By Susheel Pajnu
From April 1990 onwards, the Pandit families in Khankah-i-Sokhta, Safa Kadal, started shifting to other localities. Some took refuge in Indra Nagar, near the army cantonment in Batwara. Most fled to Jammu. Dr RL Koul was the only Pandit who stayed behind after sending his wife and son to Delhi.
One summer day in June, we packed a few clothes and some utensils and went to Gogji Bagh and moved into my paternal aunt’s house which was vacant. Thereafter, my father and I started visiting our locality to assess the condition there. The situation worsened. Bomb blasts became a routine affair. So did the gun battles between the militants and the security forces. Youngsters defied curfew and came out in the streets to pelt stones at army bunkers.
I went to Delhi with my uncle for my studies and joined a college there, but, during my vacations, I would go to Srinagar on my own. Upon seeing me, my neighbours would hug me and cry.
In July 1992, I visited Kashmir. My parents decided to take the rest of our household belongings out of our house in Khankah-i-Sokhta to my aunt’s house in Gogji Bagh. I requested a friend who was a militant commander with Al Jehad, one of the militant organisations active in the valley, to accompany me to my house. We went with a load carrier to my house and started packing the household things. While I was packing, two masked youth barged into my house with guns. Upon seeing my friend, they got excited. One of the youths took off his mask. I recognised him instantly. Much to my surprise he happened to be an acquaintance from the neighbourhood. We used to play cricket in the same team at Eidgah. We hugged each other. Like other militants and locals, he blamed and cursed Jagmohan, the Governor of the state, for the political happenings in Kashmir, and the exodus of the Pandits from our locality. I argued with him, trying to convince them that Jagmohan was not responsible for the bloodshed. He was the Governor, whose responsibility it was to administer the state in the absence of the government. I told them that the targeted killings of the Pandits in our locality had forced the Pandit families to leave.
My friend, the militant, told me that one of his hideouts was just behind my house. The house belonged to one of our Pandit neighbours whose family had left the place. After I packed our household belongings and placed everything in the load carrier, I went to the hideout, and, much to my surprise, I saw many things intact in the house. The cane furniture in the living room, utensils, gas cylinders and other things! I went upstairs to one of the rooms and saw a lot of books on a large bookshelf. I told my friend that I wanted to take all the books with me but felt bad that the load carrier was full. My friend suggested that we come back some other day and salvage the books and other things from the house. I took an old radio set with me. After a week, my militant friend and I returned to the house to take the books. The moment I reached the house and went to the room, I was shocked to see the bookshelf empty. I left the place dejected. My friend, the militant, felt helpless too. After two days, my friend was killed in an encounter with the security forces.
I completed my post-graduation in Pune and started working in a company in Delhi. My father, who was working as an insurance surveyor, was hospitalised in Srinagar around that time. I left my job and went back to Kashmir. I came to know that my father was being investigated for some insurance cases. He knew that the cases were fictitious as they involved some top officials of an insurance company. My father became paralysed. We went to Sona Sahab, a pious saint of Mazhama, to seek his blessings. With his spiritual powers, he cured my father and showered his blessings and grace upon him.
In August 1997, I joined my father in his business. I took charge and helped my father run the business from our office in Srinagar. My work involved dealing with the public and settling insurance claims (mostly related to damage of property). Given the militancy and spate of violence, several buildings and houses were destroyed due to fire, bomb and grenade blasts. Incidents like these were a common affair those days. Several private and government-owned properties used to be targeted and suffered damage.
For one claim, which was related to the damage of a property at Natipora, the claimant was not ready to sign the consent letter as he thought the insurance amount was less. He started threatening me. One morning, he came to my office with some youth from Abi Guzar and started yelling. ‘We will get you killed,’ they screamed. I took an iron rod from under my table and bashed the intruders. They got scared and ran away. Some days later, when I was not in office, some militants barged in and stole all the files. When I reached my office, I saw the office boy crying. He, too, had been warned and threatened. The militants had told him that they would kill me. I contacted my friends at Batmaloo who were militant commanders in the area. I called the client to settle the claim the next morning. My friends, the militants, were with me that day. The client came with the same militants who had stolen all the files. They were shocked to see my friends, the militants, who were superior to them in rank and order. My friends talked with the client’s friends and soon the matter was resolved, and the files were returned to me.
One September day in 1996, Siddhartha Gigoo, my old neighbour from our locality, came to Kashmir after six years. He had left in 1990. I met him at our place in Gogji Bagh and handed over the antique radio set which I had salvaged from his ancestral house in our locality Khankahi- Sokhta. The radio set belonged to his grandfather.
In 2000, a decade after moving out of our old house, we shifted back into our old house at Khankah-i-Sokhta. Our Muslim neighbours welcomed us and were happy to see us.
But things had changed. None of our Pandit neighbours and friends were there. Everyone had left. We were the only Pandit family there. I went to Ram Mandir (our temple) where we used to gather in the evenings to play cricket. The temple was in ruins. The idols in the sanctum sanctorum were gone. The walls had been desecrated. It was a very painful sight. The temple had stood there for several decades. Then I went to the Mata Roop Bhawani temple adjacent to our house. This temple, too, was in a dilapidated condition. Everything inside had been looted and vandalised. All the houses belonging to the Pandits were occupied. Some houses were used by the militants as hideouts and others were occupied by the security forces.
Excerpted from ‘Mata Roop Bhawani will protect us’, by Susheel Pajnu, from second edition of ‘A Long Dream Of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, edited by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma and published by Bloomsbury India in January 2018.
You can buy the book here