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'We miss them': On exodus day, Muslim neighbours yearn for return of Kashmiri Pandits

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Srinagar, Jan 19 (PTI) A garden looks beautiful with colourful flowers. Would it look as nice if we plant only white flowers?" A frail-looking old man poses the question as he goes for Friday prayers at a mosque in Srinagar's Habba Kadal locality.

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For Mohammad Yousuf Khan, Kashmiri Pandits are the flowers that brought colour and life to the garden he calls home: Habba Kadal in Shahar e Khaas.

Khan and other residents of Habba Kadal believe the idea of Kashmiriyat is incomplete without the neighbours they lost three decades ago but still long for. "We used to eat from one plate. We will be more than happy if they return. We miss them," says Shafeeqa, a resident.

Habba Kadal is where Khan grew up and still lives there in his mid-sixties. The locality was an example in communal harmony and brotherhood for decades. It was a place where Bhajans and hymns in temples and sermons and Azaans in Masjids would rent the air.

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However, in early nineties, the soothing music of devotional songs was replaced by gunshots as terror activities picked up.

January 19 marks the day of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandit community from the region, driven out of their homeland following the outbreak of terrorism in the Valley.

"We used to live together, eat together. In fact, we still are living here with our Pandit brothers. There's no difference. We are living happily. On one side of this lane, there's a temple and on the other side, there's a mosque. We are all humans. Anyone who hurts a person hurts the entire humanity," says Khan.

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Recalling the proverbial good old times, he says that the KPs and Muslims shared a strong bond of love and respect for each other.

"In earlier times, we would be carefree. We used to visit temples on festivals. They used to come to greet us. We really miss them," he adds.

The exodus day is a significant day that commemorates the forced displacement of the Kashmiri Pandit community from the Kashmir Valley. It serves as a reminder of the hardships and challenges faced by the community during that time.

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Among a handful of KPs living in Srinagar is Sunil who stayed back on the reassurance of his Muslim neighbours. He refuses to give in to terror threats.

"I have been living here since my birth. We did not leave our motherland or migrate outside. I lived here, studied here, got married and have kids now,” says Sunil, with a smile on his face.

However, the glow from his face gradually disappears when he recalls the times of mass exodus to the plains of Jammu and other parts of the country.

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"God's best gift to mankind is life and if you feel there's a threat, you try to run for your life. Those who were affected, they did the same. But we stayed back," says Sunil. "We had the support of our local Muslim brothers. Even today, we celebrate festivals, weddings together. Recently, we had a wedding outside Kashmir which was attended by our Muslim neighbours as well. We are for them in our tough times and they are for us," he says.

Sunil is optimistic that with the changing situation in the Valley, the time is not far when the displaced members of his community will return and live happily with their Muslim brethren.

"We miss those who left us here. We feel alone because we don't have any relatives here. Our community got scattered throughout the world. A day will come when these empty houses will be full of life again. Our Kashmiri Pandits will return and life will be normal again," he adds.

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The loss and longing of the KP community members also bothers the members of the majority community. The Muslims in Habba Kadal locality yearn to see their neighbours return to their abandoned houses and bring back the golden times.

Khursheed Ahmed Bhat, a local, lives next to an abandoned Kashmiri Pandit house "I shifted here 20 years ago and since then, it's deserted. Sometimes, the family members come to see their house. Once I met a family member and I suggested to him that they return but he said they are already settled out of Kashmir now and don't see returning as an option," he told PTI.

"It is their wish. But I would appreciate it if they return. We already have two-three Pandit families living here and it would be nice if they return to their homes. We will feel happy. As per the family, this house has twenty-five rooms. It's a big one. They can renovate it and live peacefully here," he added.

The residents of Habba Kadal believe that the idea of Kashmiriyat is incomplete without the presence of Kashmiri Pandits and they want them to return soon. The government has also taken steps to rehabilitate these displaced community members.

"If Kashmiri Pandits return here, we will welcome them with open arms. It's our moral duty to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them. We will help them renovate their spaces. We had such great relationships. We used to eat from one plate. We will be more than happy if they return. We miss them," says Shafeeqa.

According to official data, 90,000–100,000 Pandits of an estimated population of 120,000–140,000 fled the Valley between January and March 1990. The government has launched a major crackdown to retrieve the properties of KPs encroached upon by people over the last three decades. PTI ZEH TIR TIR

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