Home Alone

In the 1990s, most Pandits were displaced from the Kashmir Valley. The ones who remained are still fighting to be heard and seen.

Home Alone by Karan Mujoo; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for FiftyTwo.in

In July last year, I found myself in the narrow lanes of downtown Srinagar. The neighbourhood of Ganpatyar had once housed a vibrant Kashmiri Pandit community. Now the lanes were barren and the houses in a state of decay. I was in Kashmir to meet Sanjay Tickoo, the founder of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti. Formed in 2005, KPSS aims to address the issues of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits.

Back in the early 1990s, most Pandits were displaced from the Kashmir Valley following violence and intimidation by various militant organisations. The Indian state designated the displaced population as ‘migrants.’ That was a misnomer which suggested voluntary relocation. But those who remained in the Valley came to be defined in the context of those who had left, and so they came to be called ‘non-migrants.’

I am what the state would call a migrant. I was five years old when my uncles’ names appeared in a hit list. We left immediately. My father, who was in the middle of his MD, was transferred from Government Medical College, Srinagar to the Post Graduate Institute in Chandigarh. I grew up speaking Kashmiri at home, English in school and Punjabi on the playground.

I had a sense that our language and culture didn’t match our surroundings. When I was old enough, I pieced together the story of our displacement by talking to my parents, relatives and friends. The Kashmiri Pandit story didn’t get much attention during my adolescence.

But things changed over the years. Migrant Pandits began telling their stories through books, popular movies and songs. [1] Now, they are visible, if not empowered, in the Indian political and cultural landscape. Non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits, on the other hand, are lost in obscurity. Their stories remain largely untold, and their struggles are unseen.

I wanted to meet Tickoo to learn more about those who stayed. When I reached the address he gave me—of the two-centuries old Ganpatyar shrine—there was no sign of a temple. When I called Tickoo, he asked me to “come near the army bunker.” I circled around again, only to realise that the temple’s entrance was buried under sandbags and layers of olive-green synthetic mesh. The temple premises also doubled up as barracks for the Central Reserve Police Force. I had walked right past it the first time.

Inside, shirts and undershirts dried on metal railings. While taking the stairs to Tickoo’s visiting room on the first floor, I saw a makeshift gym. In the visiting room, a crayon portrait of the god Shiva, drawn by Tickoo’s grandson, hung on a dilapidated wall. Cool draughts from the Jhelum entered the room through a wooden window.

Tickoo, who was in his mid-fifties, sported a white stubble. The yonya, his sacred thread, was visible under his light blue kurta. By him was a packet of Four Square cigarettes. Like many Kashmiri men his age, he was an avid smoker.

“My generation survived in the Valley for 32 years because the state employed us,” he began, when I asked him why he’d started a fast unto death in September 2020. “But there’s no such provision for our children. The government and bureaucracy promised jobs for non-migrant youth, but never delivered.”

Kashmiris are heavily dependent on the state for employment. Sectors such as tourism and agriculture employ most of the workforce. There’s little scope for private jobs in the Valley. Manufacturing industries are practically non-existent. [2] Constant disturbances, internet shutdowns and security threats are impediments to investor confidence.

In 2008, the Union government had announced a package to create employment for Kashmiri Pandits, which kindled hope among the non-migrant community. But it soon became clear that the scheme was only meant for migrant Pandits. Tickoo told me that while social and cultural factors played a role, it was this sort of economic neglect that had caused non-migrants to steadily leave the Valley.

In 2008, according to a KPSS survey, there were 687 Pandit families in the Valley. By 2015, the number was down to 654. Presently, he estimated, there were around 500 families left in the Valley.

“Tell me,” Tickoo said, “how will the larger dream of rehabilitation be achieved if even 500 families can’t be secured in the Valley? Those who stayed back in 1990 are now beginning to regret it.”

Blood on the Streets


ne of those families is Sandeep Kaul’s. Sandeep’s birth in 1989 coincided with the bloodiest period in Kashmir’s history. He’d witnessed death before he was a year old, his father often told him.

