Utpal Kaul, a Hindu, has dreamed of returning to his lakeside property and peach orchard in Kashmir ever since he fled the Muslim-dominated valley three decades ago in fear of his life.
It seemed like an impossible hope — until last week, when India’s Hindu nationalist government dramatically revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomy, paving the way for the 67-year-old to finally go home.
“I never thought that I would see this day in my lifetime,” Kaul said, breaking down in tears at his house in New Delhi.
“I might be physically here, but my heart is in Kashmir,” he added.
The historian was among about 200,000 Hindus who fled the Kashmir Valley after an insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
Known as Kashmiri Pandits, they resettled in the Hindu-dominated southern part of the state, Jammu, and other parts of India. Many thought that they would never be able to return.
The scrapping of Article 370 — which was in force for seven decades — means that Indians across the country can buy property in the picturesque Himalayan region.
For Kashmiri Pandits like Kaul, it offers the chance to return to a place that holds a lifetime of memories.
Kaul’s five-story home was looted and burned down in the 1990s as a violent insurgency took hold in Kashmir, with some militants explicitly targeting the Hindu minority who had resided there for centuries.
“I was born there, my family has lived there for generations ... but still I was required to prove my Kashmiri identity,” he said.
He and his family were forced to salvage whatever they could and escape, he added, showing the old books that he has carefully kept for decades.
India’s decision represents a “new dawn” for his “beloved homeland,” he said. “All will be equal in Kashmir now.”
Bordered by China, India, Pakistan and Tibet, Kashmir is a scenic region of snow-capped peaks, vast valleys and barren plateaus.
The region was divided between Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India after independence troops, and tens of thousands of reinforcements, were sent in to enforce a security lockdown after Article 370 was revoked last week.
Vitek Raina, another displaced Kashmiri Pandit living in New Delhi, is haunted by the violence that his family experienced when the insurgency broke out.
The 37-year-old said that his uncle who stayed back in Kashmir was gunned down on the street after he defied a shutdown call by separatists.
As a child, Raina recalled being slapped by a barber in Srinagar when he asked for a haircut resembling that of an Indian — rather than a Pakistani — cricketer.
Despite the painful memories, the pull of Kashmir remains strong, the software engineer said.
“I am very eager to go back and contribute in some way. I am interested in beekeeping — now I see this as possible,” Raina said.
However, the specter of further unrest lingers, with the main Kashmiri city of Srinagar choked by razor wire, security checkpoints and armed soldiers.
India has also imposed a communications blackout — with mobile, landline and Internet services cut to prevent any organized violence.
In 2015, the Indian government said that it would establish gated communities for Hindu returnees.
However, opinion is divided.
“If we are talking of integration, we have to live together with our Muslim neighbors like before,” Raina said.
In a region wracked by violence, it could be a long time before that ever comes to pass.
After decades spent dreaming of home, many say they are willing to wait a little longer.
“But we will definitely go and make Kashmir a part of us again,” Kaul said.
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