Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit was barely 20-years-old in 1989-90, when he witnessed what came to be known as the “Kashmiri Pandit Exodus”. In this exclusive interview, he recalls the events as they truly unfolded and not how they have been over dramatised and presented in the film The Kashmir Files which, he fears, aims to polarise communities, spread hate, and may even fuel violence that people of Jammu and Kashmir, and elsewhere do not want repeated ever again.
What was the sequence of events in 1989 and 1990? Could you describe the overall atmosphere (fear and intimidation) that prevailed?
It actually started from 1988, when there were some bomb blasts on vehicles/ jeeps marked ‘Bharat Sarkar / Government of India’ used by government officers. The rumours then were that this was allegedly done by the then Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah, because there was a massive rift between him and the government at the Centre. So in 1989 the instensity of such bombings increased, there were blasts on state transport buses, outside gov’t of India offices. Then, on August 15 that year, there was a total hartal (strike) called by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was previously only called the Kashmir Liberation Front (KLF).
Would the JKLF take credit for those blasts?
Haanji. March 14, 1989, there was a bomb blast at High Street, Srinagar in which eight pedestrians got injured and were shifted to SHMS hospital. Among them was a lady named Prabhavati from Chadoora (Budgam), she had the traditional tikka on her forehead and was kept aside [in the hospital], she died because of blood loss, there was no medical attention towards her. Other victims of the majority community had minor injuries and survived. That was the first Kashmiri Pandit (KP) victim.
The first political casualty was on August 16, 1989, when Mohammad Yusuf Halwai who was the block president of National Conference (NC) was killed downtown. The second political casualty was of Tika Lal Tiploo, the first Kashmiri Pandit killed on September 13, 1989.
Those days there were rallies [of Muslims] being taken out with slogans like “UNO chalo”, towards United Nations offices here. I think not less than 50,000 memorandums were presented to UN officials. Rallies of tonga walas, students, lawyers, all groups took out processions.
Was this a show of strength?
Yes. There were also some Sikhs who participated. This went on but we [KP] were not feeling threat or fear, there were talks like ‘this keeps happening’. But in July-August 1989, Kendriya Vidyalaya [Central School] buses carrying school children were fired upon [by local terrorists], they had a narrow escape. Then those buses stopped running.
On January 19, 1990, on the DoorDarshan Metro channel around 8.30 P.M, the movie Humraz was telecast. As it was winter, everyone was in their homes watching that film. Then we began to hear sounds, shouting announcing on loudspeaker that ‘come out.. army and CRP are coming, they will invade homes, molest and attack’ etc. In a span of two hours, 90 percent people [majority community i.e Muslims] were on the roads to protest all night. Slogans like “Hum kya chahte? Azaadi!” were first heard. Then, there was, “Yahan kya chaleaga? Nizam e mustafa!“, “Kashmir mein rehna hai, la illa illallah kehna hai“, “Roos [Russia] ne baazi haari hai, aur abb Hind ki baari hai“, etc. because Russia had left Afghanistan those days.
Then there was the slogan “Ae kaafiron, e zaliimon hamara Kashmir chhod do“. Then came slogans which were anti KP, against our women folk, “Humein chahiye Pakistan, Kashmiri Pandito ke bagair lekin Kashmiri Panditaniyo ke saath” (Translation: We want Pakistan without Kashmiri Pandit men, but with Kashmiri Pandit women). This rang out all night on January 19, 1990. This was a threat, and it increased the fear psychosis, it was repeated on January 20. Within a span of 2-3 days the scene had changed. Before that six KPs were also killed in different areas. There was a massacre in Gaw Kadal on January 21 1990, Muslims were killed [allegedly] by the Indian security forces. By evening, a rumour spread that the CRPF allegedly molested Muslim women in a locality here [in Srinagar]. There was no proper communication system then.
So how did these rumours spread so fast?
Yes! You got the point. How did these rumours spread? The processions came from uptown, in groups, they crossed Lal Chowk etc. How did they reach so easily when there was a curfew declared by the government at that time? So January 19 – 21 was pre planned in my opinion, by people who were running the show. From the JKLF, Islamists students league, I also feel the National Conference was a big party and was [involved]. Why did this protest happen on that day? As soon as Jagmohan was appointed governor, Farooq Abudlla and his Cabinet resigned. There was less presence of security forces on the roads, then on January 20 a few Kashmiri Pandits moved out. It was an intelligence failure, not one thought it [processions, attacks] could happen on a large scale. Then the killings intensified, hate spread.
How many Kashmiri Pandits were killed by terrorists in those days?
Not more than 20, but it was a big deal as it had not happened before.
What about the claim that hundreds/thousands were killed? Have they been under-counted?
It was Shivratri on February 20 1990, we were to get clay utensils to be used for prayer offerings. Things were normal, i went out with my father to the stalls put up by the [Muslim] potters, in the village they visit the homes to seek clay are and in exchange also got a share of the ingredients we used to cook the bhog (prayer food offering), apart from their payments. Those relations were there till that day in the villages, even though the rumours had reached there too. Then there were more killings of KPs, and [some other] Kashmiri Hindus. They could tell us apart, as our women wore sarees, the older generation wore a different Pheran style, they wore tikkas, there were no Sikh casualties those days.