“It was aitham, and we needed milk for the puja,” he said, recalling the story. “When my father picked me up and stepped outside, he saw a body lying on the road. A small crowd had gathered around it. A young man had been shot. [3] His mouth was filled with monj”—slices of kohlrabi.

“He must have picked up the slices just as he was leaving home,” Sandeep said. “He was still chewing them when he was shot dead.”

Incidents like these were common through those years. While the Jammu & Kashmir government had put the number of Pandits killed between 1989 and 2004 at 219, Kashmiri Pandit organisations claim the number is much higher. [4] Through all this, the choices Pandits had were summed up pithily as ‘Raliv, galiv ya chaliv.’ Convert, die or flee.

“How will the larger dream of rehabilitation be achieved if even 500 families can’t be secured in the Valley?”

Sanjay Tickoo

Though thousands of Pandit families were forced out in the early 1990s, Sandeep’s father made the executive decision to stay, and the family obeyed. It led to a number of problems. In the early years, gun culture thrived in the Valley. There were pitched battles in the streets of Srinagar. People viewed each other with suspicion. Anyone could be a militant, a collaborator, or a mukhbir, an informant.

One winter evening in 1993, Sandeep’s family was having tea in the living room. The sun was setting, and the Petromax lamps were already on. There was a knock on the door. Sandeep’s mother opened it. A couple of masked men were standing outside.

“Tell Boab ji to come downstairs,” they ordered, using the nickname for Sandeep’s father.

Sandeep’s father invited the men in. When they sat in the living room, one of the men removed a revolver and placed it on the floor, the muzzle pointed at Sandeep’s father, and accused him of being a mukhbir. Sandeep’s father worked for the Military Engineering Service, in a department that supplied electricity to the Indian Army. He was neither an army man nor an informant, he explained. If the boys still wanted to kill him, he was not afraid.

There was a brief pause before the men got up and left. Later, Sandeep’s father received a message that there was nothing to worry about: the boys had only acted on information they had received.

His bravado could have cost his family their lives. Violence on Pandits continued through the 1990s. Brutal massacres took place at Wandhama in 1998 and Nadimarg in 2003. There were other challenges in addition to the threat of actual violence. When it came to life events—marriages, deaths, birthdays, mekhal, [5] Shivratri—there were no priests to conduct rituals and no relatives to share joys and miseries. There was the condescension of migrant Pandits and the indifference of Muslim bureaucrats. And there were no jobs.

“Why don’t you go to the Bharatiya Janata Party with your issues?” Sandeep was once told by a local government official. “After all, it is your party.”

Sandeep lived in Srinagar’s Karfali Mohalla, an area he said had a reputation for harbouring militants. The family’s relatives in Jammu were convinced the Kauls had converted. “They think we read the kalima,” Sandeep said. “The reality is, my mother still wears a tika every time she steps out.”

When he visits them in Jammu, minor linguistic differences are blown out of proportion. “If ‘ahnazz’ slips out of my mouth instead of ‘ahansa,’ I am vilified,” he said. Both words mean ‘yes’ or ‘okay.’ “Does saying ‘ahnazz’ make me Muslim?”

Sandeep felt his relatives had a simplistic idea of Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslims. “The J&K policeman is a Muslim, the terrorist is a Muslim, pro-India parties are Muslim, Hurriyat is Muslim, those who kill for Pakistan are Muslim, those who die for India are Muslims,” Sandeep said. “How can you explain this to anyone? The common denominator, in my opinion, is money. A conflict zone offers you different opportunities, some ethical, some unethical, to earn a livelihood. Only us non-migrants have been unable to make any financial gains.”

Sandeep’s job as a salesman for a private dairy company didn’t pay well and involved a lot of travel. After his father’s death, his absence from home for long periods became an issue for the family. He wanted a government job, he told me. That is why he was a supporter of Sanjay Tickoo, and agreed with the KPSS’ demands around the PM’s Relief and Rehabilitation package.

