Sanjay Tickoo remembers it well. It was a warm summer’s day in 1990, when he found a poster pasted to the outside wall of his home in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir. It was written in Urdu, which Sanjay could not read, so he took it to his grandfather and asked him to translate it.
“As he read it out to us, tears rolled down his cheeks … it basically instructed our family to leave the valley or die,” Tickoo tells me as we sit in a café at the foot of Jhelum River in Srinagar.
But, unlike the estimated 100,000 Hindus from the valley – known as Kashmiri Pandits – who embarked on a mass migration south to Jammu following the start of the insurgency against Indian rule in 1989, Tickoo’s family refused to leave.
Instead, Tickoo, who was in his early twenties at the time, decided to take the threat to the local newspaper, where he paid for it to be placed as an advertisement in the classifieds section.
“It was published on the back page. I wish I still had a copy, but they published it as is,” he recalls.
No sooner had it been published, than shocked Muslim neighbours and friends congregated at Tickoo’s home, apologising for the misdeed and promising that his family faced no threat. They urged him not to leave.
A question of numbers
The Hindu minority in Muslim majority Kashmir shrank from an estimated 140,000 in the late 1980s to 19,865 by 1998. Today, Tickoo says there are fewer than 3,400 Pandits in Kashmir. Others say the number is around 2,700.
But Tickoo, who now heads up the KPSS, an organisation that looks after the affairs of the Pandits who remain in Kashmir, says that the plight of the community is complex.
On the one hand, he says, the community did experience intimidation and violence, which culminated in four massacres in the past 20 years. But, on the other, he says, there was no genocide or mass murder as suggested by Pandit communities based outside Kashmir.
“Over the past 20 years, we estimate that 650 Pandits were killed in the valley,” Tickoo says, adding: “The figures of 3,000 to 4,000 killings [as suggested by some Pandit organisations] is propaganda, which we reject.”
“Not that 650 is a low number, because even one killing should be not ignored, but we must get the numbers right.”
While Tickoo’s organisation says that 399 Pandits were killed between 1999 and 2008, and 650 in total, this pales in comparison with those estimates that put the figure at 3,000, but exceeds the state’s suggestion that 219 were killed between 1990 and 2008.
But collating the numbers, or even unravelling the language of migration and exodus, is part of the historical ambiguity that surrounds the Pandits’ flight from the valley. And it has been made all the harder by the fact that Pandits outside Kashmir have dominated the narrative, while those inside have remained largely silent.
On the subject of how many Pandits fled Kashmir, Mridu Rai, a lecturer in Indian Studies at Trinity College, Dublin writes in Until My Freedom Has Come that the figure of 700,000 put forward by Panun Kashmir (Our own Kashmir), a group advocating a homeland for Kashmiri Pandits, “refers to a much larger collection of Pandits who had departed [from Kashmir] at different times over the centuries”.
Rai adds that the language used by Pandits who left the valley – ‘exodus’ or ‘in exile’ – serves as “an indictment of the Indian state for not protecting them within their homeland and then for neglecting them outside it”. These terms also, Rai contends, create a single narrative of victimhood, when, in fact, it is difficult to ascertain why individual Pandits left Kashmir.
While Tickoo dismisses claims that Pandits were ‘ethnically cleansed’, he says that relations between the two communities did sour when the insurgency began.
He says people left because they felt threatened.
“I am not saying that [Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims] were brothers in arms, living in each other’s homes or something before 1989. Yes, there was an unmistakable tolerance and respect for each other … violence was unheard of … but it would be a lie to say something did not change when the trouble started.”
From hateful slogans that blared from the loudspeakers of mosques to comments whispered on the streets, Tickoo says there was a sudden change in attitude towards Hindus. And these shifting sentiments were used by politicians on both sides, helping to stoke fear among the Hindu minority.
“Until today, we don’t know who posted that threat on my wall,” Tickoo says.
Surrounded in myth
Fifty-one-year-old Motilal Bhat, the president of the Pandit Hindu Welfare Society, formed in the mid-1990s to rebuild relations between Pandits and Muslims, says the early 1990s was a time when myth-making prevailed.
“[Those who left] thought they would be gone for three or four months, and that they would return when things improved … no one expected to stay there for years … Kashmir had always been a peaceful state,” explains the softly-spoken headmaster.
He rejects the figures presented by the KPSS and says most of the killings took place after the mass migration.
