Colony of Confinement: Inside Kashmir’s Largest Migrant Pandit Colony
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Lonesomeness. You need only that one word to describe the atmosphere inside the largest government-built Pandit colony at Shiekhpora, Budgam. What adds to the solitude of this outpost is a wall of separation so high that even birds will ram into it. And if birds fall, what of humans — those trying to walk in for celebrating and reviving brotherhood and the togetherness of a composite culture. If the purpose of setting up this colony was resettlement and reintegration of the displaced Pandits, then it is a poor apology.

A creepy ennui runs through the alleys of this colony and ends inside the ‘homes’ and hearts of the colony’s inmates. It gets an eerie verbal expression when you speak to them.

Despite the all-too-palpable dreariness, I enter this colony through the main gate with a bit of optimism to find some happy souls living a happy life. The first barrier to reviving old ties greets you at the entrance itself. A young policeman stops me for an identity check. I fill the details in the register and leave my university identity card with the sentry. I take a little stroll to find water to cool myself down in the blazing sun. I spot a baker’s shop with smoke billowing from its front. A woman who, I suppose, is from Nepal is asking the shopkeeper for something. She pronounces a word that neither the Pandit shopkeeper nor I understand. She points toward my pen and writes on top of a cardboard box: “Salt.” Reading the word, all three of us laugh. I initiate a talk with the woman and ask her, “How long have you been here?” “Two years,” she responds. “How is life here?” I ask again. “Boring.” Her one-word answer just about sums up the entire story of life inside the colony. Before I ask her anything else, the woman tells me to excuse her as she is late for lunch.

I tiptoe here and there, looking for any people to talk with. There are none in sight. All I see are concrete buildings. Their lengthening dark shadows caricatured by the harsh sun tell me how misplaced my initial optimism was. I move ahead and find a massive mound of mud. Nearby, few workers are nailing bits of wooden railing, apparently making some kind of makeshift scaffolding. One more building, named Block F, is under construction. Later, a non-migrant Pandit living in the colony remarks, pointing towards the building, “See, another prison in making.”

Anatomy of a Colony

One finds it hard to decipher Sheikhpora Colony as a single unit. As such, it has never been one. Because it involves a tremendous overlap of incidents that have taken place in the past. Then there are people who come from various situations and ideas that are at odds with each other. There live two categories of Pandits here: “migrants” and “non-migrants” – these are the official pointers laid down by the Indian government. Those who left Kashmir during ’90s are considered as “migrants” and those who stayed back are “non-migrants.” Both must take this prefix. Because, even if they are Kashmiris, Pandits would be humiliated by being addressed with such attributes and in the end made to look as victims. Such use of terminology is in the interest of the state and perpetuated by it to the level where even Pandits who never left Kashmir are bundled into this carton of propaganda.

 

Freedom inside prison: A group of Pandit children at the Sheikhpora colony which their elders call a prison Photos: Imran Muzaffar

When this colony was to be set up in 2008, the state played its magic wand: it offered a potential handout to those who had left Kashmir, and forced or threatened those who were still living in their homes across different areas of Kashmir to shift. The colony had to operate because the Indian state wanted so.

In the beginning, when the job bait was thrown at migrant Pandits, there was a cold response to the project from the Pandits. Nobody wanted to come back and many were sceptical of what would follow if they do. So the natural way of executing the plan was to bring in the Pandit families still residing in Kashmir to the colony and show to the Pandits outside of Kashmir that things are ‘normal’ and ‘safe’. In 2008, after the announcement of the ‘package’ by the Indian Prime Minister, 30 families were brought from different localities of Budgam and Srinagar. Then the “migrant” job seekers began to come, in hordes, to get a government job. At that moment, they signed “bond” letters, the terms of which they now regret to have accepted.

The idea of this colony, or the life inside it, is not as simple as it seems to a passerby. I put politicians and bureaucrats of the Indian state in this ‘passerby’ category. Because beyond rhetoric and high-flying promises, they have no humility or humanity to listen to these people and their stories. Or at least walk by these buildings which to insiders feel more like prisons than homes. But what these politicians are best at is grinding their own axes on the stumps of the Indian democracy, a system that gives them the privilege of walking over common people, muzzle them and play them for their own self-serving games.

