There was a time when Janak Rani decided all matters of her household. She decided the day’s schedule for the children, the menu for all and the hours the television would run. She even determined her husband’s regime, but outside of his Government job. She ran the house with such authority and efficiency-tending to husband, children, parents in law, hearth and kitchen that no one disputed her decision. Today she sits in the one 10x14 feet room which is home to her, her son, daughter-in-law and her one year old grand daughter, her eyes staring vacantly into space. Perhaps she is looking for the mountains that used to greet her each time she looked out of her once-upon-a-time home in the verdant Kashmir valley, in the midst of which she had grown up? Or perhaps she searches for the rows of cedars and deodars that had surrounded her house there? Perhaps. We will never know, for in the flat plains of Jammu, Janak Rani does not speak anymore.
‘It happened gradually, she lost her concentration, her power to think, to speak,’ explains her daughter-in-law Promilla apologetically. Perhaps she had willed it, I think to myself. Better the bliss of a blank mind than the yoke of memory. ‘She never felt well here,’ continued her son, Maharaj. ‘She missed the cool climate of Kashmir, her home, her husband. She lost all her privacy.’ Janaki Rani was all of 48 years when the family had to flee Kashmir, from their home in Delina in Baramullah district. It was in the year 1990, militancy had begun in the valley. ‘There was a sudden surge of Islamisation. Men I grew up with suddenly started wearing a beard, keeping aloof, frequenting the mosques,’ he recalls. Then when the assassination of prominent Kashmiri Hindus started, panic surged inside their home. ‘We stopped venturing out of our homes, except on work.’ The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front took out a full-page ad in the daily newspaper Al-Safa, calling for Hindus to leave the valley within 48 hours. Ultimately, the family’s resilience broke. ‘We had to flee, there were warnings over the loud-speakers in the mosques, asking us to convert or leave. But worst, they asked us, the men to leave without our womenfolk, who were to stay behind. We could not take that.’ The family of seven—Janak Rani, her husband, two sons and three daughters—made their way to safe Jammu. Along the way, Janak Rani’s husband died of a heart attack. The immediate place they came to was the Geeta Bhavan. From there they were directed here to Purkhu, where tents had been put up for the fleeing. And so Janak Rani, who had spent her entire life in the confines of first her father’s house and then her husband’s, suddenly found herself widowed, in unfamiliar surroundings, rubbing shoulders with dozens of strange men and their families. ‘The heat and the lack of privacy were the most agonizing things for her,’ continued Maharaj. ‘At her age it was difficult for her to adjust. And then the poverty she was suddenly hurled into.’ ‘It was the indignity of camp life that slowly killed her spirit,’ says Promilla. She speaks coaxingly to Janak Rani in Kashmiri, but a sudden giggle is the only response.
In that 10x15 feet confinement, caring and sharing surprisingly flourishes. There is no rancour in Promilla for the time and care she has to bestow on her mother in law. Yet she is in no less discomfort herself. Promilla grew up in the camp, she was just seven when her family moved here. She became used to walking more than 500 metres every time she needed to use the toilet. But things began changing once adolescence began. Her body began to change, ‘It became difficult to walk the distance everytime I wanted to use the toilet. Its demeaning to have to carry water with you, with people around. When menstruation begins, its such a discomfort, hide your pads and take them so that no one notices them.’ But worst was when she got married. There was no privacy, ‘We all live in a single room. You can imagine…,’ she breaks off. And when she fell pregnant, it was yet another ordeal. It was painful walking to the toilet every time. A communal toilet also brought infection to the stitches she had had after her caesarian delivery, just a little over a year ago. She still suffers from excruciating pain in her stomach and from the skin over it and bouts of itching in the long dry Jammu summers. She shudders when she thinks of her pregnancy days. She has one daughter, and when I ask her if she is planning another child, the answer is a vehement ‘No.’ ‘At least not till we are here.’ Which means Promilla might not have another child ever again. The tenement that is home is bigger than the usual 10x10 feet ones, which form the majority of houses in Purkhu and in other camps. The bigger ones were built after the 1998 massacre of Hindus in Wandhama. The earlier ones were smaller because the logic then was that the displaced would soon return home. These bigger hutments, though a wee bit more comfortable, testify to the dying hopes of returning home. Purkhu is one of the largest camps in Jammu today, housing about six thousand odd Kashmiri Hindus, displaced from the valley. Janak Rani’s home in Baramullah, meanwhile, has been occupied by others. Maharaj discovered this when he returned to his village once in 1997, to look up the house and gauge the situation. He lodged a complaint with the Baramullah District Commissioner but no action was taken, no response forthcoming.
