The Kashmir valley in the early ‘90s saw barbaric atrocities committed by terrorists against Kashmiri Pandits. Fearing rape and death more than 100,000 Pandits left the valley leavning behind all their belongings and the land once they called “Their Kashmir”. When this bloody tragedy was written in the annals of the history of Kashmir, we often forgot the ones who stayed back. Those who were resillient, brave and believed in Kashmiriyat. The story of late Rita Kumari Pandit is one such story. At the peak of militancy when Kashmiri Pandits left the valley for safer places, Rita Kumari Pandit, a frail woman in her late fifties decided to stay back in her Lalpora village in Lolab Valley. Even when nine out of 10 Pandit families in village Lalpora left for Jammu, she decided to stay back owing to her unshaken belief in true Kashmiriyat. Unlike the rest of Kashmir, Rita and her family were harboured and taken care of by her Kashmiri neighbours.
She lost her husband Janak Nath in late ‘90s due to old age-related ailments and had to take care of her son & two daughters all by herself. Her daughters are married off to Jammu & Ganderbal. The marriage of her eldest daughter Aarti was a huge event in Lalpora. The marriage was a collective effort by the villagers, the folk songs sung by Muslim women for a Pandit bride reverberated in the air throughout the night. The villagers still derive a sense of pleasure from Aarti’s marriage and from the fact that how it united the whole village. Aarti is now a mother of three and is happily living with her husband in Ganderbal. Rita’s younger daughter, Guddy is married to a Pandit serving in Jammu and Kashmir Police and her only son, Rinku Nath Pandit is working as a daily wager in the Public Health Engineering department.
Rinku remembers how his mother stood astute and firm even when all hell broke loose in the valley. She often used to say, ”this (Kashmir) is our homeland, this is where I was born and this is where I will live, believe in Kashmiriyat, Kashmir will take care of us”. During the recent targeted killing of minorities in the valley by terrorist factions, when the authorities visited her family to offer protection, she reassured them with a smile and politely declined the offer saying “Don’t worry, Kashmir has taken care of us during the worst of times and it will continue to do so”. The time proved her belief was right. On the fateful day of 25th April 2022 when this courageous lady breathed her last due to old age-related ailments, the entire Lolab swarmed together to bid adieu to their beloved Rita Kumari. Even though Army and local authorities offered assistance the villagers took it upon themselves to help the only Pandit family left in Lolab. Rinku politely declined the assistance and security offered by the authorities “The people of Lolab have always protected and helped us, they stood with us when my father expired, without them we could not have married off my sisters, my wife and kids are treated with respect in the village, I am sure they will help me with the last rites of my beloved mother as well”.
Adjacent to the brook flowing through the Lalpora forest, the pyre for the Mrs Rita Kumari Pandit was prepared by her Muslim neighbours. People came in thousands to pay tribute to the departed soul. The harmony and cooperation of the villagers was a eye watering sight. Mugli her neighbour remember Rita Kumari Pandit to be kind hearted and lovely women “we never distinguished her from the others, during early years of Pandit migration, she used to spend the night with us. We always treated her son and daughters like our own. Entire Lolab is going to miss her”.
Her mortal remains were carried on Muslim shoulders and her last rites were presided by the Panditji(Religious Teacher) from the local army unit. When Lolab witnessed the last rites of a Hindu Pandit after three long decades, the flame from her pyre purified the evening sky lighting it up with the everlasting flame of true Kashmiriyat. This fire is not just for burning the mortal remains of an old lady, this fire represents Kashmiriyat, the true spirit of Kashmir. This fire must burn down the evil in our hearts and show light towards the future of Kashmir; the future where Kashmir will rediscover her beautiful past, lost in violence and propaganda, where people of all religions will live together in peace and harmony under the warmth & protection of our tricolour.