Even three decades later, Ashima Kaul has vivid memories of the horrific time in January 1990 when her relatives fled their homes in Srinagar and came to live with her parents in the Jammu region. “There was a lot of anger and a sense of injustice,” said the 55-year-old member of the Kashmir Pandit community. “But now, there is a level playing field and everyone will be able to tell their stories rather than one dominant narrative.”

In the late 1980s, as insurgency activities grew in a Muslim-majority Kashmir, thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were forced to leave their homes in the Valley as they feared for their safety. According to a report by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2010, around 219 Kashmiri Pandits have been killed by militants since 1989.

Having lived away from their homes for nearly 30 years, Kashmiri Pandits who Scroll.in spoke to welcomed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government’s resolutions on August 5 to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and bifurcate the state into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

“But we are yet to see how this unfolds,” said Kaul, who now lives in Kashmir and runs an organisation that aims to build peace among the territory’s various communities through dialogue. “There needs to be more work done to make it more inclusive, end violence and reduce heavy military presence,” she said.

‘Positive move’

While some Kashmiri Pandits stayed back in the Valley, many moved out to settle across India. For them, the government’s decision was very welcome.

Amal Magazine, a Faridabad-based entrepreneur, said that this decision was “long due”. “It is definitely a positive move,” he said. “We always carry a sense of loss.”

Magazine, 37, was born in Srinagar and lived there till his family left the Valley in January 1990. “Our house got burnt down,” he said. “I still remember that my father put in all his savings to renovate the house in 1988.” Magazine and his family lived with relatives in Delhi, Chandigarh and Punjab in 1990 before settling down in Faridabad in 1991.

Gurugram-based Meenakshi Bhan, 52, said she was “very happy” but felt that the government’s decision did not change much for her. But it would result in another change, she said: “Now the locals will not be able to boss over any of us.”

Bhan, a homemaker who was born and brought up in Jammu, claimed that Kashmiri Muslims earlier thought that “nobody could touch them” because of the special status. “But now if we go there, we will go back with a sense of pride,” she said.

Bhan’s family also left the state in 1990. “We just carried a few clothes in a taxi,” she said. “It was not liveable and there was a threat to our lives.”

Even though members of the Kashmiri Pandit community occupied influential positions in the bureaucracy and the professions, some members claimed that they had always been marginalised in the state.

“Kashmiri Muslims were indoctrinated against us right from the beginning,” said Manoj Bhat, 52, who lives in Indonesia. “It was deep rooted. And people like the Abdullahs [National Conference leaders Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah] allowed it to continue.”

Bhat, a businessman, was born and brought up in Srinagar. He went to Surat in 1985 to pursue higher education and recollected how he was unable to contact his parents in January 1990.

Three weeks later, he was told by neighbours that his parents had moved to Jammu overnight. “My parents, my sisters and aunt just crammed their belongings into the car and drove at midnight,” he said.

Kashmiri Pandit at a demonstration in New Delhi in January 2000. The demonstrators demanded the creation of a separate state in Kashmir for Kashmiri Hindus, many of whom fled the troubled region following a surge in Islamic fundamentalism. Credit: Ravi Raveendran/AFP

‘Like a tourist’

After the exodus in the 1990s, the Central and state government tried to help Kashmiri Pandits who fled Kashmir build new lives. In 2008, the United Progressive Alliance-led Central government offered them assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh for each family and employment opportunities.

In 2014, the BJP government earmarked an amount of Rs 500 crore for the same purpose. Three years later, then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced the construction of 6,000 transit homes for Kashmiri Pandits.

But home felt like a distant memory even for those Kashmiri Pandits who visited years later.

In the last 30 years, Bhan visited the state twice with her family. But her experiences left a bitter aftertaste.

“When we went there we were asked if we came from India,” she said. “What kind of a question is that? I was very hurt. Kashmir is in India.” Bhan said that during her visit she also saw graffiti on walls with slogans like “Indians go back!” “I feel that Kashmiri Muslims have been brainwashed,” she said.

The last time Magazine visited the state was in 2017. “Every time I go back I feel like a tourist in my home,” he said. “I pay as much and I stay in a hotel.” But for him as a Kashmiri Pandit, the government’s new decision does not change much.

“We could already buy land there,” Magazine said. “The amenities in Kashmir are much better than any other Indian city. But from a broader perspective, Article 370 was hindering the integration of Kashmiris with Indians.”

‘Change in mindset’

Now that the government has taken this step, many Kashmiri Pandits believe it should do more than merely focus on economic development in the state. Speaking about the task at hand, many of them echoed former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s slogan: “Kashmiriyat, jamhooriyat, insaaniyat” – which speaks of the state’s syncretic culture, democracy and humanity.

“They need to build a community among people there,” said Ashish Zutshi, 45. The Faridabad-based business developer felt that the government needed to “get innovative and involve civil society” to make Kashmiris feel more secure.

Zutshi’s family fled Srinagar in April 1990 and he lost some relatives in the exodus. “This change is just on paper,” he said. “Why is there such heavy military presence in Kashmir? This means the government itself is not sure about what will happen. People are just excited because of a nationalistic cause.”

Similarly, Delhi-based Rahul Mahnoori, 45, said that there was need for the government to think about Kashmir’s syncretic culture. “Money and investment is not the only thing that needs to be focused on,” he said. “We need to remove the jihadi mindset of people and bring back Sufism in Kashmir. There has to be a plan for this.”

Kaul also agreed that the government had much to do “reduce insecurity and increase confidence” of the people of Kashmir. “We cannot be generic about Kashmiri Muslims,” she said. “There were many of them who helped us and rejected the dominant narrative. We need to uphold humanity otherwise how are we any different?”