Naveen Zalpuri –
It was almost a week on Jan. 18,1990, that I had been staying in mamaji’s (maternal uncle) home in Zaindar Mohalla in Srinagar. My mamaji passed away on May 1, 1989, leaving behind my aunt Sarlaji and cousin Deepu, who was a year younger. Theirs was a rented accommodation in the elevated ground floor in a three-story house owned by Ambardar family, who lived in other floors. The entire year of 1989 was messy, uncertain and nerve-racking in Kashmir. My 10th grade, the pivotal Matriculation examination had finished a couple of months prior in October-November 1989 in turmoil and strife. The education board in Kashmir had October-November as end of the school year as opposed to March-April in rest of India.
The commute from home to examination centers and back was a great challenge and utterly unsafe, to say the least.. Throughout that year, in particular its second half, there were targeted and selective killings of Hindu Pandits such as Justice Neel Kanth Ganjoo, Pandit Tika Lal Taploo and many, many more. And the killers were so called “Azadi” (freedom) seeking freedom fighters lovingly referred to “Mujahedeens” (holy Islamic warriors) by the Kashmiri Muslim populace at large.
Roughly it was a decade earlier when as a 5-year-old boy I first learnt about us “Bhattas” (meaning Kashmiri Hindus in local vernacular) being different and hated. My earliest memory of trouble in Kashmir is when my mother and I were walking toward her maternal home and suddenly a minor “Kani Jung” (stone pelting battle) broke out. This time it was Ghulam Nabi (called Nabe in Kashmiri), a vegetable vendor whose shop we used to buy vegetables from, leading the riot and wreaking havoc. I heard Nabe pelting stones and yelling a war cry – “Bhatto Tchelvo” (Bhattas get lost). We were scared like hell and then an elderly bearded Kashmiri Muslim, who had a small fruit shop at the corner of a nearby bylane, appeared from nowhere and then guided us to use that bylane instead. I remember him saying emphatically, “Kourya yepar nerev, Daughter use this way” and handing me a piece of fruit, an apple slice. That defined the character of Kashmiris Muslims for me. There were some who were overpowered with strong hatred for “Bhattas” on occasions, and then there were others guided by compassion and much talked about “Kashmiriyat.” It must have been business as usual for Nabe that evening or the next day. Nabe was known to my father, and he would greet us cordially and give us good stuff, but he was known to be “tauseffi” (radical fundamentalist). There were personal friendships, but when it came to “deen” (duty toward Islam), it would cloud good judgement and trounce everything else. No wonder by the end of the decade a young Kashmir Pandit, Satish Tickoo, whose shop stood just a few shops away for Nabi’s shop, was mercilessly killed by Farooq Ahmed Dar, nicknamed as Bitta Karate, a dreaded terrorist for Kashmiri Hindus and a holy Mujahid for majority Kashmiri Muslims.
The decade of ’80s saw many a “Nabes” of Kashmir break into stone pelting exercise at any pretext, whether India won a cricket match against Australia, or Pakistan lost to any country, or someone sneezed in Palestine, or Rushdie wrote “The Satanic Verses” or Sheikh Abdulla passed away or Gul Shah took over the Chief Ministership from Farooq Abdulla. You name it, and more often than not, the Bhattas were at the receiving end of the mindless ire. But every time sanity would be restored thanks to a fair number of Kashmiri Muslims like that fruit vendor who remains etched in my memory.
The hatred for Hindus was age-old as evident from an abusive couplet in Kashmiri “Bhattan Hund Byol Khodayan Gol, Aemis moul zene badal zol ” (meaning May Khuda (God, Allah in Persian) destroy Bhatta (Hindu) seed, May his father be lit instead of firewood). That hatred and othering of Hindus peaked in 1989 when “Mujahids” got arms from across the border and began unabated killings of Hindus. This time the Muslim majority population as a whole overwhelmingly looked the other way or, even worse, supported and rejoiced at the madness and massacre taking place. A dehumanization exercise at unprecedented scale together with unbridled lust for secession from Hindu-majority India was so high that annihilation of aboriginal people of the land was underway and rationalized as a small price to pay. By the same token killings of some Kashmiri Muslims alleged to be Muqbirs (informers) by the holy Mujahideens was also justified.
I recall on May 10, 1989, a Kashmiri Muslim friend telling some of us in a somber tone that they will miss us, as we Bhattas will have to leave this place pretty soon. The plan to evict and cleanse the Hindus to ensure complete Islamization of the valley was brewing for a long time. And all this while the state government of Farooq Abdulla and the Central Government had abdicated their constitutional duties to protect the citizens. December 1989 saw abduction of Rubayya Sayeed, then home minister of India Mufti Sayeed’s daughter, who was released in exchange for some jailed militants, and also the cold-blooded murder of four Indian Airforce personnel. That further led them to believe that Azadi from India was around the corner. For the Kasmhiri minorities each day added to our fear of life, limb and honor by leaps and bounds.
Coming back to the evening of Jan. 18, 1990, we learnt in the news that Jagmohan had been brought in as the governor of the state. During the days we would play street cricket in a small backyard, and in the evenings would watch some TV or listen to the radio. On Jan. 18 Thathaji (Mr T N Ambardar, patriarch and father figure of the house probably, in his early or mid-fifties) asked us to join them in third floor. There were hush-hush talks of the implications of Jagmohan becoming the governor of the state. They were hoping that anarchy in Kashmir would end as in his previous stint as the governor during the mid-’80s when he was hailed as a good administrator, though he was also seen as someone from the Hindu rightwing. We also learnt Jammu and Kashmir assembly had been dissolved. Soon my discussion with Thathaji moved to gathering some trivia around “Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki” and other songs of a 1949 movie “Dulari” and other films of that era. We slept late that night and were woken by frantic knocking at the main door at around 6 a.m. My aunt Sarlaji partially popped her head out of the window to see who it was, and she found that some security people were there.
It appeared that security forces had started conducting search operations, a first in Kashmir. Nervous, she told them kids were asleep, and they said they would return in a bit. Ours was a last Hindu house in that row, and after that started the Muslim households in that neighborhood. The security forces returned by 8:30 a.m. I went to open the door. They came in and started looking and soon realized that this was a Hindu home from the pictures of Hindu gods hanging from the walls. One of the cops asked if he could get cigarettes. I offered to check in a mini-shop that was being operated from a Muslim house in the neighborhood. He gave me two rupees. I came back without the cigarettes. They got a cigarette from one of the uncles when Thathaji was not looking. They moved to the next house, and we heard some yelling from there. At 10 a.m. my father came and gave me five minutes to pack up and leave with him to our home. I left with him, and the next two-and-a-half kilometers of walk toward the Jehangir Hotel was the worst one I have experienced in my life. People were running helter-skelter in all directions. There was stone pelting, teenagers making petrol bombs and hurling those on security forces. Somehow we managed to reach the minibus stand near the Jehangir Hotel, and there was one last bus headed, in all that chaos and violence, toward our place in Natipora. In the evening when it was dark, the loudspeakers from nearby mosques went full blown with Islamic verses, “Nara e Takbeer,” anti-Hindu sloganeering such as “Raliv, Galiv, Ya Chelev,” meaning “convert, die or flee”; “Aase gache Pakistan Bhattav Rostoye Bhatenev saan,” meaning “We want Pakistan, without Hindu men but with Hindu women,” It appeared thousands of people were on the streets. The sloganeering was very frightening especially, when people in our neighborhood would scream “Allah Hu Akbar” in concert with the “Nara e Takbeer” emanating from loudspeakers from nearby mosques. We were confident that it was perhaps our last night alive. We were 11 people in my house, including my uncle’s family with three little daughters who had temporarily moved from Habba Kadal to our place just a couple of weeks earlier. We kept three gas cylinders behind the door handy to let the inflammable gas out and burn the house and self-immolate should the mob target us. Our next-door neighbor was a family of Hindu Khatris originally from Muzaffarabad in PoK. Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Congress leader, was their close friend, and I had seen him visit them a couple times. This family was doubly scared since they had gone through the same experience just a few decades earlier. Thankfully, nothing happened, and we were happy to find ourselves alive the next morning.
