So much has changed in the last two weeks. Our lives are completely upended.
I used to rise early, go tutor a student, then teach at school, returning by four to spend the evenings reading or having coffee with my wife along the banks of the famous Dal Lake in Kashmir.
Now I am in Jammu, India with my family, 300 km away, with no student to teach and no school to attend. Along with hundreds of other Sikhs who choose peace over panic and fear of death, I migrated to Jammu, to stay safe and wait until things settle down.
Like me, most of the minority population wanted to migrate to Jammu, but not everyone had the privilege. I am a teacher, a permanent government post with a good salary. I have a small apartment in Jammu as well, and money to travel there quickly.
Those who are staying in Kashmir are holed up in their homes, uncertain of when they could be killed. All the non-Muslim employees have called upon the government for help and won’t attend offices until protection is provided. Public spaces have become unsafe, as most killings happened in broad daylight, in markets and crowded places.
So much has changed in the last two weeks.
For my wife, Kashmir is the much talked about heaven on earth, the crown of India, a lush green valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains, sparkling lakes resting in the foothills of the Himalayas. A place her whole family wondered if they would ever be lucky enough to visit.
But it is the same place they hear about in the news, where the Indian Army keeps fighting rebel forces amid political turmoil, bomb-blasts and militant encounters.
Just two weeks ago, my wife and I were on an island in the middle of Dal Lake, sitting on the veranda of Gulshan Bookshop, taking in the majestic view of water surrounded by mountains while numerous shikaras, small boats of tourists, glided over the lake. I was reading Rumi, and she was enjoying the sights.
She could see the Zabarwan hills with the dramatic view of Hotel Taj and the historical Pari-Mahal, the Palace of Fairies with a seven-terraced garden. Beyond, the snow-capped lesser Himalayas are in the background. In October, the sky turns yellow in the evening, matching the colors of autumn.
‘‘Kashmir is a nice place for vacations, but the slow and still life here would be difficult if one has to live here forever,” she said.
“It is the best place to live, laid-back and relaxed, with a low cost of living, nice people and nicer weather. You might not find much growth in terms of career, but then why do you need growth when you can relax and live peacefully,” I replied.
“And it is the safest place in India for a civilian,” I added. “As a woman, you can roam around in the middle of the night without any fear; the crime rate is so low. People are so helpful. Any random person will come out to help you if you ever need it. And in the last two years, with all the protests gone, it has become more peaceful.”
“Yaa, but Bangalore is our place; after my PhD, we will shift there, you have gotten too comfortable in your job, it hampers your growth. You can do much more; you have potential,” she said.
We have planned it. In 2023 she will finish her PhD in social science, I will take a two-year sabbatical, and we will move to Bangalore, which is more expensive. She has more job opportunities there, and for someone like me who loves socializing, art and events, Bangalore would be the right place. Once we settle and find employment, then I will quit my job and relocate permanently.
We got married in August 2021. A Hindu from Kerala, a south India state around 3000 km away, she had visited Kashmir only once, for a short vacation two and a half years ago which is when we met. Kerala is one of the most peaceful and highly educated states in India with low crime. Since our marriage, we have been visiting different Kashmir tourist attractions, coffee houses and restaurants.
The day everything went downhill, we were out eating blueberry cheesecakes.
“I am not going to learn Pahadi, I can’t even understand Hindi, and they don’t even talk in Hindi, how am I supposed to talk to anyone. I just smile like a stupid,” she said.
Earlier that day my aunt had told her, “You should learn Pahadi. It’s easy to pick up, and it is always good to learn new languages.” This was the most common advice thrown at her by anyone who visited to congratulate us.
“Did I tell you to learn Pahadi? Do my parents tell you to learn Pahadi? No, then why do you worry? These are one-time visitors love, what they say doesn’t matter at all,” I replied.
Kashmiri society is very close-knit. People stay together mostly in extended families, in small houses. In winters, when it snows and is extremely cold, the whole family sits around the central fireplace, called Bukhari. There is no central heating and it is expensive to keep the house warm. So people go into the largest room and stay together, even sleeping there. The concept of privacy, individual space and freedom are very blurry. Their remarks might seem intrusive, but they are genuinely concerned and think that advising people is their form of love and guidance.
“There is nothing I can talk to them about, no common interests. All Kashmiris’ talk about is food.” she said.
When she was at her home, we discussed politics, religions, women’s rights, books and especially, movies.
