Home Coming

Two decades after the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, a combo offer of employment and rehabilitation by the state government beckons them to return. Hussain Danish reports.

Around 400 Pandits — around 250 men and 150 women — have been ‘settled’ in the newly created transit camp at Vessu Qazigund, in south Kashmir’s Islamabad district, nearly 100 Kilometers from Srinagar.

In the shadow of the Rashtriya Rifles camp and away from any inhabited village, rows of single storey buildings with red roof tops house apartments meant for Pandits. Each apartment has a living room, a bed room; a washroom and a small Kitchen. Four persons, either men or women, are housed in an apartment.  Only couples, with both spouses in service can have a separate apartment.

They spend days in the offices that are spread across Kashmir valley. Like the pre-1990 days, they commute in the local passenger busses along with fellow Kashmiri Muslims. At the offices, they are re-living the time when a Muslim and a Pandit would spend the day together as colleagues.

At the back side of the camp, a Muslim runs a tuck-shop. It is the only source of food-items available to Pandits. There are no police posts at the camp. Everyone is allowed inside, at least in the day time, in absence of the security checks – an apparent indicator that the militancy is no more a major threat to the migrants’ return.

In the open space between the buildings adjacent to the gate a few young Pandits are playing cricket. They are being watched over by some elderly men gathered on the veranda of one of the buildings.

In an apartment at the far end of one of the buildings, Sunil Kumar Bhat (39), had just received a call from his wife from Jammu. She wants to return to Kashmir.

“She was asking me to come to Jammu so that I could bring her along to Kashmir,” says Sunil.

The situation was not the same nearly two decades back when Sunil was a 18-year-old B. Com first year student. A ‘humble’ person, recollects Sunil, in their neighborhood at Wanigam in Shangus was killed. All Pandits including Sunil cremated the body, and with it, he says, their desire to stay back in the Valley.

“The scars of the (19)90s’ fear were still haunting my wife’s memories and it was very difficult for me to motivate her for my taking up the job in the Valley. But after two months of stay here in Kashmir, she is convinced that there are no apparent threat here. So she wants to return and so do my relatives,” says Sunil, whose only motivation, he claims, is the job.

Sunil’s parents and a nonagenarian grandmother live at Jammu. His grandmother wants to see her brother who refused to migrate in 1990s’.

It is not the threat of gun, but the lack of facilities that is preventing their family’s return, says sunil.

“Our old house is gone. It was damaged in the first year of armed unrest in Kashmir. Now if I bring my parents here, where will they go? They will have to live as tenants,” says Sunil. “We all want to bring our families, but given the facilities we are provided here, it is not possible. If every one of us brings the family, there will be around 60 people living in one apartment.”

Of the 1200 Pandits listed, only 400 have returned so far. And they too are finding themselves concentrated in a ‘ghetto,’ facing many challenges that are not necessarily life threatening.

Here in the camp at Vessu, communication lines are weak with erratic mobile connectivity. The newspapers arrive three days late. On the name of water supply, a tanker brings water for three days. Electricity goes out often, they say.  Sunil shares his apartment with Ram Krishen Bhat, 36, and Sanjay Kumar Bhat, both working as teachers.

In two months of their stay in Kashmir, Ram Krishen has reformed the social-bondage with the Muslims. Initially at the time of return to work in the same school as Sunil, he used to commute the tiresome distance between Vessu and his workplace every day. However, the hospitability of the Muslims has given him the confidence to go for rented accommodation in a Muslim locality in the vicinity of the school.

“I have rented accommodation in a Pandit’s house located amidst the Muslim population. I come to Vessu only once in a week just to meet my friends,” says Ram Krishen.

Ram Krishen has found many friends among the people whom he did not know before joining his services.

“At my workplace and in its surroundings, people do not know me yet they respect me. Every time I am seen on road all of them greet me,” says Krishen.

The situation in Kashmir, Krishen believes, has changed ever since he left Kashmir along with his parents. They were living as tenants at Karan Nagar.

“Today people in Kashmir especially youth understand the politics behind everything. For instance, Maulana Showkat (Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees president) was killed either because he was honest or an agent. Similarly, people understand the reason behind the death of State Road Transport Corporation driver (who was killed in stone pelting at Baramulla recently).

“We too understand that those causing our exodus were few elements, not everyone was involved,” says Ram Krishen.

For all Pandits staying at the camp, the decision to return was a difficult one when the state government last year announced the employment package for them, they said.

Sanjay was studying in 8th standard when his family migrated from their Kokernag residence. Ever since he has been a resident of Jammu and was drawing in a private company there.

