'Passage from India:' Why suburban Hindus fled Kashmir

  • Men paddle across Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, the region has suffered since 1989 when militant action began and forced the Hindu Pundit population to flee.

    Men paddle across Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, the region has suffered since 1989 when militant action began and forced the Hindu Pundit population to flee. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

  • A gravedigger cries while praying at the Martyr's Cemetery in Srinagar. The man has single-handedly dug the graves of over 1000 militants.

    A gravedigger cries while praying at the Martyr's Cemetery in Srinagar. The man has single-handedly dug the graves of over 1000 militants. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

  • Homes once owned by Hindu Pundits, lay in ruins throughout Srinagar as a result of militant actions that began in 1989.

    Homes once owned by Hindu Pundits, lay in ruins throughout Srinagar as a result of militant actions that began in 1989. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

By Rukmini Callimachi
Updated 3/11/2017 9:51 PM

Editor's note: This story is republished from a 2003 series, "Passage from India," by former Daily Herald reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She traveled to the country with M. Scott Mahaskey, a former photographer for the newspaper.

SRINAGAR, Kashmir - Here, the houses speak more loudly than people.


Houses in the old Hindu neighborhoods of this capital have been burned. What remains is a series of charred carcasses.

Those left intact were tortured in other ways. Beams poke out of parlor rooms like broken ribs. Windows have been gouged out. Graffiti has replaced wallpaper. Piles of rubble fill spacious rooms where antique sofas and walnut beds once stood.

But this is not a city where life has been stamped out. Most houses are sturdy and well-kept. Some even are trimmed with planters of brightly-colored marigolds.

These are the houses owned by Muslims.

It is the destroyed ones, however, that are the only testament to what happened here. Their owners are gone.

In 1990, more than 250,000 Kashmiri Hindus fled as Islamic separatists took control of Kashmir's cities, killing prominent Hindus and intimidating others to escape.

Most of the Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits, ended up in refugee camps in India's scorching northern foothills. Others fled to relatives living outside the Kashmir Valley.

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Roughly 70 made it to Illinois. They are part of a wave of Indian immigration to the Chicago area that now makes them the largest Asian American group in the state.

Recent census statistics show there are nearly 125,000 Indian Americans in the Chicago area. Some, like the Kashmiri Hindus, come to escape persecution. Others envision opportunity.

Indian Americans coming to this area overwhelmingly choose to be suburbanites. Four out of five moving here come directly to the suburbs to live and work.

But left behind is a subcontinent of more than 1 billion people. Those who live in the suburbs cannot help but look anxiously back, like the Kashmiri Pandits, who since their expulsion have watched as a total reversal of affairs took place in Kashmir.


In the decade following 1990, the same Islamic groups that persecuted the Pandits waged guerrilla war against India to free Kashmir.

In response, the Indian government flooded the valley with 700,000 troops, and now is accused by human rights organizations of brutalizing Muslims.

It is Muslims who suffer the most now, said South Asia expert Cynthia Keppley Mahmood at the University of Notre Dame. Torture, custodial deaths, executions and "disappearances" are commonplace for Kashmir's Muslims, Amnesty International reported last year. The report says about 34,000 have been killed.

But the first round of terror rained down upon the Hindu minority, which in 1989 was 6 percent of Kashmir's population. By the time it was over in 1990, only 1 percent was left.

Three of the decimated houses in downtown Srinagar still belong, at least on paper, to residents of Chicago's suburbs.

Losing home

In 1989, when Ashish Ganju returned from college on summer break, he was startled to find his Muslim neighbors had grown long beards.

Ganju, a Hindu who now is a software consultant living in Naperville, grew up in Srinagar, where for years Muslim and Hindus peacefully co-existed.

But by 1989, in areas controlled by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front -whose most militant members claimed Kashmir was an integral part of Pakistan - ominous signs appeared. Muslims began growing beards as a sign of Islamic piety and set their wrist watches back a half hour, to match the time in Pakistan.

Rebels painted Hindu shops green, the color of Islam. Signs were hung around the necks of stray dogs that read, "Indian dogs go home."

By September 1989, the intimidation escalated into outright violence.

