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Return from exile

By Rashme Sehgal

Thirty-one Kashmiri Pandit families recently returned to the Kashmir valley after more than a decade in exile in Jammu’s camps. Forty thousand Pandit families still live in those camps. But even the lucky few who have been provided government accommodation feel they have returned to a new Kashmir, one that has lost its Kashmiriyat, where Muslim and Hindu view each other with suspicion. A special report from Jammu and Kashmir

Spring in the Kashmir valley shows nature at its best. Clusters of white snowballs, tapering mauve wisteria, and yellow creeper roses growing out of every house. Middle-aged Asha Pandita, who lost her husband in the March 21, 1997, massacre at Sangrampora, squats in the open space outside her three-room Sheikhpora apartment, khurpi in hand, and hesitantly digs at the soil.

“It’s the first bit of digging I am doing in 10 years. I want to grow some dahlias in memory of my late husband,” she tells her neighbour Rita Kaul, who is squatting on the ground next to her.

Thirty-one Kashmiri Pandit families have moved into newly-constructed, four-storied apartments in Sheikhpora, in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgaon district. These cream-and-brown apartments have been built in no-man’s territory; a sharply rising barren hill surrounds them on three sides while a large villa is coming up on the bumpy approach road to the apartments.

They are guarded on all sides by Border Security Force (BSF) troops. 

They moved in here in early-March 2008. Their relief at finally finding a safe and comfortable haven is palpable. Many had been living in one-room tenements hired for them by the government following a series of Pandit massacres in Nadimarg, Wandhama and Sangrama. Some families have returned from Jammu in order to keep an eye on their orchards and village land.

Adversity has taught the Pandits never to express any emotion except in the most pessimistic manner. Exile has been a dark experience for them, leaving them bitter and hunted, filled with a terrible sense of defeat. They trust nobody, least of all the state government. 

“We were made to sign a bond before moving in here. The bond states that this accommodation is available only for one year. Where do they expect us to go after that,” asks Rita Kaul, putting her khurpi down and insisting I join her for a cup of tea in her sparsely furnished but well-ventilated three-room apartment.

Apart from embroidered blankets spread on the floor and a television set, the only other pieces of furniture are two beds and a Godrej cupboard. Prints of Lord Shiva adorn every room.

“We have to thank Asha for getting us this accommodation,” Rita, a housewife married to a Class IV government employee, tells me.

After the Pandit massacres of 1997, the remaining Pandit families decided to move out of the valley and join their exiled brethren in Jammu. The state government, afraid of the unfavourable publicity, shifted them into one-room tenements in Budgaon. These Pandits fall under the category ‘internal migrants’, for, while they were forced to leave their homes, they did not move to Jammu and Udhampur where the government had set up camps for them.

“We spent the next 10 years cooped up in tiny claustrophobic rooms with no one coming to our assistance. We even filed a writ in the Srinagar High Court demanding we be given safe and decent accommodation. The situation would have continued in this dismal fashion, with the state government dithering about what to do with us. Of course, we did learn that the government was constructing safe accommodation for us in Sheikhpora and Muttan, but we received no orders about moving there,” Rita continued.

Asha decided to take the bull by the horns and demanded an appointment with the present Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. During the meeting, she warned him that if he did not allow them to shift to Sheikhpora, the remaining 750 families in the valley would move en masse to Jammu. This would have created international outrage, sending out the message that a Muslim-majority state government had no place for the handful of Hindu families left in the valley.

“When I told this to Azad sahib, he immediately granted us permission to move here,” Asha said, her dark brown eyes lighting up in triumph.

“How did your husband die?” It was an uncomfortable question that must have been posed to her innumerable times in the past.

Asha took a deep breath, then said: “Three militants barged into our house at 11 pm at night dressed in army fatigues. The men were herded into a nearby field where they opened fire. My husband, Avtar Pandita, a schoolteacher, died on the spot.” 

It’s obvious the tragedy haunts her to this day.

“It took me one-and-a-half years to get my husband’s salary transferred in my name. Life was hell for those 18 months; I had three school-going children to care for and no one to turn to for help. The militants burned down our ancestral house, for which I have received a paltry Rs 1 lakh as compensation,” she said.

Stories of the inhuman treatment of Kashmiri Pandits by militants form part of their folklore. Thousands of families fled the valley when an anti-Hindu campaign was unleashed by separatist Muslim organisations. Right through the late-’80s and early-’90s, the chant of jihad resounded through the valley, accompanied by reports of killings and kidnappings of Pandits.

Pandit families speak of this period when mosques blared anti-India slogans and several Pandit families received threat letters from the militants warning them to vacate their homes since these were to be used as hideouts by them. Even more terrifying was the rumour that some militant organisations had warned Pandit men to move out leaving their daughters and wives behind.

The largest exodus of nearly 200,000 Kashmiri families took place during this period. Families hired trucks and left in the dead of night. They were so frightened they left all their household possessions behind. Many were unable to even withdraw money from the bank. There was a curfew on in the valley in those days and since the militants had called for everyone to transfer their money from nationalised banks to the Jammu and Kashmir Bank, no bank was willing to honour large transactions.

