What Kashmiri Pandits lost to the Valley

Omair Ahmad
Omair AhmadFeb 09, 2017 | 09:42

What Kashmiri Pandits lost to the Valley

In 2005, I reached out to the Hindu Welfare Society. It is a little known organisation, founded only in 2003, by Kashmiri Pandits who were still living in the Kashmir Valley, had not migrated before 1990, or during the violence and terror of the '90s, or thereafter.

At the time, there were only about 7,000 Kashmiri Pandits still living in the Valley, and they had little representation. I had just joined the British High Commission as a political adviser, with a primary focus on Jammu & Kashmir - a job (partially) born out of the kidnap and murder of British tourists in 1996.

In a sense it was the best of times. The India-Pakistan peace process, initiated by General Musharraf and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was being pursued by the Manmohan Singh government, and supported by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed as chief minister of J&K.

It could also be seen as the gathering of old thieves seeking to make amends.

The role of the Pakistani military in Kashmir, from the backing of irregulars who invaded Kashmir in 1947, the infiltrators who encouraged revolt in 1965, or the many units that have trained, armed and backed militants since the '80s.

Pro-azadi demonstrators demanding secession of Kashmir burn the tricolour at Srinagar in 1990. Photo: India Today

Nor was Musharraf uninvolved. When I mentioned his name to my mother's uncle, Afsir Karim, who retired as a Major General, he laughed and said that Musharraf had more enthusiasm than sense, and that they had given his unit a spanking a few times when the Pakistani commandos had tried to breach the Line of Control (LoC).

The Congress, of course, has a plateful of sins. From Nehru's incarceration of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, to Indira's campaigning from Jammu as sitting prime minister against the National Conference, exacerbating the Hindu-Muslim/Jammu-Kashmir divide, to Rajiv forcing Farooq Abdullah into an unwise coalition that oversaw the massively rigged elections of 1987, the Congress has done more than most when it comes to undermining the institutions of democracy.

It is this lack of democracy, and the difficulty in winning back the trust of a population that has been ruled and brutalised in the name of a Constitution that promises them liberty and self-government, that remains the biggest challenge within J&K.

Peace talks initiated by Musharraf and Vajpayee could also be seen as the gathering of old thieves seeking to make amends. Photo: India Today

Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, once a key Congress politician, played a very large role in this. I am told that when Indira asked my great-aunt, Begum Hamida Habibullah, to speak to Begum Abdullah before the Beg-Parthasarthy talks, Begum Abdullah said, "But what do we do about this Mufti? All he wants to do is to be chief minister?"

And one of the ways that he tried was to instigate anti-Kashmiri Pandit riots in 1986 to bring down the Farooq Abdullah government. And from December 1989 to November 1990, the fateful time when murders of most, and attacks on Kashmiri Pandits especially, were at their peak, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was home minister of India.

We should not forget the RSS, especially in the form of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. People forget that J&K was already in flames before the Pakistan-backed irregulars invaded. Or let us say Jammu was.

Kashmir was peaceful during the Partition riots. Sheikh Abdullah had the bravery to come out on the streets and say that if people wanted to harm the minorities (the Kashmiri Pandits, primarily, but also Kashmiri Sikhs), they would have to kill him and his family first - a bravery conspicuously lacking in his descendants.

In Jammu, Hari Singh, through arrogance and incompetence, had instigated a full-out rebellion in his western areas by imposing higher taxes, and demanding that the people disarm - a terrible combination for those soldiers just returning from serving in the killing fields of World War II.

Among the other things that I was able to approve during a project was the documentation of the status of temples in the Valley. Photo: Shehjar

To deal with the insurgency, Hari Singh opened up his borders to Partition refugees and the RSS, to fling them into attack against his own subjects. These are the circumstances in which what Pakistan calls Azad Jammu and Kashmir and we call Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) seceded.

Vajpayee arrived in J&K later. He was there, at the side of Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who died in jail in 1953. A landowner from a Bengali family, who opposed the Quit India Movement as harshly as possible, was protesting against the land reform carried out by Sheikh Abdullah.

It was this agitation, pitting Jammu against Kashmir, and Hindu landowners against Muslim peasants, that poisoned the relations between Nehru and Abdullah, and led to the dismissal of Abdullah's government, the first of many elected heads of government in J&K removed at the whim of Delhi.

It was this band of thieves "resolving the Kashmir dispute". Unsurprisingly, many local voices were missing. As the Mufti-led J&K government announced the creation of five gated colonies of two-bedroom flats to be built for Kashmiri Pandit migrants, and jobs in the state government, those Kashmiri Pandits who had not migrated spoke up.

They had the greatest of sympathy for their brethren, but they asked what would happen to them. The gated colonies might be protected, but those who had relied on their neighbours for protection would have no such protection.

As for government jobs, one member of the HWS said to me, "I would love for my children to stay, but what future can I offer them in a state where there are few jobs?"

Suddenly jobs were available, even for Kashmiri Pandits, just not for these ones.

As reporters such as Rahul Pandita have documented, those who have returned have also faced hostility and prejudice. Much is made of Kashmiriyat but the issue of government jobs has haunted Kashmir for ages.

