In his latest book of poems, Homeland after Eighteen Years, which is both a record of and a reflection on his forty-eight hour stay in Kashmir in 2008, K L Chowdhury writes, somewhat sadly, that Kashmiri Pandits have already become a forgotten entity:
Wherever you inquire,
the Kashmiri Pandits are spoken of
in past tense here-
they have been,
they had been.
Who were they, anyway,
they might ask, one day?
One can understand that the absence of Kashmiri Pandits from most of the localities of Srinagar, especially the ones where they used to live in large numbers, makes the local people talk about them in the past tense. In fact, for the ones who were born after 1990, Pandits are actually an unknown entity. When Sridar, the protagonist of Siddartha Gigoo’s debut novel, The Garden of Solitude, revisits his old home after long years, a young girl of the family that now lives in it looks at him somewhat inquiringly, and asks her mother: “Who are Pandits mother?” The sad truth is that even outside the state of Jammu & Kashmir, people no longer talk about the Pandits. In the psyche of an average Indian, the trauma of their exile and the problems that it created for them are now a thing of the past. I remember distinctly when I told an acquaintance not too long ago about what my community had to go through in 1990 and that even now thousands of Pandits were still languishing in makeshift shelters, he cut me short by saying that he had heard something about it, and just moved on. If Pandits are a forgotten lot inside Kashmir, they are a forgotten lot outside Kashmir, too.
It is not that Kashmir does not make news these days. In fact, it does all the time, but now we only hear about insurgency, revolt, deaths, discontent of the Muslims, the measure that have been or should have been taken to address their problems. Newspapers carry reports about them and analyses about their issues on a regular basis and photographers adorn the write ups with splashes of colour. TV channels do not lag too far behind. But Pandits’ figure rarely in them.
I think the forgetfulness of people about Pandits and their absence from the current political discourse is largely because remembering their plight does not interest anyone; they do not find place in the agendas of political parties and other influential groups. The truth is that it was like that right from the very beginning. When I was forced to flee my home in Srinagar in 1990 because living in the atmosphere of threat and menace had reached intolerable proportions, and my friends there virtually begged of me to quit the place so that they could sleep well, I found very little sympathy outside the state. During my brief stay in the home of a friend in Delhi, I chanced to meet one of his colleagues, who happened to be a teacher in some local college. When my friend introduced me to him as a Kashmiri Pandit, he did not show any sign of concern or sympathy, and told me that perhaps I was holidaying with my friend. When I imagined myself holidaying in Delhi in the sweltering heat of June, away from the pleasant weather of my lost home, I felt like getting at his throat. Fortunately, my friend saw my livid face, took me aside, and told me how sorry he was for what had happened. I had hardly recovered from this shock, when I found the city splashed with posters in which the government was warned to keep their hands off Kashmiri Muslims, which in those days meant Kashmiri militants, who were all over the place with their guns. I thought with horror about myself and my brethren. Instead of sympathising with me and my plight, people were speaking for my tormentors!
It took me quite a while to understand why my suffering and the loss of my home did not arouse sufficient interest in the people around me. The forced exile of the Pandit community, which should have attracted the attention of people outside the state as a national issue of serious import, was deliberately projected as a partisan issue. Politicians of several hues issued statements that the exodus of Pandits was a conspiracy engineered by Jag Mohan, the then governor of Jammu & Kashmir. It was truly amazing and shocking to find that a whole lot of people could believe that thousands of people left their homes and hearths in the Valley of Kashmir to languish in ragged tents and subhuman conditions only because somebody told them to do so. My amazement turned into horror when in a national seminar in Shimla I heard a senior professor from one of the leading universities of the country say to a group of top academicians that Kashmiri Pandits had been lured to leave their homes to cause embarrassment to their Muslim brethren because they had been promised plots and flats in different parts of India. That the top leaders of the country and so-called intellectuals virtually spoke the language of the Kashmiri militants was the unkindest cut of all. As a fellow sufferer despairingly put it: it was like rubbing salt on our wounds! Though we were virtually on the road, successive governments at the Centre refused to accept our plea that we be declared internally displaced people. Instead, the state government designated us “migrants,” as if we had left our homes on our own to improve our prospects in makeshift tents!