Promilla’s neighbour Jyoti Dhar too grew up in the camp and got married a few months ago. It is obvious that she is in the first flush of marriage, but she and her husband have to share their room with her husband’s uncle, Kashinath. Kashinath was a bachelor and when his brother died, he had adopted his six children. They had lived in Lolabh, near Kupwara, close to the Line of Control (LOC). In 1990, their world turned upside down. The LOC was just seven kilometers from their home and their village one of the first to bear the brunt of the militancy that emanated from across the border. Three male Pundits from the village were killed. Even a Muslim panchayat member was killed. Kashinath’s Muslim neighbours told him flatly that they could not guarantee his family’s safety. The die was cast and Kashinath made his way here with his six adopted children, one of whom became Jyoti’s husband. Only one double bed fits in the room and Kashinath had insisted that the couple sleep there, he would use the mattress on the floor. But deference to old age and cultural propriety prevented the couple from using the bed. Instead they opted to sleep on the floor. Outside the room, a tiny area is shielded from view by a long piece of cloth held up by bamboo sticks – Jyoti’s private bath. But she has to walk almost a kilometer to use the toilet. ‘In the mornings there are often people already waiting, I have to come back and then go back again. In the afternoons its too hot, the place stinks..’
Dr. Shakti Bhan, a leading gynaecologist based in Delhi, visits the camps regularly holding free consultations and check-ups with the women. A Kashmiri Pundit herself she was a resident of Srinagar, but had to flee t o Delhi with her five years old daughter, in the cover of night when she was informed that her name had been included in the hit list pasted on one of the local mosque. After settling down in Delhi, she became actively involved in community work in these camps. ‘Life in the camps has led to falling fertility amongst women, reduced births, and also life-longevity. Women are afraid to give birth, because of the physical difficulties involved in the camps. There is great lack of privacy and after one baby, women simply say enough,’ she says.
There is also the financial angle. In Purkhu, as well as in the other camps I later visit, the refrain is ‘give us employment.’ Most couples shudder at the thought of having a second child. Poor nutrition, grueling heat, unhygienic sanitary conditions, environmental pollution, lack of privacy and economic uncertainty have caused high levels of trauma and stress amongst the camp inmates, as well as chronic ailments like high blood pressure and diabetes. Lack of jobs and employment also discourage men from marrying early and many marriages take place when both partners are well into their reproductive years. The number of working women are almost negligible, even though many like Promilla are educated, with B.A. degrees. Education, after all, has been the corner stone of the Kashmiri Pundit identity, and it is visible in the camps – in spite of the daily struggle for survival, all the children in the camps go to school. Nevertheless, there are no self-employment schemes, no self-help groups for the women.
These stories do not belong to Purkhu alone. When I visit the Battal Balian camp in Udhampur, some 75 kms away from Jammu, I hear the same story repeated by women like Sweetie Pandita, Veena Kaul, Meenakshi Pandita, all of whom have given birth in the camps, and live in 9x14 hutments.
But Battal Ballian’s tragedy is more multi-faceted. The area surrounding this camp was suddenly declared in 2000 to be an industrial zone by the government. And suddenly, in spite of the camp’s existence there since 1991, factories producing cement, bricks, plastic, sprang up all around, encircling it. With them came a deluge of respiratory, olfactory and skin diseases that engulfed the camp. Kunal, a 14 year old, explains what it is like living next to a cement factory. ‘The noise starts from early morning. We wake up to that, then when we go to fetch water (water is collected at specific outlets inside the camp) it is all white, full of sediments, from the effluents that the factory discharges. Within a couple of hours a white haze envelops the camp. The noise continues while we are at school, when we return home, when we take the afternoon siesta and in the evening when we sit down to do our homework’. Some of the dwelling quarters are a mere 33 feet away from the factories. It is 10 in the morning and the temperature here is already 41 degrees centigrade. There is no electricity – the camps face almost 10-12 hours of power cuts each day - and residents have little option but to keep windows open, which means little respite from the dust and the noise.
At a medical camp organised for the inmates last month, Dr. R.K. Khosa, a leading dermatologist of Jammu found ‘high incidence of skin psoriasis in these camp inmates in all age groups’ ‘mostly due to toxic environment spread by industries.’ Dr. Khosa also blamed the construction material used for the one room tenements for the skin affliction. The situation deteriorates during the hot, dry and dusty summers.
