The exiles dreaming of a return to Kashmir

The 400,000 Hindus driven out by Muslim extremists 20 years ago hope talks beginning this week will bring them a step closer to going home. But does it suit the Indian government to prolong their misery?

Like all the others, Mharaj Kak remembers the date and he remembers the threat that changed their lives forever. He had been living with his extended family in Srinagar, their city-centre home, a five-storey wooden house in the centre of the city built by his great-grandfather.

"It was the night of 19 January 1990 when the mullahs told us all to leave the valley," he said. "We had to leave everything. There was a mass exodus. From all the mosques, there was this message sent throughout the valley that the Kashmiri Pandits had to leave immediately, or we would be killed."

So the Hindus of Kashmir, better known as the Kashmiri Pandits, were forced to flee the valley between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountains in which their families had lived for centuries, driven out by Muslim extremists, and sometimes the Muslim neighbours they had lived alongside for generations. In just three months, more than 400,000 Hindus were scattered across India and beyond. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed.

Two decades later, fewer than 3,000 Hindus remain and the government of India says it is determined to help those who want to return to the homes they were forced to leave. But the Pandits say the government does little but talk. It has provided no security, no homes, no livelihoods and put in place none of the confidence-building measures vital for them to feel able to make the journey back to Kashmir, they say. Even now, many are still enduring lives of quiet misery in inadequate refugee camps.

They believe that while the plight of the Muslim population of Kashmir, living in one of the most heavily militarised places on earth, continues to garner international attention, they have become the forgotten, overlooked people of history. Some even believe the Indian government has deliberately kept them impoverished to allow it to claim it is not just Muslims who have suffered in the struggle over Kashmir.

Ramesh Kumarana hung on until October 1990. By then, the threats and violence by militant groups such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen came almost daily. One of his brothers was killed. He and his family had no alternative but to flee south. Today, the college-trained pharmacist who once ran his own business in Srinagar is among the Pandits who run tiny clothes-shops at a scruffy market in the centre of Delhi. To supplement his income, he sells bags of Kashmiri walnuts. He shrugs helplessly as he points to the way in which he is now forced to support his wife and two children.

"I am ready to go back to Kashmir, my heart is there," he said, standing next to his shop with his smiling 12-year-old son, Mohit. "It is my birthplace and I want to go back there. But my son was born in Delhi, it's my responsibility to take care of him. I visited Kashmir in 2003. They said, 'You can come but you are a tourist and you must then go back to India'. They called us 'Indian dogs'."

More than 60 years after Partition, the issue of Kashmir still burns like spilt acid, an enduring irritant to peace inside India and beyond. In 1947, Kashmir's Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, surprised most observers when he decided that his Muslim-majority state should join the Hindu-majority India rather than the new state of Pakistan. And still the competing claims on the region continue to pull at the geopolitical fabric of South Asia. When Indian and Pakistani officials meet this week for resumption of talks halted after the Mumbai attacks of 2008, Kashmir will be among the first subjects raised.

Yet the issue that has largely dominated talk of Kashmir for the past two decades, since the Indian government responded to the militancy with one of the largest counter-insurgency operations in history, has been what sort of autonomy the valley could be afforded. During two decades of violence that has claimed at least 70,000 lives and created a population that suffers from record levels of anxiety and mental health problems, little thought appears to have been given to how the Pandits might fit in. Even now, much of the energy of the authorities appears to be taken up by an amnesty plan to allow militants who have crossed the de facto border, the Line of Control (LoC), into Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to return to their families.

The Indian authorities, which pay grants of about £50 a month to those forced to leave, insist they are working to help the Pandits. A spokesman for the federal Home Minister, P Chidambaram, said he was too busy to speak on the issue, but last November, while visiting new flats built for Pandit refugees in Jammu, he vowed: "Kashmiri Pandit migrants will be consulted on every issue regarding their return to the valley."

The attitude of the state government, headed by an energetic Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, may be more forward-leaning. In an interview, he outlined several steps already taken to help Pandits return; 3,000 government jobs had been set aside and temporary accommodation built at two locations in the valley.

