“There are mountains in Kashmir, and there are trees. There are gardens and temples. It is cold and nice there.” For Reyanka Shah, a 16-year-old Kashmiri Hindu schoolgirl, the Valley is a page straight out of a picture book — verdant and dreamy.
She has never been to Kashmir and has never met a Kashmiri Muslim. Her only window to the Himalayan world from her one-room shack in the Jammu refugee sprawl, where she lives, is the television screen.
It is the same picture-postcard expanse that her parents fled in 1989, along with 360,000 other refugees. That was after terrorist attacks killed hundreds from Kashmir’s minority Hindu community as part of a campaign by Islamic militants seeking a separate homeland for the Kashmiris. Threats on loudspeakers echoed from mosques across the valley night after night: “Pandits leave Kashmir, but without your women.”
Seventeen years later, most Kashmiri Pandits do not want to go back to the land that drove them away. The youth are slowly drifting from their Kashmiri roots and culture. Alienated, the community has no stake in the region’s roadmap for the future. “The new generation is not interested in returning at all,” says chartered accountant Shiban Duda, of the All-India Kashmiri Samaj. "Unlike the Jews, who passed the idea of the lost land down the generations, no such thing happened among the Pandits,” said writer and blogger Rahul Pandita, 30, who fled with his family as a teenager. “Life in Kashmir Valley was like a cocoon. Once you got out of your land, it was as if an umbilical cord snapped.”
“Few among the Gen Next speak Kashmiri. There used to be a longing, but the new generation has no idea what Kashmir is all about. They have no connections, no longing,” Pandita says.
Most Pandits have rebuilt their lives elsewhere, pursuing careers in India and overseas. But the worst victims live out a difficult existence. Some 30,000 people suffer in squalid camps in Jammu and in crumbling single-room homes.
“We are worse than beggars. This country does not care for us,” says Ravindra Kumar Raina, 38, a cigarette company salesman, who once owned a house and an orchard in the Anantnag district. Many feel their loyalty was taken for granted by governments that otherwise pumped in crores of rupees to pamper anti-India sentiment in the Valley. “These governments pay attention only to terrorists who hurl bombs, not patriots, who lost their families,” said Heera Lal Chattha, a Pandit community leader in Jammu. He fled like hundreds of thousands of others in 1989 and the early 1990s, when the bombs struck.
For 15 years, governments did little to woo the Pandits back, providing a measly dole of Rs 3,000 to 14,600 families. In November 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered construction of 5,242 one-bedroom flats at several places.
The deadline was 2008. Work has begun, and the state government is also building a few hundred more flats. But Pandits say it is a bad idea.
“You are going to imprison them and mark target,” says Omar Abdullah, head of the state's main opposition National Conference party. LN Dhar of the Kashmiri Samiti, a leading Pandit body, says, “We do not want to return. We want to be resettled in Delhi.” An entire generation of Kashmiri Hindu and Muslim children has grown up over the past 17 years as complete strangers.
In December last year, when Muslim schoolgirls from Srinagar’s Tibet Baqal School visited New Delhi and were invited to a Pandit home, they refused to touch the tea. “Are we allowed to have tea in the house of a Pandit?” one of them asked their teacher. That is a long way from the time when they were showcased as a model of Hindu-Muslim co-existence in a country of religious schisms. But most Pandits still nurture fond memories of that time in the Valley, and their old Muslim friends. “Who could have imagined that buses would run between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad?” said Dr MK Magazine, a leading orthopaedic surgeon in New Delhi.
Tomorrow: A war on autopilot