Twenty six years ago on this day (January 19, 1990), at least 300,000 Kashmiri pundits were forced to leave their homes and flee after militancy broke out in Kashmir and some groups issued threats.
For several days before January 19, there was an atmosphere of fear and threat as some Kashmiri Pandit individuals were targeted and killed.
Three taped slogans were repeatedly played the whole night from mosques: 'Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-O-Akbar kehna hai' (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-O-Akbar); 'Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa' (What do we want here? Rule of Shariah); 'Asi gachchi Pakistan, Batao roas te Batanev san' (We want Pakistan along with Hindu women but without their men).
Srinagar’s Tourist Reception Centre was reportedly inundated with thousands and thousands of people shivering in the cold and waiting for the morning.
After a quarter of century of the mass exodus, some families still live in the refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi. There have been claims that the government of India has failed Kashmiri Pandits as they are still living as refugees in their own country.
The News Minute is reproducing an excerpt of A Long Dream of Home (The Persecution, Exodus Exile of Kashmiri Pandits) with the permission of editors Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma, and the publisher, Bloomsbury India.
A Long Dream of Home
(The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits)
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
Edited by: Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma
Year: December 2015
A Long Dream of Home (The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits) has been edited by Siddhartha Gigoo, author of The Garden of Solitude and A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, and columnist Varad Sharma whose writings have appeared in various newspapers and webzines.
Roses Shed Fragrance
As Nazir drove us towards the Tourist Reception Centre near LalChowk, he said, ‘You should have taken along some more clothes and household items. This winter is expected to be harsh, and you may have to extend your stay over there in Delhi or Jammu.’ Then he said in a conciliatory tone, ‘Shant Sahib, just remember that winters in Kashmir tend to drag on and on. This is going to be one such long and severe winter. And you must not rush to return.’
It was not unusual for us to leave Srinagar for Delhi when the colleges closed for two months in the winter. Our son was working and living in Delhi. Mostly we would leave on the very first day of the holiday. At the onset of winter in 1989, colleges were kept open more as a formality than as a necessity. Absenteeism among students in the college where I taught had been rampant even during the previous summer. When I asked them, they would invariably say that they were busy helping their fathers in harvesting crops. But I had always suspected that this absenteeism was because of their business at farther places, across the snow-covered borders, and not in paddy fields. An ineffective, unsuspecting and above all a liberal democratic atmosphere in the country as well as the free-licence environment was fully exploited by the neighbouring country. Local Kashmiri Muslim youths had started disappearing from their homes.
On the evening of 31 December 1989, my wife Raj and I went to seek Nazir Ahmad’s and his mother, Ammaji’s ‘ijazat’ (permission) to leave for Delhi. We always met them whenever we went out of Kashmir on a holiday. They were ourneighbours. Nazir’s kind-hearted mother handed over to us an assortment of dry vegetables and fruits for our son. In the ensuing mirthful hours of our meeting, she threw a queer, though innocent, suggestion at me to meet Governor Jagmohan at Jammu and ask him to take the army away from Kashmir. I reciprocated with equally ostensible innocence, promising to do so positively upon my arrival there. Boisterous guffaws burst out in Nazir’s house. Despite my remonstrations Nazir and Ahad, his younger brother, chided their mother for the nonsensical talk. But I knew what was going on in their minds. They were in the know of certain things related to the political situation of Kashmir. We had seen our other neighbours indulge in double talk. We had also seen the rapidly changing political situation and the killings of some prominent Pandits in the autumn months. Nazir insisted on taking my wife and me in his car to the bus stop at Tourist Reception Centre the next morning.
The morning of 1 January 1990 was cold. A strange and ominous gloom ruled everywhere. My wife and I packed a few clothes and other things, locked our house, and sat in Nazir’s car. As Nazir drove us towards the Tourist Reception Centre near LalChowk, he said, ‘You should have taken along some more clothes and household items. This winter is expected to be harsh, and you may have to extend your stay over there in Delhi or Jammu.’ Then he said in a conciliatory tone, ‘Shant Sahib, just remember that winters in Kashmir tend to drag on and on. This is going to be one such long and severe winter. And you must not rush to return.’ For a moment I thought he was acting smart and was being unnecessarily funny, for he knew well that our son’s house was our second home in Delhi and that we always carried only a small suitcase whenever we went to Delhi for a vacation. ‘Why don’t you keep this small bag too in the suitcase? Why carry it in your hand the whole time? Have you kept some valuables in it? I mean jewellery?’ Nazir went on. A polythene bag in Raj’s hand had attracted Nazir’s attention. Raj blushed and looked at me. ‘Nazir, these are some rose saplings from the garden of the house. Raj plans to plant them in a pot in Delhi. You know pure Kashmiri roses have a unique fragrance. So we’re taking these saplings along. Just for the fragrance when they grow and flower,’ I explained. Nazir smirked. ‘I do not think these saplings will grow outside the valley. They simply won’t grow roots and bloom in the hot weather in Delhi,’ he said, sardonically. I did not say anything more.
Every morning, we would wake up to hundreds of delicate and fragrant roses blooming all over the garden of our house. My wife loved the white roses. Therefore, she carried some saplings along. She wanted to plant them in Flowerpots at our son’s house in Delhi. Both of us knew the fragrance of the white roses.
Afer a while, we boarded a bus and set off for Delhi via Jammu. The bus negotiated sharp turns through the mountainous roads in Banihal. We stared blankly at the fleeting villages and fields. In my heart of hearts I was trying to decipher what Nazir had said to us. His strange advice to us to carry more things was baffling. Although I looked ahead and felt excited to be going to Delhi, I also thought of our return to our home in March or April. Springtime was the best time to be home and have plenty of things to do there. Plant new rose saplings, clean our house, clear excess snow from the courtyard, if at all there was any left in there. ‘We will be back in March,’ I said to my wife. I knew that my words were meant to assuage my own anxieties rather than to console her. The changing political environment and the sudden eruption of mass frenzy in Kashmir were making me anxious and worried.
An incident that had taken place earlier on an August day in 1989 is etched in my memory. I was returning to Srinagar from Anantnag. Instead of getting off the bus at Indira Nagar, I had decided to go to LalChowk for some shopping. As the bus reached the stop, I saw a gang of boys shouting ‘Allah O Akbar’. They ordered the driver and passengers to jump off the vehicle. Everyone got off the bus and ran towards the other end of the road. Within moments, the bus burst into flames. The deafening sound of the blast and the sight of the burning bus attracted many more people from LalChowk. I fled the scene amid loud slogans and a constant chanting of ‘Allah O Akbar, Allah O Akbar.’ There wasn’t a policeman in sight. The bystanders cheered as the bus turned into a mangled heap of charred steel. I felt lucky to have escaped in time. It wasn’t safe for Pandits to be in the vicinity whenever such incidents took place. However, this wasn’t my first encounter with violence. On another occasion, Hari Krishna Kaul, a prominent writer, and I met one afternoon at Shakti Restaurant on the Residency road in Srinagar. We had placed an order for something to eat and were waiting. Suddenly the place started shaking and part of the ceiling caved in. We were sitting at a table in a corner. There was smoke all over the place. Everybody screamed and rushed out. In the smoke, I lost sight of my friend.
Rattan LalShant has published four short story collections in Kashmiri, two poetry books in Hindi, literary criticism in Kashmiri and Hindi, six translations and three monographs. He was awarded by the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, SahityaAkademi and Central Hindi Directorate for his contribution to literature. He is also the winner of President’s gold medal and Soviet Land Nehru Award.
With special arrangement by Bloomsbury India