The Pandit families were rehabilitated in camps in Jammu, though the more affluent ones moved to Delhi and other cities. At present, nearly 40,000 families continue to live in these camps. When they first arrived, they received a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 and dry rations. The amount today is Rs 4,000 plus dry rations.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has made periodic efforts to persuade the families to move back. One such effort received a major push after Farooq Abdullah’s government was sworn to power in Srinagar in 1996. Abdullah assured the Pandits safe passage and accommodation in specified safety zones. Few believed him as the massacre of Pandits continued. Even as Abdullah threatened to issue an ordinance preventing Pandits from selling their property, they continued disposing of their property to Muslim buyers clandestinely.

The next chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed made similar efforts, with work beginning on the creation of safe clusters for the Pandits. But the problem is the children of these Pandit migrants are no longer interested in living in safe clusters. Many insist they are willing to return on condition that the government allows them to return to the homes from which their parents fled almost two decades ago.

To do so the state government needs to come up with a coordinated plan, which involves remapping the houses and lands of those who continue to own property in the valley. Many had resorted to distress selling, often to their Muslim neighbours.

Loss of property ranks high amongst the Pandits’ list of grievances, especially with property prices skyrocketing in the valley. Gaining a toehold on their property remains one of the biggest incentives for the Pandits to return.  

Makhanlal Naquab and his wife Dulari, probably amongst the poorest migrants presently living in Sheikhpora, illustrate this point. They spent time in the Mishriwala camp in Jammu but chose to return in the hope that they could earn a little money from the 16 kanals of land that belonged to them in their village of Rambari. They claim they did not receive any assistance in returning from the state relief commissioner.

Too old to work, they survive on food rations being provided on an erratic basis by the government.

“I ran a kirana shop and used to do some farming in my village of Rambari. Having lost my son, my wife and I spent some years in the Mishriwala camp. It proved nightmarish -- the heat, not knowing the local language, not feeling the cool air of the mountains…” Naquab’s voice trails off.

“In all these years, a Muslim neighbour looked after my 16 kanals of land. Payments remained erratic. Living in Sheikhpora will help me make occasional trips to my village,” he says.

Would Naquab, like many other Pandits living in Sheikhpora, be willing to return to Rambari?

“I told the IAS commissioner when he came to Sheikhpora: ‘Let me see you spend one night in my village without being surrounded by your security contingent. If you are willing to do so, then I am ready to follow your example’.”

Naquab went on to illustrate the other problem faced by many Pandit families whose homes have disintegrated or been pulled apart by militants and other miscreants. “My house has fallen apart. It has been stripped of all its cupboards and doors. It is a shell, not a house.”

Most of the 2 lakh Pandits who fled the valley in the late-’80s believed they would return a few months later. Not one of them anticipated that, 20 years on, they would constitute the largest refugee group in the country.

Their bitterness at the way events have unfolded is evident. Two decades later, their own assessment of the treatment meted out to them has altered dramatically. They now view their migration as part of an ethnic cleansing deliberately orchestrated by Islamic militants keen to change the demographic composition of the valley.

K Mattoo, a teacher living in the Mishriwala camp in Jammu, said: “We Pandits no longer like being called migrants. Migrants are those who willingly left their homeland in search of a better future. This exodus was forced on us.”

Changing concepts of self and identity have been succinctly captured in a report put together by the department of political science, Jammu, which interviewed over 350 Pandits living in the camps.

Shyam Kaul, one of the interviewed, described the terrifying atmosphere that prevailed in the valley in 1989-92. “We fled because a member of the family or a relative or a neighbour or friend was shot dead, or kidnapped, tortured and murdered brutally. Such barbaric methods like gouging out the eyes, breaking limbs, hammering nails into the head, or slicing the body with a handsaw were used. There was a bomb explosion in the house, or a letter arrived with a threat to leave or be killed. There were cases of a friend’s daughter or one’s own sister being molested. The essence of the matter is that we were forced out.”

Migration from the valley has resulted in a loss of identity. This is one of the most common refrains. Mohanlal Lolabi, a social worker living in a Jammu camp, said: “We have lost our identity. We have lost our ancestral land. Our women no longer wear saris but have taken to wearing the Punjabi salwar-kameez. Our children no longer want to learn Kashmiri. They prefer to speak Dogri and Hindi.”

The most alarming change is that they now view Kashmiri Muslims with visible animosity; in the past, Muslims were seen as “brothers” with whom they shared a common language and cultural heritage.

The majority of Pandits feel the valley has lost the syncretic character they were so proud of in the past. Religious tolerance was an integral part of their culture because most Muslims had converted to a Sufi form of Islam. Conversion in the valley did not take place by force. This syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture formed the basis of what was called ‘Kashmiriyat’, combining mystical Hindu Vedantism with Islamic Sufism.

The most common refrain of the Pandits today is “Kashmiriyat ab zinda nahin hai” (Kashmiriyat is no longer alive). It has become Islamised. They also believe that successive governments have lost this secular space to right-wing fundamentalists who are now predominant in the valley.

