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Politics In Exile At Home (Kashmiri Pandits)

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    The election is underway in the state, but the Pandits, driven from Kashmir 18 years ago, do not get even a mention in the political battle, reports VIJAY SIMHA


    BULLETS SLAY the flesh. Thoughts can erase a race. Sure, there were bullets as the 1990s began with the separatist Kashmir movement. But there were even more of the normal things, stuff that is not often associated with menace. There were whispers, posters, slogans and loudspeakers. “Hum kya chahte? Azaadi, azaadi (What do we want? Freedom, freedom).” “Sarhad paar jaayenge, Kalashnikov laayenge (We’ll cross the border, get the Kalashnikov).” And the appalling “Batao roas te Batanev san, iss banao Pakistan (Without the Pandit, with his wife; we’ll make Pakistan).”

    At times, it didn’t even need the overt. A changed gaze, a different look. That’s all it took to start the clock on a people. The first to fall was Tika Lal Taploo, a 62-year-old lawyer who was vice-president of the Jammu and Kashmir Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unit. On September 14, 1989, Taploo was gunned down near Habba Kadal in Srinagar, the hub of the Kashmiri Pandit settlements in the Valley. When LK Advani marched with Taploo’s body, masked separatists stoned the funeral procession and forced shops to open up.

    Since then, some four lakh Kashmiri Pandits have vanished from Kashmir, and Advani has evolved into the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Advani was powerless then, he’s powerless now. The Kashmiri Pandits, a proud race that worshipped the principle that the brain is mightier than the brawn, were forced to flee. Safe in the grimy setting of Jammu, their pride in the dust.

    Eighteen years on, the BJP still professes loyalty to the Pandits but with fading credence. The Congress, having learnt the value of charade post-Partition, still goes with make-believe. The National Conference, a party that talks of all things Kashmiri, is still scared to reach out. The People’s Democratic Party, which needs to justify everything it does, still triggers scorn. Some of these parties may brave ridicule to seek the Pandit votes in the forthcoming election to the Jammu and Kashmir assembly. Some may risk an overnight stint in the emptiness of the migrant camps. This is what they will see.

    In the ghettos that house the unflagging Pandits, called migrants by everybody else, life is mostly two steps. If you are at the centre of a small four-walled asbestos-roofed universe, it’s two steps to empty bowels, two steps to food, two steps to the gods on the walls, two steps to the television, and two steps to the wife. Sex is tricky. Mothers probably visit relatives they don’t need to see. But if there’s a child, he or she is still there.

    If you do step out, what pass for lanes can handle one person at a time. If there are two people taking the same path, they twist and face each other as they pass by. A third person and it’s a traffic jam. On a good day, the older men and women wake, take a small stool and a hand-held cane fan, and sit by the roadside. They’ll be there, watching people and traffic with the unfeeling look of those who wait to die, until they’re called for lunch. They’ll be back until they can see no more in the dark.

    Babita Raina is young, only 24, and pretty. She was six when her folks got her here. She thinks she’s running out of time already. “Everything is bad about my life. Just look around you. What can I do in one room? I can’t think. I can’t get angry. I can’t have boys interested in me because I live in a camp. Last week, I was talking to a boy on the phone and word spread in the camp that I was having an affair,” Babita says. For a few minutes she stares at the wall, and cries. She is vulnerable. She’ll probably respond to anyone who offers to take her out of the camp.

    Babita is not asking for the moon. She’s scraping together a post-graduate course in computers so she can get a job and leave. “I love the sound of the word ‘doctor’. I wanted to be a doctor. But I know the best I can get is a computer job in Delhi.” Sundays are especially difficult. Everyone’s at home in the same room. So she broods. She says she’ll be born again the day she stops writing ‘One Room Tenement 117, Muthi Camp’ in the address column.

    Eighteen years is too long. When it takes too long to come home, you become the unwanted. Kashmir is too busy burning. Radical Muslim politicians have no interest in getting the Kashmiri Pandits back. Muslim friends of the Pandits don’t want to risk limb and life. And the local Jammu Hindus sneer at them.

    Rajnath Dhar is 44. He only got a job six years ago in a private finance company. He gets Rs 6,000 a month as salary. He’ll go to Rs 8,000 at best by the time he’s 50. He has a daughter to worry about. He’s desperate to put some money in her hand soon so she can have a chance at life. “At least now I take a bus in the mornings for work. But for 12 years, I woke at 6 am and threw pebbles on the gates of my friends’ houses to wake them up. We gossiped, read the papers, played carrom, volleyball and street cricket until lunchtime. After that we watched news on television until dark. Would you like to do that day after useless day? For years?”

