Early in the morning, I walked to the Barbar Shah area of Srinagar to meet a Kashmiri Pandit. He is one of the fore most voices representing the Pandits who did not leave the Valley. He was waiting for me on the road. We shook hands and he started to walk, expecting me to follow. I did. We walked through lanes which were not large enough to accommodate the two of us walking side by side. He would lead, I would obediently follow. At various points, he would stop, wave and greet people sitting or standing by the side, in Kashmiri. Soon, we reached an area which had a sizeable population of Kashmiri Pandits before the mass exodus of 1990, the Habba Kadal area. I was told that it still has a significant number. I wasn’t told how many.
We reached the Ganpatyar area and entered a temple located in a narrow lane on the banks of the Jehlum. The insides of the temple are beautiful, clean and well-maintained. The priest was in the middle of an aarti (prayer). We stopped, prayed with folded-hands and finished by ringing the overhead bell. We then sat down in a room in the temple compound for a conversation.
He spoke to me about not leaving during the 1990 exodus. A letter was pasted on his house threatening dire consequences if the family did not leave. He took the letter and went to a newspaper office to get the letter published. Upon seeing the letter in the newspaper, his neighbours gathered at his house and assured him that he does not need to leave. The concerned militant organisation also came in and apologized. The family did not leave.
The Kashmiri Pandit predicament is complex at multiple levels. There is the complexity associated with being the minority community in the state, and majority community in the country. The left liberal support for the Kashmir Pandit cause has been sporadic at best, and the minority-majority equation being turned on its own head in Kashmir could be one of the reasons.
In addition, there is the contestation between the Pandits who left and who did not leave, on who truly represents the Pandit cause. The families who stayed back, in a way, weaken the cause of the Pandits who left. But, the Pandits who left are much larger in number and have a more vociferous voice. The Pandits who still live in the valley often complain that all the attention is focused on the Pandits who left, while they have been completely neglected.
There are approximately 800 families of Kashmiri Pandits who still live in the valley. The migration did not stop with the mass exodus of 1990. The number of families has continued to reduce over the years, with little attention being focused on it. And it is during times of unrest that the Pandit community feels insecure as would be the case with any minority community during such times.
The hartal calendars issued by the Hurriyat advise people to chant pro-freedom and pro-Islam slogans as part of the protest. Slowly, Islam is becoming a tool for mobilization during times of protest. At the same time, most of the separatists maintain that their idea of Kashmir is secular with Kashmiriyat being at its core. It is a strange dichotomy within the movement and it is not questioned enough.