The Returnees

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Given BJP’s track record, Modi’s promise to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits has raised many eyebrows in the Valley. Sheikh Saaliq talks to KPs who have already returned under UPA’s rehabilitation policy to get their impression of life in Kashmir

A government facility for Kashmiri Pandit returnees in North Kashmir’s Baramullah.

A government facility for Kashmiri Pandit returnees in North Kashmir’s Baramullah.

“The year was 1990. Kashmir was burning.  Life was at standstill. The streets of Kashmir were no longer populated. Death, disappearances and funerals were a daily affair. People were dying.”

These words are from the first page of Amit Kumar’s hand-written diary. The language in which these lines have been written is Urdu. On the next page, Amit writes: “[…] we (his family) didn’t know our destination. We had left our house, hoping to come back once the situation boils down. It never happened.”

Amit Kumar Raina, a Kashmiri Pandit, then in his early twenties, was a student of Degree College Baramulla, when armed conflict broke out in Kashmir. Dotted with sandbags and military check posts, Amit used to cross a bridge – built over Jhelum – which connected old Baramulla with the town. This way he reached his house – a three-storied building – built on the banks of Jhelum. His house was among very few houses in the locality whose architecture stood out from a distance. Not anymore. The tin doors, with names painted by hand, are left open now. Tall wild grass has grown in the lawn. Few broken window panes, cracked walls and moss grown beneath it, is the sight at offering. The house has been abandoned 24 years ago. No creature lived in it since.

A family of six, Amit lived half of his life away from his home, cramped in a 12 by 14 foot room allotted to each of them in a camp settlement in Jammu. After spending 22 years in the camps of Jammu, Amit and his family who left their native Kashmir valley during the turmoil, finally moved into a new house two years ago. But they are not home yet. The urge to live in his ancestral home is vibrant on his face.

“We returned to the valley two years ago. Since then, we have been living in the quarters provided by the government,” Amit says, his eyes examining the house he once used to live in. “The place allotted to my family is half an hour’s ride from my ancestral home. I wish I could live there.”

Amit vividly recalls the day when his family decided to migrate to Jammu from their ancestral house in Baramulla. Unknown of their destination, Amit and his family left with little of their belongings. For two days they travelled in a taxi, hired by Amit’s father, Ravinder Raina. “We stopped at Jammu. Rest is all history,” Amit says.

Amit and his family are among the estimated 100,000 Pandits from the valley, who embarked on a mass migration to outside Kashmir following the start of the insurgency against Indian rule in 1989. Much has changed since. A handful of Kashmiri Pandits have returned to the valley and are living in the government facilities – small colonies where they are living in peace. But the homecoming they have dreamt of from last two decades is still to be cherished.

“I always wanted to come back to the valley but not like this. I want to live in my own house which still exists but then there are security issues which government keeps on saying. That’s why I am living in this government facility,” Amit says.

A current comprehensive plan which is being worked out for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley for their rehabilitation, under the BJP lead government at center,  comes with financial assistance, security to life and property, government jobs and other employment opportunities. But many Pandit families, who have already come back to the valley, don’t want anything more than the return and safety.

On every Monday morning, a handful of Kashmiri Pandits sit inside the Shelputiri temple located in Baramulla. Surrounded by tall Chinars, this temple has been here since decades. Before the insurgency broke out in Valley, this temple was thronged by hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits – most of them from Sopore, Uri and Baramulla. Today, the devotees inside are from the nearby Pandit Colony.

Ravi Kaul, in his late sixties, speaks of his uncomfortable time in Jammu, and the harsh conditions he lived in those two decades. “It was nightmarish. I can’t even think of a single night I didn’t dream about Kashmir. I wish we would have never left the valley, but the circumstances were so. We had to leave,” he says.

Ravi Kaul remembers it well. It was a warm summer’s day in 1990, when he found a poster pasted on the wall of his house in Batapora, Sopore.

“I remember the events as if they happened yesterday. Threatening letters were covertly pasted on the walls of Pandit houses, directing them to leave the valley. Nobody could estimate who was pasting these letters. It could have been the militants or the government itself. It was total chaos. Nobody knew what was happening,” Kaul says. “Like every other Kashmiri Pandit, we also left, leaving behind everything.”

