Every year in June, Tulla Mulla, an area of Ganderbal around 27 kilometres from Srinagar, is abuzz with Kashmiri Pandit families celebrating the Kheer Bhawani Mela. It is the biggest congregation of Kashmiri Pandits and they celebrate it with traditional fervor. Holding night-long prayers at the temple, ringing bells and carrying rose petals. They offer milk and kheer to the spring within the temple complex, considered to be sacred and surrounded by Chinar trees.
It is an unusual spectacle, which after the unfortunate exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, is a rare. A paradox is in operation here: While the number of families visiting one of the holiest places of worship has doubled in recent years, the same does not hold true for the population of Pandits living in valley.
The reasons are prosaic as well as profound.
These pertain to culture (acculturation, to be more accurate), the new vistas that have opened up for the new generation of Kashmiri Pandits. While the older generation of Kashmiri Pandits, out of nostalgia and other reasons like weather and yearning to live in their homeland want to return home, the younger ones — decultured after living in new milieus, and sensing few employment opportunities — hardly relate to Kashmir anymore. Most of them do want to come to Kashmir, but only as tourists. The same holds true for the new cohort and generation of Kashmiri Muslims; they hardly relate to or understand Kashmiri Pandits.
So, there may be some merit to the assertion by Farooq Abdullah — the patron of the National Conference — that “no one in Kashmir will go to Kashmiri Pandits with a begging bowl”. Too much water has passed under the bridge, so to speak — even though publicly no one would say they don’t want Pandits back in their homeland.
The bottom line is that Kashmiri society has moved on; so have its Hindu residents. As Abdullah pointed out, “If the Pandit community is waiting for the last guns to stops firing to come home,” they will never be able to come home.
Today’s Kashmir is not the Kashmir of the 1990s. The structural conditions within and without Kashmir are different. The guns have largely fallen silent. There is a negative peace prevalent in the region. From a practical standpoint, this is the right time to return. But why aren't Pandits returning?
My reportage assignments have provided me with answers to this vexing question.
In the past seven years of reporting on the conflict in and over Kashmir, I have made dozens of reporting trips to the crumbling and decrepit housing colonies inhabited by Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Delhi. (In one instance, my father’s old friend, a Kashmiri Pandit living in Jammu, advised me to hide my identity. I was a Kashmiri Muslim, in a colony that was dotted with people who held the minuscule Muslim population of my valley responsible for their migration and misery). I conducted hundreds of interviews and meetings with my fellow Kashmiris, but alas the sobering and sad conclusion I reached was that no matter the inducement, the younger generation of Kashmiri Pandits would never return.
These reporting trips also illustrated that while a fundamental trust deficient between the two communities is enormous, the silver living is that it cannot be described as unbridgeable.
However, mutual antagonism and the attendant recriminations between the two communities persist: Pandits blame Kashmiri Muslims for their displacement and a majority of Kashmiri Muslims blame Pandits for leaving them at a time when they needed them most.
Furthermore, conspiracy theories on the entire exodus abound and questions arise in people’s minds: How was it possible for migration from the entire Valley to be conducted in one night? How were buses arranged to take this vulnerable community out of Kashmir? But, at the same time, the fact that stares at us today like a blot of ink on a white sheet, is that in many areas of Kashmir, loudspeakers of mosques were used to terrify the Hindu residents of Muslim-majority Kashmir.
The story of the exodus is then mired in a convoluted mists of history, conspiracy and paranoia.
Also, there were incidents of an ugly nature.
There is a story my father told me years ago. On 7 May, 1990, dozens of armed men turned up at the house of Professor Kundan Lal Ganjoo, in the Badshah Masjid area of Batpora in Sopore. The Ganjoos were dragged out and their Muslim neighbours were locked inside to prevent them from intervening. The family was taken to the nearby Jhelum river. Professor Ganjoo was shot, his wife was kidnapped and his nephew was thrown into the river, but he somehow managed to survive.
People say, Ganjoo’s abducted wife, Pranaji, was later killed, but her body was never found. There was speculation that her body was thrown into the Jhelum. Most terrifying are the rumours that her dead body was tied with a stone and thrown into the Jhelum.
The incident was the first killing of any Kashmiri Pandit in Sopore town and the news spread like wildfire. The fear of persecution loomed large among the community and almost all the Pandits living in Sopore migrated to Jammu, like thousands of others.
Terrifying stories like these would often be repeated in discussions and interviews, and whenever Pandit and Muslim families meet in Kashmir.
Some have given socio-historical reasons for the breaking out of “animus” between some sections of the majority community in Kashmir and the minority one: A hundred-year-old economic and class exploitation of Kashmiri Muslims at the hands of Pandits. A Kashmiri journalist friend once told me Kashmiri Pandits are not a community but a class. And it was this class exploitation that somehow came to the fore and aided the sudden rage.
This animus appears now to be cyclical and mutual.
The problem today facing Kashmir is after every passing day, things seem to be going from bad to worse especially in terms of polarisation of the state. So it comes as no big shock when you learn that in both the major unrests in the state in 2008 and 2010 — when Jammu was pitted against Kashmir and vice versa, and when the National Highway to Kashmir was blocked by people — the state CID reported that majority of the people who participated in that blocked were young Kashmiri Pandit boys in Jammu.
Asking who should be blamed for this is a rhetorical question.
However, what can be said with certainty is that in the maelstrom and melee of history and the recent past, the relations between Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have plumbed depths. The reasons largely pertain to the absence of a dialogue and a psychological meeting point between the two communities. In this charged environment, perceptions take over and reality gets sidelined.
Government apathy even at the Central level is not helping matters. For instance, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, in April 2008, announced a Rs 1,618-crore package for offering jobs to Kashmiri Pandits, in addition to other assistance. The government immediately spent Rs 218.46 crores to create transit accommodation.
But if you happen to visit these colonies, they are nothing more than decorated slums. A Kashmir Pandit friend, who was employed as a teacher, rightly complained, that whenever his infant son cried during the night, neighbours wake up and complain, because the wall is made of fibre and the noise travels to other rooms. The conditions that prevail in these “decorated slums’ are abominable and heart-rending.
In the final analysis, the truth is politics and rhetoric have overwhelmingly become the dominant reality in terms of the Pandit condition and many continue to live a miserable existence.
Successive governments have failed to facilitate a dialogue between the stakeholders of Kashmir. They have seen the problem through the prism of politics and not rights. Let the politicisation of Pandits stop and if they want, they are always welcome home — a home that belongs to both Muslims and Hindus.