Nineteen years after Kashmiri Pandits were pushed out, they yearn to return. But the young have moved on
I still am; I am not still. — Arvind Gigoo, The Ugly Kashmiri
Exile is not exile, it is said, unless impassioned by longing. It’s just that expressions of this can differ. On 31 May this year at Tulamulla in Ganderbal, 20 km from Srinagar, it took the form of religious devotion. It was the holiest day of Jaishtha Ashtami (Zaetha Aetham in Kashmiri), an occasion for thousands of Kashmiri Pandits from Jammu and beyond to throng to their holiest shrine, Kheer Bhawani. Pilgrimage numbers have been swelling steadily since 2004, as violence in the Valley began to quieten down, but the numbers were very large this time round. They sang and danced, bumped into old faces they never thought they’d see again, participated in a ritual havan and saw spring water miraculously change colour.
“It feels just like the old days,” said Chunni Lal Tickoo, 63, who ran into his Sopore neighbours of 19 years ago. Another pilgrim from Jammu, Ram Kishan, 50, met his old neighbour Ghulam Rasool Mir from Anantnag in Kashmir, who had come to help with the festivities. “Mir’s a member of the Swami Vivekananda Ashram,” said Kishan, looking up to spot disbelief.
THE VALLEY’S DIASPORA
It has been nearly two decades since Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley en masse under persecution by militant separatists, but their attachment to the land of their ancestors is evident even among the younger lot. It’s a slightly different sentiment, though.
Among the pilgrims was Sandeep Pandita, 25, a trained video editor now studying animation in Delhi. He was six in 1990 when militancy erupted and his family left Budgam for Jammu. His father, who worked at the power department, continued to get a special ‘leave salary’. Today, at long last, Sandeep considers Kashmir safe enough for him to visit and travel, even interview migrant Pandits on his video camera for a documentary. Kheer Bhawani was the perfect opportunity for this, even if he was drawn to the place for its assurance of belonging. But returning to settle in Kashmir is not part of his plans. He sees his future elsewhere. “I’m trying to go abroad,” he says, “My generation does not want Kashmir. It wants America.”
He is not the only one. Meet Mohit Rawal, 23, who has studied engineering at Mumbai’s Rizvi College, but now works with an event management company. Rawal is here with a cousin, Rohit Pandita, who also did engineering at a Mumbai college before joining Alcatel-Lucent, a telecom company. When Rohit was offered a posting in Srinagar, he was hesitant at first. Having migrated to Jammu with his family when he was four, he didn’t know what to expect. But last year, he and his parents had visited Kheer Bhawani for Jaishtha Ashtami and his mother “found it to be absolutely safe and peaceful, contrary to the image the media projects”. So she persuaded Rohit to take up the offer. “Besides, an aunt still lives in Habbakadal [a once Pandit-dominated area of Srinagar], and it’s closer to my parents in Jammu than any other place would have been,” he says.
Rohit’s college friends ask him about bombs and guns, but he has made new friends in Srinagar and now shares a rented flat with his Kashmiri Muslim colleagues. “It feels much better than Bombay,” he says, “It feels like home. My Muslim friends treat me as just another Kashmiri boy.”
So why doesn’t Rohit’s family return to Srinagar? “My husband has a job,” says his mother, “We have relatives and we’re sort of settled here. And who knows when Rohit gets a transfer?”
‘Settled’ elsewhere. Their story is typical of most Pandit families today. They long for Kashmir, but as a place to visit, perhaps take nostalgia tours, but not as a place to re-adopt as their domicile. “Most Kashmiri Pandits today are economically better off than they were in the Valley,” says Yogesh Kandhari, another pilgrim from Jammu, “They’re all doctors and engineers, and have representation everywhere. But if there were jobs in the Valley, many would return from Jammu.” Will jobs be a lure enough? Chunni Lal Tickoo, for one, is unconvinced. “On the way to Kheer Bhawani,” he says, “I saw protestors shouting ‘Indian dogs go back’ [to security forces, after the rape and murder of two women in Shopian]. I regard myself as an Indian. Can I live here when they shout this?” Longing there may be. But the misgivings endure.
There are several Pandits who never left Kashmir. There are about 611 such families—and 3,500 individuals in all—who still live in the Valley, according to a survey done by the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, set up to represent ‘non-migrant’ Pandits. Many who stayed back had resolved to leave only if life became utterly unbearable. “When you live in a conflict zone,” says Sanjay Tickoo, a Srinagar resident who heads the Samiti, “you hone your survival instincts.” He remembers getting a threatening letter from a militant outfit in July 1990—after most Pandits had left—asking him to leave. He gave it to the press, and its publicity got him an apology note.
Yet, sighs Tickoo, Pandit presence is nearing extinction in the Valley because it’s so much easier to find support structures and jobs outside Kashmir. Worse, he adds, “The politics of organisations like Panun Kashmir [a migrant agitation group] sometimes results in harassment of Pandits here.” Today, Sikhs and non-Pandit Hindus outnumber Pandits in the Valley, he says, and most Pandit migrants have sold their property (65 per cent in rural areas and 90 per cent in urban, according to his survey), a sign of their having given up their stake forever.
But even those who have stayed back have regrets of their own. Maharaj Krishan Bhat, 36, is an electrician who was displaced within the Valley. After the Wandhama massacre in 1998, the state government got his and 30 other families in Budgam district to relocate to a camp. In 2004, the state government opened a gated colony with 365 flats at Sheikhpura, in Kashmir’s Budgam district, for Pandits from Jammu to return. When none did, 31 were given to internally displaced families, such as Bhat’s. The rest have predictably become a transit camp for security forces.
