Home alone

The small community of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits feels isolated

PTI6_10_2019_000036B Lighting hope: A file picture of Kashmiri Pandits offering prayers at the replica of Kheer Bhawani temple during the Kheer Bhawani Mela in Jammu | PTI

The eruption of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s led to the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits, a minuscule ethnic group, out of the state. A handful stayed back. In the last three decades, their number has consistently declined. Only 667 families remain in Kashmir now, and they call themselves non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Having braved the most turbulent times, this nearly invisible minority in Kashmir now finds itself at a crossroad because of a growing sense of deprivation and disconnect with the larger Kashmiri Pandit community outside Kashmir.

Before the outbreak of militancy, Pandits held sway over administration, education and business, especially over pharmaceuticals. They were also actively involved in theatre and art. Pandits who moved out had to put up with many hardships, including the weather. However, with the help of the Central government, they were able to rebuild their lives. Their migration also coincided with the economic liberalisation launched by the Congress government led by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. That proved a base for many migrant Pandits to take part in India’s growth story. On the other hand, the lives of Pandits who stayed back, like the Muslims of the valley who form the majority, deteriorated because of the worsening security situation.

Prana Shangloo, a television star of the 1980s, is enduring it all at 65. Her life symbolises the crisis that Pandits in Kashmir are facing. Shangloo began her career in theatre in the 1970s after finishing college. The advent of the television age made her a household name in Kashmir for performances in serials. She also acted in Bollywood movies like Heeralal Pannalal (1978). In the film, she played the role of Indira Gandhi and won praise for her acting. In the 1990s, when militancy was rampant, Shangloo stopped acting and focussed on the needs of her family. After getting their daughter married, Shangloo and her husband, Kidar Nath, who worked in a semi-government department, sold their house in Srinagar and shifted to a rented accommodation at Chadoora in Budgam. After Nath died in 2009, and their son left Kashmir a year later, Shangloo fell into poverty. Ever since, she has been living a hard life with health issues. “After my husband died, my daughter has been paying my house rent,” she said. “I sold many household items over time to survive.”

Shangloo eventually moved into her daughter's home in Chanpora, Srinagar. “I moved to my daughter’s house after my son-in-law died,” she said. “I will go back to Chadoora in the summers.” She feels the government was responsible for the plight of Pandits in Kashmir. “Nothing has been done for us,” she said. “I used to get offers from Doordarshan, but even that stopped.”

Ajeet Das (name changed), a 40-something resident of Anantnag in south Kashmir, is in a similar predicament. After graduating from an engineering college in Bengaluru, Das did a master's in law and journalism, and pursued a career in journalism. A few months ago, he was laid off by the media company where he has worked for many years.

Some of us just could not leave our janam bhumi (birthplace). Else, our children's future would have been safe like the children of those who migrated- Vinodh Hali, Magam in Budgam

“Suddenly, I was unemployed and had nowhere to go after covering Jammu and Kashmir for years,” he said. “Both decisions of staying in Kashmir and choosing journalism as a career were wrong. I now assist a lawyer for a living. My law degree has come in handy in these hard times. I hope to practise law in a few years.”

He said his decision to work in Kashmir was the only reason he could not get married. No migrant Pandit family, nobody was willing to give their daughter in marriage to someone in Kashmir.

photos: Umer Asif photos: Umer Asif

According to Vinodh Hali of Magam in Budgam, youngsters in Kashmir are still finding it difficult to find a match. “We have a young shopkeeper who wants to get married, but nobody is willing to marry him,” he said. He said they suggested the boy look for a girl among the Kashmiri-speaking Hindus of Doda, Jammu. Hali notes that when militancy was at its peak, survival was the main challenge for the community, but now there are other issues.

“After militancy started in Kashmir, I never travelled beyond Magam for years,” he said. “I went to Srinagar after 10 years to see my ancestral house in Habba Kadal (a locality in the city).” He said when they were living in Habba Kadal, he would go to Hariparbat, a hill that houses mosques, a temple and a gurdwara overlooking downtown Srinagar. “Kasheer bani ne kuni (there is nothing like Kashmir). We are all at fault,” he said with a sigh. The Pandits living in Kashmir badly miss the community support, said Hali.

