‘It’s been 27 years now that I’ve not been able to visit my jannat (paradise), 27 years since I went into exile,” said the old man with tears welling up in his blood-shot eyes, his voice choking as raw wounds from memories flooded his heart.
It was a cold night when all across the valley, there was an announcement from the minarets of the mosque, “Ralliv, czhaliv ya galliv” – “Become part of us (convert), run or die.” In the middle of the night, half the population of Kashmir was on the street, running to save their lives. January 20, 1990, was the day when thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, including the old man, were forced to flee from their homes – their paradise.
Over 60,000 Kashmiri Pandits escaped from the separatist insurgency as violence peaked in the early 1990s. Most of them had to drive a 12-hour long ride to Jammu amidst the hairpin curves and blurring sight of a chilly night. They sought refuge in the plains of Jammu, because of its proximity to their home in the valley. The rest, with their rucksack containing necessities, fled to the ‘city of rallies’, Delhi.
The families of the Kashmiri Pandits have been separated, displaced and reduced to a penny. The suffering of the Kashmiri pandits does not start with houses being burnt or neighborhoods being abandoned. It started with the story of longing, loss, and sadness. It was as if they were leaving a part of their body in the valley only in the hope of returning soon enough. Little did they knew that they were ‘refugees’ in their own country now. The land which they once called home and the land which belonged to their ancestors no longer welcomed them.
The snow-covered balcony overlooking the Jhelum river, the song of the fisherman in the river, the fragrance of the rose bushes nearby and the varying shades of greenery around the hills – all of this became a distant memory for these refugees.
It all started in July 1988 when the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front began a separatist insurgency for the independence of Kashmir from India. The group targeted a Kashmiri Hindu for the first time on September 14, 1989, when they killed prominent advocate and leader of the Bhartiya Janata Party, Pandit Tika Lal Taploo in front of a group of people. This particular incident instilled fear in the Kashmiri Pandit community and they realised they were no longer safe in the valley. On January 4, 1990, a local Urdu newspaper “Aftab” published a press release by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, asking all the Pandits to leave the valley immediately. The sense of insecurity and vulnerability was clearly seen among the Kashmiri Pandits when the attacks on prominent Hindu leaders continued in Srinagar.
This was not the first time that the community of Kashmiri Pandits was attacked. There were six more instances in the history of Kashmir where the community of Kashmiri Pandits was attacked. Starting from the rule of Sultan Sikandar, the Mughals to the Afghan ruler, Assad Khan, the Kashmiri Pandits were brutally tortured and forced to convert.
In the book, “The Valley of Kashmir”, Walter R. Lawrence mentioned that Assad Khan used to tie up the Pandits, two and two, in grass shacks and sink them in the Dal lake. As an amusement, a pitcher filled with ordure would be placed on a Pandit’s head and it would be pelted with stones till it broke.
Kashmiri Pandits were the original descendants of the valley. In all probability, they travelled from the plains of Punjab to settle in the Kashmir valley, in the lap of the Himalayas, roughly three thousands years ago. Islam came much later in the valley, probably around the fourteenth century. It is thus that Kashmir was the primeval home of the Brahmins, or Brahmans– those who are conscious.
It was only after Islam came to Kashmir that the troubles for the Kashmiri Pandits increased. During the reign of Islamic rulers, there were mass conversions. Those who did not comply would be put to death immediately. For the rest, a calf would be slaughtered, and they would feed its meat and their sacred thread would be snapped.
It was estimated that only fourteen families of Kashmiri Pandits were left after this. The only peaceful years for the Kashmiri Pandits was during the time of Sikh rulers and Dogra dynasty.
There might be many instances before but nothing was as cruel as the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits in the 1990s. It was a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. If people of this country can sympathize the Rohingyas as the effect of ethnic cleansing, let me remind you what happened to the people of our own country a couple of decades back.
Aditya Raj Kaul, a reporter in Times Now wrote about the day his family was forced to leave Kashmir in a Facebook post, ‘ I was nine-months-old, wrapped in a white cloth, unaware of the genocide. ‘Exodus’ till that day was a historical term used by Pandits to debate history. Years later, homelessness would shatter my heart to pieces. And the thought of a lost childhood.’
In another instance, Smriti Kak Ramachandran, Columnist at The Hindu recalled her memories from that time and wrote‘ My story is not about the loss of material goods; it’s about the pain of carrying memories.’
Around 96.4% of the population in Kashmir valley are Muslim and in spite being the majority in the state, they enjoy the minority status according to the laws. Only 2.45% of the entire Kashmir population are Hindus and need protection and special status.
If the Gujarat riots and the Godhra train incident can be included in the curriculum of our schools, then why don’t you include the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and make people aware of this? Or is it because the religious card for politics can’t be used in this case?
Kashmiri was one of the fourteen languages which were identified in the eight schedule of the Indian constitution and yet it’s one of the only languages which is not taught in any schools. Does the language die with the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits? Doesn’t Islam believe in the law of the land?
Sushil Pandit, a famous Kashmir activist mentioned in an interview with Rajeev Malhotra that the Government during that time clearly wrote in a report that the exodus of Kashmiri Pandit in the Kashmir valley in a self-induced and this incident happened right after India defending itself against the allegation of ethnic cleansing.
The Government had done very little since then. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was formed with one of the core manifestoes of lifting the article 370 from the state of Jammu and Kashmir but in the eve of 2014 Assembly elections in Kashmir, they didn’t even mention the article 370 to avoid taking a stand.
The Kashmiri Pandits are living like refugees in their own country and that’s the saddest part. It’s been more than two decades yet the State and Central Government couldn’t ensure complete protection to the Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. The Government of India must acknowledge the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits as genocide and deliver justice by genocide-trials in a tribunal. The political leaders who take oath under Indian constitution and support the insurgents, separatist militant and the members from Hurriyat conference must not be encouraged. They are traitors to our land.
The Government might offer certain impressive offers for those Kashmiri Pandits returning to the valley but the Kashmiri Pandits can only return to the state being a proud Indian and they can only settle in the valley with the imposition of Indian laws and not Jihadi.
I looked into the bloodshot eyes of the old man, who have seen more bloodshed than snowfall, more separation than longingness and more foreign land than his own home. I asked him, ‘You still want to go back to the valley?’