Kashmiri Pandits: 27 years of Exile

I was in Class Five when the word Kashmir made its way into my little vocabulary. My Drawing teacher Mrs. Kaul was from the valley. Though she was not a Kashmiri herself, she had married a Kashmiri. She used to wear ‘Dejaharoo‘ (Earrings which cling on a long silk or golden string) and come to school. As someone who grew in Jaipur, I had never seen my mother or other women wear it so I was of course curious. My mother used to teach Hindi in the same school and through her I got to know she was a Kashmiri and these are ornaments specific to the people who come from the state. She also told me that her house was attacked by terrorists during the late 80’s and they moved out of the valley post that. I was neither mature enough to understand about the situation nor was I interested to know why her house was attacked. However, that was my first brush with the story of Kashmiri Pandits.

If I ignore this little encounter during my childhood, then it would be fair to say that I had not even heard about the Kashmiri Pandits till 2010. It was only after I joined twitter and interacted with Kashmiris over there, I got to know about their story. A story that moved and shook me to the core and has stayed with me over the years. I was sad and shocked that something like this could happen in our country. I was angry and hurt that how very little is known about them and none of our history books mention their exodus. I have had Kashmiri Pandits in my class while I was growing up but I never bothered to ask them because I did not know their story and even they never shared their side because most of them were born after the exodus or were too tired to revisit their exodus.

For a long time, Kashmir has been all about separatists, their call for Azadi and Indian Army in a daily battle with militants. However, there is another side which is forgotten which is of the Pandits. This has changed to an extent with the advent of social media as a lot of people have started talking about them too. A young breed of Kashmiri Pandit writers (Rahul Pandita, Siddharth Gigoo, Varad Sharma) has risen up and they are now taking the help of pen to tell their story. In spite of this there are a lot of people who still don’t know about the exodus. This is my attempt to reach out to the people who are my friends and relatives on social media. Even if one of my friends or followers reads it on Facebook and gets to know about the story of Kashmiri Pandits then I would be satisfied.

A lot of us cannot even sleep properly if we change the side of the bed. My wife hates travelling as she cannot sleep in the claustrophobic train berths. Most of us miss the comfort of our home when we visit a relative’s house for a wedding & stay in a dharamshala or hotel. Now, imagine sleeping on the wrong side of the bed for your entire life or sleeping in that claustrophobic train compartment for a lifetime or being in a dharamshala forever. We cannot. The thought of it makes us uncomfortable. But here we have a community who is out of their homes for more than two decades now. As I write this, they enter their 27th year in exile and it all happened on that fateful winter night of 19th January 1990. A community was threatened, their women were raped, their men were killed, their children were orphaned and they were forced out of their homes forever. Why? Because they were Hindus.

In the late 80’s, Kashmir was simmering with tension and the seeds of this were sown when the then Congress government at centre rigged the elections in 1987. Muslim United Front (MUF) was expected to win a good number of seats but it ended up winning just four and they did not take it lightly. To make matters worse, Sayeed Salahudeen of MUF was jailed. Today, he heads the dreaded Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The rigged elections created distrust and a lot of Kashmiris lost the faith in democracy. I consider this as the turning point of the insurgency in the valley.

However, was it only this that led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits? NO! How can people who take great pride in talking about ‘Kashmiriyat’ turn their backs on their Pandit brothers so quickly? If it was the anger against rigged elections, then why did this anger find its release on Kashmiri Pandits and not others? There was of course something sinister in all this. It was an attempt to get rid of the minorities from the valley and a step closer to the Islamization of Kashmir which more or less has been achieved.

The murder of Pandit Tika Lal Taploo who was a noted lawyer & member of BJP by JKLF was the first of the many killings that took place in the valley. The killings that followed were brutal and harrowing. Sarla Bhat, a nurse was abducted from her hostel, gang raped and killed. Girja Tikoo, a teacher was kidnapped, raped & shredded to pieces in a saw mill. Pandit Sarwanand was hanged to death and his eyes were gauged out. As many as 300 Kashmiri Pandits were killed by the terrorists. Every day there was news about a Kashmiri Pandit being attacked, kidnapped and killed. The failure of the administration to take any action against the terrorists only added to the fear among the Pandits.

