As disturbances come back to haunt Kashmir again, migrant Kashmiris—Muslims as well as Pandits—recount the turbulent days of the 1990s when militancy brought about defining changes in their lives. While the Kashmiri Pandits recall the circumstances under which they had to flee from their homeland, their Muslim counterparts living in New Delhi contend that their plight was no less serious. Concerns of physical safety in a conflict region, which in the early 1990s was no less than a warzone, and the necessity to earn a decent livelihood forced many of them to leave behind their homes and settle down in the national capital. The Sunday Guardian talked to some Kashmiri migrants settled in New Delhi and asked them about their experiences away from the land they called “home”.
Raheem (name changed) is a Kashmiri Muslim who has been working in Delhi for the past 20 years as an employee at a Kashmiri cloth shop in Central Delhi. His wife and two kids live back at home in Ganderbal, Kashmir, which is a relatively peaceful area. Raheem said, “There is not much social tension in our area now. Our people live in peace, but when the whole state is affected by curfews and blockades, we are not able to stay unaffected either. But at least this side now, guns are not rampant, but when militancy was at its height in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the whole environment was laden with palpable aggression. Those were unfortunate times; we lost many of our friends due to the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. Ganderbal used to have a mixed population which is why we have closely witnessed the horrors that the Pandits had to endure that led to their ultimate exodus. They had no choice but to leave. While the Kashmiri Pandits were able to live a financially better life at the cost of their homes, Kashmiri Muslims who continued to live there were tied down to a lifetime of conflict. In my opinion, nobody has really benefitted from all this.”
Nath (name changed), a 65-year-old Kashmiri Pandit who migrated from the valley in 1991 and came to New Delhi in hope of shelter and security, said, “Now that we live in Delhi, nobody is hunting us anymore. But are we happy? I have been sitting in this shop that NDMC gave me since the past 10 years, but I still have to pay money to the authorities though I am perfectly eligible to own this shop. I have filed my papers, given all my documents, but the government official tells me that I should put things to rest and let things go the way they are. Does that make any sense? I might have survived but now looking back, I feel that Pandits should not have left Kashmir. With time, we would have found solutions to co-exist with Muslims even after the conflict. The safey-zone and protection that Pandits in the valley now demand, we should have demanded the same at that time but we shouldn’t have left our home. There is no threat to us in this hot Delhi weather but there is no hope either.”
Ghaffar (name changed), a well-settled Kashmiri Muslim businessman in Delhi, said, “There were only a handful of Kashmiri Muslims backed by politically motivated people who facilitated the exodus of Pandits from the valley. An environment of threat destablised the households there and created a divide that led people into thinking that all Muslims stand in favour of Pandits’ exodus. Muslims in the valley have died too. The exit of Pandits for life has sown the seeds of prejudice in the people who had to suffer the brunt, but apart from political benefits to certain parties, nothing good came for anybody.” Ghaffar’s family shifted here in Delhi in the early 1980s.
Raheem said, “The Pandits left the valley because they could. They comprised the affluent class and were educated. Perhaps that is the reason why most of them could settle across the country and start their lives anew. They had the means and all sorts of subsidies. The Muslims in the valley were not as educated as the Pandits, neither did we have bank balances. That is why the perennial conflict further destroyed our economy. Even today, the little agricultural land there is not able to provide enough to the families to sustain themselves. The result is that at present, at least one person from every family has left home to look for work in other parts of the country. Like in northern Indian cities, Kashmiri cloth hawkers go door to door to sell their products. Most of them come from Srinagar which is always the first to get affected by social unrest there. The education of our children there has suffered a huge loss. And there is no count of the people who have lost their loved ones.”
Nath said, “We left our valley because we could not continue to live in threat. I have witnessed my friends getting threatened and they were told to leave. So we all left for the sake of our families. But in the process, we destroyed our community. Kashmiri Pandits got scattered all over the country, there was no unity in the community to stand their ground and fight to stay instead of leaving. Everyone was scared and wanted to flee. Now our children have married into different castes, we longer have any sense of culture left. Our language is dying, our cuisine is lacking, but we are alive and settled. It feels like we were just a political tool. Even though we got rehabilitation, there is a lot that we lost. There is no point of going back home. Even though Muslims in the valley say that Pandits should come back, trust cannot be easily earned.”
Raheem said, “The psychological trauma that people in Kashmir face with every gunshot sound and curfew, is equal to the sense of loss Kashmiri Pandits must have faced after leaving everything behind. Pandits complain that even though Muslims say that Pandits will be welcomed back, when Pandits were being asked to leave, nobody asked them to stop. But you must understand that a common man would have never wanted to ruin his peaceful home.”