Surinder and Santosh Kachroo made a brave decision 25 years after they left their home in Srinagar in 1988. The Kashmiri Pandit couple, migrants in their own country, decided in 2013 to return to the only place they’ve ever called home.
They bought a piece of land and built a house, but unknown to them that was the time militant commander Burhan Wani was scripting a new reality that would again alter the Valley’s landscape and shatter its serenity.
The Kachroos did what only a few of the 150,000 Pandits who migrated in the early 1990s are willing to contemplate.
Like the rest, the Kachroo couple lived with the pain of getting a call from an old associate telling them that their previous home — the one in which they got married and where their two children were born — had been burnt down.
They made several trips to Srinagar; even made their way to their original home with a paramilitary escort. But all they could pick up were a few books and some photographs. The house lay ransacked; it was burnt a few years later and they finally sold it after receiving pictures of the gutted property from an insurance company.
For years, the Kachroos waited. Successive governments promised to facilitate the return of the Pandits. For years, they watched to see if the land of their birth showed signs of a return to normality. They’d waited decades for governments to come good on their promise of constructing enclaves where the displaced Pandits could return to.
Surinder says: “I could never get Kashmir out of my mind. I use to dream about Kashmir almost every day.” The dream became reality in 2013 and they set up preparatory schools and were just beginning to grow roots again when an unprecedented uprising swept the Valley after the youth took to the streets to protest Wani’s death in a military operation.
Kashmir was on the edge again. The intensity of the unrest brought back memories of the 1990s when slogans of azaadi blared from every mosque and bodies of slain Pandits were displayed at main squares.
The Kachroos wondered if their return was right. Stones were hurled in the lanes around their house and slogans from the mosque peeked through shuttered doors and windows. The preparatory schools were shut — and they still are a year later — and the thought they drew solace from was that they were surrounded by friends and a well-meaning neighbourhood that had welcomed their return. The new house was not far from the airport too.
They took the flight out of Srinagar and stayed away for nearly two months. This time, the wait was not endless. The Kachroos decided to stick it out, but other Pandits aren’t willing to risk returning to a Valley seething in anger for the past year.
Protests since last July displaced mover than 600 displaced Kashmiri Pandit employees, who haven’t resumed work, especially in turbulent south Kashmir.
Nearly 1,600 Pandit youth got government jobs in Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s employment package in 2010 and they were posted in Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian — the worst-affected in the post-Wani uprising.
“Situation is very bad … in fact it has turned to worse. Salaries are not released on time. Some of us haven’t got our pay since last October. The departments, despite clear instructions by chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, are adopting pressure tactics to make us resume our duties in Kashmir,” said an education employee who didn’t wish to be named.
He said the “situation remains grim … very grim”, though 1,000 Pandit employees resumed their duties, largely in north Kashmir.
A woman posted in Pulwama is reluctant to resume work after repeated attacks by stone-throwing mobs forced her to flee the Valley.
Vinod Pandit, the chairman of an organisation working for Kashmiri Hindu groups, said he met chief minister Mufti and chief secretary BB Vyas seeking a “breathing period” for these employees.
“Over 1,600 employees were given jobs in Kashmir, but the government constructed only 500 quarters in transit camps for them. In the 2008 Amarnath land row, our children had to flee the Valley. Again during the 2010 summer unrest and now in the 2016 violence after Burhan’s death,” he said.
The violence and disruption have forced even Muslim families to shift their children to Jammu and New Delhi for their education.
The state assembly passed a resolution this January to create an environment for the Pandits to return. But the trust deficit between the government and migrants is at an all time low.
“The Kashmiri Muslims have lost faith in this government. How can I trust Mehbooba Mufti?” said Delhi-based designer Ashutosh Sapru.
The Pandits yearn for their homeland, but home is nowhere in sight. Pushkar Nath Dhar, the 85-year-old father-in-law of Kachroo, wants to be reborn in Kashmir. He knows he won’t be able to return to his birthplace in this lifetime.
(With inputs from Ravi Khajuria in Jammu)
A special series by Hindustan Times takes a deep look at the ground reality in the Valley as it braces itself for the first death anniversary of militant commander Burhan Wani and increasing violence in J-K.