Kashmiri Pandits are divided on the issue of returning to the Valley they fled in the ’90s. Very few are willing while most are unhappy about living in separate colonies built for them
May 27, Kokernag, south Kashmir. It is an unusual reunion. Elderly Abdul Razak Wagay is insistent that Sweeti Raina, his visitor, accepts ₹80. It is a sum that he had borrowed from Sweeti’s father before the latter’s family fled the Kashmir valley in the 1990s. Wagay makes an emotional attempt to convince the woman, who is visiting the Kokernag home of her Pandit family more than 20 years after it had bid it farewell.
“This is your money. Whatever I am today is because of what your folks did for me. We were like one big family, we all lived together like one,” Wagay’s voice quivers as he shoves a few crumpled notes into Sweeti’s folded palms. He breaks down when she finally gives in.
Wife of journalist Rajesh Raina, Sweeti listens patiently as Wagay recounts stories from the days the two families were neighbours.
“Our doors are open for you,” he says. “You even have a stake on our blood,” he adds, offering to share his house with Sweeti’s family.
This is not just an encounter between erstwhile neighbours but also a poignant reunion of two communities that had lived in peace and harmony before divisive politics and insurgency hijacked their lives in the ’90s. Threatened with violence, close to two lakh Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley on the night of January 19, 1990. Their homes were ransacked and torched. Across towns, these charred buildings are grim reminders of the horror the community suffered at the hands of radicals and separatists.
Despite scars that run deep, several Kashmiri Pandits still believe in the resilience of Kashmiriyat — a term that symbolises the inherent secularism of Kashmir. A witness to the moving scene between Wagay and his wife Sweeti, Rajesh says,
“This is Kashmiriyat. We will live together again.”
The Rainas, like the thousands of other displaced Pandit families, haven’t stopped dreaming of the place they once called home. The issue of the Pandits’ return grabbed headlines last month when Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, in response to Governor NN Vohra’s address in the Assembly, promised to bring them back to the Valley. This statement came soon after the Mufti government, under pressure from the Centre, identified land for building colonies for members of the Pandit community.
But are Kashmiri Pandits willing to return and live in separate settlements?
Sarla Devi (name changed, 56) lives in a colony for Kashmiri Pandits at Vessu, south Kashmir. She and her three children returned to the state in 2010, after the then prime minister Manmohan Singh announced a special package for those willing to relocate. Devi’s eldest son is the family’s sole breadwinner. Six years after their return to Kashmir, Devi questions the emotional choice she made. “We are separated from the rest of the population; it’s like living in jails,” she says. Her tirade against the militants who forced the exodus is ceaseless. “I had a two-storey pucca house in Mattan, also in south Kashmir. And then one dreaded night, sensing trouble, the entire family, along with scores of relatives, decided to leave in a hurry …we managed to pack our belongings in the shortest possible time and left for Jammu.” She reacts angrily to the news of the government’s decision to build more colonies for Pandits.
“We live under poor conditions. Two to three families share a space meant for one. I’d advise people to not return until the government betters the conditions of those who already have.”
Before disappearing into the damp, ill-ventilated room she calls her kitchen, to prepare tea for us, Devi recalls her husband, who had died in a refugee camp in Jammu. “His desire to return to his roots died with him. But it’s better that he didn’t live to see this house we’ve been allotted,” she says.
Housing nearly 1,500 people belonging to 416 families, the Vessu Kashmiri Pandit colony stands on National Highway 1, which connects Kashmir to the rest of India. According to local residents, the camp has only 216 pre-fabricated quarters, with 36 more under construction for the past three years.
“Our living conditions are dismal. It’s a grave violation of human rights,” says Sanjay Kaul, president of the colony.
“We are living like cattle. We don’t have privacy.” Kaul adds that even Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the recently deceased former chief minister, had been shocked at the conditions in the Vessu camps during a visit last year. “He immediately ordered the construction of more quarters, but no action was taken thereafter.”
Kaul was in Std VII when his family — settled in Luk Bawan, just six kilometres from the Anantnag district headquarters — fled the Valley in 1990. “We moved to Jammu overnight. I was too young to comprehend why we were leaving a comfortable home for a dirty tent in a refugee settlement. But I remember the journey to Jammu. It was difficult, especially for the old and the children. My cousins and I were huddled into the boot of a car and asked to remain quiet.” Kaul, too, returned to Kashmir under the rehabilitation package. “Today we are living under constant vigil. No one can enter the colony without being frisked and questioned at the main gate… Under these circumstances, even the locals avoid us,” he says.