This Kashmiri Pandit, who has always been a part of Kashmir’s social fabric, has met the same fate. On the way into this colony he was shown some ripe grapes. But once inside, what he found was loneliness and abandonment. The loss of home, its comforts and the identity that came through living in a socio-cultural milieu of shared values began to gradually dawn upon the Pandits. They realised that the lure of the colony, sweetened with the government’s hollow promises, had actually taken them away from their families and relatives. It’s now that they are picking up the threads and trying to understand what is being done to their community in the garb of rehabilitation. “We have become worse than beggars,” Sanjay Kumar Bhatt, 40, told me, while we drank tea in his kitchen.

If an anthropologist surveys this colony as deeply as ethnography demands, the results are going to be disturbing. I say that because I too was startled to know what the inmates of this colony — “migrants” and “non-migrants” — had been undergoing for the past eight years.

Sanjay Bhatt

For big-mouthed governments in New Delhi and Srinagar, Sheikhpora Colony might be a place of comfort for migrants and non-migrants alike because it was they who manufactured it all. But this place haunts these people like a far-island prison does to an inmate, who always yearns to come out, breathe free, live a life the way he wants to live, on his own. The Pandit inmates’ condition reminds me of a scene from the film Les Misérables. When Hugh Jackman, appearing as Jean Valjean, wins his freedom from the French yoke, he runs and runs until he reaches a mountain cliff. There he lifts his arms in the air, closes his eyes toward the sky and breathes deep. All these folks here resemble pre-freedom Jean Valjean, one way or the other. It is this moment of freedom all these men and women yearn for – the Valjean Moment. The Indian government, the colony’s inmates tell me, has made them slaves and prisoners who are separated from their homes, families and free air. If you recall, that was Jean Valjean before freedom.

“All we want is freedom too,” a migrant woman in her 30s, who doesn’t want to be named, tells me. The woman was appointed a teacher under Prime Minister’s Package for migrant Pandits in 2010. When she came to Kashmir in 2010, she was huddled into a flat with five other women here. She had left her home, her parents behind in Jammu. “I think I am over the threshold of separation,” she tells me.

In Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, French philosopher Michel Foucault talks about the creation of “enormous houses of confinement” by those in power in seventeenth century Europe. The idea of such houses of confinement was to keep away a certain section of people from the rest of the society in the name of social order. As was observed later, these houses of confinement brought no good to the society but disturbed the social order and sought to annihilate poor and those suffering from illnesses. These houses of confinement, Foucault argued, created a new division in society and that those in power never took it upon themselves to ascertain the condition of those living inside these houses. It then appears to me that Sheikhpora colony is one such enormous Foucauldian ‘house of confinement’ where people have been condemned to isolation. These people in actuality don’t live here. Their minds and hearts are somewhere else. They were brought here, some in the garb of economic handouts and others by might. Now these walls are squeezing them inside, choking even their breath. “I feel like … someone has tightened a thick rope around my neck … and this rope gets even tighter with each passing day,” Sanjay Kumar Bhatt’s wife tells me, speaking slowly, punctuating her statement with unintentional silence as if she has lost even her words like her home.

Upinder Kaul

A while ago, when I was speaking with her husband, Sanjay, it looked to me as if I had been trying to interfere in the lives of these already miserable people by asking them if they had time to talk for a minute. But then he talked with me warmly and offered me a cup of tea. I said no with a smile. “Is it because we are Pandits?” Sanjay asked me. The next moment I was in their kitchen, having told Sanjay that if he had that sort of a notion, then I would definitely love to have two cups of tea, not just one.

Homes are where their hearts are…

At the colony, I met a number of people from both the “migrant” and “non-migrant” sections. Core among them was Upinder Kaul, a teacher and son of Bhushan Lal Kaul. Kaul Sr. is the one who speaks on behalf of non-migrant Pandits. When I went to his quarter, Kaul Sr. was not there. He had gone to Jammu for some family purpose. So I caught up with Upinder, a soft-spoken man, who welcomed me into his living room with a smile and offered a glass of water. Upinder is a ‘Master’, a local term ascribed to a senior grade teacher in the education department. Upinder openly shares with me the Pandits’ burden of living in Sheikhpora Colony. He says the Colony’s isolation has detached them from their own village, old neighbours and the land that they actually belong to. Till 1997, Kaul family were living in Hoshri village of Chadoora, Budgam. “Then Sangrampora episode happened,” he tells me, his gaze fixed at the floor. Seven Kashmiri Pandit villagers were killed by alleged militants at Sangrampora in the March of 1997. The Kauls’ and 31 other families were shifted to makeshift migrant houses in Budgam. They had to move, leave their homes, because the authorities told them that they too could be killed if they didn’t shift. For ten years, these families lived in those houses in despicable conditions. “Then came Sheikhpora for us,” Upinder tells me, narrating the chain of events as if reading from a textbook. “And it’s no better than a prison.” As I was preparing to leave Kaul’s quarter, he said to me, “We all have this yearning… to go back to our original places and live among our Kashmiri brethren a free and dignified life as we have lived.”