The camp administrators are fond of citing the words of Justice Ranganath, who had led a delegation of the National Human Rights Commission to Purkhu once. The delegation found life there to be ‘akin to animal existence.’ Yet Purkhu has a far safer environment than Battal Ballian. In spite of repeated requests by the camp residents and other Kashmiri Pundit organizations to move the camp to safer environmental surroundings, the Government maintains a defeaning silence.
‘We are the nowhere people,’ says Sanjay Moza, a young Kashmiri activist. ‘We represent Kashmir’s most authentic traditions, we are not a constructed identity, yet we have been forgotten by the nation.’ Indeed, the displaced Kashmiri Pundits are India’s forgotten minority – they have been relegated to the side-lines of the larger Kashmir issue. When insurgency began in Kashmir, amply aided by ISI funds and radical Islamic preaching, the Pundits were accused of treachery. Almost all of them were comfortable being with India. The valley, flush with funds, saw new mosques springing up overnight, men turning religious and hit lists of Kashmiri Hindus, pasted on the walls of the mosques. Microphones blared out threats to the Pundits to leave the valley. The slogans are etched into the minds of almost all the inmates I meet. ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Islamic rule) ‘Azadi ka matlab kya, La illahi ilallah’ (What is the meaning of Azadi, there is no god but Allah), ‘Pandits, leave the valley; with the men, but without your women.’ In camp after camp I hear praise for Mr. Jagmohan, the former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, charged by many in Kashmir, of having artificially engineering the mass exodus of the Pundits from Kashmir.
‘He is our saviour, if we are alive today, even in these inhuman conditions, it is because of him,’ I hear the inmates repeat. ‘How can our migration be engineered? Are we such fools, that we could not understand a hoax? What about those killings?’ Indeed, the spate of assassinations of prominent Pundits – lawyers, intellectuals, politicians, was what the insurgency can be said to have been kick-started; and that turned the tide in favour of migration. Many families sold off property at throw away prices overnight and fled. Others were ‘advised’ by their neighbours to ‘leave for your own safety’ but only after selling off homes and assets at rock-bottom prices. Many simply fled, without selling property, hoping to come back, some even without papers, for many among Kashmir’s displaced were simple, semi-literate villagers, others simply did not have the time for such formalities. The state government of Farooque Abdullah collapsed, the Union Government waited and watched and by the time troops were sent in, the exodus was irreversible. Any talk of Pundit repatriation to Kashmir has been followed by massacres of Hindus in the state, as recent as the one in Udhampur and Doda in April-May last year, in which 35 Hindus were killed.
The Pundits lack the numerical clout. They form no formidable vote bank. No government will be shaken, removed or formed by their votes. At the same time they belong to a community which is the majority in the country – and so, not to be paid attention to by civil society, lest the latter be termed ‘right wing’. Even organizations like the RSS and political parties like the BJP—that apparently exist to ‘protect Hindus’ have done precious little for them except to pay occasional lip-service. They are a minority only in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, yet all schemes and packages for minorities here are meant only for non-Hindu minorities, as per the national definition. And so these Kashmiri are left in a no-man’s land, neither a minority nor a majority. Dissatisfied with Government doles and handouts—11 kgs of rice per person per month, a kg of sugar per family per month, a meager allowance of Rs. 3000/- per family per month, and none if a member has a government job—they are simultaneously unable to refuse it.
An entire generation has grown up in the camps, and requirements increase. In Mishriwallah camp, most of the men I meet want nothing but jobs. Their dreams of returning to Kashmir, of living in privacy with basic human dignity have receded into the shadow of history. All they want is employment. The camp is the second largest of all the five camps in Jammu that house these displaced Kashmiris. About 2000 adult men below 60 years of age live here, but only 25 per cent of them are employed. Even the old women here have only one dream – that their sons get a job, Kashmir can wait. Yet, the state has no employment package for them, rehabilitation remains a distant dream.