Muslim extremists singled out the pillars of the Hindu community for assassination - lawyers, judges, radio personalities - most of whom were shot in broad daylight. Images of their bodies, lying in shallow pools of blood, were broadcast on Indian TV.

In October, Ashish Ganju saw the images from 400 miles away in Chandigarh. There, the entire extended family had gathered to celebrate the engagement of his sister, Meenakshi.

When Neel Kanth Ganjoo, a retired judge and a leader of the Pandit community was shot and not even his family dared touch his fallen body, the Ganjus extended their stay.

"Everyday," Ganju, now 32, remembers, "they said, 'We'll wait until things quiet down next week.' Next week turned into a month, which turned into 13 years."

Raj Koul, 35, of Bolingbrook was a university student in Gujarat when his mother and sister fled Srinagar by taxi in the summer of 1990, taking only what they could carry - jewelry, property deeds, a change of clothes and a gas cylinder, which they later used to cook meals in a refugee camp.

They drove all night in a black and yellow cab, crossing the Pir Panjal mountains - the majestic, snow-covered range of the northwestern Himalayas that separates the Kashmir Valley from the rest of India.

When they reached the dusty city of Jammu, they were taken to a school that had become a refugee camp. In rooms partitioned by hanging sheets, they lived with 400 other Pandits. Two of Koul's cousins still live in the slums that sprung up when the camp was disbanded.

In January 1990, six months before the Kouls left, the JKLF took out a full-page ad in the daily newspaper Al-Safa, calling for Hindus to leave the valley within 48 hours.

The exodus began on Jan. 19. Just after Friday prayer, mosque loudspeakers began blasting slogans, saying Kashmir was only for those willing to say, "Allah is great."

Mobs encircled Hindu homes. Rioters screamed, "Nizam-e-Mustafa," or "Islamic rule."

The India government did not respond right away.

"We saw it as sporadic violence. We failed to understand the game plan," says Inspector General of Police K. Rajendra Kumar in Srinagar. "When India reacted, it was too late."

All around Raj Koul's home, Pandits were fleeing. But his mother, a widowed nurse, made less than $50 per month. Koul, now a software engineer for United Airlines, was then a second-year university student and not yet earning an income.

The family couldn't afford to lose their house, a three-story bungalow with two storefronts they rented to shopkeepers.

They thought they could wait it out.

In Habbakadal, their neighborhood, militants threw henna into Hindu houses, a powder used to decorate the hands of Indian brides. The accompanying notes said, "Get your daughters ready. We are coming to make them Muslim girls."

A poster glued to the Kouls' door said, "Infidels leave Kashmir." By early summer, they were one of only two Hindu families left.

When rebels broke into the only other Hindu house and sprayed the family with bullets, Koul's mother called for a taxi.

Raj Koul's uncle, who lived nearby in the village of Sholipura, decided to stay. In 1990, Sholipura was almost exclusively Muslim - just 15 Hindu houses in a sea of 10,000 Muslim families.

Kanya Lal Koul was the notary of Sholipura and well respected. He sat inside the court and issued signatures for property deeds.

"All the Muslim farmers knew him and appreciated him, because he put together their land deals," Raj Koul said. "He was like a father figure."

In June 1990, a group of young men knocked at Kanya Lal Koul's door. The elderly man recognized one of the Muslim boys and agreed to go outside.

His body was found by Muslim shepherds on a hilltop several days later. Even though his eyes had been gouged out, the shepherds recognized him.

War at heaven's door

In the travel brochures of the world, there are many advertisements for paradise.

Kashmir, with its floating gardens, snow-covered ranges and lakes blooming with lotuses, had no problem selling itself as a heaven on earth. In 1988, it was India's honeymoon capital and its No. 2 tourist attraction after the Taj Mahal, drawing 720,000 tourists yearly, 10 times the number who come now.

But it is not because of the fabled beauty of Kashmir that India and Pakistan fought four wars over it.

"The most fundamental reason is because of the place Kashmir holds in their separate identities as states," said South Asia expert Stephen P. Cohen at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

In 1947, India and Pakistan, once one nation ruled by Britain, became sovereign nations with radically different visions. Pakistan, an Islamic republic, sees Kashmir as its natural inheritance because of its largely Muslim population.

