Autumn is the prettiest season in Kashmir. After the balmy August sun, September in the valley is cool with a slight chill in the air. As the leaves of chinar trees change colour to bright orange, the valley turns auburn, and resembles a beautiful painting.
Twenty-three years ago, as always, September brought with itself a nip in the air, flaming orange leaves and a lovely autumn Sun. That year, September also brought with itself tragedy and betrayal. However no one knew that, till the morning of September 14.
On September 14, 1989, 59-year-old lawyer, politician and social worker Tika Lal Taploo, fondly known as Lalaji, stepped out of his house as usual to go to his office. He had barely walked a few steps when eight bullets were pumped into his body.
Lalaji succumbed to the bullets, but not before he chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ one last time.
A feisty lawyer known for his spell-binding oratory, vice-president of the Jammu & Kashmir unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Tika Lal Taploo became the first Hindu victim of the jihadi violence that was to engulf the Valley in the following days, resulting in many more targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits and eventually leading to their exodus from the Valley.
But that fateful morning of September 14 no one knew all that was going to happen. The minuscule minority of Pandits had seen some signs of unrest before this, but no one was prepared for the betrayal by their own neighbours. Grief poured on the streets of Srinagar as never before and thousands took part in Lalaji’s funeral procession.
Tika Lal Taploo, a staunch nationalist, was among the first to raise his voice against jihadi violence. Not known to mince words, or cloak the truth, it was no surprise that he was chosen to be the first martyr amongst the Hindus of Kashmir. By silencing the bravest voice amongst them, the jihadis signalled to the Pandits that this was a fight to the finish.
That autumn proved to be treacherous. Neighbours suddenly turned hostile and gunshots began reverberating everywhere. Pandits were treated as ‘agents’ of the Government of India and were suddenly looked at with suspicion. ‘Hit lists’ were made with their names on them, indicating who would be the next target.
Slogans like “Yahan kya chalega, Nizaam-e-Mustafa” (We will have Law of Sharia here), “Hum kya chahte? Azaadi” (We want freedom), “Kashmir mein rehna hai to Allah-o-Akbar kehna hai” (If you choose to live in Kashmir, you will have to say Allah-o-Akbar) were heard everywhere. The Pandits were ultimately given three choices – ‘die, flee or convert’.
A small community, with numbers seriously stacked against them, the Pandits had no choice but to flee. They left their homes, their dreams, their aspirations, and became refugees in their own country. Twenty-three years later, the killers of Tika Lal Taploo are still roaming free as are the murderers of hundreds of others who were killed after him.
Pandits are still refugees in their own country pining for their home and land. This tragic ethnic cleansing that has happened in independent India has received very little media attention.
Twenty-three years later, no one has been punished for the heinous crimes against this tiny community, their homes in Kashmir have either been burnt or occupied, their temples have been destroyed. With every passing year in exile their 5,000-year-old history is getting eroded.
The biggest tragedy of the Pandits, however, is not their burnt homes and lost heritage, it is their complete absence from the ‘Kashmir narrative’. Whenever there is any attempt to solve the so-called ‘Kashmir riddle’, Pandits are always missing from the picture.
The Government of India always ‘reaches out’ (read appeasement via financial packages) to separatists, but never has it made any attempt to reach out to Pandits. Recently the Government of India appointed a group of interlocutors to address the issues of Kashmiris. They spoke to Pandits too, but when the final report came there was nothing for them in there.
The unkindest cut for Pandits is that their own Government is seen engaging with separatists and terrorists a lot more than it ever engages with them.
One often hears that there is nothing preventing the Pandits from going back to Kashmir and that the situation has vastly improved. However, I don’t see what has improved for Pandits.
There is an overwhelming majority in the Valley that still considers Kashmir ‘disputed’, and believes India is an aggressor. How can this small community then even think of going back and living with the same people?
Murderers like Bitta Karate and Yasin Malik roam freely on the streets of Kashmir, Syed Ali Shah Geelani still goes around pledging allegiance to Pakistan at every given opportunity. How can anyone expect Pandits to go back and reclaim what is rightfully theirs in this situation?
As the nation solemnly observes Martyrs’ Day today in memory of Tika Lal Taploo and all other innocent victims who became targets only because of their religion, it is very important that we remember everything that happened twenty-three years ago.
The exodus of Pandits is a blot on the secular fabric of our country. We can never truly call ourselves secular as long as there are Pandits languishing in ‘migrant camps’ hoping to return to the land of their ancestors one day.
As beautiful as the Valley of Kashmir is, in its bosom it hides many stories of betrayal and deceit. Truth has been a casualty here. As long as we keep burying the truth under politically correct labels, there can be no long-lasting solutions.
For, where there is no truth there can be no reconciliation either.