In Kashmir, the conversations center around family politics, who to visit and why, what to eat and who made what for dinner and only then religion and Kashmir.
Here our long drives around Dal Lake for our cheesecake dates were the only times we talked about books, literature, and movies.
That day, October 6, 2021, while coming home, I noticed an unusual quiet. There were fewer cars on the roads than normal. Most of the shops were closed before the usual time.
When I got home, my father was in the living room talking on the phone.
‘Bindroo was killed today, and one Hindu street vendor and one Muslim person‘, he told me when I returned. ‘Don’t tell her, she will be worried,‘ father added. He was trying to protect my wife because she was from a place with no such violence and this would scare her. Makhan Lal Bindro, a Kasmirir Pandit, was an eminent pharmacist who never left Kasmir. The Hindu street vendor came from another Indian state. And the Muslim supported the Indian policy of keeping Kashmir part of India. All three were accused of cooperating with the Indian government or army in some way. In Kashmir, these are valid reasons to kill. But it happened after so many years of peace and quiet.
“Did anyone take responsibility,” I asked?
“No-one, not yet.”
When a killing happens in Kashmir, some militant outfit will always come forward and claim responsibility. I checked out the QNS news service, a local Facebook news page that updates regularly. They, too, reported the killing but nothing else.
I brushed the whole incident aside.
When I came into our room, my wife was on her laptop, working on an article she was to submit to her PhD advisor in the next few days.
I read a few short stories, my weekly assignment as a reader for a literary magazine, before sleeping.
The next day, October 6, a leaflet published by the militant outfit claimed the killings for a purpose. But then everything changed.
October 7, 2021
At 11:30 a.m. the science textbook in my classroom was open to page 186. I was teaching the students how carbon is in everything: benches, textbooks, pencils, chairs, clothes, even their bodies.
In government-funded schools of Kashmir, students are scarce. Poor children enlist in these schools for free education, books, uniforms and lunches.
Only four of six students had come. While I kept asking them to guess what other objects were made of carbon, my phone kept vibrating. This friend was continuously calling me. The third time I picked up.
“Are you in the school?” he asked.
“Go home quick,” he replied. For a moment, some horrible pictures crossed my mind: Mother fell, or the gas cylinder exploded, or Father collapsed or there had been an accident.
“There has been killing again. A Sikh teacher and a Hindu teacher have been shot dead at point-blank. It’s started again. Targeted killing. Go home now.” He added. “l call you back, but leave now.”
I was relaxed, confused and anxious at the same time. My parents were alright. Why would they kill a Sikh teacher? And should I go back now or wait till class is over?
Civilians were always safe in Kashmir. That is what we strongly believed. In the last three decades, the militants fought the Indian Army, and targeted informants, government workers, supporters of Indian policy or those who spoke out against Kashmir Independence. .Any civilian death was termed collateral damage
I made an excuse to go to the principal’s office and told the children to write down ten objects containing carbon. I made another excuse to the principal that there was an emergency at home and I needed to go now.
When I sat in my car, the first thing I did was call the friend back to ask what was happening.
“It’s a targeted kill; they are going to kill non-Muslims, non-Kashmiris,” he said.
“What happened and who was killed, first tell me that, it can, by all means, be a personal vendetta as well,” I replied. I could feel the shiver in his voice and the anger in his tone.
“Stop being over-optimistic now, can’t you still see it. They are making a statement. They killed three people yesterday and two today; four are non-Muslims, and the Muslim was a rat. This is the movement again, Azadi.”
“Calm down. Who was this Sikh teacher they killed,” I asked?
“She was the one whose kids you tutored,” he replied.
This was somebody I knew. This made it personal.
I tutored her kids. Her daughter was just twelve years old, and her son, around nine. Her daughter could not gather the courage to ask questions in class, was too timid for the first whole week I taught her, but a hardworking girl who wanted to excel. Because of her shyness, she didn’t have many friends. Her son was bold and free-spirited and had trouble concentrating with me for more than two minutes. He made stickers of dragons and tattoos of tribal art, cycled and made bird origami, and wanted to work for NASA. Although he had tantrums every other day, he completed all his work. I liked him, he liked me.
What would they do without a mother? How would they cope? Their faces flashed in front of me.
I could not get their pictures out of my head.
Why, why would they kill her? She meant no harm to anyone. What would killing her achieve for them?
