The home that was: Kashmiri Pandits on rehabilitation | india-news | Hindustan Times
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The home that was: Kashmiri Pandits on rehabilitation

In the backdrop of the annual Kheer Bhawani festival, celebrated last week in Kashmir, Kashmiri Pandits talk about what rehabilitation means to them

india Updated: Jul 09, 2016 07:40 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Old, deserted Pandit houses in the Haal area in Kashmir’s Pulwama district
Old, deserted Pandit houses in the Haal area in Kashmir’s Pulwama district(Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

Rani Bhat, a resident of south Kashmir’s Haal area in Pulwama district, is unsure of the year she was born. “I am old,” is her simple answer, when asked her age. “Look at my hands,” she adds and points to her wrinkled skin. But there is no doubt in her mind about when and how her neighbours left Kashmir. “There were 10-12 Pandit families (a term used to describe Kashmiri Hindus) living here. Now we are the only ones left,” she says.Some of the houses remain — as silent reminders of a forgotten tragedy. Windows broken, walls crumbling, rooms overgrown with weeds, they still manage to stun with odd bits and pieces of intricately carved woodwork or the in-lay work on ceilings.

As insurgency made its first appearance in Kashmir in the late 1980s, it found a soft target in the valley’s minority community – the Kashmiri Hindus.The years have added a film of dispute over the exact nature of events that resulted in the exodus, “under threat”, of most of the Pandits from the Kashmir valley. But the one indisputable fact is that the Pandits did leave, travelling to Jammu, Delhi and elsewhere, living in refugee camps, sharing rooms, and crowding into small rented accommodation, as they waited for the violence to end. Twenty-six years on, the wait continues for most of them. When Mehbooba Mufti, the state’s first woman chief minister, announced last month that the state government had identified three locations to build colonies to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, she was just talking of one more step in a process that began in 2008 . Faced by protests from separatists and others who do not want separate colonies for the Pandits and believe they should return to their original homes, the government later clarified these would be transit colonies.

Watch | Kashmiri Pandits have dreamt of returning to their homeland for more than twenty five years . But what does rehabilitation mean to them?

Past Imperfect

“I was 10 years old at the time. I remember my mother woke me in the middle of the night. She was weeping,” says Sanjay Peshin, whose family left their Srinagar home in 1990, and who now works in Patna. “She asked me to put on my slippers and told me we will have to leave. We spent the night in the coal room. My father locked me and my mother there and stood guard at the door. In the morning, around six, my father came in and told us we were to leave.”

Hindus who have left Kashmir, have over the years repeatedly talked of rapes and murders of those from the community in the late ’80s-early ’90s, culminating in the night of January 19, 1990, when extremists and separatists reportedly raised slogans against the “kafirs” and presented the Pandits with three options – to leave the valley, to convert to Islam or to prepare to die. Stones were pelted at houses of Pandits, shattering windows. The next day the Pandits started leaving in earnest. Home was not safe anymore. “They asked the Pandit men to go and leave behind their women,” recalls a Pandit woman, who left in 1990 but came back to Kashmir in 2010. Amit Raina, a Delhi resident whose family also left the valley in 1990, remembers how one of his cousins drove 16 young women from Srinagar to Jammu in an Ambassador car.

A section of the majority community, however, have a different story to narrate. “Slogans were raised, but it asked the enemies of Kashmir to leave. We didn’t mean the Pandits. They were a part of us. As for the murders, the militants were targeting almost all government officials because they believed them to be government informants. The Pandits happened to be better educated and so held most of the top government jobs,” says a 45-year-old Kashmiri Muslim, who works as a professional driver.

The issue of rehabilitating Pandits in the Kashmir valley was given a push in 2008, with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing a rehabilitation package that included government jobs and accommodation. In 2010, a batch of Pandits were taken back to the valley under this scheme. In 2014, the Modi government earmarked 500 crore for the project . In 2015, controversy erupted over the state government’s supposed plans to build townships for Pandits. The then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had clarified afterwards that Pandits would be settled in their original places. The PDP government in J&K, formed with the support of the BJP, has also adopted the resettlement of Pandits as part of its common minimum programme, resulting in the announcement by the Mehbooba government last month.

