Sanjay Tickoo is the president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, which he established in 1995 to fight, non-violently, for the rights of his community members residing in the Kashmir Valley. When the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits began in 1990 because of the rise of militancy in the Valley, Tickoo, then around 23 years old, chose to stay behind.
Tickoo is widely respected among Kashmiris, Hindus and Muslims alike, for his formidable ability to conduct conversations with those he ideologically opposes. He is fearless in his criticism of the government for some of its flawed policies and the targeted killings undertaken by state and non-state actors in Kashmir. In this interview with Ajaz Ashraf, Tickoo analyses the impact last week’s killing of religious minorities in Kashmir has had on religious minorities residing there.
Do you agree with those who say the situation for Kashmiri Pandits is worse than in 1990, the year they began to exit Kashmir because of the rise of militancy?
I was around 23 years old then, old enough to remember what happened in that year and thereafter. Yes, the situation today is worse in comparison to the 1990s. I say this because of the manner in which the members of minority communities were killed last week. As in 1990, so in 2021, the majority community is on the backfoot.
What I mean is that when a Kashmiri Pandit is killed, the majority community consoles his or her family. They have to console and instil confidence in the [Valley’s] minority population. The last massacre of Kashmiri Pandits took place at Nandimarg village, in Pulwama district, in 2003. Twenty-four non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits (a term used to describe those who did not join the exodus) were killed. Last week, for the first time after 18 years, Kashmiri Pandits were shot dead, beginning with ML Bindroo [a reputed pharmacist].
Why do you say the current round of targeting of Kashmiri Pandits is worse than even 1990?
I say it because my dear friends in the majority community have remained silent.
What would you have wanted them to do?
I live in the Valley. Kashmiri Muslims are my immediate neighbours. Sure, many among them condemned the killings of last week. But they need to do a bit more—for instance, come out on the streets. That would have made the minorities feel safe and secure. After all, we had stood by Kashmiri Muslims in 1990 and thereafter.
In what way did Kashmir Pandits stand by the majority community?
By choosing to stay behind in the Valley, by not joining the exodus, the 808 Hindu families stood by the majority community. Our decision to stay behind was our way of supporting the majority community. If we, too, had left the Valley, there would have been no Kashmiri Pandit left to kill. In fact, if they want Kashmir to become the paradise on Earth once again, they have to come out against the killing of all civilians, religious minorities and Muslims alike, by both state and non-state actors.
Have you opted for police protection?
For the first time in my 52 years, the police came to my residence on the night of 5-6 October and said that since I was still on the radar of terrorists, I must come under their protection. My family is still at our residence. There is no security for them.
Do you think we will see another round of exodus of Kashmiri Pandits?
If there is another round of killing, not only Kashmiri Pandits, but all minorities, I fear, will leave the Valley. That is why I requested today [10 October] in my social media post that all masjid committees should use the public address system to assure minorities of their support and protection.
In case there is another round of killings, would a person like you also move out?
Yes, even I will.
How many Kashmiri Pandits are there in the Valley?
There are, as I told you, 808 Hindus families. These include, apart from Kashmiri Pandits, social groups like Rajputs. In addition, there are another 5,000 individuals who came because of the jobs given to them in and after 2010, during the prime ministership of Manmohan Singh.
Some have already left the Valley for Jammu.
They have shifted temporarily.
Some say more Muslims than minorities have been killed. As a minority outside Jammu and Kashmir, I can understand the psyche of non-Muslims there. Yet, I would want you to describe the fear that religious minorities reel under in the Valley.
Out of 28 civilians who have been killed this year, 21 were Muslim. However, the onus lies on the majority community to come to the protection of religious minorities, to make them feel safe. It is natural for minorities to feel vulnerable in the circumstance prevailing in Kashmir.
This is true for India as well. Whenever a Muslim is lynched in India, all Hindus should condemn it. Whenever a Hindu is killed in the Valley, all Kashmiri Muslims should condemn it. We need to react as humans. I am opposed to the targeted killings of the innocent by both state and non-state actors. This approach of mine is reflected in the statements of my organisation, issued at every incident of targeted killing, regardless of the religious identity of victims.
