The Kashmir question

Kashmiri Pandits remember January 19, 1990: ‘It is for your own good to leave’

Twenty-six years ago to the day that proved to be the turning point in the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley.

December 1989

The past two months have seen the terrorists in full charge since the governing machinery has made its customary move to the winter capital in Jammu along with the bureaucrats, politicians, legislators and ministers. The valley has fallen in the iron grip of mushrooming militant organisations.

Their diktats are flying from all directions and bringing about drastic changes in the social-cultural-administrative milieu of the valley. Cinema owners have been forced to close down, kiosks selling alcoholic drinks have been banned, clubs have shut down, beauty parlours and boutiques have disappeared. There is a breakdown of law and order. Every house, neighbourhood, village and town is agog with an eerie enthusiasm and expectation. Chants of tehreek rend the air: “Azadi has become the mantra, Islam the idea, Pakistan the utopia.”

There has been an increased number of bomb blasts as the abductions and killings of Pandits go on. By now more than thirty Kashmiri Pandits have been gunned down. There is an all-pervasive sense of fear and insecurity in the community. They are like frightened chicken in a cage in the butcher’s shop. The murderers kill with impunity. What remains of the administration in the valley is too defunct to take any action.

The Pandits endure the pogrom. The outside world remains silent. The Pandits have no options, and nowhere to turn to except the very people who have ordered their decimation. That is why, the other day the president of a prominent socio-cultural organisation of Pandits sent a candid public appeal to JKLF through an open letter invoking Kashmiriyat, the much-touted Kashmiri spirit of amity and tolerance: “We desire to live in peace and harmony with our Muslim brethren. We have nothing against your tehreek. Please spare my community and stop the killings.”

The reply came forthwith through a stinging note strung to the dead body of his deputy that had been thrown by the riverside during the night. It read, “We presume you got the answer, Mr President.” that has forced him to declare his community unsafe. He has asked Pandits to exercise their own judgment and discretion since the whole community is persona non grata in Kashmir and there is no one to protect the Pandits.

By and large, the State Government Muslim employees from the valley are not unsympathetic to the motivation behind terrorism or the means adopted by its perpetrators. In flagrant violation of service rules, some of them are aiding and abetting terrorism – working as moles, passing vital security, logistical and related information to the militants and their mentors. Others, including several policemen, have even enlisted as jihadi volunteers and crossed over to POK while still being on the payrolls of the government.

The regional print media, under the directive and dictates of the numerous militant outfits, have become a part of the propaganda machinery for feeding Jihad to the masses. Mosques and madrassas are in overdrive. The whole valley breathes of lawlessness and terror. People are being sucked into the black hole of Jihad, brainwashed into believing that “Azadi” is round the corner and those who oppose it will do so at their own peril.

Most right-thinking Muslims, euphemistically called moderates, find themselves helpless even as they do not like what is happening, for they foresee how it will engulf and imperil the fabric of Kashmiri society. By remaining quiet they acquiesce to the inevitability of terrorism and the means that are adopted to achieve its ends.

January 1990

In the preceding weeks, it has been impossible to keep up with the pace at which things have developed. We have been witness to endless processions of hysterical masses and their raging anti-India, pro-Azadi, pro-Pakistan slogans that slash the air. People go about with their index and middle fingers raised in a V signifying victory; green flags with crescents breezily wave atop mosques and houses. Everyone seems powerless against the cataclysmic forces of violence.

On the long, dark, wintry night of 19 January, when the whole world was asleep, thousands of loudspeakers hoisted on as many mosques through the length and breadth of the valley suddenly boomed “Azadi” slogans and war cries, exhorting the masses to come out of their homes and march to Srinagar to capture power in the valley. They were urged to cleanse the land of kafirs, to subdue the Pandit women and drive their men out of Kashmir!

This went on until midnight. The Muslims came out on the roads while the Pandits shrank back in terror, watching from behind their drawn blinds, trembling with fear from the shocking slogans that pierced their windows and walls. They were witness to the acme of religious frenzy, a flagrant exhibition of mass hysteria. They saw and heard the threats of genocide coming. The slogans were in question-answer pairs. Two slogans in particular were terrifying:

“What do we want?”

“Azadi”

“What do we want?”

“Pakistan. Without the Pandit men; with the Pandit women.”

In effect, the Pandits, who had been subject to selective abductions, torture and killing, were finally warned by the whole populace of Kashmir, not just the terrorist groups, to quit and leave their women behind.

Jagmohan, known as a tough administrator, was re-appointed as Governor in place of Krishna Rao the same day. The mass processions marching from different directions were stopped from reaching the historic Lal Chowk. Police were forced to shoot in order to disperse the rampaging hordes. As a result, there were civilian injuries and deaths.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, who had lost his grip on the state completely, found an easy excuse to abdicate and resign “in protest”. He had ordered the release of seventy terrorists from prisons during the previous six months. Governor’s rule has been imposed and the State Assembly kept in suspended animation.

The macabre happenings during the night of 19 January have proved to be the turning point in the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, as it has unleashed terrible forces against them, making it impossible for them to stay back in their homeland.

Poignant scenes have followed, of truckloads and busloads of Pandits in flight, some even barefoot with hardly any belongings – caravans of men, women and children running away from their homes and hearths. We hear frightening stories of escape after that fateful night—how each one of them planned their flight on a short notice as news filtered that there would be mass massacres of the Pandits in the valley.

The attitudes of the Muslim neighbours have transformed overnight into one of suspicion and hostility as if the Pandits manoeuvred the security forces into action against the mass hysteria.

Meanwhile, militants go about in streets and neighbourhoods, brandishing guns and promising “final victory” against “Indian occupational forces”. The Muslim masses are awed by their bravado, fearful of their power, hopeful of their success. They compose paeans to their valour and their capacity to deliver! Large processions of militants, with increasing participation from the common people, are the order of the day.

Srinagar rapidly transforms into a veritable cantonment. Military bunkers, fortified with sandbags, are in evidence at important squares and crossings. The long barrels of guns spike menacingly from the small openings in the security pickets. Bridges and public buildings, the special targets of the militants, are heavily guarded. It is a war-like atmosphere. A pall of fear hangs everywhere.

Our predominantly Hindu neighbourhood wears a deserted look except for packs of famished dogs scouring for food in the drains – poor dogs without masters, disowned and hungry! Padlocks stare at you from the closed doors of desolate Pandit houses, some of their signboards tarnished with black paint, the words “Bagode Pandit”, meaning runaway Pandits, painted on their doors.

Excerpted with permission from "It is for your own good to leave", Kundan Lal Chowdhury, in A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus And Exile of Kashmiri Pandits, edited by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma, Bloomsbury India.

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