Kashmiri Pandit Exodus 2022: ‘I don’t see myself going back to Valley again’

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At a park in an isolated township, around 15 km from Jammu city, Kashmiri Pandits called for a meeting. It comprised all the PM and non-PM job package employees who recently migrated from the Valley after the targeted killings. Employees belonging to the minority community, particularly Kashmiri Pandits placed in the Valley under the PM's employment package, have begun returning to their respective homes in Jammu after a series of targeted killings.

The Jagti township is a culmination of blocks and lanes where Kashmiri migrants reside after their exodus in the 1990s. Around 50 families have made a comeback to this township, which was specifically made for the migrant Pandits.

As hundreds of Pandits huddled up in one corner of the park to discuss the recent killings, one man from the crowd took the lead to pump up the crowd which looked lethargic and distracted.

“Only solution, relocation,” echoed amid other slogans as many more joined the meeting. One after another eminent faces took the lead to share their plights and then came Shweta Bhat, the only woman who spoke there. Shweta got a lot of media attention recently after she boldly raised the issue of targeted killings of the Pandits.

Born in Jammu, raised in an Army Cantt in Kashmir, and listening to the tales of miseries from her ancestors, Shweta couldn’t really live and experience Kashmir until her posting in Shopian in 2016.

“Being a Kashmiri Pandit is not easy but being a woman is all the more difficult. It is surely not a fight of gender but the fact cannot be excluded or looked away; women were, are and will always be a soft target,” iterated Shweta.

Identified and killed

In an interaction, Shweta and others narrated the dilapidated tales of how they have been targeted because of what they wear and how they can be easily identified as “Pandits” and “Hindus”. The bindi, the bangles, the sindoor and the earring we wear are what threaten us, said one woman from the crowd.

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“They also segregate us from others in the crowd, making it easy for us to be recognised as non-locals,” added another.

The women in the group shared how many times they have experienced being monitored by the locals on the way to their office. How intimidating it gets for women when they use public transport and the number of times they have been asked by men (locals) to cover their heads and not wear bindis.

“It is easier for men to wear full sleeves kurtas in order to hide their mouli (religious thread) around their wrist and grow a beard to escape from being targeted but how are we supposed to cut off from everything? Our culture, our attire and religious beliefs are all at stake everytime we leave the house.”

The women are often asked to remove bindis, bangles and their earring they wear in order to not get identified by militants. Some women shared experiences of how their mothers used to remove bindi, aath (a married KP woman's ornament), bangles, and other jewellery before stepping out.

For women from the Kashmiri Pandits community surviving in the Kashmir Valley almost mean giving up their identitities for safety. Image courtesy Samriddhi Sakunia

Shweta reiterated the incident from the first day of her joining and how she was compelled to keep her identity under the garb of a headscarf and full-sleeved Kurti.

“After the Burhan Wani incident, the situation in Valley was really out of hand and scary. I wore a full dress which covered my head and removed my bindi to hide my identity. I didn’t want to be killed just because I was a Pandit.”

Even families are not safe

Back in 2016, there were protests due to the Burhan episode. Although there were no killings back then, vehicles were vandalised and fear penetrated the minds of KPs. This time, with the targeted killings, it became difficult to survive, and even more difficult for the women to hold the family together alongside sitting in protests.

“I used to pick my daughter from school and go straight to the place where protests were happening. It became nearly impossible to do work as well as fight for my life and community,” said Shweta, who has a four-year-old daughter. Her daughter has severe health issues and needs thorough care and attention. Shweta cannot forget how difficult it turned out for her to manage to go to the protest and take care of her daughter but she continues to do so even after migrating to Jammu.

“You can’t believe what our kids are learning from us and this protest. The kind of slogans they recite among their friends is somewhere heartbreaking and also makes us happy. They are learning to fight but it is also a traumatic experience for them at such an early stage,” said Shweta.

“Kashmiri Pandit ka bakra nahi banega, mummy,” is what Shweta’s daughter often says.

Another woman on the condition of anonymity shared how her daughter took part in a recitation competition and while her turn came, she went up and shouted “We want Justice.”

Community cause and family taunt

When Shweta stood out in the crowd to address the women in the crowd, the first thing that came to her lips was how she gets taunted by her relatives and even close family members.

The women in the protest, as much as they are getting support, also get to hear taunts from their close ones. For women, it becomes an added responsibility: To look after their kids, go to the protest site, manage daily household chores and sometimes come across backlash from their own family members.

Tum badi leader bani phir rahi ho, kuch ho gaya to kya hoga sabka?” these were the words of the in-laws of one of the protesters. While the women vouch of all the support they are getting, some have some complaints to register.

‘Don’t think I can ever go back to Kashmir’

Even when given a chance, Shweta doesn’t think she can ever go back to Kashmir. Not because she doesn’t want to, but because she is left with no other choice but to start a new life in Jammu.

Shweta Bhat fears returning to Kashmir Valley will gravely increase threats to her life. Image courtesy Samriddhi Sakunia

“God forbid if I ever have to go back to the Valley, it will be like seeking my own death. I will have to walk down the same lane, same shop and the same job where people will know and recognise me for what all I have said on television and they will obviously not like it,” she said. “For how long will I give up on bindi, aath and my culture to not get shot by terrorists. Why should I even do it?”

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