This is a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote in 2010 for my The Idea of India project. It is one of six pieces I wrote about Kashmir, its people and its history of struggle and negotiation with the Indian State. I am reposting it here as Kashmir once agains enters a deepening spiral of state violence and repression, and its people (my people), once again trapped in the wake of rabid and jingoistic nationalisms that remain committed to racial and religious bigotry.
The alleyways are empty. The shops are closed. Wild dogs sleep in shaded corners. The temples are locked. I hear no human voice that would suggest life inside the small, gaudily painted brick shanties. I walk around in the narrow lanes expecting to run into someone, but no one walks towards me, in to me or across me. From inside heavily curtained windows and doorways closed shut I can hear the sounds of the radio, or an occasional clank of pots being washed. It is late afternoon and the refugee camp, home to nearly 100,000 Kashmiri Pandit families from and around the Srinagar area, seems to have disappeared into itself, its inhabitants obviously indulging in a well-practice lethargy and retirement. I walk across the road that runs in front of the camp and find a stoop to sit on and wait.
Nearly 140,000 Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley of Kashmir in the early 1990s, caught as they were between the parallel emergence of a militant Islamist insurgency and a resurgent Hindutva movement spreading across the entire country. It did not help that the 1980s had seen the arrival of the despotic Jagmohan Singh, the man responsible for the silencing of the secular Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), leaving the political field open only to the sectarian extremists. His 5 years in Kashmir were marked by summary arrests, torture, disappearances, encounter killings, the rape and abuse of women, and the militarisation of the entire region. He had been asked to break the will of the people and instead ended up sending them right into the open, waiting arms of the Pakistanis next door who could only have dreamed of such an opportunity.
Radicalised by an overtly Hindu Minister, supported by a Hindutva political and social movement that aimed to transform India into a pure, Hindu nation, and seduced by a triumphant language of jihad permeating from the frontiers of Afghanistan, the young men fell for the easy option. Believing that violence was the last resort, the final solution, they turned their guns on the Kashmiri Pandits who even as late the 1990s continued to enjoy a disproportionate role in the Kashmir civil, political and governmental administration.
The first bullets that were fired at the Kashmiri Pandits in Srinagar were at the president of the Kashmir wing of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Tika Lal Taploo on September 14th 1989. BJPs L.K.Advani marched with Taploo’s body. The atmosphere deteriorated, with violence a mere word away, and threats explicit.Â Hundreds were killed, women were raped, and the language of the movement because radically Islamic and discriminatory. The BJP promised that it would defend the Kashmiri Pandits, fight for them. The Hindutva became more strident, and the jihadi violence in the region continued to escalate becoming more intolerant and indiscriminate.
Only one could survive, only one could be ‘Kashmir’. Two blind armies.
Twenty years since their exodus the wealthier and educated. mostly those from urban centres like Srinagar, have managed to move on with their lives, many leaving the area for new lives in India’s booming cities. But a large number of those from the rural areas, having lost their lands and livelihood, remain in nondescript camps on the outskirts of cities like Delhi and Jammu.
Ironically the first inklings of a Kashmiri Pandit sense of belonging with the region of Kashmir is articulated during the period of the Afghani rulers of Kashmir (1753-1819). It was during this period, described as amongst the most miserable in Kashmir’s history, that the Pandits not only developed a proficiency in Persian but also joined the lower levels of the land management administration.
Their poets, like Dayaram Karchu, began to introduce Hindu devotional themes into Persian poetry, and most importantly, much like their Muslims poets, articulated a sense of connection and communal belonging to the area called Kashmir.
Oh Lord, blossom the bird of my hopes,
And show me spring in the garden of Kashmir.
I pine in separation from my home,
Not knowing why destiny cast me away.
I cannot describe the state of my separation
Fortitude is better, fortitude is better.
From the Masnavi-i-Kashmir, Dayaram Karchu
The subsequent decades saw Kashmiri poets, mystics and writers, whether Hindu or Muslim, united in their condemnation of Afghani rule and spoke of their deep connections and sense of place to the region of Kashmir.
As Chitralekha Zutshi has shown in her book Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir during both the Afghani and even later Dogra rule, Hindu and Muslim poetic voices articulated a shared sense of suffering and discontent at the rapaciousness and brutality of their rulers. They continued to write as Kashmiri voices, for a Kashmiri people, encouraging them stand fast, to resist their oppressions and uplift themselves from their conditions.
Parmanand, a Kashmiri Pandit, and one of the most prominent poets during the period of Dogra rule, could even directly criticise the Kashmiri Pandit bureaucrats that had become an integral part of the ruthless Dogra dynasty:
A line without a dot is Radhu Mal,
A calamity on top of calamities;
Encamped in Wular he fulminates,
Blowing hornets from his mouth.
In Mattan [region of Kashmir] he, our officer, intends
to make at shradh [death anniversary ceremony] a gift of patwaris, [land record clerk]
so many heads â€“ than cattle cheaper far –
whom will he be pleased to choose? They trembling ask.
Say, will the account of the partwaris
Be ever reckoned right?
