Exile

The Nowhere People

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Harassed on their return to Kashmir valley and shunted out of Jammu city, Pandit refugees say it’s a repeat of the 1990 nightmare for them

“Every day we leave behind something of our identity,” the woman says. “Yesterday, it was the freedom to sing the national anthem, today it is the freedom to wear bindi, tomorrow it could be our faith.” She breaks into sobs. Soon others around her are weeping too. They feel safer inside the camp; outside, the world has changed. It is no longer the Kashmir they once knew. “When we became refugees in 1990, our lives got confined to eight feet by eight feet rooms. More than twenty years later, we are still stuck,” says another. Her mobile rings. The ringtone is the Gayatri Mantra. She picks up her phone, looks at the number flashing on the screen and mumbles: “When I am out, I put my phone on vibration mode.”

In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the country’s longest cantilever bridge in Jammu’s Akhnoor region, on the banks of the river Chenab. Standing on this engineering marvel, he announced a Rs 1,618 crore package for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. In 1990, after militancy broke out in the Valley, about 300,000 Pandits had had to flee their homes to take refuge in Jammu and elsewhere. Hundreds of Pandits were butchered by Islamic extremists. Hundreds of others lost their lives in the first few years of exile due to sunstrokes and snake bites. Thousands of them languished in refugee camps—first in tents and then in ramshackle one-room brick structures. In 2008, no one quite understood why the Prime Minister had chosen Akhnoor of all places to announce the return of Pandits; Srinagar might have been an apt venue, or maybe one of the refugee settlements. Many said it was to create a wedge between 1990’s Pandit refugees and those who had fled what is now Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 1947 to take refuge in Akhnoor and other border areas. Clearly, his advisors had not advised the Prime Minister well.

As part of the PM’s package, 6,000 jobs were also announced for the Valley’s Pandit youth. Most of these jobs went abegging for fear of being targeted by militant and radical elements in Kashmir. However, 1,446 applicants, many of them women who badly needed jobs, took up the offer. They were accommodated in five settlements across the Valley. Most of the jobs were for teaching staff in various government schools. Hoping for the best, these candidates shifted to the Valley. And then came the reality shock.

The Pandit settlement in South Kashmir is in Vessu, near Qazigund, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. About 700 employees live here in cheap, one-bedroom, pre-fabricated structures. One such structure is shared by four employees. There is a tiny shared kitchen. There is no drinking water. Water comes erratically in tankers, and residents boil that water for drinking. Otherwise, they collect water from a burst water pipeline nearby. The tanker water is so filthy that a few water purifiers residents got have gone bust. The residents blocked the national highway recently in protest. Last December, after schools closed for the winter vacations, only a few non-teaching employees stayed back in the settlements. For the next three months, they had to melt snow (on kerosene stoves) for water. There was hardly any electricity.

But the lack of basic amenities at the camp is the least of their concerns. The real problem, they say, is the harassment they face from Muslim colleagues at their workplaces. “They treat us like pariahs,” says one female teacher. “My headmistress threw a notebook at me the other day and shouted: ‘You sixth-grade pass-outs have come now to lord over us!’ I wanted to tell her that I have a double Master’s and a BEd degree.” They won’t say it openly, but there is resentment in various sections of the majority community about the return package offered the Pandits. “When I ask for leave to go and visit my family in Jammu, my school in-charge does not respond at all,” says another Vessu camp resident. Many women have faced harassment while commuting to their workplace. “I have been pinched so many times on the bus. You are standing on the bus, holding the railing, when someone comes and keeps his hand over yours. Or someone shouts menacingly, ordering you to keep your dupatta over your head,” says another female resident. “Two of us were in the marketplace the other day when two men came from behind and said we were worth three lakh rupees,” recalls another. These troubles have led to serious health issues among many. At least two female employees had to be admitted to the Qazigund hospital after they complained of chest pain and their blood pressure shot up. “We are so depressed, I think most of us will leave these jobs,” says another resident. “Many women come to me in the middle of the night, saying they can’t sleep,” says a resident medical practitioner. “All of them are on medication for high BP.”

But quitting their jobs won’t be easy. Most of those who took up these jobs are in dire financial condition. “The only other source of income is the Rs 5,000 relief my family gets in Jammu. I have two children and this money is not even enough for their tuition fees. Now tell me, what do I do?” asks a resident.