When they requested the local authorities to repair the temple in the neighbouring Kralpora village, they only fixed the fence and the gate. “Kralpora was a Pandit village before the 1990s. Now, only one Pandit family lives there,” he said. He also highlighted other problems the community is facing in Kashmir. “Our festivals have become lacklustre,” he said. “On Hayrat (Shivratri), we play puja cassettes to celebrate the festival.” A pujari who comes from outside Kashmir conducts funerals when someone dies. “Two men from our community used to act as pujaris, but one died and another fell into depression after his son died by drowning,” said Hali. He is worried that his son may not get a job in Kashmir after he completes his bachelor's in dental science.

“Some of us just could not leave our janam bhumi (birthplace),” he said. “Else, our children's future would have been safe like the children of those who migrated.” In another village nearby, Sarla Bhat seemed equally distraught about the future of her son, Ashu Bhat. “He is 35 and still unemployed,” she said. “I want him to get married, but who would allow their daughter to marry an unemployed man?”

During search operations, security forces would often ask Moti Lal, a retired lecturer, why he had not left Kashmir like other Pandits. Even at the height of militancy, Lal continued to give tuitions at his home to his Muslim students.

Five kilometres away at Wusan in Baramulla district, Ashok Bhat, a police constable, shared Hali and Bhat’s concerns facing the community. There were times when he would hide his religious identity by not putting a tikka on his forehead. Now, there is no such fear. Ashok said that more than 400 Kashmiri Pandit families used to live in several villages between Narbal in Budgam and Tangmarg in Baramulla before the 1990s. “Only Pandits lived in Tewa Khadir Chuk. The village had more than 100 Pandit households. Now only 11 Pandit families live in the 24km belt,” he said.

When someone dies, the first thing they have to sort out is whether the family has a daughter. “According to our belief, only daughters are allowed to cook for the family where someone has died,” said Ashok. “The neighbours can cook, but they too should be Pandits.” Muslim neighbours are always ready to help, but there are situations where they cannot.

Retired lecturer Moti Lal of Mandir Bagh in Srinagar, who has lived through the most riotous times of the last three decades in Kashmir, highlighted other challenges the Pandits had to endure. “One day, during a search operation, a soldier warned he would open fire because I took time to open the door of my house,” said Lal. “When he angrily asked me what took me so long, I pleaded I had misplaced the key.” During search operations, security forces would often ask him why he has not left Kashmir like other Pandits. Even at the height of militancy, Lal continued to give tuitions at his home to his Muslim students. Some of them came rushing to rescue him and his family during the 2014 floods. They arranged a boat for the family.

Lal said he never felt threatened when he left home for work, but would worry for his two daughters until they returned home from school. When some people were killed in the vicinity one day, he decided to leave Kashmir. “I told my neighbours to get me a vehicle to carry my things, but they refused,” he said. “I told them we would leave without that.” They did not want him to leave, and implored him to stay, so he cancelled the plan.

Like Shangloo, Lal also held the government responsible for the suffering of Pandits in Kashmir. He said he understood why most of them believe they committed a mistake by choosing to stay back. “Such thoughts do not occur to me because the feeling that I am living at my birthplace gives me solace,” he said.

Chuni Lal, a retired government employee, who lives with his wife and son at Batwara in Srinagar, has changed his address four times since 1990. “We are originally from Sumbal in Bandipora district,” he said. “There, we lived in a big house with eight kanals (one acre) of land.”

Chuni is of the opinion that the government should at least move Pandits living in far-flung areas of Kashmir to the city to help the community overcome the sense of isolation. “Only on festivals like Ram Navami, do some Pandits get to meet each other at Ram Mandir in Srinagar once every year,” he said. “We braved militancy, crackdowns, hartals and curfews, but the uncertainty about the future of our children worries us the most.”

Rattan Chaku, general secretary of Kashmiri Pandits Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a representative body of pandits living in Kashmir, said the uncertainty was because of the economic deprivation and lack of opportunities in Kashmir for the community. The government is yet to deliver on its promise of providing financial assistance and 500 jobs to non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, he said.

Nothing has been done for us. I used to get offers from Doordarshan, but even that stopped- Prana Shangloo, a television star of the 1980s

Government jobs were promised after the KPSS petitioned the J&K High Court in 2013 for their inclusion in the prime minister’s rehabilitation package announced for migrant Kashmiri Pandits by the Congress-led UPA government in 2004. The package offered 3,000 government jobs and secure accommodation to migrant Kashmiri Pandits willing to return to Kashmir. Around 2,000 jobs were taken till 2015. The same year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extended the package with 3,000 additional government jobs and an equal number of flats for migrant Pandits.