He, too, has a word of caution for Kashmiri Pandits planning to return today. “I want to tell the Pandit community not to come here until the government takes proper measures to settle us. Living in guarded cages is far worse than being away from homeland.”
Same story, another day
Kaul’s story is echoed by many Pandit families in both Kashmir and New Delhi.
Satish Bhat, 46, lives in Kashmir Apartments in Delhi’s Pitampura area. With 80 flats, the residential complex that was built to safeguard Kashmiri culture in Delhi is now a symbol of unity among the migrants from the community.
A smile appears on Bhat’s face as he recalls his boyhood in Budgam district. “I would invite myself to my Muslim friend’s house for meals. Families celebrated Diwali and Eid together. Everything was just fine until those dark days arrived.” Blaming the National Conference and Congress parties for the turmoil in the Valley, Bhat questions why the parties remained as mute spectators when the Pandits were being herded out. “Where were they? What were they doing? Why didn’t they stop us from leaving,” he asks.
Unlike many among his current neighbours, Bhat didn’t snap ties with his Muslim friends in Kashmir. “In 2006, when I visited the Valley, hundreds of people gathered around me in my hometown. Each of them felt my loss. They hugged me and cried,” he says.
“It is wrong to blame the Muslims for what happened to us. Since the exodus, lakhs of Muslims have been killed. Did anyone care about that,” he asks.
He then narrates the story behind his family’s decision to leave Kashmir. In February 1990, a few unknown people had hoisted a Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) flag near the Bhat residence. The flag remained there for three days until a white one replaced it. Its appearance, too, was equally mysterious.
“The disappearance of the JKLF flag started to worry us because my brother was blamed for bringing it down. People told us that my brother was on the hit-list of the militants, and that we should migrate,” Bhat reminisces. A month later, the family left for good. Bhat dismisses Mehbooba’s claims of wooing the Pandits back to Kashmir. “They failed to protect us when we were living there, how can they protect us now? Instead of asking Pandits to return, the government should help us find our feet in other states,” he adds.
“Kashmir is a distant dream now. My children are studying in Delhi. I cannot ask them to return to a place they’ve only heard of; they don’t understand Kashmiri culture, so it is better they live in Delhi,” he says.
Veena Bhat is another resident of Kashmir Apartments in Delhi. A former resident of Hari Singh High Street — an upscale address in Srinagar — she is unforgiving of the ‘role’ Kashmiri Muslims played in the exodus of the Pandits. “We had a flourishing wholesale business in Kashmir, with hundreds of clients across the state. We were forced, harassed into leaving the Valley. When we resisted, we were threatened with guns,” she says angrily. Asked if she would like to return to Kashmir, she replies,
“Who will protect my children? Where were all the good Muslims when we were bombarded with threats over loudspeakers — that we should leave or face the music? If the locals had helped we would have been spared the ordeal.”
Her husband, Subhash, echoes their neighbour Satish Bhat’s misgivings about plans to build new homes for Pandits in Kashmir. “It’s too late for all this. They should think of what they can do for us in other states.” He believes that a party with overt sympathies for separatists cannot be trusted to execute a fair rehabilitation programme.
“We won’t live peacefully with Muslims, we will have fights. They should have created a sense of security back then… nothing can happen now. It is foolish to even entertain such ideas,” he says.
Most people in Kashmir are of the opinion that Pandits should return to the Valley, but are not in favour of separate settlements for them. Faced with stiff resistance from separatist elements within her own party as well as other political groups, Mehbooba faces the uphill task of creating a conducive environment for the smooth execution of her plan.
Back in Kokernag, Rajesh Raina is optimistic that his homeland will once again become a symbol of communal harmony.
“I shot this video clip today at Kokernag, the native place of my wife. Ek pehloo yeh bhi hai Kashmir ki tasveer ki (This is one of the many facets of Kashmir),” he posted on his Facebook wall, sharing moments from Sweeti’s reunion with her former neighbour.
(The story was first published in Hindu Business Line on June 10, 2016 | http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/know/kashmiri-pandits-the-return-to-nowhere/article8710217.ece