On an unusually warm April afternoon, there are several mysteries confounding Srinagar. One of them concerns the encounter of a young man in Tral, who, the army claims, was a militant sympathiser. The boy's family, however, claims that he was an ordinary citizen. But Srinagar is not new to ambiguities.
Earlier this week, the debate over the government's plans to construct "composite townships" to facilitate the return of migrant Kashmiri Pandits, has brought to fore a few others too. What happened in 1990, for instance, and the fiercely contested history of Pandit migration. Or why, despite the tensions between the two communities, did a Pandit entrust his shop to a Wahabi Muslim neighbour, asking him to take care of it until the family decided to come back?
It is this contested history of the mass exodus of the Pandits, as well as the complex relationship shared by the two communities until then, and even after, that seems to complicate the idea of return. The numbers of those who did return - at different points in the last 25 years - may be skewed against those who didn't, but the experiences of the former make for a layered story.
In the busy market in North Kashmir's Baramulla district, it's not hard to spot a temple complex, where a few Pandit shopkeepers have been living since 1996-97. Inside the two-storeyed temple complex, there are small rooms for each family, a common toilet and bathroom, and a security post that serves as a constant reminder of their troubled identity. Nirmala Wali, in her late 50s, says that she and her husband, who left for Jammu in 1990, came back only for theír chemist shop. The children were left with the grandparents in Jammu.
"It was very hard after we left Kashmir. There were days when we had no money to buy food. So when a group of shopkeepers from this area decided to return, my husband also agreed," she says.
Once in the Valley, the Walis found that their house had been taken over by the CRPF, but the shop was intact. Bhawani Shankar, Nirmala's husband, says that the locals helped them restart the business.
"We have had no problems with people here ever since, they have always been supportive," he says. But "politically", Bhawani Shankar, who identifies himself as a "follower of RSS and BJP", says that he would want a township for the community. "In Jammu, we have received a flat in the Jagti township for migrants, where even Muslims have got flats. If they have one like that here, what is the harm? We will only feel more secure."
Bhawani Shankar Wali went back to Baramulla in 1996 with a group of Pandit shopkeepers and has stayed on. (Photo: Waseem Andrabi/HT)
Pushkar Nath Ganju, 70, their neighbour in the temple complex, has a similar story: coming back for business, getting support from the locals in restarting it, and feeling safe "even during the peak of militancy". Ganju says that many who came back with them have returned to Jammu. But he stayed on.
"I had the respect of my customers here. In business, it takes time to build relationships. How could I leave all this behind? My children say that I should now return to them, but I feel at home here," he says, adding that his wife divides her time between Jammu and Baramulla. Pushkar Nath says that he is suspicious of the state government's rhetoric of the return of the Pandits.
"These are political games. Somebody says that they will build a township; another says that the Pandits should ask for forgiveness [referring to a comment made by a local politician]," he says. But politics aside, the idea of return is complicated because those who wish to return now, can no longer go back to their original houses. "Those properties are too expensive now. A new township might be good," he says.
Amongst Pandits in the Valley, there are naysayers for this idea too. Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, argues that it would only further escalate tensions between the two communities. Tickoo, whose family never left the Valley, feels that "return" is not simple.
"Our culture has always been composite, but there has been a gap of 25 years now. How are they planning to bridge it? What will happen when the kids of returnees go to majority-dominated schools? Instead of these hollow slogans, why isn't the government addressing the larger problem of educated, unemployed youth turning to militancy?" he says. Tickoo says that even though his family never left the Valley, there have been several instances when he has also faced that dilemma because of the threats that he has been receiving. "Instead of making ghettos, why can't the government just give land and compensation to the displaced, as in the case of a development project," he says.
A few others in the Valley agree. Santosh and Surinder Kachroo, who have returned to the Valley from Mumbai last year, for instance. The mild-mannered couple, who have built their house in an upmarket neighbourhood in Srinagar's Sanatnagar, say that returning after retirement was always part of their plan. Unlike others who have lost touch with the Valley, the couple says they were regular visitors all through, even when "militancy was at its peak".
Like the Pandits in Baramulla, the Kachroos too share stories of getting local support those who guarded their house while it was being constructed. The couple insists that fear has not been a part of their resettled lives, and that they have only encountered warmth from the people in the Valley. But things have changed too, they say. "A girl in my school pointed to my bindi, and asked me whether I work in a TV serial. I realised she had never seen a Pandit woman in her life," says Santosh, who now runs a franchise for a Mumbai-based chain of playschools in Sanat Nagar.
Surinder and Santosh Kachroo in front of their Srinagar home. (Photo: Waseem Andrabi/HT)
Given the history of close relations between the communities, and the intervening gap, the Kachroos say that a township won't work. "A separate colony will only intensify the mental and physical barriers between the two communities. In a culture where even our cremation grounds were taken care of by Muslims, how can there be a ghetto-like existence?" wonders Surinder, a retired engineer. He reveals that he was a strong advocate of the concept of Panun Kashmir (separate homeland) in the 1990s, but has changed his position in the last few years. "At that time, it was important for us to be heard, to be considered as stakeholders in the region. Now, the situation has changed," he says.
For those living in the Sheeri Baramulla "transit camp", the situation only seems to have worsened. The camp has 140 employees, who came to the Valley as part of the PM's package for migrant Pandits, announced in 2008. Rakesh Pandita, a resident of the camp, says that those who took up the package are working as bonded labour: the bond they signed as part of their appointment entails that they can't be transferred within the Valley or outside. As a result of this policy, families have been scattered.
"My husband is working in Delhi, and my kids live with their grandparents in Jammu. I have been here for the past five years. I can't bring my children here because there's no one to take care of them while I am at work. Besides, what school am I supposed to send the kids to? The one where I teach has children reading the Koran in the morning. I don't want my daughter to read the Koran, or cover her head like local girls," says a resident of the colony, who did not wish to be identified.
The residents' trauma of living away from their families is compounded by the colony's poor infrastructure: the long walk uphill to fetch water from a spring, the lack of drinking water, and frequent power cuts. Unlike the Kachroos, who say they have grown used to the "anti-India" sentiment in the Valley which existed before they left as well, those in the camps are finding it difficult to reconcile to it. "After India lost the cricket match against Australia, some young boys threw a cracker at me, and shouted pro-Pakistan slogans. It was terrifying," says another female resident, requesting anonymity. However, she and other residents also talk of being friendly with locals, and of "feeling confident of living in the Valley" a few years down the line. "But the government needs to rehabilitate us fully now," says Pandita.
Amidst the sharp political rhetoric around the return of migrants, there are moderate voices supporting the idea of a composite township. JNU professor Dr Amitabh Mattoo says, "We need to look at the positive side of the relationship shared by the two communities to move forward. The proposal is a work in progress, and if a moderate opinion is allowed to come together to discuss this, a solution can be arrived at."
Javid Ahmed, Assistant Professor at the political science department in the University of Kashmir echoes that view. He says that the Valley has been home to a "syncretic culture" and that comparisons with the Israel-Palestine situation do not stand ground. "We have common cultural icons. There's enough shared political history too," he says. "Besides, if the elite can live in separate colonies, why can't the Pandits?" It's a moot point in a city that is fast losing its mohallas to modern day colonies, says Ahmed. But until the mystery around the exact nature of these "composite townships" is unravelled, the return of the migrants will remain a difficult proposition.