Diwali, in Kashmir

As they prepare for the festival today, Hindu families tell about the relationships — both defined by the Kashmir story and defying it —which keep them safe. And which ensure they are here to stay

Written by Bashaarat Masood | Updated: October 30, 2016 7:49 am
kashmir, kashmir unrest, kashmir violence, kashmir curfew, burhan wani, burhan wani unrest, kashmir attacks, uri attacks, bsf jawan kashmir, surgical strikes india, surgical strikes, diwali in kashmir, kashmir festivals, india news, kashmir news Chuni Devi, with her grandson at her newly constructed house in Sirnoo, says they have always celebrated Diwali with fervour, sharing sweets with their Muslim neighbours. Express photo by Sofi Ahsan

As the three men enter his house, Mohan Singh welcomes them with a big smile. “How are you? When were you released?” he says. Noticing their solemn faces, he adds, “Everything will be okay soon.” The men shake hands with Singh but continue to stand in the courtyard, hesitant to say anything. Sensing their anxiety, Singh asks, “What brings you here?” The older of them drops his head and replies quietly, “We have come to take our bedding.”

Singh quietly points to the second floor of his decrepit mud-and-brick house. Watching the Special Police Officers as they climb up, he says, “They were posted here. They have come to take their belongings.”

Two other policemen posted for the security of the Singhs, Constables Bashir Ahmad and Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, took away their belongings two days ago.

He doesn’t hold anything against the five, Singh says. After the attack, the policemen were dismissed from their jobs for “not offering resistance” to the militants and for letting their weapons be taken. “They are poor people,” Singh sighs.

The Singhs are the only Hindu family in Samnoo, a sleepy village in Kulgam district in south Kashmir, the area worst hit by the current violence. For more than two decades, a police team of five men has guarded them. On October 3, a group of militants barged into their house, rushed to the top floor and took away the weapons of the policemen.

“It was around 7.30 in the evening and I was in my room. My son was watching a movie on television when they entered,” Singh, 37, says. “They asked about the guns. I told them I am a civilian, how can I have guns. They then went upstairs and took away the rifles of the policemen.”

After the militants escaped with five rifles, the policemen were first arrested for allegedly failing to resist the attack, and were later dismissed. In the process, the Singhs lost their security cover.

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Since October 3, there have been attacks on five police pickets guarding minorities in south Kashmir, with militants walking away with eight weapons. One policeman has been killed, and two injured, including a civilian, in these attacks. With policemen guarding isolated minority communities in villages becoming soft targets to snatch weapons, the J&K Police has withdrawn its men at many places.

Mohan Singh belongs to a Dogra Hindu family that settled here from Jammu more than a century ago. When most of the Dogra families moved out after the eruption of militancy in the early 1990s, Mohan Singh’s father Chain Singh stayed back in Samnoo. Even grandfather Atar Singh’s death at the hand of militants didn’t compel him to move.

In a village of over 200 households, the Singhs are the only Hindu family. The other two Dogra families in the area live nearly 2.5 km away, in Batagund and Mandujan villages.

Seven members of Singh’s family stay in the three-storey house, including wife Meena Devi, their two children Suraj, 3, and Uday, 2, mother Santosh Devi, and Singh’s brothers Ashok Singh, 20, and Kulveer Singh, 16. One of their uncles, whose family has migrated to Jammu, also lives with them. While the uncle is an employee of the Food and Supplies Department, Singh makes a living from his one-acre apple orchard.

Singh’s two sisters are married in Jammu.

Mohan Singh talks about how in the ’90s, the initial years following Atar Singh’s killing, were the most scary for the family. Later, as things settled down, life returned to normal.

As the policemen come down with their belongings, Singh asks them to stay for tea. “They have been like our family members,” he says as the three sit down. “I had vacated a floor for them. We were living together in the same house.”

The massive protests triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani have left them shaken, Singh admits. He has sent his wife and children to their maternal home at Kathua in Jammu.

The earnings too have taken a hit. While he usually manages from his orchards, Singh says, “This year, the rates are very low. An apple box in Delhi fetches around Rs 700 now. We incur a cost of Rs 600 on a box; add the fare to it.”

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Though the protests have died down lately, the signs are still visible in Samnoo, a village dotted with walnut trees. On both sides of the rickety road leading to the village, electric poles are painted in green-and-white flags. Slogans demanding azadi are everywhere and posters of Wani are pasted on the outer walls of many homes.

On October 3, he was returning after dropping his wife and children at Kathua, Singh recalls, when he had got a call from his panicky mother. “There was a rally at our village and thousands of people had come,” he says.

So Singh called up the head of the Auqaf, the local management committee of a mosque. “I requested him to visit my mother. He stayed with her till the rally was over.”

