January 19, 1990, was a very cold day despite the sun’s weak attempts to emerge from behind dark clouds. In the afternoon, I played cricket with some boys from my neighbourhood. All of us wore thick sweaters and pherans. I would always remove my pheran and place it on the fence in the kitchen garden. After playing, I would wear it before entering the house to escape my mother’s wrath. She worried that I would catch cold. ‘The neighbours will think that I am incapable of taking care of my children,’ she would say in exasperation. We had an early dinner that evening and, since there was no electricity, we couldn’t watch television. Father heard the evening news bulletin on the radio as usual, and just as we were going to sleep, the electricity returned.
I am in a deep slumber. I can hear strange noises. Fear grips me. All is not well. Everything is going to change. I see shadows of men slithering along our compound wall. And then they jump inside. One by one. So many of them. I woke up startled. But the zero-watt bulb was not on. The hundred-watt bulb was. Father was waking me up. ‘Something is happening,’ he said. I could hear it—there were people out on the streets. They were talking loudly. Some major activity was underfoot. Were they setting our locality on fire? So, it wasn’t entirely a dream, after all? Will they jump inside now? Then a whistling sound could be heard. It was the sound of the mosque’s loudspeaker. We heard it every day in the wee hours of the morning just before the muezzin broke into the azaan. But normally the whistle was short-lived; that night, it refused to stop. That night, the muezzin didn’t call.
That night, it felt like something sinister was going to happen. The noise outside our house had died down. But in the mosque, we could hear people’s voices. They were arguing about something. My uncle’s family came to our side of the house. ‘What is happening?’ Uncle asked. ‘Something is happening,’ Father said. ‘They are up to something.’
It was then that a long drawl tore through the murmurs, and with the same force the loudspeaker began to hiss. ‘Naara-e-taqbeer, Allah ho Akbar!’ I looked at my father; his face was contorted. He knew only too well what the phrase meant. I had heard it as well, in a stirring drama telecast a few years ago on Doordarshan, an adaptation of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, a novel based on the events of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. It was the cry that a mob of Muslim rioters shouted as it descended upon Hindu settlements. It was a war cry. Within a few minutes, battle cries flew at us from every direction. They rushed towards us like poison darts.
Hum kya chaaaahte: Azadiiii!
Eiy zalimon, eiy kafiron, Kashmir humara chhod do.
What do we want—Freedom!
O tyrants, O infidels, leave our Kashmir.
Then the slogans ceased for a while. From another mosque came the sound of recorded songs eulogizing the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The whole audio cassette played through, and then the slogans returned. We were still wondering what would happen next when a slogan we heard left us in no doubt. I remember Ma began to tremble like a leaf when we heard it. ‘Assi gacchi panu’nuy Pakistan, batav rostuy, batenein saan.’ The crowd wanted to turn Kashmir into Pakistan, without the Pandit men, but with their women.
They’ll come and finish us. It is just a matter of minutes now, we think. Ma rushed to the kitchen and returned with a long knife. It was her father’s. ‘If they come, I will kill her,’ she looked at my sister. ‘And then I will kill myself. And you see what you two need to do.’
Father looked at her in disbelief. But he didn’t utter a word. We are very scared. We do not know what to do. Where would we run away to? Would Ma have to kill herself? What about my sister?
My life flashed in front of me, like a silent film. I remembered my childhood with my sister. How I played with her and how she always liked to play ‘teacher-teacher’, making me learn the spellings of ‘difficult’ words.
I remembered the red ribbon she wore; I remembered how she waited behind the closed gates of her school to catch a glimpse of father’s shoes from beneath; I remembered how she threw a duster at one of her friends who tried to bully me; I remembered how I left her alone in the middle of a game of hopscotch because I saw Ravi’s mother entering the house with a parrot in a cage. Would Mother stab her? And herself? What would we do? ‘The BSF will do something,’ Uncle said. But nobody does anything. The slogan-mongering continued all night. We could see searchlights from somewhere making an arc over and over again. Was the BSF keeping a watch? Why were they not stopping this madness?
The slogans did not stop till the early hours of the morning. We remained awake the whole night. As the first rays of the sun broke, I dozed off for a while and when I woke up everyone was still there. Ma was still holding on to the knife.
The crowd took a break in the morning. I don’t think we had ever been as happy as we were when dawn broke that day. It gave us an elemental sense of hope, of security. It was later that we realized that it was not only in our locality that this had happened. These incidents had occured all over the Kashmir Valley at around the same time. It was well orchestrated. It was meant to frighten us into exile. Three hundred kilometres away, in a former palace, a man spent that night feeling absolutely helpless. Jagmohan had been sent by New Delhi to take charge as the governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
On the afternoon of January 19, he had boarded a BSF plane that had brought him to Jammu. While being driven to the Raj Bhavan, he saw people lining up on both sides of the road to greet him. Jagmohan was a very popular administrator and, during a previous stint in 1986 as the governor of the state, he had won the hearts of the people by undertaking large-scale reforms. That night in Jammu’s Raj Bhavan, the phone began to ring from 10 p.m. onwards. ‘They are coming to kill us,’ a scared Pandit from somewhere in the Valley whispered to him. ‘Please ask the army to help us,’ begged another. But that night, Jagmohan was not in a position to help them at all.
The administration, he knew, had collapsed completely. Some sections of the police were sympathetic to militant groups. No one was in charge. And as usual, in New Delhi, the babus in the government had no idea what was happening. On Doordarshan, as Jagmohan would recount in his memoirs later, a special programme on the ‘ethnic revolt’ in Azerbaijan was being telecast. Only a week earlier, in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, a massive crowd demanding independence from Soviet Russia had attacked the Christian Armenian community, killing hundreds in a bloodied frenzy, and looting their homes and business establishments. And oblivious to New Delhi, a similar episode was about to occur in Kashmir.
Only the gods could save the Pandits now
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House from 'Our Moon has Blood Clots', a memoir of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, written by senior journalist Rahul Pandita.
The book is available online at Amazon.