Resilience in Lolab

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As Kashmiri Pandits migrated to safer places in early nineties when militancy erupted in Kashmir valley, a Pandit woman from Lolab valley decided to stay put. All these years, her Muslim neighbours secured her status in a society which was torn apart by violence, Bilal Handoo reports.

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At the peak of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir when Kashmiri Pandits decided to leave Kashmir valley for safer places, Rita Nath Pandit, a frail woman in her late fifties, choose to stay back in her Lalpora village in Lolab valley. More than two decades have passed but Rita has never felt any sense of fear or threat.

At one point of time, Rita had decided to follow in the footsteps of others. “I also packed my belongings and was about to leave when a village watchman slapped me and told me go back. He assured me that nobody will touch me,” Rita, a mother of three, recalls. “All these years my Muslim neighbours never made me feel that I was away from my community,” says Rita.

Located in the hilly area of Lalpora, Rita’s house is somewhat isolated from the adjacent households. Living with her only son, Rinku Nath, who works as a daily wager, Rita has planted many walnut trees in her lawn which is bordered with a wooden fence. Rita’s husband, Janki Nath Pundit, who was a smalltime shopkeeper in Lalpora, had already left her with his two daughters and a son. “He passed away due to his ailing health,” she says. Her Muslim neighbours played a pivotal role in her husband’s last rites.

Nearly 125 km from Srinagar city, Lalpora village in Lolab valley is surrounded by lush green forests and snow capped mountains. The natural setting of the place makes it as one of the most beautiful valleys within the valley of Kashmir. Due to its proximity with Line of Control, the entry point of Lolab valley has been turned into a garrison. As one arrives to walk into the valley, a stark message ‘you are under surveillance’ painted on the concrete wall greets the visitors.

Locally known as ‘Wadi-e-Lolab’, the Lolab valley is 5 km wide and 26 km long. It is known for its fruit orchards, lakes, springs and rice fields. Poets have referred to Lolab as the “land of love and beauty”. With a population of 400,000 people, Lolab valley had earned the dubious distinction of being the largest militancy-infested areas in Kashmir over the last two decades. Villagers say the area has seen a huge decline in militancy from last five years now.

Lolab valley is a combination of three valleys; Potnai valley, Brunai valley and Kalaroos valley. There are beautiful Nagmarg meadows, which separate Lolab from Bandipora district. The headquarters of Lolab is situated at Sogam. Legends link Lolab with Kashyap Rishi, a famous saint who lived in Kashmir. His resting place is believed to be located in Rangvor forest at a distance of one km from Lalpora village.

Ten Pandit families used to live in Lalpora village before nineties. Villagers say all of them responded to ‘panic calls’ around the valley when militancy was still at its peak. “They had made their mind to go,” Ghulam Rasool Bhat, a village-head of Lalpora since 1972, recalls. “We pleaded before them not to leave and repeatedly assured them that we will protect them. But they never stayed.”

However, many villagers claim that there were no threats to a handful of Pandit families living in Lalpora. “I will slit my throat if it would be proven that Lalpora ever became a threatening place for Pandits,” Bhat says. He attributes ‘a sense of unease’ among Pandits to the decision of Pandits to leave the village. “Maybe they feared for their lives. Otherwise this village is still waiting for them. Let them come. We will welcome them with open arms.”

The locality where Rita now lives with her son, Rinku Nath, was a barren piece of land. After the village witnessed migration of Pandits, a house was build for her by fellow Muslim neighbours. “They helped me when no other member of my community was around,” Rita says.

In the early phase of militancy in Kashmir, Rita used to spend nights in Muslim households out of fear. “We always comforted her in every possible manner,” Mugli, her neighbor, says. “During early years of Pandit migration, she used to spend nights with us in our house. We always treated her daughters and son like our own.”

At her house in Lalpora village, Rita is busy in cooking food. She carefully puts pieces of firewood into the hearth of her kitchen. A woman with a parched face and a drooping figure, Rita rolls the sleeve of her Kameez to show a wound on her arm. “It was bruised in the lawn yesterday. It pains a lot,” she says.

She walks out of the room and returns soon after applying some lotion on the wound. The painful expression on her face narrates a sense of unease inside of her. “Whenever I need anything, my Muslim neighbours always make it available for me,” she says.