    On occasion, the state moves. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the migrants months ago. He saw what everyone knew: that the tenements protect from rain and heat, but they strip you of selfconfidence. Singh cried when an 80-yearold man, only a few years older than the Prime Minister, pointed to the tiny door of his tiny tenement and asked, “How will they take my body out when I die?”

    Almost in response, Singh announced a multi-crore package for the Pandits. He said the Pandits would be resettled in a new township some distance from downtown Jammu. That’s just about the best the Prime Minister can do. He can’t heal the fear and suspicion in the Pandit mind. He can’t erase the anger in the extreme Muslim mind.

    SCARS TEND to linger, more so if you were a Kashmiri Pandit who the fleeing Pandits turned to for help. Vijay Bakaya was the District Collector in 1989 in Jammu when the migrants began to pour in. He had no answers. He had no money. He had nowhere to keep them. “They used to park their trucks right outside my house. They were so disoriented. Youngsters had come out of colleges and old women had come out of villages for the first time in their life. I couldn’t mix with them because I was a professional civil servant. My wife and my mother started to argue with me on why I wasn’t doing something for them,” Bakaya recalls.

    Until they were driven out, the Pandits knew only the climes of Srinagar, India’s coldest big town. Jammu was a different world: hot, dusty and scary. As the mass began to fill out in Jammu, they upset the snakes in the area. Some Pandits died of snakebite. Others died of heatstroke. “We had no anti-venom serum in Jammu. We had to get across to Delhi and order the anti-venom,” Bakaya says. Then, there were the ice slabs. To create lower temperatures in Jammu, the administration began to order ice slabs in bulk and keep them in the camps.

    The administration was overwhelmed. Senior officers groped for a way out. Suddenly they figured it out. The way to solve the migrant problem was to get them to return. To get the Pandits to go back, their life had to be miserable in Jammu. The administration planned the one-room tenements, which were ramshackle and didn’t serve any purpose except to save people from heat and rain. The idea was to make the Pandits uncomfortable. Keep them at subsistence level so that they’d know they had to go back. “There were 10 people to a room. Pathetic, you know,” Bakaya says.

    For its efforts, the administration got bad press. This made the officers resentful. They began to refer to the Pandits as cowards who ran away when they didn’t have to, and created problems in Jammu as well. “There was a question mark always — why did they flee?” Bakaya says. He got his answer late one night in Srinagar some years later.

    “It was in the 1990s and I was in Srinagar because the Chrar-e-Sharif (a holy Muslim shrine) was burned down. There was curfew in Srinagar. It was late at night, past 12. Suddenly there was a burst of noise from a mosque nearby. I rushed to the balcony. There was a big procession of people outside the mosque. They were playing a tape from the mosque at full volume with nasty slogans. ‘Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-O-Akbar kehna hai (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to chant Allah-O-Akbar)’. ‘Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa (What do we want here? Rule of Shariah)’.

    “My heart began to palpitate. If my heart could beat faster because of the tapes, imagine what happened to the Pandits, who were surrounded by these people. The Pandits were right. Our neighbours weren’t there. There was no security, no patrols. The question mark in my mind was resolved,” Bakaya says.

    QUESTIONS IN the camps are not resolved, however. Each family gets a maximum of Rs 4,000 cash assistance every month, nine kilos rice and two kilos wheat flour per person, and a kilo of sugar per family. It is defined as subsistence relief, just enough to keep them alive.

    Sanjay Razdan, 39, lives with his mother, wife and two sons in the Muthi camp. He married at 33 and began to work at 35. Three years ago, he sold his Srinagar house to a Muslim for Rs 5 lakh. He doesn’t see a life away from the camp. “It’s been too long. Even the Pandits in the Valley can’t mingle with us anymore. My story, in all probability, will end as a migrant,” he says.

    Ashok Pandita, 28, is one of the relatively successful migrants. He is a Senior Engineer with Alcatel in Delhi, and is putting together the internal communications network of the Delhi Metro. It was a struggle getting there. “We were a well-off Hindu family in Kupwara. We had a chinar tree and we also grew walnuts. As a child I used to be puzzled when some people in the village disappeared for a couple of months and returned. Where did they go?

