SRINAGAR: As the controversy of separate enclaves for the displaced Kashmiri pandits broke out in Jammu and Kashmir, this writer decided to meet the only Kashmiri pandit family living in north Kashmir’s Sopore Town, which is considered the breeding ground of separatist activities and the ideological heartland of militancy.

The Pandit family lives in Krankshivan village on the outskirts of Sopore town, which is almost six Kms away from the bus stop. Because of the inadequate transport facility and dilapidated condition of the road, one has to wait for hours to board a bus to Krankshivan.

With no vehicle in sight and after waiting for an hour, I started walking and through the paddy fields, not even sure of the route. Luckily a man on a bicycle came by and I stopped him to confirm the address.

“ Yes, you must be looking for Pandit Roshan Lal’s home. I will drop you near their residence” The man said and asked me to sit pillion and took me straight to the main chowk of Krankshivan.

On the way, the man said that almost half of Sopore knows Pandit Roshan Lal’s family since only they mustered the courage to stay back. And that too in Sopore, worst affected by violence in those years of militancy.

I walked ahead through a narrow cobbled street that was barely wide enough for two persons to pass and finally spotted a brick house surrounded by an old broken down fence. A Hindu sacred syllable “OM” written twice with white paint on the front side of the house made it conspicuous among the group of houses.

The main entrance gate was made of wooden planks supported with thin iron bars. I knocked at the door but no one responded from within the house. I gently pushed the gate open, that rendered an ear piercing screech.

As I moved towards the verandah,a door opened and an elderly lady with a bindi peeped through the crevice. I told her I was from the media. She smiled and introduced herself as Asha, the widow of late Roshan Lal.

Since there was no male member present at home at that time, she told me to talk to the security guards until her son came home. The family of Roshan Lal had been given security in the aftermath of the 1998 Wandhama incident when 23 Kashmiri pandits were massacred by some unidentified gunmen.

Soon her son Rakesh Kumar, a smart young man dressed in a grey color pheran arrived. After shaking hands, he opened the lock of his room and took me inside.

We sat adjacent to each other on the floor. We started by talking about the lack of development in Sopore. Rakesh Kumar said while preparing tea, “ Sopore town was called Chota London but now it has turned into a cesspool. There is nothing except bad roads, dust and garbage.The authorities even do not know which part of Kashmir this dusty town is located. Sopore has always been ignored.”

After having a tea with homemade bread, the conversation shifted from the development of Sopore to the exodus of Kashmiri pandits and the talk of a separate homeland

“ The presence of a lone pandit family in a dangerous place like Sopore must have surprised you. Only we stayed back in Sopore and many of our relatives countered the idea of our staying back by saying it would mean devastation for us in this town which is the centre of militancy. But we decided to stay and live side by side with our Muslim brothers. No untoward incident has taken place with us so far,” Rakesh smiled.

Rakesh is has been working as a daily wager in the PHE department for the last nine years. He was 12 years old when the exodus began and remembers the panic stricken moments when the other pandit families in the neighbourhood started leaving. His father and other family members refused to leave, and resisted the pressure from their relatives and friends to do so.

“ When we heard the news from my father, that all the pandit families vacated their homes and left, my mother cried loudly and tears rolled down from her cheeks,” Rakesh recalls.

Muslim friends and neighbours started visiting Roshan Lal’s home at the time to console the family and stop them from leaving the Valley. A militant commander from a neighbouring village also visited them, apologised for the violence, and urged them not to leave.

“A militant commander also came to us late in the evening, appealed and promised us that you will face no threat,” Rakesh said.

Roshan Lal and his family had invested their all in their property.Migration was not an option for them as they did not want to shift to Jammu that was very different. “It was a very difficult situation for us. We thought that if we leave, there would be no one to take care of our property. We had an apple orchard, a house and a garden filled with a variety of vegetables. Everything would be in ruins. These things prompted us not to leave”, Asha who had joined us, said.

It has been more than two decades since the Pandits left the Valley. During these two decades, the family said that they had never experienced any kind of violence or threat. They celebrate festivals together with their Muslim neighbours. They attend weddings and funerals, and are an integral part of the local community.

“We always help each other both in times of joy and grief. This is something which symbolizes an act of communal harmony and brotherhood between Muslims and Pandits,” says Ali Mohammad, a neighbour

“ Pandits who left could have stayed and walked side by side with Muslim counterparts like we did. But they choose their own fate and left everything behind,” Rakesh says.

Roshan Lal’s family has a different view about townships for Kashmiri pandits. “This proposal means that the Pandits will have to live in specific locations and segregated from the rest of the Kashmir society. Living in separate towns will make them feel alien in their own land and will also be detrimental to the age old Kashmiri culture and ethos. It would also have serious ramifications especially in terms of security,” Asha said.

For both Asha and her son Rakesh, the proposal for separate enclaves is just an instrument of petty politics. They are certain that most of the Kashmiri pandits who left then will not want to return to these kind of settlements.

“Most of the Pandits in Delhi or elsewhere are content with what they have. We have our relatives living outside and are well settled. They have highly paid jobs and their kids have got admissions in different professional colleges across India. So there are least chances of their return,”Rakesh said.

Anil Kumar, the younger son of Roshan lal and a teacher who spent most of his childhood in Sopore, added, “The Pandits should come back to their motherland with honour and dignity and behave as positive stakeholders. They should realize that their present stubborn attitude on the issue of separate homeland only prolongs the solution of the problem.”