“Given the (sense of) insecurity (before coming to the valley), it was a tough decision to make and it took me six months to decide whether or not I shall return. I was drawing a handsome salary at Jammu,” says Bhat.

The official figures claim 219 Kashmiri Pandits were “killed by militants” since 1989 while 24,202 families out of 38,119 Kashmiri Pandit families migrated out of the Valley due to turmoil. As recently as March 2003, at least 24 Pandits were killed allegedly by militants at Nadimarg village near Shopian.

The inspector general of police, Kashmir division, S M Sahai, says militancy in Srinagar is down to zero, while the state police chief, Kuldeep Khoda, has said militancy “is down but not out.”

However, the sense of insecurity is still there among some of the returned Pandit employees.

“In a political or non-politically driven conflict, minority always lives under the fear. So it (fear) is there so much so that I may not prefer living in my old house in Kashmir for even a million bucks. But slowly but surely it is going away,” expresses another resident of the camp Kamal Bhat.

Kamal misses his family. “In free time, I joins friends in other apartments to pass time,” he says.

He was studying in seventh class when militancy broke out in Kashmir, forcing his family to migrate. Since then, he has spent nearly two decades in Jammu before deciding to return, leaving back his aged parents, wife and kids.

“In all these years I never felt at home in Jammu. There is a strange sense of home coming whenever we move towards Kashmir and here we are able to identify ourselves with everything. All those people who are emotionally connected to Kashmir want to return but that will take time,” says Kamal.

Kashmir struggle has witnessed a return of 1990s’ like intensity in past three years, though with a difference. Like 1990s’ there have been massive street protests but without any armed violence.

In 2008 Amarnath land row, Kashmir was projected as a communally disharmonious region; 2009 saw the twin rape and murder of Asiya Jan and Neelofar at Shopian throwing life out of gear for most part of the year; and in 2010 it was agitation against the killing of teenagers. Much to the satisfaction of supporters of communal harmony, however, not a single Pandit, Amarnath pilgrim or anyone belonging to minority community was targeted or hurt.

Some of the returned Pandits fear a repeat of the street protests that engulfed the valley during the three preceding summers.

“I emigrated when I was 13; today I am immigrating at 32; who knows when will I have to migrate again?” questions Kamal. “I may get a room and bring my family here. What about my kids? You never know there may be unrest tomorrow and…”

The biggest challenge the rehabilitation proramme faces is to re-settle the Pandits in the civilian areas.  While the distance between Vessu transit camp and the general population is limiting interaction between the two biggest communities that ever lived in Kashmir, most of Pandit houses are occupied by troops, burnt down, destroyed or have been sold by the owners.

The chairman Hurriyat Conference (G), Syed Ali Shah Geelani, reached out to Pandits at Vessu recently, urging them to return to their ancestral homes. Quoting Mahabharata and calling Pandits a part of the society, Geelani assured them safety in Kashmir.

“When Arjuna faltered in the fight against Kaurvas, Maharaj Krishna told him that it was a battle based on principles. You have to fight even own brothers for principles,” Geelani was quoted as saying.  “I welcome you on behalf of the majority community. You are being called migrants, but you are not migrants. You are our brothers; you are a part of this society; you are a part of our body.”

The welcome from a man who is considered a hardliner has restored some sense of security among the returned group of Kashmir Pandits.

“We were afraid of the separatists’ response to our return. But (Syed Ali) Geelani coming here and talking to us has done a lot of good. He even raised the point that living of Pandit men and women in such shrunken space (as Vessu) was not part of Kashmiri culture as it puts on stake the modesty of Pandit women,” says Surender Pandit.

“The government,” he opines, “Instead of creating this one big transit camp for us, could have made similar yet smaller arrangements at many places. That could give us a chance to mingle with the masses.”

The prominent migrant Pandit body, All Parties Migrants Co-ordination Committee (APMCC), recently ridiculed the government’s policy of “rehabilitating Pandits”, calling it a “big joke and mockery.”

“Does government think that after genocide it can bring us back by just offering menial jobs? Bringing 10 people together is not rehabilitation,” national coordination of APMCC, Manorma Bakhshi, was quoted as saying.  The association also blamed the state government for encroaching upon the temples in Kashmir.

Around 85 per cent of some  600 to 700 temples in Kashmir were vandalized by the government officials and land mafia “working on their behest,” it said.

After the unrest Kashmir witnessed in past three years, both New Delhi and the state government claim to be doing the utmost to avoid any unrest in the coming months.

In such a scenario, only time will decide whether it will finally be the Pandits’ home coming after having lived as migrants for years.

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