In Depth

Zutshis of Nunner: The Pandits who chose their Muslim neighbours over fear

That Kashmiri Pandits were persecuted, forced to flee and eventually their abandoned homes were either torched or encroached by Kashmiri Muslims, is a general notion prevailing beyond Banihal Tunnel. But a story of  the likes of Zutshis of Nunner, the pandits who never felt compelled to migrate, is different tale.

All these years, Mohan Lal Zutshi consumed the media-fed stories of persecution and carnage in Kashmir. Already his village, Nunner in Ganderbal province, had become a ghost town by the dawn of 1990s.

Of the total 180 households, 177 abandoned their homes, their hearths. But he remembers how the local Muslims promised to shield and safeguard their outgoing Pandit brethren—but then, “who could stop the voyagers from embarking on a salvaging journey?”

Perhaps none; but till today, their abandoned homes still stand tall, safe in the village where the lasting pandits “never felt compelled to migrate”.

Nostalgic about the good old days of Muslim-Pandit bonhomie in Mouj Kasheer, Zutshi, an elder, says he never thought of abandoning his home, his hearth—unlike his tribe, who fled their home in an atmosphere of fear.

“I would be lying if I say, I wasn’t fearful about the situation,” says Zutshi, as we sit to talk in his ancestral home in Nunner. “Hearing about massacres and reported threats to Pandit families was disturbing—but since, I never got one, I chose to trust my Muslim friends and stayed put.” It was a tough call, but worth it.

Then, the body count was mounting across the Vale. Armed rebellion against the Indian State was peaking. Those known to conspire were falling to anonymous guns. Political assassinations were the order of the day. Delhi’s iron-fisted response and subsequent militant-military clash was littering the landscape with nameless, faceless bodies. As Zutshi remembers it, the situation was indeed bloodcurdling.

“My roots are here… in this place,” continues the elder, as his wife, two sons and grandchildren become his captive audience in the room. “I never thought of leaving, even during the worst of times.” But there was a reason why he didn’t follow the footsteps of his brethren: his protective Muslim neighbours.

“Though the times were terrible,” Zutshi says, “but we had good support of the local Muslims. Back then, for our safety, a tall and handsome boy of our neighborhood, Fayaz would spend nights spanned over six months in our home. He stopped once the brain tumour consumed him.” That boy wasn’t alone in his community gesture.

When the Pandit families were leaving, Zutshi says, the locals came to their support, plead with them, not to leave. “But the fear had already mobilised the majority in our class,” he says. “Many KPs cited constant threats to their lives and to the honour of their female folks as reasons to pack their bags.” Since Zutshi never received any such threat, he stayed put to his heart’s content—that too, amid the political turmoil.

His sons graduated from S.P College and got appointed as government employees. One of his daughters did her Masters from the University of Kashmir and is a senior associate professor today.

“My children fought an emotional battle with themselves,” he says. “But I am thankful to God that it didn’t overpower them. Instead they learned from it and dealt with the worst. As a father, I now listen and apply their suggestions and solutions because for me they are like ‘Naar drav soann’ [fire kindled gold].”

To pick up the thread of conversation from him, his wife maintains that she had to be a friend to her children to save them from any psychological impact. “As the situation was getting from bad to worse, many of their Muslim friends went missing and others among Pandits left,” she says. “I feared about my children’s thought process and wanted to know and be a part of it.” More than a mother, she became their close friend.

As tales continue to unfold inside the ancestral home, the mother recalls the day when the local lads came asking her permission to play cricket with her sons. The request confused her — with ‘should I allow them or not’ thought doing rounds in her mind. She finally let her sons to play with them. “It worked,” she says. After that day, her sons took every move only after consulting their friendly mother. Equally reassuring thing was their Muslim neighbours’ unabated support.

“I remember how locals treated my daughters as their own and gave priority to their security over their own daughters’,” she says. “Some even came to my home, saying, ‘we want to take your daughters’ responsibility like our own.’ Only a true Kashmiri can say this. I am proud to have such neighbours around me.” Even her sons mince no words while talking about the local support.

“Our childhood was peaceful despite the ongoing conflict,” an elder one says. “But we remained cautious, and moulded ourselves according to the situation. Local support was always there — especially at decisive moments.”

One such decisive moment came on 25 January 1998. That day, the 23 KPs living in the town of Ganderbal were killed. Among the victims included four children, nine women and 10 men. Then, Farooq Abdullah’s government swiftly blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba militants for perpetrating what became the Wandhama Massacre.

Zutshis say the massacre drove out the remaining Pandits from the Valley. “We were in Jammu at that time,” continues the elder Zutshi brother. “Our sister was getting married. The news devastated us. We broke down and had no idea what to do. It was then the local Muslims called and assured us safety—like they did in the early nineties.” Among the other things, the locals assured the family that they would take their responsibility, for everything. “They really did it.”

Joining her brother, the youngest daughter of the family makes a point. “We share a bond with the Muslim community here,” says the daughter, insisting that their story is a positive one and that everyone should see that positivity alone. “Our survival is a proof of that.” But the only thing troubling them was to find a perfect match. “Finding a right match at a right time was the most difficult thing for us,” she says. “We really struggled the most on that count.”

However, she maintains that her Muslim friends always made her happy and special. “I always had Muslim friends and never felt the need of a Pandit friend, because religion never plays a role in such emotional bonding,” she says, beaming a big smile.

Her only grouse with the government—“always using the Pandit issue to achieve their interests”—is based on the forgotten plight of the non-migrant pandits. “We took this bold step of staying back,” she says, “but the unfortunate thing is that the government never came to inquire about us. They always played politics and used the migrant issue for their interests.”

Except that gripe, the empowered pandit lady terms the Valley as the most secure place for Pandits, especially for women. “Even during violent times, we feel secure here than any other place,” she asserts.

And unlike migrant KPs, she says, they haven’t changed even a bit.

“Migrant KPs have least chances of return as their children are now modified versions of Kashmiri Pandits and Dogra culture,” she says. “Also they are almost a century ahead of us in terms of lifestyle and development. The present generation will never adjust here.”

Zutshi’s grandchildren playing with a balloon in a room explode it. My sudden bump reaction evokes laughter in the whole Zutshi family. “This is the difference between a Kashmiri Pandit who stayed and a migrant one,” the family head says, referring to the fear of loud bangs most people living in Kashmir have. “A Pandit who stayed will be bumped like you.”

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