“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Arif paints a picture of the Pandit community in deep distress and uncertain about its future

(Mr. Arif Bashir, 26, was born in Check-e-Ferozpora, Tangmarg. He completed his schooling in his native village, and obtained his Arts degree, with emphasis in English Literature, Urdu Literature, Political Science and English, from the Amar Singh College, Srinagar. He subsequently completed his Master of Arts degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir. He is a Reporter for the Kashmir Images, a leading English daily of Kashmir Valley. He has written, scripted and directed two Documentary Films – 85 Degrees, and Faces of Hope – and one fictional Film – Dastak. His ambition is to become an outstanding Film Maker.)

Will Pandits Ever Return to the Valley?

An ageing Raina looks across at the setting sun over Srinagar city from atop the Shankar Acharya temple and wonders whether he will ever be able to return to his home in the Valley in his life time.

Ironically, the temple sits on top of a hill which is popularly known as the takht-e- Suleman, a reflection of Kashmir’s secular traditions and Kashmiriyat.

But for this Pandit who had returned to the Valley after 20 years for a darshan at the temple, the pain of leaving is still fresh.

He had brought along his whole family – wife, children, grand-children – almost as a pilgrimage to his ‘homeland” and not just to offer prayers at the Shankaracharya temple.

Memories of 20 years gone by comes back as a rush and Pandit Raina recalls how in barely four months more than 96 per cent of Pandits had vanished from the valley only to surface in Jammu. At the time there seemed no visible rivalry between Pandits and their Muslim neighbours but the sudden appearance of Klashnikovs on the scene created an atmosphere where Pandits found it hard to stay back.

“It all happened so abruptly. On one hand there were large-scale anti-India demonstrations and on the other hand bombs were exploding everywhere. Our Pandit neighbours were feigning being at ease but the next day we would wake up only to see their houses locked and empty,” remembers Abdul Aziz Mir from Mir Danter in Anantnag.

But for most Pandits who quietly left the Valley in the dead of the night, things were far from safe. Daunted by rising militancy and alleged anti-Hindu sloganeering that found its way into the mosques the seige forced this minority to desert their homes.

“The atmosphere of fear created, either deliberately or unwittingly, by the kind of slogans erupting from the mosque loudspeakers left us not option but to run for our lives. We deserted our homes in the middle of the night and most of us didn’t bother to even carry our belongings. We thought we would be back in a month or so at most!” says Kuldeep Kumar Bhat, a resident of Shopian, who lived in refugee camps for years before finally shifting to Delhi.

But the people in the Valley as well as those who had left hope that some day they will be able to live together again. But over the last 20 years no real effort toward reconciliation or the return of Kashmiri Pandits has been made either by the government, the separatists or any social organization.

“The turbulent times didn’t spare anyone. We couldn’t help our Pandit neighbours when they were leaving. The tragedy is that even after two decades or so there is no serious process for reconciliation.

There is no mass movement or campaign for the return of Pandits to their homeland,” regrets Bashir Ahmad, who sells flowers for offering outside the Mata Khir Bhawani temple at Tulmul in Ganderbal.

The Pandit community which many believe is on the verge of a cultural dissolution has been scattered in many parts of India. The young generation finds it hard to connect with the cultural ethos of Kashmir.

“A Pandit girl would strictly, except in rare cases, be married to a Pandit boy. But after the exodus many are maarying Maharastrians, south Indians and Punjabis. The coming genberations therefore face a serious threat of losing its roots,” points out Padam Koul, a former school teacher from the Pandrathen area of Kashmir.

Several non-government organizations (NGOs) have been working around the idea of reuniting young Kashmiri’s through social-networking sites and face-to-face contact. Attempts are being made to clear the past and create an air of belief and brotherhood among young Pandits and Muslim boys once again.

But senior lawyer Rakesh Kaul is sceptical about such attempts. He feels such activities end up as mere ‘picnic’ for young Pandit couples who, he adds, come for a brief visit, roam around picnic spots and after a few interaction with a selected group of intellectuals and students, leave.

“What we need is a serious social campaign run by Muslims in the Valley for our return. Politicians may change their stands in accordance with the changing scenarios but the people, the masses won’t,” Rakesh points out.

However, the state government and most separatist leaders including Syed Ali Geelani have made some noise about inviting Pandits back to the Valley saying they were a part and parcel of Kashmir.

The state government has also constructed living quarters in various districts for housing Pandits if they come back to the Valley.

Accompanied by his childhood friend Nisar Ahmad Dar, Anil Kumar, an engineer from Anantnag does not feel like returning to his children in Jammu where he works as a salesman now. His heart is still very much in the Valley. On their way to the Sharika Devi temple near the shrine of Makhdoom Saheb the two friends talk of the past as if it were yesterday – the mischief, the anecdotes and the incidents.