The Pandit Package

  • In 2008, PM Manmohan Singh announced a package for rehabilitating Pandits which included assistance of Rs 2 to Rs 7.5 lakh per family to rebuild or buy houses, transit accommodation in the interim period and government jobs.
  • In the Union budget of 2014-15, the Modi government at the Centre earmarked Rs 500 crore for the rehabilitation of Pandits. State government proposed that monetary assistance for rebuilding houses be increased to Rs 20 lakh, for which the centre indicated its willingness
  • In 2015 controversy erupted over the government’s supposed plans to build composite townships for Pandits. The CM clarified that Pandits would have to settle in their original places.
  • Last month the CM announced that the govt has identified sites for setting up colonies for rehabilitating Pandits. The govt later clarified that these would be transit colonies
  • Pilgrim’s Progress

    Devotees perform Ashtami puja at the Kheer Bhawani temple in Kashmir (Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

    In this backdrop, Pandits from across the country gathered at the temple of Kheer Bhawani in the state’s Ganderbal district last week, for the annual Ashtami celebration. Like every temple in the state, this too, has CRPF and police personnel deployed at the entrance and on the grounds. “If we didn’t have protection, the temple would definitely be attacked. Even with security personnel, things go missing from the temple premises,” says 65-year-old Roshan Lal Bhan, general secretary of the J&K Dharmarth Trust, which manages the temple. As per a report compiled by the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), out of 900 temples and shrines in the valley in 1990, only 600 survive today.

    Since the mass exodus of Pandits, festivals like Kheer Bhawani, observed under tight security, are perhaps the only time when one sees so many of them in Kashmir. It is also perhaps the only time when Pandits in Kashmir display their faith with such abandon. “Since moving to Kashmir, I come to the Kheer Bhawani temple once a month, but I remove my tika before stepping out of the temple. I don’t want anyone to mark me as a Pandit,” says 30-year-old Nikhil Kaul who moved back to Kashmir last year, after getting a bank job in the state. “You never know who is tracking you. The fear is because of uncertainty, not because we face open confrontation.” The Kheer Bhawani festival this year drew many more Pandits, “approximately 50,000 as against the average of 30-40000 visitors every year,” says Bhan. But pilgrims are reluctant to equate the increase in numbers with the increased conversation surrounding rehabilitation. “It is because Kheer Bhawani this year coincides with a special Kumbh-like occasion for Pandits,” says Amit Raina. In the last 26 years, however, there has been no Pandit gathering where the subject of rehabilitation has not cropped up. Banners around the shrine of Mata Ragyna, the presiding goddess of Kheer Bhawani, seek her help in bringing Pandits back to the valley.

    Read:Older Pandits yearn for past, gen-next finds no future

    Perhaps the cruellest impact of the exile from Kashmir on the Pandits, however, has been the rift it has created within the community, by making rehabilitation mean different things to different people.

    A Community Divided

    When Lovely Bakshi returned to Kashmir in 2010 with a job as a teacher under the PM’s rehabilitation package announced in 2008, she was setting foot in the valley for the first time in 20 years. “It didn’t feel like home. All the people I had known as a child were gone. I came to Kashmir because of the security of having a government job, but life is tough here. I am here alone, while my husband and children are in Delhi,” she says.

    A section of the Pandits, mostly those settled in Delhi, feel the issue for the Pandits is not jobs. “It was not an economic migration. Kashmiri Pandits did not leave for money. Many of us earn much more today than we would have earned here,” says Raina. But for most of those who accepted the PM’s package, it was the safety of a government job that made them return. Lovely is not the only one who left behind a family in Jammu, Delhi or elsewhere in India to accept a job in Kashmir. The question of jobs is also a big one for the handful of Pandits who never left the valley. “Whenever there is talk of rehabilitating Pandits, people think of those who migrated. But what about those who never left the valley? We have had to face very troubled times here. The Pandit community as a whole needs to be resettled,” says Sanjay Tickoo, president of the KPSS. The KPSS recently filed and won a case in the High Court to ensure that benefits being given to the migrants should also be extended to Pandits who never left the valley. “Because of the years of conflict, few private industries have invested here. Government jobs are difficult to get because we are a minority community, but have no minority certificate,” says 28-year-old Megha Pandita. Pandits agree that the varying expectations from rehabilitation have created a distance between them. While those who never left the valley feel they had been unfairly left out, those who migrated point out that the others didn’t lose their homes. “They suffered yes, but because they stayed back, they also got the sympathies of the majority,” says a migrant from Jammu who returned to Kashmir in 2010.

    Women at a transit camp for Pandits in Barmulla, Kashmir (Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

    Meanwhile, at transit camps in Baramulla, Haal and other places in Kashmir, the handful of Pandits who returned, live under the watchful eyes of security forces. “We do feel caged in, but it is true that we can’t roam about freely,” says Rakesh Pandita, a resident of the Baramulla camp. Despite security, there have been incidences of stone pelting at the Haal camp. Most fail to equate the Kashmir they left with the one they have returned to. “You can’t compare the situation today with the one pre-1990. Islamisation has increased. We have no freedom here to express our views,” says Rakesh Pandita. Women talk of people trying to force them to follow the majority’s more conservative practices. “At markets and public transports, people tell us to cover our heads. They criticise us for wearing short-sleeved kurtas,” says Raman Pandita, a resident of the Baramulla transit camp. Education is another issue. “Most schools have Islamic prayers. The national anthem is not sung. My children have learnt to read the Quran, but they don’t study about their own religion and culture. I didn’t want to shift. I regret coming,” says Archana Pandita who shifted to the Haal camp with her husband and children in 2010. There are infrastructural problems too. “There are 105 employees living in 60 quarters. Two families are made to share a two-room quarter. There is no privacy for anyone,” says 40-year-old Ajay Kumar Tiku who lives at the Haal camp.