The Package


he PM in question was Manmohan Singh. In April 2008, he visited Akhnoor in Jammu and made a significant announcement. He promised 6000 public sector jobs for Kashmiri Pandits. For this, the government sanctioned a budget of ₹1600 crore. Since the idea was to facilitate the return of migrant Pandits to their homeland, the order excluded non-migrants.

It was the unkindest cut for Tickoo. The migrant organisations instrumental in getting the package sanctioned had completely ignored the non-migrants, he said.

“They don’t like the fact that we stayed back,” he told me. “A member of Panun Kashmir once told me that had it not been for us, their dream of a separate homeland for Kashmiri Pandits would have come true long ago.” Panun Kashmir—literally ‘our own Kashmir’—is a proposed homeland for Pandits within the Valley. Conceptualised by an eponymous migrant-led organisation, it is imagined as a Union Territory comprising regions to the east and north of the Jhelum. [6]

The implementation of the PM’s Relief and Rehabilitation package was the subject of two separate Parliamentary committees in subsequent years. Both used the word ‘pathetic’ to describe the condition of non-migrants. “The Committee also expresses its deep concern over the pathetic conditions of about 4000 Kashmiri Pandits living in the Kashmir Valley,” one stated. “The Committee feels that there should be special budgetary provisions for Kashmiri Pandits left behind in the Valley.”

In 2013, Tickoo approached the Jammu & Kashmir High Court with his demand of including non-migrant Pandits in the package. On 4 December 2015, when the Ministry of Home Affairs announced an additional 3000 posts under the package, it seemed like the court case and the parliamentary committee reports had been taken into account: non-migrants were made eligible for all 3000 posts.

For Tickoo, however, this was only a partial victory: he wanted 500 out of 3000 posts to be reserved exclusively for non-migrants. “I am aware of the hardships faced by migrants,” Tickoo told me. “I stayed in the camps when I visited my relatives in the 1990s. I know the heat, the homesickness, the desolation.”

But non-migrants faced no less trouble, he said. “Out of the last 32 years, schools and colleges in the Valley have been shut for 20 years,” Tickoo said. “There are constant hartals, security threats and disturbances. The internet can be snapped at any time. This creates psychological impediments. How can you expect a child from the Valley to compete with someone from Delhi, Bombay or Jammu?”

In October 2017, the J&K state government, led by the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition, granted Tickoo his demand. An executive order set aside 500 posts for non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits. The fiat was made possible because of the intervention of high-level politicians and bureaucrats like Rajnath Singh, Mehbooba Mufti and B.B. Vyas, Tickoo said.

But before the posts could be allotted, there was a legal challenge to the order—from Kashmiri Sikhs. The state had “ventured into class legislation and has treated persons in the same class differently,” community representatives argued. After all, Sikhs, too, had stayed back and suffered as religious minorities. Their petition needed to be treated “at par with Kashmiri Pandits staying in the Valley for the purposes of providing employment.”

The J&K high court quashed the executive order in February 2019. Non-migrants could still apply for the 3000 posts, but the 500 exclusive seats were put in cold storage. The judgement reasoned that the PM’s Relief and Rehabilitation package was intended to provide one job per Pandit family. If 500 posts were reserved for non-migrants, they would be entitled to one of these while also competing for the remaining 2500 posts. Such a situation, the court said, could not have been intended by the Union Government.

It was a massive setback to Tickoo and his organisation. By this time, the alliance between the BJP and the PDP had imploded. There was no one Tickoo could approach for solutions. And by the end of the year, Jammu and Kashmir wasn’t even a state.

Residency Road Blues


rinagar’s Residency Road runs parallel to the Jhelum. The river is hidden from sight by a long line of buildings and shopfronts stretching from Tyndale Biscoe school all the way to Mahatta & Co. Few establishments personify the history of this road like Ahdoo’s. Its bakery has provided cakes for former prince Karan Singh’s birthday, its restaurant has served goshtaba to Raj Kapoor and catered for Indira Gandhi. During the 1990s, it was the base from where foreign correspondents like Andrew Whitehead reported the conflict.