India, now the world's largest democracy, sees itself as a home for all. It argues that even if it is 81 percent Hindu, it is also is home to more than 125 million Muslims. Pakistan's Muslim population is not much larger at 143 million.

Because Kashmir is the only state in India where Muslims are the majority, losing it would be a blow to India's secular identity, and to the idea that Muslims and Hindus can co-exist, Cohen said.

India and Pakistan fought their first war in 1948. Kashmir wound up divided - two thirds with India and one third with Pakistan - separated by the "Line of Control."

In 1949, a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire called for a plebiscite, whereby the people of Indian-controlled Kashmir would vote on their future. The vote never was held, a fact that now fuels the groups fighting for self-determination.

India and Pakistan fought wars over Kashmir in 1965 and again in 1971. But it wasn't until 1990 that the valley would erupt into a full-fledged battleground.

"What happened to change the situation is for the first time Kashmiri people started their own intifada," Cohen said.

The trigger was the 1987 state elections which, by most media accounts, were rigged in favor of pro-India candidates. Many Kashmiris, who later would become terrorists, were contesting seats.

"The Kashmiris gave up on democracy after that and crossed the border to get trained in Pakistan," said Rafique Khan, director of the Los Angeles-based Kashmir Human Rights Foundation.

In terrorist training camps on the Pakistan side of the border, young men now are trained for holy war. In 2001, out of 1,036 terrorists killed by the Indian army, 790 were from Pakistan, said Kumar, the inspector general of police in Srinagar.

Those who have lost Kashmir, have lost not just their childhood homes, but homes planted in a paradise on earth.

"Even if you dropped a nuclear bomb on Kashmir, you still couldn't destroy its beauty," said Ashish Ganju.

"You haven't seen Kashmir until you have seen the saffron fields under the moonlight," added Anupam Ganju, his cousin. "The flowers are a blue - no, a dark violet. Under the moonlight, you can't imagine."

Paradise now is dotted with sandbags and military check posts.

The five-star hotels are prisons, surrounded by coils of barbed wire.

People are on edge. The government psychiatric hospital in downtown Srinagar sees an average of 137 outpatients a day, a 17-fold increase from 1989.

This spring, in the square adjacent to Ashish Ganju's childhood home, a man howled in the street. Children entertained themselves by barking at him.

He moaned. Then he barked back.

Looking for paradise

In a room on the second story of Bansi Pandit's Glen Ellyn home is a mural. It takes up one entire wall - 12-feet-by-6-feet of wilderness. The landscape is a forested valley. At its center, a river gushes.

Pandit, 61, a nuclear engineer, bought his first home in Glen Ellyn in 1986 - 14 years after leaving Kashmir for better opportunities.

He chose a house with a spacious garden. Vijay Pandit, his wife, began recreating Kashmir in the maples and marigolds she planted - a flower typically offered to Hindu deities during morning worship.

Pandit spotted the wall-size mural in a Lombard poster shop. The image in plastic was not Kashmir. But the landscape seemed somehow familiar.

He brought it home but couldn't make it stick to the wall. He went back to the shop four times before he found the proper glue, trying again and again until the wild valley finally took hold.

In 1986, Pandit was just another Indian immigrant who missed his home. It would be another four years before Hindus would be chased out of Kashmir. Four years before Vijay's cousin, Sheela Tikoo, would be shot in the stomach exiting a Srinagar bus.

Another six years before their house in Srinagar would be razed and before a green Pakistani flag would be painted inside the parlor of a cousin's home next door.

"No one in Kashmir ever thought we will not come back," Bansi Pandit said.

"We were trying to find something which would give us some peace of mind," Vijay Pandit said, gesturing toward the mural. "We are from Kashmir - we needed something to look at. Something big. Like a movie."

What remains

Ashish Ganju's childhood home still stands in the Rainawari neighborhood of Srinagar.

In 1990, the house was occupied by the JKLF, who declared Rainawari a "liberated" zone and renamed it Faisalabad, after a city in Pakistan. After 1992, the JKLF was flushed out and the house was occupied by the Indian Border Security Force, which now uses the first two floors as a dormitory.