Some have brought children with them. But over the years, many schools, particularly in rural areas, have switched over to a curriculum of which religion forms the core. “I put my son in the best school here, but they only teach Maths twice a week. There is too much focus on Islamic studies, on studying the Quran,” says a resident. A local woman politician, who came visiting, advised them not to bring their children along.

But at least inside the settlement they are relatively safe. One woman employee chose to stay outside in Pulwama with one of her former neighbours. Her father stayed with her as well. One late afternoon, while returning home, she was followed by four men in a car. “Come, we will drop you home,” said one of them. When she refused politely, one of them told her, “Look, I’ve not been able to sleep since the day I set my eyes on you. Let’s marry.” The woman left her job and has returned to Jammu.

Many Pandit employees say they do not even get their salaries on time. “I have not received my salary for two months,” says one. In Baramulla recently, after an Indian cricketer scored a century, stones were pelted at the Pandit settlement there.

Some time ago, the Centre-appointed interlocutor on J&K, Radha Kumar, visited one of the camps. The women employees met her privately to talk about their problems. She reportedly said she had taught at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi for long… “you have to learn to ignore these unpleasant incidents [of harassment].” Some of the affected women have now written to political leaders, including UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, requesting them to facilitate their transfer to Jammu. ‘There is a freedom deficit that all of us experience daily. We have been told indirectly that speaking out will only worsen the problem. We do not have adequate confidence in the local administration because we are not sure they will maintain strict confidentiality,’ the letter says.

In Sheikhpora, central Kashmir, some miscreants recently threw the carcass of a calf into the Pandit settlement. In August, the settlement received a threatening letter, purportedly sent by the Jaish-e-Mohammed, setting off a wave of fear. The police dismissed the letter as a prank. The settlement is home to 40 Pandit families, who fled various places around the Valley. Many who have returned recently under the PM’s job package also stay here. Though the building here is much better, safety issues remain. “I have asked [the residents] to take even small signals of trouble very seriously,” says Sanjay Tickoo, president of a Valley-based Pandit organisation. In many ways, these settlements are ghettoes. And the lives of many Pandit residents are restricted to the boundary walls. In Sheikhpora, a woman who has been living there for seven years says she has been out of her settlement only thrice—once to visit her relatives in Jammu and twice to visit the Kshir Bhawani shrine.

Dil chhum fatnas aamut (my heart is about to burst),” she says.

“This summer so many people died,” says Bhushan Lal Bhat. “In the afternoon, you are fanning yourself because there is no electricity, and suddenly you hear a wail from a neighbouring flat.”

They refer to Jagti Township as ‘Jagti Taavanship’ (hellhole). Situated 12 km from Jammu, about 4,000 Pandit families had shifted here in 2011 from four refugee settlements. They had been living in pathetic conditions, in asbestos-roof brick structures. The government promised them a much better life, they bit the bait.

Bhat remembers his first few days in the one-bedroom quarter allotted to him. It rained one day and the rainwater came rushing into his room from the balcony instead of draining out. Soon, the roof had started leaking as well. “I tried plugging my television set but the socket wouldn’t work. When I opened it, I found there was no wiring,” recalls Bhat.

The families also realised they had been cut off from the city. Many families who live here depend on the monthly relief of Rs 1,250 per head (not exceeding Rs 5,000 per family). When they were in Jammu, many men took up odd jobs on the side to supplement their income. But that is not possible living in Jagti. “If I spend half my salary on the commute, what will I bring home?” says one such, who has left his job in a shop. Also, many families had started small businesses, like a grocery shop, in the old refugee camps. That income is gone as well; there are no signs yet of the shops they were promised at Jagti. The worst affected are children who have to spend hours commuting to Jammu to attend school or for tuitions.

There is no sewage disposal in Jagti. No cremation ground either—the dead have to be taken to Jammu for cremation. There is no transport after 8 pm, and the road is so bad and deserted that womenfolk returning from the city have to often ask their male relatives to escort them. There has been no construction work for eight months at the site of a proposed hospital. It functions as a primary health centre. Used to free electricity at the old camps, the residents of Jagti have refused to pay for electricity. The township faces a daily power outage of 16 hours, sometimes more. There is no electricity from 10.30 pm to 7 am.