“I think the government’s figures are correct,” Bhat says. “I reject this figure of 650 [and] even the figure 399. This community was made up of small numbers by proportion and, yes, we had around 600,000 to 700,000 people, but maximum people left around 1990/1991 – and major killings took place after 1991.”
He says both communities displayed a great deal of chauvinism.
“There was a strange perception at the time which saw the KPs [Kashmiri Pandits] thinking that no matter what they would be protected by the Indian army, while the KMs [Kashmiri Muslims] thought that if anything happened to them, the entire Muslim world would come to their rescue.
“As we have now seen, both were shown to be wrong,” he adds matter-of-factly.
Bhat says that people soon realised – whatever their political persuasion or sympathies – that they were at the mercy of both the security forces and the separatists.
He contends that Kashmiri Muslims, who he says “regretted” the departure of the Pandits, were too slow to react.
“It was too late, and people had already left … they should have come forward to the minority. It is the moral duty of the majority to look after the minority and include them … if you are in a minority you face a psychological threat, a vulnerability.”
He says the Pandits who stayed behind were sometimes treated with distrust.
“The question on everyone’s mind at the time was: If all the Pandits have left, then why are you still here? [Consequently] both sides often saw us [Pandits] as informers. We suffered intimidation from both sides.”
It is a sentiment Suman Vikash Bhat, a 33-year-old assistant professor of Microbiology at Islamic University of Science and Technology, situated at the foothills of a range of mountains some 28km outside Srinagar, shares.
He says that during the 1990s, when militancy was at its peak, it was common for the army to take out their frustrations when soldiers were killed on the civilian population, irrespective of religion. As a community, Kashmiri Pandits were not spared the indiscriminate crackdowns and violence meted out to Kashmiri Muslims.
“They would often respond by beating civilians and there was a lot of these crackdowns where people would be gathered … for sure they would give us ordinary people a thrashing,” Suman Bhat says.
“They used to sometimes pick people up … both sides did so … but there were also good and bad people on both sides.”
Suman Bhat says he remembers the late 1980s and early 1990s vividly – the curfews, the crackdowns and, crucially, his Hindu relatives leaving.
“It was easy to feel insecure,” he reminisces, “the newspapers at the time were full of stories of violence and as we watched the militancy or terrorism or whatever you want to call it increasing, [teamed] with the fact that people were being killed, it was only natural [that] the community became insecure.”
But he says that his family’s relations with Kashmiri Muslims made them feel confident that they were not under threat. “My father is a renowned teacher and his Muslim friends urged him not to leave.”
When he moved to Pune in India to study in the late 1990s, however, he began to worry more about his family’s safety.
“We would hear about violence in Kashmir on the television or in the papers and often I could not sleep until I got hold of my parents and found out that they were okay,” he says.
Caught in the flood
So, why did some Pandits choose to stay?
Suman Bhat offers two reasons.
“We did not migrate because we were not financially well off and we thought that it would be difficult to survive in Jammu. My father had invested almost all his money in land and property here.
“The other reason is that my father’s Muslim friends refused to let him leave; we were told that ‘we will die, but we won’t allow you to go’.”
Even now that he is armed with a PhD from Bhaba Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, one of India’s premier science institutes, which could land him a top job in any city in the country, Bhat chooses to remain in the valley.
“I returned in 2010 to Kashmir to find that my father was ill; and I could have taken him to Mumbai for treatment, but he is a man of [the soil] and a man of principal. It would have been a punishment to take him away from Kashmir … he loves Kashmir a lot, and so do I, and even I do not want to get away from this place.”
But even those who remained behind have a story to tell, Motilal Bhat says.
“Everyone has a story to tell, everyone suffered … the violence came like a flood … and in a flood, everyone suffers.”
His sister was killed in one of the three notable massacres targeting the Pandit community. The first, in Sangrampora in 1997, resulted in the deaths of seven Pandits, then in 1998, 18 were killed in Wandhama, and in 2001, five people were killed in Anantnag, including Motilal Bhat’s younger sister.
One evening, unidentified gunmen – local parlance for killings no one takes responsibility for – came into his sister’s home in the southern district of Anantnag, ransacked the house and shot indiscriminately. A bullet hit his sister’s heart and “she died on the spot … three other Sikh girls were killed in the incident”.
He says the loss of his sister hurt him deeply and he cursed himself for staying in Kashmir. “But finally I thought it was destiny and we have to continue working for a better future.”
