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Uprooted: From Jammu to Srinagar, Stories of Kashmiri Pandits in Exile

32 years after their exile, Kashmiri Pandits across the spectrum feel they have been left to fend for themselves.

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8 min read

Video Editor: Harpal Rawat

Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya & Ribhu Chatterji

Video Inputs: Sajad Hameed, Mudasir Rawoola & Faizan Ahmed Mir

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"We would have preferred to die in Kashmir had we known we will never be able to return home. We have faced a lot of hardship in Jammu all these years," laments Bansilal Sharma, as he sits in one corner of his two-room apartment at Jammu's Purkhoo refugee colony.

The 61-year-old Kashmiri Pandit's family had fled the valley during the militancy of the 1990s with the hope that they will return home in a few months. It's been over three decades away from home.

Months tuned into years, and years into decades but for a majority of the Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Jammu, homeland Kashmir is just a distant dream.

"When we first left the Valley, we thought we would go back after two-six months. At the time, we didn't know we'd have to leave forever."
Bansilal Sharma, Kashmiri Pandit Migrant.

After fleeing Kashmir, Sharma's family was forced to live out of tents, where they spent 15 years.

Bansilal Sharma at the Purkhoo camp in Jammu. 

The Quint.

It was only in 2011, when the Congress-led UPA government, under Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, began shifting Kashmiri Pandits to temporary concrete refugee colonies in Jammu's Jagti, Purkhoo, Muthi, and Nagrota.

Today, these colonies are home to around 5,242 Kashmiri Pandit families.

Forever in Exile

Ever since Kashmiri Pandits arrived in Jammu, they've been given a monthly relief that has been raised over time to the present amount of Rs 13,000 every month per family.

While the relief amount has seen five hikes in the last 16 years – thrice during the UPA government's tenure and twice during the current government's – many Kashmiri Pandits who survive completely on government relief say that the government should increase it to at least Rs 25,000 per month.

Former school teacher Ashok Kumar Bhat, who fled south Kashmir's Anantnag in the 1990s, points out that the government spreads "lies" by claiming that every migrant Kashmiri Pandit family gets a relief of Rs 13,000.

Ashok Kumar Bhat at the Purkhoo camp in Jammu. 

The Quint.

"If a family has only one elderly person how much will they get out of Rs 13,000? They will get Rs 3,250. Families with two people would get around Rs 6,500. Only those with a family size of four and above get Rs 13,000 as relief."
Ashok Kumar Bhat, Kashmiri Pandit Migrant.

Many like migrant Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu have been demanding that the relief be increased to Rs 25,000 per month. Among them is 50-year-old Kusum Lata Bakshi, whose family fled to Jammu after her cousin was gunned down by militants in Srinagar's Rainawari.

Surviving on Rs 13,000, Bakshi has to meet medical bills of her cancer-afflicted husband. Both her children are outside Jammu and are unable to contribute much to the family's income.

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How Did Militancy Set-Foot in Kashmir?

Tensions in Kashmir had began simmering right in the 80s. According to a India Today report, in 1984, Pakistan Army had commissioned Amanullah Khan –founder of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front – to trigger insurgency in the valley.

  • Named Topac, Pakistan's plan, says India Today, included cross-border terror training, execution of bomb blasts and targeted killings, and widespread insurgency to ‘liberate’ Muslim-majority Kashmir.

  • In February 1986, riots broke out in south Kashmir, after a district court in Uttar Pradesh ordered that locks at the disputed Babri mosque be opened. Homes and temples were burnt down.

  • A year after the Anantnag riots, Jammu and Kashmir went into fresh Assembly elections. In the fray were three parties - the Muslim United Front, the Congress, and the National Conference.

  • That election witnessed the highest-ever voter turn out in the then-state. It was also labeled as the most-rigged in the state's history.

Post March 23, 1987 elections, Dr Farooq with his cabinet after taking oath of office and secrecy.

MERAJUDDIN/Kashmirlife.net. 

"There was widespread and rampant, rigging. Polling agents weren't allowed inside booths, ballot boxes were stuffed, opposition candidates were coerced. It was quite brazen. We do not know if the Muslim United Front would have won that election. In a fair election, it would have got more seats. But if you did various permutations and combinations it would have probably been short of a victory."
Praveen Swami, National Security Editor, The Print

Swami, who has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, adds that "The Congress and the National Conference, by rigging that election, destroyed the youth's faith in the robustness of Indian democracy."

Abandoned by the State 

Overlooking the Purkhoo concrete camp are the old prefabricated quarters that once sheltered many a Kashmiri Pandit in the 1990s, as one family after another fled the Valley.

Ashok Kaul outside the prefabricated quarters in old Purkhoo in Jammu. 

The Quint. 

