Dressed in a white kutra-pyjama, he was busy on his floor-level writing desk, and I, instinctively, knew he was a Kashmiri Pandit. On the campaign trail of the landmark 1996 Assembly elections in Kashmir, I had reached Kulgam, South Kashmir, inside the one-room dingy office of MY Tarigami, the CPI(M) candidate. Here, a Left politician was seeking votes from Muslims who, of late, had embraced a puritan version of Islam, in the constituency where Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists had a huge presence and with a Kashmiri Pandit campaign manager.
It was the mother of all paradoxical situations!
Like the man in white, many duty-bound Kashmiri pundits, including myself, continued to live and work in the Valley past the exodus in the first six months of 1990. Being an eyewitness to their trials and tribulations, I present the case of these forgotten and most ignored Kashmiri Pandits to the world.
An official countdown of the Pandits in 1998 after the Wandhama massacre (25 Pandits living in a hamlet in the North were killed by terrorists) was 5,000. It was embarrassingly low even for the apologists for separatists. Most of them were small farmers and those on the margins of society: The infirm, the poor and individuals without a family. Small farmers had lived off their land in Kashmir and with no government jobs and not educated, they visualised starvation death outside and preferred to die in their native places.
Once while driving down from Shangus to Srinagar, we – the group of three journalists including two Kashmiris - met a sari-clad Hindu woman. Her brisk walk bellied her age manifested through her wrinkled face. With a little persuasion, she accepted our offer of a lift up to the Swami Vivekananda ashram on the outskirts of Anantnag and got into the car. She told me her family couldn’t even think of leaving because of her invalid son. As we were speaking, she suddenly panicked and asked me to stop the car. Later, we suspected she had realised one of us was a Kashmiri Muslim as maybe it was the cause for her panic.
After another massacre of Hindus in village Sangrama, the authorities had shifted all those living around in hamlets to the abandoned homes in Budgam town. I met a few of them in 2003 after I had moved to Delhi. These families mostly comprised the ageing men and women; they lived in abject poverty. One of them begged for money.
The image of a Kashmiri army captain reciting a particular ayat of Quran without any pause on the demand of a visiting ambassador of an Islamic country remains etched in my mind as the ultimate portrait of a professional. The ambassador wanted to check if the Captain was really a Kashmiri, since to him Kashmiri identity was synonymous with Muslims.
The Kashmiri slogan of “
Ralliv, Galliv ya chaliv,” (meaning Get converted to Islam, vanish or die or leave forever) coming from loudspeakers of almost all major mosques across Kashmir on the dreadful night of January 19, 1990, had triggered the exodus and yet some KPs professionals kept holding the post. Lassa Koul, Director, Doordarshan, was one of them. As an ace broadcaster, he ordered that mass protests for azadi across Kashmir be shown in the news bulletins.
Yet he was killed in cold blood; right on the threshold of his house, in front of his aged parents who had named him Lassa (One who lives long) as he was the only surviving child of theirs. His death was an orchestrated murder, someone from his office had leaked information about his late evening and quiet escape from the security zone to see his parents to the terrorists.
Once I happened to chat with a few young militants inside a BSF camp. One of them turned out to be from a village close to my mother’s ancestral house in Nagam. The young man boasted to me how some local Hindus had been staying there. “They have no problem since we always live in their homes,” his explanation left me bewildered.
The daylight murder of HN Wanchoo, a trade union leader who was helping Muslim parents file habeas corpus petitions for their children’s release from jails left nobody in doubt about the real agenda of terrorists. Wanchoo’s murder came a few days after Jamiat-ul-mujahideen had publically warned about ‘secularists’ sneaking into their Islamic movement.
Clearly the policy of
ralliv didn’t work! The movement wasn’t about Azadi; it was for Islamic rule in Kashmir and Hindus were simply unwanted in this situation.
In an Anantnag village, two girls had been recruited as teachers in local “English medium school,” a euphemism for the Jamaat-e-Islami run institutions. I happened to meet them. They told me they had started donning a burqa on the advice of village elders.
As Kashmiri Pandits relive the pain of their homelessness of 30 years, it’s time for the country to also spare a thought for those hapless Pandits and other minority groups who are living on the edge in Kashmir.
Aasha Khosa is a journalist who covered Kashmir in the nineties and now lives in Delhi.