Kiran Kumar Handoo, a lawyer at High Court in Srinagar, stayed behind when Kashmiri Pandits left in 1990s. Photograph by Kaiser Andrabi for The Kashmir Walla
Sitting on a sofa, surrounded by the falling walls, and accompanied by 29-years of darkness, Kiran Kumar Handoo recalls, “I remember everything — every bit of it — it was horrific.”
Living in a small house near the only Ganesha temple in Kashmir’s Ganapatyar area of Downtown Srinagar, a lawyer in Srinagar High Court, Mr. Handoo, in his 60s, is among the very few Kashmiri Pandits who stayed in the Valley after the infamous “Pandit Exodus” in the 1990s. “There was news of Pandit’s killing from every corner of the Valley, posters on the wall asking us to leave. Life was at stake; it was clear, either leave or die.”
In January 1990, several Pandit families left the Valley when the militancy started growing in every corner. The anti-India sentiment and the voices for secession were an all-time high, Pandits migrated to Jammu, as New Delhi brought in Jagmohan as the Governor, whose popular quote back then was that “iron fist” has to be used to bring Kashmir under control. Three days later on 21 January 1990, dozens of civilians killed in Gawkadal Massacre.
But for Mr. Handoo, the ‘fear-psychosis’ still exists, “I cannot go anywhere in my traditional dress, with tilak. It is not that someone will hurt me; it is just that I hesitate. Mr. Handoo believes that the aazadi (freedom) doesn’t matter. “We know that our basic rights will end,” he said. “When Kashmir gets aazadi, if ever, Pandits will leave peacefully.”
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit leader, said, “All of it happened in the night of 19 January. In the following three nights, one thing was clear that the slogans on the loudspeakers, which were in favor of Islamism, were against us. One slogan that still stays with us is: “We want Pakistan in Kashmir, without Kashmiri Pandit men, but with their women.”
“I remember that my aunty came from Budshanagar on 25 February 1990, and she said, ‘we are in danger,’” said Mr. Tickoo, “my father replied, ‘what danger? I don’t feel scared, if you do, you can leave.’”
While everyone was looking forward to leaving as soon as possible, Handoo family hesitated. “It is also about the attachment with your land,” said Mr. Handoo. But eventually the family flew to Jammu, but Mr. Handoo, along with his father, S. N. Handoo, and the elder brother stayed in the Valley. Nearly after a month, Mr. Handoo found himself alone, as the companion left for the Jammu as well.
“I went too, but couldn’t live in Jammu for long,” said Mr. Handoo, “Everyone has an attachment to their land, so do I.”
In-between years, Mr. Handoo married a girl from Jammu and had a child together. For him, things seemed to be going smooth.
But, life changed for Mr. Handoo when on 25 November 1995, his ancestral house was set ablaze. “I was in the court when a colleague approached me saying, ‘they torched your house’, and I ran,” said Mr. Handoo, shaking his legs, he took a gulp and continued, “Fire brigade’s water cannons drenched me. My coat was wet, and I stood there the entire night and saw it burning. Wounds are still fresh.”
Constructed in 1985, Mr. Handoo’s house was on fire. His wife, Kalpana Handoo, stood by him with their 3-year-old son, Sunandan, in arms.
Mr. Handoo expresses his grief of the time when Pandits were targeted even if a leaf moved places, “let it be a cricket match, Israel-Arab war, Pandits were dragged.” Now years after the exodus, a few friends of him confronted that they hated India like hell, and when they couldn’t find a way to channelize it, “they targeted us”.
Living away from ‘home’, but heart is in Kashmir
As per Mr. Tickoo, the real problem was that the neighborhood started shedding away from the community, “they never told me that you shouldn’t be scared, or that, you are safe. That forced us to leave the valley.” As told by him, in those times, militants used to put up a ‘hit-list’ in the local mosque, and one day, “a friend of mine came to me and said, Sanjay, your name is there; you should leave as soon as possible.”
Mr. Handoo remembers the time when his mother, Sheela Devi, in her last days, begged him to take her back to Kashmir. “They spent their entire life here, and she always said to me, ‘please take me back home’,” he recalled. Though, Ms. Devi never came back and died with an unfulfilling wish.
Apparently, he believes that generation older to him lived in the pain, and he can sense it too, “but, the coming generation will have no idea. And the dream dies there.”
He is the person who has witnessed the 1990s, 2008-10-16 civilian uprisings. “Hope has died for me,” he said, “Killings are killings. Only a mother knows, what is the pain of losing a child. It is easy to talk about others, but when it comes to yourself, you understand the pain — I understand that pain.”
Talking about the ongoing conflict, Mr. Tickoo said, “I believe that there is no possibility of Aazadi; not because of Indian rigidness, but because of the failure of the local leadership.”
“Those days are gone”
Mr. Handoo feels that even if Pandit community is safe here, they can’t survive here anymore. “You give us protection, but no food, and no jobs. How can we survive?” Though, he told that he never regretted the decision of Pandits to leave the valley. “The message was clear: either you leave, or die.”
Leaving from the house, struggling to get his shoes on, he asked, “Do you want to visit the temple?” He took us through the shady lane of government forces’ bunker, at the end of which, the temple area opens. The serenity took over the air, and Mr. Handoo’s face lightened up. Listening to the Hindu religious verses on the speaker in the playback, he said, “Can you hear this music?”
“You know what was the harshest slogans on loudspeakers?” he paused for the answer, and continued himself, “Patthar ke Bhagwano ko, aag laga do, aag laga do” (Torch these stone made Gods!).
As the evening snow made its way through the sky; he looked up, gulped the past, and said, “Those days are gone.”