    “Our teacher would ask me and a Muslim boy the name of our country. I would say Hindustan, he would say Pakistan. I didn’t know the difference. Then, one day Zia-Ul-Haq died. I used to study at a government primary school. But, they declared a two-day holiday on Zia’s death. I also remember Indira Gandhi’s death. There were celebrations in my school. They declared a month’s holiday,” Pandita says.

    One day in Kupwara, the Muslim leadership held a meeting. People emerged from that and began attacking the police and the army, Pandita says. “They killed asoldier. The army retaliated and many Muslims were killed in the firing. This set the place on fire.”

    Pandita’s father didn’t have the heart to tell his son the truth. So he told the family one day that they were going on a holiday to Jammu. “Ghoomne jaa rahe hain (we are going on an outing),” he said. “I was happy because I had not seen Jammu. I left my cricket paraphernalia behind. We also left our cow behind. Maybe I would have resisted if I had been older.

    “In Jammu, we had problems. We got admission in schools and got better merit performances and marks. This made the locals hostile. We began to have fights among the Hindus. Initially, we were more unsafe among the locals. We were really under great stress. I hate people from Jammu more than I hate the terrorists of Kashmir. The people from Jammu kicked us when we were down. I had just one aim — study and get out.

    “Life was tough. We had to keep awake at night during storms and hold our tent in place. The local Hindus called us cowards. We couldn’t do anything. I was outraged by our impotence. Then, suddenly, Bal Thackeray announced an education quota for Kashmiri Pandits in Maharashtra. I did my engineering from Jalgaon because of that quota. I am deeply grateful to Bal Thackeray,” Pandita says.

    He is still upset, though, at how things have changed among the Pandits in Jammu. They fight for flats in the apartment blocks that have come up for them. They bribe government officials to get a better house. They are willing to hurt their own. “It’s disgusting to see them stoop to such a level after all that we’ve been through,” Pandita says.

    Some people are finding ways to cope. For instance, the Jammu and Kashmir National United Front (JKNUF), which is the newest political party in Jammu. The Election Commission registered the JKNUF on August 4, 2008, as a political party. The first member of the party: Mata Rani, a local Hindu deity in whose name the party leadership cut a membership receipt for Rs 5.

    Vijay Chikan, 57, the party treasurer, says the JKNUF has 10,000 members of whom 6,000 are below the age of 40. The party, whose symbol is the daffodil (nargis in Urdu), plans to contest 15 seats. Their agenda: rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, a programme to occupy the Pandit youth gainfully, and reservation of seats for Kashmiri Hindus.
    Cover Story


    CHIKAN’S MIGRATION to Jammu happened like this. He used to run a factory in dKashmir. He says he was friendly with many people, including a young Muslim electrician whom he particularly liked. One day, he notice that the young Muslim was following him. “I suspected something was wrong. I was scared. I started to remembe how one of my friends was killed. I got into a meat shop. I didn’t need meat that day, but I still bought it. I kept harassing the meat seller, asking him about various kinds of meat. I spent time in the meat shop. This youngster had got into a shop some distance away. I finally left the meat shop. He also left the shop he was in.

    “I turned by instinct when he came too close. I asked him, ‘do you want to say something?’ He said he needed to discuss a problem with me. I said, why didn’t he tell me. I asked him to come in the morning. I dropped the meat at home, and left in 30 minutes. I stayed at my in-laws for the night and moved to Jammu from there. I learnt later that the electrician was given the responsibility of killing me,” Chikan says.

    Life as a migrant has hardened Chikan’s views. He now puts the Kashmiri Pandit before all else. “I am worried that a mega exodus from Jammu is already on among the Pandits. Soon, there will be cross-marriages, which will threaten our existence. We have unique 5,000-year-old genes. We must keep our genes pure and save ourselves from bad exposure. We have to save our culture. At the current rate, no one will want to consult the senior Pandits in future. They will opt for computer match-making and destroy the race,” he says.

    Trust is rare among the Pandits. There was a time when they wondered why their country didn’t save them. Now they know better. There’ll be some back-slapping and small talk when the candidates come asking for votes. But there’ll be even more bile. The Pandits want to make their vote count. One way to do this is to ensure that they’re all in the same place. Which is why the insistence on new townships specifically for the Pandits.

    In Sanjay Razdan’s tenement, his son Kartik is at work. “Five twos are seven,” he chants. One day, he’ll get his math right. And ask for the account. Someone better have the answers.

    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 47, Dated Nov 29, 2008
     

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