January 2010 
Year 16    No.147
Special Report


Return of hope

The return of Kashmiri Pandits to the valley after two decades no longer seems impossible

BY ANURADHA BHASIN JAMWAL

Outside a small temple a group of Kashmiri Pandit women hold hands and sing Kashmiri songs as a new bridegroom drives away in a flower-bedecked car. The women return to the temple courtyard, form a circle and continue to sing, their traditional dejhor earrings glistening under a feeble sun. Standing in the centre, the groomís aunt holds out two earthen plates filled with flower petals. The others sing, drizzling petals from one plate to the other. Many in the gathering are unable to explain the origin or the significance of the ritual. But it is a must after Kashmiri Pandit weddings when the bridegroom seeks the blessings of the goddess before he goes to the brideís house to bring her home.

Customs, rituals and language are things that renew the energy and hopes of these migrant Kashmiri Pandits who have been living in squalid camps on the outskirts of Jammu for the last 20 years. Observing these rituals, speaking a language that may be alien in Jammu but is one they proudly call their own, offers some form of reassurance even as hopes of a return to the Kashmir valley grow dimmer with each passing year.

Forgetting for a moment their stark surroundings and the harsh realities of daily life, the women seem happy, singing as they now await the brideís arrival. Participating in the ritual with an almost childlike enthusiasm, they are a little shy but friendly. "Look, here comes another groom to pay obeisance to the goddess," one of them exclaims, as another groom jumps out of his car, walks in with some friends, prays to the goddess and then zooms off to fetch his bride.

For most of these women home is the sprawling migrant camp by the banks of a small seasonal stream in Nagrota. Some of them were fortunate enough to have graduated from the squalid camps to the more airy and comparatively spacious two-room flats that have recently been constructed just behind the old camp. The temple is situated opposite the camp, near a few shops: a provision store, a Kashmiri bakery, a tailor, a vegetable vendor, a spare parts dealer and even a beauty parlour. Life seems complete in many ways for the campís inmates. But not quite!

Meeting a cross-section of people in the camps is revealing in many ways. Over the last 20 years many of them have learnt to adjust to life in the camp. But there is also a desperation to get out of there, compounded by the uncertainty of not knowing where to go. The despair, frustration and dilemma spring from a 20-year separation from their original homes in the valley while they have been neglected and condemned to live in the shabby congested camp that is now their home. It is difficult to determine whether they would in fact be ready to return to the valley if the government were to make a serious move in this direction. Many say they do want to go back but they are very sceptical about the prospects of that happening. The reasons for this are several.

The latest endeavour, inspiring both hope and doubt, is the constitution of an Apex Advisory Committee to oversee the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri migrants, set up by the government of Jammu and Kashmir in close coordination with the union government in September 2009. This comes after several failed attempts during the last two decades. The committee is comprised of 32 members, including, for the first time, some Pandits who still live in the valley. Hopes were further raised when a consensus emerged for the inclusion of valley-based Muslims in the committee as well. But the apex committee has not met since then, except during the union home minister, P. Chidambaramís visit to Nagrota in November when he inaugurated the new flats meant for migrants. Hardcore Kashmiri Pandit groups like Panun Kashmir have so far boycotted the meetings.

But what adds to the scepticism of the Kashmiri migrants living in the camp near Jammu is their non-representation in the apex committee. "They have never included us," says an angry Sunny Raina, 30. "All decisions are taken by the Srinagar-based Pandits. What about the rural poor rotting in the camps? After all, it is we who have borne the brunt of displacement over the last 20 years," he says angrily.

Sunny, who has fond memories of his days in Kulgam, his original home, recalls his early teenage years and the days they spent in a tented camp at Jhiri, west of Jammu, after they had to leave the valley suddenly. "From big houses and open spaces, we ended up in tents. During the windy wintry days we had to cling to the tent poles to make sure the tent didnít collapse and in summer we had to brave snakebites and the heat which we werenít used to. From those tents we moved to these shabby tenements, one room per family is all that we had for all these years. We lived in such penury for all these years, you learn to get used to it. Things are better now. Weíve shifted into these two-room flats and I just got a government job. But is this the life for us?"

