Those who stay can't afford to leave: Kashmiri refugees
Syed Firdaus Ashraf in New Delhi
Usha Khar used to live in a three-storey bungalow in Srinagar. Now she lives in a tent made of old bedsheets and shares a toilet with 20 other families at one of the 15 refugee camps in New Delhi that house 20,000 families.
Khar is one of the pandits who fled Kashmir when fundamentalist forces decided they had no place there. Her husband Kranti Nandan left Kashmir with his family after a Muslim friend told them they would be killed if they stayed. The family thought they could return as soon as normalcy returned to the state in a few months. Seven years on, they are still waiting. Nandan, who was an established businessman at home is now a part-time schoolteacher.
They left after January 19, 1990, when thousands of Muslims filled the roads, demanding, "Kafiron ko mar dalo (Kill the infidels)". Muslim clerics too demanded that Hindus leave Kashmir the very next day or die.
S N Kaul, a Kashmir government electrical engineer, has a better time. "For the last seven years I never went to office… And the government is paying my salary on time…" Unlike him the family of Babbli Kaur, a widow who managed her husband’s business in Srinagar till they too fled, is living a hand-to-mouth existence. "I am forced to sell children’s wares on the roadside. I earn not more than Rs 70 a day." With that she manages the needs of her three children and herself. But all their Muslim neighbours in Kashmir weren’t against them, the refugees say.
"One of my Muslim friends was deputed by the militants to kill me. But he quietly informed me, asking me to run way… His own life would have been in danger if he did not kill me," says Ravi Jalani, a young man who now sells lottery tickets. "I escaped the same night to New Delhi."
According to Ashok Kak, the secretary of the Kashmiri Samiti, which looks after the interests of the refugees, there has been a mass exodus of Hindus from Kashmir, leaving only about 200 families behind. "They are those who cannot afford to move out." They sometimes even have to shelter militants from their army, he said.
The United Nations had proposed a resolution to give refugee status to people displaced by internal disturbance, but nothing has come of it yet. The Indian government gives Kashmir youths Rs 350 a month, compared to the Rs 2,500 and medical facilities given to Afghan and Burmese refugees.
Despite the hardships none of the refugees are keen to return home. Monetary encouragement from the government has made little difference. And they don’t expect the upcoming bilateral talks with Pakistan to tilt the balance either.
Says Kaul, "We are talking for the last seven years with Pakistan. So, I don't think this meeting has much relevance… If the Government of India is serious they can solve the problem in one month by taking strict measures." Unlike in Punjab where the Sikh-Hindu ratio is 55:45, Kashmir has a Muslim-Hindu ratio of 97:3, the refugees point out. Interestingly, there are 2,000 Muslim families in refugee camps in Jammu and 200 Muslim families in New Delhi.
The recent killing of seven pandits at Sangrampora in Badgam district on March 22 does not shock them. It was inevitable, they feel. "We feel sad and cannot do anything but pray for them," said Kaul.