19 January The night that changed everything

Vimal Sumbly
It was the darkest of all the nights. It was the coldest of all the nights. It was the longest of all the nights. It was the night of January 19, 1990. It was the night of exile. It was the night of exodus. It was the night of fear and horror. It was the night of suspicion. It was the night of uncertainty. It was the night of death and despair. It was the darkest night ever, when thousands of frightened and fear stricken people, fearing for their lives and honour being hounded, were huddled together in the small space within the iconic Tourist Reception Centre of Srinagar, wondering if this night will ever end and if the morning will ever come and if they will ever be alive to see the next dawn, that was just hours away, yet seemed ages afar. And, if they will ever be there again as it felt like their last night.
It is exactly 25 years now, since the Kashmiri Pandits were exiled out of Kashmir en masse. 25 years may not be a long time in the history of nations and large communities, but it is certainly not a short period either for a generation that has seen so much transformation for good and for worse. Thankfully the young generation of Kashmiri Pandits which is in its twenties and thirties now has not experienced the trauma and tragedy of the exile as it happened. But those in their forties onwards can well recall that horrific horror that howled and bellowed out of the loudspeakers from every mosque across the valley on the night of January 19. It was worse in Srinagar. While the rest of the world learnt about the jihad much later, Pandits in Kashmir felt it long before when to their utter shock and horror that night the friends turned foes within no time, just over a call from the mosque. Many will recall that midnight horror when the war-cry started being broadcast from the mosques. ‘Naalai-Takbeer Allah-u-Akbar’ was reverberating everywhere in the air. Nobody had any problem with this call, but when it was followed with scary records played from the loud speakers, “aye mard-e-mujhaid jaag zarra, abb waqt-e-shahaddat hai aaya”… ”ya shahadat pao gay, ya gaazi tum kehlao gay”.  Even that much was tolerable as long as the call was only to the Muslims to join jihad, the holy war.
Then came the final warning, “aye kafiro aye jaabiro, Kashmir hamara chhod do…” Besides, a phrase, “ralliv, czhaliv ya galliv” was specifically coined for the purpose and it was generously used, at times in jest only, but with a clear message. It means, “convert, flee or die”. Interestingly the same message is delivered today in Syria and Iraq also by the Islamic State militants to the minorities. It was followed up with the stickers of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and Jammu and Kashmir Students Liberation Front pasted on the houses and gates of the Pandits, “Indian dogs go back”. And this was not a hollow threat. It was executed with precision and carried out with systematic and selective killings of the Kashmiri Pandits, young and old alike. The idea and purpose was quite specific; to create fear and scare among them. “Kill one and scare the rest to flee” and the idea worked very well.
Till January 19, 1990 the threats were just subtle. Long time friends and the neighbours for generations would regularly assure the Pandits of “safety and security”. These were actually genuine and well meaning assurances and the Pandits also felt assured. But, the night of January 19 changed everything. The long time friends and the neighbours for generations turned hostile or at best, indifferent, expressing their “helplessness” that they can no longer protect the Pandits. They would say, they could stand guarantee against the local and known militants, but they could not against the outsiders and strangers. The ploy was clear. The militants from one area will threaten and kill the Pandits in a different area to avoid identification.
With friends and neighbours turning indifferent and hostile, with selective but regular killings in front of their eyes, with threatening posters and stickers pasted on their houses, with the war cry bellowing out of the mosques with not too subtle a message to leave, the horror could not have been the worse. People came out midnight rushing towards the Tourist Reception Centre in the dark of the night. Fathers and brothers escorted their young daughters and sisters out to ensure their safety as women end up to be the soft targets. Besides, there were specific calls saying Pandits should leave and leave behind their women folk. The decency of these columns does not allow narrating the particular phrase coined for this purpose in Kashmiri.
The war mongering for jihad started duly after dinner on the night of January 19, apparently done with a design as the fear gets more frightening during the dark hours. And it was not the time of mobile phones and WhatsApp messaging. Even landline phones were very few, if at all these worked. Within no time the streets and roads of Srinagar city were filled with frightened people seeking to flee for their life and honour. Many managed the taxis to flee for safety at that hour only. But everybody was not lucky to manage the transport; either because they could not afford it or it was not available at that hour of the night. Srinagar’s iconic Tourist Reception Centre was inundated with thousands and thousands of people shivering in the cold and waiting for the morning. The buses and taxis would start from there for Jammu and other parts of the country. It was the period of frequent ‘hartals’. Nobody was sure whether any transport will be available and still everybody waited for the morning which was feeling so distant in despair. There was only one assurance that of togetherness as everybody felt the strength being with the other and it is probably the strength of togetherness that has helped them to survive the 25 years of exile.