“They lined up all the school teachers, checked their IDs, and singled out the non-Muslims. It is not about pro-Indian or pro-anything. It is simple; open your eyes and see it.‘ he added. ‘You reach home first, then call me. I have another person waiting right now,” he said and hung up.
As I was driving home, calls poured in from many people asking me where I was, giving me more information, urging me to be careful and speculating why and how it happened.
The seeds of the movement to realign Kashmir with Pakistan were there from 1947 but the armed resistance started in 1989 when the Kashmir freedom movement formed the JKLF, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, whose mission is to liberate Kashmir from India and merge it with Pakistan.
From 1989 on, there were targeted killings of Kashmiri Hindus. The JKLF identified them, posted warnings on their homes, and killed them mercilessly. Posters and newspaper ads urged Hindus to leave Kashmir or face consequences. As a result, from 1989 to 1991, 99% of Kashmiri Pandits left their houses and belongings overnight, for the adjoining Hindu majority province of Jammu or the State of Delhi. Pandits are the original Hindus of Kashmir, from the clan of ancient priests and considered religiously pious and wise. They went from being a long-term, well-established community to refugees from their own country in a single night.
But that was the 1990s, and this is 2021. Nobody harmed the Sikhs in the 1990s; they were collateral damage but not targeted, except for a handful who were members of the Indian Army, which is always in jeopardy.
Every year around one thousand people are killed in Kashmir because of this dispute. Some die as militants, while others die as soldiers fighting them.
When someone dies, we sympathize with their family. But now I imagined that gun turned to my face, the fear of death and the uncertainty of when I might be killed looming over me. That’s how I felt that day.
I went straight to my friend’s place.
“See, I told you, when the Taliban ousted America, I told you, it will affect Kashmir,” he said.
He was furious. And when he becomes furious, he keeps on saying things without listening.
“No minority will be safe here now,” he added.
“The Kashmir movement has always been considerate of Sikhs. There is an unsigned, untold pact; they don’t harm Sikhs. We do not matter to them at all.” I reminded him.
There have been so many incidences of solidarity, heart-warming examples of brotherhood, peace and friendships, then how can this be happening? In the 2014 Kashmir floods, the Sikh gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) were open to everyone for relief. Thousands of people of every religion took residence there. In the aftermath of the 2019 Pulwama attack—a suicide bombing targeting the Indian Army—the Kashmiri Muslim students residing in the rest of India were singled out by the majority, forced to leave schools, colleges and rented accommodations. Sikhs took it upon themselves to evacuate those students, guarantee their safety, and even fight for them. During the 2019 CAA-NRC protests in India, Sikhs supported Muslims. And in the ongoing 2021 Farmers protests, the Muslims are supporting the Sikh farmers.
During the peak of militancy, mostly Pandits (Hindus) and some Sikh families with ties to the Army or other government organizations left Kashmir.
The majority of Sikhs stayed.
“You are too quick to conclude, don’t judge the situation too quickly. It could be something else,” I added.
I was not willing to accept that it was a targeted killing. It could be accidental. Or she would have tried to say something or protect the Hindu teacher.
Killing Hindus was more expected, but what would be accomplished by killing the Sikhs? The non-local Hindus were considered outsiders who had come to Kashmir as a strategy to change the demographics of Kashmir and dilute its freedom movement. The Hindus were always considered Indian sympathizers and conspirators against the Muslims of Kashmir.
The Sikh’s have been living here since the 1500s when the religion was established in India by Guru Nanak. For generations we are indigenous to Kashmir with rich religious and cultural roots here. In the 18th century, Kashmir was part of the Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Many historically important places and monuments in Kashmir, still bear the Sikh names and even belong to us.
But then that is true for Hindus and Buddhists also. There are prehistoric Hindu sites in Kashmir, proving it belonged to Hindus before Islam formally existed. And there are Buddhist sites and the history of the fourth Buddhist council held in Kashmir in 72 A.D. If the Hindus and Buddhists are being run out, how can I be confident the same won’t happen to us?
“Time will tell,” he said. That’s the best concluding line when you are out of reason and logic. Time will tell, I said to myself too. I knew my friend; he lives in Kashmir with his family and does not want to move. He says he was born here and will die here.
“They are playing with us. They are propagating fake social media posts and brewing hatred among Muslims and Sikhs. This deliberate change of history is going to cost us heavily,” he added.
Distorted social media posts had taken over Facebook and Twitter in 2021, portraying the Sikh Rule of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Kashmir in the 18th century as the most oppressive ever, that Muslims suffered religious restrictions, and were highly taxed, forbidden to attend mosques, and denied every possible right. This was a misinterpretation of history to mislead people and heighten tension.