Wahab Pare, a Kashmir Pandit poet, wrote angrily about the humiliations and sufferings of the Kashmiri people
How many oppressions of the time can I count?
The authoritarian rulers have stepped the Mulk into chaos.
Anyone who is employed has to pay tax,
The plundering department is called Nakdi Mahal [cash only]
How many oppressions can I count on my fingers?
Every lion here has a hundred or more dogs with him to rip the people apart.
But these regional identities would come under threat from the seductions of a Dogra dynasty that intentionally chose Hindu motifs to define its legitimacy. The dynasty’s preferential treatment of its Hindu subjects would seduce the Kashmiri Pandits into considering themselves not merely Kashmiris, but also rulers, with all the privileges and power that that could afford.
I have dozed off. The sound of a ball hitting a cricket bat jolts me awake. The sun is softer now, the heat of the day seems to be bowing its way back to its retreat. I see a group of young boys gathering in a small courtyard in front of a temple, loudly discussing what I can only imagine is an attempt to put together a short game of cricket. Men and women begin to emerge from their homes to empty garbage pails, hanging up clothes to dry, or to let small children out for the day’s play.
A group of men are gathering under the shade of a wall. A man who has seen me sitting there with my cameras approaches me. I have been in these situations before but each time I feel it is the first time. I am apprehensive, concerned that he will ask me to leave. The Kashmiri Pandit community is defensive and perhaps tired of their exploitation by politicians and media as they continue to be born, struggle and grow old in these sinkhole camps.
Who are you? I explain. He nods. Come and play taash with us?
I am a poor hand at any game of cards. My father had an aversion to card games, and instilled in me a suspicion of the past time. Its always just gambling he used to warn me. I took him seriously and never played. Later in life it was the one thing that most separated me from my first wife; her love of Bridge was never reciprocated, my skills never quite up to her standards. It forced us into separate social circles.
I join the men, taking a place on the sheet of cloth spread out on the grass and settle in and let the life of the camp emerge around me.
We are here playing every day. For 20 years we sit here and play taash. You can see, there is nothing to do. No work. Nothing. I look across to my partner. Are you also a refugee? I ask. We are all! He laughs. Except that he is Muslim! Shouts someone from behind me. A wave of laughter ripples across the playing men.
I am confused. It is not what I had expected to hear. I look at him again but my increased interest has made him shy. He gets up to leave and I don’t want to press. Why is he here? I ask someone after some moments. But why? I mean, he could have stayed no? Did they threaten him as well? When the village fled, he fled with it. They threatened anyone who did not break their ties with us!
The Afghans were defeated by the Sikhs who then took over the administration of the state. The horrors and miseries of the region simply continued. The Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh instituted deeply anti-Muslim policies and attempted to create a consistent Hindu tone across their domains. The principal mosque in Srinagar was closed, others were made the property of the state, cow-slaughter was prohibited and eviscerating taxes were imposed.
But Sikh rule did not last long, defeated as it was at the hands of what the writer and intellectual Tariq Ali has described as ‘the most remarkable enterprise in the history of mercantile capitalism’. After the defeat of the Sikhs, the British took Kashmir in the Treaty of Amritsar, and casually handed it over Dogra ruler of Jammu, though under the close and influential watch of a British Resident nearby.
A dynasty that explicitly defined its legitimacy in Hindu terms could not help but increase the religious component of the identity of the people of the region. Maharaja Ranbir Singh’s rule reflected the Hindu tenor of the emergent Dogra state. And as the state become more entrenched its Hindu structures of legitimacy became more evident. As Zutshi points out, ‘the state came to play an important role in the defining the contours of the emergent discourse on community identity’.
The Hindus would from now on would be a privileged community, gaining access to offices in the civil and administrative bureaucracy of the Dogra state. They would in time become deeply integrated into the very political and power structures of the dynasty, and be associated in the minds of the exploited populace with the states cruelties, inequities, injustices and exploitation. And this at a time when under the heavy miseries imposed on the people of Kashmir, a specifically Islamic and Muslims sense of identity was emerging.
The shared sense of belonging would finally be at an end.
I am sitting with Mahesh in his small convenience store inside the camp. We are sipping our freshly made cups of tea that have just been handed to us by his wife. The sounds of his children playing can be heard through the door at the back of the shop that leads directly into their 2 room home. Every few minutes a someone walks in and asks for a small household item to purchase; a bar of soap, a few spoons of sugar, a lollipop for his child. Small, piecemeal acquisitions to keep the home and day functioning. Mahesh dutifully hands them these items, most often not even looking at the customers. I suppose he knows them all and has seen them all too often. It is all quite automatic now.
Have you ever gone back to see your lands? I ask as a way to make conversation.
I went once, some 5 years ago. And? Our neighbours now work the land. There isn’t anything left to go back to. And your home? It’s there. Locked. Falling apart. Can you see a way back?
He smiles. The tolerant, resigned smile of a man who realizes that he is talking to someone who will never understand his condition but nevertheless seems to insist. Our Kashmir, our life, our ideas no longer exist. My children have no connection to the place. Their eyes are now towards Delhi. There is no way back.
