‘Forgotten’ Kashmiri Pandits resent a life of despair in refugee camps
The displaced community of Kashmiri Pandits continues to live in deplorable conditions as politicians use them as pawns against Kashmiri Muslims.
He cannot remember his exact age but says he was in his late 40s when the Kashmiri Pandits migrated from the Kashmir Valley. Since then he has been shifting homes, from a rented house in Bohri, Jammu to the Purkhoo camp and finally to Jagti camp. He has been living in this camp at Nagrota for the last six years.
Angled sunlight falls on his craggy face as he stares with squinting eyes. Sticking to his afternoon routine, he sits quietly on a chair outside his apartment building, watching passers-by and occasionally replying to his friend Namaskar with ‘Orzu te dorkhat’. To help with his partial deafness, a hearing aide hangs from the cartilage of his left ear.
The elderly man recently underwent major surgery on his head and has yet to overcome the trauma. “There are no medical facilities. I had a major surgery recently. God bless the Kashmiri Pandit doctor who visited the hospital and treated me. I wouldn’t have been alive. There are no medicines, nothing. We are old people, where will we go?” he says, with his gnarled left hand placed on his forehead. His words echo those of many Kashmiri Pandits, who, uprooted from their ancestral lands, have yet to find a place to call home.
At the onset of an armed insurgency in Kashmir in 1989-90, a large number of Kashmiri Pandits, along with several Sikh and Muslim families, left the valley, abandoning their properties. Out of 38,119 Kashmiri Pandit families, 24,202 fled to seek refuge in Jammu and other areas after over 200 members of the Pandit community were allegedly killed by militants, according to a report in The Hindu. Only 808 families, consisting of 3,445 people, continue to live in the valley.
Since then, the displaced Pandits have been living at various government-funded refugee camps, including Purkhoo, Muthi and Mishriwala. Between 2011 to 2012, the Pandits, along with migrant Muslim and Sikh families, were shifted to a large settlement known as Jagti. The camp, which is about 20 kilometers from Jammu city, opened in 2011 and now holds about 4,200 families. The government gives registered Kashmiri migrants get a monthly sustenance of Rs 2,500 per person, as well as 9 kg of rice, 2 kg of wheat flour and 1 kg of sugar.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court (SC) rejected a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking a fresh probe into the killing of Pandits in the valley, filed by the NGO Roots of Kashmir. The court said, “Twenty-seven years have gone by. Where will the evidence come from? Such a plea should have been moved a long time ago.” However, in a separate judgment, the SC decided to look into 186 anti-Sikh riot cases of 1984.
The absence of any closure has led to despair among the uprooted people. “The Government has done nothing for us. It is dead for us,” says a middle-aged woman sitting on a park bench in Jagti.
Poor living conditions
“We have become mad, we can’t live here anymore. If the situation doesn’t change, I am sure we will pick guns someday,” screams Kanya Lal Pandita, a man in his late 50s who has been living in Jagti for the past five years. He removes a curtain covering cracks and peeling paint. “Look at the wall,” he says. “It’s humiliating.
“There is an absolute lack of infrastructure for water. We are provided filtered water from the canal to drink but even that water is dirty. We need to boil it,” he adds.
Pandita has set up a small Ayurvedic medicine shop in the balcony of his house. He says the government had promised to allocate shops to all the shopkeepers when they were shifted from Muthi camp to Jagti but the promises were filled for only a select few. Pandita’s repeated queries to the relief commissioner and other high-level officials have gone unanswered.
There is only one government hospital in the camp where two doctors work. A radiologist and a specialist, who is also a Kashmiri Pandit, says when the camp was developed, the idea was to make a community center at the site, but the relief department constructed a hospital instead.
“Initially, migrant doctors were posted here, but now, they have retired. So now only 2-3 doctors from the health department, including myself, work here.
“They lack basic infrastructure. There is no X-ray machine. There are no specialists except me. There is a shortage of staff and resources,” the doctor says with hesitation, possibly fearing some repercussion.
“Medicines have also been an issue as the relief department provides them, not the health department. So there are no specific medicines, just generic ones,” the specialist says.
Lack of jobs and education
“I was 25 when the exodus happened. Now I am 52 and still vulnerable,” says BL Razdan. “There is only one government school and other schools are private. We can’t afford to send our children to private schools.” He laments that his son has turned into a ‘vagabond’.
“Since the beginning, governments have used Pandits to run their business,” says Razdan, rubbing his wrinkled forehead.
Unfulfilled promises underline their lives. The Union government had promised to create livable conditions for the Pandits until they are rehabilitated. The BJP, in its 2014 manifesto, said, “The return of the Kashmiri Pandits to the land of their ancestors with full dignity, security and assured livelihood will figure high on BJP’s agenda.”
“More than Congress, Kashmiri Pandits have relied upon BJP, but they did nothing for us. BJP has tried to stifle the foundation of the Kashmiri Pandits. They are in majority, they could have done everything,” said one man, on the condition of anonymity.
What about Kashmiri Pandits?
A group of four men plays cards outside a kiosk, discussing their misery.
“Have you seen how the government uses ‘What about Kashmiri Pandits’ during televised debates? That is all to counter the Kashmiri Muslim narrative. Otherwise, they don’t care about us. We are a minority; we are not even a vote bank. If you happen to put this out to any of them, tell them that we know how they have been using us for their own benefit. We are not fools,” says one. “We don’t want to talk about anything anymore, we are tired of repeating the same thing over and over again,” he says as the four resume their game.
“We don’t want Jammu, Kashmir or…” a middle-aged white-haired man in his 50s shouts. “Don’t take my picture, spare me. They will stop my relief.”