If this was not enough, local Urdu newspapers Aftab and Al Safa published a press release by Hizb-ul-Mujhaideen asking the Hindus to leave Kashmir. Hundreds of posters were pasted on shops, walls, electric poles asking the Pandits to leave. There were orders asking Kashmiris to follow the Islamic dress code and a ban on cinemas and alcohol came into place. The clocks were set in accordance with the Pakistan Standard Time. Mosques in the valley reverberated with slogans like ‘Kashmir mei agar rehna hai, Allah-O-Akbar kehna hai (If you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-O-Akbar); Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (What will work here? Rule of Shariah); Asi gachchi Pakistan, Batao roas te Batanev san‘ (We want Pakistan along with Hindu women but without their men), Islam hamara maqsad hai, Quran hamara dastur hai, jehad hamara Rasta hai” (Islam is our objective, Quran is our constitution and Jehad is our way), Ralive, Tsaliv ya Galive (Cinvert, Leave or Die)

The Hindu places of worship were looted and destroyed subsequently. Shailputri and Bhairon Nath Temple in Baramulla, Wanpoh temple in Anantnag, temples in Lukh Bhawan were some of the temples that were attacked by the terrorists. The idols in various temples were broken and the temple walls were defaced. The growing Islamization slowly gripped the valley and Anantnag was named Islamabad. The famous Shankaracharya Temple became Takht-e-Suleiman while Hari Parbat where the famous Sharda Peeth lies is now called Kohr-e-Maraan.

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Defaced Temple Walls

The daily threats, killings, humiliation and the failure of government to protect them was enough to force the Kashmiri Pandits to leave the valley. Close to 3.0 Lakh Kashmiri Pandits left the valley only to never return. The journey which started from the pristine and beautiful Kashmir ended in the hot and ugly migrant camps of Jammu. The tales from the migrant camps are full of pain. Elderly people were not used to the scorching heat of Jammu and found it extremely difficult to cope. Young married couples found no privacy in the tents which led to decline in the birth rates. Depression, paranoia and other mental diseases became a common occurrence. Here is an excerpt from ‘A Long Dream of Home’ describing the life in exile!

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From ‘A Long Dream of Home’ by Siddhartha Gigoo & Varad Sharma

Today, we have an entire generation of Kashmiri Pandits who have grown outside their home. The rich heritage, culture, traditions and language of the community is in danger. As the young breed of Kashmiri Pandits make great strides in their career in the metro cities, they remain detached from their roots and it’s a big challenge for both the parents and children to preserve it. A lot of young Kashmiri Pandits I know don’t even care about the exodus because it is something that they have not experienced. Kashmir for them is a fairy tale land because no one has been there. They have only listened to the stories by their parents and grandparents and that’s about it. They don’t share the same emotion. I have spoken to a lot of them but not many of them want to talk about it. They are Jammuites now. While it’s a good thing that they don’t want to cling on to the past but to forget is to forgive and they should not be given this luxury.

Likewise, there is an entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims who have grown without the presence of Pandits around them and don’t understand their pain and anger. Even though the facts speak otherwise, for a lot of Kashmiri Muslims, the exodus of Pandits was ‘migration’ which was an act of Governor Jagmohan. When I read and interact with them on social media, I sense little regret or pain. The argument always ends up blaming the ‘Indian government’ or the Pandits.

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Migrant Camp at Muthi, Jammu

Every year there is a lot of debate around the return of Kashmiri Pandits but it’s a FARCE. Politicians across parties make claims to rehabilitate Pandits but it remains an election rhetoric. Even Narendra Modi who is often hailed as the poster boy of Hindu cause has failed to address the issue. The apathy of political class towards the Pandits is also due to the fact that they don’t make a sizable vote bank. It doesn’t matter if they vote or not because they cannot make or break the elections unlike their counterpart. It is ironic that Omar Abdullah talks about the return of Pandits because his father Farooq Abdullah did nothing to control the radical elements when he was the Chief Minister. Likewise, Mehbooba Mufti might speak about how important Pandits are but who can forget that her father Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was involved in the anti Pandit riots in 1986?

The Kashmiri Pandit exodus also exposes the hypocrisy of liberal class in our country. It’s a grim reminder that none of the people responsible for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits have been punished. No commission or committee has been set up to inquire and identify the perpetrators. No attempt has been made by successive governments to bring closure. It shows us a mirror that how much selective we have become in our outrage that humanity has taken a backseat and agenda seems to be driving us. We outrage so much when minorities in other parts of the country are attacked but we remain silent when the same happens in Kashmir.

Some time back, there was a lot of discussion around separate housing societies for the Pandits in Kashmir and Kashmiri Muslims along with the separatists opposed it citing that this will alienate the community further. Though I agree that ghettos might not be a great idea and it offers little for the young blood of both communities to mingle. However, another voice in me asks ‘What other option they have’? Their homes are destroyed so where do they live after coming back? The same neighbors who refused to help during 89-90 can be trusted all over again? The youth of Kashmir has abandoned books and taken up to stone pelting. It won’t take long for Kalshnikovs to replace stones. An all Kashmiri woman band was forced to disband itself few years ago. Recently, Zaira Wasim was threatened by separatists. Do the Pandits want to raise their children in this environment? With ISIS flags being waved during protests, radicalism seems to be the order of the day in the valley.

