A brush with death leaves an indelible impression on the psyche. And so it’s hardly surprising that when Srinagar resident Sanjay Tickoo, 52, recounts incidents that took place 24 years ago, there’s a tremor in his voice, and a vividness to his descriptions that belies the passage of time.

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Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit, ran a franchise for a medical company in the Valley. Then, one day in 1994, a close friend — a Muslim — urgently conveyed some news: Local militants had drawn up a “hit list” of targets; Tickoo’s name on it.

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A shaken Tickoo quickly made arrangements to get his family to safety, paying a truck driver Rs 500 in advance to take them all under cover to Jammu. Despite the threat to his life, however, Tickoo was reluctant to leave — Kashmir was his home, it was where his heart lay. So he stayed back.

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Soon enough, the militants picked up Tickoo. The brother of one of Tickoo’s employees, however, was a deputy commander with the Hizbul Mujahideen. He intervened, and Tickoo’s life was saved. Later, Tickoo found out that a business rival had paid to have his name added on the militants’ hit list; this rival had paid Rs 2,000 to the militants for the job.

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***

“Yehaan kya chalega Nizam-e-Mustafa (There will be Islamic law in Kashmir)”.

“Assi gacchi panu’nuy Pakistan — batav rostuy, batenein saan (We want Pakistan — without the Pandit men, but with their women)”.

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“When the loudspeakers of the local mosques began to deliver these slogans, we knew it was time to leave,” says Param*, a 54-year-old Kashmiri Pandit. Within days of moving to Jammu, his family learned that their home at Safa Kadal, Srinagar, had been set on fire.

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Today, Param and his family live in a rented house at Karan Nagar, but do not think of leaving the Valley. “This is my birthplace, the connection is too deep-rooted. The bond I have with my Muslim friends and neighbours is so strong, I know I won’t find anything resembling this warmth elsewhere. So how can I leave?” Param asks.

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His family is no longer fearful, he adds; there are such few Pandits in the Valley now that the focus is no longer on them.

“At this stage of my life, I can’t erase my memories and create new connections in any other city,” he explains. “This is my home, these are my own people; Hindus and Muslims have both been exploited by politicians.”

***

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In Aman’s* locality, there was an abandoned home that had belonged to a Kashmiri Pandit family. Aman and his friends liked to gather there, under the shade of a pear tree, and shoot the breeze. It was on one such day that Aman and his friends were approached by two men who had been seen loitering around the neighbourhood. One of the men was known to be an active militant.

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The men began to quiz Aman about his next-door neighbours. “I immediately knew something was amiss…” Aman says. “But I still replied honestly to their queries about how many people lived in the house, what time did the man of the house leave/return during the day. Then I asked them what their purpose was (in gathering this intelligence). ‘He's an informer and we have orders to execute him,’ one of the men told me.”

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Aman says he was shocked — and scared. The family in question had been his neighbours for 13 years; he knew the man was an ordinary employee of the Forest Department. Looking to buy some time, Aman told the men that it was unbelievable that his neighbor was an informant — quickly adding, “But you’d know better”. He also requested the men not to kill his neighbor near his home since all the residents in the locality would have to face a police investigation later.

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Surprisingly, the men agreed — on one condition: When his neighbor left for work the next morning in his official vehicle, Aman would hail him from the main road, asking for a lift. As soon as his neighbor stopped the car for Aman, the militants would carry out their plan. Aman agreed.

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As soon as he returned home, his mother realised that there was grave trouble. Aman told her what had happened, and she began sobbing. “‘Khodaya reham, ye kos taven gov (God have mercy, what in hell is this?)’ she cried, then pulled me by the arm to my neighbour’s house,” Aman recalls. The man was at work, so Aman’s mother narrated what had transpired to his wife. Both women hugged each other and cried. “We stayed there till Uncleji returned home. With the help of some members of his office staff, they packed some essentials. The office had organised a vehicle, and the family immediately left for Jammu. They couldn’t even wait for the morning but had to leave under cover of darkness. We were so helpless,” says Aman.

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The very next morning, Aman was sent to his mother’s family home and remained there in hiding for nearly a month. Then his cousin got Aman a job in Agra, and he left at once. “It has been almost 28 years since those events,” Aman says. “Now I visit Kashmir only once a year, with my family.”

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***

When Roop Krishen Kou says “the militancy started at our gates” he isn’t dealing in hyperbole. Roop’s home near Magarmal Bagh was where militants from the Batamaloo area would engage in skirmishes with the armed forces. “It was a frightening situation and our family pondered moving to Jammu,” says Roop, who has a shop on Hari Singh high street, at the heart of Srinagar city.

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Then, militants showed up at Roop’s home, asking after his 10-year-old nephew, then a class 4 student. They claimed the boy had been seen talking to BSF men on the road. “They suspected that my nephew had given clues about certain militants that had led to their arrests,” Roop remembers. “Our neighbours came to our aid. We somehow got the militants to agree to give us a day’s time to speak with the child. We immediately sent the boy and his parents on to Jammu…”

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***

Nazir Ahmad, a shopkeeper from the Baba Demb area, deals in old houses — specifically, in dismantling them. Many of these houses belonged to Kashmiri Pandit families who have long since fled the area. Some of these structures have been rebuilt/renovated.

