Twenty years after eight Kashmiri Pandits were killed, the Sangrampora village is in ruins because both Muslims and Pandits migrated to other places. Umar Mukhtar visits the haunted hamlet, meets the erstwhile residents to create the narrative of a hamlet that lives merely on revenue papers
On March 20, 1997, on the eve of Nowroz, the residents in Budgam’s dusky Sangrampora were busy in the spade work in their fields as the spring was just a night away. Tired of the daylong work after a long winter hiatus, they had dinner and retired for the night with muscle pulls, bone aches and many other physiological stresses that usually set in after human bodies get into hard labour after prolonged rest.
Located on a beautiful hillock, with walnut trees and sprawling green fields around, Sangrampora is a small hamlet: only ten households lived there and eight of them were the families of Kashmiri Pandits. The total population of the village is sixty souls. Living at peace with the space they owned, the village had utilised every single patch of the land to make it produce. Some villagers would work during late hours after returning from their day jobs and the activity was routinely extending to late hours. The relationship between the communities was exemplary.
That night something terrible happened that changed the fate of the village. Twenty years later, it only exists in the revenue records of the government. No one lives there now. The Sangrampora is a desolated land with ruins and debris of the abandoned homes. It is a haunted spot, right now.
Ghulam Ahmad Chopan, then 40, was sleeping at his home. Unwell for some days, Ahmad was hospitalised earlier. That very day he was back home, so he had a peaceful sleep. His sleep broke up when he heard someone wailing and knocking the door of his house. With sleepy eyes, Ahmad hurriedly put on his clothes and rushed towards the door.
The other family members were already at the door. On the other side was his neighbour’s son weeping. “Kaka Aes Ha Marikh,” the neighbour was wailing. Not getting what exactly had happened, he tried to console him.
Woken up in the middle of his sleep, Ahmad could not get it at first. But when he accompanied his family members to his neighbour’s home, the reality dawned on him. He saw people crying in every corner. “The entire village was crying,” Ahmad remembers.
It was the home of Krishan Lal, a Kashmir Pandit, whose two sons along with six others were taken away by gunmen. These masked men had knocked at the doors of their homes. They were told that some officer wants to have a chat with them outside.
Nobody knew who the officer was and who the gunmen were. “We thought it would be ‘Amit Chot’, an army Major who often used to come to this place,” recalls Ahmad, pandits telling him. He was stationed at a nearby Raiyaar garisson, some seven kilometres from Sangrampora and was quite known for his harsh nature. Locals said that Amit often used to visit Sangrampora for ‘unknown’ reasons.
Soon after taking them away, some gunshots were heard. Eight people- Bushan Lal, Pyaree Lal, Sanjay Bhat, Vijay Bhat, Avtar Krishan Pandit, Trilokinath Bhat, Dileep Bhat and Ashok Kumar Pandit were taken to a nearby gorge and shot dead.
Ahmad took two Pandit men along and went to the spot. They found all men shot, lying in a pool of blood. All of them were dead except Ashok Kumar Pandit. He was shot in his thigh, was lying in an unconscious state and blood was oozing from his fresh gunshot wound. The slain Pandits had gunshots in their faces, chests and abdomens.
“The scene was heart-wrenching,” recalls Ahmad with tears in his eyes. They could not do anything as seven dead bodies were lying before them. Ahmad along with others came back and went to a nearby village adjacent to Sangrampora, Hukhe Letur, some two kilometres away, for help.
The three woke up Hukhe Letur residents and acquainted them with the incident. People with lights in their hands marched towards Sangrampora. They lift the dead bodies and the injured.
For the whole night, Ashok was kept at his home without any medical help. Those days, travelling in the night was very dangerous. So nobody wanted to risk his life. He was nursed at home; clothes were kept on the wound to prevent blood loss.
At daybreak, some locals accompanied Ashok to Public Health Centre (PHC) Beerwah where he got the first aid. Later on, he was shifted to the SMHS hospital in Srinagar for specialised treatment. Luck favoured Ashok and he survived.
As the news spread in the belt, thousands of people from other villages, police officials, army and administration, descended on the village. The seven dead bodies were lined up together on the piles of the wood on one of the banks of the stream, which flows through the rim of the village and the pyres were lit up. It happened as hundreds of villagers mourned.
As Major Amit came to the village some pandits accused him of the killings. Women were more vocal. Police registered the FIR, investigated it and finally closed the case saying the culprits are ‘untraced’. But still the mystery is unresolved: who killed the Pandits?
