It was in back in the year 2006, being in 9th-grade student, when I had the pleasure of travelling by air for the very first time in my life. But more importantly, it was the first time I went to my motherland – Kashmir.
The predicament in having to explain my family roots has always existed since I was a young child, and it was not uncommon that I was met with pitiful glares or awkward silence due to lack of knowledge of the person in front of me. They simply could not fathom reasons for an internally displaced migrant. “My family very painfully had to abandon their home and migrate to other parts of India because of the mass genocide of Kashmiri Hindus, systemically carried out by Islamic Jihadists, who included external terrorists as well as local Muslims who were radicalised”.
A lot of people assumed that being a Kashmiri I must be used to freezing Delhi winters, and I had to explain I had the genes but not the physical resilience. Few others once called me a “fake Kashmiri”. I didn’t really understand why I was called that and remember asking my family about it. Slowly, painfully and spread over a large number of years, the little stories of life before and after the exodus trickled out.
My late father never read out any fairy tales to me and my brother, but instead real-life stories from his childhood. They were the most beautifully strung pearls of memories, and looking back I wish I had recorded him, so could pass them on to the coming generation.
Imagine an independent detached house at the crossroads in a quaint town. This is where dad and his 8 siblings, all older and some with their own branched families, had the pleasure of growing up. The money was tight, the house was packed, the food supplies were constantly running out, but the hearts were never short of love. There was plenty for all youngsters, even if it meant that sometimes the same bread was divided into few more pieces. The stomachs even if not completely full, were always content.
Chilly winters saw a couple of kangris (personal firepot) being shared among a few, the burning coal in a basket keeping bodies warm inside a “pheran”. Education was given utmost importance. My grandfather was an academician and encouraged all his children (and their own too) to pursue mainstream professional careers. Dad told me that the school uniform was passed down several times until the holes started to gape, and so were the classroom notes.
Some of the uncles, including my dad, had the handwriting that would make it to the list of Microsoft word fonts and is still shown today to the toddlers as something to emulate. Imagine, a large family with their own branching all grown up and living lovingly under a roof. The streets for playing “gully cricket” were narrow and the playgrounds for playing football were not as big as in New Delhi as I know it to be, but the qualities of sportsmanship and leadership were embedded in all who yearned to learn.
My father told us how he played with his friends all through the harsh winters on the snowy mountains and by the riverside during summer, with the lads not ever thinking to divide their team based on religion.
It was until I became a young adult when I learnt that the fairy tales from my childhood were sometimes tweaked or left incomplete because they had a very dark end. It was in the late 1980s I was told, that the neighbours stopped visiting like before. That hostility grew in the shadows and whispers could be heard when passing through unfamiliar terrains.
Over the next few years, prominent figures holding a stature of influence in their respective professions were being reported missing or kidnapped, and every case led to the finding of them being reported deceased. At first, the deaths were inconspicuous, but in a matter of months, as selected religious intolerance towards Hindus grew and the propaganda of Jihadists of “ethnic cleansing” became evident, their horrid actions bore no attempts of being done secretly.
I was told that there were “hit lists” outside homes (including our family home on one occasion) that warned the Kashmiri Pandits to evacuate, lest face being murdered. It was an open threat, also being supported by loud shrieks from the mosques that indicated that although men must leave, their women may stay behind. I was stunned in disbelief, surely this was not true?
But the more displaced Kashmiri brethren I spoke to who had survived to tell the same tale, the more I started to have mixed feelings towards my motherland and the people who live there today. What followed was Kashmir witnessing the shameful act of lakhs of Pandits being driven out of their homes, in the most unfortunate way.
Whilst several left bereaved, many left out of fear for their lives. Some left with their little ones and one small bag hidden at the back of trucks or lorries, being transported in the darkness by their trusted acquaintances who helped them escape. Very few who did not have a safe haven to turn to chose to remain behind.
Whose failure was it that Jihadists infiltrated a beautiful state where people from different religions living harmoniously? Whose failure was it when some of the locals radicalised and either directly themselves became terrorists or aided others to carry out premeditated, systemic and structured mass murders in the most heart-wrenching and brutal way known to mankind?
Do we despise the whole community which allowed this to happen under their nose and kept quiet, or do we forgive them and work together for our return? If at all we do return someday, will be even be safe?
My mind was swarming with a lot of questions, and the more I read about the current affairs and political issue in Kashmir, the more I found the history of Kashmiri Pandits being diluted and forgotten because it bore no significant weight for the vote- bank.
My father deliberately did not include in the bedtime stories, how our neighbours and friends one by one, witnessed gruesome and gory evidence of torture whilst cremating their loved ones, that included missing internal body parts, severed heads, penetrating wounds with blades weapons, mutilation of genitals, burn marks on multiple parts of the body and other tangible marks that have etched the lived on their loved ones with unspeakable misery.
My father’s elder brother once was travelling on a bus to return home from his work, with his colleagues. He was a respectable and loved engineer, who had touched the lives of many and helped innumerable people across his life. Terrorists interrupted their journey and on entering the bus asked everyone to separate in two lines, to recite the Quran to prove their authenticity of being a Muslim.
Those who did not, were gunned down immediately. My uncle, bless him, knew numerous verses from the Quran as he had grown up with multi-cultural friends and was used to being a part of their festivities.
Despite reciting the Quranic verses better than most of the other people, but his identity was given away as his shirt was torn revealing the sacred holy thread worn by Kashmiri Pandits. I do not have the heart to pen down what followed next.
Those of my family who was not posted out of Kashmir for a job or pursuing education degrees left Kashmir shortly after. The house where my dad grew up in the place which the world now fondly called “world’s second Switzerland” was empty, abandoned and filled with echoes of despair. During my holiday in Kashmir, we passed it briefly, and I stopped to stare at the broken windows, the dilapidated state of walls and some of the clothes hanging out to dry of the army personnel, who were using the place as a bunker, given it was at a strategic location.
Why did we never go back to Kashmir, I asked dad. I always saw the emptiness behind his eyes that he tried to hide whenever he told me with an encouraging smile – one day my child, we will.
It breaks my heart to know that there several others from my generation who were born outside Kashmir and have grown up consoling and sharing the pain of grieving relatives, just by the sheer mention of Kashmir.
Despite seeing my family endure so many hardships, I was taught never to harbour feelings of hatred towards anyone, as it would not solve anything. As someone training to become a psychiatrist, it also makes me wonder the long-term impact of mass genocide on a community’s mental health, and how little emphasis has been laid on this until date.
I have nothing but prayers and love for the families of those of us who are permanently affected. Today, even though our heart bleeds, I am proud to say that no matter where in the world we settle, we shall hold our hands together uplifting each other and treasure the values our forefathers passed down to us.
Dr. Shivani Dudha, KPCS, 30 Years In Exile