Homeward Bound? On The Road With A Kashmiri Pandit Revisiting Sopore

16 April 2015
Sameer Yasir

Baramulla: It was a pleasant April morning as a car carrying Roshan Lal Pandita and his son, Kailesh, drove out of the high, corrugated gates of a Kashmiri Pandit colony situated in Khanpora, on the banks of Jehlum River, in Baramulla. The car crossed a checkpoint manned by nervous looking policemen and paramilitary soldiers. Chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, Yasin Malik, had given a strike call against the Centre's announcement to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits in 'Composite Townships'. The impact of the call was palpable. Once bustling roads and marketplaces in Baramulla town were mostly deserted, with troopers armed with riot gear on the watch for 'trouble-makers'. I traveled with Pandita, a retired school teacher, to his ancestral village Bomai, in Sopore, the home town of senior Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani and the hotbed of separatist sentiment in Kashmir. The father-son duo were visiting their native village for the first time since they were exiled in the early nineties, after the region erupted in violence. Bomai village is barely a few kilometres away from Pandita's colony in Khanpora. He visited the village some years ago when then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 1,618-crore package for Kashmiri Pandits in 2008. But the visit was brief and he barely met anyone. As the car drew closer to our destination, Pandita recollected a time when Kashmir was calm and he used to visit Sopore town in the wee hours for morning prayers at a temple. At Batpora we see a dilapidated temple that Pandita wants to see. It has been vandalised and, after the majority of Hindus migrated from Kashmir, lies in ruins. Pandita is visibly upset. 'This temple,' he says in a sullen voice, 'roared with morning prayers. The priest would shout at the top of his voice: 'Dev Ti Madar Waen Gulab Pamposh', and the devotees would respond saying, 'Zan Tai Puzai Lagas Parmishwer Shivnaths Hai' (Lets begin the day by offering lotuses and roses to Shiva, the lord of heavens, and Parvati, the mother of creation).' Pandita says the Muslims attending pre-dawn prayers in the nearby mosques would also sing in raised voices, 'Ha Waav'e Watakh Na Tae'ti, Yeti Che Muhammad Mustafa, Ahwal Meni Tas Wanakh, Su Ho Karyem Dadyen Dawah' (O morning breeze, if you happen to pass through Medina, Send my best wishes to my Prophet (PBUH), for he will shower his blessings on us).' When the insurgency broke out, Sopore became a hotbed of separatist activity; its geographical location was a plus point, centered as it is in the midst of north Kashmir which shares a border with Pakistan. On 7 May, 1990, dozens of armed men turned up at the house of Professor Kundan Lal Ganjoo, in the Badshah Masjid area of Batpora. The Ganjoos were dragged out and their Muslim neighbours were locked inside to prevent them from intervening. The family was taken to the nearby Jehlum river. Professor Ganjoo was shot, his wife was kidnapped and his nephew was thrown into the river, but he managed to survive. Protests erupted in Sopore over the incident, marking perhaps the last time there would be any public outcry in Sopore over the treatment of a Kashmiri Pandit family. According to unconfirmed reports, Ganjoo's abducted wife, Pranaji, was later killed, but her body was never found. There was speculation that her body was thrown into the Jehlum. The incident was the first killing of any Kashmiri Pandit in Sopore town and the news spread like wildfire. The fear of persecution loomed large among the community and almost all of the Pandits living in Sopore, along with those from Pandita's village, migrated to Jammu, like thousands of others. 'Shortly after that incident, a long line of buses was waiting for us at the degree college road. We boarded the buses and left, hoping to return in few months. I had promised my neighbours that I would be back, but then days turned into months, and years became decades,' Pandita says. Bomai is a sleepy village on the Srinagar-Kupwara highway, some 65 kilometres north of Srinagar, Once we arrived near a sprawling apple orchard, an old, twin-storied, mud-and-brick house comes into sight. This once used to be Pandita's home. Before we enter, Pandita wants to take a walk around. But he has a query. Is it safe? The Hindu minority in Muslim-majority Kashmir shrank from an estimated 140,000 in the late 1980s to a paltry 19,865 by 1998. Today, there are fewer than 3,400 Pandits in Kashmir. Presently, there are 37, 128 migrant families living in Jammu. Besides, there are 19,338 families living mostly in Delhi and other parts of India, according to the state government's Revenue & Rehabilitation Ministry. After taking a stroll around the village, we return to Pandita's house. The compound wall has a large hole through which the dilapidated structure is visible. Inside the house, pigeon droppings, ivy, playing cards, cigarette butts, broken earthen pots and empty bottles lie scattered. 