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Paradise Lost - the Kashmiri Pandits
 

Displaced Kashmiri Pandit women pray for peace and an early return home at an annual Hindu festival. Picture credit: Reuters
Displaced Kashmiri Pandit women pray for peace and an early return home at an annual Hindu festival
 

Paradise Lost - the Kashmiri Pandits

 

Shivani Sharma talks to Kashmiri Hindu refugees, who fear they have been forgotten.

It is called Paradise on Earth. But now it is dotted with sandbags and military check posts. This was my first visit to Indian Kashmir at a time when there has been a decline in violence and suicide bomb attacks.

Armed resistance to Indian rule broke out in the Kashmir Valley in 1989, with some groups calling for independence and others for union with Pakistan. The emphasis of the movement soon shifted from nationalism to Islam. Caught in the middle, the minority community of Kashmiri Hindus - the Kashmiri Pandits, who had lived in Kashmir for centuries - were forced to leave their homeland.

Many of the 250,000 refugee Kashmiri Pandits have been living in pitiable conditions in Jammu, a Hindu-majority region south of the Kashmir Valley, as well as in other parts of India. I visited a camp in Jammu where families live in one-room brick houses covered with tin sheets, among open sewers. The government gives 3,000 rupees (around £40) to each family, and rice and sugar.

Controversy surrounds the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. The armed separatists allege that it was engineered by Shri Jagmohan, then-governor of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, in order to defame the separatist movement. He denies these allegations.

I spoke to families living in the camp about why they left Kashmir. An old man with tears in his eyes said, "Our people were killed. I saw a girl tortured with cigarette butts. Another man had his eyes pulled out and his body hung on a tree. The armed separatists used a chainsaw to cut our bodies into pieces. It wasn't just the killing but the way they tortured and killed."

We miss Kashmir like any child would miss his or her mother
 
Life goes on for these families, but they miss their home. Someone said to me, "We miss Kashmir like any child would miss his or her mother."

The Indian government is trying to rehabilitate the Pandits in Kashmir. Even the separatists are inviting them back. Tahir, the district commander of a separatist Islamic group in Kashmir, told me: "We want the Kashmiri Pandits to come back. They are our brothers. We will try to protect them."

But the majority of the Pandits believe that, until Kashmir is no longer engulfed by insurgency, return is not possible.

As India and Pakistan continue to squabble over the territory of Kashmir, Pandits feel they have been forgotten. They are afraid that they may lose their identity due to their rootlessness.

Kashmir continues to be the land of their dreams, the subject of their poems and the inspiration behind their struggle. The Pandits live in the hope that one day they will return to Kashmir. As a young girl said to me, "We can never give up hope."


Shivani Sharma is a presenter on world affairs for the BBC's Hindi service

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