Although officially abandoned, the old camp is occupied by some Kashmiri Pandit families who say that the government has done little for their accommodation.

It is in these tin-sheds that Ashok Kumar Kaul has been living all by himself for nearly three years.

"One has to pay a bribe to get concrete quarters. The ones who could pay have shifted there. One must pay between 25,000 to Rs 30,000 as bribe. If I had the money, I wouldn't have lagged behind. If I had, I would have paid."

When they first arrived from Srinagar in 1990, Kaul's family had to move from one place to another as they were staying on rent. Sensing that he may have to spend his entire life without a home he can call his own, he decided not to marry.

"I was homeless and ran from pillar to post for shelter. Our landlords would ask us to vacate the houses frequently. I didn't want to put a woman through this torture. So, I decided not to marry," says Kaul, who once owned a shop in the busy lanes of Srinagar.

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Not Safe in Kashmir: PM Package Employees

"Everyone knows why we are leaving Kashmir. Saving our lives is our priority," rues 25-year-old Sahil, as he loads a cooking gas cylinder onto a vehicle in Kashmir's Anantnag district.

A resident of the district's Mattan transit camp, Sahil is one of the nearly 100 Kashmiri Pandits – as claimed by the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti – to leave the Valley, triggered by three back-to-back targeted killings between 31 May to 2 June this year.

Kashmiri Pandits raise slogans during a protest against the Pakistan over the killing of Rahul Bhat, in Jammu on 13 June, 2022.

PTI

One of the nearly 6,000 Kashmiri Pandit refugees who've been given jobs in Kashmir under the Prime Minister's Employment Package, Sahil and his cohorts have threatened to resign en masse if they are not posted to safer locations outside the Valley.

While the Centre claims that the killings have dropped by 50 percent since 2019, PM Package employees have repeatedly accused the administration of inaction, while stressing that they are no longer safe in the Valley.

  • According a statement released by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in April 2022, at least 14 Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus have been killed in terrorist attacks since the abrogation of Article 370 in 2019.

  • In addition, 87 civilians and 99 security personnel have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, as compared to 177 civilians and 406 security personnel in the previous five years.

  • While the Centre claims that the killings have dropped by 50 percent since 2019, PM Package employees have repeatedly accused the administration of inaction, while stressing that they are no longer safe in the Valley.

"Employment Package is Not a Resettlement Package"

The targeted killings notwithstanding, Kashmiri Pandits employed under the PM's package have been upset with their living conditions across transit camps in the Valley.

  • In 2015, the BJP-led government had promised 6,000 transit accommodation for migrant Kashmiri Pandits employed under the PM's package in Kashmir.

  • However, according to a report in The Hindu, "only 1,025 units had been partially or fully completed while work at more than 50 percent units was yet to start."

  • The existence of merely 1,025 quarters for 6,000 employees have forced Kashmiri Pandit employees at Kashmir's Mattan Camp to live in cramped spaces.

At this camp in South Kashmir, one apartment of three rooms is shared by six families, says Ranjan Jotshi, a migrant Kashmiri Pandit and a PM's Package employee.

"Two families are being forced to live in one room. In one apartment, six families are sharing one washroom and kitchen. In total, 96 families are living in just 16 sets," he says.

Jotshi says that the administration had imposed service conditions on them that does not allow them to leave the Valley. The combined might of these restrictions, coupled with living conditions, have make the PM's package a "caged package," says Jotshi.

In February 2021, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had told the Parliament that his government "would settle 6,000 families in Kashmir valley with proper housing by 2022."

While Shah had said that this would mark a major milestone in the return & rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the valley, PM Package employees from the community say that jobs cannot be compared to rehabilitation.

"PM package is simply an employment package. Combining it with return and rehabilitation will be improper. Only when five lakh Kashmiri Pandits Have been rehabilitated, we will consider it to be the complete rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits," said Jotshi.

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Resettle Us Outside Valley, Say Non-Migrant Kashmiri Pandits

While many migrant Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu, like Kusum Lata Bakshi, say that they will go back if the government gives them a home and only if the "situation becomes normal," those in the Valley say that they no longer feel secure.

Sanjay Tickoo, President of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti - an organisation representing nearly 800 non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley - says that the future of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir could be "worse than it was in the 1990s."

The Quint

KPSS President Sanjay Tickoo in Srinagar. 

"We don't know what the future holds for Kashmiri Pandits. What do we want now? I always say that give us any place in India where we can die, if not live, in peace."
Sanjay Tickoo, President, KPSS

Tickoo, who claims to have received multiple threats and only ventures out with police protection, says that the KPSS has written 40 letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office in the last eight years.

"We are yet to get a reply. That's how bad the situation is," he adds.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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