I crossed these landmarks on the way to Zero bridge, where I met rapper Rishab Raino. Rishab was born in 1995, a few years after the exodus. He grew up in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal neighbourhood and studied at Tyndale Biscoe. There were hardly any Kashmiri Pandits in the school and none in his class. But he never felt out of place, he told me. No one mentioned his religion or bullied him for it.

The peace lasted until 2008, and then it was suddenly fractured.

“I was 13 years old when the Amarnath land agitation started,” he said, remembering the protests against a Union government plan to allocate forest land to build shelters for Amarnath pilgrims. “I was going towards my tuition teacher’s house with my younger brother. We were on Residency Road when we saw a large mob rushing towards the Clock Tower. A hand came and grabbed my brother. I looked around frantically, but couldn’t find him.”

In that single moment, everything Rishab had heard about the 1990s became a reality. While the crowd roared towards him, a man pulled him inside a shop. His brother was already there, standing breathless in a corner. The shopkeeper, a Muslim, gave the boys water and soothed their nerves.

“They cannot fathom how we can live in a Muslim-majority society. They think we have made major compromises.”

Rishab Raino

The incident made Rishab curious about the exodus; about the 1990s. Years later, when Rishab started composing and rapping in engineering college, one of his first songs ‘1990’ was about the exodus. The lyrics made it clear that Rishab’s heart went out to the migrants’ plight. But he felt that the feeling was not mutual: his relatives in Jammu, for instance, looked down on him and his family.

“They cannot fathom how we can live in a Muslim-majority society,” Rishab said. “They think we have made major compromises. They think we have abandoned our gods. We offer teher czarvan”—turmeric rice mixed with lamb liver—“at Zeethyar shrine, but a few years back some migrants tried to stop us. Zeethyar, Chakreshwar and Khrew have historically been shrines where meat is offered to the goddess. The deities here are hot-blooded, they need to be pacified. But some of us are forgetting our Shaivite roots.”

There have been meaningful interactions too, Rishab went on. One of his songs was produced with the help of Vinayak Razdan, a migrant who runs the popular blog Search Kashmir.

“I just hope,” he said, “that we can listen to each other’s stories and help each other.”

When we spoke about employment, Rishab told me it was difficult to earn a living solely from music. He’d been applying for government jobs but without success. At the time of our meeting, he was working as a computer instructor. His salary was hardly enough to meet his personal expenditure.

“I am not saying we should be given top jobs,” he said. “Even though I am an engineer, I have applied for Class 4 jobs. I am willing to work hard and grow.”

The Migrant


ven for migrant Pandits, the road towards employment has not been a straight one. Take the case of Vishal Fotedar. He was born in Bugam in Kulgam district in 1980. He remembered his early years as idyllic: the days were spent playing cricket, hide and seek, and latkij loth—gilli-danda, or tip-cat—in the meadows near his village. When he was a little older he joined the Montessori School in Anantnag, half an hour away from Bugam.

In 1986, some Kashmiri Muslims, egged on by local politicians, rioted to protest the opening of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid for Hindu worshippers. Vishal was too young to register these incidents. There was relative calm for the next few years. But, by 1989, there were already hints about the gathering storm. Strangers started passing through his village. Soon, bad news started coming in from Srinagar: of people killed in cold blood, of bombings, of foreign fighters.

It wasn’t long before the unrest reached Anantnag. There were strikes and stone pelting incidents. The violence culminated in a killing near Vishal’s school. When the school closed after the incident, Vishal retreated to the village. There, too, the atmosphere was tense.

The days of roaming fearlessly in orchards and bathing in the streams were over. “To discourage us children, we were told there was a marczbud”—‘witch’ in colloquial usage—“in the chilli fields,” Vishal said. “In reality, the rumour was cooked up to ease the movement of militants.”

