There is a growing wish in Kashmir for Kashmiri Pandits to return. I am a Kashmiri Pandit, and let me tell you why I believe so.
Early this week, I, and a group of over 200 devotees, were slowly winding our way up the Hari Parbat hill in Srinagar, to pray at the ancient temple of the Mother Goddess, Sharika Devi. The lush green forest of the hill and the cool breeze ensured we did not lose our breath. Suddenly, a car came to a halt in front of us and a man in his fifties jumped out. His expression was one of amazement and I could sense his happiness. He said he couldn’t believe his eyes, seeing so many Kashmiri Pandits on that road. We watched in silence as he raised his hands in prayer, saying he wished all of us could live together, just the way we used to before the onslaught of terrorism in the Valley.
As we moved up to the top, faces showed up from the neat rows of houses on either side of the road. Some waived at us, some stood in wonderment, a joyous old woman wanted us to have tea with her and another wanted to give us water. It was quite an amazing scene. Most of us were in tears, we could not believe this response in the downtown area of the city, which is said to a hub of the separatist movement.
Being victims of terrorism, Kashmiri Pandits have been living as refugees in various parts of the country for the past 30 years. Around five lakh families were forced to flee their homes in Kashmir during 1989-1990, when terrorism first struck the Valley. Thirty years later, the scene seems to be changing. A majority of Kashmiri Muslims want the Kashmiri Pandits to return.
This year, Mata KheerBhawani temple mela witnessed the largest congregation of Kashmiri Pandits. All the top political leaders of the Valley made a bee line to the temple in their effort to reach out to the community — former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, state Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir, J&K Peoples Movement leader Shah Faesal, and many other local Muslim leaders. Even the maverick MLA Engineer Rashid, who often raises pro-separatist slogans, joined the prayers with Kashmiri Pandits in the temple. This time, his tone was different and he asked the community to return.
The political leaders may have had their motives or agenda, but the mela was also thronged by many young Kashmiri Muslim boys and girls. Some of them had volunteered to help in the mela, some were curious to see the religious function of the community about which they had only heard from their parents, never seen.
Farah Urusha, Nusrat, Zahid, Sahid, Irshad and Zubeer are students from the Central university of Kashmir. I met the group while I was doing Parikrama of the temple. My conversation with them revealed this: “We have come to see you people. We want to see this part of Kashmiri culture about which we have heard a lot.”
The students admitted that they were unaware of the circumstances that forced the community to flee their homes. They were shocked to hear some horrifying stories of murder, kidnapping and brutal gang rapes committed against some members of the minority community in 1990.
At the end of our conversation, they just had this to say: “You all come back to your homeland and our youngsters will find ways to get you back.” The group of students was categorical about one thing — that Kashmiriyat can survive only when its minority community, the Kashmiri Pandits, return to their roots. They vowed that they will sensitise their peers about the community’s feelings.
June 12 saw a transporters’ strike in the Valley. There were no taxis available and I thought it would be impossible to reach the main Srinagar city. To my surprise, a 22-year-old samaritan, a total stranger, offered to help us. Shakeel drove us in his own car and I requested him to take us to one of the revered mosques in the Valley, Maqdoom Sahib. Having come from the Mata KheerBhawani temple, we had chandan and sindoor pasted on our foreheads.
As we climbed up the stairs of the mosque, we could notice a lot of eyes staring at us. Some smiled and some gave a wondering look. The Imam of the mosque met us. He gave us prasad and some holy water to drink. He assured us that the Valley was safe for all of us and we should come back. We left the mosque in a state of contentment.
We also came to know that Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Omar Farooq had issued a statement on the same day, calling for the return of the minority community to Kashmir. An hour later, as we reached our destination in the city, we heard TV channels blazing the news of the terror attack in south Kashmir, in which five CRPF jawans were martyred and two terrorists killed. The channels had experts and leaders sitting across and fighting a kind of pitched battle, creating a din that gave a very frightening picture of Kashmir.
Shakeel just smiled as he noisily sipped the tea with us. He said, “Switch the TV off and you will find peace. Kashmir is not burning and no one likes violence here. But things can change if all of you return.”
He did not have any answer to the question as to how would our return change things in Kashmir.
I don’t have the answer to this either. But one thing is for sure; today the sentiment is growing all across the Valley that Kashmiri Pandits should come back.
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