    A Home Of One’s Own

    Most of the migrants want a separate township for Pandits. “In the last 26 years, there has been no conviction of any of those who committed crimes against Kashmiri Pandits. The sense of justice, the sense of security is what is missing. Security can come only when we live together,” says Amit Raina. Agrees Ashish Zutshi, another migrant based in Delhi, “The majority community doesn’t want us to return. That is why they are opposed to a special township for Pandits. And the government is afraid to go against them. Some people are telling us to go back to our original places. But where are those places now? We had to sell those houses or else they were burnt down. Other houses have come up there. The money being offered to buy new houses isn’t enough to buy such properties.”

    In a small temple complex in Baramulla, a handful of Pandits have been living in small one-room quarters since returning to the valley in 1996. Mostly businessmen, many of them left their families in Jammu when they came back here. One of them, 74-year-old Hardey Nath Ganjoo insists that he has many friends among the Muslims, but is reluctant to live among them in the same locality. A woman says on the condition of anonymity, “They will not be comfortable living with us either. When we returned to Kashmir in 1996, no one was willing to rent us rooms. Finally, we built these rooms in the temple complex,” she says.

    Read:Homecoming for Pandits after painful exodus

    The perception of the Modi government as being sympathetic to Hindus has also made the majority community suspicious of Pandits. “People say things like oh, now you have your government at the centre,” agrees Tickoo, though, having never left Kashmir, he is not in favour of separate townships.

    If there is one thing on which almost all Pandits are united, it is their scepticism of any political party or government’s intentions in resettling the Pandits in Kashmir. “The attempt made by the Modi government is not the first. What is happening today is what was proposed by the Manmohan Singh government. I had filed an RTI with the Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2016. I asked them what are their plans. They are copying the same Manmohan Singh formula, of jobs, employment. But in all these years there has been little dialogue with the Pandits about what they want,” says Raina. A woman in Baramulla, whose son and grandchildren are settled in the National Capital Region answers the question that has been on many people’s minds. “Even if rehabilitation happens now, the government is 26 years too late. The next generation has built a life outside Kashmir,” she says. But what those fighting for rehabilitation want is a choice to return, for those who want it. “A person from Bihar or Bengal, even if he is working in Delhi, will have family back home. He will visit them. He can return anytime he wants to. Why should Pandits not have that option?” questions Zutshi. Without that, Pandits feel their very culture to be in danger. “The generation after us will not know our customs or language. We need to return to protect that,” says Raina.

    Meanwhile, in the old deserted Pandit locality of Haal, Rani has little to say on the issue. “They visit sometimes, the ones who left,” she says of her old neighbours, “But people here are nice. They have never troubled us,” she says, referring to her Muslim neighbours. It is only as the HT team starts to leave that she voices the longing to be near her own community: “I don’t like it alone here. My grandchildren want to move out.”

    ‘I want to get out of Kashmir’

    Eighteen-year-old Sakshi Tickoo has just completed school. And she can’t wait to get out of Kashmir. “I want to study engineering and want to apply outside Kashmir. But my mother is not ready to let me go,” she says. Sakshi’s family never left Kashmir, not even at the height of turmoil in the early 1990s, when most Pandits left the valley. Her father, Sanjay Tickoo, is the president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (a representative body of Pandits in the valley). Yet Sakshi says she doesn’t feel safe in Kashmir. “I don’t like it here. I feel insecure.

    Sakshi, with her father Sanjay Tickoo, at their house in Srinagar (Waseem Andrabi/HT Photo)

    “There are frequent incidents of unrest. We can’t go to school. Education gets very badly impacted in all this,” she says. As a young girl living in Kashmir, her expectations from the state’s first woman chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, echo the aspirations of anyone from her generation. “I hope she does something to improve the quality of education in our state. I also wish she would do something to promote job opportunities for Kashmiri Pandits. There are no jobs here. The opportunities are even fewer for Kashmiri Pandits. Even if I complete my graduation from Kashmir, I will have to go out to work. I don’t think I will find a job here,” she says.

    Talking about the recent political developments in the state, Sakshi says, “I don’t think the BJP-PDP alliance has helped Pandits in any way yet. There have been talks about rehabilitating migrant Pandits, but I don’t think it will help the community in any way. Problems will escalate. If the few who are here have no facilities, how does it make sense to bring more Pandits? There is more freedom, better education outside. I don’t think those who are my age and are outside want to return,” she says.