Home Truths

  • Saqib Malik
  • Publish Date: Apr 1 2016 2:58PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Apr 12 2016 12:42PM

When most of their community fled Kashmir in the 1990s, some Pandits stayed. What became of them?

 

Casually lost in a narrow alley of Ganpatyar in the old city neighbourhood of Habba Kadal is a cramped mid-sized room. It's owned by the nearby Ganesh temple, but the family of Bhushan Lal Shah calls it home. Theirs was one of a few hundred Kashmiri Pandit families that stayed in the valley when most of their brethren migrated in the early 1990s.

“We have seen good times and bad staying in this room for the last 25 years,” Shah says. In this very room, the family has often wondered whether staying put was worth it. It has been overwhelming, and that's putting it mildly. “We utilise this as the living room, kitchen and even for washing clothes. Despite taking the bold decision of staying back in Kashmir, we have had to face miseries of the worst order,” says Bhushan Lal's wife Lalita, taking a pause from doing household chores in a dimly-lit corner of the room.

The government, if no one else, could have lent a helping hand, but didn't. “The six to seven Pandit families that stayed back in Ganpatyar have never received any rehabilitation package or employment from either the state government or the Center,” Bhushan Lal complains.

All three of the Shahs' sons are unemployed and if that wasn't despairing enough, their youngest suffers from a chronic neurological problem. The family's only source of income is Bhushan Lal's pension of Rs 12000 a month, of which about Rs 6,000 goes to buy medicines, mostly for their son.

“Unlike in other states, where the Pandit migrants are provided quotas in colleges and government jobs, there is no such provision for the Pandits who chose to stay back,” Bhushan Lal says, ruefully.

Indeed, such is the state's apathy that local legislators have never visited Ganpatyar's Pandit families in all these years. The neglect is all too evident. Before the outbreak of the militancy, the Ganesh Temple was the buzzing centre of the community's life. Now, it lies decrepit, deserted.

So, again, was it worth not leaving? Bhushan Lal says, “There is too much negativity among the Pandits who stay outside the valley with regard to the Kashmir situation. I would say whatever happened was destiny.” Lalita adds, “My husband and other members of our community have been running from pillar to post to get the government to resettle us in Sheikpora Colony, to no avail.”

Of the 670 Pandits families living in the valley, as many as 125 live below the poverty line. Bhushan Lal's is one of them, as is Kumar Wanchoo's. The Wanchoos – Kumar, his wife Rajni and their son Amit – reside in Jawahar Nagar, in a house built in 1960. Kumar has lived long enough to remember the “dark days” of the early 1990s. “My father HN Wanchoo was a human rights activist and he was murdered in cold blood,” he says. “But we never opted to leave the valley. At that time my children were small and my sisters were yet to get married. All our relatives left for safer places but we stayed.”

But it has visibly taken a toll, his losing touch with his broader community. Kumar feels that the mass migration has weakened the social fabric of the Pandits to such an extent that they now face a “serious identity crisis” as a community. “I recently visited Bangalore. I met some old friends after 15 years. I recognised them by face but couldn’t recall their names,” he says.

“And it's difficult for any Kashmiri Pandit family to find a match for their children in the valley. Half the marriages of the Pandits happen outside the community now while earlier most of the Pandits marry their children within the community,” Kumar says, offering another example of the weakening of his community's “social fabric”. Several of his own acquaintances, he adds, are married into Maharashtrian, Sikh and Punjabi families. “There certainly has been a negative impact of the migration on our social fabric.”

“Bad politics”, Kumar says, has only made worse the problems created by distance. He explains, “Some years ago, an apex committee was formed to explore ways for the return of Kashmiri Pandits but, ironically, its meetings were held in Jammu, not Kashmir.”

 

He wants nothing to do with such politics. “I will be the last person to join the blame game over who led the ouster of the Pandits from the valley,” he says.

What about the allegations by some Pandit groups and India's rightist political forces that Kashmiri Muslims played a role in driving out the Pandits? “One cannot pass the buck to the majority community,” Kumar responds, “as only a handful of people were responsible for scaring the Pandit community.” To back up his argument, he recalls “the bright side of communal harmony that was evident in Kashmir during the September 2014 floods”. His own family, he says, shared a roof with two Sikh and Muslim families for several days. “It was the Muslim volunteers from Jawahar Nagar who rescued us during the floods. Such heart-warming scenes were visible everywhere during the floods. Sharing tehri with people from different faiths from the same utensil was an enriching experience for all of us. All people, irrespective of religion, cooked meals in the makeshift kitchen,” Kumar says.

He concludes, “A sense of belonging is important for a place where you are born and bought up. Kashmir will survive only if we keep the roots of Kashmiriyat intact.”

Sanjay Tickoo, the president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharash Samiti – “a voluntary organisation that aims to connect with left out Kashmiri Pandits and boost their socio-economic status” – has a similar tale of neglect to tell. “Most of the Pandits who were targeted and came back after migration were tagged as right-wing elements,” he says. As far the political machinery’s apathy, the less said the better, he adds. He recounts that in 1999, the then chief minister Farooq Abdullah was surprised to know that several Kashmiri families still lived in the valley. “And in 1998, I met the then prime minister IK Gujral who was puzzled to know about the situation of the Pandits in the valley. He was ignorant about our situation as none of the state government's representatives had informed him of our fate. Such has been the callousness of the politicians towards the Kashmiri Pandits. After all, the Pandits had to leave Kashmir due to a security threat and step-motherly treatment by the state,” Tickoo says.

He sums up the experience of staying in Kashmir as a “punishment” for the Pandit community. Whoever has helmed the state or the Centre has done nothing for the Pandits “since there is a lack of serious policy”, Tickoo says. “Mainstream politicians in Kashmir taunt us by saying, 'you have your own government’ at the Centre. The needle of suspicion has always been pointed at those among the Pandit community who stayed back, they been always been on the radar of the agencies, state and non-state actors.”

It wasn't hard to mark them out, for the exodus left only 651 Pandit families in Kashmir. “A survey we did in 2008 revealed that 670 Pandits were killed in Kashmir while 77,540 left.Between June 1 and November 30, 1990 there were 256 killings,” Tickoo says. “In November 1990 alone, 17,000 families left. From May to November 1990, over 1,500 of the families came back but most of them became easy targets. In the following years, more people left. The migration hasn't stopped till date. In 2008, there are 651 Pandit families residing at 192 locations across Kashmir.”

Tickoo has a complaint against the Muslims: “the situation wouldn't have taken such an ugly turn if the majority community had reacted positively”. But he's hopeful more Kashmiri Pandits will return home. Amen to that.