Everything was going fine for Shadi Lal in the Paradise on Earth till killers with Kalashnikovs arrived on January 22, 1990, baying for his Pandit blood. The Unani practitioner, who was treating his fellow villagers for free near Babareshi shrine in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, had to climb a tree to hide himself from militants. The next day, Lal fled his homeland penniless for an unknown place in the dead of night. He now lives in a Jammu tenement as a migrant. As the Central government recently stirred the emotive issue of the return of the Kashmir Pandits to their homeland, Lal wants to go back to the Valley but armed with the guarantee of dignity and security. “We should be settled in separate townships due to security concerns,” he says.
The state government, which was mulling separate zones for the displaced Pandits, later retracted owing to resistance in the Valley calling it ‘Israel-type settlements’. On May 5, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary told the Lok Sabha that there was no proposal to create separate zones exclusively for the Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley.
“The U-turn is unacceptable. Where will we go if not in the proposed townships? Our property was looted and burnt. We cannot go back to our homes, hence we want to live separately. If we live away from secure places, we become soft targets for the separatists,” says P L Razdan, 60, who moved out of Habbakadal in 1992. He now lives in Vaishali in the National Capital Region.
Separatists and local political parties stick to their stand against separate townships for the Pandit migrants. “Due to us, the Central government was forced to change its stand on separate clusters for displaced Pandits,” says Ayaz Akbar, the aide of 85-year-old hardliner separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
“In fact, we would welcome them wholeheartedly as they are an integral part of Kashmir society,” says Akbar, adding, Geelani has made it clear that separate clusters are not acceptable and Pandits should return to their native places. The plan, he says, was a conspiracy to break the age-old bond between the Muslims and Pandits. Ruling PDP spokesman Wahid Parra echoes the same. “We want their integration in society,” he says.
Radical Pandit group Panun Kashmir, however, has been demanding a separate homeland for the community in Kashmir with Union Territory status. BJP spokesperson Khalid Jehangir says the saffron party wants separate townships due to security issues and that “the migrant Pandits are welcome to live anywhere in the Valley”.
Some victims are divided over the proposed plans and against politicisation of the issue. Lal, who heads the Jagti Township Tenement Committee in Jammu, says their return is a humanitarian issue and separatist groups should not play politics over it. “We lived in a paradise before militancy. We had to migrate to Jammu, where we lived a hell-like life. We want to forget and start afresh,” he says. “Separatists cannot understand the sufferings Pandits have undergone in the past 25 years.” Many others like Lal are interested to return to the Valley but cannot, as they have no property there.
“We can never return to our origin because most of us have sold our properties,” says 65-year-old Avtar Krishan, erstwhile resident of Rainawari in Srinagar, who earlier lived in a migrant camp in Jammu.
Krishan’s son has got a job under the Prime Minister’s package for migrant Pandits in the Valley and stays with his family in government quarters in the Sheikhpora transit camp in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Around 200 two-room quarters have been built for migrant Pandits in the guarded camp. There are five more transit camps for Pandits returning to Kashmir.
“When my son got the job in 2011, we tried to persuade him not to go, but he convinced us otherwise,” says Krishan, who works in a carpet firm in the Valley. Krishan says he is in direct contact with the Muslims. “For us, the prime concern is our security. We should be settled either in separate or mixed townships.”
The memory of blood-thirsty bayonets still comes back to haunt many. “My mother was frightened seeing the gunmen. She told me to hide as they had come to kill me. Our Muslim neighbours did not help,” Lal says. From a treetop, he saw armed militants in the compound of their house. “They told people in a mosque that Pandits are non-believers and should be killed.”
Lal says the next day Muslims were indifferent. “I saw some men following me. I came to know that they were militants watching me. Later the Muslims visited my house and told me to leave as militants may kill me and they can’t guarantee my security and safety,” he says. The day after (January 24, 1990), Lal, his wife and two sons left for Jammu, leaving behind his parents, sister and brothers, who were brought there later in a truck, with their cow and some household items. Subsequently, Lal sold his property at his native place to a Muslim neighbour. He still has some agricultural and non-agricultural land there.
According to records, 62,000 migrant families, comprising Pandits, Sikhs and some Muslims, are registered with the government in Jammu, Delhi and in other parts of India. Locals and the National Conference (NC) blame then Governor Jagmohan for their mass exodus, a claim rejected by Pandits. “He did not force us to leave. In fact, he made a mistake by not stopping us,” Lal says.
According to official estimates, 219 Pandits have been killed in the Valley by militants since 1989. The migrants, settled in Jammu and in other parts of the country, are provided free ration and other monetary benefits.
Under the Central government’s rehabilitation package for migrant Pandits in 2008, each family is entitled to Rs 7.5 lakh for construction or re-construction of their houses in the Valley. The current government has a proposal to increase the assistance to Rs 20 lakh per family. The Centre and the PDP-BJP coalition government in the state have been showing urgency for the rehabilitation of migrant Pandits. The Centre has announced 6,000 jobs for them in the Valley.
Parra says many Pandit groups have different opinions. “We are reaching out to them to restore the whole idea of Kashmiriyat and that is not possible if they settle in separate townships.”
Lal disagrees. He says when they had left the Valley, beef was not being sold so publicly. “We respect the religious sentiments of the Muslims, but we have our own too. The government should settle us in separate clusters so that our religious sentiments are not hurt.”
