My earliest memory of Kashmir dates to the summer of 1987. Our family moved to Srinagar from Jammu into our newly built house in Rawalpora. We were altogether five members; my mum, dad, elder sister and my younger brother.
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My siblings and I were getting used to the new city and its somewhat different culture. My sister was admitted to Mallinson school and I was fortunate to get admission mid-term in Burn Hall School.
The cultural differences were strange to me. I recall, my first games class at my new school. All the kids went to the playground in a queue. Then we split into two teams, which is very straight forward. However, here the teams were based on religion. I was asked by the captains of the team, “Tum Hindu ho Ya Muslim? (Are you a Hindu or a Muslim)?” Maybe they got confused with my surname Dhar, which could be either Hindu or Muslim.
I clearly remember that I had no answer for this question. I had just moved from Jammu and nobody had ever asked me about my religion. So I told them that we are from Jammu. They decided on their own that I was probably a Muslim and asked me to join the Muslim team. Funnily enough, I was asked by some Punjabi Hindu guys to leave the Muslim team and join the Hindu team. So I used to play for both sides and made friends in both teams. I am still friends with some of my classmates from that time.
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Apart from the settling in the schools, my dad joined his work as a central government employee working for IDPL. My mum was an entrepreneur and established a gym and a beauty parlour in Rawalpora. The business was a success, being the first of its kind in Srinagar. Life was good for another year or so.
The trouble started with murders and killings of Pandits in the valley. During this time several Indian Air Force personnel were killed in front of our house in Rawalpora, Srinagar. Our house was a few meters from the national highway by-pass road. So I personally witnessed all this.
On another occasion, I was walking with my Dad in the vicinity of our house and I heard a big bang. I thought that some aircraft must have fallen, but it was a hand grenade thrown at our neighbour’s house.
We saw the terrorists fleeing on a motorbike. As we were both hardly 50 meters from that place we rushed towards the damaged house and enquired if everything was safe. This house belonged to Mr Mohamed Amin who my Dad knew from his days in the Islamia College Srinagar. Mr Amin was holding a child in his lap who was crying inconsolably out of fear.
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Things were getting tense at the school as well. My friend Zahid came one evening as usual to our house to play and told me that he can no longer play with me. His elder brother was radicalised by his Uncle who had joined JKLF. He was forced to attend the local Mosque every day and asked not to be in touch with Hindu friends.
Both of us were afraid however we continued to meet and play, but not in front of his brother Khalid. I remember on one occasion I asked him, what he learnt in the Mosque. So he explained to me the along with radicalisation, the mosque was also teaching them to make a petrol bomb. Then he gave me a quick demonstration and told me that tomorrow some of the teenagers would practice the use of bombs on local Hindu houses.
Indeed, the very next day one of the Hindu houses was lobbed with a petrol bomb. Events took a very serious turn when on another occasion, me and my siblings were home alone. My mum had gone to see a
neighbour and Dad was away to Chandigarh. Somebody planted a bomb outside our house. My elder sister saw that and raised the alarm.
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Everyone outside disappeared and we were alone inside the house. My sister managed to throw me and my brother out of the back window and climb onto the neighbour’s yard. They, fortunately, had a telephone connection. We were so scared that our mother would come back and the bomb outside the house would explode.
Somehow we were able to contact her and the neighbour contacted the police. There was chaos and the police sorted out the commotion. This is the same time when there was a big rally at Charari-E-Sharif. Arms were distributed at the shrine and all radicals were loaded with AK47’s. The same night terrorist came to our house and wanted to enter through the front door.
Mum panicked and was scared for our lives. She asked all of us to make a lot of noise by calling “Papa… Papa ….” Even though Dad was not at home, as he was away in Chandigarh for work, we kept shouting. All this while, I was carrying a cricket bat in my hand to defend my family. Fortunately, the terrorist didn’t manage to break the solid deodar wood door and our lives were saved on that day.
The very next day my mum’s Gym and Beauty Parlour was attacked, all the billboards were damaged and removed. We soon heard that one other beauty parlour was attacked by terrorists in Jawahar Nagar Srinagar with bombs. Terrorists considered all this ‘haraam’. Under duress, my mother had to close her business in January 1990.
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On my dad’s return to the valley, we decided to leave for Jammu for a few months until the situation got back to normal. We left Kashmir valley in March 1990. It was done in haste and we just packed a few bits and got on board a truck. There were a few other Hindu families escaping with us. All the men were sitting in the back of the truck and the women were at the front.
I and my brother got some space on top of the engine next to the driver. The truck driver started from Rawalpora at night, we were stopped at many checkpoints on the by-pass road. One of the checkpoints the driver was beaten up by the army, they let us go after they saw women with “tilaks” accompanying.
Life in Jammu
The small town of Jammu was bursting at the seams with Kashmiri refugees. There was chaos everywhere. Lack of accommodation and complete disarray. We found temporary accommodation as we knew people in Jammu.
Within a few days, we were looking for a school. We joined St. Peters where everyone else from Burn Hall had joined. Most of our teachers and students had somehow gathered there as the Principal from Burn Hall, Father Dominic started a second shift school.
Our school day started when the mainstream school finished. We would start at 2 pm, at the peak of summer heat. The classrooms were tin sheds. Students would faint because of heat strokes, there were no fans or even drinking water.
The conditions were inhumane. I remember we used to remove our sweat-drenched uniform shirt and wring them. As if this wasn’t enough, the local Jammu people used to mock and mistreat us. They would call us names like “Kashmiri Lola“, “Gand Paya” (Kashmir Guy Making Jammu Dirty)
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I have been pushed out of a local bus for being a Kashmiri. We would have to wait for many buses to pass by and then some would allow us lot to get on-board the bus. Sometimes I think, what is racism? What I had experienced in my own country was pure rage and the height of racism.
The local boys used to etch derogatory slogans on the desks, like “Kashmiri Kuttey “, Kashmiri Dogs “, “Go Back”. They used to leave the taps of water tanks open so that there was no water to drink for the second shift Kashmiri students.
I remember having a thermos water bottle and that was a prized possession and a luxury. There used to be fights between the first shift kids and us for no reason. I recall my parents telling us that only education could liberate us out of this mess and we should only focus on our schooling. We would sleep on the floor, study, play and carry on with everything in the same one-room accommodation.
Kidnappings in the family
Some of our relatives dared to return back to Kashmir. It was the summer of 1991 when my Uncle Prof. Omkarnath Wakhloo and Aunty Mrs Khemlata went back. Both were kidnapped from their residence in Dalgate by Hizbul Mujahideen.
Their house was wrecked, all doors were smashed, bullet marks everywhere. The ordeal for the rest of the family was very tough. On one occasion we received cut fingers and were told that they belonged to my Uncle.
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They remained in captivity and were rescued by the Indian Army later that year. In March 1992 my other Uncle Dr S N Dhar was kidnapped. He remained in captivity for 83 days. I can remember each day was a torment for all family members.
At school, my class mated would tell me that the next kidnapping would be of my father. Dad had started to visit Kashmir for work. It was a very tough time. I went back in 1995 with my mum as a visitor.
Having lived through this turmoil, in my childhood and youth has had a profound impact on me as a person. I continued studies in Jammu till I graduated from Jammu University. I worked and lived in New Delhi for a few years and then got a scholarship to study in the UK.
Abhinav Dhar, KPCS, UK
19th January 2020 marks the 30th year in Exile For Kashmiri Pandits.