On this day 30 years back, the first batch of Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley for safer pastures after terrorism reared its head with a vengeance, shattering the peace and idyll of the paradise.
Time is the best healer, they say. Not for Shadi Lal, 58, an ayurvedic practitioner in Jammu.
Lal was among the first Kashmiri Pandits to flee the Valley 30 years back after waves of militant threat swept the frigid plains and mountains of Kashmir.
Originally from Tangwari Payeen village in Baramulla, Lal, 28 then, and his family boarded a hired a vehicle for the long journey to Jammu, where he still lives.
“We left for Jammu in the early hours of January 18 and safely reached here in the evening,” he said.
Vaibhav Pandit, Ashok Pandit and Sunita Raina Pandit who fled the Kashmir Valley in the early days of the exodus. (Photo | Arun Kumar/EPS)
Lal’s family was told by officials supervising relief camps that they would have to stay in the camp for 15 days after which they would be shifted back to the Valley.
Days turned into months and months into 30 years and they continue to live in Jammu as displaced people.
“We are on the verge of losing our identity and culture. We have been at the crossroads for three decades and our fate has not changed for the good,” he said.
Ratan Pandit, another of those who fled the Kashmir Valley in the early days of the exodus, shares Lal’s pain. Living in Greater Noida, Ratan from Handwara said life changed overnight for him and his family.
“We fled to Srinagar in a food supplies truck which had gone to deliver ration to the Army. There was coal in the truck. By time, we reached Srinagar, we could not recognise ourselves. From there, we went to Jammu. At that point, the only thought was we should remain alive. We fled with some gold, Rs 20,000 in cash and our documents,” he recalled, his eyes welling up.
“The exodus of Pandits in 1990 is an event nobody can forget. The day is etched in our memory,” said Ratan’s brother, Ashok.
Ashok recounted the harmonious relationship he shared with his Muslim neighbours, how he farmed on the land adjoining his three-storeyed house and the variety of trees in Handwara’s agriculture department.
“Those were the days of abundance. After we fled to Jammu, my father refused to stay in the refugee camp. Every day was a struggle. We lost our land and with it our identity,” he said.
As he is still enrolled as an employee with the agriculture department, he draws a salary but he has no office to go to.
On their eight-floor flat in Greater Noida, his wife, Sunita Raina Pandit, said life in their current home felt “null and void,” one without roots.
“A house without a courtyard is not a home,” she said. Lal’s voice quivered as he recalled the death threats from militants and the anti-India venom pouring out from loudspeakers. The fear finally sunk in when militants targeted innocent people.
“The fears increased after our neighbours expressed their inability to protect us against the militants and advised us to leave.”
“I used to treat people free of cost but a rumour spread that I could identify the militants. On January 16 a vehicle full of militants came and my mother asked me to run. I spent the whole night on a tree. That is when we decided to leave the Valley forever,” Lal said.
‘Our community will become extinct’
Life for the migrants in Jammu has been tortuous.
“We had no money and could not afford a rented accommodation,” recalled Lal, who lives on Rs 13,000 in relief money, which the government provides to about 21,000 migrants in Jammu camps.
“Our lot has been pitiable. My son suffered a paralytic attack. The death rate in camps is high while the birth rate has hit rock bottom. That Pandits have still managed to hang on to traditions is because they are resilient,” he said, adding: “If we don’t return the community will become extinct in no time.”
Ashok Pandit breaks down while remembering the past. | (Photo | EPS, Arun Kumar)
According to Lal, who is the president of the Jagti Tenant Association, many migrants “have lost their mental balance as we were not used to the hot temperature in Jammu.”
Surinder Bhat, 47, a contractor, fled Kupwara for Jammu after repeated threats.
“We arrived in scorching heat in March 1990 and then moved to a tent in Purkhoo. My father and mother would yearn for a home,” Bhat said.
Bhat supports the Centre’s initiative to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley and other places.
“Our land and property have been encroached upon. Those who occupied them also sold portions of our property.
To reclaim it would be foolhardy and it would reopen old wounds, besides confrontation with locals. It would be better if the government provides us separate colonies in Srinagar,” he said.