Monday, May 25, 2015

The Voice of Kashmiris

Kashmir has a special place in the hearts of Indians. For centuries, it has been the dwelling of Saraswati. It is the land of Philosophy and poetry. It is home to beauty of nature, mind and spirit. Which Indian heart does not swell at the feats of King Lalitaditya? Which Indian poet does not heave a sigh of pleasure on reading the poetry of Bilhana? Indeed, Kashmir, both by its geographical location and its importance, is the crown jewel of India.

Yet, Kashmir is almost always in the news for all the wrong reasons. Since my childhood, it was a given that the daily newspaper contained details about some militant activity in Kashmir or the other. Some times the newspaper reports talked about militants killed, sometimes it was the security personnel. And some other times the reports contained the statements of politicians condemning the attacks. It looked like a hopeless, helpless situation always. During such a time, the Kannada magazine Taranga (I think) carried an article about the displacement of Kashmiri Pandit population. I was too young to read the article, but I remember that it carried pictures of beautiful, modern-looking Kashmiri Pandit men and women standing at water taps in front of one-room dwellings.

Since then, I have heard the Kashmiri Pandits being mentioned many times. Our first prime minister apparently belonged to that community. The exodus of the KPs has been the subject of many debates; many times they are just mentioned in passing. When someone mentions the Gujarat riots where muslims were killed (conveniently forgetting the Godhra carnage), it is almost a reflex action to say "But what about the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits?". What exactly this exodus was, I had not known until I recently read Rahul Pandita's book "Our Moon has Blood Clots".

Rahul Pandita is not a new name to me. Nandini Krishnan (a very good writer who writes with style and yet with balance) had interviewed Pandita and had published it. I thought I should read the book, all the more interesting because he claims to be a communist. From what little left literature I have read (including articles by Arundhati Roy, Dilip D'souza, Romila Thapar and others), I know enough to wonder how a KP and communist can coexist in one person. However, as I discovered when I read the book, RP turns out to be quite different from the rabid communists that Arundhati Roy and her ilk are. He is proud of the traditions of the Kashmiris, of their Shivratri, their sacrifices and rituals and Durgasaptashati. He mourns the loss of tradition like the passing of an old uncle.

Rahul's writing is very simple. He says that he wrote this book only because he wants the story of the Pandits to reach the next generation, and not get lost in the flood of secularism and dhimmitude that is setting the course of political discourse these days. And I must say he is quite successful. If this story about Kashmir can move me, a kannaDiti to tears for a few hours, I cannot even start imagining how a Kashmiri may feel about it. He describes the compound outside his family home, the apple and cashew trees and the heavy snow that makes the tin roofs cave in. His childhood was idyllic, surrounded by people he loved and looked up to. He had friends with whom he played cricket. All this was gradually taken from him, and suddenly one night in January 1990, everything turned topsy turvy and within a few days, his whole family was seeking refuge in Jammu.

It is not the story of RP alone. Thousands of Kashmiri Pandits lost their homes, many of them lost their lives too, that fateful night. The estimated number is more than 300,000. There are many theories to explain this exodus. Some say that the muslim-hating Jagmohan packed off the KPs so that he could hunt the muslims without any danger of harming the Hindus. This is very unlikely, keeping in mind that that night in Kashmir, it was mainly Pandit blood that flowed and it was the Pandit women who went through untold horrors. As always, our media glosses over these stark realities and harps on the atrocities of the army in Kashmir. Not to condone the civilian killings done knowingly or unknowingly by the Indian army, but major brunt of militant insurgency was borne by the Pandit population and no one else. They have a reputation of physically being weak; so much that it is a matter of shame to lose a physical fight against them. This made them soft targets to the insurgents. While the youth who were fresh from Pakistan were indulging in military exercises, the helpless Pandits could only look on. Or I should  say they "would" only look on. All portents of a looming invasion were ignored by the government and the Pandits themselves. As Rahul Pandita says, after the first few killings happened, the then Chief minister assured people that militancy would end soon. This is the same shortsightedness that was displayed by our first prime minister during Chinese insurgency. In spite of all our learnings from Arthaśāstra and Rājataraṅgiṇi, we really never learnt.

Things in Kashmir have only gone downhill since Independence. A major contributor was the myopic judgment of our first prime minister who brought Article 370 into governance. Recently, about a year ago, the flamboyant Sunanda Pushkar had raised the issue of Article 370 and had mourned that she would never be able to buy any land in her homeland. Rahul raises the same issue and says that he may own land in any place in the whole world other than his homeland. There is a telling moment, when he visits the house that was his when he was a child. There is someone else living there; the apple tree is cut and the bookshelves are filled with onion and garlic. Whether it was intended or not, a very important "dhvani" is brought out here. When the Pandits were turned out of Kashmir, it lost its scholarship and beauty. Only sorry relics - like the "showpiece almari" without the showpieces and the bookshelf devoid of books remain.

There have been efforts to rehabilitate the Pandits in their homeland. The then Prime Minister, Dr.Manmohan Singh started a program to that effect in 2008. However, so far, they have not been very successful because it is difficult to promise safety in a war-zone. It is a chicken-and-egg problem; While the Pandits are not rehabilitated in their own homes, peace in the region will remain a farce. But to even promise the Pandits their original homes, there has to be some semblance of peace in the valley.

After reading the book, I googled references to this book. There have been books about Kashmir - but Rahul Pandita's book is different in that it talks about Kashmir from the point of view of the minority community. Not only that; it does not gloss over the atrocities of the army or the amiability of the Kashmiri Muslim brethren.

During my long hiatus, I did read a lot. But not one of them spurred me to write. This book did that. Dear readers, if you read this book, and a tear rolls down your eye as you do and you spread the word about the book - the plight and the resilience of the Kashmiri Pandits, and then all of us lend our voices to them, the purpose of the book will be served.

Jai Hind! 

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