How watch company HMT turned lifeline for Kashmiri Pandits in distress

Bengaluru: It may not be the best times for the ailing public sector Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) — once famous as ‘timekeepers to the nation’. But when insurgency was at its worst in the Kashmir Valley, this public sector watch maker made a big difference to around 500 Kashmiri Pandit employees and their families.

Sometime in 1972, the Bengaluru-headquartered HMT set up a watchmaking unit in the Kashmir Valley. Originally established in Srinagar, the unit which was later shifted to Zainakot on the outskirts, employed around 1,540 locals. Of these, 540 employees were non-Muslims, comprising largely of Kashmiri Pandits and some Sikhs.

Manmohan Kaul (76) was a part of HMT’s Kashmir journey from inception till he took voluntary retirement as AGM-Finance at Bengaluru in 2001. To this day, those long gone days remain etched in his memory.

“Things were going on very nicely in the beginning. There were experts and engineers from Bangalore, and it came up very nicely. The first industrial culture in Kashmir was brought by HMT Srinagar. Things were going on smoothly till 1989. Thereafter, things started changing.”

In the late 1980s, a massive surge in militancy and targeted killings of Kashmiri Pandits led to the biggest exodus of the community in the early 90s. In just a few months, the Kashmir Valley was literally emptied of its original Hindu inhabitants. At the HMT unit in Kashmir, the then 34-year old Kaul remained optimistic till the end.

“Silently, they were doing their job. Probably they were preparing for 1990. Because people knew.They knew something big was going to happen. But we were innocent, we never thought it will happen to this extent. Because earlier also it has happened so many times. But it would die down in course of time. We remained under that impression but it turned out to be catastrophic.”

Almost overnight, members of the largely educated and affluent Pandit community found themselves as refugees trying to eke out a living in squalid refugee camps in Jammu and other North Indian cities. However, thanks to HMT, around 530 Kashmiri Pandit families were largely spared the travails and managed to rebuild their lives.

“Luckily, the HMT management transferred me to Bangalore. Out of 540 employees, about 200 were adjusted in Bangalore City itself. Some of the others were scattered to other places like Kolkata, Hyderabad and so on, Slowly, over the years, most of the people were resettled in Bengaluru,” Kaul recounts.

While the HMT management reached out to all the displaced Kashmiri Pandit employees, it was not easy for the internally displaced community. They had to take some hard knocks on the way, like non-supervisory grade employees having to settle for a position that was lower by one grade.

Kaul thanked his lucky stars when a month after he landed in Bengaluru, his brothers told him about the narrow escape he had from certain death if he had stayed back longer in Kashmir.

“They were planning who to keep and who to kill. My name also was there on the list but I didn’t know it. When my father died and we were completing the tenth day ceremony at home due to curfew, one of my junior colleagues tipped off my brothers that we should leave. My brothers insisted that we leave.”

Today, as HMT stares at an uncertain future, 530 Kashmiri Pandit families look back in gratitude at the ‘Timekeeper to the Nation’ for being the lifeline in their hour of need.


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