Return of The Native

Mohit Bhan, a migrant Kashmiri Pandit, quit an MNC in Mumbai and returned home to be a political worker. A year after, he talked to Khalid Bashir Gura

Mohit Bhan

Mohit Bhan, 37, stares nostalgically at his desolate ancestral house at Midoora in Tral. As the sun sets, the cracks in the silent, sullen old house appear more visible and deep. The faded brownish colour windows and doors of the house are still bolted. Decades after the inhabitants of the house migrated, Bhan tries to dust up years of cobwebs that have laid siege on the house.

“Oh, my dear, you stood testimony to the changing colours of the time. Your courtyard may not have its pristine glory but your presence will be a reminder to all those beautiful times and scars,” he mumbled to himself.

Son of a retired government employee, Bhan presently lives with his friend Bilal Hurrah at Naidkhai Sumbal in Bandipora district. He is now the spokesperson of Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP).

Barbarshah’s Son

Born and brought up in old city’s Barbarshah, Srinagar, Bhan’s memories of the cool shadows of a childhood alley, celebrating festivals together with Muslim neighbours and the daily school life has brought him back to his homeland.

Things fell apart after the eruption of militancy in 1989 when guns and grenades roared across Kashmir. Bhan was 9-year old, and he like other Kashmiri Pandits had to migrate to Jammu. During the 1990s as Kashmir was in ferment and going through violent upheaval, Bhan along with his family was trying to acclimatize to sweltering Jammu’s climate, customs, traditions and people.

“Our everyday life was a nightmare and full of struggle,” Bhan said. “My grandparents, parents and relatives were distressed and experiencing a cultural shock.” Talking about the days before leaving Kashmir, Bhan said Kashmir was descending into chaos. At his home, Bhan himself was made to venture out less. The lights at home were turned off early. The processions and protests in the nearby streets scared them. The fear became palpable when their acquaintances became targets of violence.

The Inauspicious Day

Bhan still remembers the “inauspicious day” when the family decided to move and migrate to Jammu in the white ambassador car with little belongings and with the consoling thought that they will be back soon within months.

“That was the only hope I carried along with me since then, the thought of being home, soon,” said Bhan who remembers his grandparents’ yearning to return. “I could see my grandmother pining every day for her homeland and dying slowly in wait to return”.

The slap from the landlord helped young Bhan make sense of the world he was struggling to come to terms with. “While playing cricket, I broke the glass pan of the flat we had rented at Jammu. The landlord came out slapped me in front of my grandmother. The slap pained my grandmother,” said Bhan with a lump in his throat as he remembered how the incident changed his grandmother’s behaviour.

“We had a big house in Kashmir and in Jammu, the slap taught me it wasn’t my house or home,” Bhan said, adding the grandmother implored her husband and son to build a house of our own or return to the home in Kashmir she was pining for. “I was missing my friends, weather and streets of Kashmir,” Bhan said.

The Return

Later, as the violence was not ebbing, disheartened Mohit along with his family came back to Kashmir to take back remaining belongings. “It was the longest painful journey. We left because of fear but we never imagined that after decades we will still be struggling to return home,” he admitted.

At Jammu, Bhan studied at Model Academy School and for higher education, and then moved to Mumbai. “I studied hotel management and also completed my MBA. Then for fourteen years I did a job in multinational companies at various designations and especially as a marketing head.”

It is only now that Bhan is reclaiming his roots. “I had a good career but the longing to be back home always made me restive.”

But all these years, despite having a job in Mumbai, Bhan continued to visit his ancestral Tral village and his Kashmiri friends.

Why Politics?

“The lack of development, infrastructure, schools, colleges, unemployment and other issues in Kashmir made me realize how blessed I have been. I felt helpless at not being able to help them,” said Bhan. And this desire to help people is what Bhan said persuaded him to join politics.

“What is the fun of living this life, if I choose to live it for myself? This realization made me decide to stay and work in Kashmir and join the PDP,” said Bhan.

He joined the PDP when the party was out of power in 2019 and the party was imploding from within as the members began abandoning the party after the BJP withdrew its support to its partner PDP. He said Mufti’s Sayeed’s “sincerity and desperation to bring Kashmiri Pandits back” attracted him towards his party.

But politicians are not his role models. “The common people like those who push handcarts, auto drivers, entrepreneurs who struggle every day to make their ends meet are my inspiration and motivation,” said Bhan who has given up his career in pursuit of mental peace and return to his homeland.

After 370

Bhan took a flight to Delhi soon after the abrogation of Article 370 and was the lone voice from party voicing the party’s stand as its leaders and workers were caged. “Someone had to be out of jail and it was I who was chosen to speak. I was shuttling all those months from one studio to another in Delhi and raising voice against the noise in debates against the abrogation of article 370,” Bhan said.

Amid pandemic, Bhan has been living with his friend Bilal Hurrah. “Whatever customs and conventions were to be followed in festivals like Navratra from abhorring non-vegetarian food, garlic to onion, my friend Bilal’s mother cooked my food like my own mother. She used to cook separately without these ingredients. Even I fasted during Ramzan with them,” Bhan said. “I became them and I want to be them.”

It was his stay in Kashmir that he could visit many Kashmiri Pandits who never left and are still living in Kashmir. And people who left Kashmir in the ’90s and settled outside.

Mohit Bhan poses for a photograph outside his ancestral house at Midoora in Tral. Pic: Twitter

‘‘The politics of hate is not the solution. I came back on the assurances of Kashmiri friends. And I never experienced any threat to my life despite being a minority” Bhan said.

Planning Settlement

As the violence subsided in Kashmir and daily killings reduced in number, the fear in Bhan also began to diminish gradually. The marriage of his uncle at Pulwama in 2001 enabled him to spend more time at a place he deeply loved and yearned for. “Occasionally, I used to visit my uncle’s house at Pulwama. They still live there,” Bhan said.

As for their house at Barbarshah, it was burned down in the ’90s and later converted into a commercial complex. Bhans’ later sold the property.

But the ancestral house and land at Midoora Tral wait for their return.

“I am hoping to renovate the house and land,” Bhan said. “There is a difference in the Kashmir of the 1990s and 2020s. I plan to settle permanently in my homeland”.

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