By Mushtaq ul Haq Ahmad Sikandar, New Age Islam
The year of my birth (1988) coincided with the inception of armed insurgency in Kashmir. Within two years of my birth, the entire valley was up in arms against what they perceived as Indian Occupation. Since then Kashmir has been burning with innumerable human rights violations committed against the inhabitants both by the State and non-state actors.
When I was an infant, and later on as a school going student, I was unconscious of what was happening around me. The atrocities, killings, rapes and arson barely reached my ears because we students rarely discussed them. Still, I could sense that something was terribly wrong with our society.
It was much later that I came to know about the unfortunate exodus of the Kashmiri Pandit community. Pandits were the Hindu minority of Kashmir, who had lived together with the Muslim majority since centuries. Both communities shared a common plural, syncretic and tolerant culture, known as Rishism that has now been made synonymous with the politically charged term Kashmiriyat. Rishi culture was a beautiful blend of the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. The Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims lived together with mutual tolerance, and love and respect for one other.
My parents would become nostalgic when they related stories about their relations with the Kashmiri Pandits, who were their friends, classmates, neighbours and colleagues. I have never heard anything bad from my parents about Kashmiri Pandits, and I felt it was my misfortune that I had no experience of Kashmiri Pandits. I witnessed the flow of emotions and love when my parents would run into a Pandit family they knew, at an airport or somewhere in India coincidentally.
However, I had no personal experience of interaction with Kashmiri Pandits till recently when I was invited to be a part of an Intra-Regional Dialogue between youth of Kashmir and Jammu, organized by Swarajpeeth Trust, run by Rajiv Vora and Niru Vora, both eminent Gandhians. Six participants from the Valley and I, stayed with three Kashmiri Pandit families, who had settled in Jammu due to their migration in early 1990s. These three nights changed my perception about the Kashmiri Pandits. A friend and I stayed in the house of a retired District and Sessions Judge. Both he and his wife made us feel completely at home, we called them uncle and aunty. Aunty told us that we both were like her sons and she felt as if her children had returned home. They had the same cooking style, eating habits and kept their houses like ours.
When the Pandits are discussed in the Valley, the dominant discourse is that they betrayed Kashmiri Muslims by escaping to Jammu and other parts of India. If they had stayed and shared the grief of other Kashmiris, they would have never faced exodus. The commonly-held view is that the then communal Governor of Kashmir Jagmohan coerced the Pandits to migrate. According to this view, the Pandit migration helped Jagmohan successfully carry out the genocide of the Muslim youth of Kashmir and crush the insurgency. The migration was deemed necessary in order to have minimal collateral damage of the Kashmiri Pandits. The Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims were indistinguishable from each other as they shared the same attire, language, skin colour and culture. The other non-Muslim minority of Kashmir, the Sikhs, could be distinguished by their turbans and beards, and hence were not ordered to leave. It is said that Jagmohan assured the Pandit leaders that once the suppression of armed insurgency was over, they would be allowed to return to their homeland. That promise was never honoured, and resulted in the homelessness of Kashmiri Pandits.
History is a witness that in the past as well, the Pandit minority migrated to other parts of India due to religious persecution or political chauvinism, but returned when the conditions were favourable. But this time, most of them sold or disposed off their properties in the Valley, making their return impossible. When I related this fact to aunty, she explained that the Pandits who were in agriculture and business suffered heavy losses as compared to others, because they couldn’t carry agricultural land, orchids or shops on their backs to Jammu and other parts of India. Hence they had to sell them in order to fulfil their bare needs of sustenance. I had no option but to agree.
The Jagmohan theory has many takers, but in certain cases some rowdy elements among militants and certain unidentified men threatened the Pandits to leave the Valley. In the furore and hysteria, the voices of saner elements of the community were drowned and the Pandits migrated en masse.
Another stereotype that I nurtured was that the Pandit community had progressed due to migration. It was because they now enjoyed reservation all over India in terms of education and jobs. We came to know that most of them are well settled in India and other foreign countries. In every conflict, elite classes get certain privileges. Some Pandits from that class have indeed prospered, but for their luck to shine, exodus and migration might not have been needed. This process has happened with Kashmiri Muslims too where children of some families were educated and are now settled abroad. But most of the Pandit children of my generation are cut off from their roots, and raised in an alien society. Hence, they do not want to settle in Kashmir, but still long for Kashmir and prefer to call Kashmir their homeland, and not the place where they are settled now.
Instead of enjoying perks and privileges, the Pandit community is now one of the endangered communities of India. The Hinduism that pandits followed was altogether different from the mainstream Hinduism in India. The community is facing grave threats of losing its indigenous characteristics because of inter-community and inter-caste marriages. There can be four types of responses when a community is under threat:
1. Assimilation: The Pandit community is bothered by this threat. They are now on the verge of assimilation in mainstream India, but they cannot afford to be assimilated completely.
2. Accommodation: They are trying to get accommodated, but are still not comfortable with surroundings, as it is threatening their indigenous culture and community practices.
3. Confrontation: They cannot confront other communities nor do they have the requisite power to confront the onslaughts from other communities.
4. Integration: Some Pandits are integrating in India and feel comfortable there because they share the common religion. But they cannot integrate completely at the cost of their identity.
With all the four approaches being flawed, the Pandits can only find the niche in the Valley where they belong.
I did not witness any communal bias among the Kashmiri Pandit families whom we met, over the course of the program. But maybe I met only those families who were conscious enough of the politics that was responsible for the mayhem and exodus of pandits. I have read in books like Shabistaan-e-Wajood (Jail Dairy) written by seasoned journalist Maqbool Sahil and Khatoon-e-Kashmir (Women of Kashmir) by Showkeen Kashmiri that during the 1990s, Kashmiri youth were transferred to Jammu for incarceration in various jails. Before taking them to jails, they were brought to Pandit migrant camps where they were beaten to pulp at their hands, as Pandits held them responsible for their exodus. It must be true as some of the Pandits still living in migrant camps are leading a miserable life. If they have got communalized they are at no fault. They have suffered so long for no fault of theirs. I came to know that many of them died due to sun strokes, some due to snake and scorpion bites. The new generation raised in these inhuman camps is facing numerous problems from health to education.
Being forced to leave one’s home and hearth is one of the biggest human rights violations. Being rootless and without homeland is the greatest tragedy. All Kashmiris who were forced to migrate from Kashmir due to partition of 1947, and later on be it the Muslim Political Dissidents exiled by various rulers, as related lucidly by Khaliq Parevez in his book Jula Watan (In Exile), or those Muslims exiled or forced to migrate in the aftermath of 1965 Indo-Pak war, or even the Pandits and Muslims who were forced to migrate and became dispersed in early 1990s. They all should be allowed to return. Only then the Kashmir can be complete. I hope to live to witness the day when all communities will live in harmony as used to live during Budshah’s days!
Mushtaq ul Haq Ahmad Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir