The eruption of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s led to the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits, a minuscule ethnic group, out of the state. A handful stayed back. In the last three decades, their number has consistently declined. Only 667 families remain in Kashmir now, and they call themselves non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits. Having braved the most turbulent times, this nearly invisible minority in Kashmir now finds itself at a crossroad because of a growing sense of deprivation and disconnect with the larger Kashmiri Pandit community outside Kashmir.
Before the outbreak of militancy, Pandits held sway over administration, education and business, especially over pharmaceuticals. They were also actively involved in theatre and art. Pandits who moved out had to put up with many hardships, including the weather. However, with the help of the Central government, they were able to rebuild their lives. Their migration also coincided with the economic liberalisation launched by the Congress government led by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. That proved a base for many migrant Pandits to take part in India’s growth story. On the other hand, the lives of Pandits who stayed back, like the Muslims of the valley who form the majority, deteriorated because of the worsening security situation.
Prana Shangloo, a television star of the 1980s, is enduring it all at 65. Her life symbolises the crisis that Pandits in Kashmir are facing. Shangloo began her career in theatre in the 1970s after finishing college. The advent of the television age made her a household name in Kashmir for performances in serials. She also acted in Bollywood movies like Heeralal Pannalal (1978). In the film, she played the role of Indira Gandhi and won praise for her acting. In the 1990s, when militancy was rampant, Shangloo stopped acting and focussed on the needs of her family. After getting their daughter married, Shangloo and her husband, Kidar Nath, who worked in a semi-government department, sold their house in Srinagar and shifted to a rented accommodation at Chadoora in Budgam. After Nath died in 2009, and their son left Kashmir a year later, Shangloo fell into poverty. Ever since, she has been living a hard life with health issues. “After my husband died, my daughter has been paying my house rent,” she said. “I sold many household items over time to survive.”
Shangloo eventually moved into her daughter's home in Chanpora, Srinagar. “I moved to my daughter’s house after my son-in-law died,” she said. “I will go back to Chadoora in the summers.” She feels the government was responsible for the plight of Pandits in Kashmir. “Nothing has been done for us,” she said. “I used to get offers from Doordarshan, but even that stopped.”
Ajeet Das (name changed), a 40-something resident of Anantnag in south Kashmir, is in a similar predicament. After graduating from an engineering college in Bengaluru, Das did a master's in law and journalism, and pursued a career in journalism. A few months ago, he was laid off by the media company where he has worked for many years.
“Suddenly, I was unemployed and had nowhere to go after covering Jammu and Kashmir for years,” he said. “Both decisions of staying in Kashmir and choosing journalism as a career were wrong. I now assist a lawyer for a living. My law degree has come in handy in these hard times. I hope to practise law in a few years.”
He said his decision to work in Kashmir was the only reason he could not get married. No migrant Pandit family, nobody was willing to give their daughter in marriage to someone in Kashmir.
According to Vinodh Hali of Magam in Budgam, youngsters in Kashmir are still finding it difficult to find a match. “We have a young shopkeeper who wants to get married, but nobody is willing to marry him,” he said. He said they suggested the boy look for a girl among the Kashmiri-speaking Hindus of Doda, Jammu. Hali notes that when militancy was at its peak, survival was the main challenge for the community, but now there are other issues.
“After militancy started in Kashmir, I never travelled beyond Magam for years,” he said. “I went to Srinagar after 10 years to see my ancestral house in Habba Kadal (a locality in the city).” He said when they were living in Habba Kadal, he would go to Hariparbat, a hill that houses mosques, a temple and a gurdwara overlooking downtown Srinagar. “Kasheer bani ne kuni (there is nothing like Kashmir). We are all at fault,” he said with a sigh. The Pandits living in Kashmir badly miss the community support, said Hali.
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