The conditions deteriorated swiftly. After the name of Vishal’s father appeared on a hit list nailed to the temple door, they decided to leave. The family moved to Chinnor, Jammu, where all five members had to fit in a single room.“We were still fortunate,” Vishal offered. “At least we did not stay in the camps. You know what the conditions there were like. Fights would break out over a bucket of water, over a single tomato. It was hell.”

After graduating from Jammu’s Government Science College, Vishal joined a pharmaceutical company. When Manmohan Singh announced the package in 2008, Vishal was all set to leave his job for government employment. “I was doing okay in my private job, but a government job seemed more stable.”

The first posts for migrants were advertised only in 2010, two years after the package was announced. There was no examination. Vishal submitted his form and gave an interview to the Service Selection Recruitment Board. When the results were announced, his name was on the waitlist.

While he waited, he regularly checked notices sent by the Selection Board. That is when he realised that many posts had been reserved for candidates from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Kashmiri Pandits have their own arcane hierarchies—gaurs and karkun, particularly [7] —but there are no Scheduled Tribes or Scheduled Castes in the community. Vishal brought this to the notice of the authorities. “We went to the court as well as to the bureaucrats. Finally, in 2017, after seven years, we were victorious. 198 posts were created for those in the 2010 waiting list.”

It took Vishal seven years to get a job as a teacher under the package. That’s why he was indignant when I brought up the demands of non-migrants. “The situation in Kashmir is the same for Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs,” he said. “How are the Muslim boys clearing the service exams: Indian Adminstrative Service, Kashmir Administrative Serivice? I have nothing against non-migrants. But if they want jobs, they should work hard for it, like we did.”

Vishal also felt that the community should have been united during the exodus. “If 98 percent of your people are leaving, why are you staying back?” Vishal said. “These non-migrants have property in Kashmir, and in other places as well. They are enjoying life.”

Reality Check


r. Raina, for his part, had a bleak view of the future of non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits. He runs a wholesale business on Residency Road and agreed to be interviewed if I didn’t use his first name. He is 65 years old, and his head is covered with wisps of silver hair. When I interviewed him, he was seated on a chair, his legs crossed gracefully, his hands drumming the table in front of him. He believed Sanjay Tickoo’s fight for 500 government jobs was utterly futile.

“Tell me one thing,” he asked me, in a voice resonant with amusement, “where are these kids they want jobs for? There aren’t many young Pandits here.”

“I have met a few,” I said.

He tutted.

“Even if there are a hundred, what good will come of giving them jobs? Will that solve the Kashmir problem? This is a mistake rooted in history. When the exodus happened, the government should have set up secure camps in the Valley itself. That way, when things stabilised, people would have visited their homes and shops. Now they are cut off from the realities of their homeland.”

Customers popped in and out of his shop while we spoke. Mr. Raina spoke to them in the easy, affable manner of a man who has been dealing with people for a long time.

“Where are these kids they want jobs for? There aren’t many young Pandits here.”

Mr. Raina

“Look, I can safely say this. In 10 years, there will be no non-migrant Pandits in Kashmir,” he said to me. “Most people staying here are senior citizens. Their children are settled in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore or Jammu. Soon they will leave the Valley and move in with them. We have had migrations before, but this will be a permanent one.”

No matter what politicians or Kashmiri Pandit leaders in Delhi say, he sees no hope for rehabilitation. “Coming back and living in Srinagar will not be possible now. My brother sold his house for ₹10 lakh after the exodus. Now it costs ₹3 crore,” he said. He was still drumming the table. “Look around you. Where are the houses in which the Pandits will stay?”

If Kashmiri Pandits have to return and settle in the Valley, Mr. Raina said, it has to be along the lines of the Panun Kashmir model. “But even then,” he added sceptically, “who will shift to this Panun Kashmir? Maybe some retired people, perhaps some from Jagti.” (Jagti is a township for migrants built in Jammu during Manmohan Singh’s tenure.)