The dress code of Muslim women in the valley illustrates this. Muslim women increasingly cover their heads; many now wear burqas, though unlike their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar they do not cover their faces. This was unheard of earlier; Muslim Kashmiri women were known to enjoy a fair degree of freedom.

Not all Pandits share these negative feelings, however. Some have seized the initiative and are willing to take on the risks associated with going back.

Sanjay Lal, one of the few Pandits who is presently running a business in the heart of militant-infested Batmalloo, feels moving to Jammu in the early-’90s was a huge mistake. He believes his family and he should have dug their heels in and fought back.

“How many of us could these militants have killed,” he asked.

Sanjay, along with his father Rattan Lal, a cloth merchant, and other members of his immediate family, lived in the Mishriwala camp for a few years and tried to make their business work. Meeting with little success, they packed their bags and returned to Batmalloo.

Sanjay shies away from media attention. He fears the publicity will attract the attention of some gun-toting militants. After much prodding, he reveals what brought them back.

“The tension of not making ends meet weighed on my father and turned him into a nervous wreck. My young children were unhappy. The day we returned home, my father regained the bounce in his step, relieved to be back in the familiar environment. Both my children go to school. We enjoy good relations with all our neighbours. What more could anyone ask for?”

Badrinath Kaul, a schoolteacher from Shopian, made several reconnaissance trips before returning last year. “I own 60 kanals of orchard land on which I grow apple, walnut and cherry trees and from which I earn Rs 10 lakh a year. If I had not returned I would have lost this valuable property. I did not want this to happen,” said Kaul.

He admitted to mixed feelings about coming back. He feels the whole discourse in the valley has changed: today it’s the majoritarian Muslim community versus a tiny Hindu minority.

“From 300,000 Pandits, we are down to 7,000 Pandits in the valley. At an individual level, I sometimes feel I cannot recognise the people who live here any more. Their character has changed. Oil money from Muslim countries is flooding into Srinagar and the outskirts. My Muslim neighbours look at every situation from two perspectives -- one for Muslims and another for Hindus. This distinction did not exist a decade ago.”

Kaul claimed he received no help from the government to return to Shopian.

Back in Jammu, some migrants have moved into four-storied houses located near the Mishriwala camp. Unlike the Sheikhpora flats, these apartments are smaller and the quality of construction looks extremely poor. Already, many residents fear damage in this earthquake-prone area.

I visited the house of Bitta Kaul who introduced me to several of her neighbours. Fifteen Pandit men gathered around to air their grievances. What is the possibility of their returning to the valley, I asked.

They insisted they would only go back if they received a proper rehabilitation package. “We were the more affluent community in the valley. Most of us owned our own houses. The violence created so much uncertainty that we resorted to distress selling. Do they want us to go back so that those who are left also get eliminated in massacres,” asked Badrinath, a retired defence personnel who used to work in the Field Ammunition Depot.

There are other obstacles that the Pandits feel must be smoothed out before their return. For example, they want equal employment opportunities with their Muslim counterparts.

A N Sandhu, a retired professor of economics from Jammu University, pointed out that while 20,000 Pandits had government jobs in 1989, the present figure has dipped to 50. “Pandits need economic security. What incentives do young people have to return,” he asked.

Politics is another area where the Pandits feel they have been marginalised. Being a small minority, they believe they can no longer impact state politics in any meaningful way. It is for this reason that members of Panum Kashmir are demanding that a separate homeland be carved out for them in the valley.

“The time has come for us to be given a separate homeland. For the last 600 years we have been victims of Muslim majoritarianism. We will not accept being treated as second-class citizens any more,” declared Dr Agnishekhar, who has been promoting the idea of a separate homeland for many years.

“When we started moving out of the valley, Mufti Mohamed Sayeed was home minister at the Centre. Why did he do nothing to stop it? We don’t want to live in the valley at the mercy of the majority community,” Agnishekhar added.

The Pandits believe they are the original inhabitants of the valley, going back 5,000 years. Many of them have family trees that date back several hundred years. They believe that despite their contribution to the culture of the subcontinent, successive state governments have paid only lip-service to their needs.

Younger leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have publicly expressed sorrow at the departure of the Pandits, which has created a vacuum in their society. But most run-of-the-mill politicians shy away from making any public statements about them.

The state government plans to build a total of 61 apartments in Sheikhpora; another 18 apartments are under construction in Muttan.

Relief commissioner V Kaul spelled out what exactly these flats would be used for. “Sheikhpora is transit accommodation while the flats coming up in Muttan and Kheer Bhavani are being constructed for tourism purposes. The Pandits can hire them for a week,” Kaul explained.

In the long term, the state government is going to identify land for the Pandits where each family will construct its own house. Each family will be paid Rs 7.5 lakh towards construction of their homes. Till such time they will have to make do with ad hoc measures, said Kaul.

“We are awaiting formal notification of these plans before we swing into action,” he added.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a recent visit to Jammu, announced a Rs 1,600 crore rehabilitation package to facilitate the return of the Pandits. The Pandits are waiting and watching. Twenty years have already gone by. They hope they will not have to wait another 20 years for these plans to fructify.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008