The next month, the Pakistan government signed a peace treaty with the Taliban. It was among many other such treaties and not much was made of it, especially since the latter agreed that it would recognise the writ of the government.
But in the next couple of months, the few Hindu families began facing the heat.
"It was like the smoke before the fire. The Taliban's presence was not very evident in the following two months. But things were becoming obvious. A group of locals who supported the Taliban gave us the distinct feeling that we were not wanted there," says Jagdish Lal Sharma, who says he is a Pandit from the region.
Though there were no direct threats, the Hindu families were never left in any doubt about their minority status. Sometimes it would be a warning not to stare at Muslim women for long, at other times, it would be the subtle coercion of the local administrators to sell their land when the situation was still normal. The families were weighing their options until October when they were asked to wear a red patch in their pagadis (turban).
"We were told Hindus are not supposed to wish a Muslim even inadvertently and that is why, in order to make it obvious for a passing Muslim that we were Hindus, we ought to have some element of red in our headgear," Hardwari Lal, who is now in Amritsar with his family of 13, says.
In Amrtisar, they found Surinder Kumar Billa, a local religious leader at the Durgaina temple in Amritsar, who has promised to help them get Indian citizenship.
'Your temple is a threat to our religion'March 16, 2009
I am a Pandit and also did some hakeemi on the side with natural medicines. There was no problem in our village till very recently. I had a very small temple near my home. One day, some other villagers came and said the presence of your temple is a threat to our religion. It should not be there. I pleaded with them to spare the temple but had no other option but to take the idols inside the house.
On October 2, we got a visa to India and I had a cousin in Amritsar. But the procedure is such that, I had to first go to Delhi -- where I knew no one -- and get my papers to come to Amritsar. You know very well how it is getting work done with the government. By the time I got the required papers to come to Amritsar, most of the money I had with me was spent.
It is a good feeling having at last come to Amritsar. The Punjab region is more or less the same on both sides. But we do not know how long we are going to be here. That is one issue we are worried about. The other is what we are going to do about our children. They do not know Punjabi and hence cannot get admitted to a school here. We have to find a way.
Our forefathers thought that staying back in Pakistan was a good idea. Now, we are thinking about our children and want them to grow up here in India.
'Our neighbours are behaving differently today'March 16, 2009
I had a general store in my village. I live in a region where the Hindus have slowly disappeared. By the time I left, there was only one other family (which has also moved to India.) I have four sisters. My main concern is to find a match for them. I want to marry them to Hindus.
Apart from this, my main worry is the land I lost. My family owned a considerable amount of land worth several lakhs. As things started getting worse, there was a lot of pressure on me to sell the land to the locals.
The government was helpless. The central authorities in Peshawar could not do anything to help me. It was the local authorities who called the shots.
The local tehsildar (revenue officer) struck the deal like he was supporting me, but finalised it for 10 per cent of the original price. I had no other go but to concede. The local authorities are nothing but political agents for the radicals in these regions.
They used to come knocking and say no photos, no pictures, no idols. We were forced to remove all the family photos and idols of gods though it was inside our house. That is when I realised how different these same people were earlier. Samay ka prabhaav padta hi hain? (Time takes its toll)
It is not like the liberals have disappeared and radicals have moved in. It is the same neighbours who used to be pillars of strength in the past year who are behaving differently today. That is what pains me the most. The only Hindus who are better off are those in the Shia-dominated areas. There Shias protect the Hindus like their own against the Sunni fundamentalists. One thing I observed is that the Sikh people are somehow getting along. I admire them for that.
'I never got wind of what is coming'March 16, 2009
I am also a medical practitioner. Unlike these people, I moved to Peshawar about two years ago. I never got wind of what is coming when I was there.
These people (he is Hardwari Lal's cousin) then started telling me how the situation was getting worse in Orakzai. So, when they decided to leave the country, I also decided to go with them. I wondered whether I did the right thing then, but now I am convinced it was the right thing to do.
As I sit here talking with you, I hear that they have reached Peshawar and signed a pact there too. Peshawar is about 250 km from Orakzai. Only now I realise... what is 250 km in these days and times. I am thankful I am here.
There are still many people who are there and want to leave. Most of them do not have relatives in Delhi. They do not have the money to go to Delhi first and pay a lot to get a permit to visit Punjab, where most of their relatives are. The best thing the government can do to us is to give a Punjab visa so that we can directly come here.
Another reason why most people hesitate is the money. They don't have much to start with, and then the Rs 10 they have becomes Rs 5 in India. So people really do not want to take the risk of losing everything. They are waiting to see if things will go back to normal.
So, if India is really interested in the welfare of the Hindus, they should issue Punjab visas. That is the only way those who are not well off can escape to safety.
Image: Avtari Lal Sharma with his family.
'There has always been shadow of the Taliban'
March 16, 2009
Gulzari Lal Sharma:
I had a small shop. Things began getting worse before our eyes. I got really scared when they began enforcing the pagadi rule. They asked us to have some sort of red patch in our headgear. I do not know what purpose it would have served. All our neighbours knew we were Hindus. And we hardly left the village. It was really scary.
There has always been the shadow of the Taliban in the recent times in my place. In October it got really worse. The women in the family were harassed a lot. I had a little land and sold it for a decent price when I decided to leave the place.
The one thing I considered was the future of my children and when I thought about it, it was clear to me that they can't grow up in that environment. As we left, we were really worried about reaching Peshawar. Not just because we were Hindus, but that stretch was generally such a dangerous one and totally in control of the militants, even normal Pakistanis were scared to take that road.
We somehow made that distance of 250 km and reached Peshawar. From there we went to Lahore where we waited for our visas. The moment we got it, we left on the Samjhauta Express. Our permits are till 2010. Some have it till 2011.
These things are all in the hands of local authorities. All I hope for now is that we are not harassed when the duration lapses. We are pleading the Indian government for a right to stay here and hope we get it.
Reportage & Photograph: Krishnakumar P
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