Date: 2/23/2004


A community on the verge of extinction



.................21st Feb 2004

In another time and place, three days before `Herach' or Shivratri, the paramount event in the religio-cultural calendar of their community, they would have been joyously preparing for the festivity and feasting associated with the grand day. But here they were last Sunday, this woman and her teenaged daughter, going from door to door in the central Delhi locality where I live. Shyly and very self-consciously they asked if I could spare some money or rations or clothes or perhaps a blanket. I could see a tinge of humiliation on their faces. They were neatly but far from adequately dressed and looked anything but chronic beggars.

They were refugees from Kashmir. Two of the two lakh and more Kashmiri Pandits who were hounded out or had to flee their terror-stricken homeland, in great numbers some fourteen years ago and in trickles continuously ever since, even to date.

The girl was nine years old when the family left the village near Srinagar with four other families after the Wandhama massacre six years ago almost to the day. After twenty-four hours of a fitful and traumatic journey they reached Jammu where they were put up in a ramshackle tent in a refugee camp. After a few months in horrendous conditions, they left for Delhi, spending their last rupee. Here also they `lived' in a tent on a small official dole ( an unofficial charity) until three years ago when a kindly lady let the family stay in one of the garages of her bungalow in south Delhi.

In return for the lodging the woman cooks and does other household chores for the `malkin'. Her husband, who had a small apple farm in his village which fetched him about Rs. 35,000 a year, is working as a shop assistant on Rs 900 a month. Her father-in-law, a retired school teacher, had a fatal heart attack four years ago. Her mother-in-law has acute arthritis and is just about surviving in the garage.

This was not the first time that refugees from Jammu and Kashmir have come to my locality, seeking alms and donations. I have given details about this family because it epitomises the plight of an entire community, the once proud and prosperous Kashmiri Pandits. I know many of the migrants have managed to rebuild their lives, but the fact that a large number of them are no better off than this family, perhaps worse, is no secret. They are trying to cope with their shattered lives whichever way they can, but thousands of them are just about surviving as destitutes in alien environs and harsh climes.

No community in modern times has suffered so much for so long and yet evoked so little concern at their fate and plight as this minuscule community of Kashmiri Pandits. Hindu in their faith but with a culture of their own, these people go back in their origin to before the advent of Buddhism and Christianity, not to speak of Islam. Over the last couple of millennia they survived the sword of rabid invaders and proselytizers and were, in the process, reduced to a minority in their homeland, only to lose it all in the last decade and a half!

Thanks as much to the bloody mischief unleashed by Pakistan as to the callousness of successive Indian governments (and indifference of their billion-strong countrymen), they have been rendered refugees in their own country; for all purposes, a people forgotten. In fact, for the authorities at the Centre and in the state (and for the rest of the country) they don't seem to exist.

The only time they attract some attention in the media and in the rhetoric of our leaders is when they are killed, and that too only when they are killed in groups. This has happened several times since 1989. The last such killing took place some months ago, after the much tom-tommed `popular government' of Mufti Sayeed had acquired the saddle in the state. And what was his reaction? This incident, he declared, won't affect the process of normalisation!

For the rest, one occasionally hears of plans to build a cluster of apartments in Srinagar for the emigrants, and a general exhortation to them to return. Return to what? Is there any move to give them back their houses and lands and jobs? If there is then the authorities concerned are keeping it a closely guarded secret, even from the Pandits! What is not secret is the keenness of the Mufti government to release arrested `militants' and the Centre's powwow with fundamentalist-secessionist elements, as well as, among other things, the ongoing work to open transport links with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Whatever else the much-applauded moves may or may not achieve, these will certainly aid the post-1989 process of turning the Muslim-majority valley into a Muslim only Kashmir, thus further ensuring that the Pandits, the original inhabitants of the land, will never be able to return to their ancient habitat.

But who cares! Not the national leaders, not the state government. As for the so-called intellectuals and secularists and human rights crusaders, the less said the better. They will cry themselves hoarse in defence of a minority of many crores but will not even bat an eyelid if another minority of just a few lakhs is dispossessed of their ancestral home and rendered destitute.

Over the last 15 years, tens of hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits have been murdered by the terrorists and jehadis, and many more have died prematurely due to the inhuman conditions in which they have been forced to live. Tens of thousands of their young ones have missed schooling and now find themselves unemployable, thus reinforcing the distress of their families.

Today the Pandits are scattered in many parts of the country, in search of a new life and livelihood and affordable education for their children. A few years more of this crippling struggle and these peaceful and meritorious people may well wither away as a distinct and cohesive community. Should this come to pass, it will leave India a poorer country - civilisationally, culturally and in many other ways.