Did you know ML Bindroo, the pharmacist who was shot dead?
Is it correct that he was a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the reason cited for his assassination?
Even in 1990-91, whenever a Kashmiri Pandit was killed, he was labelled either an Army informant or Jan Sanghi. [Members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the earlier incarnate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, were known as Jan Sanghis.] This has become a convenient reason to cite for justifying the killing of Kashmiri Pandits. In fact, even when non-state actors kill a Kashmiri Muslim, he is promptly declared to be an informant of the government and its security agencies.
The statement of Bindroo’s daughter was celebrated in national newspapers as an example of courage.
I do not endorse her statement. Every Kashmiri Muslim does not pelt stones.
Has the situation in Kashmir worsened or improved after Article 370 was read down on 5 August 2019?
It is not a matter of just Kashmir but the entire Jammu and Kashmir, which from being a State has become a Union Territory. It has created a political vacuum. The government must come up with a plan to fill this vacuum.
But has the situation improved or worsened?
It has neither improved nor worsened.
Did your life change after Art 370 was read down?
There was a feeling of sadness in the air. It touched all. We were put in what you can call an open prison [a reference to the lockdown preceding and following after 5 August], and all communications links were snapped. I am living on Ground Zero, along with 808 Hindu, 17,000 Sikh and 602 Christian families. There are 75,000 minorities living in the Valley. As minorities, we have always been labelled as Indian.
My question to Indians outside Jammu and Kashmir is: Why was I and others, Indians all, put into an open prison?
Why have Kashmiri Pandits been targeted all of a sudden?
There always existed this belief, even before 1990, that whatever Delhi does in the Valley, it is at the behest of Kashmiri Pandits. What we have faced in October is an offshoot of this belief.
What about the theory that the sudden targeting of Kashmiri Pandits is a reaction to the government establishing a portal where they can lodge complaints if their properties were either sold in distress or encroached or illegally occupied? It is said this portal generated tremendous anxiety among Kashmiri Muslims.
Yes, it is true. There was a demand from my community that their properties had been encroached over the years, and that despite their complaints to local authorities, they were, under pressure, not providing relief to them.
But the way the Union Territory government tried to implement the policy, it did break the relationship between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims.
Can you explain how?
It can’t be said that all Kashmiri Pandits who sold their properties did so in distress. Such properties under the Jammu and Kashmir Migrant Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Distress Sales) Act, 1997 can be restituted to the seller/owner. However, distress sales were just 10% to 15% of all properties Kashmiri Pandits sold.
Where did the Union Territory government go wrong?
You see, even I can file a complaint on that portal by citing a fictitious khasra number. The onus lies on the government to check whether my application is genuine.
Were they taking action without checking the genuineness of the application?
Yes. In fact, we too expressed our concerns to the authorities on this issue. It is only now that they have stopped doing so.
With regard to the killing of teachers, some say it was a reaction to the pressure brought on by the state on school teachers to hoist the national flag on 15 August and ensure the participation of children. Those teachers, in turn, pressured parents to send their children for the hoisting of the national flag.
Yes, that is correct. But all school teachers are not from minority communities. Most of them, in fact, belong to the majority community. You perhaps know that Burhan Wani’s father [Burhan was known as the poster boy of militants and was killed in 2016] too hoisted the flag at the school where he teaches. A photo and video of that moment went viral. If the crime of teachers who were killed was that they had hoisted the flag, then Burhan Wani’s father should have also been killed.
In other words, you are saying why target teachers belonging to minority communities.
Do you think the method of pressuring teachers to send children to participate in the unfurling of the national flag was flawed?
Yes, definitely, 100%.
How deep and real is the fear of demographic change in the Valley?
