KOLKATA, 3 FEB: Tired of living in terror, about 300 people fled their homes in villages in Jammu and Kashmir near the border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and chose penury to live in peace near the Dakshineswar Kali Temple on the outskirts of Kolkata.
Their hands, used to weaving intricately-designed Kashmiri carpets, now build roads and carry bricks. But they cherish the ability to get a peaceful night’s sleep here.
They live in camps made of bamboo with worn-out Kashmiri carpets, each of which would be worth not less than Rs 5,000 new, under the Vivekananda (Bally) Bridge. They welcome curious visitors with smiles and tea, and bid them goodbye with requests to spread the word that they seek donations in cash or food-grain.
These people have come all the way to West Bengal from their homes in Jammu and Kashmir ~ Gurez in Bandipora district, Tangdar in Kupwara district, Khag and Gogul Dour in Badgam district, Uri in Baramulla district and Gulab Garh in Kishtwar district.
One of the elders, a decision-maker of the community who gave his name only as Gulzar, starts describing his lost land with a line from a Mohammed
Rafi song: “Har chand har chehra, zar zar sitara, yeh wadiye Kashmir hain jannat ka nazara” (“Every face in the valley reflects the beauty of the place like the moon; this is the valley of Kashmir, a reflection of heaven on earth”).
“Our children fell sick and had to leave school because of the warm weather and mosquitoes here. Old women and men are also ailing and the weather doesn’t suit them. But still we are happy as we do not have to live in the constant fear of violence,” he said.
One of the men told how, in Gulab Garh village, because of rough terrain and the virtual isolation imposed by the lack of a proper road, militants looted food supplies from villagers who were returning home after buying rations from a government dealer.
“We are not alone,” said Mohammad Mohsin. “Thousands of people have left their homes, scared of the ongoing militancy and gunfights. There has been news that stray bullets have hurt even innocent villagers. We are scared to even stand in our own veranda.”
These people, traditionally weavers, depended on tourists visiting their picturesque villages and nearby areas. “Now there are no tourists and so, no business. Since a lot of Bengali tourists used to come to our village, we thought Bengal would be a good place to go,” Mr Mohsin said.
Three or four men shared the idea with others and, as the word spread, 300 people joined them and landed up here. They said that they had appealed the government of their state to give them an alternate place to live.
Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah promised they would soon be shifted to government quarters for victims of insurgency, according to Gulzar. “We trust our chief minister and he will not fail us. We will return home in March,” he said.
However, the carpet business here has not been as profitable as expected and menial labour, too, is hard to find.
As such, they have appealed to any well-wishers to send them food supplies.