For the past 29 years, Rakesh Kumar Sharma has been witnessing the bit by bit collapse of the two-story house where his uncle’s family had lived for decades. Once with a stunning display of knick-knack shelves, colorful walls, and a traditional kitchen, the forsaken house is now reduced to skeletal remains.
Rakesh’s childhood memories are closely connected to the house. Whenever images of the life he had with his cousins struck his mind, he gets emotional.
“Gone are the rooms where we used to sit together and gossip. The bathroom, corridor, kitchen… everything has slowly faded,” he said while shaking his head in disappointment. “But the memories are still fresh in our minds.”
Rakesh, 38, lives in the Wanpoh area of Anantnag district in the southern part of Indian-administered Kashmir. His uncle’s house was located just a few steps away from his home. Before narrating his ordeal, he said, “What could be worse than seeing a house of your loved ones falling apart in front of your eyes.”
Conflict Over Kashmir
Following the armed insurgency that broke out in the late 1980s against Indian rule, tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, locally known as Pandits, migrated to Jammu and other Indian states.
The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir continues to be one of the longest-running unresolved disputes between two neighboring countries. Both nuclear states claim the region in full but only control parts.
When leaving the area, many Pandits left their houses behind. Most of the buildings in Kashmir were made of alternative bands of bricks and mud, with the standard sloped roof consisting of multiple layers of tin sheets or thatches giving them a typical Kashmiri architectural look.
On a cold morning in January 1990, when Rakesh was just 8, his 42-year-old father, Triloki Nath Sharma, was shocked when he found the house of his brother Kamal Krishan locked. Triloki went to look for his brother’s family at the nearby temple, but nobody from the family was there. He knocked on neighbors’ doors, but they hadn’t seen Kamal’s family either.
Rakesh’s father was later informed that his brother’s family had left for Jammu, the Hindu- dominated region and the winter capital of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Around 154,080 Pandits migrated from the valley in 1990, according to government data. However, many Pandit groups suggest the number was higher than that.
Most of the Hindus migrated between January and March 1990. Refusing to call it a mass migration, some Pandit groups say they were forced “into exile” in the 1990s. Now, they are living as “refugees” in their own country, they say.
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“I was aged 14 when we left our home,” said Ranjan Jyotshi, a migrant Pandit. “I took my school bag, sports kit, and racing cycle with me. We thought we would return after three months, but that never happened.” Ranjan said the killing of Hindu villager and lecturer Pushkar Nath in February 1990 sparked the migration from his village.
A report issued by the Jammu and Kashmir government reveals that as many as 219 people from Hindu communities were killed in the disputed region between 1989 and 2004. Some Pandit groups contradict the government’s claims. They say the figure is much higher. One of the groups, the KPSS, estimates that around 650 Pandits were killed since 1989.
Vikram Khar, an employee of the state revenue department, echoed Ranjan. “The same happened in our village. When one of our Hindu villagers was shot dead by gunmen, Pandits migrated to Jammu.”
“Except for Jammu,” Vikram added, “we had nowhere else to go. Even the government didn’t stop us from leaving Kashmir, neither had they made arrangements for us in Jammu. It was the most difficult phase of our lives.”
After finding a government job in Kashmir, Vikram returned in 2010. “I restored my own house. I am happily living with my wife here,” he said.
Staying in the Valley
Currently, around 2,500 Pandit families who decided to stay are living in different villages and towns across Kashmir. Triloki Nath’s family is one of them.
“I still remember,” said Rakesh, “how the situation abruptly turned uglier. Even my uncle didn’t get time to say goodbye to us when he migrated to Jammu. Pandits preferred to leave during the night time.”
“Before the 1990s, our village was home to more than 200 Pandit families. Now only we live here,” Rakesh continued. “My father was a teacher by profession. He decided to stay. There was a kind of fear in 1990 but over time, everything became normal. We never felt an urge to leave Kashmir. We are living happily with our Muslim neighbors.”
A year ago, Triloki Nath took his last breath. Muslims neighbors not only made arrangements for his cremation but also took part in his last rites.
When Pandits migrated from the valley in the 1990s, they left behind their properties including land, houses, and shops. When the situation thawed a bit, some Pandits returned to the valley only to sell their property to Muslims. Though, tens of thousands of abandoned Pandit houses still exist in the area. They are either in a dilapidated condition or completely crumbled.
Once sheltering the families of Kashmiri Hindus, these houses have now become too vulnerable to live in. The half-open windows and doors of some houses give a sense of someone living there, but they are completely shattered on the inside. Shelves, drawers, and ceilings are obliterated by dense cobwebs.
‘Deceived by Government’
In 2008, the government of India announced Prime Minister’s Return, Relief and Rehabilitation Scheme for the Pandits who want to return to the valley. As part of the package, around 3,000 migrant Pandits who returned in 2010 and 2012 have gotten state jobs.
These Pandits were rehabilitated in different “temporary” transit camps across the Indian-administered Kashmir.
Besides the job, interviewed Pandits say, they were also promised family accommodation, a continuation of cash relief for the first two years, scholarships, and separate schools for their children. They allege that, except for the jobs, the government did not follow through on any of the promises.
“The government has left us nowhere to go,” a Pandit employee, who returned in 2010, said on condition of anonymity. “They have failed to accommodate even 3,000 families.”
“Since 2010, we are living with 4 to 5 employees in a studio apartment. As there is not enough space in transit camps to accommodate our family, we left them in Jammu,” he said.
Pandits who returned under the rehabilitation scheme said they received a warm welcome from their Muslim neighbors.
In March 2019, neighbors from Muslim and Hindu communities joined hands and restored an 80-year-old temple in the volatile Pulwama district in South Kashmir.
The temple was restored to how it was in the past – dome-like rooftop, a bell hanging from the ceiling, and colorful walls surrounding the sacred Shiva Ling. Muslim neighbors not only supervised the work at the temple but also served tea to the laborers who were working at the site.
“Our valley is incomplete without our Pandit brothers,” said Ghulam Rasool, a resident of Pulwama district in South Kashmir. “It was unfortunate that they migrated from Kashmir. Muslims and Hindus were living happily for centuries here. Before 1990, it would have been difficult to distinguish between a Kashmiri Hindu and a Muslim. Someone cast his evil eye on our valley.”