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Bitterness Remains for Hindus

Bitterness Remains for Hindus

Author: Nirmala George, Associated Press Writer
Publication: Washington Post
Date: September 26, 2002
URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A4209-2002Sep26.html

As yet another winter closes in on the northern Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, Shubhan Bhat says he yearns to return to his ancestral home in the Himalayan province.

But in the nearly 13 years since the Hindu apple farmer and his family fled their home in largely Muslim northern Kashmir, the nostalgia has hardened into bitterness.

A centuries-old culture of Muslims and Hindus living in harmony ended in 1989, when Islamic militants began attacking Hindus, forcing thousands to flee in their drive to separate the mostly Muslim territory from Hindu-majority India.

For Bhat, the elections for the state legislature now under way only deepen the bitterness, with politicians promising Hindus they'll have jobs and proper homes, perhaps even get their land back if the Islamic insurgency ends.

At least 350,000 Hindus fled their homes in the lush Kashmir Valley in less than a year after the insurgency started, heading south to the Jammu region of the state, or to other parts of India.

The hope of return or compensation usually produces a high voter turnout in the Jammu region, where 59 percent of registered voters cast ballots in elections Tuesday. But only 10 percent of the mostly Muslim voters participated, either out of fear of the militants or rejection of Indian sovereignty.

Bhat has voted in the past, but this time he refused. "There is no point," he said. "Each time they promise us land and jobs but nothing comes out of it."

Bhat is a prisoner of the territory's tortured history.

During British colonial rule, Kashmir was a semi-autonomous princely realm with a Hindu king. When colonial India became independent in 1947 and was severed into India and Muslim Pakistan, the territory's population - nearly all Muslims - almost certainly would have chosen to tie themselves to Pakistan, but it instead became part of India.

Decades later, Pakistan controls part of the territory, captured in 1947-48 fighting, and many Hindus have fled the largely Muslim areas in the northern part of the state - the section known officially as Kashmir - to the southern Jammu section, where there is a Hindu majority.

Long-simmering separatist discontent in Kashmir took a dramatic turn in October 1989, spurred on by state elections that separatists say were rigged by India.

Bhat's family had just settled down for a meal when their Muslim neighbors came to warn them. Separatist militants had entered the village and were waiting for darkness to attack Bhat's home, surrounded by apple and walnut orchards.

Within minutes, the family slipped out with two infant children and Bhat's ailing mother.

Bhat's brother stayed behind. The next day, neighbors found his bullet-riddled body in the looted and vandalized house.

"Once the attacks began, almost overnight, the atmosphere changed," said Bhat, spokesman for the 3,000 migrants at a camp in Purkhu, 12 miles northwest of Jammu city, the state's winter capital. "Graffiti appeared on the village walls saying Kashmir was for Muslims only. Threats were made that our wives and daughters were not safe."

Since then, the refugees have lived in tents or cramped, one-room shelters. Filthy water stagnates in pools from open gutters. Some young men have found poorly paid, unskilled jobs, but most of the middle-aged are unemployed.

"Would you believe I once owned a 10-room house. Look what I am now, a refugee in my own country," said Bhat, pointing to the small room he shares with his mother, wife and teenage children. A kerosene stove and a water tap serve as the kitchen.

Growing resentment against the government for the conditions has led to demands for the creation of a separate Hindu state in Jammu, a proposal backed by some right-wing Hindu groups running in the elections.

The Jammu-Kashmir government has said it will encourage the migrants to return home. But many are skeptical.

"What guarantees can the government give these hapless people? Would it restore their properties, their jobs?" asked Balraj Puri, a political analyst in Jammu.

Bhat says he and others of his generation will not return to Kashmir even if the government promises security.

"We lost everything we possessed when we left our home in the valley. Our houses have been looted and burned, our orchards destroyed," he said. "What will we go back to?"

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