Vinod Pandit, then 23, was preparing for his BSC exams in his room late in the night. He was studying and the light went off. The lights were put off deliberately by the same people who killed us, he believes. “Somebody had come and knocked at the door of our house and my father, Avtar Krishan pandit was asked to come out,” remembers Vinod. They did not know what was happening. “After some time when my father and others did not return, some gunshots were heard which worried us all.” It was subsequently established that they were killed.
Vinod believes the Pandits were killed by the militants. “Government was keen to bring back the already migrated Pandits back,” he said. “To derail this, the stunt of murdering the innocent Kashmiri Pandits was performed. They basically wanted to warn and instil fear among others, to not come back.”
After this tragic incident, Muslim neighbours from other places stayed with them for about 15 days. In those days they provided them with everything, assisted them and facilitated them. “We basically did not want them to leave. We were attached to them,” said Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, a retired teacher.
Bhat was the colleague of Avtar Krishan and Bushan Lal. They were working in the school together. Bhat remembers that they had got their arrears released that day. “Bushan and I had also decided to buy jackets the following day.”
But Bhat did not know that this was their last day together.
“I was weeping and wailing when my colleagues and others were cremated. One army officer came to me, patted me on my back and said Pandit Ji, don’t weep.” To this Bhat replied that he is not a Pandit but a Muslim. The officer then acknowledged the bond of love between the two communities and the harmony. “Whenever I remember that incident it gives me goosebumps and I shiver.”
After 15 days, however, the families migrated. Some decided to migrate to Jammu while others prefer to move to the transit migrant camps at Budgam. Sangrampora was one of the few places in Kashmir that had defied the mass migration that took place in 1990.
These killings came in the middle of government efforts to get the migrants back. It derailed the process completely. After the insecurity took over them, the government created small camps within the towns to accommodate them.
The pandits left the village, leaving behind the two Muslim families. One of the Muslim families had only one family member. So, by and large, it was only one family residing in the village, with desolated houses around.
Some Pandits migrated to Jammu but most of them are residing at Sheikhpora Budgam in a pandit settlement colony. “The pandits left the village and they are settled now,” Ahmad said. “But it is we who are still suffering.” The two Muslim families also migrated. They migrated to neighbouring Chakpora village. Mohammad’s family was residing there on the rent for about 10 years.
Ghulam Ahmad Chopan’s elder brother Ghulam Mohammad Chopan then 50, was a shepherd by profession. He used to rear the herds in the jungles for months together.
After the migration of leftover Muslims, the village then became complete desolate. One fine day, the army descended upon the village and claimed the militants were hiding in these deserted homes. They blasted these houses. Interestingly some of the construction material was retrieved and driven to the garrisons in the trucks by the soldiers.
Residents denied the allegations. They allege the soldiers use to resort to fake encounters in this haunted village. “There was no place to hide,” a resident said. “Now there is absolutely nothing.”
Whatever the truth, the village has ceased to exist. Nobody lives there. There is, in fact, no structure that can shelter life.
Almost a month after the massacre, when Pandits had left the village and the Muslim family had migrated to a neighbouring village; Mohammed was summoned to the army camp at Raiyaar. Mohammad was putting up in a rented accommodation. “I would not like, army raiding my rented accommodation, troubling the landlords as I am also having four daughters,” Mohammad said. “So next day I went to the army camp.”
Once in the garrison, Mohammad was interrogated. He was undressed, kept naked and rollers were rolled on his back and legs. He was also kept hanging for hours together. All that they want from him was to take the blame for the killing of his Pandit neighbours. He was kept in custody for seven days. After release, he was bedridden for about three months with three surgeries, back to back. After that incident, Mohammad had stopped rearing the cattle. He is now no longer a shepherd.
Mohammad alleges that some of his Pandit neighbours had asked the army to harass me. “Moti Lal is my best friend,” Mohammad said. They still visit each other, share pleasantries on festivals. “But I also complained to him that you have failed to prove a good neighbour.”
But Mohammad still wants to go back to his roots. “I am still waiting for my Pandit neighbours,” Mohammad said. “I want to go back to Sangrampora and get life back to the village.”
The lone survivor, Ashok Kumar Pandit, has not been talking for all these years. Accused of changing the statement, quite often, Ashok refuses to talk on the subject. Maybe he knows things that will change the Sangrampora narrative, someday.