In her excellently researched book, Languages of Belonging, Chitralekha Zutshi documents how, as Kashmiri Muslims, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the population of the Valley, tried hard to get jobs, they faced opposition from not just by the Dogra state, but also Kashmiri Pandit associations, who, despite being a "miniscule minority", dominated the bureaucracy.

Even the (false) rumour of a 50 per cent reservation - in a state that, at that time, was three-quarters Muslim - led to panic.

The colonies set aside for Kashmiri Pandits do not guarantee much in the way of safety. Photo: AP

Bear in mind, these associations only represented an elite among the Kashmiri Pandits, not even the majority, though that is, unfortunately, often the reality of institutions that speak for communities.

Last year, I spoke to a senior Kashmiri journalist, and asked about the status of these colonies and jobs. He said that the colonies were full, but people would keep calling to asking him to help them get a place.

Furthermore, the jobs, given only to certain categories, were restrictive, and those appointed to them had difficulty getting a promotion. In this way the state and central government have created ghettoes and divisions for Kashmiri Pandits, dividing society further not just between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits, but between Pandits and other Pandits.

This is entirely in line with a policy that seeks not to fix problems in J&K, but to bribe its citizens into silence over decades of injustice.

When the National Skill Development Corporation was set up by the UPA, billions of rupees were set aside for Project Udaan, designed to train youth from J&K to find jobs.

I went there for an interview, and was told that the project - initially designed to help create jobs in J&K - would now only offer training and recruitment outside of the state.

While there is nothing wrong with that, if J&K remains a place where no business is willing to set up its units, and create jobs, it will only be government employment that is fought over - bitterly, viciously, to everybody's cost.

Similarly, the colonies set aside for Kashmiri Pandits do not guarantee much in the way of safety.

How can they when the murderers of the '90s have not been caught, tried and convicted?

According to official records, close to 300 Kashmiri Pandits were murdered, and overall somewhat fewer than 30,000 in all were killed since violence erupted in 1989. Say this to anybody in Kashmir, and they will laugh in your face.

Nobody believes the official figures. Why should they when the government reacts to the discovery of 2,000 unmarked graves by stripping away the investigative powers of the State Human Rights Commission?

A couple of years ago, I invited Dr Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group to India, as part of a project I was overseeing on peace building.

As an expert on the use of statistics in truth commissions, he held a small training session for us, including for NGOs in Kashmir, among them the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti. The KPSS has been gathering verifiable data and stories of human rights' abuses.

Over time, this data will hopefully be used to seek justice. Among the other things that I was able to approve during that project - implemented by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation - was the documentation of the status of temples in the Valley.

Part of this was because of a visit to Ganpathyar, a neighbourhood in Srinagar that has predominantly been Kashmiri Pandit.

The name of the locality comes from a large Ganesha temple there. It is hard to see, though, because it is surrounded by sandbags. There is something wrong in a society where you have to defend a place of worship, but then we live in India, where those who led a movement to dynamite a 15th century mosque rule over us.

While a member of the HWS and I were strolling around the temple, a Subedar Major, who had been asleep at his post, startled awake. He demanded to know who we were and how we had entered without his permission. As the HWS chap tried to reassure him, the Subedar Major yelled, "Who are you? You will run away. We are here to guard," accompanied by some abuses.

We moved on to the neighbourhood soon thereafter. It is a cramped affair, as much by fear as by architecture, and the houses are small, jutting into one another.

In one of them, my host introduced me to the schoolteacher who lived there. I explained who I was, and mentioned that my successor, Sushil, would be taking over soon.

Having only heard the name "Sushil", and assuming I was Hindu, the gentleman started off by telling me how Brahmins were the educators of the nation, and then went off on a long and vicious rant against Muslims.

I tried to interrupt, as did my host, but the schoolteacher was too lost in his hurt and anger. I tuned out his words, glanced instead at his teenaged daughter sitting on the window, a young Kashmiri looking out at the world, and hoped she would see a more hopeful future.

Afterwards, neither my HWS host nor I referred to the diatribe. We were there not because I was a Muslim, or he a Hindu, but because both of us shared a commitment to justice.

It would be foolish to believe that those who have suffered extensively, and have been threatened or attacked in the name of their religion would be untouched by such experiences.

And in Kashmir, this is true of all communities. Even if justice is done now, after so many years, to all those who have been wronged, these hurts will not be easy to assuage - and it would be presumptuous for us to demand that people forget the horrors of the past, that they "move on".

But that is not the story I want to end with. Last year, I drove to Dwarka to pay my respects to a gentleman whose wife had died of cancer.

It was one of those difficult meetings when you walk into another person's intense grief. We talked a little; me, a stranger in a house where the language was a stranger to me, there only because the gentleman and his wife had been very close friends of my father-in-law.

Outside, I took a long ragged breath, of the sort that can only come when you have been too close to somebody else's raw grief. The gentleman I had visited had done well, his children were abroad, and Dwarka is not a bad place to live, but here he was, having lost his companion of so many years, in a city that was so different from the mountains and valleys of Kashmir, where the language was not his own, the food not his own, the air not his own.

He should be home.

Last updated: February 10, 2017 | 20:23
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