Ignoring calls by secessionist leaders to boycott the elections, threats from militants and braving the harsh winter weather, Kashmiris turned out in droves to vote. Seen as a verdict in favor of democratic politics by the valley's population, the elections saw a 62 percent voter turnout, without any credible reports of rigging or coercion by the state authorities.
There was however another surprise in this year's elections. Kashmir's forgotten minority – the Kashmiri Hindus – also made their presence felt. When militancy erupted in the Kashmir valley in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the first casualty was a tiny community of ethnic Kashmiris belonging to the Hindu faith, comprising roughly eight percent of the population. Known to swear their allegiance to the Indian state, this community became the first target of Islamist militants who engaged in targeted killings of the community's prominent members. Threats were issued to either convert to Islam or leave the valley—and most of them, numbering around 300,000—fled Kashmir to the safer havens of the nearby Hindu-dominated region of Jammu.
Almost 20 years later, with repatriation to Kashmir still only a dream, the community has created its own political party. The Jammu Kashmir National United Front (JKNUF) has fielded 15 Hindu Kashmiri candidates in various assembly constituencies across the valley—an attempt to highlight the community's suffering.
So how has this community fared, especially its women? What is the reality of their lives and how will the election results impact them? To find out, I travelled to the bloated camp of Mutthi on the outskirts of Jammu, one of the many camps that has housed thousands of these displaced Kashmiris since they fled their ancestral lands in 1990.
I met Chandra Dhar, 35, one of the thousands of Kashmiri Hindu women who fled Kashmir and continue to live in exile in Mutthi. Chandra's story epitomizes the struggle of many who live in the camp.
Chandra left her native Kashmir when she was 15 years old. She left thinking that the communal tensions and violence that had erupted would be over within a few months and she would return home. Almost twenty years later, Chandra Dhar, now 37 and married with two children, continues to live in Mutthi Camp where her children are now growing up – the second generation of Kashmiri Hindus living in displacement camps. She is hesitant to show me her home – a tiny one-roomed tenement which serves as a bedroom, living room and kitchen.
Her husband is away and her father-in-law and child are sleeping squeezed together on the small cot that takes up much of the space. So we sit outside in the mellow sunshine, on newspapers spread out on the ground in front of the door. Nearby, an open sewer runs its course. Children from the camp run around us, playing with paper planes – the narrow alley is their playground. Slowly, Chandra tells me how she came to be here, far from her beloved Kashmir.
You lived in Kashmir before you came here?
Yes, I was born and lived in Kashmir until 1990, in Handwara village, district Kupwara in an extended family. We had our own house and our own land which sustained us. Our village was Muslim-dominated, with about 100 Muslim families and 25 Hindu families. Relations between Hindus and Muslims were cordial and I had Muslim friends. All was [normal]. But when the first attack in the district of Anantnag took place, attitudes changed.
What happened in Anantnag?
Muslim mobs burnt down Hindu homes. Our neighbors changed - they became withdrawn. I remember one particular night, on January 25, 1990. I was 15 years old. Armed with sticks and knives, a 1000-strong Muslim mob from other villages descended on our village, looking for Hindus. Three security personnel however soon came on the scene, began firing and dispersed the mob. We were terribly scared. Then we received an anonymous written threat to clear out or face the consequences. My elder sister had a friend called Sweety in district Baramullah. She was brave and had refused to leave. She was cut up, just sawed into two. We knew then that we just had to leave. I feel sad that few people in India know about all this.
We left home at night. It was February 2nd. It had been Friday, the day for weekly Muslim public prayers. My father dressed up like a Muslim, went the nearest town of Sopore and got hold of a truck, as there were none in the village. The truck came at night and 5 families left in it, each taking whatever they could carry.
We came to Jammu. We all thought things would normalize in a few months and we would return. But things deteriorated. Initially, we stayed with friends. A year later, we were given this one room here in Mutthi, which the authorities had by then set up. Hordes of other Hindu families fled Kashmir and came here. There were nine of us in this one room. We faced unimaginable problems - lack of privacy, discomfort, physical pain, lack of water, proper sanitation. See, this is just one room. Is it possible for one family to live here? It's terrible. We have a common toilet further away, and we share it with 52 other families.
Some time later the government began giving us some rations - each family got rice and a kilo of sugar. We were also given Rs 600 (US$14) which was really of no use, it's so little.
After leaving Kashmir, have you ever gone back to visit?
I visited it for the first time last year. I visited my husband's village - Langate. My husband also fled Kashmir because militants wanted to kill him. We got married here (Mutthi) in 1996 and have two children now. He still has land in the village, which trespassers had been encroaching on. So I decided to visit the property as that is all we can give our children. We have nothing here. I could not visit my natal village because militancy still continues and there are no Hindu families left there.
How did it feel to go back?
It was like a dream. I was scared and excited. Some families welcomed me very warmly. Some did not like the return of a Hindu woman. There are no Hindu families left in Langate either. But I had gone through the security forces, and was safe. I showed my children their native land. I put someone in charge of the land and asked him to take care of it.
All political parties visit during election time seeking our votes, and then do nothing. No one has done anything for us, or we would not remain here today.
I try not to think at all. It's too painful when I think of Kashmir.
This year the Kashmiri Hindus have formed their own party, the JKNUF and are contesting these elections.
Well, it only shows that no one has cared for us until now. So our community has taken this step. It may be a good thing, but it will take time. By then I will be old and gone. I only want our children to be safe. Our lives have been ruined, but I want to see my children prosper and live in Kashmir in security.
Aditi’s work has been published widely, both in Indian and foreign print and electronic media. She was awarded the UNFPA-Population First LAADLI National Media Award 2008 for gender sensitive reporting and hopes to establish her own publication dedicated solely to peace journalism.