It was the Janmashtami of 1990, and Rashneek Kher, a 16-year-old Kashmiri pandit in exile in the squalid refugee camps of Jammu, stood in line at the milkman's. In addition to selling milk, the vendor also stored copies of the morning newspaper, which Kher would hungrily pore over. That day Kher read that his house was burnt down. "My father didn't speak to anyone for a month. He had built that house himself," says Kher.
According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 26.4 million ended 2011 as internally displaced people, a figure far higher than the number of refugees. Kher and his clan know what internal displacement means, having lived like refugees in their own country since 1990, when an estimated 3.5 lakh pandits left the valley. Yet their flight from Kashmir remains shrouded in silence.
"All we want is an acknowledgment of what happened. People say pandits fled Kashmir. But Hindus didn't run away. We had no option but to leave," says actor Sanjay Suri, who was 19 when his family left Kashmir. "The mass exodus took place in January 1990. But we stayed on till August 1, when my father was shot dead by militants," says Suri. He recalls his anguish when a government officer in Jammu asked him to prove his father was dead. His family is among those who had to sell their homes in Kashmir. "I can't describe what it feels like when you knock on the door of the house where you grew up and somebody else opens it," he says.
"The exodus of Kashmiri pandits is the largest internal displacement in India since partition. And yet, so little is said about them," says filmmaker Onir, speaking to TOI from Berlin. He earned accolades for the representation of a Kashmiri pandit widow returning home in his film I Am.
Some like Sumati Thusoo (21), have never lived in Kashmir. "My mother was pregnant with me when our family left Kashmir," says Thusoo, who was born in Jammu and grew up in Chandigarh.
When the pandits left Kashmir, many believed they'd return home once the violence subsided. "During the winter of 1989, when I left Kashmir to spend my holidays in Delhi, I thought I'd be back in a few weeks. But it has been 22 years," says Amit Raina. Artist Veer Munshi, another pandit in exile, has made Kashmir the subject of his work. He has photographed the remains of his own home, long burnt down.
Munshi feels education helped pandits rehabilitate themselves. "I have seen parents forcing children to study even within refugee camps."
Surviving Jammu's refugee camps was the next big ordeal for Kashmiris. "My grandmother lived for only three months after we shifted to the camps," says Vinod Bhan, recalling the miserable years his family of five spent in a 10ft by 10ft space. "We would sleep on the roof, even when the temperature was 42 degrees," says Bhan.
A yearning for home drove Kher to form Roots in Kashmir, a forum for pandits scattered across India. The group has 4,000 Facebook members. Those who live in Delhi meet each Friday at CP. Kashmir is what binds them. It's also an open wound festering in their hearts. Kher's group is disillusioned with the government and the Hindu right-wing BJP which "took our votes but paid lip-service to our cause."
They want to return to Kashmir, but not to the places they earlier lived. "We want the government to carve out a separate province within Kashmir for pandits. We can't live with the people who persecuted us," says Kher.
But some, like Suri, feel this won't solve the problem, but will create an exclusive Kashmir. "We need to build bridges between pandits and locals in Kashmir," says Suri. Onir says the loss of Kashmir's multiculturalism has created a vacuum in the valley. Munshi, who believes in reclaiming the composite culture of the land, feels ordinary Muslims in Kashmir should not be confused with Islamic terrorists. "The only solution is through dialogue between those who fled the valley and those who live there today. But this hasn't happened. Somewhere, the government has failed both Kashmiri pandits and those who continue to live there," says Onir.