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On the morning of 30 June 2016, my father and I visit the office of the relief and rehabilitation commissioner for migrants, Jammu. The office was set up in 1990 to provide relief and succour—cash assistance, free ration and shelter—to Kashmiri Pandits who, after being uprooted from their homes in Kashmir, had sought refuge in Jammu and other adjoining places. The purpose of my visit to the office is to apply for a state subject certificate. It’s an important legal document that acknowledges and certifies the special rights and privileges accorded to the domiciles of the Jammu and Kashmir state as enshrined in the recently revoked Article 35A of the Constitution. The certificate, once issued, will establish that I am an original resident of the state with the lawful right to employment, property and settlement there. I have no desire to apply for a job there. But I wish to buy a small plot of land and build a house there in future.

The certificate is a must-have for this wish to be fulfilled.

Siddhartha Gigoo's state subject certificate
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Siddhartha Gigoo's state subject certificate (Photo Courtesy: Siddhartha Gigoo)

The clerk hands us a note listing the documents to be arranged for the certificate to be issued. Father has kept most of the paperwork ready. There’s one document missing—any government record that ascertains my original residence in Kashmir. I am assured that the certificate will be issued as soon as proof of my residence in my long-lost home in Srinagar is arranged and deposited at the office.

I wonder: It has been 26 years since I was made to leave Kashmir. Will the record exist? What if I can’t produce it?

We board a bus and reach the migrant voter list office in Jammu. It holds records of Kashmiri Pandits who voted in Kashmir before being forced out of there in 1990. My record is expected to be in the registry there.

A rickety staircase leads us to the second floor where the voter registry is kept. The rooms are dingy, and the furniture ramshackle. A Dogra clerk greets us. I explain my case—to dig up my record.

“The records of your entire community are here, don’t worry, we shall find your record," says the clerk, pointing to the racks against the walls.

I look around. The entire office is in a state of disarray. The racks are dusty and cobwebbed. Each rack is full of thousands of files containing papers.

Siddhartha Gigoo studying in his house in Khankah-i-Sokhta, Nawa Kadal, Srinagar, 1984
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Siddhartha Gigoo studying in his house in Khankah-i-Sokhta, Nawa Kadal, Srinagar, 1984 (Photo Courtesy: Siddhartha Gigoo)

With the clerk’s help, we begin searching for my record. “There was cataloguing until a few years ago, but not any more, I have no help here to manage the records properly…"

A surreal experience unfolds. Searching for a missing record among thousands arranged randomly on shelves. The record, if located, will establish not just the proof of my residence—the place of my birth—but also the proof of my ancestry.

We rummage haphazardly through stacks of sooty files supposed to be arranged district- and-tehsil-wise on shelves. Termites have left a trail on several files. Silverfish have made the files their home. The ink on the paper is fading; the files are damp and smelly. I go through hundreds of names of people. I could be one of them.

It’s a strange place to exist—this ghostly house of records.

I survey the rooms and make a quick calculation. Each room has four wall-to-wall racks. Each rack has 16 large shelves. Each shelf contains about 100 files. Each file holds records of around 25 persons. There are four such rooms. Records of more than 600,000 displaced Kashmiri Pandits lie neglected and in abject conditions. These are hard copies. There’s no backup and no digital archive. No safe and secure vaults to protect the records from theft or damage. No protection from fire, rain, termites and rodents.

What if the unthinkable happens?

I read name after name, address after address. These are the names and addresses of people who were once locatable but now remain scattered and obscure in exile. These records are the only proof of their origins. Where are these people now? What has become of them?

I go on searching. Still no trace of my record! What am I without the record? What if it is lost? What if I never find it?

A memory of a happy day comes alive. Grandfather is walking with a stoop, his hands behind his back. He’s going about his favourite pastime—inspecting the kitchen garden in our house in Srinagar. The buds have started to sprout. Grandmother is sitting by the window and talking to a crow perched atop the sill, something she does often. She’s preparing for the arrival of guests from her maternal family, who live in a village. The crow spills the beans about what is going to happen. Good things only. The next moment, grandmother rushes into her kitchen. Mother is stringing pearls for a necklace she’s making for my sister. “It’s for her wedding," she says. Father takes me to see the new plot of land he has bought. The plot is atop a plateau near the airport and it overlooks snow-clad summits. “We shall build a house here next year," says he. I have my eyes set on the view from the window of my future room.

At last, after interminable hours of flipping through hundreds of files, I stumble upon a yellowing piece of paper bearing my name and the names of my parents and grandparents. The address I have been looking for is on the paper. Towards a corner of the paper is a glassy impression of a moth’s wingspan—telling a different story of the insect’s fleeting existence.

Having found the proof, we are to rush to the district court to get the record verified and attested by a magistrate. But before that we have to get an affidavit made. The ordeal is unending. Back at the office of the relief and rehabilitation commissioner for migrants, my fingerprints are taken on a blank and unattested certificate. “I will hand it over to your father after everything has been verified," says the clerk.

Some days pass. Father couriers me the laminated certificate. It says: “This is to certify that Siddhartha Gigoo, son of Arvind Gigoo, resident of Khankah-i-Sokhta, Tehsil Srinagar, District Srinagar is a permanent resident of the J&K state as defined in the constitution of the Jammu & Kashmir Government."

Father’s note says: Keep the certificate safe. It is your last link to Kashmir. Don’t let the link snap.

I keep the certificate under lock and key at home in Delhi.

On 5 August 2019, I wake up to the news of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution. People all over the country start talking of being able to buy land and property in Jammu and Kashmir now. A friend from Bihar says he would like to settle in Kashmir after retirement. “Let’s go together," he insists.

Stripped of its special status, Kashmir is now a place that belongs to everyone, where everyone can settle.

But can we Kashmiri Pandits go there just like everybody else from India? How must we return given the history behind our enforced leaving in 1990?

In the evening, I take the certificate out of the drawer. The certificate has no legal relevance now, but its emotional relevance will never fade. It takes me back to the day spent at the migrant voter list office in Jammu where I saw records of around 600,000 people who, until 1990, lived in Kashmir and voted to be protected there by the governments. Many would have perished over the years. But their records still exist in that registry.

I can’t take my eyes off the certificate that I thought granted me special status with unique rights and privileges no other Indians born elsewhere had. The special status that was bound by the state’s constitution to protect us from persecution in 1990, then guarantee our dignified return to our own homes before it is late, but failed to do so, is now gone forever. The yearning for restitution is stronger than ever in my heart. The dream of home persists. The dream to reclaim everything that was snatched from us lingers on.

Someday, those of us who survived will return to our homes in Kashmir. And that day we shall take along all records to show our progeny the proof of our survival and of the intrepid journeys we made in exile.

Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth prize-winning author.

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