In Mishriwallah, which ironically translates into ‘sweetness,’ I meet 72 years old Durga Devi, the mother of the camp administrator. She is the anti-thesis of Janak Rani. Full of memories, she has an outburst when I ask her if she remembers Kashmir. ‘I have seen two partitions. Oh you should have seen what I looked like before, well dressed, well fed, living in a normal house. I saw India being divided, my father was a police man in Lahore, and we fled back to Kashmir. And then again in my old age, destiny heaped this calamity on me.’ The tears keep pouring down her cheeks, she wipes them away impatiently. ‘What can I tell you, tell me what should I tell you? That I went on a pilgrimage to Haridwar and never returned to Kashmir again? That I left my home thinking I would be back in a few days’ time only never to see it again? Tell me what should I tell you? That I slept for days on a rice sack, in front of scores of strange men? That there was no food, no shelter, we had to beg people, officials to just stay alive? Tell me what should I tell you? That I am ashamed that you should see me like this?’ Emotions spent, she quietly continues, ‘I don’t know why you have come, but I, we all feel betrayed, betrayed by India. We thought of ourselves as Indians, that is why we were wanted out of our land. The same neighbours we had lived together with for years, turned their backs on us. No one came ahead to help us, I had gone for pilgrimage, with only a small suitcase for a few days. But the news coming from the valley was not good. Hindus were being killed by Muslim terrorists and I was asked to continue to stay in Hardwar where I had relatives, till things became better. But they never did, and instead, my husband and children also came away, leaving behind our house in 1991. And then we made our way here, where we heard the Government was helping us. We had to sleep on sacks the first few days. Then the tents were hoisted here and we were sent, many families in each tent, no space, no privacy. We put up with everything, thinking all this was temporary and soon things will be normal in Kashmir and we will return home.’ But days turned into months and months into years. The tents became concrete rooms and now Durga Devi is sure that she will die here. She stares at me uncomprehendingly when I tell her I had been in Srinagar just the day before.
It is not only the militants and the silence of her neighbours that have hurt her. ‘In almost seventeen years I have not seen a single leader or activist come to the camp, to see us, to enquire after us. Some local leaders come here during election time but last time they did we chased them away,’ she says with a look of satisfaction. She lets loose a shower of invectives on them, but reserves the choicest ones for the Nehru-Gandhi family and the present Congress leadership. ‘Sonia Gandhi is married into a Kashmiri family, but she has no time for us!’ No one has come here before, certainly no woman. No representative from the Planning Commission, no one from the National Women’s Commission and certainly none from the Child and Women Ministry. ‘Why have people forgotten us?’ she asks with a piercing simplicity. I don’t reply that most don’t even know about you. I don’t tell her that at the many conferences and seminars on human rights and communal harmony that I attend in the country, no mention is ever made of the Kashmir Pundits. They have simply disappeared from mainstream rights-based discourses. The nation has come to internalize that Kashmir means Muslims and Muslims only. There is hardly any feminist writing in India on the woes of the Kashmiri Hindu woman, languishing in the camps for more than a decade. Almost all the writing there is has come from within the community itself. Hounded out of their homeland, a few educated articulate voices have spoken out, but they were soon relegated to the shelves of unwanted, and so forgotten, history.
The state likes to call them ‘migrants’ – for obvious reasons. But these people are not migrants, they did not come here of their own free will, they did not come here for jobs, they came here out of fear. The classic United Nations definition of a refugee is someone who flees his/her country: ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’ Since these wretches of Kashmir have not crossed an international border, they amply qualify as ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs), a term the state has resisted till now. And the Kashmiri Pundits form the largest IDP community in India – all of 3,000,000 people, as per official statistics, though the actual numbers may be higher. Of them, at least 5000 families, with an average of 4-5 persons in each, live in these camps in Jammu. In contrast, only four thousand Pundits are now left in the Kashmir valley. In this seventeenth year of their exile, even as the world marks International Refugee Day on 20 June, they can at least be officially recognized as ‘IDPs’. But the state remains silent.
Yet, in the face of such apathy, from both government and civil society, these forgotten Kashmiris have managed to keep their dignity of spirit intact, something that both amazes and humbles. Not a family allows me to pass by without inviting me in for a meal. In the few that I step into, I am not allowed to leave without having a cup of tea, thickly laced with cream, and snacks. Each house is adorned with scores of different Hindu deities, this identity was after all the cause of their tragedy, and they are not willing to let go of it. Woman-man ratio is better in this displaced community than it is in much of India. Girls are given education at par with boys. There are no stories of eve teasing, of sexual harassment; a spirit of compassion, of gentleness, of suffering together bonds all the inmates.
Most surprising of all, however, is the fact that there is not a word of revenge, of retribution. Terrorism will never emanate from these camps, these are not people who will turn tragedy into militancy, who will seek solace in arms. They bury themselves in studies, not with lessons in making explosives. This perhaps is what causes the state to smugly ignore them, and civil society to forget them. And the Pundits are aware of it. But as one activist puts it: ‘We are Pundits, the word means ‘teachers’. Our legacy is in the knowledge we seek to gain and to disseminate. We abhor violence, and that is why we are here. Since ancient times we have been engaged in learning. The world may forget us for a season, but someday we will prove that the pen is mightier than the sword.’