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Sunday, November 28, 2021

How far is my Valley

The scare of those days, the memories of the flight at night have returned to settlements where Kashmiri Pandits first arrived in the 1990s. The recent killings have dashed hope, that was rekindled post-Aug 5, 2019, of going back.

Written by Arun Sharma | Jammu |
Updated: October 18, 2021 8:12:45 am
Jagti Township was inaugurated in 2011 by then PM Manmohan Singh. (Express photo by Arun Sharma)

They left at 3 in the night, Dr T K Bhat recalls. His elder brother went to the Pampore Highway to find a truck driver that would take them at that hour, with no one watching. “We only halted to use the toilet after crossing the Jawahar tunnel (marking the entry into Jammu)… When we got down at Banihal, we realised our mother Koushalya Devi was wearing a chappal on one foot and a shoe on the other.”

That day in 1990, Bhat, then in his mid-30s, a doctor in the Animal Husbandry Department, became one of the first Kashmiri Pandit migrants to make Jammu his home. Bhat says theirs was one of 12 Pandit families among the 700 in Newa village of Pulwama.

In Pandit settlements across Jammu, especially the largest one, Jagti Township — inaugurated by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011 — the nightmare of those days is back with the recent targeted killings of civilians in Kashmir.

While the government denies it, people in the settlements say many of the over 3,000 Kashmiri Hindu employees serving in the Valley under the PM’s 2008 employment package, have returned to Jammu — 250-300 of them to Jagti alone.

The 4,200 two-room flats in the township, near Jammu city, house 6,500-7,000 families. One of the residents, Naveen Gosani, says the power situation has now improved from one-two hours a day, but the water remains unfit for human consumption.

However, the township, and the strength in numbers, provides security — which, as Bhat recalls in vivid detail 30 years later, came to elude them in what had been their home for generations.

He felt the first sense of unease during an innocuous conversation in April-May 1989, Bhat says. “I was constructing a house and had given the carpenter a design. The windows were not how I wanted and when I asked, the carpenter who was my neighbour laughed, ‘Panditji, it’s not like you are going to stay here’.”

The situation turned bad quickly, as protests spread against the “rigged” 1987 Assembly polls. Deployed to perform magistrate duty, Bhat recalls one evening when he was going to Awantipora with an assistant sub-inspector and two policemen. “I jokingly asked what we would do if we came across protesters. The ASI said they would surrender their weapons to them. ‘We are with you only because of our duty’, he said.”

Neighbours and colleagues started withdrawing money from “Indian banks” and putting it in “our own bank (Jammu and Kashmir Bank)”, Bhat says.

Then came the incident at Charar-e-Sharief, a shrine revered by both Hindus and Muslims. In November-December 1989, an estimated 10-15 lakh people marched towards the shrine on a call by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front; many of them brandishing AK-47s. It ended in an anti-climax when a bridge they were to use collapsed in heavy rain, but the scale of what had transpired chilled the Pandits.

Around a month later, Bhat’s neighbour Moti Lal was killed, along with his driver Ghulam Mohammad. Then, the militants came for Bhat’s cousin’s husband, a reputed doctor. At his cremation, masked men threatened to kill the entire family. “The same night, my brother got the truck.”

In Jammu, the Bhat family spent a fortnight at a shelter with other Pandit families. The government later put up tents on the banks of the Tawi at Nagrota and in Udhampur. Bhat now lives in his own house, among the few Pandit families to have managed this.

Bhat has visited his native place in Kashmir only twice since, “in 1995, when there was a blast at my parent’s house, and last year. The house I constructed is in ruins… I couldn’t control my tears.”

Gosani, now employed with a private company, arrived at the Purkhoo refugee camp as a boy of 13, with his parents and two sisters, from Kulgam. He recalls an area crawling with snakes and scorpions. There was no electricity, and off and on, the government would deliver kerosene for lamps. Community toilets barely managed as the numbers grew to 6,000 families.

Bhat says that cramped in their small quarters, they struggled with everything, “the weather, our eating habits, lifestyle, language”. One complete generation of Pandits spent the rest of their life battling with the change, he says.

On paper, the Jagti Township has all the amenities — schools, dispensaries, community halls, parks. However, residents, who were allotted apartments following verification, complain of shoddy construction.

Rajesh Bhagati, the Camp Commandant of the B-Zone of the township, admits the residents have issues. “People make complaints and we redress them,” he says.

Bhat dreams of returning to the home he grew up in, and fears he will take these to his grave. “When Article 370 was abrogated, the Pandits felt they could return. However, the killings have destroyed all that was achieved.”

Deepanshu Bhat, a student, believes even without the killings, the “trust deficit” has widened. “If we are able to make an ordinary Kashmiri Muslim student feel safe elsewhere in the country, do not discriminate against him, why would he get radicalised?” he says. Instead, Deepanshu adds, under the Modi government, the narrative has become harsher. “They tom-tom that Article 370 has been abrogated and Kashmiri Pandits have been rehabilitated. However, the narrative in the rest of India and in Kashmir is very different. This makes the youth pick up guns as they do not see a solution coming from either side.”

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