Standing in front of rows of multi-storey buildings at the entrance of which is written: “Welcome to mini township of Kashmiri Migrants (Jagti)”, one stares at an abyss.
The residents can’t still accept these as their homes. For them, these are only shelters because home is still there in Kashmir.
Thirty-two years of living in these one-room flats has been a never-ending struggle for the 4,225 families. From the day-to-day hassles of problems like drinking water, electricity, peeling plasters, leaking roofs or breaking bathrooms, the struggles are far greater.
Most of the residents had big houses in Kashmir; many had orchards and gardens, no dearth of food and water, clothes and all the comforts. For most, the future was secure, life was a song. But all this changed and these residents were suddenly thrown out on the roads.
On the night of January 19, 1990, when motivated frenzied crowds overtook the streets in Kashmir and the political class, administration and civil society went into deep sleep, thousands of helpless Kashmiri Pandits were driven out in one of the most unprecedented exoduses in Independent India’s history.
Fleeing from the murderous crowds, the first stop for the terrified Kashmiri Pandits was Jammu. It was a flight which did not happen because of the one-night terror show, it was a culmination of the desperation of the tyranny unleashed against the minorities since 1989.
Reaching Jammu was a life-giving experience for many, but suddenly getting uprooted from their well-furnished homes in the Valley was like landing in another hell. Soon tents came up at several barren spaces in Nagrota, Purkhoo, Muthi, Mishriwala etc., in Jammu. Life was miserable and the struggle for food, drinking water, clothing and shelter began.
It was only in 2010 that these townships on the outskirts of Jammu were built. It took 20 years for the government to help these people, who suffered primarily because of the failure of the state to protect them against the terror onslaught in Kashmir.
After living in tents for two decades, the refugees moved to the concrete ones. The township was inaugurated by then PM Manmohan Singh in March 2011. It’s only a 350-sq-ft flat — a bedroom and a living room — for each family, but still better than those tents and shanties.
Bhushan Lal Bhat was forced to flee Kashmir in 1990 after his uncle, who was in J&K Police, was shot dead in broad daylight at Khannabal Chowk. Bhat had a big house and land in the hill resort of Pahalgam, and once safely out of the Valley, he has been moving from one camp in Udhampur to another in Jammu and then to one-room tenement in Muthi camp before finally moving to the Jagti camp.
“I have been living in tents and now here It’s been 32 years but I still have not reconciled. This is not life, we are just passing the time. Few years ago, I took my son to our Kashmir home. He was awestruck on seeing our house and the location. But the truth is that we cannot live there we have to be here in this hole,” Bhat said.
Living in another flat is Pyare lal Pandita, whose family was forced to flee in February 1990 after a threat letter was passed on to the entrance of the village temple in Kupwara’s Lolab valley.
“My father had just retired from the army and he was given this choice — join us or get ready to die. After some time, we fled in a truck and reached Udhampur, where we lived under a tree before we found a place in a refugee camp there. From there then we moved to the Muthi camp in Jammu before finally reaching Jagti.
“Our whole village was set on fire. All the houses except the Shiva temple and the three surrounding Chinars were gutted. We lost all papers I couldn’t study beyond Class XII. I secured 598 marks out of 700 in 10th but couldn’t study beyond 12th.
“I did odd jobs as my father’s salary was withheld because of lack of papers. I sold vegetables, milk… I had to support my family. I gave space to my younger siblings. In Jagti, the unemployment rate is very high. The government could have taken some skill development initiative. But no one cares.
“The whole township is in a very bad condition. There is no boundary wall, concrete is falling off. We have a sub-hospital, doctors are there but there are no equipment There is no cleanliness here and no waste disposal mechanism. Drinking water is of very bad quality and many people here are suffering from liver and kidney diseases. Money is allocated, but we don’t know where it is spent,” Pandita said.
For the aging residents, who were witnesses to the Kashmir mayhem, overcoming the trauma has been a challenge. A hope though bleak still glimmers in their hearts that maybe someday they may be able to go to their homes in Kashmir — only over 131 km away — and yet the distance now seems to be one of a lifetime.
(Deepika Bhan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)