A blue tarpaulin sheet that hangs from a walnut tree and hides hundreds of apple boxes inside an abandoned compound is only a few paces away from the house of Dolly Kumari, the last Kashmiri Pandit resident who left the Chowdari Gund village on Thursday.
The rather awkward placement of the sheet and the locked and abandoned houses of the Kashmiri Pandit families are starkly at odds with the village surroundings where men and women are working overtime in orchards.
Eight families have walked out quietly in the last 12 days since Puran Krishan Bhat, an apple farmer, was shot point-blank by militants inside the village, barely 100 metres away from a security camp. The incident came as a bolt from the blue to the minuscule minorities, prompting them to instantly leave their homes and hearts, orchards and even harvested apples behind without actually shipping them out.
“I left everything back and have come to my aunt’s home in Jammu. I am not sure if I will return. I can only if I feel safe…right now, I am not," Kumari told News18, hours after she travelled from Shopian to Jammu. She was the last Hindu to say goodbye to her village where she lived even when the community left the Valley en masse in 1990.
“Our community is being singled out and targeted. What is our fault? There is hardly a day when I have not cried about our fate…misfortune. How can we stay in the village?" she said.
Kumari said she has little faith in the CRPF that has been deputed next to her home to guard the minorities in the village hours after Bhat’s killing. Eight families of Hindus and 25 odd of the majority Muslim community make up the village that is about six kilometres away from the Shopian district headquarters.
“Not a single member of our community has stayed back in spite of a lot of work in the fields that needed to be completed," she went on. Kumari and her brother own two big orchards in Shopian and transport thousands of apple boxes in a season.
Mostly farmers, the villagers of Chowdari Gund are busy harvesting and transporting apples these days to various mandis of the country. Many villagers have filled and packaged their apples in cartons and placed them in stacks, waiting to be piled on vehicles and sent out. Some have started to prune the trees and others are seen carrying the chopped-off branches to their homes to be used later as firewood.
“We do care about what we left behind. But when it comes to saving your lives, nothing else matters," said a Kashmiri Pandit member who shifted to Jammu early this week.
The Pandit houses and a solitary temple stand desolate on either side of a lane that snakes up towards Kumari’s home. She had repaired her house, redone the roof, replacing the old sheets with new coloured ones. But like all Pandit houses, the main gate has been locked. The temple hasn’t been locked though and its premises haven’t been cleaned. Withered leaves have covered the compound and the brooms lying near its foundation haven’t even been touched.
Dry grass meant to feed cattle in winters hanging in the granaries, unattended kitchen gardens, and piles of stacked apple boxes covered under tarpaulin tell the story of how the Pandits had left the village almost impulsively and without any planning.
“We asked them to stay back but when they reasoned they don’t feel safe, we could not convince them. In an unpredictable place like Kashmir, who can? When such a large police force and army cannot give them hope, what can ordinary villagers do?" Ghulam Hassan, a local, told News18. He said for a few days after Bhat’s killing, local elders would stay with the Pandit families till late evenings to comfort them but they were extremely fearful and could not get the incident out of their heads.
“These families did not leave the Valley in 1990 but they had no confidence this time," he added.
“No one is guaranteed foolproof safety in Kashmir. Such are the times," another village elder said.
In the last two years alone, at least six Kashmiri Pandits and dozens of non-local labourers, employees, police personnel, and public representatives have lost their lives to the spate of targeted attacks. Shopian in particular has seen a few attacks and fights between police and militants in the last few months. In neighbouring Harmain village, two non-local labourers were killed on October 18. In August, a Kashmiri Pandit member was killed in Chottigam village and months before another local Hindu was injured.
Although lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha’s administration has said many militants responsible for such acts have been killed, the continued assassinations have shaken the confidence of the people and unnerved the minorities. The Prime Minister’s package employees and scheduled caste employees from Jammu have been persuading the administration to transfer them to Jammu even though authorities have been repeatedly assuring them of improving security.
Meanwhile, the Shopian district administration has said proper and robust security arrangements have been put in place in Chowdari Gund village and other pockets of Kashmiri non-migrant Hindu habitations and villages. The administration has said after the harvesting period is over, many families migrate to Jammu and there are no instances of migration out of fear.
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