30 years of Pandit exodus: Night of terror that prefaced years of exile
Around 9pm on January 19, 1990, Sanjay Tickoo sank into his favourite chair in front of the television in his house in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal area. It was a cold evening and most people in the neighbourhood had retired to their homes early.
He had barely switched on the television to the Doordarshan Metro channel when the loudspeaker in the mosque near his house began to blare. Over the next few hours, the announcements grew shriller, and the Tickoo family more scared.
“There were slogans asking Pandits to leave the Valley and for Azadi (freedom). They also asked Muslims to come out on the streets. By 11pm, it had reach fever pitch. And, there was very little communication in those days,” said Tickoo, one of the few remaining Pandits in the Valley.
Around two kilometres away in Downtown, a 46-year-old man was frantically dialling his contacts in the state government as the din rose outside the lattice-patterned window of his two-storey house – but to no avail. “We were told Ralive-Tsalive-ya Galive (Convert, leave or perish). It felt like we had been cut off, abandoned, “ said the man, who refused to be named.
As the night progressed, more people came out on the streets in a city already smarting over the disputed 1987 assembly election and the surprise appointment of controversial bureaucrat Jagmohan as the new governor, hours before. The elected government, led by Farooq Abdullah, was furious and rumours swirled of a breakdown in administration.
And, there was also the fast-rising militancy led by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) that was fighting for the province’s independence.
“It was a scary time and people’s fears were exploited by terrorist elements. I remember none of us could sleep that night. It seemed the message was: tonight, our fate will be decided,” said Aasha Khosa.
The morning brought worse news for the Pandits, a prosperous and close-knit community of 350,000-odd caste Hindus with deep roots in the Valley, many of whom held white-collar and government jobs.
A female relative of Khosa in the Downtown area, a densely populated Muslim-majority neighbourhood that holds roughly a third of the city’s population, had spent the night locked in a room with their young daughter, scared that intruders will barge into their house any time. Another family was so scared that with first light, they called a reliable truck driver and left for Jammu – not even stopping for food during the eight-hour journey.
Curfew had been clamped by the evening of January 20 and massive cordon-and-search operations were initiated, but by then, the exodus of Pandits had begun. “Everyone was leaving clandestinely. Brothers didn’t tell each other that they were running away with their families. They would meet in Jammu and discover the entire family had moved away,” said Khosa.
“It felt like we could be targeted anytime. Kashmir just wasn’t home anymore.”
The horrors of terrorism came home for the Pandits on September 14, 1989, when senior advocate and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Tika Ram Taploo was gunned down in broad daylight outside his house in Srinagar.
Taploo had travelled to Delhi three days before his death to meet his son Ashutosh, who was in his final year of college, and asked him to take care of his mother. “I implored him to not return, but he said it would give our enemies the message that we had capitulated,” said Ashutosh.
The family briefly returned to the Valley, when his mother Sarla fought the 1996 assembly elections from their home in Anantnag, polling the highest number of votes by a BJP candidate in the Valley so far. “The next day, we left,” said Ashutosh.
The first disturbances began in the summer of 1986, said Sunil Shakdher, when a number of Hindu temples in Anantnag district were vandalised. “The selective killings and attacks that began thereafter were meant to force us out,” he added.
There is some disagreement over how the crisis was precipitated. A large section of Pandits blame the majority Muslim community for fanning the insurgency and the state for failing to safeguard their safety. “We were living in a dream that the state, the army and police would protect us. That was our mistake,” said Anoop Kaul.
Another strand argues that the responsibility for the exodus lies with the then governor Jagmohan, who allegedly vacillated on an initial response. The strategy of opening relief camps backfired because it cemented the migration and failed to reassure Pandits.
Wajahat Habibullah, who was a senior administrator in Kashmir at the time, argued that the crisis began when an elected government was dismissed in 1984 and President’s Rule imposed, and it was further fanned by Pakistan.
“Because of political instability and rise of separatists, Kashmiri Pandits began to become targets. Since Pandits were in big (positions) in the government, a narrative was created (by separatists and JKLF) that ‘see, they get everything done through Pandits and Muslims are not wanted here’,” he said.
At any rate, by January 1990, panic was rising within the community as massive street protests, gun march by militants and dissatisfaction with the government threatened to turn sullen anger into violent fury. On January 4, the widely read Urdu daily Aftab carried a message, ostensibly by terrorists, asking Pandits to leave.
“There was a total breakdown of law and order in a climate of fear. No one knew what to expect of the future,” said Ankur Dutta, an assistant professor at South Asian University.
As Pandits streamed into Jammu and Delhi, the stretched infrastructure of these cities struggled to cope with the influx. In Jammu, Pandits were packed into small tenements with little food or water, and a perennial shortage of supplies. From the cool climes of the Valley, they were in tents in the searing summer where temperatures regularly breached 40 degree Celsius.
In Delhi, Shakdher and others lobbied with the government to build camps and even held a march to the Red Fort in February 1991 to press the administration for more funds. By March, camps were set up in South Extension, Malviya Nagar, Patel Nagar and other parts of the city. Three months later, the government set up a monthly allowance of Rs 125 for each person.
“But there was no roadmap for our return. The government didn’t even try to stop the sale of our houses and furniture. All these years, we are living without political power,” said Shakdher.
Many Pandit families reported massive economic losses, and some even went back to Srinagar to recover property, only to find their houses encroached. “The emotional losses were also devastating. These people battled not just a loss of home but also a loss of status. They had to build a life from scratch,” said Dutta. On January 21, security forces opened fire at protesters on the Gawa Kadal bridge, killing an estimated 100 people demonstrating against the search-and-raid operations that had began two days before. Kashmir would never be the same.
By the end of January, waves of Pandits had fled the Valley; prices of trucks had trebled to Rs 5,000 one way. But some, like Tickoo, stayed back. A family from Janpora hired a truck for Jammu, only to find the driver – who was Muslim – refuse the trip halfway because of a perceived danger to his life in Hindu-majority Jammu.
“It was past midnight and the family had to return. They are now the only Pandit family in the village,” said Tickoo.
A number of other prominent Pandits were murdered in the next few months – the community organisation Panun Kashmir estimates around 350 – but some doggedly decided to stay back.
One of them was the poet Sarwanand Kaul ‘Premi’. A resident of Shali village in Anantnag district, Kaul had faith in Kashmir’s multicultural core and on April 25, hosted an Eid celebration at his home.
Three days later, there was a knock at the his door at 9pm. His eldest son Virender went down to find three masked men, who pushed the family into a room at gunpoint and raided the house.
After roughly six hours of loot, the men had packed the gold and cash into sacks; but asked Kaul and Virender to accompany them outside for a “chat” with their commander. “Dad had never harmed anyone. He helped many Muslims. The Quran was in his puja room,” said his younger son Rajinder.
Three days later, the bodies of father and son were found near a ditch. They had been strangled. “Every Pandit left our village that night, never to come back. Someday, our history will be known,” said Rajinder