Three years ago, Raj Kumar Bhat’s mother died without realising her dream of returning to her homeland – Kashmir. Since then, Bhat has been living a life of regret. “Her wish was to breathe her last at her home, in her garden in Anantnag. I couldn’t fulfil her dream. I will take this pain along with me to my grave,” he says. It has been 30 years since Raj Kumar Bhat left behind his four-storey house and a walnut garden in Kashmir and migrated to Jammu. Since then, he has been living a life of misery, shifting from one refugee camp to another.
The first five years after migration, between 1990-94, Bhat lived at a refugee tent allotted by the government in Udhampur after which he, along with other refugees, was shifted to one-room tenement at Bata Baliya in Udhampur. Now, they stay in a two-room tenement at Purkhoo Camp, Jammu. The name plate on his door reads: Raj Kumar Bhat, Bariangan, Umanagar, Anantnag Kmr.
Bhat is not the only one. At the onset of armed insurgency in Kashmir in 1980-90, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits left their ancestral lands, abandoning their properties. Since then, Kashmiri Pandits have been living at various government-funded refugee camps. Every year, on January 19, Kashmiri Pandits revisit the harrowing episodes of their exodus with a hope that this time, perhaps this time, their return will be made possible.
NewsClick visited Purkhoo camp, which is on the outskirts of Jammu city and is home to 250 Kashmiri Pandit families. Majority of the families living at Purkhoo Camp are from Anantnag and were shifted from one-room tenements at Udhampur in 2008.
Every day, 67-year-old Biti Kandroo spends one hour with her grand-daughter to teach her Kashmiri. She believes that its her responsibility to pass on Kashmiri culture and language to the younger generation. “Today, she can understand everything we speak in Kashmiri, but is not yet fluent at speaking. She is just five years old.” Kandroo says that she gets perturbed looking at the way Kashmiri culture is vanishing.
“Modernisation has penetrated deeply among Kashmiri Pandits. The younger generation can’t speak Kashmiri and a few feel even ashamed. They don’t know much about the culture too. It makes me angry, but then its not their fault. If we would have been in Kashmir, things would have been different,” Kandroo laments.
Daya Krishen, another resident at the Purkhoo camp speaks only in Kashmiri and wears phiran every day—even when he has to go to a relative’s place. “That is my way of keeping our culture alive,” he admits.
‘Governments come and go’
Daya Krishen says it has been 30 years of various governments promising our return to Kashmir, but nothing has happened on the ground. “Governments come and go. The one who will actually facilitate our return is the only government we will be willing to trust,” Krishen says.
Kashmiri Pandits at Purkhoo camp complained about the government’s negligence towards their plight.
Kundroo has struck a deal with her neighbours. She and her husband will sleep at her neighbour’s apartment for the next two days, as she is hosting some guests. In return, she will cook Roganjosh for them.
“There is no space to accommodate guests. One more person and we are in crisis. So, we keep helping each other. Because the government only believes in lip service.”
Many others complained about lack of proper medical facilities, maintenance of the tenements among other issues.
“The last I remember, Manmohan Singh himself visited Jagti, Purkhoo and Muthi Camp; met the families and offered help,” Krishen says.
‘We want to return’
Krishen says that he will only go back if the government allots separate colony for Kashmiri Pandits where they can move freely. “Let’s be practical. Majority of Kashmiri Pandits are pro-India and the sentiment won’t change even after the return. We see how pro-India Muslims are threatened in Kashmir. Only way to ensure safety to us is by providing a separate colony if the government is actually willing to,” Krishen says.
Dolly Raina* (name changed) was in class V when she came to Jammu. She has not gone back since then. She says that the childhood memories are so grotesque that she is unable to let them go and visit Kashmir as a tourist. “If government assures me that we will be safe in Kashmir, I will pick up my bag right now and go back home. Yahan hum bilkul khush nahi aur wahan jaane se darte hai (We are not happy here, but are too scared to go back),” says Dolly.
Dolly’s husband questions, “I heard you talking about Kashmir. Have you come here to take us back to Kashmir? Do you know about my house in Anantnag? Should I pack my bags?”
Dolly says that her husband has developed a habit of talking to himself and asking irrelevant questions. “The shock and trauma have changed us. You will find many like him in this camp. A few have gone mad. I want us to return. May be he will get better once we return,” she says.
Also watch: Kashmiri Pandits: Question of Displacement and Return