The road southeast from Srinagar is lined with cricket bats that swing like wind chimes from their display stands, and the lean Kashmiri willow trees from whence they came. An hour’s drive brought me to Mattan, where the government has established transit accommodation for incoming Pandits on the Prime Minister’s plan in the amount of three secluded brick buildings. Close to one hundred Kashmiri Hindus live there, in sixteen dormitory apartments (or “sets,” as they are called); a seventeenth is occupied by Indian security forces. The administration had advertised “individual accommodation,” but in Mattan, as elsewhere in the valley, every six or so people have been given to a few cramped rooms. Guests are asked to sign in on a firearm registration form.
One Pandit returnee, Kamal Butt, left the dorms after some time and began to rent a house from a Muslim lady so that his family could visit in the summer months. We sat in a circle on his living room floor, he and I and the young men from the Kheer Bhawani temple. “When I used to live with these guys, those were the charmed days,” he joked. “I quite enjoyed those days.” The conversation turned to which of the men were married, which unwed and which, by force of circumstance, just felt like bachelors. Many of them had met their wives in Jammu—Pandit women from Kashmiri villages far from their own. They considered the romantic potential of migration and broke into a collective giggle.
“It’s not just about giving people jobs and throwing them in the valley,” Kamal said, gripping his gurgling infant by the waist. “Government needs to construct more and more. Time is coming soon when they have to provide everybody with a separate set so that everybody can bring his family over. I think they must do it; they have to do it. They cannot leave us in the middle of the ocean.”
I asked to speak with Kamal’s landlady, a tall woman with a patterned headscarf. She is happy to rent to him, she said. She is happy that some Pandits are back. This is the most I managed to get from her on the subject. Finally, just once, she uttered a full sentence. “She thinks you look like a pigeon,” Kamal translated, pointing toward my neck, which had been bobbing as I laughed, and they began to laugh so hard that he struggled for breath. Many times I heard Pandits protest that the Muslims were only glad of their return because they saw it as a business opportunity. It was good to see them laughing together.
This is an important moment for Kashmir. Forgetting, for an instant, the politics surrounding their return: The young migrants are here. They will be here until they reach the age of retirement. They are very highly educated; they have known freedom and the type of modernity that has not yet reached this region stagnated by conflict. One wonders what the valley owes them, but one might also ask what they will wind up giving to it. They haven’t resettled after two long decades for nostalgia’s sake or for the weather. They are in their twenties and thirties and they’ve come back to work. If and when they feel comfortable speaking openly, they will find themselves in a position to make Srinagar more closely resemble the cities they so miss.
Sundeep Kichloo was born in Mattan and he, among the men who had been cross-legged on Kamal’s floor, was chosen to guide me. He pointed past the garlands of barbed wire, past a police volleyball game, to the forsaken Pandit homes. He remembered them as they were then. “This house belonged to a mister… I don’t remember what’s his actual name, but we used to call him ‘Bituji.’ And this, too, was a house. This belonged to a KAS officer from the community. At that time he was a little chap.” We came to a narrow stream and Sundeep let the rest of our group stray ahead. “This was a good place for we people,” he said softly. “It’s not so deep. But in our childhood, we used to bathe in this spring. It was near to our house.”
And then we were there, at Sundeep’s birth house. He looked at it, that corroding barn, as if at a photograph. “We missed our house for a long time. We will miss it for long, maybe until death.” And even as he stood there, just a few minutes’ walk from the dormitory where he sleeps, in the village that he is likely to inhabit for more than thirty years, he said, “But the thing is we will not come back to the valley again.” In his mind he had not yet returned. He was completing a job in some far-off place, nothing more.
I wondered: If the government were to make good on its promise of financial assistance, would he build a new house, bring over his wife and newborn girl? “Giving money is not enough,” Kamal interjected. “Suppose he takes money from the government and suppose he rebuilds his home. But he has to practically live there. It’s not so simple. The government needs to take steps to ensure his security. Kashmiri Pandits are in the minority and we always are scared of the majority. That’s a fact. Living here is not so easy. We are hundreds and those people are in lakhs.”
“Yes,” Amit said. “What is in their hearts nobody knows.”
I found him in a lawn chair on his porch, screaming words of affection and encouragement at the Muslim workers fashioning his new screen door
The Pandit migrants who sold their land did so by hasty verbal agreements and for many times less than it was worth. So many of the houses were—and still are—owned by joint families that could agree on nothing but to let them decay. I met a Kashmiri Hindu husband, wife and child who had made a permanent return in their boxy apartment and asked the father, Sanjay Koul, why they didn’t recover his birth house, which apparently was in habitable condition. “Because a number of shareholders are there,” he said. “It does not belong only to me, so I alone cannot do anything. It belongs also to my cousin brothers who have migrated from here and it is disputed among our relations.” Sanjay also owns a house in Jammu, which has been left behind, locked up. “We will decide what to do with it after retirement.”
Some of the abandoned Pandit houses have been populated by security forces, some by Muslims and many more have been set on fire. No one is certain of who burned them. Several Pandits told me that they had been set ablaze by militants bent on ensuring that the Hindu community would never return. Several Muslims told me that the Pandits burned the houses before fleeing, to further victimize themselves.
Only on rare occasions do Pandits come to restore the homes they vacated, as with Dr. Muju and his kin, who already have mended the ground floor and are renting it out to a Muslim family. When I visited, the concrete upstairs of their house was still in a shambles wrought first by the militants, then by the police and finally by nature. Its wooden steps were covered in bird shit and small white feathers. The officers who, for years, used the place for barracks took even the wood beams from the ceiling and the metal plumbing pipes from beneath the bathroom wall. The only thing that had not been stolen was a giant metal trunk, which apparently wasn’t worth the effort to haul down.
“A house is a house—even if it’s damaged, what does it matter? It’s our house,” Dr. Muju’s nephew, Praful, said. He pointed out the window to where the cherry tree and the black grape tree stood before they were pilfered. “Every person in the world identifies himself with some land. We identify ourselves with this land. This is what brings us back here.”
Dr. Muju, whose 80-year-old father refused to leave with him to Jammu and was killed in this house, sat out on the grass. He wondered why the administration officials were taking so long to inspect his reconstruction efforts and recompense him. “The government must help us if they are sincere about removing this stigma from their face: the migration of a minority community from a secular country in the twentieth century without any war, without any external threat,” he said. “We are very serious about coming back. Even today I can go to any Muslim family and they will show me the same love that they showed me twenty years ago. I can go there, knock on the door, ask for a cup of tea. The older generation still feels the loss of that.”
Only once did I encounter a Pandit who had received government money—an older man from the village of Mattan who spoke in exasperated shouts as though everyone around him were hard of hearing. Having returned to the valley, he began in 2011 to build a new house just steps from the wreckage of his erstwhile residence. Apparently, the government gifted him five lakhs, which he is using to complete an upper story. I found him in a lawn chair on his porch, screaming words of affection and encouragement at the Muslim workers fashioning his new screen door.
It is likely that this man, J.C. Kher, will return to Jammu in the bitter winters. Same for Dr. Muju and any other retirees rebuilding in the valley. Which is why some Kashmiris have accused the government of offering to help fund summer vacation retreats. Can someone’s battered ancestral house, or even the new building someone is erecting next to his battered ancestral house, be called a “vacation retreat”? How many months a year must you spend in a place to be considered to have permanently returned? Should the government be giving money to returnees who have decided to keep houses outside of the valley? I can only say that I watched Dr. Muju visit his neighbor, the huddled Muslim woman he had lived next to for years, and I saw her delight, and it looked very much like he had come home.