Anger is sweeping through the Kashmir Valley where people, mournful and wry, are shouting “enough is enough.” It is anger that isn’t coming from Muslims — as we often hear and read — but Kashmiri Pandits who continued to live in the region after the 1990 exodus and those who chose to return despite the uncertainties that plagued their being.
The recent killing of 35-year-old Rahul Bhat, a government employee in Chadoora village, has had an entrenching impact on the Kashmiri Pandits. Thirty-two years ago, they were forced to leave their homeland — today, they want to. Their resounding demand to be taken out of the Valley is ringing loud. This is happening for the first time. Terrorism has ensnared the Valley once again; there have been targeted killings, forbidding fear and justifiable anger.
So, what went wrong?
First, it’s important to get the facts straight. Not all Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus left the Valley in the 1990s. There remained a fistful who chose to live through the threat and fight the danger that hung at their doorstep. But unfortunately, these people have been kept out of the narrative. Their lives, woes, and uncertainties are repeatedly overlooked. Not much was known about them, not much was reported or written in the 33 years that went by. There have been talks and big promises of rehabilitating the Kashmiri Pandits back in the Valley, but not once did any government—Central, state, or local—take notice of the ones already living there.
Second, multiple instances of tensions and violent events kept affecting their daily lives — the 2008 Amarnath agitation, 2010 Kashmir unrest, 2014 floods, killing of Burhan Wani in 2016, and abrogation of Article 370 — but they persevered. They would silently cheer when politicians talked about bringing the rest of the Kashmiri Pandits back, giving them their lost houses and land. But they seldom raised their own woes and troubles.
Most Hindu and Kashmiri Pandits who stayed on live in ghettos and dispiriting conditions. Once the owners of lavish homes, living colourful lives, they now live in morbid times and decaying houses: the paint is peeling off, exposing the ageing walls, gardens are poorly kept, window panes are broken and dangling, zero watt bulbs hang at the entrance, grim surroundings. These are telling signs of the people accepting their fate as strangers in their own land. The 3,800 Kashmiri Pandits who returned as part of the PM’s rehabilitation programme in 2021 were shoved in fortified ghettos where an eerie calm of disquiet and pain lingered. Crammed to live in small flats, packed on top of one another, they were asked to feel at home where basic amenities were lacking and economic and social instability all around.
While Hindus and Sikhs stayed on, Kashmiri Pandits have been returning to the Valley since 1990, clutching onto the might and promises of the successive governments. These promises only heightened with the Narendra Modi government coming to power. And in 2019, when Article 370 was scrapped, along with disbelief came a renewed hope and cheer, particularly among the Hindus and the Kashmiri Pandits of the Valley. They started to feel more secure under Prime Minister Modi. They felt certain that the might of Modi and Amit Shah will bring normality back to the Valley. Little did they know that a few years later, they would once again get swamped in the bloody times of the ’90s. Only this time, the fear is double-sided.
Broken promises, bleak reality
The recent killings of Rahul Bhat, Supinder Kour, Deepak Chand, Makhan Lal Bindroo, Bihari migrants, and Akash Mehra, the son of the owner of Krishna Dhaba in Srinagar show how bleak the reality is on the ground. Victims are being targeted at government offices, schools, shops, restaurants, and on the streets — no place has been deemed safe for minorities.
These deaths have shattered the trust that Hindus and Kashmiri Pandits conferred upon the Modi government; their sense of security is violently breached. The same government that promised them safety is lathi-charging civilians, locking them inside their fortified ghettos. Touted ‘secure’, government workplaces in ‘New Kashmir’ have become places for targeted killings. The government on which they conferred confidence, callously ignored transfer letters that stated security was the only major concern.
“Yahan sirf file dabti hai” is the complaint of an average Kashmiri. The problem, they say, lies with the local administration. There exists a disconnect — a lack of empathy and compassion — between the people on the ground and the ones in power. Call it incompetency or ignorance, but in Kashmir, the grim realities of the people don’t reach the top.
As such, the apathy of Manoj Sinha, Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir towards Kashmiri Pandits and their alienation by various Union ministers and the Prime Minister have been wounding and offensive. Especially when everybody collectively worked in building a narrative for The Kashmir Files (2022), for ‘we know now what we didn’t before.’ India was made aware of a dark past, but in remembering that, everyone forgot about the present — the Modi government, its ardent followers, the makers of the film (including the director and the actors) campaigners, media, and civil society. They forgot about the Hindus and Kashmiri Pandits living under the clutches of an oppressive majority population.
Kashmir’s ‘atoot ang’
Former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted in the aftermath of the killing of Rahul Bhat “Kashmir is far from normal today.”
Tourism is not normalcy, it’s a barometer of economic activity. Normalcy is the absence of fear, the absence of terror, the inability of militants to strike at will, the presence of democratic rule & by any yardstick you choose to use, Kashmir is far from normal today.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) May 13, 2022
But was Kashmir ever normal? Fear has always been the ‘atoot ang’ (permanent limb) of the Valley. Every individual experiences some degree of fear — Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, police, government employee, teacher, Bihari migrant, or shop owner. There is a fear of terrorists, government, and local netas, compounded by anxieties of alienation and being forgotten.
“Kuch nahin hai Kashmir mein (There’s nothing left in Kashmir)” — Hindus and Muslims collectively lament. ‘Naya Kashmir’ is a myth, designed for political gains for leaders across party lines. The region hasn’t seen any progress — no infrastructure, economic prospects, or stable social conditions. Affluent Muslim families have sent their children abroad to settle. Hindu families too have sent their children outside Kashmir.
So, what is the solution to the plight of the Kashmiri Hindus and Pandits who demand to be taken out of the Valley?
Indeed, it is impossible for the government to provide security for everyone. Maybe they should really be taken out of the region — let’s face it, the showering of false hope and promises about rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits and making life better for them will never cease. Unless militancy and the radicalisation of young Muslim minds get eradicated, narrative over narrative will keep on building about all being well in Naya Kashmir when nothing would really be. But you know as much as I do that the Kashmiri Pandits’ plight will remain as it is. Some might, therefore, leave, but there would remain others who will keep living in a landscape of fear, struggling to protect their identity and culture. Any real change in Kashmir can only be expected when the politics of lies and hate stops playing out.
The author is a journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets @shrutiv_vyas. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)