History Matters | January 1990: The Exodus

Compared to 1984 Delhi and 2002 Gujarat, 1990 Kashmir is a hauntingly unique tragedy.

6 min read

(This is part four of a four-part 'January' series that revisits significant historical events and policies, and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part two here, and part three here.)

In January 1990, along with tens of thousands of others, she fled the valley and settled in a refugee camp in Jammu. She had no clue what would happen to her job as a schoolteacher. Terrifying tales of killings dissuaded her from even trying to find out. Lamenting the loss of her home, she received a phone call from a colleague who was still in the valley.

The colleague assured her that peace had returned, and she could come, stay with the colleague, and collect her salary that was due. Nervous but hopeful, she went back to the valley in June and stayed with her colleague at Bandipora. She never came back. 

The night she reached the valley, a group of terrorists entered the colleague's house and whisked her away.

No one even murmured in protest. A day later, her badly disfigured body was discovered lying by the roadside. A postmortem revealed that she had been repeatedly gang raped and was cut into two pieces by a mechanical saw even as she was alive. She was not a politician or an activist. She had never made any enemies. She was just an ordinary married Indian woman who worked in a school.

She was Girija Tickoo. She represents the plight and misery of the Kashmiri Pandits who were ethnically cleansed from the Kashmir valley in a process that started in January 1990. Some elderly members of that forced exodus are still haunted by the slogans blared from the loudspeakers in the mosques that reverberated in the valley — Raliv, Galiv ya Chaliv meaning convert, die, or leave.

Many elderly women still shudder with shock at the memory of another popular slogan in January 1990 in Srinagar: Leave, but leave your women behind. Sometimes, entire societies are consumed by a murderous frenzy. Erstwhile neighbours, colleagues, and friends become murderous thugs. India has seen that in Delhi in 1984 and Gujarat in 2002. The same happened in Kashmir in 1990.

Compared to Delhi and Gujarat, Kashmir is a Hauntingly Unique Tragedy

Estimates vary, but anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000 Pandits were made refugees in their own homeland and anywhere between 400 and 700 were brutally killed in cold blood. Most of the beautiful homes they left behind are in ruins. Many were “taken over” by local Kashmiri Muslims. Even now, Pandits go back on a visit to the valley and weep at the ruined houses they were forced to flee from in January 1990. Most have scattered across India and the world leading successful careers and lives. But the yearning for the lost homeland continues to haunt them.

And compared to 1984 Delhi and 2002 Gujarat, 1990 Kashmir is a hauntingly unique tragedy.

Take 1984. By all accounts, it was a genocide of the Sikhs. But the fact is that it had been simmering for years. Since 1981, Sikh terrorists had launched a bloodthirsty campaign, indiscriminately killing Hindus. There were instances of buses being stopped by the terrorists, and Hindus being identified and shot dead in cold blood. The assassination of Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards lit the fire that became a genocide, a complete one-way massacre of the Sikhs.

Take 2002. Gujarat had been convulsed by frequent and intense communal riots since before independence. For instance, the town of Godhra was engulfed by communal riots in 1927 that lasted two long years. Morarji Desai was the sub-collector of Godhra back then. When some seniors pointed fingers at his role, Desai resigned and became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, and joined the freedom struggle. It was in Godhra that a Muslim mob burnt down a bogey full of Karsevaks returning from Ayodhya, killing 59 people. A lot of them were women and children. That triggered the ghastly riots where innocent victims like Bilkis Bano were destroyed by rampaging Hindu mobs.

In the case of 1990, there is no similar background or history of any sort, of Kashmiri Pandits inflicting physical or even verbal violence on Muslims in the valley. They were already a small minority in a Kashmir where upwards of 95 per cent were Muslims. And yet, in an explosion of frenzied Islamism, they were systematically persecuted, killed, and exiled. As mentioned earlier, they are still waiting for justice.

The tragedy for the Kashmiri Pandit community is that 34 years have passed since their ethnic cleansing in January 1990. However belated, the Supreme Court of India has ensured that the killers of the Sikhs and the instigators of the 1984 violence are punished. Many Congress workers including former MP Sajjan Kumar are in jail. Just recently, the Supreme Court overturned the remission granted to 11 convicted criminals who gang raped Bilkis Bano in Gujarat in 2002 and killed her family members. They are back where they belong — in jail.

But, inexplicably, the same Supreme Court displays unusual reticence in dealing with the atrocities of 1990 against Kashmiri Pandits. Every time a group representing them approaches the top court, their petitions are dismissed; often with the remarks that the events of 1990 are too far back in the past to deal with now. The fact is, the genocide of Sikhs is six years older than the ethnic cleansing of Pandits.

An organisation called Roots in Kashmir, in a last-ditch effort, had filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court to pass orders for an SIT and court-monitored probe into the killings. A bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud dismissed the petition in December 2022. Since the authors lack any legal background or expertise, they can only remain baffled by this attitude of the apex court.  


The Few Hundred Brave Souls Who Went Back Have Fled Again

The Kashmiri Pandits were uprooted and thrown out. But the insurgency that triggered this 'Azaadi' frenzy has also ensured that Muslims living in the Kashmir valley have paid a very heavy price. Since only a few families of Pandits remained after 1990, they were no longer killed. But in the Pakistan-sponsored waves of radicalisation, Islamism, and terrorism that engulfed J&K beginning in 1990, a lot of “non-combatants” were killed.

According to official estimates of the Government of India, more than 14,000 civilians were killed in J&K in the three decades of the so-called 'Azaadi' insurgency. An overwhelming majority of those killed have been Muslims. Human rights agencies of various hues claim that more than 25,000 innocent Kashmiri civilians have been killed by security forces in the conflict.

Since 1990, a lot of Kashmiris have been caught up in a toxic mix of resentment, revolt, and radical Islamism. Perhaps the climax of this self-destructive process was seen in July 2016 when security forces gunned down 22-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist Burhan Wani, who was a folk hero among radicalised youngsters in the valley. When his body was laid to rest, it was draped in a Pakistani flag and about 2,00,000 people joined the procession. Violet protests inevitably erupted, leading to about 100 deaths and thousands of injuries.

For Kashmiri Pandits, the events of July 2016 were another rude shock. About 200 Pandit families were living in a transit camp, hoping to make a permanent move back to their beloved homeland. Violent protestors attacked the camps and all the 200 families fled to Jammu.

Even today, threatened by terrorists and targeted killings, the few hundred brave souls who went back have fled again and refused to go back to the valley despite threats by the state government that they will not get salaries “in absentia.” 

The abrogation of Article 370 has led to a dramatic improvement in the security situation of the valley. Terror attacks still happen, but far less frequently. Stone pelting and violent protests on the streets seem like a thing of the past. Many feel that Kashmir is healing. But for Kashmiri Pandits, it remains a lost homeland that remains elusive.  

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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