Over the years, the chasm between the faiths has widened beyond reconciliation for some. Jaya Bhat, an elderly woman living with her two sons in Sheikhpora, does not want to live with the Muslims. Her son has got a job under the PM package and has been provided two-room accommodation. “We lived in Darbagh, Nishat. Militants killed my husband Jawahar Lal, which forced us to shift to Jammu,” she says.
Many Pandits, however, are sceptical about the return of their fellow men. Sandip Kumar, who runs a provisional store in the Sheikhpora camp, believes migrant Pandit families who are well settled outside the Valley won’t return. “They are living a comfortable life outside; why would they want to come back? Some may come here for a picnic,” he says. “Separate townships will be like a prison for them.”
Kashi Agoon, a 54-year-old life insurance employee who has been living in Faridabad for the past 25 years, disagrees. “Our roots are in Kashmir and we want our homes back. We will not return to houses that were burnt by militants. The government should not have taken back the separate township idea; it should not buckle under separatists’ pressure,” says Agoon, who is originally from Kupwara.
Sandip Kachroo, who has been living in the Sheikhpora camp since 2011 after getting a job under the PM’s package, advocates cohabitation. “Pandits should live in mixed townships with the Muslims and Sikhs. If they live in separate clusters, they will be confined to that area and will find it hard to mix with society of which they are an integral part,” he says. Erstwhile Baramulla resident Kavita, 40, whose husband got a job under the PM’s package in 2011, says, “Locals (Muslims) are cooperating with us. Pandits should be settled in separate or mixed townships. There is no third option.”
Killings during the onset of militancy, however, have resulted in a persistent fear psychosis. “We can’t reconcile with it and are still afraid that if we return permanently, there may again be a 1990-like situation,” says Sanjay Bhat, 42, a businessman in the Sheikhpora camp living with his wife, who works as a teacher under the government scheme. Comfort of assurance, however, comes from none other than the separatists. “We will assure them that there will be no threat from the Muslims. Our every effort will be to safeguard the lives, property, religious places, dignity and honour of the Pandit returnees,” says Akbar.
The role of security forces even has not been without any blemish. Budgam-based retired lecturer Bushan Lal Koul accuses them of high-handedness. “My family and I were forcibly shifted from our house by police and paramilitary personnel to a house in Budgam, where five more Pandit families were living. In March 2008, we were shifted to the Sheikhpora camp,” he says. “We were the only Pandit family in Khan Sahib in Budgam who did not migrate. We lived in the company of Muslims without any trouble.”
Ashwani, from the border district of Kupwara, sees the recent strike call by the separatists against townships for Pandits as a move against the migrant community. “There is a need to settle migrant Pandits in separate colonies in every district of the Valley,” he says. According to him, “Living there will instil confidence among the community and take fear out of their lives. Later they can gain confidence of the majority community, and shift to locations of their choice.”
His friend Sumit backs him. “If the government is sincere in settling migrant Pandits in the Valley, it should establish separate townships for the community. It will give a sense of security to the returnees and they can slowly start integrating with society,” he says. Sumit quit an MNC in Delhi to take up a government job in the Valley in 2011. “My love for Kashmir, its culture and traditions made me to work here despite reservations from my family and not-so-handsome salary,” he says.
Lack of basic infrastructure such as education and health are also deterrents for the return plan of many. “In Srinagar, I can admit my child to a good school, but in my native Kupwara, there is educational backwardness,” says Ashwani.
Retired armyman G L Koul wants permanent townships for the community with facilities like health, education, ration, etc. The migrant Pandit lives in Chadoora in Budgam. “The government has established 5,252 two-room sets for migrants in Jammu’s Jagti area. The same should be done here,” he says. Kaul accuses the successive governments of failing to keep their promises.
At least 651 Pandit families comprising over 3,000 people are still living at their places of origin. Of them, 134 families are settled in Srinagar. “My father Poshkar Nath Koul stayed back. During these 25 years, we did not face any trouble from our Muslim neighbours,” says 28-year-old Sandip Kaul, a resident of Karfalli Mohalla in Srinagar.
The Pandit population was dominant in the area before militancy, but now only a single Kaul family lives there. Sandip, however, regrets his father’s decision of not moving out like others. “All our relatives are outside the Valley. We feel totally isolated. There are times when you want your relatives by your side. When my father died in 2007, my relatives were outside the Valley,” says Sandip, who graduated from S P College in Srinagar in 2008 and was the only non-Muslim student there.
The isolation issue bothers most of those stayed back. Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), says non-migrants faced a lot of problems, including limited choices for matrimony and not being able to perform religious functions. Asked why they did not migrate, Tickoo says, “We did not leave for the love of the land or shortage of money. It was our destiny.”
He says their loyalty to the land didn’t come without its share of troubles. “The militants would barge into our houses, seek shelter and force us to prepare food for them. Our religious functions were marked by silence,” Tickoo says, adding, “We had to inform the militants about our movements and report to them after our arrival in Srinagar.”
Does he support separate townships for Pandits? “There is nothing wrong in that. How can migrant Pandits live at their original places which they have already sold? It is not possible.”
Tickoo, however, is miffed with separatist leaders, NC and other parties which are opposing separate clusters. He wants them to come up with Plan B as their Plan A is not working, and asks Muslims and Pandits to stop false propaganda against each other. “The two communities should start a dialogue to try to overcome concerns and apprehensions of each other,” says Tickoo.
Homeland beckons. Hope floats for the sunset of militancy so that Pandits can return to their roots.