An old man, moving unsteadily with the support of his daughter-in-law was returning home after a post-lunch walk in Tahab village of Pulwama district, Kashmir. Before entering the house, he turns left to bow before the temple perched across the creek. Few minutes later, a man wearing a green skull cap, sporting a long beard, checks if the gate is locked and shouts from across, “Jenab, darwaz tchu bandh, kunzi aasiye Raina sahab nish” (Jenab, temple gate is locked, keys might be with Raina sahab). After listening to Yonus, Maharaj Koul, another local, ditches the plan of visiting the temple. This is the normal day-to-day life of Tahab village, where Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims live together.
Ajay Raina has come to Tahab to visit his wife and her family. His wife is a government school teacher. “Every year I visit Kashmir to meet my wife and her family. We never faced any threat. I have visited almost every country and I still maintain that Kashmir is a paradise,” says Ajay Raina. “Yes, the youth is joining militancy but media has played a huge role in maligning the image of Kashmir. Last year, a youth who joined militant ranks was really close to us. He used to visit us every day and drink tea with us. After joining militancy, he phoned his father once and asked him to pay his regards to us. There are many things wrong in Kashmir right now, but it is not in the way media is showing it,” added Raina.
Kashmiri Pandits living in Pulwama maintain that they were scared when insurgency broke out in 1990s. However, unlike their neighbour Pandits who set out for mass migration, they refused to leave. “We wanted to leave the valley in the 90s when insurgency broke out. We faced threat to our lives. But then our houses were here, our jobs were here. We couldn’t imagine leaving our houses behind. And now, when Kashmir is boiling and everyone outside Kashmir is scared, we are not facing any threats. The 90s was a different time. Right now, we are safe with the majority community,” says Dilip Bhat, a Junior Engineer.
Makhan Lal Zutshi has spent his childhood, youth and post- married life in the Valley. He is in his 70s and is the head of the village in Tahab. “We never left the Valley, my job was here, I was born here. How could we leave our motherland? Everyone respects me here, people know me,” says Makhan Lal while adding that his Muslims neighbours have always been kind to him.
However, many Kashmiri Pandits do fear the repercussions, for speaking, from Kashmiri Pandits living outside Kashmir. “Please don’t mention our names. We want to live a peaceful life. Many Kashmiri Pandits living in exile are hell bent to divide us by portraying Kashmiri Muslims as atrocious. I am telling you today, and I will maintain this for years after, Kashmiri Muslims are the best people. They were here with us when nobody was,” said a man in his 40’s flanked by his wife and old mother.
In another village of Pulwama, Sirnoo, an old lady in her 60s is playing with her grandson who studies in class 3rd. “I refused to leave Kashmir in the 90s. Kashmiri Muslims are dying every day. Why aren’t they leaving the Valley? Kashmiri Pandits could have stayed if they wanted to. Every month, 2-3 boys from our district join militancy. The situation is getting worse and there is an external threat to everyone and not just Kashmiri Pandits. Internally, we don’t face any threat. Our neighbours love us and we feel safe with them,” said the old lady.
“I won’t leave Kashmir, as Delhi is polluted and now I don’t even fear the army,” shouts a young Pandit boy who studies in 3rd standard. “Initially, he used to fear the army but now he is used to their presence,” says his mother, on the condition of anonymity.
Amidst the battle between hope and despair, the fight for dignity and many unresolved questions, it seems there is some hope for peace.