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Pandits are Cancer (Source: OpIndia)

Kashmir is rotten and I don’t see any hope of it improving. I am an optimist but at the same time I am pragmatic. I don’t see the exile of Kashmiri Pandits ending ever. 27 years have gone. 27 more will go but nothing will change. Sadly, that’s the harsh reality. But we need to revisit the pain, suffering and longing that our fellow Indians went through every year so that we don’t let this happen again! 

 

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In defense of Haider

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” — Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider has been in news for more than one reason. On one hand people (like me) are talking about the brilliance of the film, the excellent screenplay, the soothing music and the powerful performances. But, on the other hand there are voices of dissent calling for a ‘Boycott’ of Haider claiming the film is anti India and disrespects the army.

With my leanings towards the right and being a staunch supporter of the Indian Army I expected to be offended when I entered the movie hall but surprisingly I wasn’t.  On the contrary I loved it. However, I was not very convinced of the criticism thrown at Haider; so I decided to pen my thoughts on the film. I am neither a film critic nor an expert on Kashmir; but I love films. So, let’s call this a piece in defense of the ‘film’.

Haider

It tells only one aspect of the Kashmir problem

First things first, Haider is NOT a documentary on Kashmir & its problems. It is a film on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and that’s about it! Yes, the backdrop is Kashmir. Now, there are several narratives to the story of Kashmir. There is a Kashmiri Pandit perspective, another is a Kashmiri Muslim one and last but not the least the army perspective. However, what is common in all the three is the suffering, pain and loss. Haider chooses to tell one of them.  So, what is the problem in that?

Director Onir’s 2011 film ‘I am’ had a short story on Kashmir where a Kashmiri Pandit (Juhi Chawla) returns to the valley to sell her ancestral home. Though the film never made any sweeping political statement but it did put the story of Kashmiri Pandits on-screen. The character was loosely inspired from actor Sanjay Suri’s mother who lost her husband in the insurgency of 1990. Similarly, Ashoke Pandits’ 2004 film ‘Sheen’ was based on a Kashmiri Pandit family and their exodus. Interestingly, no body accused Onir and Ashoke Pandit of putting their ‘agenda’ on screen and ignoring the plight of civilians and telling a one-sided story. I doubt if most even know about these films.

It is anti-India and anti-Indian Army.

Now, we all would be stupid to believe that our Kashmiri brothers love India and take as much pride in saying ‘Jai Hind’ as we do.  Also, we would be naive if we deny the fact that Army crackdowns and interrogations never happened (Happens?) or that there were no detention centers or that there are no half-widows .

The infamous ‘Papa II’ (Mama II in the film) detention centre was our very own Guantanamo Bay. I read about it few years back in Basharat Peer’s book and it made the ‘Indian’ in me uncomfortable. Of course these centres were supposed to detain ‘militants’ but on more than one occasion they detained ‘suspected’ militants (read civilians) and they were subjected to third degree torture. Those who did not die or mysteriously ‘disappeared’ and were lucky to come out alive have narrated harrowing tales – electric shocks to their genitals, being thrashed naked with bamboo sticks, their nails being pulled out and much more. Today, Papa II is the  official residence of Mufti Muhammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba Mufti of PDP, another detention centre ‘Cargo’ serves as a cyber police station while ‘Harinawas’ is converted to a guesthouse.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the one involving gravediggers. The song ‘Aao Na’ playing in the background matches the tempo set by gravedigger’s shovel sends shivers down the spine. As a matter of fact, the ‘real’ is not very different from ‘reel’. Mass graves of disappeared people were found in the valley years ago and till date it’s a blot on India. According to the Human Rights Report 2,900 unmarked bodies were found and unlike the claims by Army; not all were militants.

Barkha Dutt did an excellent story on the ‘half-widows’ of the valley. Many of the Kashmir’s missing people are believed to have been killed in custody. Official estimates put the number at more than a thousand. Unofficial estimates say the number could be three times higher! Watch it here Half Widows

It ignores the plight of Kashmiri Pandits

Hell No! The exodus was unfortunate and it’s a shame that Indians are living like refugees in their own country. But, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits happened way back in 1989-90 whereas the film is set in 1995. How can they be a part of a film which is set in a different time period? Just because the film doesn’t talk about one issue; doesn’t mean that the makers approve of the killings of Pandits. Moreover, even if Vishal has ignored it as some are saying, then it is HIS CHOICE! Why not make a film and counter Haider.

Haider is one of the finest films to have come out this year. It is also one of the most political film to be made with Kashmir as its backdrop. Beyond the beauty of Dal Lake, Chinar & Gulmarg; there is more to Kashmir and Haider shows you that. It is disturbing but a must watch; if not for the politics, then for the brilliant cinema!