Before she begins, the lady's lip curls, proverbially, in distaste. "You know what?" she says. "When these people" - and the "these people" occasions more severe curling - "when these people first came here, the whole city only had 9 lakh people. Suddenly there were 3 lakh more. The buses, the markets, can you imagine how crowded they became?"

I can. But I am not prepared for her obvious disdain. "And they are all thieves," she goes on. Their coming to her city has not just swelled crowds everywhere, it has also seen crime shoot up -- or so she says, anyway. Because they are all thieves.

I listen in some wonder. For one thing, I've grown up believing you don't tar an entire community for the crimes of a few. Yet here is an otherwise warm, gentle soul doing exactly that. Perhaps some of "them" are thieves, but "all"? For another, I've also believed for years that the community we are talking about has sympathy from most Indians, sympathy for the hostility they fled from, the tragedy they lived through. In fact, there are ways in which what happened to this community has become a litmus test for how we Indians consider ourselves. You might say our very ideas of nationhood are fine-tuned by this episode in our history.

Yet, again, clearly the last thing this warm, gentle soul has is sympathy for them. She did, she says, once. But 15 years of living with them, tolerating swelling crowds and growing crime, has eroded it all. "I just wish they'd go away", she says. And in Jammu, she's not the only one who says that.

But where will they "go away"? When? How?

Going back where they came from has never been and doesn't look likely to be a reasonable option for Kashmiri Pandits, whether here in Jammu or somewhere else. And what are their prospects if they move somewhere else, other than "back"? Dim, given that there's resentment of their presence elsewhere that they have settled too.

So where does that leave us? As far as I can tell, it leaves us where we are today: large Pandit communities living in islands dotted across a few northern cities. As they have lived for a decade-and-a-half now, increasingly resigned to not returning to Kashmir, their younger generation grown to adulthood without memories of a once-home. Now they face hostility from neighbours whose stock of sympathy has run out.

All this is at the back of my mind as I make my way to Purkhoo, a Pandit "camp" on the outskirts of Jammu, on the road to Rajouri.

At least in Purkhoo, the word "camp" itself no longer fits, which is a sign of all the years that have passed. In 1989 and 1990, when Pandits first faced threats and their Kashmiri neighbours turned hostile, they left homes and back accounts and many belongings and fled South. Jammu was a first halt, and tens of thousands of them settled, gypsy-like, in what came to be called "camps". Three such in the city. Initially out in the open, they eventually got themselves tents and little bits of furniture. Six years in tents. Then the State authorities built "pucca" homes for them in Purkhoo. Small (120 and 160 square foot tenements), too close to each other and unattractive, but "pucca" nevertheless. Better than tents.

So now Purkhoo is a camp only in name. It really is a colony like you'd find in any big city: with its own streets, shops, small businesses, STD booths, cable-wallahs and more. Only, it is peopled entirely by Kashmiri Pandits. That's not very unusual. After all, in Delhi you'll find a Punjabi Bagh and Bengalis congregate in Chittaranjan Park. Perhaps one day Purkhoo will be referred to as Jammu's Pandit Nagar. It is so, anyway, in every respect but its name.

One blindingly hot July afternoon, I find my way through Purkhoo's grid of lanes to the home of Rajender Kaw (not his real name), a local community leader. At 42, Kaw is in the prime of what should have been a comfortable life as an accountant, which is what he was when he lived in Srinagar's Rainawari suburb till 1990. But now, he sits deep in this maze of streets, unemployed and sweating in shorts and vest under a weakly turning ceiling fan. I sit on the floor, grateful for the ice-cold drinks he orders for us. Nevertheless, the sweat soon snakes down my back too.

These years later, Kaw is still scarred by his memories of what happened in Srinagar. This slogan blared from minarets: "Batto bagaer, battnoe saan, asi gachche panun Pakistan." "Without Pandits, but with Pandit women, we will have our Pakistan." The message could hardly have been clearer, he says. He and family packed up and left as soon as they could. A stop in Udhampur for a while, and then they arrived in Jammu and settled here in Purkhoo. Kaw and family, a few of those 300,000.

