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 for 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 finally to go home.
“I never thought I will see this day in my lifetime,” Kaul told AFP as he broke down in tears at his house in New Delhi.
“I may be physically here but my heart is in Kashmir.”
The historian was among around 200,000 Hindus who fled the Kashmir Valley after an insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
Known as Kashmiri Pandits, they re-settled in the Hindu-dominated southern part of the state, Jammu, and other parts of India. Many thought they would never be able to return.
The scrapping of Article 370 – which was in force for seven decades – means Indians across the country can now 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 AFP old books 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.”
‘Eager to go back’
Bordered by China, India, Pakistan and Tibet, Kashmir is a spectacularly scenic region of snow-capped peaks, vast valleys and barren plateaus.
It was divided between Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India after independence. The constitutional basis for favoring Muslim residents in the Indian portion, Article 370, was revoked last week.
Vitek Raina, another displaced Kashmiri Pandit living in Delhi, is haunted by the violence his family experienced when the insurgency broke out.
The 37-year-old said 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 told AFP.
‘A part of us’
But 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.
Experts have warned of a long and bloody fightback by locals who believe New Delhi is seeking to dilute the region’s Muslim majority by allowing Hindus to migrate to the territory.
In 2015 India’s government said it would establish gated communities for Hindu returnees with schools, hospitals and shopping areas located within the township.
But opinion is divided.
“If we are talking of integration we have to live together with our Muslim neighbors like before,” said Raina.
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.