The second narrative that was distorted was the 1850’s Sikh fight against the Mughal Emperors. Social media said Muslims oppressed Sikhs and they killed each other. The Sikh gurus and their children were murdered by Muslims. But we all knew it was not that; a ruler being Muslim does not make the whole Muslim population our enemies. The Muslim subjects under the same ruler were equally oppressed and tortured.
But the way history was depicted on social media seemed like it was Sikhs vs. Muslims, rather than Sikh vs the ruling government and emperor of the time.
Clips of the Taliban celebrating their win in Afghanistan were circulated on Facebook by Pakistanis cheering and asking if Kashmir would be the next to be conquered. This did a lot of harm.
“And if these militants are from Pakistan or Afghanistan, they don’t even know the dynamics of Kashmir, they will not differentiate between a Hindu and a Sikh. For them, it is either Muslims or not Muslims.”
And that was valid. Most of my professional circle, friends and acquaintances are Muslims. I spend most of my time at their places, and it has been this way all my life. They know us; we know them. But if these militants are from outside Kashmir, they won’t take this into account, and they will kill mercilessly.
“I also understand that, let us wait and watch for a few days; if there are any more killings, then only we can say something about this,” I said. I could still not accept it as an attack on Sikhs.
I called my father but he had already heard the news, so instead, I told him I was on the way home and to please keep the news from my wife.
“Your father would be going through the trauma again,” my friend said. “He always advocated for migration. He is a visionary, but we don’t value such people.”
Father had spent all his life in Kashmir, but then tragedies struck the family.
My father had two brothers: a doctor and a colonel in the Indian Army. Both of them died the same day in September 1991. The doctor died in a bus accident, and his body was brought home by the Colonel. Knowing that he had come home for the death of his brother, the militants crashed the funeral, abducted and killed him. But that was when the militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. The colonel was in the army, and he was not targeted as a Sikh but as a soldier.
Both my uncle’s surviving families left Kashmir to never return.
Still, my dad did not move us out of Kashmir. He, like I was doing at the moment, justified the killing of his brother as a soldier killing. I was only one year old at that time. We stayed in Kashmir, though he moved us from his native village where he was no longer safe, to the city center. He worked hard despite his loss and built his life in the city.
“He feels claustrophobic here, he has told me a number of times to quit the job and settle somewhere else, outside Kashmir. He feels mentally free in Jammu,” I replied.
“Yes, he was telling me, if not for you, he would not even come to Kashmir,” my friend replied.
“He has a big social circle in Jammu, he can go out whenever he wants and wherever he wants, here he feels restricted. Moreover, he says he dislikes the attitude of the locals. He despises the smell of cigarettes and the disrespectful tone of people in particular.” I replied.
“You don’t go to school for the next few days,” he said while I picked up my bag to leave.
In March 2000, thirty-five Sikhs were killed out of the blue. The incident became known as the Chitisinghpora Massacre. The whole community was in a panic. And a lot of people wanted to leave Kashmir but could not. There were protests and processions, but the government intervened and convinced the Sikh community that no such thing would ever happen again, that they would protect us.
But then in 2001, five Sikhs were killed in broad daylight, some of them closely known to my father, and that incident is called the Mehjoor Nagar Killings. He decided to move out of Kashmir for good. So years after my uncles were killed we migrated out of Kashmir to Jammu, the closest safe place for Hindus and Sikhs.
It was his second move, all his efforts to make a living in the last ten years in the city were flushed away. When we went to Jammu, he rented a one-room apartment, x for the four people in our family and, with the help of his friends in Jammu, found some meager employment. He worked hard for another decade to make ends meet, gave me a good education and life. The Government also helped support us and provided some relief, a monthly sum of 8000 Rupees, around $100, for a family of four, and a monthly ration of rice, wheat and sugar.
After applying repeatedly, in2017, we were allotted a one-room tenement in a colony specially built by the government for Kashmir migrants.
In 2010 I got this job in Kashmir and had to move back. Father told me to take it and complete my education at the same time and then find another job later. But I got so comfortable in this job and the laid-back lifestyle of Kashmir that I never moved on. He never advocated for me to settle in Kashmir.
Mother and I, on the other hand, were too grounded in Kashmir; all her siblings and their families lived there. Even when we migrated to Jammu, we would visit her relatives in Kashmir every year. I always felt at home in Kashmir. Jammu I thought of more as a boarding school.