The very next day Aunty and her daughter from Jilani’s, a Muslim family came by and inquired about our welfare. Aunty was a nice lady and her daughter was a rakhi sister. She had several times advised my mother that the situation was going to be very bad, and they had some relatives who were active in the Tahreek (the Azadi movement). However, that particular day she was a little concerned about her daughter as she had heard that security forces were conducting search operations in our area, and she would like to keep her daughter at our place for half a day. (They felt safe that we being Hindus would be better treated or excused from the checking). This was perhaps the only time I felt we were worthy of anything there. Thankfully, no search happened. All the nights after Jan. 19 continued to be the same for the next several days, and each morning finding ourselves alive was refreshing. The evening of Jan. 28 my younger maternal uncle “Bhaijaan” came to our place disoriented and worried. He worked in a private transport company and had gone to check in with his office, but he could not go back as some rioting erupted and his neighborhood was placed under curfew. He was very worried for his family. Next morning while he was leaving, my mother enquired if he knew how their sister-in-law Sarlaji and Deepu were doing, as my maternal uncles lived pretty close. He casually mentioned that they had already left for Jammu in a hurry on Jan. 20 itself. When we enquired further, he gave us the bad news that Thathaji (Mr T N Ambaradar) was killed. Apparently after I had left with my father later in the day, the neighborhood Muslims came out to resist search operations by security forces, and they were asking Hindus to join them, Thathaji, in a bid to save youngsters in his house, offered to join the Muslims. It was not uncommon in those days to force reluctant Hindus to be in the frontline of the protesting mob as human shields. It is said that some armed militant fired at the security personnel, and in that crossfire a bullet hit Thathaji and then he could not be taken to hospital in time. The same day or the next the entire family moved out of Srinagar.
Our turn to escape that horror came on the morning of Jan. 31, 1990. Somehow my father got a taxi rented for a hefty sum of thousand rupees to drop us to the bus terminal in Amira Kadal. Early morning on Jan. 31, when the taxi arrived, which was a white Ambassador, my mother had taken a gas stove, a suitcase that we fitted in the trunk, my grandmother a small bag, and my uncle’s family small bag carrying clothes. Besides the driver there were nine passengers in that taxi – three ladies, four girls, my father and my uncle. I could not fit in, and I offered to ride my bicycle, an “Atlas Concorde.” We were ready to leave my bike abandoned at the bus stand. The taxi left, and I followed it. I was stopped by a tall Muslim man in front of our neighborhood mosque. He inquired, “Bhatta toye cheve tchanal,” meaning “Are you fleeing from here?” I didn’t know what to say but quickly retorted that one of our relatives passed away last week in a crossfire, and we are going to attend the ceremonies. He let me go. Thankfully, the bus conductor for a fee of fifteen rupees agreed to let me bring my bicycle along. I used that bike in Chandigarh couple of years later. It took us the next three to four months in Jammu to connect with our relatives and loved ones. Hindus left the place over the course of the next few months. All that while killings, rapes, brutalities continued galore.
As we move into the 30th year of exodus, I believe the martyrdom, sacrifice and our ethnic cleansing from the valley has somewhat awakened Indians from the complacency and slumber. The abolishing of Article 370 to bring Kashmir to the mainstream is a historic step that will eventually bear fruit. I pray that peace and prosperity returns to the valley. I hope that someday evicted Hindus and other minorities are resettled in a “smart city” in Kashmir to make it really plural and heaven for all who live there in a true sense.