Purkhoo is a camp only in name. It really is a colony like you'd find in any big city: with its own streets, shops, small businesses, STD booths, cable-wallahs and more.
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Mindful of all that the Jammu lady had said about Pandits earlier in the day, I ask Kaw about how they were received here. What he says puts Harry Belafonte, of all people, in my mind. In his rollicking calypso "Mama Look a Boo-Boo", Belafonte sings of a pair of obstreperous brothers whom their father wants to punish for some filial misdemeanour. But: "John says it's James who started first/James tells the story in reverse."

Here in Purkhoo, Kaw tells the lady's story in reverse. "There was a lot of resentment of us earlier, when we first came to Jammu," he says. "But we handled it very well. People here appreciate what a learned community we are, and we've helped them a lot. After all, we generate Rs 7.5 crores in business in the markets every day! So they understand us. They really like us now."

What's the truth, I am left to wonder. Resentment grown to affection, as Kaw would have me believe? Or sympathy evolved to hostility, as the lady asserted firmly?

Kaw is on something called the "Apex Level Committee" that looks into the affairs of the Pandit community in Jammu. This is a Government of J&K body that meets every few months, a senior IAS officer serving as its secretary. Kaw is a member by virtue of his standing in Purkhoo. He shows me the minutes for the Committee's last meeting, its 14th, held only a few days earlier.

There were a number of items on the agenda for this meeting, among them these:

  • Appointment of drivers for ambulances of Migrant Camps.
  • Pending arrears on account of electrical charges in the Kashmiri migrant camps.
  • Providing better medical facilities.

Routine issues, sketching a picture of a settled community trying to solve its civic problems. But then you run into these:

  • Reverification of migrant status of migrants.
  • Payment of rent to the migrants on account of occupation of their property by paramilitary forces.

Bland officialese? But also words that tell some unsettling truths about Pandits. For one thing, they have lived in Jammu 15 years. But not only are they still considered migrants, that migrant status must itself be reverified from time to time. Question: When do migrants become just other residents? Possible answer: when hostility vanishes. But that story, as we've seen, can be told in reverse.

For another, these migrants who fled their homes are landlords. Unwitting, no doubt reluctant, but landlords all the same. And who are their rent-paying tenants? The men charged with security in the Valley. The very security that, 15 years ago, Pandits themselves never had, never felt.

And so it almost feels natural that last on the agenda is this:

  • Return of Kashmiri Migrants: The Hon'ble Chairman expressed that the situation in the Valley had improved which was amply manifested by the number of pilgrims to Kheer Bhavani and the tourist inflow into the Valley during the current year. He, therefore, requested the representatives of the Kashmiri Pandits ... to expedite motivation campaign, especially with the families putting up in the migrant camps, for their return to the Valley. These families could be accommodated at the District HQ and other places where construction of flats has already commenced.

I look up at Kaw. What does he make of these lines? Oddly enough, his lip curls in distaste as well. "No Pandit family has returned to those flats," he says. The authorities are "desperate" for at least one or two to do so, so that they can trumpet the return of Pandits to the Valley. Which is why they put this item on the agenda at every meeting. "It's like chutney," says Kaw. "With the other sabzis they've got on the agenda, they need to give us chutney. That's all. Pay no attention to it. I don't."

Chutney. That trivial. That empty. That's all. You don't tell that story in reverse.

Dilip D'Souza
12 May 2005

Dilip D'Souza writes regularly on the living conditions of India's downtrodden people. He is also the author of two books Branded by Law: Looking at India's Denotified Tribes [Penguin 2001], and more recently, The Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the Politics of Development. He was a Scholar of Peace Fellow with WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace) in 2004-05.