It is very difficult for me to recreate the atmosphere of menace and fear which we were forced to contend with, and which eventually forced us to leave our homes. One had to be there to see how difficult it was even to survive. Although an elected government was in power in the state, it was virtually non-functional. For months on end, militants of all kinds dictated the pace of life and work in the Valley. Hartals and civil curfews were order of the day. A systematic pogrom of selective killing of Pandits was at work; two to three of them had to die every day. With relentless regularity, they were told to leave the Valley or face death. To show how precarious the condition of Pandits was, I reproduce a short scene from my book that was published in 2002:
The image of my friend Bharat flashed past me. How callously he was done to death for no fault of his! Six young men with guns barged into his home, in the very heart of the city, where the houses look ancient, … and called for him. Sensing their blind fury, for such incidents had become quite common by then, his parents tried to slow down the pace of their advancing steps so that Bharat could hide himself, but the intruders were simply unstoppable. They pushed everybody aside, overturned everything in their way-chairs, tables, fans, tins of rice, flour, and other provisions-and thundered, “Hand him over to us! If you don’t, everyone here will die.” One of them put the barrel of his gun on the chest of Bharat’s mother. Knowing that they would not leave without him, she and her husband pleaded with them for mercy; wailing and falling at their feet, they begged for the life of their only child. Unmoved, the militants spread out in all directions to search for Bharat and found him in an empty drum where he had tried to hide himself.
Pleased with their catch, they dragged Bharat down the stairs and brought him out on the main road, where all signs of life and activity had vanished. They beat him violently, hurled abuse at him, called him everything they could think of-an informer, a spy, a saboteur, an enemy of the revolution, in short, the most dangerous man alive-and then shot him in his various limbs, to finish him off bit by bit. After every shot, his young body writhed in pain, and his cries echoed all over the place. When he asked for water, he got a kick on his mouth and a torrent of abuse. All this happened in broad daylight, in the middle of a public road, in full view of everyone. People watched from a safe distance, behind closed windows, some with approval and some with horror. When the militants were satisfied that everybody around had been sufficiently terrorised, they shot a final bullet into his heart.
And Bharat lay there in a pool of blood, at high noon, with flies swarming around his face in dazed confusion. Nobody dared go near his body, not even his parents, because the militants had decreed that nobody should remove it from there without their permission. The most hopeless feature of the entire scene was that the local police post, fully equipped with armed men, was barely a few hundred feet away.
If things continue the way they are right now, Pandits will certainly become extinct as a community after some time. Its young ones, especially the ones who were born after 1990, think of Kashmir as a place where their parents lived once upon a time. In the process of improving their lives, they are merging fast into larger social identities of the country. Their cultural identity, almost like that of the Sindhis who migrated to Gujarat from Pakistan in 1947, is getting eroded by degrees. The governments at the Centre and the State make periodic announcements to indicate that they are concerned about their future as a community, but the measures they advocate are attached with so many strings that they hardly work. Several Pandit organisations are trying to keep their voice afloat, but most of the time they are being marginalised. It looks like the governments at the Centre and State are just biding time, for they know that with the passage of time the voice of the Pandits will get weakened, and then slowly fade away into oblivion.
Unless the people of India make a concerted effort to keep the Pandit community alive by ensuring that appropriate mechanisms are evolved for providing it a proper place and the right kind of atmosphere in the Valley of Kashmir, it will fade away as a community with distinct cultural markers. As Chowdhury rightly puts it:
Who were they, anyway,
they might ask, one day?
And what a sad day that will be in the history of India!
(The writer is author of Under the Shadow of Militancy: The Dairy of an Unknown Kashmiri)