One of my earliest memories, when I try to unpeel my mind, assailed with a million thoughts right now, is that of a toddler enjoying the security and comfort of being cuddled and taken around on the shoulders of an old, wizened man. I had no idea then that this man was a Muslim and I a Kashmiri Pandit, born as I was, like all of us are, into a world which I could barely fathom. My consciousness was dormant and my impressionable mind was recording images as they appeared and not as what they were supposed to be. Almost six decades later, I remember nothing of what else was happening around me which I can connect with that image, just my own cries and the subsequent chuckle after being given that shoulder ride. My life has traversed a fair distance since that childhood memory. I have seen, observed and recorded many pleasant and unsavoury images; my mind has become a melting pot.
I am a Kashmiri migrant who left the Valley in the early sixties, because my father held a central government job. I spent most of my early life in Punjab, so I speak with a distinct Punjabi inflection. Yet, by habit and orientation I am still a Kashmiri. My cultural connection with the Valley never severed because my grandparents lived in Kashmir, my older brother finished his schooling there, and I visited my home regularly during the summers.
This went on until the late eighties, when all of a sudden, a mass uprising and militancy erupted, with a ferocity that stunned us all. A wave of migration took place then, propelled by fear and violence. According to an official figure, around 200 Kashmiri Pandits were left dead in this time, though some claim that the toll may have been much higher. This closed the doors of our homes to us.
I had seen the divide between “us” and “them” in the time that I had spent in the Valley while growing up, but that divide had only been a subtext of the life I witnessed there. This divide had now taken a more sinister turn. Since then, the violence that has wrecked Kashmir has left one religious minority uprooted from their homeland and the majority Muslims literally maimed in their own state. Thousands of them have either been killed by the militant’s gun, others by the security forces.
For almost a decade, Kashmir was a no-go zone for us. By the early 2000s my visits to Srinagar restarted. I was welcomed with open arms, though for all practical purposes I was now an outsider, wondering if there was a place for me in a state that was at war with India. This war and my outsider/refugee status became the identity that marked my citizenship.
During my visits, I saw that the Karan Nagar area in Srinagar, where my grandparents had lived, still had life left in it. It had become the headquarters of one of the many Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) battalions stationed in the city. Our house was intact, though its occupants were now the security forces, like most Pandit houses there. In other places where the Pandits had lived until they fled in panic, a deathly silence akin to a graveyard greeted me. Their houses were locked, worn out from neglect and crying for care and upkeep.
I am a regular visitor to Kashmir now, like many other Pandits, but the idea of permanent return has never taken root. The fear of the gun still haunts “us”, though there are enough voices in the Valley who say “come back”. After all, who would want to return to a place where death stalks the streets, where the locals are unsafe and there are no jobs to make survival economically possible.
Like most Pandits, especially of the older generation, I still have Kashmiri Muslim friends. In my case, many of these relationships were established after the year 2000. They understood my pain and I theirs, yet ironically and tragically, we could do nothing about it. When the pages of history are dipped in blood, and politics is the only driving force behind all decisions that thrive on hatred and division, bridging a chasm is impossible. When you want to reduce a complex human tragedy to a blame game and shape your responses according to which community you belong to, be sure that a greater catastrophe may be around the corner.
Ever since I was born, Kashmir has been a political problem whose contours were shaped first by the Partition and before that, by the Dogra rule of Maharaja Hari Singh. The latter era has been encapsulated by many historians, but none do so better than the historian Mridu Rai in her book, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects.
My own responses to the Kashmir issue, and the ensuing migration of Kashmiri Pandits, were shaped by my father’s broad secular outlook. Unlike many of my young relatives of these times, my father had only love and no hatred for the “other”. For him, Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first Prime Minister after 1947 and founder of the National Conference, was a saviour of the Hindus.
Kashmir’s Instrument of Accession, signed by Hari Singh, had come with many conditions, Article 370 of the Constitution being one of them. A promise was made that there would be a plebiscite once peace prevails in the region. Kashmiris were given the right to decide their own future through the ballot. It is this article of faith, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, that the Indian government abolished in one brutal stroke on 5 August, 2019.
My childhood memories and my visits to Kashmir gave me no reason to reinterpret what my father had told me. I knew—and could see for myself—that the Kashmiri Muslims had many grievances and that in their hearts lay the desire for Azaadi. Despite being in a tiny minority, we Kashmiri Pandits had lived in palatial houses in the Valley, we controlled the bureaucracy, the colleges and the hospitals... This changed after 1989, when the “privileged” minority became the “refugees”. With the coming to power of a hard-right government, Kashmir’s significance has been reduced to a mere dot on the Indian map.
What has left many like me saddened and shocked is the manner in which this aim has been achieved; that too with wide support from the populace of a country that never tires of saying that it believes in Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam or the world is one family, and which professes to be the land of the Buddha, who believed that only by practicing compassion, even towards your enemies, can one achieve Nirvana.
To lock up an entire population of a state in their homes, to arrest their political leaders, send troops by the thousands to quell any signs of protest, and then decide their fate without even taking them into confidence, after snapping all their communication links, is an act of unimaginable cowardice, worthy of the strongest condemnation.
When I think of the anxiety of the lakhs who must be living in fear, wondering in their homes what fate awaits them, the memory of the old man who gave me succour in my traumatic childhood moments has surfaced again. I can’t look into his eyes.
Pradeep Magazine is a senior journalist. He now lives in Delhi.