But for Anil Kumar it is realistically impossible for Pandits to return as their properties worth crores have been ruined and destroyed. “Pandit villages have been burnt down. The once glorious houses have been turned to rubble. Window panes, doors even kitchen shelves have been stolen. It seems as if someone has mauled our basti’s. What do we come back for and with what hope? Not even a single house has been spared and now, after so many years, the people, the government and the leaders of different shades have suddenly realized that they miss us and want us back! I don’t believe this,” he says with unmistakeable sarcasm.

In a recent study prepared by a Pandit group, it has been pointed out that 95 per cent of property owned by Pandits, worth crores of rupees, has been damaged, either partially or completely in the last 20 years.

But the study also found that some Pandit homes were still intact.

The study claims that the destruction of Pandit houses began in the early 90s by the army, militants as well as miscreants.

However, to the credit of some villages and its people, the study found that at least a number of structures were still intact and well preserved in the districts of Badgam, Baramulla and Anantnag. And those properties where Pandits continued to live and are still living were never attacked or affected. Another Kashmiri Pandit, Mohan Lal, 60, feels the atmosphere and horror of 1990 still lurk in the hearts and minds of the majority of pandits. He says they cannot forget the miserable lives they had to live in refugee camps once forced out of the Valley.

“I don’t know how much of politics was involved in the 1990 exodus. I also don’t know about the part played by either Pakistan or India. But what forced me and my family to leave our home was the fact that when we were suffering because of constant threats and a hostile environment.

But none of our Muslim neighbours felt pained. After all they too were scared for their lives, no doubt. But then maybe together we could have avoided the exodus.

Unfortunately it didn’t happen and we ended up in a camp in Jammu among strangers,” laments Mohan Lal.

Agreeing with Mohan Lal, Rakesh Kumar, also 60, says that “if in 1990 every mosque could threaten the plurality of Kashmir without any consideration for us, why can’t the people invite us back by devoting the Friday sermons to pass on this message. Why can’t the people accept what actually happened in the past and what they want for the future.” According to the 1981 Census (there was no Census in 1991) in Jammu and Kashmir, the Kashmir region had 52 per cent of the state’s population, of which 10 per cent was made up of non-Kashmiri communities such as the Gujjars and Paharis, which are linguistically and ethnically closer to the people of Jammu. The population of Kashmiri Hindus was 1,24,078 as per the 1981 census. The 1991 census could not be held in J&K on account of the disturbed conditions.

About 140 Kashmiri Pandit families have returned to the Valley under an employment-cum-rehabilitation policy announced by New Delhi. Though they have been welcomed back by Muslims across the Valley, the majority of them seem sceptical about their permanent return. “We have come here for jobs and have been living here with our Muslim brothers. But the question is that we are not at peace as we no longer live in our own homes and instead have to live either in the one-room government shelters or seek hotel/private accommodation. We are quite touched when our Muslim brothers offer us shelter but guests are, after all, guests. We can’t stay forever this way, says Anita, who recently got a job in a government department here.

Confirming this, the chairman of the Kashmir United Forum (KUF) Bharat Raina said a recent survey had showed that 139 Pandit families had returned to the Valley and were living in the houses of Muslims here.

Raina said that these 139 families have refused to live in government quarters at Sheikhpora (Budgam) Mattan (Anantnag) Vessu (Qazigund) and Hawal (Pulwama) and preferred living with their Muslim friends.

But according to Sanjay Tikoo, chairman of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), talks of Pandits returning to the valley either by the government or by the separatists have always remained cosmetic and lacked seriousness. Tikoo is among the small number of Pandits who never left the valley. Claiming his organization had conducted several researches on the migration of Pandits, Tikoo says out of the 75,343 (3,67,289 members) families 74,692 (3,64,130 members i.e. 99.14%) families living in Valley opted to migrate. Most of them did in 1990.

During a recent press conference in Srinagar Tikoo also contradicted the government claim that 219 Kashmiri Pandits had been killed during the past 21 years in the Valley and claimed that the actual number was 399.

“As per our research data, 399 Pandits have been killed in the past 20 years,” the KPSS president said adding that “an estimated 75 per cent of them were killed during the first year of the armed insurgency in 1990.” But for Raina all this talk about Pandits returning has little meaning if his life ends in exile. As the former professor of chemistry in a Srinagar college takes in the grand view of Srinagar from the Shankar Acharya temple with the sun setting over the Dal Lake, his nostalgia to return home is palpable. He says, “I am living in exile in Delhi and this nostalgia to return will kill me someday. I want to come back to my home, to my people. But not until my Muslim brothers invite me wholeheartedly and make it public that they want us back. That their identity is incomplete in my absence.”