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She lived to tell her story

Girija Kanna's home burned for three days when militants set it on fire. But there was a far greater tragedy unfolding before her eyes: Kashmir burned for twenty years. Neelesh Misra narrates her story.Spl: Kashmir moves on

india Updated: Jul 19, 2008 22:31 IST
Neelesh Misra

Girija Kanna's home burned for three days when militants set it on fire. But there was a far greater tragedy unfolding before her eyes: Kashmir burned for twenty years.

Kanna has seen the last two decades of Kashmir through a rare prism: she is among the handful of Kashmiri Hindus – locally called Pandits -- who stayed back even as hundreds of thousands of others from the community fled the Valley in 1989 and 1990 after killings and death threats.

Kanna saw the posters that ordered Pandits to leave, bodies of people brutally killed by militants and homes ransacked, looted and burned by them. But she also recounts horror tales of how paramilitary soldiers took away belongings from the abandoned homes of Pandits, how they molested women and made dancing girls perform in desolate neighbourhoods, and how ordinary Kashmiris were subjected to humiliation and beatings.

But she believes the worst is over.

"I did not leave. I stayed back, and I have no regrets," said Kanna, 44, who lives off a narrow lane in Srinagar's Indiranagar naighbourhood with her pet cat. "I think the future is bright for us Kashmiris."

Two decades ago however, the unimaginable was playing out. Towards the end of 1989, posters began appearing on the doors of Kashmiri Pandit families, asking them to leave. Several Urdu newspapers published "expulsion orders" from the militants. And, from January 19, 1990, breaking the silence of the night, terrifying roars simultaneously went up from mosques across the valley: "Kashmiri Pandits leave the valley, leave your women behind".

Kanna, then 25, lived in the Habbaqadal neighbourhood named after a nearby bridge, one of the nine wooden bridges in Srinagar. Slowly Hindu families began to empty out, leaving in hired taxis or military trucks in the middle of the night. Those who did not were dragged out of their homes and humiliated. Some people she knew were killed.

"Then no Pandit remained. The neigbourhood was pitch dark, seemed like a haunted place," said Kanna, who used to work with the Central Telegraph Office.

By mid-1990, about 350,000 Pandits had fled their homeland. Kanna moved too – but only to another part of Srinagar, Karan Nagar. She continued to go to work.

"One day I saw my name on the notice board in the office, ordering me to leave," she said. "But many of my colleagues were very supportive, they offered me all help. And so many Muslims were so kind and helpful, telling me not to leave."

By this time, hundreds of thousands of troops were pouring into the Kashmir Valley, most of them inexperienced in dealing with conflict of this kind. Bunkers began to come up. Srinagar began to get sandbagged.

Weeks later, Kanna returned to Habba Kadal one day to see the condition of her home. She saw a sight that she has never forgotten.

"Locks had been broken by militants. They had stored ammunition on the roofs. And everything in my house was gone – the huge brass utensils and expensive ceramic ware, the furniture, even my father's documents and the mounted barasingha (antelope) head," Kanna said.

Deaths of Pandits continued. A government official was killed as he sat on his chair in his office; another chased to his top floor and fell in the grain canister, soaking the wheat with his blood.

"There was a family – the Ganjus – the husband and two minor daughters were killed by the militants. She went to the mosque and said: `you killed them, why did you spare me?' They said `to mourn them'," Kanna said.

"And Kashmiri Pandits who had fled used to call me and ridicule me on the phone for staying back, saying they were sure I was wearing a burqa by now," she said.

Across the city, panicky soldiers had also started mowing down protesting Kashmiris. Security forces slowly began to move into neighbourhoods, setting up pickets that – unknown to Kashmiris -- would last two decades.

A 20-year medley of beatings, deaths, shootouts, humiliating searches, military crackdowns and street battles began. Suspected began to disappear, never to be found again. Homes were raided.

"The security forces did a lot of injustice. I saw soldiers looting homes. Expensive Kashmiti carpets would be thrown from roofs to waiting soldiers on the ground," Kanna said. "Security forces blocked traffic, beat up drivers, made people crouch like a murga (rooster) or made them stand on their heads."

One day a drunken paramilitary soldier leaped over the wall and forced into Kanna's home. She lodged a written complaint, and finally got an apology.

"They even whistled, teased and passed comments when I or any other woman went by. They used to bring women from Kashmiri villages and make then sing and dance. Those soldiers who couldn't fit in, peeped from walls and watched," she said.

Twenty years on, several Pandits are returning now. The government's rehabilitation efforts for Pandits include proposed secured enclaves, buildings with small two-room apartments and a recent Rs. 1,600 crore package. They have been received with little enthusiasm.

The large-scale return of the Pandits might be a distant possibility. Still, Kanna sees shades of Kashmiriyat shining again.

"The Pandit homes were destroyed. Many people I know have returned to their villages but there have nowhere to live -- they say there is little help from the government but local Muslims have given them a place to stay at their homes for now," she said.

And when Kanna's brother and sister-in-law came visiting in June and they shared an auto-rickshaw, the Muslim driver, realising the passengers were Pandits, charged ten rupees less than normal.

"It was a very sweet gesture on his part," Kanna said. "We want to see you happy', he told us."