Festering Wound

  • Javaid Malik
  • Publish Date: Apr 1 2016 3:24PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 12 2016 12:42PM

Revisiting the Pandit exodus from outside ideological straightjackets

 

The cataclysm that visited Kashmir in the early 1990s wounded our society so deep, it’s yet to heal. While the armed movement heralded the promise of freedom for some, for others it was a bonfire of hopes, dreams, futures. Of the latter, there’s no greater marker than the migration of Kashmiri Pandits.

 It was a tragedy seemingly without end. It’s that, but not only. It’s now also a political whip, one to beat those who have a divergent view of the issue. And in the hands of the Hindu fundamentalist political forces, which have come to dominate its articulation of late, the issue of the Pandit migration is being used to discredit the Kashmir movement. As a consequence, the Kashmiri society has been forced to articulate two competing narratives of victimhood and suffering – one by the Pandits, of their exile, and the other by the Muslims, of their oppression and bloodletting by the Indian state.

Which narrative has more weight, which tragedy is greater? It’s unfortunate that these questions are even asked. That they are shows the level to which our discourse has soured.

 What if we could cut through the fog of acrimonious debates and look at the events surrounding the Pandit exodus afresh, without the blinkers of political expediency and self-serving ideological stands. Here, Kashmir Ink tried to do just that, asking a few people who suffered from or were witness to the events of the early 1990s to shed light on them. They had many questions to ponder: What led to the migration of the Pandits? Could it have been prevented? Was anybody to blame? Is it a standalone tragedy or another chapter in Kashmir’s long saga of suffering? Is it time for the Pandits to return home, and if yes under what conditions?

Here’s what they had to share

 

 Arun Raina

Raina still vividly remembers the day in April 1990 when he found a poster pinned to the gate of his house at Baghat Barzulla, Srinagar. How can he not remember? It announced the end of the life as the then 16-year-old knew it: the poster ordered his family to leave Kashmir within a week, or else.

 “In my family, I was the only one who could read Urdu,” Raina, now 41, recollects from his new home in Jammu. “When I read the poster, I started sweating and removed it from the gate.”

 Raina showed the poster to his father when he returned home in the evening. “He took it and hurriedly went to the house of our Muslim neighbour. He was in tears, my Muslim uncle, when my father told him that he could not put his family’s lives at stake and must leave Kashmir,” Raina says. “My father asked us to pack whatever we could and arranged for a truck to take our belongings. He knew very well that we won’t be returning.”

 The Rainas hadn’t seen it coming. In early 1990, as pro-Azadi slogans began to be shouted on the streets and from mosque loudspeakers, Raina says, their Muslim neighbours would reassure them, “don’t worry, nobody will touch you”. “Their assurances made us believe that we had nothing to fear.”

 Then, Raina found the poster. The family knew they had to leave – never to return.

 

 Vijay Koul

Koul doesn’t remember hearing any slogans in his Salarkote village in Pahalgam, “No slogans were raised in our village as our Muslim neighbours never allowed outsiders to enter our picturesque small hamlet.”

 What forced his family to leave was more far terrifying than slogans. “I remember it was May 1990 when we heard that gunmen had killed a Pandit worker of the Congress in a nearby village. Two days later, another political activist was killed. We were terrified and my father and uncles decided to leave for Jammu.”

 “I was just nine years old then but I remember how are Muslim neighbours wept when we told them we were leaving. We put our belongings into a truck and started towards Jammu, but our trucks were stopped at Udhampur where a tent colony had been set up for the Pandits coming from the valley,” Kaul recollects.

 “We were given a small tent and asked to stay put there until the situation in Kashmir became normal. Our wait for the situation to improve turned from days into months and from months into years.” And with every passing day, life become ever harder.

 “We stayed in the tents in Udhampur for over seven years. Then, we were allotted a one-room quarter at Batarwani, Udhampur. After staying there for another few years, we were allotted a quarter at Domana Purkhoo on the outskirts of Jammu. This quarter had a small lobby, a kitchen, bathroom and one bedroom. And it took more than 15 years for the government to provide us with a one-room quarter.”

 Through such hardship, it was the yearning for home that kept Koul’s heart warm. His family never sold their ancestral land in Salarkote, hoping to go back there one day. “Many Pandits hailing from rural Kashmir have not sold their ancestral property as most of us believe that one day we will return. We are not interested in separate townships. We just pray that the situation becomes normal.”

“And if the government really wants to do something for us,” he adds, “then it should provide Kashmiri Pandit youth with jobs.”

 

 Sanjay Moza

General Secretary, Panun Kashmir, a fervently pro-India Pandit organisation

Moza was 22 in 1990, studying for his graduation at Degree College, Sopore, “when all hell broke loose in Kashmir”.

 “I still remember that fateful day when my cousin Anil Bhan was shot dead by gunmen near Kanikadal in old Srinagar,” Moza recounts. “Anil, who was a bank manager, being killed in cold blood sent shivers down our spine. We were left with no other option but to leave Kashmir.”