Sanjay Kumar Bhatt and his family were happily living in Udroo village in Sholipora neighbourhood of Budgam. They were brought first to migrant camps in Budgam and then to Sheikhpora Colony the same way as Kaul family. In reality, Bhatt tells me, they never wanted to leave their home. “It was the government and police that forced us to leave our native place and put up in camps in Budgam,” says Sanjay. I ask him whether I should write what he just mentioned. He was sure of what he was talking. “We are not at peace here. It is suffocating than even a prison,” Bhatt tells to me with added emphasis. Whenever he talks about his home and “this prison,” one single significant event remains evergreen in his memory. It’s this: When his family were forced to move to migrant camps in Budgam, his ailing father didn’t shift. He argued with the men in uniform and told them to leave him alone. The old-aged man stayed back with his wife in their native Udroo village until his death. The man had a wish to be interred in his own land when that final moment of departing comes. “It was our own Muslim brothers who performed his rites after his death,” says Bhatt. “It was beyond our imagination. I had no words and still have none to express such a great feeling.” Remembering his life in previous makeshift migrant camps in Budgam, Bhatt told me that for 10 years, they stayed in those shacks which he describes as horrible as cowsheds. “Nobody cared for us all those 10 years.” And when after 10 years the Bhatt family and 30 other households were provided accommodation at Sheikhpora Colony, it didn’t bring any relief to them. They shifted in desperation, hoping for the living conditions to get better. But that was not to be. If makeshift camps in Budgam took them away from their own homes, it is the Sheikhpora colony and the tedious concrete buildings in it that has taken them away from their own existence and snatched from them their mental peace. At least that’s what has happened to Bhatt’s mother after she had to shift in desperation to Sheikhpora after her husband’s death. “She got isolated here,” recalls Bhatt. At their own home, she used to cook food on the traditional hearth, tend the cows and kitchen garden. “When she came here she felt all alone,” he says, adding a chord that he is most proud of, “She used to talk for long with neighbourhood Muslim women but she didn’t find anything of such sort here.” The separation and loneliness finally got her. She lost her memory.

What then prompted Bhatt and other families to shift, first to makeshift camps in Budgam and then to Sheikhpora Colony? Bhatt explains to me that the threats were not from militants or other non-state actors. The threats came right from the corridors of power, which they couldn’t perceive well in the beginning. Indeed, Indian state’s corridors of power are abstract. Throughout, it has acted as if it were a guardian of Kashmiri people (including Pandits), announcing packages and throwing job baits. But actually, it is the Indian state that terrorises people here. But before it terrorises them into submission, it makes them desperate. And in that desperation of the people, it presents itself as a saviour and thus legitimises its authority forcing the people to condone its original acts of operating through terror. That’s how the master-slave relationship works here in Kashmir.

How the threats were from inside the system, these words from Bhatt articulate it all. “During ’90s, militants would come to our home, have tea and ask for our well-being. They never told us to vacate. In fact, we would play cricket with militants in our village field. We never felt insecure.” In their native village, Bhatt family had more than 20 kanals of land, a kitchen garden, three cows, a bull, and near a dozen chickens. Even though “non-migrant” Pandits have established little kitchen gardens inside Sheikhpora Colony, but what women here long for are their own kitchen gardens, some perched on water canals and others on hillsides, places where gushes of breeze would give them a feeling that they truly were inhabitants of a paradise. Yet at this moment they stood as losers, having lost it all. And even if they want to go back, the State would not let them. The State feels it has done them a favour by building the Sheikhpora Colony and housing them inside these prisons. It also feels that these folks should owe their allegiance to the State by staying put in this colony. “Living in these prisons, our new generation has got disconnected from our own history,” Bhatt says. “It is like witnessing one’s own massacre.”