“Most young Pandits I know are satisfied with life outside Kashmir. They’re earning well, living in big cities. If they want to live here, they have to get used to curfews, checkpoints, frisking, internet shutdowns. Have they thought about these things?”



fter his political, judicial and administrative attempts failed, Sanjay Tickoo decided to take the Gandhian approach. On 20 September 2020, he embarked on a ‘fast-unto-death’ in the Ganpatyar temple premises. Thirty members of the non-migrant community sat with him in a show of solidarity.

A banner in the background read: FAST-UNTO-DEATH FOR SURVIVAL.

On the third day of the fast, Tickoo’s blood pressure plummeted. At 2.30 pm, the reading was 60/40. Four hours later, the situation was positively dangerous. The doctor advised him to at least drink a cup of shir chai. [8]

He blacked out on his second sip. In a desperate attempt to revive him, his son slapped his face. He opened his eyes and sat up. Younger protesters sat taking turns with him now, to continue the fast. It took ten days, but at last, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, then district magistrate of Srinagar, promised to look into the community’s demands. The protesters suspended the fast.

On 5 October 2020, members of the KPSS met Baseer Khan, advisor to Manoj Sinha, the new Lieutenant Governor of J&K. Khan assured the non-migrants that their demands would be fulfilled soon. When nothing was done for weeks, Tickoo started his second fast in three months on 22 November. He became critically ill 11 days into the fast. His family and members of the KPSS had to urge him to end the fast and live to fight another day.

After this second fast, the KPSS issued a statement addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their desperation is evident from the following request to the PM: “…gather all the left out Kashmiri Pandits / Kashmiri Hindus at one place in Kashmir Valley and test firing power of newly purchased Rafale Aircrafts on us and free us from the miserable life which we are facing due to some persons from the ruling party cadres and morally corrupt bureaucracy.”

The Union government did not respond to the statement.

When I last spoke to Tickoo, The Kashmir Files had just hit theatres. He told me he was worried by the online and offline hate already generated by the film.

“I have one request to those people who do not live in Kashmir,” he said. “Before you say anything, remember there are 500 families of non-migrants Pandits and thousands of PM Package employees here. We maintain a cordial relationship with the majority community here. Your actions and words have a direct impact on it.”

He hoped that the conversation around the film would result in the Union government paying attention to the demands of the non-migrants. “Maybe after the release of The Kashmir Files, someone will also look at the PM Package files we have been submitting,” Tickoo said. “But I doubt it.”

Karan Mujoo is a Gurgaon-based writer. His work has appeared in The Tribune, Outlook, Arré, FirstPost and SportsKeeda. He likes literature, history and football. He tweets @mujoo_karan.


There are many journalists in Kashmir working diligently, under great stress, to highlight stories of all kinds. I would like to thank them. It was through their reportage that I first heard about Sanjay Tickoo's fast-unto-death. 

One of the academic sources for this story was Nishita Trisal’s paper titled “Those who remain,” published in the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies. It gave a good overview of the issue and made it easier to prepare for the interviews.

My gratitude to Sanjay, Sandeep, Rishab, Vishal Fotedar and Mr. Raina. There would be no story at all without them. Sanjay was generous with his time and candid with his opinions. Sandeep ferried me around the city of Srinagar on his bike, sharing stories and opening his world to me. Rishab was as forthright as his songs are. Vishal shared his story with me over several phone conversations, even though he was recuperating from an illness. As for Mr. Raina, I simply walked into his shop and requested an interview.

Vinayak Razdan of Search Kashmir spoke to me about this issue and shared his thoughts. 

There were a few stories which did not make the final cut. I would like to thank Rinku Bhat of MR Foods. He spoke to me while manning the till of a fast food joint he owns and runs in partnership with a Muslim friend, near the Srinagar Airport. Proof that while we mourn its demise, Kashmiriyat still survives in small and meaningful ways. 

And finally, thank you Dev, you have opened more doors for me than all the ushers in this world put together.