Jammu, Nov. 28: Among The Telegraph’s reports on the first torrent of Pandits fleeing the Valley in 1989-90 was the story of a little girl and her grandmother.
They’d been ejected from their Habbakadal home in Srinagar and flung into the disarray of a campsite on Jammu’s outskirts. The girl played with sand in a pit, as she would do with snow; her grandmother hadn’t rid herself of a lifetime’s habit of carrying a kangri (firepot) around.
The Jammu weather didn’t warrant a firepot, so instead of embers she stored in it lozenges for her granddaughter and keys to a faraway house she’d never return to unlock. It’s likely the old lady is no more, the little girl would be a 30-something somewhere. It’s unlikely she’s home.
Kashmir’s Pandits flew frightened and far from the violent aazaadi eruption, like birds off a startled tree. In the 25 years since, they’ve gone everywhere but not back up the Banihal Pass, never to that native tree of theirs.
The horror of departure shivers Raka Khashu after all these years. “I was a schoolgirl and I heard our entire neighbourhood warning us of consequences, from the mosques, from the streets, it was horrific. And then they came home and shot my grandfather dead.”
Now a corporate executive, and likely a contemporary of that little girl in the Jammu sandpit, Raka says she will never be anything but “entirely Kashmiri” but will never return to Kashmir to live: “It makes my ears echo with the clamour of murder and gore.”
Each year away has become a jagged piece in the Pandits’ jagged mirror of emotions — loss, longing, failure, frustration, resentment, anger, a wistful bereftness.
It’s what rings off the broken missives scientist Samvit Kaul despatches from his Bangalore remove. “Habbakadal…the streets of my childhood, where there is no Prithvi Nath Tickoo (anymore) to guide you to the place where his son’s bloodstains would have disappeared in the footprints of those who walk that earth…”
Or in verse Sunayana Kachroo writes in her Boston home: “Meray hisse ka pighla hua sheen milay; meri mitti ko shaayad wohi zameen milay (My share of melted snow to my hand; and to my share of earth, perhaps that same land).”
But closer home, in the migrant trenches around Jammu, bitterness bites harder, and poetry won’t relieve the pain. “We have gone numb fighting, trying to make our case, but nobody listens,” says Ramesh Razdan, an émigré entrepreneur, “What must we do to get a hearing, take to arms?”
Every hopeless season of exile, Kashmir’s Pandits have upscaled the nomenclature of their circumstances, from migration to displacement to ethnic cleansing to holocaust. “Don’t say holocaust is too big a word,” argues community leader Virender Raina. “Holocaust is not about the number of dead alone. Holocaust is about other horrors done to you, holocaust is about the loss of language and memory, holocaust is about losing our place in the world, our entire ancestry and heritage. What are the future generations of Pandits to have? The vacuum of what used to be?”
In Jagti, a sore of a migrant ghetto located conveniently away from Jammu, plain civic muddle is a cloying reminder to civilisational loss. To call Jagti a township, as they do, is a stretch; crumbled hovel is what it is, a rash of low-income housing boxed together beside the Tawi riverbed.
For days, often weeks, there is no power. They have little access to clean water, schools or health care. They live marooned, dozens to each pigeonhole, in the putrid discharge oozing from open drains, amid foraging pigs and pie-dogs.
Jagti is an unassuaged carbuncle spewing pus. “We are the actors of a forgotten tragedy,” Avtar Krishna, a retired schoolteacher, leaps out from a gaggle of gathered colonists to rail. “But mind you, someone will pay a price for this, a very heavy price. They are paying it already, without us there, Kashmir has already become a full-blown anti-national imposition on India.”
Bhushan Bhatt, a policeman, joins in. “And look at where this nation has thrown those who held its flag high, in such a hell. And for all the difficulties of living here, we are not a municipal problem, we don’t need relief and financial packages, we need our land back.”
Their rage is not less for home being just the other side of the hill from where they stand, a bus-ride, a hop away by flight. But it is not a journey that can be made.
Home remains a close-by place impossibly beyond reach. And all too often it provokes a scimitar flash of exasperation that demands drastic redressal: “If the Valley can be vacated of Pandits, why can the Valley not be vacated for Pandits? We are a people, we belong to a land of ours and we are no longer ready to share it or live under subjugation.” Desperate remedy for desperate straits, but it’s what Dr Ajay Chrangoo, physician and activist, wants — a knife run through geography to carve out a “Hindu habitat” in the Muslim-dominated Valley.
It’s an idea that has assumed form and become manifest in Pandit consciousness: Panun Kashmir, Our Kashmir, not merely the notion of it, but the tactile shape of a map that takes up nearly all the Kashmir Valley, from Baramulla in the north to Banihal in the south.
It seems a fair thing to do to sit the authors of Panun Kashmir down and have them explain how that map will morph from paper dream to reality on ground.
To Ashwini Chrangoo, leader of one faction of the eponymous movement, the resolution is simple enough. “Maps are redrawn,” he argues, “That’s no big thing, it has happened in Europe in this century, it has happened in India that smaller states have been created.”
But the landmass he wants as his own is not an empty place, it has towns, villages, neighbourhoods, it has hundreds of thousands of people that Chrangoo is not prepared to share space with. “All I want is my land back to myself, a land rid of anti-national traitors,” he retorts coldly. “How that is achieved is merely procedural. If we can be displaced, why not others? I assure you it can be done, that is what our fight is for.”
He won’t quite use the words, but even the deaf would discern Chrangoo is suggesting a counter cleansing, a messy epitaph to Kashmiriyat.