"Their relatively small numbers coupled with a tradition of non-violent protest have made the Kashmiri Pandits irrelevant in the political discourse"
Anuja Khushu Jammu
"I want to see my apple trees, take me to my orchards. I want to sit under the Chinar tree. Want to see my fields, my cows, buffalo sheds. Take me to my Kashmir," says Gunwati, 75, everytime when someone happens to pass by her home or comes to see her family.
Neha Pandita, 16, who lives in Mishriwala Camp, says that her parents burst into tears everytime they remember their lives in Kashmir. "Sometimes I enjoy these things, but only in dreams and not in reality. I want to see all these in reality."
Even today, the years of living under constant stress has left women like Gunwati ravaged. While Gunwati longs for the land of her youth, for young Neha, they do not even form the stuff of memories. She has spent most of her growing years in a camp in Jammu, only hearing about the homeland from the older generation. Both the women are Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced out of their homes in the Kashmir Valley because of the violence during the years of militancy beginning in the early 1990s.
The impact of the conflict on these women and on thousands of people is directly related to the daily environment in which grenade explosions, improvised explosive device blasts, killings and encounters were more common than perhaps a routine day at work or a family gathering for the evening meal. The pain of experiencing brutal killings, of damaged residences and watching communities migrating to other regions, all had a direct bearing on the psyche of the people who lived in the conflict zone.
The fallout of this has been highly detrimental to the collective psyche of people across Kashmir leading to wide-spread stress-related disorders. For the community of Kashmiri Pandits, however, this has been compounded by the fact that they have been rendered homeless and rootless. Now, living in Jammu , they still carry the scars.
As many as 300,000 people fled their home and hearth, reduced to living the lives of refugees outside Kashmir. In what appears to be a flicker of a moment, they lost almost everything that their lives were based on: their roots, identity, homes, possessions and, most painful, their sense of belonging. Even their memories were full of the trauma and tragedy of being uprooted.
Even after 18 years of migration, majority of the Kashmiri Pandits are living in squalid camps in Jammu, Udhampur and Delhi with families of five to six people often huddled into a small room. Living in abysmal conditions in camps, they face spiraling health and economic problems. Sometimes, a single room is shared by three generations. At other places, sometimes, six families lived in one hall separated by partitions of blankets or bedsheets. For those who lived in the idyllic environs of the Kashmir valley, this degeneration of life has been unbearable.
Leading neurologist, Dr Sushil Razdan, conducted a study to estimate the prevalence of dementia among the elderly population in a migrant camp at Mishirwala in Jammu. He found that it is 6.5 per cent among the Kashmiri Pandits aged 60 years and above which is higher than that reported from other parts of India. "Such individuals, mostly middle-aged, are unable to adjust to the cultural setup, language, environment alien to them and so many other things," says Dr Razdan. They feel cut-off and experience a sense of aloofness as most of the youngsters in search of a better future have moved to different parts of the country and even abroad, leaving their old parents alone, he says.
A 1997 study based on inquiries at various migrant camps in Jammu and Delhi revealed that there had been only 16 births compared to 49 deaths in about 300 families between 1990 and 1995, a period during which terrorist violence in J&K was at a peak. Deaths were recorded mostly of people in the age group of 20 to 45. Dr KL Chowdhary, an eminent physician and neurologist. Says, "Causes for the low birth rates were primarily identified as premature menopause in women, hypo-function of the reproductive system and lack of adequate accommodation and privacy."
The trauma of the exodus has taken a toll on all. The incidence of stress-related conditions like insomnia, depression and hypertension have increased and birth rates have declined significantly. Doctors who have been treating members of the community say that they had aged physically and mentally by 10 to 15 years beyond their natural age and this trend could threaten their very existence as a community. The larger questions of loss of identity and roots plague them along with problems stemming from their daily lives.
The days of heightened militancy have receded and the spectre of violence is fading out. Yet, the trauma of the conflict remain particularly on those whose lives have changed beyond recognition. The political parties, government machinery, judiciary, media and NGOs, have all failed to fight for the cause of these hapless people. The silence on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits is deafening. Their relatively small numbers coupled with a tradition of non-violent protest have made them largely irrelevant in the political discourse.
After the exodus of 1990, most Kashmiri Pandits were hopeful that they would one day return to their homes in the Valley with same honour and dignity they once had. But, the months stretched into years, and, now the years have stretched into a decade-and-a-half of exile. The end is nowhere in sight. The yearning for their homeland is still confined to the dreams that Gunwati and others like her cherish of once again seeing their precious Chinar trees and apple orchards in the Kashmir valley.