Monday, August 13, 2007

"Exiles at Home"

Bushan Lal Pandit with his family at Mishriwala Camp.

Outside the Pandita home in Mishriwala camp is a walnut tree. It has never produced a walnut, and never will, in the heat of Jammu. However, its jagged green leaves symbolise a lost home and a lost life. For 5,000 Kashmiri Pandit families crammed into squalid one-room tenements on the outskirts of this city, the past is not another country; it is a living thing. On this July afternoon, it’s there, waiting for you, in one stiflingly hot tenement after another—in fading pictures of pretty brides in pherans against green hillsides, in incessant conversations recalling cool weather, streams, ruined orchards, homes abandoned overnight and cattle-sheds "bigger than this room". In the tears that spring to the eyes of Santosh Pandita when she talks about her husband, tortured and hanged by militants in the Valley. In the moans of Dhanwati Pandita who, on her deathbed, wants to go back to Pulwama. Even 11-year old Pooja who can’t speak Kashmiri (to her parents’ chagrin), and only knows camp life, trains her light eyes on you and says, in the broad Hindi Jammu has taught her, Kashmir jannat hai.
Of the roughly one lakh Kashmiri Pandits who fled in fear from the Valley in the chilly spring of 1990, most have secured a better foothold in a new world. The Jammu camps, packed with the families of petty government employees and former agriculturists, widows and old people, are for those who couldn’t find a more dignified life. On a scale of human misery, they are not the worst-off—indeed, they provoke envy because they get a government dole, free rations, and a roof over their heads, even if a tin one. But they are still people with middle-class sensibilities trapped in shanty towns. The effort of adjustment shows in 9x13 ft homes overflowing with piles of children’s schoolbooks, ironed clothes, English newspapers, plastic flowers, small fridges, steel cupboards. Every inch of encroachable space has been colonised to add dignity to their lives—a small toilet, kitchen shelves, a child’s study space....
Avid consumers of newsprint and TV footage, the camp Pandits are acutely aware of their irrelevance. They note that their most vocal political champions, the bjp, only use them to make propaganda points. Liberals, they say, fail to see them as genuine victims of conflict, preferring to believe that their exodus was manufactured by former J&K governor Jagmohan to stigmatise militants (whereas the truth, as many Kashmir scholars have noted, was far more complex). For 17 years, they’ve been told that their slums are "temporary" homes. They listen as every actor in the Kashmir conflict, from government to separatist, routinely calls for their safe return to the Valley—but does little to make it happen. The precarious condition of 4,000-odd Pandits who still live in the Valley makes them despair.
The other day, the prime minister came calling, briefly illuminating their forgotten lives. He announced the building of a more salubrious ghetto several kilometres away, with two room sets, community centres and parks. And so, the Pandits brace themselves for another migration, to a new home. Once again it will be "temporary".

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