Bhat wishes he had left when he had the chance. “If I had migrated back then, my children would have got a better future,” he says, citing the story of his aunt whose son is now a globetrotting professional. Not that he’s in touch with that part of the family: “Our relatives never cared for us. They left without informing each other, silently, one night.” When he was growing up in Budgam, he didn’t feel any different from his Muslim neighbours. “But today, I feel my identity is something special,” he says,even as the Valley witnesses a shutdown in protest against security forces—seen by largely Muslim agitators as perpetrators of the gruesome crime in Shopian. “These things maintain the fear of the Valley for my migrant relatives in Jammu. But for me it is daily life,” says Bhat. “We were too poor to leave,” says his neighbour Bhushan Lal Kaul, 65.
Back at Tulamulla, though, the biggest complaint of Pandits was the weather in Jammu. The heat of the plains, they said, is an enduring punishment. Driving down from Srinagar to Jammu, one could see the point entirely. Jammu is another country—a country of old Pandit men and women, because the children have all left for education and jobs. “Social mobility has been important for the community post-migration,” says Gopi Krishan Muju, a retired clinical psychologist who lives alone in Jammu. “A man in a village in Kashmir had little opportunity to do anything beyond his orchards,” he says, “Today he has found a new world. The frog from the river has leapt into the sea.” Muju says he is committed to return to the Valley, but is not sure how and when. His house was first looted by locals and then rented by the CRPF. “They behaved like occupation forces, took away even the fittings and the iron gate!”
Some 35,000 odd families had descended on Jammu as refugees in 1990, by the tally of Jammu Relief Commissioner Vinod Kaul, his own family among them. He says, “21,000 families went to Delhi and other cities. The government has data of 57,000 families, the rest didn’t register with us.” Today, 16,000 families in Jammu are recipients of relief funds—Rs 5,000 per month per family—and the rest are serving or retired government employees. Kaul estimates that every year, around 1,300 Pandit students ask him for migrant certificates to gain admission to academic institutions, and very few return. “And then lovaria happens,” he chuckles, “and they marry outside the community!”
The size of Jammu’s relief camps has been stable at just under 5,000 families, adds Kaul, with some families moving out and others taking their place—though many retain their camp papers to claim any other benefits that may come their way. Life there is uncomfortable; the cramped asbestos-roof quarters are slum-like, with power cuts in the sweltering heat adding to the misery.
It was in a single room in this camp that Anil Tickoo, like many others, studied without coaching for his engineering entrance test in Maharashtra, a state that brought in a ‘Kashmiri migrant’ quota in 1996 thanks to the efforts of Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray. Anil’s family still lives in the camp (his father works with the police), while he prepares for an MTech degree. “We haven’t sold our land in Baramulla just in case the children need it some day,” says his mother Titli Tickoo. It’s property that Anil has never seen, never having been to the Valley. “If I go, I will cry,” he says. His grandmother hardly knows any Hindi, and he knows as much Kashmiri, but they still manage to communicate. Our orchards had more fruits than all of Jammu, she tells him, look what has become of us. His mother says she is waiting for her son to get a job and will move wherever he does.
It is not only Maharashtra that has come to the rescue. MK Kaw, when he was higher education secretary at the Ministry of Human Resource Development, implemented an all-India reservation policy for Kashmiri migrants in 2000—one seat per course per class, created additionally, in all states and some central universities. Kashmiri Pandit websites and mailing lists ensure that everyone is kept informed. Moreover, even J&K has reservations now, a state where Pandits once monopolised all merit lists.
“Like most hill states, the Valley can’t provide jobs,” says Kaw, who later became president of the All India Kashmiri Samiti. He recounts: “We once called Farooq Abdullah to one of our functions and he returned to Srinagar and said in a public meeting, ‘Look the Pandits have created thousands of engineers. You have created thousands of terrorists!’”
Little wonder that Kashmiri Pandits consider these reservations such a blessing, though this also means they won’t return to Kashmir, even if it periodically tugs their heart strings. “If Jammu is becoming an old-age home, then the same was the case with the Valley,” says Kaw, “But we want our homes in the Valley, that’s where are roots are.”
In Delhi, all 20-odd camps have shut down, with their inmates having found themselves jobs, loves and the like. One such family is of Ravi Fotedar, 22, whose father found a job in Bahadurgarh, Haryana. Currently pursuing an MBA, he travels to Delhi daily to work with an HR consultancy.
On 31 May, Fotedar was in Tulamulla with his brother, visiting Kashmir for the first time. He stayed home with his uncle in the Army, cancelling his sightseeing plans in fear of the Shopian agitation. Other tourists moved around freely, but Fotedar was a little too afraid to venture out. “I don’t think the Valley can be normal again,” he said, “There’s the Army even in villages and fields.”
By 2005, the Delhi camps had only 235 Pandit families left, and they were allotted one-room DDA houses on instalments, at subsidised rates. Some have paid up and sold the houses. But one man still lives in a relief camp, refusing to move out. Shadi Lal Pandita has made himself comfortable in the Moti Nagar Community Centre, installing an AC to beat the heat. He turned down the one-room flat offer because he felt he deserved better. “I had a flourishing business in Kashmir with orchards and shops,” he says, “Today my land is barren, house gutted and factory looted. I want compensation for that. There were those who had nothing in the Valley and have become millionaires here. And look at me.” Would he return to Kashmir? “My daughters have grown up in Delhi, they belong to this environment,” he says. Perhaps he’ll sell his property there after all.
“To return would mean to ‘uproot’ again,” says Ankur Datta, who is researching Pandit migration at the London School of Economics, “Another question to ask is what do the Pandits want to return to? I would say almost every Pandit uprooted from Kashmir is caught in nostalgia.” What they often want, he adds, is a return to the homes they left behind. Some want to return to a Kashmir of the past, pre-1990. With so much having changed since, that’s sadly a little too fanciful.