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The Parched Life: Cartography of Kashmiri Pandit Women in Migration Camps

JAMMU: The recent film ‘The Kashmir Files’ has created an uproar among the countrymen that has led to numerous debates, discussions and an obvious re-visitation to the year of exodus of Kashmiri Aborigines from the valley.

Though the film talks about the gruesome killings and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley, what followed ‘forced displacement’ was nothing less than a nightmare.

The UNHCR defines 'forced displacement' as people displaced "as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations".

The International Organization for Migration also defines a forced migrant as any person migrating to "escape persecution, conflict, repression, natural and human-made disasters, ecological degradation, or other situations that endanger their lives, freedom or livelihood". Among these forced migrants were a large population of Kashmiri Pandit females who left the valley during the nineties.

Many families sent their young girls to their relatives in Jammu fearing their vulnerability to all forms of sexual and physical violence before leaving their homeland themselves.

In an article published by EFSAS (European Foundation for South Asian Studies), it mentions, “Pandits had no option but to leave their millennia old homeland, homes, hearths, properties, jobs, business, farms, orchards, temples, shrines, cremation grounds, gods, deities, and the ashes of their forefathers” as arms and ideological fundamentalism gripped over the land of art, culture and intellect at the dawn of 1990s.

Historically, the Kashmiri Pandit females in the third century BC held a high regard in the society and contributed to the cultural development in the valley compared to females in other regions at that time, the dark medieval times marked the downfall of females in the valley and in the contemporary times noticeable as the worst affected victims of forced displacement that simply exacerbated gender inequality and gender based violence.

It is observed that while the entire community suffered the impact of the insurgency, women and children were the first to lose their rights to education, to political participation and to livelihoods, among other rights being explicitly violated. 

From the land of lush green valleys and pristine brooks, the women folk along with their families witnessed the harsh climatic conditions in kandi areas of Jammu mainly Jagti, Muthi, Talab Tilo etc. where the camps were put up by the government.

The heart-wrenching pitiable conditions in migration camps in Jammu, within the country of origin, spawned serious threats to women’s health, freedom and security. 

The crackdown of exodus left many females homeless and naked to the strenuous life awaiting them in refugee camps.

According to a study, many KP women confined to migration camps in Jammu were largely afflicted by heat stroke unknown in the valley, skin diseases, snake bites, scorpion stings, other poisonous insects taking their lives, many who stayed close to river drowned which combined claimed dozens of lives during their stay in the tents. 

Women faced challenging corporal issues as well as grave psychological disorders such as insomnia, depression, hysteria, mental trauma of leaving the valley, schizophrenia, phobias and suicidal tendencies due to their condition in camps after forced migration.

Due to lasting mental trauma of displacement and poor living conditions many females experienced premature aging, attained menopause at a young age which affected the birth rate in the community.

In addition, the overcrowded camps resulted in a large number of pneumonia and tuberculosis cases.

The families were forced to stay in small rooms if they could afford one and most of the people stayed in camps which led to deplorable psychological state of women there.

The females were stuffed with other eleven to twelve family members in a tent/rented room which created a lot of tension between the young couples resulting in domestic violence, unhappiness and low birth rate.

The poor sanitation conditions became the most challenging situation in the migration camps that forced them to defecate and bath in open which often did not go with their morals and cultural values.

Many of them had to stand under scorching sun in long queues to fill water from the mobile water tanks due to which they were often subjected to male gaze.

The education of the Kashmiri Pandit females was largely disrupted by forced displacement resulting in loss of many years of their studies before the issue was addressed by the government by opening evening schools and colleges for the stranded students.

The young females were denied admissions to the schools and colleges which hampered their professional growth. 

These females were considered the literate Brahmins who were forced to leave their mighty pen i.e., many women dropped out of school due to the unavoidable conditions in Jammu that had a negative impact on their culture.

Many girls were married off at an early age looking at the frivolity of life.

The psychological experiences are still unbearable by many women who experienced the rise in violence, insurgency that landed them in unkempt and unclean surroundings.

Many women in the camps succumbed to emotional trauma and a sense of helplessness.

Many urban elites were able to find jobs in other parts of India but people from rural areas belonging to lower-middle- class languished longer in refugee camps. However, many female camp dwellers still live in poverty as the exodus affected their economic prosperity, they struggled to find employment opportunities and remain dependent on government-provided rations and cash relief.

During the emergence of the displacement crisis the government along with many NGOs addressed the plight of the KPs but nothing constructive had been done for the relocation of KPs in the valley except for completion of a handful of humanitarian missions.

The Kashmiri Pandit females have started various offline and online community groups as there are now limited initiatives and programmes that address the grievances of the displaced population.

Many migrant females have been cut off from their homeland but their cultural legacies remain intact through the festivities. Initially, due to the influx of migrants, the host populations often perceived KPs as a threat to their livelihoods and precious state resources.

The undercurrent humiliation and insecurity of forced displacement runs among members as to why they became subjects of forced displacement in their own country and how to be survivors in a hostile environment even after three decades of exodus.

The women folk in particular expected the exodus to last for a few months, but the wait and hope to return home has taken many lives till date. They are still waiting for their return to the valley after three decades of exodus.

The re-visitation to this horrendous year highlights that the true strength of Kashmiri Aborigine females lie in their resilience, mighty pen and non-violence through which they have scripted their future since the day they left the valley and never took arms to seek justice but in the dark dread silence left their beloved ‘panun kashmir’.

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Sheetal Lalotra