A visit to Pandit migrant camps in Jammu 2002- A personal account.

Gowhar Fazili

After the first reconciliation workshop involving Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims it was decided that a team of Muslim participants would visit migrant camps in Jammu in continuation of the process that had just begun to unfold by the end of the workshop. We realized that enormous amount of courage on part of the participants led them to share their personal and collective grief and suffering. We witnessed that honest sharing can transform people and must be respected and valued. To further explore the spirit of oneness in suffering and to take it beyond the confines of the meeting venue, a visit by some Kashmiri Muslim participants was to be the next step.

Accordingly, my friend and I were deputed to visit Jammu in the month of September and we visited homes of Pandit participants residing in and outside the camps and also met with some other members of the community. The experience generated so many emotions and thoughts that it will take a lifetime to unpack them but I will try to share some of the observations that can be made.

When I told some of my friends in Srinagar about the plan, they asked why I should be visiting Pandit camps while the suffering is far too greater here in Kashmir and no one is bothered. There are too many widows, orphans, bereaved and people who have lost their homes and property in the ongoing turmoil in the valley, while Pandits in Jammu are better off by far. Some said that Pandits are a pampered lot. Both the central and the state government pamper Pandits and they are living better lives in the safety of camps in Jammu than any of us here. They also said that everybody from the humanitarian organizations to politicians visit Jammu camps as a priority while we (Kashmiri Muslims) are merely seen as terrorists who deserve what they are undergoing because we are supposedly the source of all trouble.

Nevertheless we went ahead with our plan, if only to know if the stories that take rounds in Srinagar are true and to what extent. How do Pandits themselves feel about their migration from Kashmir valley, which has been their home for ages? Are they living away from their homeland by choice? What were the circumstances, which compelled them to leave? Was it merely state policy to whisk Pandits to safety, as many believe in Srinagar or was their enough fear in the atmosphere to have made a community of a such small size feel vulnerable and unsafe? What is it really like for a Kashmiri, used to living in spacious house to live in a camp? What is the condition of the camps … and so many questions that could be answered only through experience and first hand interaction.

Since we arrived in Jammu on the eve of a festival, we did not think it prudent to land up in the camps right away. We stayed in a hotel and from there called some people we had met in the reconciliation workshop and fixed to visit their places on the next day. But even before we set out for our visits we received an early morning delegation of Pandits associated with the Chamber of Commerce. They had heard about our work and were curious to know more. They appreciated the idea of faith based reconciliation and assured us their support especially in the section of people associated with trade and commerce. They also spoke of the efforts they had made earlier to maintain relationship between the members of the two communities but that they could not sustain it for too long. They also emphasized the need for a place in Jammu so that there could be sustained communication between the people of two communities.

From then on Anil (one of the participants in the workshop) played our host and guided us to residences of the members. He had already fixed our schedule for the day and we felt very relaxed to be guided in this manner. We began by visiting members who lived outside the camps. The houses we visited looked similar to the ones in Kashmir as though there were a deliberate effort to live back the life as it was in Kashmir. One of the houses even had an elaborately and exquisitely designed Chinar like gate. The residents explained that this keeps the memory of my homeland alive. We felt very much at home possibly because of our common culture and the foods that we were treated to. The conversations went on endlessly as they do in Kashmir. There was a special feeling like when we meet relatives separated from us for a long time. There was so much to catch up on. We could sense among our hosts a deep longing and love for the homeland. It didn’t need to be said it was clearly evident by the manner in which they had maintained continuity with their way of life in an alien land and the profusion artifacts that they had surrounded themselves with. We could also sense genuine gladness in their eyes to receive us in their homes and I guess a lot of healing must have taken place while we shared about our experiences and the situations we are faced with in either place.

The greatest fear that seemed to override the minds of most Kashmiri Pandits was not economic loss but the fear of losing community itself in the vast sea of humanity that is India… They so much want to remain Kashmiris and so easily find extension of their selves among the co- community of Kashmiri Muslims. At least with Kashmiri Muslims they can share the language, culture and the local idiom even though their religion is different. They can talk to us and share the inherited meanings while it is not possible with co-religionists from other parts of India. In Kashmir they also shared a relationship of mutual respect with other Kashmiris, while in a place like Jammu or Delhi no one recognizes them as a special community. They are merely outsiders who are encroaching on the local resources. But even now when we meet after thirteen years of separation, we seem to be familiar and know how to address each other and can share so much. In all our conversations the use of ‘we’ to signify all Kashmiris including Muslims and Pandits was frequent. We could still identify ourselves as a people apart from others.

From the homes we visited it was clear how much they must have had to struggle to settle themselves in a place like Jammu. It had taken years for some to finally resolve and make permanent houses in Jammu. For a long while they felt that their stay in Jammu was temporary, hoping to return very soon. Some said that they can still not relate to these houses as their own, and that whenever they dream of home they can only visualize their houses in Kashmir.

I realized the difference between migrating for better opportunities like many of us do and being forced by circumstances to migrate from home and having no place to return to. I realized that Pandit migration was a tragic event for Kashmiri community as a whole because they took with them so much that was us. It was especially tragic for the Pandits who feel so vulnerable as a community away from home.