Asked whether he would like to return to the valley, he is quick to respond: "Of course, we all want to go back. But what are the possibilities? When Ė a hundred years from now? We wonít even know our next-door neighbours when we return. The only option is to keep us in safe zones, not isolate us in a jail-like camp but just shift us with minimal security. If the government is serious about shifting us back and has a genuine plan, why are we being settled in these new colonies here instead of there?" The governmentís indecisiveness seems to compound his dilemma.

Many of Sunnyís contemporaries at the camp oscillate between similar doses of pessimism and optimism from one moment to the next. Take, for instance, Ashwini Raina and his younger, college-going brother, Sonu. Ashwini considers himself lucky to have found a job in the private sector after getting his MBA degree and claims that many of his friends at the camp who have come back after completing their studies in Pune or elsewhere are jobless.

"You see, there is so much frustration and despair here. We do want to go back but is that really possible?" Sonu, the more talkative of the two, shares his sense of hopelessness but he is nonetheless an enthusiastic and bubbly youngster. He was born in the camp. "It was only when we went to Khir Bhawani that I visited our village in Ganderbal for the first time and saw our huge but dilapidated house and the open space around it. Until then, I had no idea what I had missed. Hearing stories was one thing but the one-room accommodation at the camp was the only place that I could think of as home in all these years." He wants to return and is sad that he cannot. "Things are still not secure; we donít even know our next-door neighbours."

His enthusiasm however is undiminished as he proudly escorts me to his newly constructed two-room flat which the family shifted to four months ago after years spent in a shabby one-room tenement. The flat is airy and, with a small terrace and a separate kitchen and toilet, relatively spacious. His mother welcomes me with a smile and serves us tea and fresh biscuits from the bakery, a Kashmiri favourite. Life has been difficult in the past 20 years but traditions and customs have not changed. On that cold November morning, as I sit on a Kashmiri namdah on the floor, she offers me a blanket to keep me warm and insists that I eat another biscuit. Sonu ensures that I have enough cushions for a backrest. These are such typical gestures of Kashmiri hospitality that I am at once transported to the valley. But the conversation brings us back to the reality of their forced existence in camps like this one, set up in the wilderness on Jammuís outskirts, for almost two decades now.

There are other camps located in Udhampur and Delhi where conditions are much the same as in this one.

The majority of Kashmiri Pandits were once well off, mostly literate and held government jobs or owned sizeable portions of land in the villages. Pushed into these congested spaces, life seems to have frozen for the internally displaced Pandits torn between the Kashmiri identity they cherish and the bitterness they harbour against the valleyís Muslims. The younger generation, which has few or no memories of the valley, is particularly ambivalent. Many of them donít even speak the Kashmiri language. They make a conscious effort not to do so and to adjust to their new surroundings. Sonu agrees that his generation is not very happy speaking "our own language".

"Youngsters still speak Kashmiri in the camps but elsewhere they speak a mixture of Hindi and Dogri, the local language of Jammu," he maintains. "Theyíre not just confused, they are frustrated, and anyone can exploit that situation. Last year [2008] we allowed the BJP to exploit our youth. We took the lead in shouting ĎBam Bam Bholeí during the Amarnath agitation but later realised our mistake. You see, the frustration runs so deep that if anyone exploits our situation, we may even be ready to take up guns and become terrorists."

Do they feel hatred, harbour bitterness against Muslims? Both Sonu and his brother are quick to respond that though there is some bitterness, there is no hatred. "We donít hate them but we just donít know them," says Ashwini. Sonu chips in, "There are some Kashmiri Muslim boys also studying in my college and we often argue about what happened in 1989-90 and thereafter. Earlier, I only blamed them for our plight. But now I do understand that they have also suffered. We donít want to suffer but we donít want them to suffer either."

