The distance between Habba Kadal — a labyrinth of lanes in downtown Srinagar — and Sheikhpora in Budgam — a village surrounded by security forces’ training grounds — is barely 20 km. But for Kashmiri Pandits, for whom this week marked 20 years of their exodus from their earlier homes, it’s a treacherous road away from permanence.
The ruined Pandit houses in Habba Kadal bear testimony to the mass migration of 1990 triggered by the eruption of militancy. The unrest was followed by threats asking the Pandits to leave Kashmir by January 30. By March 1990, more than 90,000 had crossed the Banihal tunnel and spread out to different parts of the country.
Some memories stayed back. On one Habba Kadal lane, P.N. Kaul’s dusty name plate is the only marker of his earlier ownership of the three-storeyed house. But he stays on in the memory of his childhood friend and neighbour Muhammad Aslam, a shopkeeper.
“We have together jumped into the Jhelum on the bet of who would cross the river first… I apologise to Kaul for what happened in 1990,” says the 68-year-old Aslam, who is joined by grandson Abid in his wish that the Pandits would return.
But returning may not be that easy as the extreme conditions of 1990 are still fresh in the memory of those uprooted. Neeru Kaul was in Class 4 when her family left Habba Kadal. An established research scientist in Gurgaon today, she had to fight financial constraints to complete her studies. The 29-year-old, says, “It is impossible to go back now.”
Residents of Jammu’s Mishriwala camp, where more than 550 migrant Pandit families stay, echo the thought. Niranjay Nath Bhat, 80, who owns a shop near the camp, “They are not ready yet to welcome us back.”
But younger migrants such as Kaulare hopeful. One reason for hope came last week, when the Sheetal Nath temple, was reopened at the behest of some Muslim leaders. “Muslims in our locality knocked our doors insisting that we take care of the temples,” says 70-year-old Triloki Nath Ganjoo, patriarch of one of the four Pandit families that stayed back in the area. More than 50 temples have been reopened.
The Kashmiri Pandit Sangarash Samiti, a group of Pandits living in Kashmir and headed by Sanjay Tickoo, has constituted a three-member committee to approach the managing committees of mosques.
Twenty-year-old Moushmi Pandita, one of the 3,000 Pandits who stayed back in the Valley, is hopeful that more people would return. Born in 1991, Moushmi lost her three uncles in a killing in 1997, but decided against the odds to stick it out.
“I will never go, whatever happens. I belong to this soil,” said Moushmi, a martial arts medallist who’s studying commerce at the Islamia College in Srinagar. She is the only Hindu student in the college. “I want Pandits to return and live among us like in the past. Not in the clusters proposed by the government,” she says.
Return of the natives
Twenty kilometres from Habba Kadal, at Sheikhpora in Budgam, Pandita’s concerns are repeated by Veena Kaul, who lives in a Pandit cluster opened in March 2008 by the Ghulam Nabi Azad-led coalition.
“We were better off at our village. The quarters do not give the sense of a village. We are just 30 families here. Since 2008, no new family has joined,” says Kaul, who now lives fenced in by a 16-foot wall topped with barbed wires.
Besides Sheikhpora, safe houses are being built in the towns of Mattan, Islambad, Tulmulla and Ganderbal. The new rehabilitation mechanism works on two assumptions: that the Kashmir turmoil is permanent, and that the communal divide is beyond redemption.
But separatists — both moderates like Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and hardliners like Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani — oppose the Pandit ghettoes. The realisation stems from the fact their “political struggles” will be described as religious rather than political if they exclude the Pandits. “They (Kashmiri Pandits) are part of our society. We are incomplete without them. We will do everything for their return,” says Yasin Malik, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief whom Kashmiri Hindus accuse of being behind their migration.
Radhika Koul, a Class 12 student at Sardar Patel School in Delhi, was born in Ranchi but has visited Kashmir three times. She says, “Leaders like Malik might speak like Gandhi now, asking us to come back. But the situation there belies that. When we went to visit, my mother took off her earrings that reveal her identity. We could look at our ancestral house for only two minutes.”
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is hoping his offer of 6,000 jobs and government scholarships for Pandits would bring them back for longer.