Were the Pandits killed for refusing to leave the valley?
It was almost like a tiger attacking a flock of sheep, the herd scatter, the weakest were attacked.
Is there any way to identify the forces or individuals behind the killings?
The killings were 90% by JKLF, we identified 85 persons in our lists.
What was the attitude of the authorities, the Police, and the Governor?
Nothing, the CRPF battalion had just completed their training and were sent here on election duty. Many were not armed/ trained. Local police had all collapsed. Governor had nothing in his hands, and it took him three months to streamline things. There was no response, there were killings, we were not given security cover, the state totally collapsed. Silence from the Governor house.
When did the pandits move out of the valley? Who took this collective decision for a ‘mass migration’?
What we call the mass migration began March 15, 1990, onward. Terrorist organisions were making daily hit lists and pasting them inside the mosques. On these lists were Pandits, NC workers, Muslims. As there were cordial relations between individual Pandits and Muslims, the latter after the evening namaaz would inform his [Pandit] neighbour if he spotted the name. He wanted to save his [KP friend/ neighbour] and their families. There was a lot of suspicion those days, no one knew who was aligned with who. Those trying to help could also be killed. But somehow they reached out and told us. Downtown houses were close to each other. There was no collective decision by KPs to move en masse. They left when they were scared.
Were camps already set up for them in Jammu/ other places?
We did not know there were camps. A few camps were set up in march. Victim survivor families had already migrated if someone had been targeted, then they moved out as did their neighbours. Between March 14, 1989, and May 31, 1990, we have records of 187 KP killings.
What party was in power in the centre? What was their response to what was happening in Kashmir?
It was the VP Singh government supported by the BJP. If they had reacted the migration/ exodus would not have happened from here! The situation would not have deteriorated. The government was silent.
Were KPs killed when they were migrating out?
No, there were no killings during the travel as far as our surveys and talks with people have shown. This film shows that all Kashmiris were ‘Jihadi’. If it would have been the case, it would have been impossible for any Kashmiri Pandit, or any minority community to leave. Not just Srinagar, from far away areas in the North, to reach town then get a vehicle, then cross the red zone of militancy. I dont think they would have reached Jammu (if the folks Jihadi claims were true). From June 1, 1990 to October 31, 1990, there were more killings, around 387. Jammu was very hot and some people who returned to the Valley, but were killed. People like us who did not migrate were killed, especially in Srinagar where the maximum casualties were. Militancy was high in Srinagar; 144 militant organisations at one point in the Valley. If something happens in Srinagar it becomes big news.
What did the Muslim leaders of J&K do in 1990? Did they try to assure Pandits? Any public statements?
No one issued any statements, there was no assurance from any political parties.
Were calls or threats issued to Muslims from Masjids in 89-90?
They must have been threatened if they helped any KP escape. If the news leaked, he may have even been killed. It is not known. No warnings were sounded to them from masjids. Maybe they were told not to help KPs.
The Kashmir Files claims the government hid the ‘facts’ so far, what facts are they talking about?
Brutal things have happened to us. The episodes they show have happened, but the way they have dramatised is wrong. They are lying that the facts were hidden. We have recorded these facts and have said again and again this has happened. I went to Nadimarg [where 23 KPs were killed] with Zee Nnews and told them everything.
Was Article 370 an issue related to Kashmiri Pandit migration of 1990?
No it was not our [KP] issue, it was an RSS-BJP agenda, it had nothing to do with the migration.
After that demand has now been met, how many KPs have come back home to the valley?
Not even one. The film has spread vulnerability.
What is the way forward now?
To be fair I do not see any ray of hope presently. When the PM is involved, Parliament is involved, you are showing the film to the army, police force, a diamond merchant in Gujarat has booked 600 shows. When this happens viewers in the age group of 16-25 believe it. Why are”Jai shree Ram” slogans being raised in theatres, what does it mean? Damage is done, polarisation is done. The opposite reaction will happen in Kashmir only. In 1990, there was a sympathy wave for Kashmiri Pandits, now I was told as of today if, god forbid, anything happens to KPs, “we will not be able to protect you, we have no authority over children who have grown up in the turmoil years” they say.
What reason did your father give for staying in the Valley?
Even we got a letter in July 1990 to leave, but stayed, survived somehow in difficult conditions. We also asked this to other KPs, they say they don’t know why they stayed back. There is no answer to this. I never asked my father why we are not migrating. I asked my mom once if she was scared? She said no, ‘hum dekhenge’ let us see for seven days, and those seven days turned into years. It was God’s will that we survived, there was a section of the majority community who first supported us behind the curtain, then supported us openly. The militants also attacked, raped Muslims who realised they [terrorists] were animals. The pirated copy of the movie has reached the valley. Time will tell what impact it will result in the future.
What are the KPs demanding?
Our demands for years have been the same, the government has done nothing, they do not prioritise KPs who have not left the valley. This film is politically motivated. If there are casualties [in Kashmir again], it will polarise. There are no open threats yet but there is some ‘gadbad’ happening. Not just me, others can sense it too. It can be worse than 1990. The damage has been done. Visuals of movies are that stay on the mind, this movie has done 99% of that negative impact.