 “When my cousin was killed, I went to my neighbours in Karan Nagar and asked them if they could provide us security. But all our neighbours refused to take our responsibility,” Moza says.

 Moza says, he was friends with the late JKLF commander Ashfaq Majeed Wani and he remembers him as a brilliant sportsman.  “Both of us participated in many sports events together,” adds Moza.

“After leaving Kashmir in March 1990, we landed in Jammu where we lived for seven years in an unfinished house at Gangyal. Then, we sold our property at Natipora in Srinagar so as to build a small house in Jammu. We sold it for peanuts. It was a distress sale,” he says.

 Moza though is of the firm belief that the Pandits would return to Kashmir one day, only, he says, they would have to live in “secure zones” – separate townships -- to “prevent history from repeating itself”. “It’s really sad that whenever we talk about separate townships, the Hurriyat leaders oppose it and mislead the people by saying it would create a Gaza-like situation and that Kashmir would become another Israel.”

“Kashmiri Muslims are our brothers and we have lived together for ages. Right-thinking Muslims would have no objection to our home-coming.”

 

 Hameedah Nayeem

Chairperson, Kashmir Centre for Developmental Studies, a prominent civil society group

 Nayeem has a different perspective on the Pandits’ exodus from the valley. Recollecting the happenings of the 1990, she says, “There is no doubt that a fear psychosis prevailed in Kashmir and political killings were taking place. And the first political worker to get killed was Muhammad Yusuf Halwai.”

 “Besides Muslims, a few Pandits were also killed. Governor Jagmohan capitalised on the fear psychosis and asked the Pandits to leave. He wanted the Pandits to be safe as he was planning to kill five lakh Muslims, and he had conveyed the same to the Pandits. Soon after Jagmohan arrived in Kashmir, he asked the central forces to butcher Kashmiris. The massacres that took place during his tenure are ample proof of his Hitelarian designs,” she claims. “Jagmohan told the Pandits that migration to Jammu was a temporary measure and they would return after the operation against the Muslims is over.”

 Whatever the reasons for their migration, should the Pandits come back? Nayeem says they are welcome to return, but they should stop demanding separate townships. “The Pandits who wanted to return and reconcile have already come back and are living in their homes. This was revealed when many Pandits were rescued from their homes during the 2014 floods,” she says.

“One hopes that the Pandits don’t fall into the trap of the RSS and become their stooges. The RSS wants to use them to divide Kashmiris and settle lakhs of Hindus here so that Kashmiri Muslims turn into a rare species,” she claims.

 And while we are talking about the Pandits, Nayeem says, we shouldn’t forget the thousands of Muslims from borders areas who were forced to migrate to Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) in 1990 due to relentless exchange of firing and shelling between India and Pakistan Army . “They are living in abject conditions in PaK and yearn to return. Like the Pandits, they too have a right to return.”

 

 Sanjay Tickoo

Chairperson of Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti ( An organization of Kashmiri Pandits, who didn’t migrate from Kashmir in 1990). Tickoo didn’t leave his ancestral home at Barbarshah in old city in Srinagar and is still staying there. 

Tickoo was among the few Pandits who never left Kashmir. Recalling the situation of those early days of the armed conflict, he says, “In 1989, many significant developments took place in the valley. We saw thousands of people participating in pro-Azadi marches and no one stopped them. That time the National Conference-Congress coalition led by Dr Farooq Abdullah was in power. The NC and the Congress won the elections due to rigging in 1986 and were calling the shots when the armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir. Surprisingly the state government did not take any steps to prevent people from coming out on the streets. Neither did it prevent the situation from taking an ugly turn.”

 “In 1990, the situation was such that it looked like Azadi was not far away. The people used to listen to the BBC and Radio Pakistan, which would make them believe they could achieve their goal. It’s a known fact that the Pandits were Indians and Kashmiri Muslims were Pakistanis. The Pandits sided with India when they left Kashmir in 1990.”

 Tickoo, who lives in old Srinagar’ Barbashah locality, continues, “January 19, 1990 was a crucial day as on that day Governor Jagmohan took over the reins of the state and the NC-Congress government was dismissed. On that day, slogans started reverberating in the dead of the night and a few slogans were raised against our womenfolk. I believe the Pandits didn’t leave due to any security threat. They left to save the honour and chastity of their women.”

Is it time now for the Pandits to return? “If the Pandits return where would they stay? Most of them have sold their properties. If a small city is set up for the Pandits, people should not have any objections.”

“The Indian media is playing a negative role vis-à-vis the return of the Pandits to the valley. Recently, a news channel ran a story on Nadimarg massacre and they sought my comments on it. I told them that if you are running a story on Nadimarg, run a story on the Gawkadal massacre too,” Tickoo says. “The media should act a bridge rather than add fuel to the fire.”