All my childhood memories, my friends, the love and care showered on me by my extended maternal family were associated with Kashmir. When I got the job, I was happy for a chance to come back to Kashmir, to live with those friends and relatives again.
My parents came to Kashmir every summer to be with me.. We became seasonal migrants, in the summers they would stay with me from June to November and in the winter go back to Jammu.
While I was driving home, I got a call from my wife. She had gotten the news and was worried sick. I assured her that I would reach home in five minutes.
“I was so worried when my brother called and said a Sikh Government teacher has been shot dead, my heart stopped,” she said. She was already teary-eyed when I reached home.
“I am alright dear, don’t worry,” I told her. “I am hungry, let’s eat something first,” I added.
Father was sitting in the living room.
“Do you know who this was,” I asked him?
“Someone from Alluchibag, she was the principal at Idgah Higher Secondary School,” he replied.
“She’s Supinder Mam, whose kids I teach,” I replied.
‘Haye, haye, I was guessing that this might be she,’ he said. ‘Some organization has come forward for yesterday’s killing, here see this,’ he handed me his phone.
The Resistance Front (TRF) had come forward claiming the killings and giving out reasons. ‘But why would they kill a school teacher, a female, what could she have done to anybody?‘ my wife asked. She was agitated.
“Nobody knows. It’s a sacrifice we have to give every now and then, the cost of living in Kashmir,” father replied to her.
“We will get to know by tomorrow anyhow,” I replied.
“You are not going to school tomorrow,” she told me.
“No, till Monday, I am not going to school, and someone will claim the killings, or the news channels will dissect what happened.” I replied.
“What if they had come to your school,” she asked.
“Then it would be me you would be reading about,” I replied.
She stood up and went inside the room.
She comes from a peaceful place where they seldom hear of people being shot, where they are not even conscious of anyone’s religion. She sometimes asks me how I can be so relaxed about such things: bombs, shootings, human lives lost for no reason.
In Kashmir, if there is a bomb blast in a market, we don’t run away. We wait for the ambulance and police to come and take the dead and injured, to ask people questions, and then we clean the place and open the shops. It’s normal for us.
For her, it was disgusting, horrible, unreasonable and illogical.
When I went into the room, she was already brooding.
“What would I do if something happens to you.” She was shaking her legs all this while.
“Don’t worry, baby.”
“It’s easy for you to say don’t worry, what if I am at a place where they are targeting people like me? How would you feel? You say things without thinking how they would affect me.” We both knew that Hindus were the primary target of the campaign and this scared her, me, and her family in Kerala.
“I am not going to the school for the next few days; let us see how things develop in coming days, then we will see”, I said. I first brushed off this incident as collateral damage where they intended to kill the Hindu teacher, and this Sikh teacher got in the line of fire. But then the news that they were lined up, identified, singled out and killed made me rethink my words.
I wanted to tell her that we should see if there would be any more killings. But before I could say that, I pondered, do I have the privilege of waiting to see what will happen in the next few days? What if I am the one who is targeted? And she would see the flaw in my answer and be more worried. I say dumb stuff sometimes.
“We have always planned to settle in Bangalore, we should move there ASAP,” she said.
“We will go after your PhD; we have already decided that.”
“No, that’s two years from now, I am talking about now.”
“Don’t be so quick, this keeps happening in Kashmir, but does not mean we will run away.”
“Do you understand what is happening, they are killing people, everyone is saying they are going to kill minorities, they will keep killing like this, they want everyone to leave, they want… you don’t understand. Can you guarantee you will be safe here, that they won’t come to your school someday?” She was pacing in the room, unmindful of her volume.
“Calm down, come sit, we will talk about it,” I consoled her.’
“You can see something in Canada, your cousin is also there, and you can find a job there, a lot of Sikhs live there.” She was still standing, though her pacing stopped. I am thinking of the passports and visas necessary, of supporting my parents and brother, of finding an apartment and employment, of her, a student and me, jobless. I know she knows all of this, that she thinks difficult is better than dead.
“Yes, we can look together, now you sit down first,” I held her hand and pulled her on the bed.
“This is not the first time they have killed Sikhs,” she said.
“This is the first-time, there have been incidences, but they were people who worked in the army, then even if it is a Muslim does not matter to them,” I replied.
She picked up her phone and read to me, “in 2000, thirty-five Sikhs were lined up in a village called Chitthisingpora and shot point-blank; it was when Bill Clinton visited India.”
