A roadside village, Haal, suddenly heaves into view at a bend in the road, often shocking people with its haunting desolation. Villagers talk of hearing noises in the night. A group of broken mud brick houses with gaping windows is all that remains of the once thriving south Kashmir village where 80 Kashmiri Pandit families lived side by side with 40 Muslim neighbours in keeping with the tradition of Kashmiriyat.
But for the family of Omkar Nath Bhat, all the Pandits left when militancy began in 1989, following their brethren from other parts of the Valley to Jammu and other parts of the country. Bhat was left alone and nervous but he decided against migration. “It was a decision we can’t explain why we made. But we made it,” says Bhat, 75, a pheran-clad grey-haired man, who lives in the village with his wife Lajwanti, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. “In fact, we can say we delayed our decision to leave and still continue to defer it.”
Outside his home, the deserted houses of his old Pandit neighbours come into sight as imposing hollowed-out brick shells under resurgent Chinar trees. A dense undergrowth of bushes and bracken has massed around their unbounded compounds. Their ruins nevertheless point to a once prosperous village with large expansive houses built in the traditional Kashmiri style with unplastered bricks stacked in timber frames and a projected bay window in the middle of the third storey. But now, the houses are in a proactive state of decrepitude with the still standing bare brick walls threatening to collapse.
It was tough for Bhat to watch Haal disintegrate into a scattered group of ghost houses and live through the Valley’s darkest times where the village itself got sucked into the unfolding murder and mayhem. His family stayed put through the 1990s when the Valley averaged a daily death toll of more than 20 people, which included a civilian killed by security forces just outside his house in 1996. And Bhat didn’t even think of fleeing when his own community suffered three successive massacres.
Haal became a microcosm for the turmoil playing out across the state, with around 10 youth from among his Muslim neighbours going across to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for arms training and returning as militants. “But they never visited our home nor did they harass us in any way,” says Bhat, standing under the eaves of his old home. “This encouraged us to carry on.”
But this was little comfort for the family in an environment ruled by fear, with death always lurking in the corner. “As far as possible, we did go normally about our lives, trying to stay away from activities that might breed suspicion or compromise our neutrality,” says Bhat, mindful of the sensitive space he occupied between the separatist insurgents and the State. “I just did my farming and my sons their government jobs.”
His elder son Ashok Kumar, 40, is a clerk in the postal department, while Maharaj Krishen, 38, is a government teacher. Kumar is married to Purnima, a Pandit girl from a neighbouring village whose father also chose to stay back in 1990.
The family feels their tightrope walk has paid off. After 23 years of wait, Haal is slowly finding peace. The mayhem of the ’90s is long past and now even the intermittent mass protests have petered out. But along the way, Haal has also moved on and so have the Pandit families who left the village with the onset of militancy.
Bhat is not certain that they will come back, even though none of them have sold their properties. “In recent years, many of their owners came back to the village. They visited their ravaged houses, walked around them, sat in the courtyard and then left,” says Bhat. “In the past two decades, they have built up an alternative existence and it won’t be easy to wind that up. Besides, it is the older generation with memories about the place that is nostalgic about the return, not the young generation.”
Carrying on their limited existence in the village, Bhat’s family is choosing to sidestep the challenges that face them and their community in the transition to a peaceful Kashmir. They are happy that Haal is past its violent interregnum and hope that the village will return to its good old days. But this is not what the members of their community living in a government established barricaded settlement across the bridge think. They are government employees — some of them former residents of Haal — who have come over to the Valley for temporary durations to join their duties. And for them, while Haal may be peaceful, the shadow of the conflict stretches right across the village.
“For us, Kashmir has just lapsed into normalcy. There is nothing in terms of a political development or resolution of the problems that has enabled this change. Factors that spawned the conflict are unchanged,” says Sachin Pandit, a former resident of Haal, who is staying in the government colony. “I, for one, will not feel secure living at my ancestral house in Haal. There is always a dread that Kashmir will go back to square one.
Bhat’s family, however, has no such fears. Having chosen to live through the uncertainties of Kashmir, they aren’t scared of more trouble. Or in the words of Bhat, they can never bring themselves to taking a decision to leave. “We belong to this land and this land belongs to us. We know how to adjust with each other,” says Bhat, who now spends his time looking after the village temple. “This will not be how we will live in a strange land. Leaving Kashmir will send our lives adrift.”
And while Bhat was saying this, his grandkids were frolicking around the courtyard, and his wife peering distantly through a window barred by uneven wooden rods.