But the Pandits’ return, he says, is easier said than done. “At present, we do not have a meeting point. The Muslim boys who were born after 1990 have been made to believe that Kashmiri Pandits were traitors. On the other hand, Pandit youth have been made to believe that their community was thrown out by the Muslims. Twenty five years is a long time and a lot of things have changed.”

Now, to bring about reconciliation, both the Muslims and Pandits must first acknowledge some hard truths. Such as? “The migration of Pandits could have been avoided had the majority community taken out a solidarity march against Pandit killings, and had religious clerics intervened and reassured them. That the Muslims remained silent made the Pandits believe that a bigger disaster could hit them if they stayed,” Tickoo says.

 On the other hand, he adds, “history stands witness to the fact that had the Muslims wanted, they could have killed all the Pandits in Kashmir in 1947 itself. But that did not happen as we Kashmiris have a very close-knit society. I believe the KAshmiri Pandits who were born and brought up in Kashmir hold no grudges against the majority community, but the same cannot be said about the new generation which didn’t grow up here.”

 

 Wajahat Habibullah

Retired bureaucrat who served in Kashmir in the 1990s and witnessed the Pandit migration

Habibullah witnessed the exodus of the Pandits from close quarters. “In early 1990, slogans started reverberating from the mosques that people who do not support the Kashmir movement should leave. Slogans and selective killings triggered panic among the Pandits and they requested their friends as well as the security forces for vehicles to facilitate their movement.”

“The Pandits moving out in the vehicles of security forces created an impression that the government was facilitating their migration from the valley. But the fact is that during that period, administration in Kashmir had broken down and there was no government in place,” he says.

“It was after some time that the government discovered that the slogans from mosques were not raised by people; tapes were being played on loudspeakers during the night. But the slogans definitely created a fear psychosis among the people. And not just the Pandits, the slogans led many Muslims owing allegiance to mainstream parties to leave the valley as well. Only the Pandits were not killed. Many people who were working with the government fell to the bullets of the gunmen. The militants were out to terrify everyone.”

Recollecting one incident, Habibullah says, “I was posted in Anantnag and my office-cum-residence was inside the Dak Bungalow. Usually, nobody came to see me as there was no communication between the people and the administration. But one fine evening, a group of people led by the brother of a senior separatist leader appeared outside the Dak Bungalow and told my guards they wanted to meet me. I made them sit in the lawn. The group told me that the Pandits were leaving the valley and asked why the government wasn’t stopping them. I told them that the government couldn’t stop them; as Indian citizens, they were free to move to any place. The delegation told me that the Pandits were leaving because the government was planning to finish off the Muslims. I asked, ‘where did you get this information’. They said, ‘we have got secret information about the government planning to carry out mass killings of Muslims’. I told them that the government had no such plan.”

 “I also told them, ‘why don’t the Muslims form small groups and visit the areas where Pandits live and reassure them that nobody would harm them’. They readily agreed to my suggestion but I told them they would have to take the initiative on their own as the government giving assurances won’t serve any purpose.”

 Habibullah continues, “After meeting the delegation, I called the governor’s advisor and told him that the people of south Kashmir were planning to reach out to the Pandits. He told me I should inform Governor Jagmohan.”

 “Accordingly, I called Raj Bhawan and spoke to the governor and suggested that he should appear on TV and make an announcement that the Muslims in south Kashmir have decided to reach out to the Pandits to assure them that no harm would be done to them. He gave me a patient hearing and told me that he would see what could be done. However, he didn’t appear on TV that day and the message couldn’t go out to the people.”

 “Later, I came to know that when my call had gone to the governor’s house, a prominent Pandit leader had been present there. What transpired between the governor Jagmohan and him I don’t know.”

 “After a few months, Defence Minister George Fernandes came to the valley and told me to accompany him to Jammu to meet Kashmiri Pandits. He asked me if I could persuade a few Muslims to accompany us as well so that we can persuade the Pandits to return. I told him I could rope in some people and it would be a good beginning but the plan couldn’t work as Fernandes didn’t get the go ahead from the central government. No effort was made to either prevent the migration of the Pandits in 1990, nor was any attempt made to get them back,” says Habibullah.

 Should they be helped to return now? “If the Pandits return now and are settled in separate townships, that could put them in trouble and make them soft targets. Just one untoward incident could terrify them and trigger yet another migration,” Habibullah says.

 What should be done then? “I believe that they should be allowed to make a decision on their own. As far as I know, many Pandits have returned and are living in mixed neighborhoods. One point which everyone needs to ponder over is if the Pandits return, what would they do? They cannot make their ends meet by sitting in separate townships. The government should provide them special incentives to set up industries and businesses in Kashmir.”

 However, their return should not be linked with giving them state jobs. “We have seen in the past that many Kashmiri Pandits were provided government jobs. But after they were regularised, they managed to get themselves transferred back to Jammu and other districts.”