That is why, Singh says, the departure of the police guards “doesn’t make much difference” to him in terms of security. “We are living here with the support of our Muslim neighbours. The policemen couldn’t protect themselves, how can they protect us? We are safe because of our neighbours.”

Adds Santosh Devi, who came to Samnoo as a 23-year-old bride more than four decades ago, “It is natural. We are living alone and we are scared, especially when it gets dark. But we are not worried that they have withdrawn the (police) guards. We had refused security when the policemen were first deployed, but the village head insisted on it.”

Have they ever thought of leaving the Valley? “Not anymore,” says Devi. “When everybody left, we could have also left, but poverty came in the way.”

Noticing the visitors who have come to the Singh house, a neighbour stops by to check. “We have always lived together, both in times of joy and suffering,” says Shabir Ahmad, who drives an autorickshaw. “Their safety is our responsibility.”

Superintendent of Police (SP) Kulgam, Shridhar Patil, says the decision to remove security for the Singhs couldn’t be helped. “It was taken in light of the situation. You will have to talk about it with senior officers.”

While the Singhs have begun their Diwali preparations, they admit the festival wouldn’t be the same this time. First, their police guards who often celebrated with them are not around. “The children are not here either, so it would be a sombre Diwali,” Singh says. “All we will do is illuminate our house with candles. I think we won’t burst crackers.”

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Down a 10-kilometre, serpentine road from Samnoo lies Jamnagri. Many say this big, sleepy village in Shopian district of south Kashmir is the ancestral place of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

A partially dismantled flag post stands in the middle of the square. Until two weeks ago, a large Pakistani flag hung here.

Jamnagri is also known as Ramnagri — the Muslims call it by the first name, the Hindus by the second. Among over a thousand households that dot the picturesque landscape of this village of apple orchards, the Kouls and a neighbour, Gopal Krishan, are the only Hindus.

Girja Koul and her family won’t be celebrating Diwali. The Kouls saw two deaths this year — first, Girja’s mother-in-law passed away in June; then one of the policemen guarding their home was killed by militants three weeks ago.

“I can still see the policeman’s body before my eyes. He was like a family member. He was hit by bullets just here,” Girja says, pointing to the main entrance of their house. “How can we celebrate Diwali?”

On October 8, five days after militants snatched rifles from policemen guarding the Singh family at Samnoo, they tried to storm a police post guarding the Koul family of Jamnagri. A policeman, Nazir Ahmad, was killed in the attack, while his colleague as well as Girja’s younger son were injured.

The Kouls live in a secluded spot in the village, away from the rest of the congested cluster of houses. They also stand apart for the concrete-and-tin wall that surrounds the single-storey house they built six years ago.

Their neighbour, Gopal Krishan, is a retired government teacher who lives alone while his family is in Jammu.

Before militancy erupted in 1990, Jamnagri had two Kashmiri Pandit neighbourhoods, with more than 40 households. When the other Pandits left for Jammu, the Kouls decided to stay back. “My parents-in-law were old and they decided not to move,” says Girja, 62, who retired as a supervisor in the Social Welfare department.

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Girja’s father-in-law was an apple grower, and the family owns more than four acres of orchards. Girja’s husband B N Koul is a retired senior teacher. Apart from Girja and her husband, one of their two sons and his wife live in Jamnagri. The elder son, Arunday Koul, is an employee in Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited and lives with his wife in Srinagar.

There has been trouble over the years, but never enough to drive them away.

In 1988, just before militancy took a turn for the worse, the Kouls had gone to Jammu for the treatment of Girja’s father-in-law, and returned to find their house burnt. However, they didn’t have to look far for shelter, she points out. They shifted into a Muslim neighbour’s house and lived with them for 12 years. “We have good relations with all,” Girja says. “We have always felt safe here.”

The protests following the killing of Burhan Wani have also affected Jamnagri and its adjoining villages. The village saw a huge azadi rally, that drew people from different parts of Shopian.

Still, they never expected the attack of October 8, Girja says. “I had told my husband to fetch milk,” she recalls. It was around 8 pm. “He went to the door and said ‘We have been locked from outside’. That had never happened. I told him we would manage with the little milk we had. But he insisted on getting the milk. When I stopped him, my son Puran said he would go. I tried to stop him too. But he called out to Nazir Ahmad (one of the five policemen guarding their house) and asked him to get the door opened. The moment the door opened, they started firing.”

The Kouls had five policemen guarding them, but that day only three were present. They stayed in an outhouse the family had constructed for them.

While Nazir, a constable, died on the spot, constable Zahoor Ahmad was injured. The militants fled. Puran Krishan, Girja’s younger son, was shot in both legs, and continues to be in a Jammu hospital.

Puran, who worked as an assistant professor at an engineering college in Delhi, had returned home only this year. “We were living alone. So I told him to come back home to look after the apple orchards,” Girja sighs.

