all about the composite culture, we are all a part of it. It was only 25 years ago that 'Kashmiri pandit' emerged as a separate identity, before that we were all Kashmiris,' he says. Being a part of a minority, according to Munshi, makes you sensitive to minorities across the board, 'whether it is in Gujarat or Gaza. All of us have suffered, all of us have paid a price. Dividing further serves no solution'. The voices that come from within the valley on this issue too are varied. Noor Ahmad Baba, a Srinagar-based political analyst, says the pandits should return. 'We grew up in a pluralistic society, but our children don't have that advantage, butPanun Kashmir is not a solution. People play politics on the issue of the return of pandits, but the government has to take a larger view to build bridges,' he says. For Gigoo, there's no going back. 'For me leaving Delhi would be a second uprooting. What will I do back there? What will my children do?' he asks. Madan too doesn't see a homecoming. 'I don't see them going back for economic reasons, I don't see them going back for cultural reasons; the place has changed,' he says. But even then, the overwhelming sense within the community is that at least they would like the option. As Munshi says, 'The only solution is one has to go backso the government should focus on development which would make it possible.' Gyan Verma contributed to this story.