The Kashmiri Pandit’s Dilemma: To come back or not?

‘2016 made us feel that the 90s migration was the right decision. Coming back due to a government job was a mistake’.

Ganderbal: During the recently concluded Mela Kheer Bhawani, a religious festival of Kashmir Pandits (Hindus), amid thin attendance this year, the youngsters of the community were asking themselves a very pertinent question.

Did we do the right thing by coming back?

Inside the temple compound, in Ganderbal district, where the festival takes place, a group of young Pandits were sitting under a Chinar tree. The expression gave a hint that they wanted to strike a conversation.

These group of Pandits have ‘come back’ and are staying within the Kheer Bhawani premises from the last 5 to 6 years. Besides the men, were sitting their wives. Almost all of them have a ‘secure’ government job. A few among the wives are also government servants.

Due to the less rush this year, the conversation started with the obvious question. “Why is there such a less turnout of Pandits this year?” Almost everyone, at the same time replied, “Even we were discussing the same thing.”

“We used to have at least 15-20 guests on this occasion every year, but this year we don’t have many. Sabzar’s encounter, the Hizb commander, prior to this fest and the missing case of Sameer Bhat, the constable, had created fear among the pandits outside. So that may be a reason that they are not coming to the temple this year.”

The women of the group say they are not so happy and excited about the fest this year, because they are missing their family, relatives and friends who used to make it to Kheer Bhawani every year.

“This year we are sitting idle on this bench, otherwise we used to be busy in attending to our guests, performing the rituals together and enjoying every moment so that we could cherish it till next fest,” says Arti (name changed) a Kashmiri Pandit, who lives with her husband inside the premises.

There are around 30 families that live in the residential accommodation of Kheer Bhawani. The members of these families are working in different government offices of the state.  Although these young couples are putting up here and living a peaceful life, they have their apprehensions.

Sunil Raina, a teacher, in his late twenties lives with his wife says that he doesn’t feel ‘free’ after committing the ‘biggest mistake’ of his life.

“I feel coming here for a government job and leaving a good job in Delhi was the biggest mistake I have made. Although I am living in my homeland but I don’t feel free.”

Sunil tries to explain that he believes that the situation in the valley is not only effecting him or his family but the entire society as a whole. “Muslims in my area go through the same fear as I do. Even they are doubtful about the situation and their future. They also don’t know whether they will return safely home because the situation is so unpredictable,” believes Raina.

The appointment in Government jobs did bring them back home, however, they feel that the development ‘split’ their families.

“We are six family members and we are now split into four houses. My parents live in Jammu. My sister lives in Chandigarh and I live here,” Raina said. “This is something that has created differences between the families. I am no longer attached to my brother and I don’t even know what’s going in his life. This is the amount of damage that it has done to us.”

FPK Photo/Vikar Syed

Within this young group sat Isha Raina who is in 4th standard. She has been living here from the last 6 years. She goes to a nearby school named Vijay Memorial Public School, run by another Kashmiri Pandit.

Isha is fascinated by the beauty of Kashmir. She has three good friends and all of them are Muslims. Isha shares a deep emotional bond with them but this is not all that she wants.

“Life here is not safe and secure, in terms of conflict. But for women, I feel, this is a real heaven as compared to what is happening in other parts of the world,” Isha said. However, she adds, “I go to school and when I come back I find boys in the locality pelting stones. This instills fear in me and the regular closure of schools also makes my studies suffer.”

Isha wants to grow up quickly, become a doctor and leave the valley.

“I want to grow up quickly and pass my 10th standard exams because I don’t want to settle here permanently. I want to move out, explore every possible limit. Settling down here is not in my priority list.”

The frequent internet and network ban is also what is troubling Isha. At times, it gets frustrating.

“I feel as if I am being forced to live in the 90’s era and it takes me away from my near and dear ones. I can’t access internet which helps me in my studies and keeps me connected to my cousins outside. I feel frustrated at times.” With a sad face Isha said that she is missing her cousins because this year they will not be joining her in the fest due to the recent situation in the valley.

