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The last Pandit of Haal

Kashmir is quieter, more welcoming, but there is little chance of its Hindus ever returning, reports Arun Joshi.

india Updated: Sep 14, 2009 23:39 IST
Arun Joshi

“Waliyu, waliyu (come, come).” Little Aadesh welcomes this writer at his house on the edges of the forlorn village Haal, about 30 km south of Srinagar.

It is a typical home with a wooden door in this village of 3,000 people and their burnt-out, collapsing brick-and-timber

structures, once inhabited by 150 Kashmiri pandit families.
Omkar Nath Bhat and his family are the only Kashmiri Pandits who live in Haal village of Pulwama district. Others were driven away by militancy. Abandoned houses are all that is left of them in the village.

Photo by: Waseem Andrabi/HT

Adeesh’s family is the last.

The three-year-old is the grandson of Omkar Nath Bhat, 72, the only Kashmiri pandit to have decided to stay back in this once-vibrant village of friendly people and views of snow-clad mountains and forests.

The other pandits, Kashmiri Hindus, of Haal left in the winter of 1989, the year militancy exploded across the valley.

More than 350,00 Pandits streamed out of Kashmir that year. Most of the 10,000 who stayed behind joined the exodus after a series of killings since. There are no more than 2,000 pandits today, less than 1 per cent of their population before 1990.

Haal is representative of the peace that prevails now in rural Kashmir, something Chief Minister Omar Abdullah often refers to when imploring pandits to return.

Wearing a pheran, a loose cloak worn by Kashmiris, Omkar emerges from his two-storey house, with his grandchildren peering over a kitchen garden from the windows.

As I produce an identification card, Omkar shows no sign of anxiety on his wrinkled face.

“We had no money and no intention to flee the village,” says Omkar, a retired government employee who coughs constantly. “We thought there was nowhere to go. There was a spectre of death outside this village, so I decided to die here than die elsewhere.”

Omkar calls the winter of 1989 “a dark winter of fear”, the year when the era of sakoon (solace) ended, when he watched his fellow pandits pack in fear and leave.

Today, Bhat and 10 other members of his family live in a house where an Om symbol on the wall in Hindi is fading. His sons, Ashok Kumar, 38, a postal clerk, and Mehraj Krishen, 35, a government teacher in the village, and their families give him company.

There’s no rancour with between the Bhats and their Muslim neighbours. The Bhats say everyone has helped. And the village likes the fact that they stayed back.

Ashok smiles a lot these days.

“Things have improved,” he says. “But none of them (Kashmiri pandits) has come back. Some of them visit this place, take
a look at their houses —which they have not sold — and go back. No one intends to return.”

What about the first house on the roadside, where in bold letters someone has written in blue ink, Madhusudan Bhat?”
“That has been written by the army to identify the person that house belonged to,” explains Ashok. “He (Madhusudan) is dead.”