Sonuís mother however does not share this empathy and is suspicious of Muslims. "When we were forced to leave, they never did anything for us. So how can we trust them now? If we go back and something happens again, they will get swayed by that and not bother about us. Who knows if some of them were also involved [in driving the Pandits out] earlier?" she says. For her "there is just no possibility of return", since the trust that once existed cannot be restored.

Most other adults in the camp are sceptical and ambivalent about Muslims in the valley. Bal Kishen, who has been running a small provision store at the camp ever since he retired from a government job, says: "If conditions improve, we would surely go back. We want safe zones for ourselves but we donít want to be excluded. We want to be part of Kashmir. But there is still a lot of insecurity, the situation is still not encouraging. We fear that something untoward will happen after we return. Of course, bonds with old neighbours and friends still exist but it is not the same thing after 20 years. Their children have grown up and so have ours. They donít know each other, I donít know their children. Sometimes we are not even sure if they want us to come back. They come and meet us and once when I went back to my village in Kulgam for some work, I did stay with them. But whenever we meet, after exchanging pleasantries and talking about the good old times, they ask us to sell our land to them, since we are not going back. This makes us doubtful." But hope still lingers. Kishen claims that unlike the Pandits from urban areas, most of the migrants from the villages have yet to sell off their properties. This is partly because they yearn to return to their homeland and partly because village people tend to treat the land as something sacred and it would be almost sacrilegious to sell it.

Notwithstanding the shared experience of forced migration, the urban-rural divide among the Kashmiri migrants is apparent. The camp inmates have a serious grudge against the urbanites, who get to play a greater role in any decision-making about their plight and the possibility of their return. Vijay Bakaya, a retired bureaucrat, a legislator in the upper house of the state legislature and a member of the apex committee, is among those who recognise the existence of this divide. He readily agrees with the idea of greater representation of migrants living in the camps and Pandits with rural backgrounds in all decision-making, including the recent deliberations on the return of migrants to the valley.

Unlike most Pandits in the camps, he is quite optimistic about the outcome of the apex committee initiative. "You see, 3,000 new posts have already been created for Kashmiri Pandits and it was on the committeeís recommendation that all these posts are to be in the valley so that youngsters are motivated to move back. They are likely to be filled by March 2010. Agreed, these are only short-term measures and we need to evolve long-term strategies too. Setting up clusters in different districts of the valley so that migrants from those districts can return with a sense of security and comfort is one such idea. Even on this there was near consensus among the apex committee members that these should be set up as transit camps so that once things improved and intercommunity relations improved, individual families could make a final decision on whether to return to their earlier homes or sell them off."

Pandits who stayed on in the valley through the two turbulent decades are the most enthusiastic about the latest initiative. Their enthusiasm is understandable considering that at present there are only about 8,000 of them left in the valley. The return of the migrant Pandits will add to their cumulative sociopolitical weight in the valley and help restore its plural identity. In addition to braving onslaughts by both the security forces and the militants, like their Muslim counterparts, these Pandits have also had to face the vagaries of life as experienced by a minuscule minority. Yet, to their credit and despite their insignificant numbers, they have attempted to organise themselves into groups and lobby both successive governments and local leaders for greater security and the promotion of the social and economic interests of the community.

Pandits in the valley may be a divided lot but their choice to stay put and to defend their interests has contributed to the diversity within an otherwise monochromatic social milieu in the last two decades. While these Pandits have divergent voices, from the very beginning theirs has been a voice in sharp contrast to that of the Kashmiri migrants. The valley-based Pandits have always lamented the stand taken by hardcore migrant leaders, as it only contributed to a greater sense of unease and insecurity amongst themselves.

Throughout the Amarnath land dispute in 2008, when almost all migrant Kashmiri Pandit organisations unconditionally supported the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti that was spearheading the anti-Kashmir agitation, Pandits in the valley felt extremely insecure, caught between Islamist slogans on one side and fellow Pandits from the camps aligning with the other. For their part, the migrants view the Pandits who continue to stay in the valley as some kind of traitors.