FPK Photo/Vikar Syed

Another young woman, wishing anonymity, asks that why should they settle down here as the government only uses them for ‘political games’. “I had applied for a post under the 2008 package for Pandits and till now I don’t know what has happened to it. We are only there for propaganda and vested interests of politicians.”

These families witnessed the 2016 uprising after the killing of Hizb commander Burhan Wani. They feel that the incident has further pushed the idea of resettlement in Kashmir into the abyss.

Though, they were living under a thick blanket of security, a sense of alienation, fear and insecurity also crept in.

Sajan, also a government employee, who lives with his wife and a kid, said that the Kheer Bhawani premise became their world during the uprising. “Life became restricted to the temple premises. We were not able to move outside and the forces also asked us to be inside due to security reasons,” recalls Sajan.

He remembers the time when a neighbour was expecting a baby and they couldn’t find an ambulance.

“Our next door neighbour was expecting a baby and we were not able to find out a way to take her to the hospital. The ambulance was attacked outside the temple and a few miscreants were shouting, “bathe mah che andreh” (Is there a pandit inside).”

Sajan adds that if there is a face of Kashmir which scares them there is another which gives them hope to stay back, as of now.

“The locals here are very supportive and loving. They are always there to help us and they used to warn us. The local shopkeepers used to tell us to not roam around late when they would hear stone pelting would take place in 2016,” Sajan said.

“They even used to tell us whatever you need, we will bring it inside the premises of the temple. There is no need to come out during clashes or late at night,” Sajan recalls. As Sajan was reciprocating to the love and support of the locals, the whole bunch proclaimed that it was the same love and support which is holding them back.

“No one can be more loving and caring than Kashmiri Muslims. This is what is helping us in staying back.”

Kuldeep Pandit, who is a migrant, came from Jammu along with his family, to attend the occasion of MEla Kheer Bhawani inside the temple compound at Tulmul Ganderbal. (FPK Photo/Vikar Syed)

Amid the conversation, one of them said that 90s migration was the right thing to do and the 2016 uprising made them realize that. All others nodded in agreement. “The 2016 uprising made us feel that the mass migration of Pandits in 1990’s was the right decision,” said one from bunch, requesting anonymity.

“The frequent shutdowns froze our life. We felt that it’s a place (Kashmir) where nothing is safe and secure,” they pointed out. Like Muslims, they too want a resolution before the conflict affects the next generation.

“Conflict has done a lot of damage here. Its high time that a solution should come out before it take a toll on the next generation,” they added.

Apart from the apprehensions due to the political instability, what these ‘resettled’ Pandits miss is the love and mentor-ship of their elders. The missing elders have reduced them to nuclear families which has become another motivation to go back.

“We live here as nuclear families. That is not how we are. We miss our elders, their love, and their mentor-ship. If we have to live like this then we think living here might not permanent,” they asserted.

Archana Pandit, who lives in Mumbai, was just 3 months old when the migration happened. Every year she comes for the Kheer Bhavani festival. Pandit feels that it’s the only connection she has with the valley now and settling down here is a ‘complex’ thing.

“I feel more connected to people here and enjoy my moments but coming back and settling down here is more of a complex thing. Coming back means starting from zero which is a challenging thing and seems to be a distant dream in today’s unstable political scenario,” Pandit believes.

The Miya family make it a point to bring their two teenage daughters, Simran and Khushi to the valley every year so that they can remain in touch with their roots. Despite the fears this year, they were among the few who made it to the Kheer Bhawani festival.

“We make it a point that every year we bring our children to their homeland. Our Muslim friends also wait for us on this fest and they give us so much love and care that now our children insist that we come every year,” said the couple.

Simran and Khushi are in love with Kashmir. They want too like to stay in the valley, but like others the teenage sisters are yet to take a call on their permanent settlement in their homeland.

The closure of schools, internet ban and unstable political situation is what hinders their thought of coming back.

“We want to come back and live here but we often get goosebumps after watching the news. The political situation is what stops us from coming back. Also, education remains a big issue as schools are shut every now and then,” the Miya sisters say.

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