I knew the details by heart; we commemorate the killings every year on March 20. Two vehicles came to the village at night, forcing Sikhs out of their homes and opening fire on them. India accused Pakistan, Pakistan accused India and to this day nobody knows who was responsible.
“But that was back then, …” I did not know how to complete the sentence. I could see her anxiety. I chose to stay silent.
“And then again in 2001, five Sikhs were shot dead in broad daylight,” she added.
I never mentioned to her the details of those two incidents. I never wanted to.
“We are fools if we cannot foresee what is going to happen,” she said.
I tried to find an answer to quell her anxiety. I hugged her instead.
“I will look for jobs somewhere in Canada or the EU,” I whispered in her ear.
While she slept, I started to write in my journal while my brain did somersaults, reminding me of all the incidents.
One thing was sure; no Sikh is going to go to their office tomorrow. And like me, everyone would be questioning whether to live here under this stress, fear and death or to leave for Jammu. Asking themselves who would be killed next.
And deep inside, all of us know the answers.
I had made my decision. I would not be the fool who does not foresee what is coming.
The next day there was a huge protest in Kashmir; hundreds of Sikhs came out to attend the funeral of the slain teacher.
Supinder Kour, the government teacher who was killed, was accused of hoisting the Indian Flag on Independence Day. It was an Indian Government order that every school and government officials had to hoist the tri-color. She was not the only teacher who did this. Coming from her, it was taken as a support to the Indian Government, while in thousands of other schools where Muslim teachers hosted the same flag under the same order, it was termed as a forceful subjugation by the Indian Administration.
All the news channels and the media houses were talking about it. My friends from other states who called to check up on me were talking about it.
My wife’s phone also kept ringing. All her relatives and friends kept calling, telling her that it was not safe for non-Muslims to stay in Kashmir and asking about her plans..
“It is so frustrating; everyone wants to hear it from me. When you have seen the news and read about it, why do you want me to say it to you.” She shouted after disconnecting the call.
She had given up her books for the day. She was glued to the news. Tension was in the air. When my two uncles, my mother’s brothers, came home after the funeral in the evening, it was all we talked about. As a government employee with ID cards from Jammu, I had been advised to stay home and not go to the funeral or anyplace else.
“You know, at the funeral, they were saying that she was sitting in her office when the gunmen came, they first shot the Pandit, and when she ran, they shot her in the back,” said one.
”It is not safe here anymore, you can’t even go out, you don’t go to school now,” said another.
“Yes, all the Pandits have gone to Jammu, this morning, whatever happens to their jobs, happens to your job as well,” my uncle added.
“I am not going for the next few days until things settle down,” I replied.
“Things are not going to settle down, they are going to get more messy, the TRF released a new poster, claiming the killing of yesterday. They are saying anyone who is a government collaborator will be killed, anyone who speaks against them will be killed. The freedom movement will rise now more than ever, now who knows, Taliban might also be supporting them,” the first uncle said.
“You should go to Jammu, all the Pandits have gone, you have a house there, it is better you go, government officials will be the first targets” the other uncle said.
“It is not only us, even if we go, you all will be here. All other relatives will also be here, we will still be under stress,” Father replied.
“And what about you, when will you go to your shop?” I asked the uncle. He owns a shop in the center of the city, near the place where one of the killings happened the day before yesterday.
“We will do what we have been doing ever since.” he replied.
In these thirty years of turmoil, economically and financially, Sikhs are the most affected people in Kashmir, sandwiched between Kashmiris and Indians, their establishments are destroyed in any protest. The State, which remains under lock-down for extended periods of time, makes it even harder to recover from losses. When the majority can function with half-shutters or back-doors, the Sikhs are threatened until they close down businesses to support the protests.
Starting up a business is not possible, as they are not supported by the majority, which always favors their own over the Sikhs, even if the cost of the product or service is lower. A handful of Sikhs who are established business-holders always have a partner from a majority community.
They are always concerned that once the Green-Flag (of Pakistan) waves, where would they go? Discussing who will occupy their house after they migrate to India is a direct hit on their mental health. The slogans of Nizam-e-Mustafa (Rule of Islam) in the protests and Pakistan Zindabad (Long Life Pakistan) scares and depresses them. Would they have to leave all their houses and property and flee to India?
“We have learned to do business in these tough times‘ he added. ‘We will keep the shop closed for a few days, then we will resume the work; what other option do we have?”