While her two daughters were growing up, she once approached the village-head with an ‘unexpected’ proposal. “She told me that she was willing to marry her daughters to Muslim youth in the village,” Bhat, an elder in Lalpora, recalls. “She said so because of amount of confidence she has in us. But I turned down her proposal. I assured her not to worry about the marriage prospects of her daughters and promised her that the responsibility of their marriage was a collective duty of the village.”

It was soon after this incident that her elder daughter’s marriage was fixed with a Pandit youth living in Ganderbal district. “It was a time when around 200 militants were active in Lalpora village. But they never caused any harm to me. In fact, most of them used to visit my house to know about my well-being. They always treated me and my family well,” Rita says.

With a population of around 22,000 in 1300 households of Lalpora village belonging mostly to Muslims, Rita says her daughters never faced any harassment. “Both her daughters, Aarti and Guddy, have been brought up in the most secure environment,” Abdul Ahad, Rita’s neighbour, says. “Before their marriage, no young man of this village ever subjected them to any inconvenience. They were like our own daughters.”

In fact, the entire village of Lalpora celebrated the marriage of Aarti, Rita’s eldest daughter which took place in late nineties. The villagers had arranged a band to give a typical Pandit reception to the groom from Ganderbal. “Nearly ten thousand people of Lalpora were on their feet to make this marriage an example of sorts,” Bhat, the village-head, says.

Bhat says when groom’s party reached near Lalpora police station, the villagers requested police personnel not to move any further with the marriage party, fearing that it might lead to confrontation with gun-wielding militants. “They obliged and the groom was taken to Rita’s house where villagers had already arranged a priest for conducting the proceedings of marriage,” Bhat recalls.

That night was special in the history of Lalpora. On one side, marriage folksongs sung by Muslim women for Pandit bride reverberated in the air throughout the night. On the other side, village-head says, militants provided a security cover for the only Pandit house to make the event a success. “They (militants) were vigilant throughout the night to check any untoward incident,” Bhat recalls. “In fact, they were visibly content with the celebrations going around.”

The villagers still derive a sense of pleasure from Aarti’s marriage and from the fact how it united the whole village. Aarti is now a mother of three and is happily living with her husband in Ganderbal. She often visits her ailing mother.

Rita’s younger daughter, Guddy, didn’t get married the way her sister did. Some ten years ago, her uncle came from Jammu and took her away. After some time, she got married to a Pandit serving Jammu and Kashmir police in Jammu. Rita’s only son, Renku Nath, is working as a daily wager in Public Health Engineering department.

feature-panditwomanOn January 25, 1998, when 23 Kashmiri Pandits living in Wandhama village of Ganderbal were killed by unidentified gunmen, villagers say the authorities had decided to shift Rita to Kupwara Temple. “But after a few days, she returned to her home,” Bhat says. “She told the authorities that she felt more secure in her own village than anywhere else.”

It is been more than two decades that Pandits left Lalpora but the villagers still feel unhappy about their exodus. “The people of this village pleaded before our Pandit neighbours including Sham Lal, Ragu Nath and others not to leave, but somehow we couldn’t assure them,” Javid Shah, a villager in Lalpora, says.

The age has now taken its toll on Rita. She walks gingerly due to arthritis. She says no one from any Pandit welfare organization approached her for help over these years. “What will I ask Pandits? I don’t trust them. They left me alone without even asking me to come along,” she says. “I trust my Muslim neighbours. They helped me through all these years. I received every possible help from them.”

As Rita return to her kitchen, a woman in the lawn calls out her name. As Rita walks out, the two exchange pleasantries. The woman in the lawn is her neighbour who sheltered Rita and her kids when no Pandit was around her. “She often remains unwell these days. I regularly visit her to know about her welfare,” Jana, Rita neighbour, says. Jana says Rita’s only son wants to marry in Jammu and his prospective bride is compelling Rinku to settle down there. “Let him go. I have enough caretakers in this village,” Rita says.

“It is our religious duty to help her. As a matter of fact, we never wanted Pandits to leave in the first place,” village-head Bhat says.

1 Comment

  1. Zahid Ali Bhat on

    Did I read it right. You call it militancy-‘infested’ area. You know the meaning of infested. It’s an occupier’s word. I am afraid that locals like you are unknowingly using it too in your stories..May be to impress your readers..but this word has a meaning beyond your imagination..This sounds like rebels were germs and Indians were right in killing those germs..

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