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Pandit couple return home alone to the Valley, two decades after mass exodus

Dinanath and Sarla with a relative of a neighbour

Somewhere in Kashmir, July 8: The scars of militant violence strewn around them should be scary for Dinanath, 84, and wife Sarla.

Ghostly, crumbling houses whose Pandit occupants fled long ago, houses torched by rebels and reduced to rubble….

Besides, the couple are the lone Pandit family in a neighbourhood whose erstwhile Hindu residents migrated during the peak militancy years.

But Sarla, 72, laughs at any suggestion of danger.

“We have nothing to be afraid of. If I’m asked to live in this house alone, I shall do it without any fear,” she said.

She had known fear, though, having fled the Valley like thousands of other Pandits two decades ago, shaken by a personal threat to Dinanath and the murder of a youth in the locality. But unlike the rest, they have come back.

Official records say 3 lakh Pandits migrated out of the Valley and only 3,000 stayed back.

Dinanath and Sarla are the only Pandit family among the 60,000 that left Kashmir to have returned to resettle permanently in the Valley, drawn by love of their native land and the opportunity offered by a government programme.

They have left their five daughters behind in Jammu and elsewhere, though.

Dinanath and Sarla (their names have been changed and address withheld to protect their identity) returned in 2008 after then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 1,618-crore return-and-rehabilitation package for Kashmiri exiles.

Some 1,500 Pandit youths have obtained government jobs in the Valley under the scheme but none have so far shown any intent to settle down for good. They live in their government quarters, bringing their families over only during summer.

“Mine is the only family to return and rebuild a house here,” said a proud Dinanath, a former government employee.

The stream that runs through the village.
Pictures by Abdul Qayoom

His original house was burnt down after the family left in 1992, but he has built a new one in the same complex with a government assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh.

“We were forced to leave this place once but there is no question of leaving it ever again,” he said.

Dinanath had fled in 1989 — among the first to do so during the dawn of insurgency — just a few months after he had retired.

“Six notices were pasted outside my home asking me to leave... because I worked in a particular government department,” he said. Three years later, Sarla and the children joined an exodus of Pandits.

This newspaper tracked the couple down to find out why they had returned, how things had gone for them since then, and what they thought about the prospect of more Pandits returning at a time the new NDA government is said to be preparing a fresh rehab plan.

This was the couple’s first media interaction since their return from Jammu’s Udhampur, where they lived on Dinanath’s pension but felt like “aliens”.

“I would not mix with people and seldom visited anyone. Here everything is mine —these trees, the water, the gardens,” Dinanath said.

“The children of my neighbours here call me ‘Daddy’ and are always around for any help. I’m mostly confined to bed because of my ailments but whenever I’m up to it, I move around and meet people.”

Dinanath then turned philosophical. “When you share love, you get love; that’s how we had lived for generations. That is what would prompt me to come to the Valley almost every year despite having migrated.”

Sometimes, he stayed with his neighbour Ghulam Mohammad, “whose family was of great help when I decided to resettle here and build this house”.

The couple faced resistance from their daughters and relatives when they decided to return to Kashmir but haven’t for a moment regretted their decision.

“When I take decisions, I listen to none. I told them they cannot change my mind,” Dinanath said.

“I used to have dreams in which my parents and other elders scolded me for having left this place. They would ask me why I had abandoned them and left our home behind to be desecrated,” he said, regretting that several abandoned Pandit homes had turned into dens of gamblers and drug addicts.

“We never see such dreams now,” Sarla chipped in.

The sweltering heat in Jammu was another reason to turn nostalgic about Kashmir.

“Where will you find a paradise like this?” said Sarla, gesturing towards a brook that gurgled past the compound as trees swayed in the breeze.

“Whenever you run into someone here, they greet you respectfully. Whenever you get into a bus, you find young men offer their seats to elders irrespective of religion. These are the things you miss outside,” she said.

So, why are other Pandits not returning?

“There are many reasons. Many are too scared, and the government hasn’t shown the necessary resolve to bring them back. Then, there are many Pandit groups that espouse various causes (some want a homeland with Union territory status within the Valley),” Dinanath said. “Also, the new generation, born and brought up outside, doesn’t connect with our culture. They study outside and want to settle there.”

Asked about the Centre’s reported plans to build entire townships to resettle the Pandits together, Dinanath said he would leave it to the migrants to decide how and where they wanted to live in Kashmir.

“This is a tragedy in which both communities suffered, and any decision should be arrived at after consulting the majority community here. As far as my family is concerned, we’ll continue to live in this place,” he said.