Return to Kashmir
Unlike Tickoo, Motilal Bhat and Suman Bhat, Poshkaranth Ganju, 65, from the Baramullah district in northern Kashmir, moved to Jammu in late 1990. He decided to leave after his brother was shot.
“[The] bullet brushed his neck and he survived but we left for Jammu, because of the chaos here …. We Pandits are a peace loving people and we thought it was best to preserve our life,” he says.
But Ganju’s family, who had run a textile business in Baramullah for three generations, found it difficult to adjust to Jammu’s climate or to maintain the same standard of living they had grown accustomed to in the valley.
So, along with 20 other families, they returned in 1996 – six years after leaving.
On their return, the family found their house burned down, but their shop and its contents untouched. They also discovered that their neighbours were willing to pay 1996 prices for moth eaten textiles that had been lying in their shop since they fled in 1990.
“We came back to conduct business, and the Muslim welcome convinced us that we were safe here … though there was a grenade attack outside the shop shortly after our return. We found out later that this was from a rival business competitor and had nothing to do with us being Pandits.”
Ganju says that back then there was little government support for those who wanted to return and that even the community in Jammu voiced opposition.
“Families in Jammu told us not to come, but we told them that our Muslim brothers had welcomed us to come and so we felt confident to return, and so we thought that if the business would run smoothly, we’d stay, else we would return [to Jammu],” he says, adding: “Most of the families in Jammu still imagined Kashmir as if it was still the lawlessness of 1990.”
But Tickoo says that Ganju’s story is a unique one because living in a temple complex in Baramullah offered the family state protection. “Pandits in the villages did not receive special security from the state, remember that,” he says.
Motilal Bhat says that in the early 1990s those who remained were vilified by those who had left – they “felt betrayed by the families who stayed behind” as if their continued presence in the valley undermined the experiences of those who had fled to difficult conditions in Jammu.
“Why people remained when [there was] so much pain and in spite of [the fact that] many left is a difficult question to answer,” Tickoo says with a faint smile.
“Some will tell you that they could not afford moving to start a new life, others will tell you they are of the soil, that this is their motherland and they refuse to leave, and perhaps others will say something else … but does this then mean that Kashmir meant anything less for those who left?” Tickoo asks rhetorically.
“Does it mean they feel no connection or their roots are not here? We are perhaps unable to answer why we are here … we are just here,” he concludes.
Motilal Bhat explains: “For those of us who remained … we thought we’d watch events play out and then take it on a week to week basis. But these became months and then years.”
But it was not easy, says Maharaj Krishan Pandita, who is in his sixties.
Two of the government telecommunications officer’s cousins were killed in the violence and his brother was shot (but survived) during the 1997 massacre in Sangrampora. He says he witnessed the direct intervention of the state through forced removals under the guise of a ‘security threat’.
“People were forced to move from their village and farmers who had to move suffered greatly after the massacre, but since I had a job in Srinagar and my family could move with me [there], it was manageable for us, but not for others.
“The one good thing I can commend the armed forces [for] was that in this case, they didn’t move people to Jammu, they just moved people to another locality in the same district … but we did lose everything.”
Monica Pandita, 22, one of Maharaj Pandita’s daughters, says she vaguely recalls the events of 1997, when her mother and sisters had to move from the village to Srinagar after the massacre in their district, but rarely thinks about it.
“All I remember is moving to my new school and nobody believing that I was a Pandit because my name is Monica,” she laughs.
“We [Pandits] are like a wonder here,” she says, conceding that she has no Pandit friends and adding “but it is not a problem for me”.
But her playfulness barely disguises a deep-seated concern that as the community shrinks, Kashmiri Pandits may soon have to face the fact that they are becoming increasingly alienated from those that left the valley.
Tickoo says that despite the cultural symmetry with Muslims in Kashmir, very little epitomises their position better than the difficulty of finding suitable marriage partners within the community.
Marriage is, of course, the Achilles’ heel of religious tolerance in South Asia. And Tickoo contends that with only 625 youth among the remaining Pandits, the issue is growing increasingly severe. He says there is still a stigma attached to the children of the Pandit community who have been raised under the turmoil of the past two decades.
And it is the women who bear the brunt of the burden.
“On one hand, they [Pandits from outside Kashmir] are afraid to send their daughters here, while on the other, they say things like our daughters’ chastity have been torn by Muslim men,” Tickoo says candidly.
