Vijay Sas was 14 when his father, an employee with the Jammu and Kashmir judiciary, vowed not to migrate from the Valley at a time when thousands of Hindus were fleeing their ancestral homes in the face of rising militancy.
While around 60,000 Kashmiri Pandit families escaped the separatist insurgency as the violence peaked in 1989 and 1990, close to 800 households chose to brave the bullets.Twenty-five years on, the families say they feel safe and have no regrets.
“Once my father was picked up by the Al-Umar militant outfit in 1992 with the intention to kill him, but a Muslim lady from the neighbourhood negotiated his release. There were two attempts to harm my father but he withstood them,” said 39-year-old Sas, now a father of two.
The Srinagar resident said he himself faced a threat to his life in 1998 but separatist leader Shakeel Bakshi intervened.
Living in the Nai Sadak area that’s considered the heart of the separatist movement, Sas says he banked on the goodwill of the Muslim neighbourhood instead of the nearby security outpost.
“Neighbours have no religion. They are just neighbours,” said the high court employee.
Staying back in the face of violence was a hard choice but harder still was to live with it, said Sas.
“Unlike other Kashmiri Pandits, those who stayed back faced guns from both sides. For Muslims we were IB agents and for migrant Pandits we were ISI agents,” he said.
Sandeep Kaul’s family never migrated from Srinagar’s Karfali Mohalla area, known as Chhota Pakistan at the peak of militancy.
“My father, Poshkar Nath, worked with the Military Engineering Services. He was brave and despite my uncle’s suggestion that we move, he insisted ‘life or death should happen here’,” said the 29-year-old.
Living with a minuscule population, finding suitable life partners for sons and daughters emerges as a challenge, said Kaul.
“One of my sisters got married at the peak of street protests in 2008. But Muslim neighbours were always there to help,” he said.