A sea of garbage, sprinkled with cigarette butts and animal bones, has replaced the family's furniture on the third floor. The rubble is a solid wave of trash that starts in the middle of the sitting room and breaks at the northern wall.

Because there is no glass in the windows, it is easy to hear the birds, the Kashmiri hurr and bulbul.

This room, said Ashish Ganju, was a shrine of sorts to his great-uncle - paleontologist P.N. Ganju, the family's most illustrious relative, who died of brain cancer at 41, nearly half a century ago. He held two doctorates. In his 30s, he founded the geology department at Aligarh Muslim University, one of India's citadels of learning. The department still bears his name.

Little in the house is as the Ganjus knew it. But the family has not been completely erased.

Kick away the first layer of trash and under a blanket of rotten vegetables is a light green monograph, "On a Collection of Jurassic Plants from the Rajmahal Hills" by P.N. Ganju.

Above the windows is a small ledge. There is so much dust that, at first, it is easy to miss the two framed portraits. One is of a dashing young man wearing a white safari suit. On the back, written in an elegant script, are the words, "P.N. Ganju, Benares, 1931."

'Very clever people'

Many Pandits lost their houses to arson. But those whose homes remained found out years later their property had been illegally occupied.

The clay walls of Raj Koul's house in Srinagar are well-kept. Red and yellow flowers trim the windows. Inside the courtyard, the sound of children playing echoes.

A young Muslim man standing in the courtyard says, "My parents bought the house from a Pandit. I don't know for how much."

But Koul says the house was taken over illegally by former neighbors. In 1992, under duress, the family agreed to sell the three-story house, valued at $40,000, for $1,100, he said.

"What can we do sitting in Delhi?" said his younger brother, Vinod Koul. "Pursuing a lawsuit involves appearing in court. But we cannot even set foot in Kashmir."

Still, even now, the perception of the Pandits' privilege persists in Srinagar.

"These Pandits were very clever people," said the mullah of the local mosque in the Chattabal neighborhood. "They asked the Indian security forces to burn down their houses so that they could collect the insurance. Then, after they had collected the insurance, they sold their houses to Muslims here so they got money twice.

"We Muslims were illiterate people. The Pandits were the educated ones. They are 500 years ahead of us."

Side by side

"I really felt it when they left," said Gulzar Ahmed Dand, 32.

Dand, a Muslim, is clean-shaven, which makes him stand out in Rainawari, the neighborhood in downtown Srinagar known now as a stronghold of Islamic militants.

His face is strikingly similar to Ashish Ganju's - the childhood friend he has not seen since 1989.

In the 1970s, when Ganju and Dand were growing up, Rainawari was predominantly Hindu. But of the more than 10,000 Kashmiri Pandit families that once lived here, only one remains today.

It was cricket that brought them together as boys. "I never thought about the fact that he was a Muslim," said Ganju. As teenagers, they jogged together in the early morning and lifted weights to stay in shape. At night, they sneaked out to share a pack of Charms or India Kings, Indian cigarettes forbidden by their parents.

There was a sense of mutual acceptance and a respect for each other's ways.

The friendship was far from unusual. It blossomed in a place known for a form of moderate Islam, tempered through centuries of Sufi influence, a sect of Islamic mysticism.

In certain parts of Kashmir, the gap between Muslims and Hindus was so small that some worshipped at the same shrines.

But underlying this harmony was a huge economic disparity, with Hindus controlling the best government posts, even though they were only a fraction of the population. Moreover, Hindus were nearly 100 percent literate, whereas even today, Muslim literacy is less than 55 percent, says Kashinath Pandita, himself a Pandit, who since 1991 has represented the exiled community at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Ashish Ganju is a software engineer in an Oak Brook-based firm who speaks multiple languages and holds multiple degrees. Gulzar Dand cannot speak English and did not graduate from high school. He is a carpet maker who isn't sure of his own age.

In an attempt to rectify such disparities, the state government imposed aggressive affirmative action measures aimed at uplifting the Muslim community, Pandita says. They swung the pendulum wide, so wide that Hindus had to do twice as well to get into universities and three times better to get jobs, he adds.

