Kashmiri Radio Couple Stirred Hatred, Love

Sixteen years ago, Upendra and Girija Khashu were radio stars with an eight-bedroom mansion in India's part of Kashmir — a prosperous life they had to abandon so fast that rice and curry were left simmering on the stove.

For the couple — among tens of thousands of Hindus forced to flee an Islamic insurgency in their predominantly Muslim homeland — the slaughter last weekend of 35 Hindus in Kashmir was a disheartening setback for hopes of ending the terror that has shattered their community.

In one village, militants disguised as soldiers coaxed residents from their homes and then gunned down 22 of them — the single bloodiest attack by Islamic guerrillas in Kashmir since a 2003 cease-fire between India and Pakistan, which both claim the Himalayan region.

The attacks were "a reminder of ... the terror that led to our community's exodus," Upendra said Tuesday from the New Delhi apartment where he and his wife now live, hundreds of miles from the picturesque mountain peaks and river valleys of Kashmir.

The militants "are ruthless people. They don't have any religion, the gun is their only religion," he said.

Kashmiri Hindus — known as Pandits — lived peacefully alongside the region's Muslim majority for centuries. But in 1989, Islamic insurgents began fighting to wrest the region from India. Nearly 67,000 people have since been killed, hundreds of them Pandits.

Between late 1989 and 1991, more than 360,000 Kashmiri Pandits fled the Kashmir Valley — the region's Muslim heartland, according to police records. Only 3,000 stayed in the valley, while another 22,000 Pandits live elsewhere in the region.

On their radio shows, Upendra and Girija stirred both the love and hate felt between the people of Muslim Pakistan and largely Hindu India.

Upendra's political broadcasts drew hate mail from Islamic militants seeking Kashmir's independence or its merger with Pakistan. Girija's program of Bollywood hits brought adulation — and even a marriage proposal from the other side of the border.

In no other place is the complicated India-Pakistan relationship felt as strongly as Kashmir, the region at the center of two of the rivals' three wars since 1947. The once-independent kingdom is now split between New Delhi and Islamabad, a division that for decades has cut families and friends off from each other.

On Tuesday, the nuclear-armed rivals began their latest round of peace talks, even as many Indians demanded a tougher stand against Islamabad following the weekend killings.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh suggested the attacks would not hurt peace efforts and planned to keep a scheduled meeting Wednesday with Kashmir's mainstream separatists, who have condemned the slayings.

While thousands of Hindus fled in 1989, Upendra stayed, putting out his popular radio broadcasts and even playing the role of a Muslim man in a widely watched TV soap opera.

But the increasingly anti-militant bent of his shows — he was one of the few broadcasters to openly criticize the insurgents — led to a steady stream of threats.

One night in March 1990, a warning was plastered on the door of their home. "Leave Kashmir within 24 hours or three members of your family will be killed," it said.

Within hours, Girija headed for the airport with a daughter and a niece, guarded by paramilitary troopers. She left so fast that rice and curry were still cooking on the stove. Upendra, who was in Bombay, joined his family later.

These days, the Khashus live a humbler existence in New Delhi — but one vastly nicer than life in the squalid camps where tens of thousands of Pandits live elsewhere in India.

Upendra quit his radio show six years ago, but the threats still come — along with the tragedies. Since moving to New Delhi, his father-in-law was killed by militants and the family's house in Kashmir was torched.

Girija is still broadcasting on state-run All India Radio, and her Pakistani listeners are still sending love letters.

"It has become a joke between us now," Upendra said. "She has always got praise and gifts and fan letters for her broadcasts. I got threats for mine; they always called and asked me to stop `barking.'"