While my wife sat with us, she did not understand the whole conversation, but she appreciated the grimness of the situation.
Back in our room, she asked me to explain everything in detail.
“They are right in suggesting you move to Jammu at least,” she said.
“Baby, it’s not that simple as you say, I have a job here, Pandits have the central government to support them, if I go, no one will help me when I come back.”
“Do you think they would not target me? I am a Hindu who has come from another state to live here. If they want non-locals and non-Muslims out of here, I would also be a soft target.”
“Nobody even knows you exist here.”
“I feel like living in a cage. Do you think we would be able to go to Dal Lake again? If you want to live inside the house for ever, then it is fine,” she said.
It was true, I was being told by everyone not to leave the house. I felt like my freedom to move freely was taken away.
“I wish you would understand, for you saying it is so simple, moving out of here is not a simple task., I can’t even explain it to you,” I shouted back at her.
“We don’t have anywhere to belong. In Kashmir, we are minorities; in India, we are minorities. The non-locals who are moving out are not migrating, they are going back to their homes. The Pandits who are moving out have the whole country to support them, they are the majority in the rest of India, unlike us. And most of them have already migrated to Jammu and settled. All their houses and families are there. For us, it is not the same, how do I tell you, all my relatives are here, these ten years I have spent here were not just working in a school, I belong here. These are my roots.” With every sentence, my tone was rising.
In Kashmir, Muslims are the majority. The population of Sikhs in Kashmir is 0.88% – a micro-minority, roughly 50,000.The Muslims want freedom for Kashmir as an independent state or merged with neighboring Pakistan. The Indian nation holds onto Kashmir by deploying thousands of soldiers. For thirty years, Muslims have felt harrassed and oppressed under Indian (and Hindu) administrations. Every year thousands are killed, and the unrest leads to lockdowns, curfews, internet banning, protests and stoning. Sikhs become collateral damage. Sikhs do not want freedom from India but neither do they want to merge with Pakistan. Sikhs are never part of armed resistance or public protest and yet they bear the repression.
Yet being such a small minority is difficult. Starting from childhood, a Sikh student has to stand in school while everyone else recites a Muslim prayer. He is verbally abused and bullied. The Sikh student cannot eat much from the cafeteria because of different food habits. There is also a language barrier because Sikhs in Kashmir speak Hindoo ( a dialect of Punjabi) while Muslims speak Kashmiri which makes it difficult to make friends. Sikh students cannot attend school camps or be part of sports teams’ trips for he cannot eat their food and no arrangements are made for him. As adults, Sikhs cannot eat at restaurants for the same reasons.. Only a handful of Sikhs have established businesses and then with a partner from a majority community. Most of the Sikh religious and heritage sites are neglected, ill-maintained by the government and only fixed by community fund raising. Sikhs who work for the government are caught between being threatened and beaten if they don’t follow a public call for shutdown during a protest or being fired if they do. They are made the scapegoat and ill-treated. Most live on subsistence farming and lowly-paid private-sector jobs. Public spaces are not safe for them. They face threats of conversion, sometimes violent, and sermonizing and religious preaching in public spaces In the largest democracy in the world, they do not have one person from their community in politics rendering them voiceless. Those serving in the police departments or army are at highest risk of being targeted. Envoys of peace sent by the Indian Government have always overlooked the Sikhs and their concerns. So as a voiceless, abused micro-minority, many are slowly immigrating to other areas of India.
The next five days we spent inside the house. Glued to Facebook, reading every new development. It became overwhelming for me and for her too.
When the Amazon delivery came, I was scared to open the door. When there was the sound of an ambulance outside, we would refresh the news portals to see if someone else was killed. When the firecrackers were lit up in the distance, probably at some marriage ceremony, we wondered if a new encounter had broken out.
Every day the Indian Army was killing some new militant somewhere in Kashmir, arms and ammunition were being seized at different places. The more news we consumed, the more worried we got.
Then there was another wave of killing. Five more people were killed, all non-Muslims. Unidentified gunmen were spotted in Sikh villages at night creating panic and tension. Then a major news channel published twenty-two points, the criteria of all who were going to be attacked.
I could relate to at least five of those.
Pandits and Sikhs who were government employees stopped attending their duties. The government did not even bother about their absence. It became an unsaid order: stay home, stay safe. A majority of employees migrated to Jammu and Delhi. Long lines of laborers and street vendors waiting for taxis and buses could be seen every day, trying to flee Kashmir as soon as possible.
