By Amrita Hangloo:
The state of Jammu and Kashmir (India) has three main provinces – Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. While Jammu has a predominantly Hindu population and Dogri as the most spoken language, Kashmir has a mostly Muslim population where Kashmiri is spoken; while Ladakh has a Buddhist population that speaks Ladakhi. All these 3 regions differ from each other culturally and have different weather conditions. J&K, as reports tell us, is the only state in India with a majority Muslim population.
Nowadays, when everyone from the likes of famous writers to the common man is giving their take on various issues; issues which they might or might not even be a part of or have suffered on behalf of, I thought maybe it’s time I narrate my side of the story.
Born in a joint family in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, the beginning of my childhood was bliss – a big three-storey house, awesome European summers, snow laden lanes in winter, and apple and walnut orchards all around. With no fans and no air-conditioners, having only read about cockroaches, snakes, and lizards but never having seen them, it was the sort of ideal place one can only dream of!
Coming back from school one day in April 1990, my cousin and I followed a procession of people shouting slogans like “Kashmir humara hain, hum kya chahte azadi (Kashmir is ours and we want freedom),” the meaning of which we were too young to understand at that time. To us it was an adventure to see such a big gathering, so we followed it till we reached home.
Little did I know these things were going to change our lives forever…
That evening we saw a group of men approaching our house with rifles/guns and we were told to switch off the lights and not to make any noise. That night onwards we did not turn the house lights on and used a small candle instead. We were too afraid lest we get spotted.
Most of the Kashmiri pandits (Brahmin Hindus of Kashmir), as I saw it, were being seen as pro-India and were being targeted and killed.
A couple of days passed and I stopped going to school. Those small processions started getting bigger and bigger, fiercer and more frequent.
The elders from the neighborhood would gather in the evening and talk about leaving Kashmir for some time, till things got better perhaps.
My father who was returning from Delhi to Kashmir heard about pandits fleeing the valley in Jammu as the situation was getting out of control. You have to understand that there was only one TV channel, hardly any telephones and people were still writing letters and telegrams, so the flow of information was next to none.
Because of this lack of communication, my father had no idea about where exactly we were and so he got down at Ramban from the bus and tried to search through some 50,000 people. I can only imagine his feelings at that point of time when rapes and killings had become more of a norm in Kashmir.
He finally got home and was relieved to see us alright. But next week something happened that forced us to fear for our lives and flee the valley like many other Kashmir pandit families from other parts of Kashmir. An elderly man and his son living in close vicinity were killed. Their bodies were left hanging from a tree. The spot on their forehead, where Hindus normally put a tika (dot), was burnt with cigarette marks clearly visible, and their eyes had been carved out.
Some of our Muslim well wishers told my father that it was not safe anymore and we should leave the valley.
I remember my mother calling me and asking me to pack some of my frocks/dresses saying that we were to leave tomorrow. I was so excited that I was going to ride a truck! I had no idea what was coming our way. We packed some clothes and took a stove with us as we thought we would be back after 2-3 months when things had settled down. We were convinced that this was just a temporary phase. Along with all our belongings, big house, apple and walnut trees, we left behind our 2 cows whom I loved very much.
Like everyone else, we moved to Jammu. While many of the Kashmiri pandit population were given tents, we couldn’t get a spot so we rented a room in a village. May in Jammu gets really hot going up to 40-46 degree celsius. Most of us were used to a 30-degree summer. All the elderly people and kids who had probably never traveled outside Kashmir were the worst hit by this weather. I saw people around me getting affected by sun strokes, there were many cases of people getting bitten by snakes and scorpions, and many of them died because of these.
It’s very hard for me to explain this huge change that we all went through. From those big 2-3 storey houses and European summers, suddenly we were in a tent with 40-45 degree temperature outside! And in winters, people had to queue for the free blankets. Thanks to the fact that we are a small population and do not constitute a vote bank – we were barely visited by any politician on humanitarian grounds!
Those months changed to years and the tents were replaced by small rooms and common toilets. Basically small colonies of Kashmiri pandits. Now we had to accommodate all family members in a room along with the kids and elders. We were called refugees and our status changed from Kashmiri pandits to migrants.
All through these years, we have struggled to keep our culture and language. It’s been more than 25 years since that time and I see many people from my community suffering from stress related diseases like depression, diabetes etc. But we continue to wait for that temporary phase to end to return to our home – Kashmir!
In these years, I have come across people who have helped us and others who made our life more miserable, but I still believe in India and its good-willed people and I will always remain a Kashmiri at heart and an Indian in my soul.
For another perspective on the Kashmiri pandits, read: We Must Speak Up For Kashmiri Pandits, But Not The Way Most People Do!