Dr Ajay Chrungoo, a community leader, says these Pandits did realise the folly of shifting to Jagti, but it was too late by then. “Immediately after shifting people to Jagti, the government dismantled the old camps. Had we protested, they would have asked us to shift back to tents,” he says.

The residents allege that a major chunk of the Rs 369 crore funds allotted for the township has been siphoned off. They say they have conducted tests on building material and found that the ratio of cement in the plaster is less than half the norm. The water proofing is a single-layer job instead of the standard three layers. Electrical appliances and sanitary fittings are substandard. Their allegations seem true, since within a year, the buildings have developed cracks and water has been seeping in from the exterior walls, on which green moss has grown now. “These buildings look like they were built 20 years ago,” says Bhat.

Open tried to get in touch with Hyderabad-based Rithwik Projects, the company that was given the contract to build the township. The website of the company has been ‘suspended’, according to a message on the site’s homepage. An email sent to its director, CS Bansal, bounced back. Repeated phone calls on the company’s phone numbers elicited no response.

The alleged misappropriation of funds is evident. The township’s water plant, built at a cost of Rs 18 crore, never got up and running. There is no water on most days. In peak summer, there has often been no water for weeks. The operation of the water plant was contracted to a private company, Sai Constructions, but they haven’t been able to run it. State PHE and irrigation minister Taj Mohiuddin recently admitted in the Assembly that the Jagti water plant had been a failure. In desperation, many families have dug their own bore wells, but the soak pits are two feet less than average height, as a result of which the water gets mixed with sewerage.

Relief Commissioner RK Pandita says the government is committed to the welfare of Pandits. “But they need to start paying their electricity bills. Already, we have a liability of Rs 104 crore as electricity charges,” he says. There have been murmurs that if some Pandit families in Jagti can install air-conditioners, there is no reason why they shouldn’t pay their electricity bills.

Bhushan Lal Bhat takes a deep puff on his Capstan cigarette. “You see that,” he points out to a picture of a shivling on his wall, “that used to be an old temple in my village Pahalgam; after the exodus, the militants blasted it.” “Tell me,” he continues, “if my child is preparing for his engineering or medical entrance, and for his comfort, I’ve installed a 0.8-ton AC, does that make me rich? I have to show my children that the world has not come to an end, that we will live and prosper again, and we will rebuild our temples. What will make [the government] happy? That we stand on the road and start begging for alms?”

Not everyone, though, can afford these small luxuries. Rajinder Kumar Pandita lives in Jagti with his wife and four daughters. In the previous refugee camp, he ran a small shop and worked as a typist in a court. When he came to Jagti, he had to give up both his job and the shop. He developed a kidney infection and his blood pressure shot up. He was advised not to do any hard work or venture out in the summer heat. A few years ago, he took a bank loan of Rs 50,000, which he repays in EMIs of Rs 1,300. What that leaves him with is Rs 3,700—he gets a relief dole of Rs 5,000—to feed a family of six. Each member lives on Rs 20 a day, which is lower even than the Planning Commission’s ridiculous definition of poverty. In September, to demand that the government increase the relief amount, Rajinder fasted for 11 days. He almost died before community leaders intervened. (The Omar Abdullah government has recommended that the relief amount be increased to Rs 10,000 per month but the Centre has yet to decide).

Pandita’s case is by no means an isolated one—many many families share his predicament. Santram Bhat is the sole bread-earner for his family. He has five daughters. He has a serious liver ailment and has to be away in Jammu for treatment. He has to run his household and pay for his treatment with a monthly income of Rs 5,000. Many are in heavy debt. Old men playing cards speak in hushed tones about a man who keeps his front door locked and slips out through his window late at night to escape the wrath of moneylenders. His business failed, they say.

“This is worse than the first exodus,” says Dr Chrungoo.

Meanwhile, RK Tikoo stands outside a newspaper office in the Valley’s Lal Chowk area, wondering whom to approach. Two of his agricultural plots (Khasra No 288 and 347) in Wadwan, Budgam, have been usurped by his Muslim tenants. The tehsildar has declared it an illegal occupation, but even after two weeks, senior revenue officials have refused to issue an order in his favour. “I’ve been on leave for 15 days and putting my life in danger visiting Budgam every day,” he says.

“I just need money to be able to send my son to engineering college.”