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“An entire market had emerged, of old house material, during these years,” Ahmad says, of the aftermath of the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. “It all came from demolished Pandit homes; they used the best material — the wood; also the bricks, which were of excellent quality since mud was used and not cement.”

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Ahmad also bought a home for himself at Habba Kadal, for what he says is a throwaway price of Rs 1,50,000. “Had it belonged to a Muslim, I would have had to pay three times more,” he says. “Nearly 90 percent of all Pandit homes have been purchased and are occupied by Muslims.”

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***

“There was a time when this area was full of Kashmiri Pandits,” says Syed Mustafa, a shopkeeper at Bata Mohala, Fateh Kadal. “I miss them. They were good, gentle and kind people; they would never haggle about payments.”

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He adds, after a beat: “You can’t speak the truth in Kashmir. It is risky.”

***

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Till 1989, Gulam Mohammad ran a small grocery shop in Methan, Chanapora. Most of his customers were Pandits. When the exodus occurred, a neighbor approached him with a proposition: could Gulam ask a Pandit who had moved to Jammu if he’d sell the house he’d vacated? The homeowner had been a regular at Gulam’s shop, and they were friends. So Gulam travelled to Jammu and a deal was soon concluded. “It was good and easy money,” he says.

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Gulam now began approaching other Pandit families who had resettled in Jammu, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune etc. “Initially, it was a traumatic experience. However, I gradually realised that if I don’t do it, someone else will — and not even as honestly as me,” Gulam says.

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Sometimes, the Pandit families he’d liaise with would be emotionally overwrought; the women would cry as they handed over the property papers. “Once a woman scolded me — ‘Why won’t you let us come back to Kashmir, why the hell are you after our land and our house?’ Her husband consoled her and took charge, and we finalised a deal,” Gulam says, adding that he has sold over 50 Pandit homes, which helped him earn enough to start his business, buy a good house and car, and get his three daughters married.

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Only 808 families comprising a total population of 2,864 of Kashmiri Pandits live across 242 towns and villages in the Valley today.

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This is a fraction of the 77,254 families (population: 3,250,000) that resided across 1,242 locations in Kashmir in 1989, a year before their mass exodus.

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Now, the Kashmiri Pandit children who were raised outside the Valley have assimilated into the melting pot of cultures that is India and are marrying outside the community. “In the next few decades, it will all be over, you may hardly find the race in any part of the country,” says Bharat*, a Kashmiri Pandit.

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***

At one time, Javaid Zargar was a militant with the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). Now, he works as an activist. Looking back on the days of the exodus, he says, “We never wanted them (the Pandits) to go; they were pushed out by then governor Jagmohan and other agencies. We had nothing to gain from scaring off Kashmiri Pandits, it was the government that had a vested interest. They wanted to give a communal colour to our movement for freedom. Yes, some Pandits were killed on suspicion of being informants, but so were some Muslims. Many of the killings took place as part of personal rivalries — as happens in other places too.”

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Javaid says that mass movements can have unintended consequences. “It happens; miscreants took over (in the wake of our movement). In the chaos, no one knew how to react. People were scared and some miscreants shouted anti-Pandit slogans. What happened was a combination of poor communication, government conspiracy, personal gains, rivalry etc,” he asserts.

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***

Amit Wanchoo’s grandfather was killed by militants in Kashmir in December 1992. The Pandits’ exodus was partly due to the fear that any minority population would have, Wanchoo believes. A fear psychosis had already taken hold in the Valley. This insecurity was heightened when Muslims participated in mass demonstrations all over Kashmir, on 19 January 1990. Most Muslims were privy to these planned demonstrations, but chose not to inform their Pandit neighbours and friends, leading to a breakdown of trust between the two communities. In the absence of communication and no social media, rumours spread like wildfire.

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There was a breakdown of administration at all levels. And then there were the opportunists like the land mafia, that had begun to eye the Pandits’ property. The exodus perhaps was inevitable in this scenario. The Pandits didn’t know then that their departure would be permanent; they had hoped to return when normalcy did.

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“Pakistan also used us in a way against India,” Wanchoo says. “They sold Kashmiri Muslims the dream of freedom.”

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Both the Pandit community, and the Muslims feel they have been made the targets. The chasm between the groups has widened, Wanchoo notes, then adds: “The first generation of Pandits had to bear the brunt of militancy and migration, while the second one settled down. Maybe someday, the third generation of Kashmiri Pandits will come back, and the community itself will not become extinct.”

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He does, however, hope for a more positive future, one where the fractured relationship between the Kashmiri Pandit community and their former friends and neighbours in the Valley will be repaired over time.

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“I grew up in the lap of my Muslim neighbor, a close friend of my mother’s. Her children was as much part of our family (as I was of theirs). This was the case with other Kashmiri Pandit families as well,” Wanchoo says. “How can such a bond die?”

*Names changed on request

***

View more photos here:

An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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An abandoned house at Wandahama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in the intervening night of 25 and 26 January 1998 by unidentified gunmen.

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The famous Hari Parbat temple in Srinagar.

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Mrs Dhar is a Kashmiri Pandit who currently runs a medical shop at Chanapora, Srinagar.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Abandoned Kashmiri Pandit houses on the banks of the River Jhehlum, which flows through downtown Srinagar.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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Srinagar city is also full of old temples. A few are abandoned, while a few are being taken care of by the locals who remain.

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— All photos by Javeed Shah

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