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Kashmiri Pandits: A Forsaken Minority

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Another anniversary of the exodus that made the Kashmiri Pandits orphans of history stared at us on January 19. The Pandits, were uprooted from their home and hearth and cast about as refugees in their own homeland. The tragedy and tribulations that befell this unfortunate community for the last twenty two years include some of the most heart-rending stories. Theirs is a story of humanitarian disaster of unprecedented magnitude, but strangely, had gone unnoticed by the rest of the world and more importantly by their own countrymen here in India. As K.P.S. Gill, former police chief of Punjab who rid his state of separatist militancy put it, “[…] one of the reasons for the apathy [of the rest of the world] could be the non-violent nature of the community itself.” They have stoically suffered their fate without even a single retaliatory act of violence.
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Our intellectuals and media crib and caw about the settlements in West Bank and Gaza and the injustices done to Palestinians but not a whisper from them about the fate of the exiled Kashmiri Pandits. No group of prominent public figures petitioned on their behalf; no celebrity authors cried in their defence. They were once the elite of Kashmiri society. The community produced artistes and artisans, poets and musicians, doctors and lawyers of amazing wisdom. At the turn of the century there were about a million Kashmiri Hindus in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. At the time of independence the proportion of Hindus in Kashmir Valley was 15% of the population. By 1991 it came down to less than 1%.

The word “genocide” has been worn out in popular usage during the last decade. It has been so freely bandied about in public discourse that it lost its original meaning. If ever there was a context for it to be justifiably applied it was in the case of Kashmiri Pandits. ‘Genocide’ means, ‘the systematic and widespread extermination or attempted extermination of an entire national, racial, religious, or ethnic group’. This is what happened to the ethnic identity called the Kashmiri Pandits.

Between 1989 and 1995 about 400,000 Pandits were forced to flee the Kashmir valley. Of these 300,000 have been living in refugee camps outside Jammu and another 100,000 in Delhi. According to the ‘Panun Kashmir Movement’ (PKM) an organisation of the exiled Pandits some 25,000 standalone houses belonging to the Pandits were burnt during the period. If the houses were situated in crowded localities where it was not possible to burn them they were simply occupied by others. PKM says the process of ethnic cleansing began in 1967 but gained momentum after 1989 when Pakistan sponsored militants arrived on the scene. Destruction of Hindu temples was also a part of the deracination process. Thus between 1986 and 1992 (prior to December) 79 Hindu temples were destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the Rama Janmabhumi- Babri Masjid demolition in December 1992, 81 more temples were destroyed.

The 1989 exodus followed the brutal killing of Tika Lal Taploo a noted lawyer and national executive member of the BJP and Justice N.K.Ganju of the J&K High Court. In another incident Pandit Sarwanand Premi an 80-year old poet and his son were kidnapped, tortured and killed. A Kashmiri Pandit nurse working in the Soura Medical College Hospital was gang-raped and beaten to death. In the days that followed warnings were sounded to the community over public address systems, either to flee or face death. The Farooq Abdullah government abdicated its responsibility and all but handed over the administration to the militants. Government offices ceased functioning, taxes were neither paid nor collected and the militants began running a parallel judicial system.

Life in the refugee camps has been physically and psychologically shattering for the unfortunate Pandits and may be described as sub-human. An entire family of 7-8 people had to share a small room. There are instances when three generations of a family were put up in one room, the room being partitioned by bed sheets. The combined effects of the undercurrent of terror, forced migration and sub-human living conditions made the community prone to a host of new diseases and syndromes. These include heat trauma, heart ailments, amoebic dysentery, tuberculosis, allergies, diabetes and sexual and reproductive disorders. Menopausal age in women dropped from 50-55 to 40-45 to 35-40. There was a steep drop in birth rate while mortality rates climbed. In one of the camps surveyed, which had 350 families, there were only 5 births between 1990 and 1995 as against 200 deaths. This is not all. The community became increasingly prone to a series of mental disorders ranging from depression, insomnia, anorexia, anxiety states, delusions, panic disorders, manias, phobias and schizophrenia. Women were the most affected.

Even more tragic than the suffering is the treatment meted out to the Pandits by the rest of the Indian polity and the central government. They became orphans of history, abandoned by their compatriots and condemned to live a life of deprivation and suffering. Governments have come gone, both at the state and the centre but nothing changed, not even during the six year BJP rule. K.P.S. Gill former police chief of Punjab who cleansed the state of separatist militancy, says one of the reasons for the apathy could be the non-violent nature of the community itself. The have stoically suffered their fate without even a single retaliatory act of violence. Writing in the ‘South Asia Terrorism Portal’ (SATP) he said, “[p]ogroms of a far lesser magnitude in other parts of the world have attracted international attention, censure and action in support of the victim communities, but this is an insidious campaign that has passed virtually unnoticed, and on which the world remains silent.” (2004. The Kashmiri Pandits: An Ethnic Cleansing the World Forgot.)

In 2004, Frank Pallone, a US Democratic Congressman expressed his surprise and shock that the new Indian administration did not mention the Pandits in its Kashmir policy. In his letter of August 23 to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pallone urged him to “include the Pandits in any negotiations with Kashmiri constituents and in developing the future course of action in Jammu and Kashmir.” Manmohan Singh’s government sent a team of interlocutors to Kashmir last year but the Pandits did not seem to be on the radar of either the team or the government.

The Jews have a custom of greeting each other with ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ at the end of Yom Kippur and Passover feasts. They kept up the tradition for nearly two thousand years even though many of the exiled Jews never set their eyes on the city nor had a hope in the world of ever doing so. Will the Pandits of Kashmir have to wait for 2000 years for a semblance of justice to be meted out to them?

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