That led to the beginning of the Hindu exodus, which some say began as early as the 1960s. Glen Ellyn's Bansi Pandit is an example. In spite of nearly perfect marks in his engineering exams, Pandit says he was unable to get a job in Srinagar.

He came here, to build Illinois' nuclear reactors instead.

Since the violence of 1989, the Pandit population in Kashmir dropped from 6 percent to less than 1 percent. But that was the second wave of the exodus. In 1947, Pandits made up 12 percent of the population.

A Muslim graveyard

The roses in the martyr's graveyard in Srinagar are dead. The graves are untended, strewn with tufts of yellow grass.

But the tears of the head gravedigger, Habibullah Khan, are always fresh.

A 62-year-old Muslim who gave up his shop in 1990 to dig graves, Khan enters the graveyard and softly begins to cry as he wipes down one of the tombstones with a green cloth.

Since 1990, more than 1,000 graves have been dug in this bald cemetery at the edge of a vast, muddy field. He has dug all of them himself, he says.

Each tombstone bears the word shaheed, meaning "martyr," written in green, the color of Islam.

Depending on one's point of view, they are either terrorists or freedom fighters. The graveyard is a "Who's Who" of the Kashmiri insurgency - the Muslim fight for freedom from Indian rule.

Maqbool Bhat's gravestone is here, even though his body never was turned over by the Indian government after he was hanged in 1984. Bhat, the founder of the JKLF, was the first Kashmiri to pick up a gun and is considered the spiritual father of the insurgency.

The graveyard also keeps the story of what has happened to Kashmir's Muslim civilians. Ask Khan which grave is the most important, and he says, "The two biggest leaders are buried here."

The rectangular marker names two Muslim children, both 5 years old when they were killed by Indian soldiers who raided a house they thought was occupied by Kashmiri militants.

If 34,000 people have been killed since 1990, a large number have simply disappeared as well. Lawyers in Kashmir estimate the number is at least 700, but Amnesty International quotes observers who put the number at 2,000.

Indian security forces are accused of using rape as a counter-insurgency measure in villages, said Human Rights Watch in a 1999 report. Summary executions of suspected terrorists is the norm, as is torture, which Human Right Watch says "has remained a constant in Kashmir."

Mohammed Maqbool, the autopsy technician at Srinagar's hospital, is the face of death. Maqbool has single handedly autopsied 14,000 bodies. Some were Indian soldiers, but the vast majority were Muslim.

He smells of formaldehyde and has the eyes of a man who hasn't slept. In 14 years, he never has left the city for any appreciable amount of time. He never knows, he said, when a new body will arrive.

"I see every human being walking on the street as a fly who will one day end up in my morgue," he says. "What has happened to Kashmir?"

'Never give up hope'

Last October, Kashmir's state elections were declared clean by international monitors, even though 450 people were killed by Islamic militants during the election period, according to international media reports.

The new People's Democratic Party, under the leadership of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the chief minister of the state, has won praise for an agenda which includes the release of all detainees held on "non-specific" charges.

Sayeed's own daughter, Rubaiya, was kidnapped by the JKLF in 1989. Yet in a gesture rich in symbolism, the first detainee released last November was Yasin Malik, chairman of the JKLF - which long ago laid down its guns and is now considered one of the moderate voices in the Kashmiri struggle.

One of the most ambitious goals of Sayeed's government is the return of the Pandits. It's a goal even Malik supports, saying, "They are the sons of the soil. They have every right to be here."

"It's a top priority," Sayeed says. "If we are able to take them back to Kashmir, it would be a restoration of normalcy."

He knows convincing Pandits will be difficult. Only 3,000 are left in the valley, officials say, many under Indian guard.

But cross-border violence in Kashmir is on the rise again.

The latest round of tension was sparked by a gruesome attack in Kashmir several weeks ago, in which Islamic militants dressed in Indian Army fatigues gunned down 24 Pandits in Shopian, not far from Srinagar.

Ashish Ganju's great-grandfather was from Shopian. Sayeed's plan "conveys good intentions," he says. But Ganju adds Sayeed's policies are made in a fool's paradise, one that Pandits in Chicago abandoned long ago.

Ask Bansi Pandit if he ever will return, and he glances down at the fuzzy carpet, then at the verdant mural before answering:

"We can never give up hope."

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