While the Kouls too have lost their five guards since October 8, police say security to them has not been withdrawn. “We have actually consolidated the security,” says Shopian SP Tahir Saleem. “The security cover for Pandits in Jamnagri and Reshnagri villages has been put at one place. It is at Reshnagri, and it is just 2 km from Jamnagri.”

The J&K government says the safety of Pandits in the Valley is its responsibility. “The police top brass says they have done some re-alignment of forces aimed at avoiding loss of weapons without compromising security,” J&K government spokesman and Education Minister Naeem Akhtar told

The Sunday Express. “They have other ways too of keeping the Pandits secure.”

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Girja admits to feeling vulnerable without the security they had for six years. “We had developed a relationship with the policemen. They were like our family members. We knew we could rely on them,” she says.

“Fear has increased, though our neighbours remain very supportive,” she adds. “Some time ago, there was a rally at the Eidgah, located just behind our house. There were thousands of people. I was scared.”

But even that day, the neighbours came to their help. “One of the roads to the Eidgah goes by our house,” Girja says, pointing to a narrow lane. “The villagers blocked the road that day. They didn’t let anybody pass.”

The neighbours say they respect the Kouls. “Koulji (Girja’s husband) has taught many of us in the village. We also respect them because they stayed with us when the others left the Valley. They trusted us and it is now our job to keep their trust,” says Abdul Aziz, who is in his 60s.

For Girja, it eventually comes down to that. “Our security lies with our god and then our neighbours.”

Sirnoo looks like a village that has been half-emptied. On both sides of a road that runs through it are big mud-and-brick houses, some crumbling, some abandoned and some collapsed.

Till 1990, the year Kashmiri Pandits migrated from Kashmir in droves, Sirnoo and its adjoining villages housed more than 50 Pandit households. Today, 12 Pandit families remain, living in a cluster, watched over by policemen from a camp 50 metres away.

Since those tumultuous years though, Sirnoo’s Muslims and Hindus have lived in peace, with militants staying away. On October 18, in a rare attack, they tried to storm the police post guarding the Pandit families to snatch their weapons. While police drove the militants away, the calm in Sirnoo has been shattered.

Chuni Devi, 71, says they have been asking the government to withdraw the security since then. “We feel safe without security. But the villagers want police to remain.”

The six policemen guarding the Sirnoo Pandits are stationed in a three-storey house abandoned by a Pandit family.

Sirnoo falls in Pulwama district, a militant and separatist stronghold. The 1.5-km stretch from Pulwama to Sirnoo is scribbled with azadi slogans, and the village has seen large pro-freedom rallies.

The two-storey house Devi lives in, with son Satish Kumar and his wife, is newly constructed, with some work still on. Satish, who has two college-going sons, is employed as a headmaster in a government school.

Devi’s two married daughters also live in Sirnoo. One of Devi’s sons-in-law shares his house with a Muslim, Mohammad Akbar, and his family. Talking about this, Devi says, “We have always lived together here. It is a bond that has lasted generations.”

Jatin, 6, the son of one of Devi’s daughters, is playing in the compound of the house. His school, Lyceum International, in Pulwama, has been shut for long, like other schools in the Valley. Kicking a football around, Jatin says he has to play alone. “Nobody here knows how to play football.”

Devi says the protests don’t perturb her too much. “Once, somebody threw stones at our house, broke two glass panes. I went out and confronted them,” she smiles.

The October 18 firing though was different. “We fear to move about in the dark now. I would regularly go to the mandir but I haven’t gone there for the past two days.”

The episode cast a shadow on the two weddings held in the village since. “The first wedding was solemn. The family decided not to have wanwun (singing of wedding songs) fearing our neighbours may not like it (many people have been killed in Pulwama in the protests). But, at the next wedding, we had wanwun. We kept our voices low.”

Devi says they won’t let the fear dampen their Diwali though. “We have been celebrating Diwali all these years with fervour,” she says. “We illuminate our houses, burst crackers and distribute sweets among our Muslim neighbours. This year will be no different.”

A few years ago, a Hindu from outside had come to Kashmir to see how the Pandits celebrate Diwali, Devi recalls. “He had come with our Muslim neighbour. They both stayed the night with us for Diwali. He was surprised by our celebrations.”

Satish, however, has one complaint: “that the Pandits who stayed back haven’t received any government help”. “All the schemes are for migrant Pandits,” he says. “When I went to Jammu for some help for my elder son’s scholarship, I was told I am not a migrant.”

Satish’s elder son is doing B. Tech in Mechanical Engineering from Rajasthan while his younger son is studying at the Government Degree College in Pulwama.

Have they ever thought of migrating to Jammu? “No, never,” says Devi.

“If we had ever thought of shifting, would we have built a new house? Whether Kashmir becomes Pakistan, Afghanistan or Hindustan, we will stay here.”