"I don't think my administration sees this issue any differently than the rest of the right-thinking people in the valley," he said. "We think the valley is incomplete without the Hindu Kashmiris. It has been the endeavour of governments since 1996 to create the circumstances to bring them back."

Asked whether the security existed for them to return, he added: "The proof of the pie is in the eating. There are still Kashmiri Pandits who never migrated and who have lived alongside the majority population."

Indeed, the antagonism between the Hindu and Muslim population that forced the Pandits to flee did not always exist, and few could have imagined the nature of the violence that erupted after the summer of 1989. Certainly, the two communities did not inter-marry, but they shared customs and traditions and were largely tolerant of each other.

The British writer, Justine Hardy, notes in her recent memoir on Kashmir's descent into violence, In the Valley of Mist: "The poetry of the valley's past is that it was heaven on earth, a place of such gentleness that those who lived there did so in harmony, most particularly the Muslims and Hindus, the doors of their homes open to each other, their festivals shared, some of their saints interchangeable."

Today, if it ever thus existed, such a relationship has been destroyed. But there are positive signs: in recent months, several long-closed Hindu temples have been restored and reopened, with the help of the Muslim community, and a key Hindu festival was celebrated in Srinagar for the first time 20 years. A Pandit organisation in the city hopes to reopen 60 more temples in the valley this year. Muslim leaders admit more needs to be done, both in providing homes and jobs and in building sufficient trust to persuade Hindus to return.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of a coalition of separatist organisations, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said: "The issue of the return of the Pandits is very important. We cannot deny that they had to leave the valley in very difficult circumstances at a time when there was a lot of chaos."

Yet Mr Farooq rejected the idea made by some Pandits that a specially designated area for Hindus ought to be created. "[This is not] a religious issue," he said. "It's not Hindu India versus Muslim Kashmir. And their return to the valley should not be linked to the resolution of the broader issue of Kashmir's future."

Yet for the Pandits, a return to the valley is inextricably linked to the future of Kashmir. Why, they ask, would they return if they felt the future of Kashmir was not safe? SK Dudha, a leading member of the Pandit community in Delhi, said: "The changes have to be made. How else will people go back. There has to be the political will on the part of the government."

In the apparent stalemate, the Pandits feel lost, dreaming of the Kashmir they left and juggling with the challenges of the new lives they have made elsewhere. One of the toughest, they say, is to maintain their culture and language. Their children may be encouraged to speak Kashmiri in the home, but elsewhere they are bombarded with other tongues, other dialects. Already the diaspora has had to forgo its tradition of marrying only within the Pandit caste, such was the concern about the threat to the future of the community.

Occasions at which the community comes together include the religious festivals it has traditionally marked. On a recent afternoon in the Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi, scores of Kashmiri Hindus gathered to celebrate perhaps the most important, Shivatri, or the "long night of Shiva". In the centre of the temple, a fire had been built and prayers were said as people placed offerings of rice, barley, walnuts and butter into the flames. Amid the heat and the smoke was Mharaj Kak, the businessman who had pushed his family into a taxi and fled from Kashmir 20 years earlier.

In all that time, he had never returned to Kashmir, to the home his great-grandfather had built which had been taken from him. "What I miss the most," he said, "is that old house and all the memories associated with it".

A valley divided

*For hundreds of years the Kashmiri Pandits lived peacefully as a minority in the Kashmir valley alongside the Muslim majority. Often well-educated, they were regarded as the elite of the region – the name "Pandit" means learned person and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, was one of them.

*However, in 1989 Muslim extremists intensified their armed struggle against Indian rule in Kashmir and violence broke out against the Hindu Pandits. As a result the vast majority of the Pandit population in the area were forced to flee, with hundreds killed in the conflict. In a space of three months, 400,000 were displaced and many ended up in refugee camps around Jammu.

*Only a fraction of Kashmiri Pandits have stayed behind in the region, and many of them have been the victims of violence. In 1998, 23 were massacred by militants in the village of Wanhama, north of Srinagar, and 24 Pandits were killed in their village in 2003 by gunmen disguised as members of the Indian army.

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