“It is the kind of ostracization that serves no purpose … so you find more and more are marrying outside the Pandit community as a result,” he explains.
India, Pakistan or Azadi?
But stuck between majority Muslim sentiment and an indifferent Pandit community in exile, what would be the best scenario for the Pandit community in resolving the Kashmir conflict, I ask Motilal Bhat.
“I think the leaning is definitely towards India,” he tells me. “People want a better life, and joining India makes sense. A lot of this has always been about power and money, and people realise they cannot be isolated [forever].”
Motilal says Kashmir is changing.
“The youngsters who are outside, they are mixing with the world and undergoing a different process. But if they [the authorities] had to go for a census, people have since lost their inclination for Pakistan … and people will show the tendency towards India.”
Suman Bhat agrees. He says that despite their sense of comfort with their Muslim brethren, Pandits would feel insecure if they were separated from the Indian state. He adds that that insecurity might be unjustified because Islam is inclusive, but like all great ideas, practice can often differ from theory.
“Most of the Pandits would love that Kashmir would stay with India, as a state of India, because there is [still] some insecurity … you know living here, one realises that what Islam preaches and how people sometimes live, can be quite different.”
However he adds that religious insecurity is but one aspect and insists that there “are serious practical issues like economy, resources and political clout to consider”.
“If we are an independent Kashmir, will we be able to sustain ourselves? Do we have the infrastructure considering that industries aren’t developed here?”
Tickoo disagrees and says self-determination is at the top of his list of priorities.
“I am a staunch Indian and we have a big relation [with India] but my identity is because of Kashmir, my identity is because of Jhelum,” he says, gesturing at the murky green river behind us.
“My identity is not because of Jammu, USA, Rajasthan or Delhi … I’m proudly saying that I am a Kashmiri, and a Kashmiri Pandit,” he continues.
Tickoo says that if his political and social identity and rights could be guaranteed under majority rule, he would favour an independent Kashmir, but if he could only choose between India and Pakistan, he would most definitely choose India. It is a sentiment loosely corroborated by Monica, who despite harbouring thoughts of joining the Indian army, says that being able to decide their future is paramount for Kashmiris.
A separate Pandit state?
Motilal Bhat suggests that the decision to join India would be a practical one which has little to do with denying the distinctness of Kashmir. And, crucially, part of that heritage affirms that the idea of a separate homeland for Pandits is out of the question.
“You cannot differentiate a Pandit from a Muslim, culturally. Even in names of people, we often have [the] same names, [the] same sense of identity, style of living, and other things. And this is apart from India and the rest of the world. You can imagine that after a period of 22 years from migration, a Kashmiri Pandit living in Jammu is still totally different to a Jammu resident.
“You might have even heard it from a Kashmiri Muslim that their ancestors were Kashmiri Pandits. Any scholar would confirm that to you. They might have embraced Islam in whatever way they chose. How this happened is not the point – the point is that we belong to a single community … and we cannot live without each other.
“I’ve made it clear that it is not possible to live without Muslims. We depend on them and they depend on us,” he says.
Typically, Kashmiri Pandits claim to be linguistically and culturally distinct from Hindus from the rest of India, and though there has been a renewed move to return among those who left, there are questions about whether the young generation would be able to adapt to the unique environment of Kashmir. Poor infrastructure, periodical power cuts and curfews, in addition to high unemployment, lower salaries and a lack of private sector investment, keeps the valley decades behind the rest of India’s faster growing states.
“People are coming back. Every year thousands of Hindus from Jammu come over. Tourism is flourishing at this time [summer]. We depend on this tourism industry. Kashmiri pundits come over and even visit their old neighbours … they love being here. But for the young generation, who were born in Jammu, it’s hard to imagine them adjusting to this place. For the elderly people, who lived here and then migrated, I can tell you without any hesitation that they will love to come back,” Suman Bhat says.
“We have suffered a lot, Kashmir has suffered a lot, but even when I went to study in Pune all those years back, I had it in my mind that I would have to come back and settle down here,” he adds.
Motilal sums it up eloquently, urging the leadership to restart talks and put common people at the centre of the discussion.
“No one here enjoys the violence … the authorities, the government and leadership from all sides must realise that time never comes again and again,” he says. “They have to go for a political solution, they have to break the ice, they have to come forward, both they have to come forward for a solution in the interests of the common people.”