Kaul’s family, who lived in Sopore from generations, finally came back in the summer of 2011. On their return, the Kauls were given a government facility to live in like other Kashmiri Pandit’s. It has been three years they have been living in a government quarter provided to them in Veerwan, Baramulla.

“Families in Jammu told us not to come, but we told them that our Muslim brothers had welcomed us and so we felt confident to return, and the government also did their bit for our return,” Kaul says.

 Kaul says that in the early 1990s those who remained in the valley were the fortunate ones. “Nobody did anything to the Pandits who chose to stay in Kashmir. I wish I too had stayed back and lived my life like every other Kashmiri was living.”

“We have witnessed marriages, births and deaths here. We have seen our children graduate from schools and colleges. We have seen them play with their friends. Kashmir is our home,” Kaul says.

“Every Pandit wants to come back and stay in the Muslim areas as they used to, but for now, these colonies provided by the government are our abode.”

As many of the Kashmiri Pandits – mostly elders – who have returned to the valley, are feeling a sense of belongingness, other young Pandits feel indifferent here.

Rahul Dhar, 19, was born in Jammu, not in Kashmir. He came to Kashmir two years ago with his family, who used to live in Islamabad. But for Rahul his homecoming to Kashmir was short-lived, unlike his family. Rahul stayed in Kashmir for just two months, before going back to Jammu for his studies. His father, Sushil Dhar, who is a government employee, says that his son felt uncomfortable with the idea of returning to Kashmir and living a life here.

“I was born in Kashmir. I lived here and when I left valley because of the situation, I always thought of coming back to the valley. But my Son never thought of Kashmir as his homeland. For him, Kashmir is a place where his parents lived. It’s hard for him to connect with the people here,” Sushil says.

As the cry for the return of Pandits is growing louder every day, questions are being raised about the security and settlement of the Pandits who had earlier left the valley due to the turmoil. Most of the Pandits who have returned are feeling safe and are calling on their Pandit community to return without any hesitation.

With the improvement in the situation in the Valley, the government has constructed facilities in Sheikhpora Budgam, Veerwan Baramulla, Mattan Islamabad and at other places in Kashmir. These facilities meant for Pandits who had migrated, recently has seen many Pandit accommodation.

For Manju Kaul, 60, living in a government settlement in Baramulla, these government facilities are a small step for the rehabilitation of Pandit community. “Yes we are being provided with government quarter to stay in but still much more needs to be done. The government should assure the safety of Kashmiri Pandits,” she says.

Motilal, another Kashmiri Pandit, who used to live in Baramulla, feels that the politics around the return of Kashmiri Pandits is being overhyped. He returned to the valley four years ago.

“The issue revolving around the return of Pandits needs to be settled but then our community also should understand how politics is being weaved around it. If anyone is willing to come back, I assure them that their Muslim brothers will accept them with open arms,” he says. “But we should not be kept isolated from the rest of the population. Government should treat us as theirs, thus putting an end to the rants of separate homeland for Kashmiri Pandits by certain people.”

Although, the idea of separate homeland for Kashmri Pandits is also being put forward by various Pandit organizations in Jammu and Delhi, people like Motilal find the idea absurd.

“Kashmir is our homeland. We don’t need a separate homeland. We will live with our Muslim brethern like we used to.”

Meanwhile, Sanjay Tickoo, one of the most respected voices on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley and the president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS), had also recently opposed the idea of a separate homeland for Kahsmiri Pandits as advocated by certain Pandit organizations.

For Amit Kumar, nothing in Kashmir has changed since he left the valley. He still sees Kashmir the way he used to. For him Kashmir is his homeland and he will live here till his last breath.

“People say Kashmir has changed for Pandits but where is the change? The Jhelum which flows through Kashmir still brings the same water for both Muslim as well as Pandits,” he says.

The return of Kashmiri Pandits, without any doubt, has been politicized by many vested interests, but the complexity of the issue and harboring of Pandits still remains a question and can’t be ruled out.

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