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What I Saw When The Kashmiri Pandits Fled in 1990

March 25, 2022 09:54 IST
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Threats were often communicated to Pandit homes through notes tied to stones chucked through a window, or a notice pasted on a wall.
Those sometimes came from neighbours eyeing that Pandit family's property.
Those threats often worked in the atmosphere of terror during that awful season of vacuous exercise of State authority, recalls David Devadas, longtime Kashmir watcher and author of two books on the Valley.

IMAGE: Kashmiri Pandits arrive to watch The Kashmir Files at a cinema hall in Jammu, March 20, 2022. Photograph: ANI Photo

It was when I went to report on Kashmir in February 1990 that I understood the meaning of the phrase ek patta bhi nahi hila (not a leaf stirred).

I used to walk back to the hotel at dusk through an eerie silence, after my only meal of the day with a friend who lived in Srinagar's Press Enclave.

From his place, it was only a kilometre down Maulana Azad road to the Broadway Hotel, but nothing stirred as I passed empty colleges on my left, and ghostly-looking houses on my right. Even the highways used to be deserted.

The hotel had barely any staff left by then and, so, no food. My taxi driver insisted on leaving well before sunset, which was relatively early in winter. He also refused to go into the inner city. So I took autos whenever I went to Habba Kadal to meet Pandit leaders and others. They were generally panicked, very uneasy about what to do. Many had already left for Jammu since the previous month.

The killing of the popular and respected Doordarshan director Lassa Kaul had shaken the Pandits badly. Most of those who had been killed before that were specifically targeted for their roles as judge, lawyer, forces personnel, IB agent, or RSS activist. But Kaul's killing made it seem like open season on Pandits.

Absent State apparatus

That winter, the writ of the State was tenuous, except in the couple of kilometres from the cantonment to the radio station. It had taken hours for anyone to even pick up the body of Justice N K Ganjoo (on Hari Singh high street in the very centre of town) the previous year, or the body of the SHO of Maisuma when he was shot quite near his police station.

I wrote that the government was casting about blindly, as if in a fog. Only the redoubtable Ashok Patel, who had been posted as IG of the BSF in Kashmir that January, knew what he was doing. But he initially had little success -- and candidly told me of his unhappiness with the country's home minister.

Until my feature articles were published in the first week of March, much of the reporting on Kashmir had comprised of daily single-column headlines about 'x (number) killed, y injured'.

The result: The editor looked worriedly at the flowing print-out of my articles, and asked: 'Is it really that bad?'

And George Fernandes, who was appointed minister for Kashmir affairs later that March (thus curtailing the home minister's power somewhat) told me more than a decade later that 'Your articles told us in government how bad the situation was.'

Evidently, no one in the Cabinet, or among those who supported that government in Parliament, had emphasised it adequately.

One may note here that some of those in the V P Singh government, or who gave it key parliamentary support, have benefited politically since then from what happened to Pandits that shameful winter -- and from the generally unchecked environment, which afforded a fertile environment for militancy to mushroom.

From about a hundred trained terrorists in late 1989, the number ballooned to thousands by the summer of 1990.

Contrasting security arrangements

Cut to the second week of August 2019. Vast numbers of troops ensured that there were almost no protests against the Constitutional changes, except in a relatively new colony on what was once the Anchar lake. The government demonstrated that it can blanket the entire Valley in a security lockdown -- if it wants.

That deployment was a stark contrast to the vacuum of State authority in which the early insurgency (and proxy war) had a free run after it erupted ebulliently following the release of five militants in exchange for Rubaiya Sayeed, the home minister's daughter, in December 1989.

I have recorded in my book The Story of Kashmir that Rubaiya herself was amazed that she saw not a single security person, checkpoint, or barricade when she was brought back from Sangrama to Srinagar -- while fireworks and celebrations rang out all around. Her heart shrank, just as the majesty of the State had.

The Story of Kashmir, gives a blow-by-blow account of how the Centre insisted on the release of all the five militants demanded, after the state's chief secretary, Moosa Raza, had ably negotiated for the release of only Hamid Sheikh, the one they really wanted.

And those militants were released several hours before Rubaiya was, for the Centre also backtracked the state government's agreement on a simultaneous exchange.

The vacuous exercise of State authority ended when Ashok Patel was given a free hand by former R&AW chief Gary Saxena, who took over as governor in May 1990. Saxena worked quietly, smoothly, not consulting New Delhi for every move or tactic.

The exodus of Pandits (which I described as 'ethnic cleansing' in my book, published in 2007) took place mainly until the autumn of 1990. Pandits were killed mainly between February and August 1990.

Patel's BSF had picked up Yasin Malik, Hamid Sheikh, and a few other JKLF leaders on August 6.

Some analysts have incorrectly blamed the killing of Pandits on the more avowedly fundamentalist Hizb-ul Mujahideen -- to which Pakistan transferred its affections between January and March 1990 (through Syed Ali Shah Geelani). But it was done by the JKLF boys, mainly Farooq Dar, alias 'Bitta Karate' -- who the BSF nabbed on June 22, 1990.

Horrific killings 

Threats were often communicated to Pandit homes through notes tied to stones chucked through a window, or a notice pasted on a wall. Those sometimes came from neighbours eyeing that Pandit family's property. 

Those threats often worked in the atmosphere of terror during that awful season of vacuous exercise of State authority.

The announcement in March that those who worked in government (as very many Pandits did) would be paid their salaries in Jammu became a pull factor, adding to the terrifying push factors around their homes. 

The number of those killed was not large, but the heinous cruelty of some of the killings ran like a terrifying wave through people's minds and hearts.

One woman was sawn alive at a saw mill. A retired school teacher's body was found terribly mutilated. His son, and another Pandit boy, were dragged behind cars.

An MLA and some other Muslims were also targeted for horrifying torture and mutilation. Communists and union leaders fled to Jammu. Political workers, mainly of the National Conference, were targeted, forced to publicly resign from the party in the hope that that would save their lives.

Targeting of Pandits largely ceased after the summer of 1990 -- except occasionally, like a horrifying case in Habba Kadal in 1992 which I have documented in The Story of Kashmir.

But the targeting of National Conference and other mainstream political workers continued until 1994, mainly at the hands of Hizb, backed in many places by Jamaat-e-Islami cadres.

Some Pandits remained right through, and were absolutely aghast when 'Bitta' was released from jail in 2006, and established himself in the traditionally Pandit-dominated Habba Kadal area of Srinagar.

Political and covert manoeuvring continued relentless. In the process, tragically, the Kashmir Valley's society, culture, and religiosity (in both religious communities) has been radically reshaped.

The exodus was preventable, but reversing it isn't easy. For, younger members of families that migrated have put down roots elsewhere. Most of them have done well economically. Large numbers have married outside the community.

David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir (OUP, 2018).

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