In November last year, KPPS president Sanjay Tickoo went on a hunger strike at Ganpatyar temple in Srinagar. He is championing the cause of the non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits. The KPSS also organises religious and social gatherings for the community in Kashmir. It also does charity work for the needy, including free cremations.

Chaku, who works in a private construction company, shares the dominant feeling that not leaving was a wrong decision. “Nobody cares for us,” he said. “We have no jobs, no identity and therefore no future.” He said the Pandits who migrated look down upon them and think of them as “collaborators”.

His younger son, Sushant Chaku, echoed his sentiments. “There is no future for us in Kashmir,” he said. “In my college, most of my friends are Muslim. I never felt I am different from them, but something in the back of my mind tells me that things would have been much better if more of my community members were here.” He said in his neighbourhood a Pandit woman and her daughter, a postgraduate, live without any support. “The woman's husband was a pujari,” said Sushant. “Some time ago, he died and now she and her daughter have no support. If her daughter gets a government job, their condition would improve.”

Having a government job is considered a safe bet in Kashmir because of the lack of opportunities in the private sector. But according to Chaku, not more than 50 members of the community in Kashmir are employed in government services. He said that offering government jobs is the only way to instil confidence in the community about a better future in Kashmir. Despite the hardships, the literacy rate among the Pandits is high. Yet, they do not earn much in the private sector. Though the Centre has unveiled a new industrial policy for J&K that offers many incentives for corporates to invest in Kashmir, it remains to be seen whether the policy, which aims to create five lakh jobs in the Union territory, would be successful.

The plight of Rajputs in Kashmir, like Rajeshwar Singh, is also grim. The Rajputs settled in Kashmir after Maharaja Ranjit Singh annexed Kashmir from the Afghans in 1819. Around 500 Dogra Rajput families also migrated from Kashmir after the 1990s. Equally fluent in Kashmiri and Dogri, the Rajputs consider themselves Kashmiri, and are a part of the non-migrant Kashmiri Hindu community. At present, only 137 families are left in the Valley.

For a better Future: Rattan Chaku, general secretary of Kashmiri Pandits Sangharsh Samiti, performs puja at his home in Srinagar For a better Future: Rattan Chaku, general secretary of Kashmiri Pandits Sangharsh Samiti, performs puja at his home in Srinagar

“I work in a private school, but I am unable to meet the needs of my family,” said Singh. “I have two sons and one of them is suffering from a brain disorder. I have to take him to Jammu for treatment that I cannot afford.” When the schools were closed due to Covid-19, he worked in his neighbour's orchard to feed his family. He said those who migrated from Kashmir faced problems initially, but with government help, they are all living a better life.

“We stayed in Kashmir and we are suffering,” he said. Ever since Jammu and Kashmir became a Union territory their problems have aggravated, said Singh. “When J&K was a state, we [approached] the MLA of our constituency for help. Now we have no idea whom to meet.”

Ashwani Zutshi and Cham Lal Tickoo, who are not facing any economic stress, sounded less bitter about life in Kashmir. Zutshi, a government teacher, who lives with his wife and two sons in Tahab, Pulwama, said if economic uplift of Pandits living in Kashmir takes place, other problems facing the community would gradually fade away.

“There are seven Pandit families in our village, but three of them are old couples and their children have left Kashmir for work,” said Zutshi. “Young men from our community who leave Kashmir find someone to marry and rarely return.” As a Pandit, he does not feel insecure or subdued, but he does feel neglected. “The migrant Pandits are getting all the facilities from the government including reservation in jobs and colleges,” he said.

Tickoo, who retired from the accountant general’s office a few years ago, said he did not migrate as it was “God’s wish”. “I shift to Jammu in winters with my family and return to Kashmir in the summers,” he said. “I have spent 05 lakh from my pocket to repair the temple in this village.”

Pandits living in Kashmir are also opposed to the idea of creating separate colonies for returning migrant Pandits. The KPSS believes that Pandits who want to return should live with the Muslims like before. The body maintains that creating separate colonies for returnees would vitiate the atmosphere. Except for the first few years of militancy, when the dread of militants prevailed all over the state, Muslims have been supportive of the Pandits living in Kashmir.

After the 1990s, most Pandits moved to different parts of India and a small number also moved to the US. The larger Pandit community, too, considers the non-migrant Pandits as the least fortunate of the lot. According to Zutshi, if the government does not address the issue of the livelihood of non-migrant Pandits, the time is not far when there will be no Pandits left in Kashmir.