He shifts in his chair, brushing some dust from across the table behind which he is sitting. Now we are a toy, played by those who told us they love us, and those who tell us they hate us. So the Kashmiri Pandits are stuck here forever? Not just us Pandits, Asim Ji! All Kashmiris are stuck here forever! My look of puzzlement irritates him. That Kashmir that you imagine, the one you said to me your grandfather left, doesn’t exist anymore! And with just a tinge more vehemence, without loosing his grasp on his politeness, he adds We are all stuck. Even you can’t go back!
Are there no roads back?
Their children, many born and raised in the camps, have no connection to the valley and little or no sense of their people’s ancient heritage there. Their eyes, in an ever modernizing India, are turned determinedly towards India’s modern metropolises. And where once there were opportunities, a new generation of Muslim Kashmiris have stepped forward to take the positions previously unavailable to them.
The rhetoric of liberation and liberty remains imbued in the most simplistic of quasi-nationalist and ultra-religious terms. The Hindus and Muslims have lost their ability to break with the past – there are no visionaries. And where they are, they are scuttled by self-serving leaders who no longer seem to care about the goals.
For nearly 3 months in the summer of 2009 a series of non-violent protests in Srinagar shook the very foundations of the Indian military and government establishment. As hundreds of thousands poured into the streets demanding their rights, justice and an end to the military occupation and repressions in their lands, it seem, for just a moment, that something was about to change, that the oft repeated but ultimately self destructive cycle of violence was about to end and a new movement, fuelled by a new generation of young, educated and modern day Kashmiris was about to break free.
Arundhati Roy was there, and describes the moment when it all seemed to fall apart, when the old guard once again intervened with the same old, now discredited vision: Syed Ali Geelani stepped up to speak, and as Arundhati Roy tell it he said that:
The only way for the struggle to succeed…was to turn to the Qur’an for guidance. He said Islam would guide the struggle and that it was a complete social and moral code that would govern the people of a free Kashmir. He said Pakistan had been created as the home of Islam, and that that goal should never be subverted. He said just as Pakistan belonged to Kashmir, Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. He said minority communities would have full rights and their places of worship would be safe. Each point he made was applauded.
But were there any whose hearts sank? Were there any who remembered the struggle of Sheikh Abdullah to find a way to offer an inclusive and secular voice to the Kashmiri struggle? Or had that just been thrown aside as had the respect and love of the Kashmiris for Sheikh Abdullah himself, once the Sher-e-Kashmir (The Lion of Kashmir), whose tomb now had to be protected from vandals by armed guards? Did anyone not think about the failure of the unifying power of Islam that is the state of Pakistan? Did people even now, after so much suffering, wonder at the hypocrisy and venality of Pakistan’s interests in Kashmir? Did they not question the abandonment of the Kashmiri’s on the other side of the divide? Or is it enough to wave the the banners of Islam and choke all thought, just as waving the banners of Hindutva seem to achieve?
The Kashmiri Pandits faced, and continue to face, real difficulties in ‘The City of Temples’ and elsewhere in India. Class and political interests have trumped any sense of sectarian allegiances. Their arrival in cities like Jammu put considerable pressure on the education, health, welfare and other services in the area. They were ostracised, abused, marginalised and spurned.
I meet R.K.Bhat, President of the Young All India Kashmiri Samaj (YAIKS), at a medical clinic he helps runs on the outskirts of the camp. There are no voices speaking out for us. He laments. No concrete gestures that suggest that there is any hope of change. As we speak he is helping organise a protest to draw the government’s attention to the nearly 15,000 refugees who still lack jobs or a means of a livelihood.
There are no voices from our Muslim brothers asking for our return either. Why not? A Kashmiri Pandit, he grew up in the camps but managed to escape from their misery because of an education. But he was never really able to break his connection to this area. We have to help ourselves because no one else will do it for us.
Most refugees feel that they are merely convenient tools for the sectarian vote gatherers, best left in the conditions that they are. Others, more resourceful, have exploited the state and its sense of guilt to the fullest, acquiring for themselves state funded properties, government loans for new businesses, while defending their refugee status and ensuring that they get portions of the ‘welfare’ and ‘aid’ pie as well. Being a refugee has become a business, a means to enrich and thrive in a state where the refugee population becomes a bargaining political chip.
A friend hands me an old newspaper clipping. It’s a story about the death of a Kashmiri Pandit poet Samsar Chand in the village of Achan. He was the last Kashmiri Pandit in the village, his family having fled for during the height of the militancy. It said that hundreds of Muslims had gathered to perform his last rites. The item was dated May 2007. For just a moment I let myself believe that perhaps it was not all lost.
* This number is disputed and estimates vary on the number of Pandits who fled in 1989. Kashmiri Pandit leaders cite a figure close to 350,000. There is no accurate census data to verify either number. At least as far as I know.
** Kashmir Pandit family remain in Kashmir. It is estimated that nearly 7000 people still remain inside the Vally of Kashmir and have stayed behind for various reasons; inability to leave, fear of loss of property, determination not to part with their lands and connection to the region, lack of financial resources etc.