From there Anil led us to the camps for the first time. Since most of the participants for our workshop had come from the Porkhu camp we went there to meet up with the people. I must confess that my idea of Pandit camps while in Srinagar was that these must be decent flats as befit the so-called ‘pampered’ community. To my shock the camp can be described no better than a slum. Pandit camps in Jammu are shanty barracks made of plywood or single brick walls. In the barracks each family has been allotted a room or if the family is really large two rooms at the most. The lanes between the barracks are narrow and lined by deep open drains. The residents have constructed toilets and small kitchens and walls around the space on their own. Once inside, we felt very hot. Three children who were sleeping in the room where shifted to one side to make room for the seven men who had visited the house. The immediate feeling that came to our mind was that this was no place to live for ten days and these people had managed to live here for more than thirteen years. Yet we were treated very hospitably, as we would be in Kashmir. Again we realized that Kashmiri culture was being lived with a vengeance even in terms of the food they continue to consume like Namkeen Chai and traditional Kashmiri bread (chochwor!) We met up with most of the members who had visited Kashmir. Some of the members in the camp had to give serious explanation for having participated in the workshop at Gulmarg and had been blamed of having made a compromise with Kashmiri Muslims. We had to assure them once again that there was no hidden agenda and that none of the known political organizations had anything to do with our work. We decided to visit the camp once again on the next day in order to hear from more people and also to share the idea of reconciliation with them.

To our surprise more people turned up for the meeting than we were prepared to face. We expected not more than fifteen to twenty people in the meeting. But the hall meant for marriages and other functions began to fill until we had more than hundred people many of whom did not understand why we were there. Some of the people were charged up due to the election campaigns and the offer made by the central government to give rupees seven-lakh assistance for Pandits who chose to return to the valley. One of the elderly persons emphasized that they did not want this package because they saw it more as an insult added to the injury. He said that the problem of Kashmiri Pandits was not about money, but about insecurity and how they can redeem the way of life that was lost. “Would they be able to return the security we felt in living among our own people and how would they ensure that now, with the changes that our people have undergone by living away from each other?”

It was clear that some of the people in the camp were mistaking us for the representatives of some political party or the central government. After hearing to some angry expressions some of our hosts thought that we must be asked why we have come to the camps in the first place. We began by explaining that we did not represent any official initiatives for rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits and that we have just come as concerned individuals who are not happy with the situation as it exists. “We have no offers to make because have nothing to offer except a patient hearing. In a sense we feel guilty for not having done enough to stop the migration when it took place and also for not having been in touch for the last thirteen years. It is partly to absolve ourselves of that guilt that we have come. We have also come to hear from your experiences and to observe how you people are living away from home and what you have to say.”

This brief introduction changed the tone of the meeting and then on almost all the members individually began to share their experiences. Some laid emphasis on the unique brotherhood that existed among Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits and how they longed for its return, while others expressed the pain of living for thirteen long years away from Kashmir. While the elderly were very vivid about their memories of Kashmir and their desire “to at least die in Kashmir”, the younger ones were bitter about the state of helplessness and feared whether their future would be safe if they were to choose to return. Some of the members related the number of times Kashmiri Pandits have had to migrate from Kashmir and how every time after the peace was restored they returned to their homeland. They also said that if they were to return this time, they would want the surity that they do not have to migrate yet again.

Some of the younger members were very bitter about the circumstances that led them to leave Kashmir and said that under no circumstances are they willing to forget how some of their people were tortured and killed. We tried to explain that to reconcile did not mean that one has to forget and we did not expect them to forget what they had experienced. Asking one to forget would amount to disrespecting their pain and suffering. We only feel that hate should not be the motive for our actions and that we must forgive without forgetting.

One of the members explained how the state was maintaining the camps in bad repair so as to win the sympathy of the foreigners and visitors to the camps as a means of propaganda to impress upon them their own version of the conflict in Kashmir. He explained that they felt like animals kept in a zoo, displayed whenever the need was felt. The state according to them could do better and at least afford to provide reasonable conditions of living for the migrants. The dilapidated condition of the camps was a deliberate state policy.

Almost all the people appreciated our effort and felt that it was in some ways different from all the other efforts that are being made for their return and rehabilitation. They also felt that our efforts were in the least sincere and thus need to be expanded. Many emphasized that the greater part of the work is required in Kashmir, as they being a minority do not pose a big problem. It is only when certain receptiveness is created among the majority community in Kashmir that the return of Pandits can be made possible.

There was a difference of opinion whether they should return to their own respective villages or a separate enclave should be created to rehabilitate them in the valley. For some the texture of the villages over the years had changed so drastically that it was no longer possible for them to feel safe in their old homes. So though the interaction between the members of the two communities should get restored, but for their safety they must be settled in an all Pandit habitation. Some felt that this arrangement would not be healthy, as it would not help restore old relationship and increase suspicion and segregation.

The meeting lasted well over five hours into the night and at last when most people had spoken we sought permission to leave. But the people would not let us go and took us back to their homes where more rounds of tea and informal conversation resumed. We had to leave finally because of an earlier commitment to dine with one of our Pandit hosts living outside the camp. The conversations at the dinners during our visit, which lasted well past midnight, were in my opinion, most fruitful. They operated in a language that can only be possible with the members of ones own community. There was endless joking and laughing!

To sum it all, I think what we encountered in Jammu was beyond our expectations, a tremendous and deep felt desire to restore the broken relationships and the way of life that has been lost. People are cautiously, willing to explore … because the stake is worth every bit of effort.

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About theparallelpost
The language of words is more heavenly than the language of tongues and lips. The Parallel Post is a forum to offer a space for people who dare to speak through their words. The intention is to create an environment to share in words what we perceive in our minds...

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