'This is Thokur's room, an exclusive temple in every Pandit house. I spent my childhood here,' he said, 'Where can I get this air and this cool breeze? We have burned in the heat of Jammu for 34 years. We lived a miserable life in slums. Imagine four people living in one room. I just want to come back.' As Pandita surveys the remains of his house, a group of people gather in the courtyard. It is not normal to see people in this part of the village. The village-head enters the courtyard, runs towards Pandita and hugs him. It is an emotional reunion for the neighbours who were separated by forces beyond their control. Despite this however, Pandita believes it would be better to live in a separate colony. 'Once there is a sense of security, we can then return to our homes.' His son nods in agreement. 'Till that time,' he adds, 'the idea of living in our own villages and towns is not feasible. In these colonies, the responsibility to protect us will lie with the government.' As part of the renewed efforts to bring back displaced Kashmiri Pandits, PM Narendra Modi, asked the state government to identify and earmark 16,800 Kanals of land in three districts of the Valley - Anantnag, Baramulla and Budgam - where migrant families could be resettled. After Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became chief minister of PDP-BJP coalition government in the state, the return of Pandits was listed in their 'Agenda for the Alliance'. The Muslim residents of the valley oppose settling the Pandits in separate colonies. The demand for a separate homeland was first floated by the radical Kashmiri Pandit group, Panun Kashmir. But, there is a fear that the idea is to emulate the Israeli policy of building settlements in West Bank. Senior Hurriyat leader, Nayeem Khan, told Firstpost that the Kashmir conflict is between the people of the state and India, and any effort to create a separate colony for Pandits would create friction between the two communities. 'We are not opposing the return of Pandits. In fact, we will welcome them with open arms. However, we will vehemently oppose any move to create separate colonies for them,' he said. Well-placed sources have told Firstpost that the state government has already kept money aside for the purchase of land in three districts of Kashmir. Despite stiff resistance, it could only be a matter of time before the land is purchased. Presently, the relief and rehabilitation exercise is a costly affair. The number of families have swelled over the years. At present, there are 37128 families alone in Jammu, up from 25503 in 1996 while Delhi is the second largest destination for them where 19338 out of total 21233 migrant families live. To provide better facilities to the migrants, the state government had initially come up with temporary accommodation in Jagti township and other areas of Jammu. The state government told the assembly recently that it had spent Rs 349.86 crore out of its total allocation of 728.07 crores to help rehabilitation efforts. In April 2008, a Rs 1618 crore package was announced by then PM Manmohan Singh for offering jobs to Kashmir Pandits besides other assistance. The state government spent Rs 218.46 crores to create transit accommodation, such as the one in which Pandita presently lives, while Rs 169 crore was set aside for salaries. The programme worked. The government says no Kashmiri Pandit youth given a job has left it. It is in the light of this fact that the role of the new settlements has to be assessed. The state government says the migrant Pandits will be settled only in their native places, and not in separate colonies. 'There is absolutely no question of separate township. They will live along with Muslims and Sikhsin at their native places,' J&K's education minister, Naeem Akhtar, said. Late last Friday, Firstpost spoke to Ashish Kaul, who lives in Baramulla. Kaul works as a manager in a multi-national company in Banglore. He left Kashmir with his parents when he was nine years old. I asked him whether he would leave his job and return if the government provided him with one. 'I don't think so. But grandfather and father would like to go back. They are sick of the heat in the plains. I know they would like to return even if they have to live for some time in separate colonies. Grandfather has been insisting that we should all go back, so that he can live the last moments of his life in his village. It is now or never,' Kaul said.