Kashmiri Pandits Continue To Live As Refugees In Their Own Land

19 June 2009
Daily News & Analysis

Srinagar: Sanjay Kumar Bhat, 41, still shivers when he remembers how his father, Ved Lal Bhat, unloaded his belongings from a truck in 1989, refusing to migrate to Jammu. Bhat had decided to stay put at his ancestral home in Sopore in the Kashmir valley, even as the entire Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) community in the town was preparing to flee in 1989, fearing for their lives. Three months later, Bhat was gunned down by suspected militants outside the school where he taught.The tragedy scarred Sanjay, who has undergone two heart surgeries in the last 20 years. A laboratory technician by profession, Sanjay recalls how he and his seven family members migrated and began life anew in poverty in Jammu.'I was a student and had only Rs500 in my pocket when we migrated. I shuttled between Delhi and Jammu looking for job. We left everything - our house, land, etc - in Sopore and have not gone back since then,' he said. Sanjay's case is the tip of the iceberg of the Pandits' saga, who have become refugees in their own land. Every Pandit has a tragic story to tell. Some lost their near and dear ones, some fled due to fear, and some to ensure a better future. 'Stones were pelted on our houses during nights and anonymous letters were sent to us asking us to leave the valley,' recalled Kashmiri Lal Bhat, who migrated from Anantnag in 1989. 'Our people were killed. Fear was palpable which resulted in migration of the Pandits.' Even Muslims and Sikh families from different parts of the valley have been forced to move to Jammu. 'We have around 2,500 Muslim and 1,600 Sikh families registered as migrants,' said Vinod Koul, the Relief Commissioner at Jammu. Incidentally, though the Pandits have been demanding the status of international refugees, the government has refused, terming them only as migrants. Around 260 Pandits were killed in early 1990 and the related fear psychosis triggered the migration of the Pandits from the valley. Official figures state that 34,878 families are registered as migrants in Jammu and 21,684 families are registered outside Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly 15,045 families are being paid a monthly relief, which comprises cash of Rs 4000 per family and nine kilogram of ration per person. Initially, the Pandits who fled the valley were put up in tents and after a few years, they were provided one-room accommodation with common bathroom and other facilities. 'We are upgrading their accommodation by providing one bedroom-kitchen set with living room area and a separate toilet and bathroom. It is a temporary arrangement because we want the Pandits to return to their homes and the prime minister has already announced incentives for them,' said Koul. The Pandits are not impressed with the assurances and hold the government responsible for their plight for the last 20 years. 'We believe that creating a homeland within the valley for resettling the Pandits is the panacea to our ills,' said Ashwani Charangu, president of Panun Kashmir, an organisation of migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Not that all the Pandits live in poverty. Some have prospered and do not want to return. 'Several professional colleges reserved a few seats for Kashmiri Pandits and many availed of this facility to do well,' said a political leader in Srinagar, 'This is one reason why affluent Pandits are unwilling of returning to the valley.' Of course, there were some Pandits who refused to budge and braved the militants' threats. 'In 1998, nearly 19,865 Pandits were living in the valley. Now the number has shrunk to 3,100, which means that migration is still on because the government has not provided any relief to the non-migrant Pandits,' said Sanjay Tickoo, president, Kashmiri Pandit Sangrash Samiti (KPSS), an apex body of Kashmiri Pandits who did not migrate from valley. What complicates the potential return of the Pandits to the Valley is that most of the refugees have sold their property. 'Sixty per cent of the property in villages and 92% in the urban areas have been sold off. The remaining properties like houses have been destroyed or are unusable,' said Tickoo. A consequence of the disappearance of the Pandits is that their temples lie neglected, and many temple lands have been encroached upon. 'Out of the 565 temples, 510 lie in an extremely dilapidated state and 28 temples have ceased to exist,' said Tickoo.