When the government of India announced in 2009 that it would bring back Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley, Hurriyat leaders feared that it was a ruse to settle Hindus from elsewhere in India here. They opposed the transit camps where Kashmiri Pandits who had got jobs under a scheme in 2010 were to be put up. The Hurriyat wanted them to live among the civilian population.
In 2013, I met some Hurriyat leaders. I told them that you all keep saying Kashmiri Pandits should return and that the idea of Kashmiriyat [or the tradition of religious syncretism] cannot be complete without them. In case they do indeed want to return to the Valley, where would they stay? Both you and I know most of them have sold their properties. Can you all get those who purchased their properties to vacate them? Can you give compensation to those Muslims who had purchased their properties? They kept mum. I told them they should devise a plan to rehabilitate the Kashmiri Pandits, who are a minuscule minority in the Valley. They said they had never given attention to this aspect. I pointed this out to civil society groups as well.
But people are very suspicious of the domicile certificate.
Why would anyone from India want to come and settle in a conflict zone?
Why did you go on a fast unto death last year?
I went on a fast because the Union Territory government had not implemented a scheme to provide jobs to the unemployed among the Kashmiri Pandits. We had submitted a contingency plan to the government that if it did not want Kashmiri Pandits to leave the Valley, jobs must be provided to them. Because of the surveys I have done, I know the economic position of each and every one of the 808 Hindu families.
After 5 August 2019 and the Covid-19 crisis, Jammu and Kashmir’s economy has stagnated. Many Kashmiri Pandits families called me for help. In one household in south Kashmir, where I had gone to survey their condition, I heard the sound of sobbing in a room next to where I was sitting. I asked them the reason why the person was sobbing. They said they had not had a meal for two days. I was so pained by their plight that I decided there and then to fast unto death. [Tickoo broke the fast on the tenth day, after assurances from the government that the KPSS’s demands would be met.]
But the Union government conveys the impression that it is doing a lot for Kashmiri Pandits.
They might be doing it for Kashmiri Pandits outside Kashmir, but certainly not for those living here. The government’s focus is all wrong.
Do you think the importance of the Kashmir card in national politics, particularly in the Hindi heartland, complicates the situation in J&K?
Whether it was the Congress and the Janata Party earlier, or the BJP now, they have all deployed [the] Kashmir [card] for their politics. Certainly, after the BJP came to power in 2014, it has played the card quite often. In both 2014 and 2019, the BJP turned Kashmir into an emotional issue to gather votes. But I think over the last three-four months, if you go through the statement made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, you will find their rhetoric has changed. For instance, Bhagwat said in a recent seminar that there cannot be a Hindu rashtra without Muslims. But…
That is like the Hurriyat saying that Kashmiriyat cannot be complete without Kashmiri Hindus—and yet no one, as you seem to suggest, works for it.
(Laughs heartily) You get my point, then.
You are credited to have surveyed Hindu temples and caves considered holy. What were your findings?
Our survey shows that there are 1,842 temples, holy caves and springs.
Do people worship at these temples?
Not in all. As of today, about 154 temples, caves and holy springs are functional.
Are all the temples intact?
No. After the Babri Masjid was demolished on 6 December 1992, the majority community retaliated. A lot of these places were desecrated and burnt from inside. Again, after a security operation at our Charar-e-Sharif shrine in 1995, when it was heavily damaged, temples became the most visible target for the majority community, which, obviously, did not want to take on the soldiers with guns.
That said, I must point out that 40 out of the 154 temples have been restored and made functional with the assistance of Kashmiri Muslims and masjid committees.
Some aspects of Kashmiriyat still exist?
Oh yes, we have the same DNA. We belonged to the rishi cult. That became the Sufi cult. I am not bothered about what happened five centuries ago, not even about 1947. I am bothered about what happened in 1990 and after that. I blame the leaders of both communities for the brutality we have witnessed.
Do you and other Kashmiri Pandits feel discriminated against in your everyday living?
No, no, not by the people, but, yes, we do feel the administration discriminates against us.
(Ajaz Ashraf is an independent journalist. The views are personal.)