“I cannot take this anymore, it is becoming difficult,” my wife said.
“How many times would you say that, why don’t you book a flight and go back to campus. Anyways your university is calling you back,” I had shouted back at her.
We were fighting as frustration and anxiety found vent in anger towards each other.
“And leave you here. Would you do that to me when I am in trouble?” she replied in a louder tone than mine.
“I don’t know why you still want to live here in this hell hole, I am not able to work or study here, you don’t even go to the school, then tell me one good reason to stay here?” she asked.
“Okay, I will talk to my parents at the dinner table tonight, we will see what they say,” I replied.
Father was ready, mother never had a problem with any of our decisions, and my wife was adamant on going; there was indeed no logical reason to stay in Kashmir when we could go to a safer place.
That night we – my wife, brother, mother, father, and I – decided to move to Jammu the day after tomorrow. The uncles and their families were still deciding.
“You happy now?” I asked her once we went to our room.
“This is not about happiness or sadness, this is not even a permanent solution, you are taking a temporary measure,” she said.
“What do you want me to do, leave the job now and move to Jammu? What do I do there? How do we earn and live then?” I replied.
“No, but at least start looking for some jobs. The last five days, you haven’t done anything, you could have applied for a passport. How do you know it will be safe after some time? How do you know you would be able to return and work here? And if you return and stay here, how long will that be then?” she asked.
“It has been like this for the last thirty years, Kashmir will never know peace, and every now and then, these killings will keep on happening,” she said. “Do you want to live here for the next two years? Knowing that you would be here, do you think I would be at ease ever?”
What could I say? She was telling the truth. If anything, these thirty years of militancy in Kashmir had taught me that this is a loop—turmoil, killings and unrest, followed by a short period of peace.
” Let us pack for now; for the time being, I will start looking for avenues outside India or in Bangalore once we reach Jammu.” I replied. “From December I’ll have winter vacation till the first of March, so I will have three months of holidays. November, I won’t return to Kashmir. That will give me four months to plan and find jobs.” I assured her.
The whole next day my wife, parents, brother and I spent packing the most important things only: documents, electronics and the bare minimum of clothes. We took the valuables and hoped to return to sell or bring the rest of our things when everything calmed down.
The home in Jammu was a small one-bedroom, but in times of emergency, we could place a futon in the lobby for sleeping. We decided, once we reached Jammu, that my wife would go back to her university and stay in her hostel. If I sleep in the lobby, that leaves just enough space in the apartment for my parents and brother. On the day of travel, we were still fearful. We had to drive to Jammu in our car. The first three hours, about 120 km, were driving through Kashmir province. There could be danger on the way. We could be stopped anywhere and shot dead.
But most of the highway was protected by the army, we could see armed personnel standing every twenty or so meters. It was the first time in my life that I drove without music. We did not talk to each other until we crossed the Kashmir border.
Then a sense of relief came over us after a week of anxiety and frustrations.
Although my family had moved back and forth between Kashmir and Jammu, this was the first time we were leaving it with no intention of living there full-time again.
So much has changed in the last two weeks.
Though now I sit in Jammu, I know it is not a solution for me; sooner or later, I will be called by my bosses to return to school.
When that day comes, I will have to make a decision. And I don’t want to be the fool who thinks, this too shall pass, and, then in a few years, will be facing the same dilemma.
But now, I know what to do. I will not put myself and my family through that mental agony again.
After we settled, my wife went to Australia for the final year of her PhD. I returned to Kashmir, alone, in March to join my job but in the second week of May, another wave of minority killings occurred. All minority employees left Kashmir. In September, I returned for a few weeks and now am back in Jammu.
I miss my extended family, who like all Sikhs in Kashmir fear they may have to leave their homes and possessions overnight if the situation worsens. A few, who can find housing, are finding their way to Jammu.
I miss the evenings at Dal Lake, the refreshing cold breeze and hot coffee. I wonder if I will ever be able to experience that again.
Bupinder Singh is an educator based in Kashmir, India where he teaches English to high school students. He also works as an Associate Editor for The Universe Journal and as a Reader for The Masters Review. His works have been published in The Week, Non-Binary Review, The Antihumanist, Sirius Editorial, several others and now, The Delacorte Review. His debut book, a docu-memoir, Logs of Wood, on Sikhs of Kashmir will be out by the end of this year. He can be reached on Twitter at @fidoic.