30 years of Pandit exodus: Living as a refugee in one’s own country
The day the trailer of the film Shikara [on the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits] was released, a few of my Pandit friends gathered at my home. We watched the trailer together, after which there was complete silence in the room. I did not raise my gaze and look at them. The hoarfrost of our hearts was shaken up by a call I received from a journalist friend in Jammu whose family spent several years in a refugee camp through the 90s. He spoke in a hurry, as if he were running out of time, as if his survival depended on the testimony he was to share at that moment. Responding to a scene in the trailer where a group of Pandit refugees are seen running after a truckload of tomatoes, he said the scene was true; he said he had witnessed it time and again in the refugee camp: trucks coming with relief material such as rice, vegetables, or kerosene oil.
The friend had received a Crompton Greaves table fan as part of relief material in those days. His family has still kept it, though it stopped working years ago. “We just cannot part with it,” he said.
Most of us have kept such things. It has been 30 years since we were forced out of home in an Islamist euphoria in which many of our Muslim friends, neighbours and colleagues got swayed.
We are tired now. We don’t even come out on January 19, a day which we mark as the beginning of exodus from Kashmir Valley. We have gone silent about it and found other ways of dealing with the bitterness. But we have kept things. This is because so much untruth has been said about us that sometimes we need to make sure ourselves that the exodus happened, and that we became refugees in our country.
Like my friend, many of us have kept blankets that we got as relief in those days. I remember in 1990 standing in exile outside the home of a local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary near my one-room dwelling in Jammu who was coordinating relief distribution in the area. I was 14.
At an age when I would have wanted to display a little machismo to impress girls in my school, I waited helplessly outside that man’s house, trying to overcome my humiliation. I wanted to run away, but we barely had anything to sleep upon. Our landlady had given us two durries, but mother said they smelt of rat urine. So, we badly needed that blanket. I bit my cheek and entered. As soon as I got hold of it, I closed my eyes and ran. The blanket stayed with us for several years till my parents shifted to Delhi.
Sometimes our liberal friends complain that our story has been militarised. Some say that many of us have become bigots by supporting Narendra Modi and because a few Pandits keep trolling some prominent journalists and academicians on Twitter.
But give us some leeway. My people may unsparingly use the term ‘Presstitute’ (including on me, sometimes), but they have not taken up the gun. We have not killed anyone; we have not burnt buses. We have not gone to any Muslim locality and taunted people with slogans that would remind them of, say, Babri Masjid demolition.
But spare a thought about what trauma is inflicted upon us. Our friends are going out in protest marches and shouting Azadi slogans till their voice goes hoarse. They say they want Azadi from communal politics, Azadi from so many other things they think ail India right now. They say it has nothing to do with the slogans in Kashmir. But, for a moment, step into our shoes. In 1990, thousands of people were shouting these slogans on the streets of Kashmir, from its mosques all over, while baying for the blood of the minority Hindus.
These slogans were reverberating when a Pandit woman’s appendix burst because the doctors in her district hospital in South Kashmir refused to operate upon her. Finally, after a lot of pleading, a Muslim doctor (whose kids were taught by one of lady’s relatives) operated upon her secretly. The Azadi slogans were still on as she was put on a mattress in a truck shortly afterwards, to Jammu, where she received proper treatment. The lady’s son, a boy then, became a lone wolf — not to ram trucks into innocent people, but to study medicine and become a doctor, who is now based in New Zealand.
In the last three decades we have known of so many elderly people, who, on their deathbeds, wished to just be taken home. We had a way of life, we had our Gods, our language, our festivals, our rituals. They are all vanishing in our collective memory. In exile, we put pictures of our symbolic celebration of rituals on Instagram, more as an assurance to ourselves than to others — assurance that we are a people who are still alive; that our ties with our homeland have not been severed.
We are not fools. We are not in whataboutery, pinning blame of our exodus on people who are young and want to fight a battle for their idea of India. We do not want to belittle the struggle of Shaheen Bagh. We don’t want our story to be used to exact revenge on anyone. But at least show us a little empathy. Remember what demons come to revisit us when you shout those slogans.
After the Shikara trailer was out, a Pandit lady wrote on Facebook how her father was forced to join the Azadi procession in Srinagar in 1990 and had to flash a V sign to escape being singled out. Kashmiri blogger Vinayak Razdan shared a paper by a scholar that claimed Pandits were “quite compatible with the separatist ideologies,” and participated in anti-India marches.
It is this blatant whitewash that has given Kashmiri terrorists the image of Gandhians.
Remember, a killer called Farooq Dar alias Bitta Karate (from the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) would roam around in downtown Srinagar with his pistol, searching for Batt’e Mushk (the smell of a Pandit), in order to find one and then kill him? Even then, Azadi slogans were running in the background. Show us a little empathy because, (Article) 370 or not, he has still not been tried for these murders.
The man who participated by coercion in the ‘Azadi march’ that day in Srinagar is an invalid, today. He cannot even speak. His birthday is on February 7. Shikara releases on February 7. I hope that the man and all of us get some closure. I hope we never hear that slogan again.