Some years ago a colony was built on the outskirts of Srinagar to house migrants who were willing to return. However, only a few families, those who had migrated from Sangrampora in North Kashmir following a massacre by militants, were temporarily settled there. The rest of the flats remained empty. "But the government made no attempt to bring back some Pandits from the Jammu camps, neither did it settle those internally displaced within Kashmir so as to discourage any fresh exodus," says ML Bhat, a prominent Kashmiri Pandit activist based in the valley.

Many Pandits who fled to Srinagar from rural areas in the last 20 years today live in small shanties, including one at Ganpatyar, in the heart of the city. All they have are some rooms in a temple complex that is occupied mainly by CRPF men. "While the migrants get relief and other government assistance, we have been totally forgotten," says Bhat. "It is important to protect us first because we are the link Ė the root Ė and we can be an ideal bridge between the two communities." Many other valley-based Pandits echo his sentiments.

It is in this context that the latest move for the return of the migrants is being welcomed by the Pandits in the valley who have been included in the apex committee because they are a vital link between the Kashmiri Muslims and the migrant Pandits. Significantly, the apex committee meeting in September 2009 ended on a promising note, with the decision to involve Kashmiri Muslims in the process. Welcome though the initiative is, there has been very little progress since September. As mentioned earlier, the only other time that the apex committee members met was during Home Minister P. Chidambaramís visit to Jammu in early November. All that happened during this meeting however was a reiteration of the proceedings in September.

Meanwhile, two important but hardcore Pandit groups continue to boycott the apex committee. There are also differences about whether the 3,000 new posts created for Kashmiri migrants should all be within the valley. Despite all the differences and the reservations of certain groups, the fact remains that for the first time there appears to be a sincere effort on the part of the authorities to chart a clear road map before embarking on a journey: the return of the migrant Pandits to the valley.

Though it has been decided, in principle, to include Kashmiri Muslims in the process, there has been no action so far in that direction. This is quite critical. Although people on both sides have managed to maintain cordial relations on a personal level, intercommunity reservations and bitterness persist. This is especially true of the younger generation, who are not only strangers to each other but have also grown up on two mutually contradictory histories of the other.

Opinion on how Muslims should be included is still divided. While some want them to be brought within the ambit of the apex committee, others feel it would be more fruitful to encourage and facilitate greater intercommunity interaction. Social activists have been organising informal meetings and workshops for reconciliation. Individuals have also played a significant role. A good example of this is ML Bhat, who continues to run his 80-year-old school in the valley against the odds. In the current situation, where few symbols of pluralism and diversity are visible, Bhatís school, where Pandit children study alongside Muslim children, acts like a beacon.

There is also the example of Dr Sushil Razdan, a leading neurologist from Kashmir, who was among those displaced from the valley in 1990. His private clinic in Jammu is thronged by patients throughout the day. The vast majority of them are Muslims from the valley who still hold him in high esteem. "When they come, I do not ask them about their problems. I first talk to them about the valley. Itís like a healing stimulant," the doctor says. He talks excitedly about receiving regular letters from his friends in the valley, with whom he still maintains very good relations.

Especially during the winter taxi-loads of Muslim patients from South Kashmir come to Dr Razdan for consultation. "Patients from one village all come together, having made an appointment months in advance. On the day of their appointment they leave home early in the morning, reach here by noon, spend the day at my clinic, consulting me and picnicking in the lawns. They return to their villages in the evening. It gives me immense pleasure because Kashmir is not just the name of a place, it is also about people. When they arrive in such large numbers, itís like a part of Kashmir is always with me."

With their children now having settled abroad or in other states in India, several well-to-do migrant Pandits have themselves decided to return to the valley, for that is where their friends are. More than anything else, it is such individual accounts that keep hope afloat. The return of Kashmiri migrants to the valley after two decades may indeed be a Herculean task. But there are obvious signs that this is not altogether impossible.

(Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is a peace activist and executive editor of The Kashmir Times.)

 


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