‘We’re Here Because We’re Nowhere’: Kashmir’s ‘Other’ Pandits

Sanjay Tickoo and other non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits during fast-unto-death protest in Kashmir. Photos by Hibah Bhat

It’s been ten days since non-migrant pandits are sitting on “fast-unto-death for survival” in Old Srinagar without getting any official assurances. If the situation arises, they warn, they would go out on streets to fight for their rights.

By Hibah Bhat

INSIDE the meditatively-calm courtyard of heavily-guarded 300-year-old Ganpatyar temple in Habba Kadal, Bharti Kumari is lost in thoughts. In the backdrop of serene Jhelum riverbank dotted with heritage marvels, she has been vainly calling out the attention of administration for last ten days.

But even as her tribe pleads—“our children sometimes sleep hungry too”—they continue to feel ditched and discarded.

“We’re here because we’re nowhere,” Kumari says in an anguished voice.

The 33-year-old Kashmiri Pandit woman is one among dozens of non-migrant Kashmir pandits supporting an indefinite hunger strike launched by Sanjay Tickoo, President of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarash Samiti (KPSS) on September 20.

The strike aims at demanding 500 government jobs which were promised to the community of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits during a High Court ruling in 2016 under PM Package for return and rehabilitation in 2009.

In late eighties, Kashmir witnessed a homegrown insurgency against the Indian rule followed by instances of target killings of minority communities which eventually led to a mass migration on January 19, 1990, in which most of the KashmirI pandits left the valley, taking with them whatever belongings they could find.

Those who did not leave the valley, decided to stay back. However, the community continues to pay a price for staying like those paying for leaving.

Living in suffocation

Kumari’s family was among those who refused to leave their home. Although she doesn’t regret it, nothing in life fell back into place since then.

“We’ve been suffering ever since,” complains Kumari, who was hardly 3-year-old when her community left the valley in droves.

As she grew up, she missed the experience of living a “normal-life” without the fear of getting killed or attacked.

“During our school days the common sight would be crackdowns, stone-pelting and what not,” she recalls.

At home, Kumari would make all the efforts to focus on her studies but that too would go in vain because the air would always be filled with smoke, cries and sound of gun-shots.

But more than that, what has been haunting her is the lack of financial upliftment and better opportunities for the people in her community.

“I’ve played 6 Nationals and I wanted to continue playing but there was no way I could,” says Kumari in disillusionment, who failed to continue her B.ed due to financial shortfall.

Like Kumari, many others from her community are having a hard time to meet basic requirements.

“I know a family which has no proper or regular source of earning,” says 26-year-old Vasundhara, another pandit woman, sitting in support of the strike.

She’s herself living on the edge with hardly any means to support her family.

“I had finally bagged a job before the pandemic, but even that is gone now,” says Vasundhara, who lost her job as a teacher due to the cost cuts and employee layoffs phenomenon that emerge amidst the Covid-19 lockdown, multiplying the problems of especially those in the private sector.

She lives in a two-storey house that had almost submerged under the floods in 2014, which she think can fall with a slightest earthquake. And there’s no way she can renovate it.

“We’ve suffered both financially and mentally here and no one cares,” sighs Vashundhara who feels that the “golden time” of their lives is already wasted and what’s just another day for the government are moments of grief and distress for the pandits living in the valley.

Official Lip service

“Recently, Lieutenant Governor announced something that is already there and nothing new,” continues Kumari who compares the announcement as putting a candy in a baby’s mouth.

On September 23, LG Manoj Sinha approved the re-allocation of 1997 number of unfilled supernumerary posts for recruitment of registered Kashmiri migrants and non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, who are willing to serve and settle down in Valley under the Prime Minister’s Package.

But as per the people part of the hunger strike, the problem lies not in the criteria, rather in the implementation of the orders and the schemes.

“I don’t understand why there’s a delay in providing us jobs despite the clearances from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the high court order,” asks Kumari.

The delay, she says, is only making many people from her community ineligible for the jobs which follow a certain age criteria.

Vasundhara and Kumari both argue that there’s conscious negligence towards their cause, which is to secure the rights of the non-migrants Kashmiri pandits, from certain departments, authorities and the government of past and present.

“If we were to specifically blame someone, it would be the Disaster Management Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (DMRR&R) Department for not taking any action,” says Vasundhra while referring the possibility of the further deterioration in the health of Sanjay Tickoo, who is leading the hunger strike at the moment.

 Abrogation Myth

On August 5, last year, the BJP-led central government scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in a bid to further integrate the former state with the Indian union.

Although the decision created quite a stir in the valley, many people outside Kashmir, especially migrant pandits, welcomed it thinking it would become a gateway for them to go back home.

“If they aren’t able to do anything for those who’re already here, how will they rehabilitate those coming from outside?” asks Vasundhra in a fierce tone.

It’s a myth that Article 370 is a win for Hindutva or a pandit community, Sanjay Tickoo says.

“So far, the community has not been able to see any positive changes out of it [abrogation] for their upliftment.”

 “Ready to come out on roads”

Already, it has been ten days since Kumari and Vasundhara along with others from her community are sitting inside the courtyard of the temple in support of the hunger strike. But so far, they’ve not got any reaction from the government.

However, they refuse to be the inheritors of the grief and misery of their ancestors.

But the frontman Tickoo hardly has any hopes.

“If someone had to do something, they would not have delayed,” he says.

However, the women in the courtyard assert that they would not let go of their rights and would go out on streets if the situation arises.

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