Twenty-six-year-old Vasundhara Tulloo grew up hearing stories of Kashmir, as it was before most members of her Kashmiri Pandit community had fled the Valley, in her maternal grandfather’s three-story modest house in the Ganpatyar of downtown Srinagar’s Habbakadal. 

Ms. Vasundhra has spent most of her childhood in the compound of the Shri Sidhi Vinayak, Ganesh Mandir, a few steps away from her grandfather’s house. Ms. Vasundhra’s grandfather was a priest and caretaker of the temple and after his death in 2014, she has taken up the responsibility of looking after it.

Being a part of Kashmiri Pandit community, Ms. Vasundhra said that the stories of brotherhood in Kashmir narrated by her grandfather were no longer true. “I don’t think Kashmir is the same as it was in those stories,” she said, adding that Kashmir has changed for the new generation of Kashmiri Pandits. “I never witnessed any example of brotherhood myself.”

Ms. Vasundhra’s family is one of the 808 Kashmiri Pandit families residing in the Valley today.

On January 19, 1990, Kashmiri Pandits had to leave their homes fearing threats from militant groups emerging during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The numbers on how many actually fled Kashmir has been disputed — according to estimates by Srinagar based community members, about 70,000 families had fled — but about 808 families are staying in the Valley today.

Since then, these families have been constantly ignored by the administration, according to prominent members of the community. Successive governments, they say, have only paid lip service to their plight, and even announced various job schemes and economic packages but left non-migrant families out of these programs.

A sigh of relief

The Shri Sidhi Vinayak, Ganesh Mandir in the Ganpatyar area of Habbakadal Srinagar has idols and framed pictures of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In one room, there is a Shivling, the primary idol in Hindu temples dedicated to the lord Shiva, and an orange colored idol of lord Ganesha. In another room, there is a statue of a Hindu Goddess with a hanging temple bell at the end of the stairs, leading to the room.

More than a week ago, the temple’s compound was filled with over thirty members of the Kashmiri Pandit community, residing in different districts of the Kashmir Valley, protesting for “their rights” for eleven days. 

Almost all the protestors had placards in their hands that read: “Why the administration is “hating us” for staying back in Kashmir?” and “Non-migrant Kashmiri pandits/Hindus are also human beings”, besides other statements.

On 20 September 2020, the Pandit community in the Valley alleged that they had been harassed and that their concerns had not been answered by the local authorities. President of the group, Kashmiri Pandit Sangarash Samiti (KPSS), Sanjay Tickoo had decided to start a quick-unto-death until their demands had been met.

The protestors said that they were being “harassed and isolated” by the Jammu and Kashmir administration since the abrogation of the region’s semi-autonomy and its downgrading to the status of a union territory. 

“Before [abrogation], we were hopeful that our demands would be fulfilled as our file of demands were given importance by the concerned departments,” said Ms. Vasundhra , adding that after it, the administration stopped talking about it. “It seems like our file of demands doesn’t even exist anywhere, anymore.” 

On 27 August 2020, a delegation of the KPSS met Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha and submitted a detailed memorandum there. “He [LG] promised us to look into the matter and call me again,” said Mr. Tickoo.

He added: “I went to the secretariat again after the meeting but unfortunately I couldn’t find any recommendations or the directions from the LG’s office, Disaster Management Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction [DMRRR] or Chief Secretary office, that forced us to go for the protest.”

However, the Administrative Council, under the chairmanship of Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha on 23 September 2020, approved the reallocation of 1997 unfulfilled supernumerary posts for the employment of registered Kashmiri migrants and non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits willing to serve and settle in the valley under the Prime Minister’s package.

The key demands of the association included 500 government jobs, which it said were offered to the group by the High Court in 2016. The fast-unto-death ad protest came to an end after eleven days, said Ms. Vasundhra, after the “Deputy Commissioner, Shahid Chaudhary gave the body a written assurance that the administration will try to address their grievances and fulfill their demands as soon as possible.”

“I want our lives to become easy”

On 10 March 2015, the J-K Government had sanctioned 3,000 supernumerary posts for Kashmiri Pandit Migrants under the Valley Prime Minister’s package. Till date, however, just 806 selections were made while the remaining 1997 posts remained unfulfilled.

“The way all the ruling parties have always been vocal about the demands of migrant pandits, they didn’t do the same for non-migrants,” said Sanjay Tickoo, President KPSS, adding that he feels non-migrant pandits don’t have a voice. 

“We expect them [administration] to help us this time. We are hopeful,” said Babli Tulloo, mother of Ms. Vasundhra, adding that she wants the government to provide jobs to the Kashmiri Pandit youth. “I want our lives to become easy.”

Ms. Babli, 44, has raised her daughter alone after she divorced her husband when Ms. Vasundhra was one-year-old. Ms. Babli was provided support by her father who was a priest and who refused to leave Kashmir in 1990. 

“My father had the responsibility of the temple and it was hard for my parents to leave their motherland. So, they decided to stay,” said Ms. Babli.

After seeing financial problems all these years, Ms. Babli and her daughter continue to face the same as both of them are jobless. “Our source of income was the donation given by people in mandir but nobody visits it now,” said Ms. Babli.

The abrogation of J-K’s semiautonomous status followed by the pandemic lockdowns has shut the doors of the temple managed by the Tulloo family. Ms. Vasundhra has started taking tuitions of her neighbors for three months to meet the ends and fulfill their daily needs.

According to Ms. Vasundhra , after the exodus 242 families have been displaced and living in rented accommodations. “If the financial assistance would be provided to them and the families where nobody can opt for a job, it will help them a lot,” she said.

Ms. Vasundhra said: “The condition of our community in Kashmir is worse than those who left at the time of exodus as they faced the trauma once and we have been facing it all these years.”

The story originally appeared in our 12-18 October 2020 print edition.

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