The ‘Bonded Labourers’

I went around the Shiekhpora colony to meet with some more people. Here at another cement block, a woman opens the door and ushers me in the flat’s living room. “How can I help you?” the woman asks. I tell her that I am a journalist documenting their life inside the colony. Before she talks, she calls few women in her neighbourhood and asks them to come over. Soon the ladies are in the room. When they see me, a stranger by all definitions, a woman in her late 30s admonishes the very act of mine to have come to Sheikhpora. “What will happen with your writing?” she asks, mockingly, her words hard and solid. I remain silent, listening, looking her in the eye to see when she will calm down. “Will it reunite us with our families? Will it bring peace to us?” I don’t give any explanations for I have none. My disarming but nervous silence melts her heart. Breaking the ice, the lady who represents the migrant population in the colony tells me that government is creating a split between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir and trying to mess this place up. “It’s just their own agenda and common people get lynched in between,” she says, the other two women also listen intently. “If we were employed, why are we being kept away from our families?” she asks. As she goes on, she makes a fuming power-packed statement: If it is not bonded labour, what do we call it then.

The sentiments of this group of Pandits are different from the non-migrants — those who never left Kashmir. The issues of this group broadly range from inter-district transfers to suitable accommodation. They too have many complaints over how the Indian State, both from New Delhi and Srinagar, has treated them over the years. The thing about these district-level posts is that once an employee is posted in any district, s/he can’t be transferred to any other district. That’s what their bond letters mention. And they all have signed these letters at the time of their appointment. Now years after, they are finding it hard to remain away from their families. All these people had either settled in Jammu or migrated to other parts of India. And when they are here for the jobs, their families are away. “It’s like a government-sponsored divorce,” one migrant lady, who works in the health department, tells me. “The State has separated us from our families and children.” The woman, who speaks on behalf of others in her category, adds, “We want azadi, from this isolation, this burden…”

The Sheikhpora Colony presents a tremendous complexity in understanding it as a single entity. Because two cultures exist here: One of “non-migrant” Kashmiri Pandits who never left Kashmir and the other of “migrants” who fled the region during ’90s. The non-migrant Pandits are much rooted in Kashmiri culture and want to go back to their native places. They want to cultivate the land, rear cows and live among Kashmiri Muslim population. They speak Kashmiri amongst themselves and long for their homes. The migrant Pandits, on the other hand, want to shift to Jammu, with their jobs intact. Most of them have no interest to go back to their native places if hypothetically provided a chance. Their children, wives or husbands, parents or in-laws are in Jammu and want themselves to be transferred there. They see fault in the government’s district-level appointment and want inter-district transfers so that they go back to their loved ones. Their lives are torn between the jobs here and the pain of separation from their families living outside. As another migrant lady remarks, “What sort of a service will we provide if our minds and hearts are not here?”

The ‘Great Confinement’

In addition to Sheikhpora, there are migrant colonies at Vesu, Hall and Mattan locales of south Kashmir. The other two are located in Baramulla and Tullamulla. At the moment there are around 3000 migrants and non-migrants living in these colonies. Most of the migrants had arrived in Kashmir in 2010, after the job package was announced in 2008. Others came in 2015. The Indian government plans to build more such colonies for the “rehabilitation” of migrant Pandits. But in Kashmir, the proposal has met with widespread criticism. Pro-freedom leaders have called it an act of communal segregation and a ploy to change the demography of J&K by settling non-locals in these colonies. They suspect that if such colonies are established it might be detrimental for any sort of referendum in the future. For them, if Hindu population outnumbers the Muslim population in J&K, India might have the advantage of numbers which could give it the legitimacy to further rule the territory. In a sense, it is a game of numbers, as has always been. India too is particular about the numbers. When it announced the first job package in 2008 with Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, it offered 3000 jobs and accommodation for the returning Pandits. However, the job bait was only accepted by less than 1500 Pandits. The current Indian government led by the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party has announced to offer 3000 more jobs and provide further accommodation to the returning ones. What the Indian government is actually trying to do is attract more and more migrants in the garb of jobs and accommodation. If it does, what it will make sure is that new employees sign the bonds as drafted by the State to ensure they stay put in these colonies like “bonded labourers.” But if life at the Shiekhpora colony is anything to go by, the segregated resettlement of Pandits in separate colonies will hardly bring any solace to them. And if and when it happens, the government will surely have its self-congratulatory statements to make, but the Pandits will be condemned with the burden of endless solitude.

 

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