The morbid winter of 1989, marked by bloodshed, turmoil and the noise of guns, had ended and a new year had just begun. The Kashmiris were hoping that the long winter break would soon be over and children would be back in school, offices would reopen and life would slowly get back on track. That there would be no rushing out of the houses to fetch the essentials when curfew is relaxed; no more worrying about bomb blasts that resonated across the Valley; and, above all, there would be peace.
But 1990 was no different. The gunshots could still be heard and fear still loomed. The undercurrents that had been simmering all this while came to a boil on a cold January night. On 19 January, long after the lights had been dimmed, people were awakened by what was first mistaken to be the muezzinâs call.
âAll we could hear was deafening noise,â recalls Moti Lal Raina, a retired teacher. âThe mosques were being used to relay a message to the Kashmiri Pandits to prepare for the worst. There were slogans and songs about Islam, Pakistan and how Kashmir would be liberated. It was blood-chilling.â
That night charted a new course for the Pandit community. Over the next few months, they began fleeing their homes, taking with them whatever they could to keep them alive.
âIt became clear that we were not wanted here,â says Raina.
Sushil Pandit, a prominent face of the Kashmiri Pandit community, says the story of the PanditsâÂ exodus from the Valley is not just a unique case of a group getting exiled, harassed or tortured; it is about a community on the verge of extinction.
âHow do you make a community extinct? It is not just by killing. Though it started with killing because a few hundreds were killed in cold blood; they were non-combatants, they were unarmed; they never fought or provoked as individuals,â he says looking back. âThey were killed because they were part of an identity. That they were Hindus who refused to convert in the larger Muslim population of the same ethnicity. We shared the same ethnicity, but we didnât share the faith. So, they started killing us in a targeted manner.â
The gunmen targeted the âcommunityâs trophiesâ.
âThe retired judges, the senior-most bureaucrats, the most celebrated scholars, the artistsâŚ the toasts of our community were targeted in cold blood, publicly, in thoroughfares, with a warning that nobody should even give a drop of water or take them to hospital or even cover their dead bodies with a kerchief,â recalls Pandit. âThey were denied the basic dignity, that was the level of vengeance. And when this happened as a routine, day after day, week after week, then on the 19th (January) something snapped.â
Homelessness is not the only price the Kashmiri Pandit community has paid. Growing up in cosmopolitan cities, the younger generation has moved further away from their Kashmiri identity. From not being able to speak the language to changes in habits and customs, the community is struggling to survive.
âNow when all of them are out (of the Valley), they are scattered like small little smithereens in a gale and they have found some places to hide in Jammu and other towns and cities,â says Pandit. âTheir children are getting assimilated and an entire community is disappearing and evaporating. Another generation and there will be no sign, so itâs as good as a genocide.â
âI am half a Kashmiri than I wasÂ 25 years ago. My children are 10 percent and they have no reason to hold on to it. That is what underscores it as a tragedy.â
Twenty-five years later, do the Kashmiri Pandits see themselves returning to reclaim what is theirs? Raina, for one, is sceptical of the governmentâs rehabilitation plans. He has not been to Kashmir since the day he left the Valley with his family.
âI sold my ancestral house for a pittance; there is no going back,â he says with finality. âHonestly, I think it is all political nuances. There is no political will to settle this. It has been 25 years and all we have heard is the governmentâs promises.â
In November, soon after taking over, the BJP-led NDA government announced that it is considering a new package for the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits.
Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju informed Parliament that the Jammu and Kashmir Government has sent a proposal for revising the existing prime ministerâs package (announced in 2008) and has sought enhanced financial assistance for various components, including rebuilding houses, offering jobs to the migrant youths and assistance for acquiring land.
Also, a Rs 500 crore package for the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri migrants was announced amid applause by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley while presenting the 2014-15 Union Budget.