The many tragedies of the Kashmiri Pandits | Opinion
When the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits took place, I was based in Delhi, working at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG). The IEG’s director was the eminent sociologist Triloki Nath Madan, who had been born and raised in the Valley, and gone on to write a classic ethnography of Pandit life. Professor Madan’s brother, himself a much-admired principal of the Gandhi Memorial College in Srinagar, was made to flee their homeland. Their ancestral house was vandalised, with the family’s priceless collection of manuscripts in five languages (including Arabic) being burnt.
There are some fine memoirs by Pandits who had to leave Kashmir. But perhaps the most authoritative account of how and why they left is contained in an essay by Sonia Jabbar, The Spirit of Place, published in Civil Lines 5. Across three pages of closely printed text, Jabbar lists 36 Pandit men and women murdered by jihadists, their names, their dates of birth and death, their native village, their family members. The matter-of-fact listing is followed by this paragraph in the writer’s own voice:
“These are just a few of the names of the Pandits who were killed by the militants between 1989-1991. I’d love to add some nine hundred more for you to get the complete picture. These women and men were not killed in the crossfire, accidentally, but were systematically and brutally targeted. Many of the women were gang-raped before they were killed. One woman was bisected by a mill saw. The bodies of the men bore marks of torture. Death by strangulation, hanging, amputations, the gouging of eyes, were not uncommon. Often their bodies were dumped with notes forbidding anyone—on pain of death—to touch them. 900 brutal killings out of a population of around 350,000 Pandits over a period of 24 months is a startling figure. Anyone who says Jagmohan engineered the Pandit exodus is a liar.”
The first and greatest tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits was that they were forced to flee their homeland. It was their own people who turned on them, or looked the other way as they were turned upon, when the forces of jihad made the Pandits their manic victims. The cultural, poetic, and mystical ties that once bound the Pandits to Kashmiris of other faiths were brutally sundered by Islamic fundamentalists. Now, only their memories, mostly bitter memories, remain.
The second tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits was that their expulsion coincided with the persecution of Muslims in other parts of India. For these were also the years of the rise of the movement to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The Rath Yatras and Ram Shila Pujans organised by LK Advani and his cohort catalysed a series of riots across northern and western India, in which innocent Muslims suffered enormously. Since these riots occurred over a far wider swathe of the country, the tragedy in Kashmir was obscured by the (numerically) greater tragedy taking place simultaneously in the rest of India.
The third tragedy of the Kashmiri Pandits was that the true facts of their persecution were denied or obscured. Despite the stream of Pandit memoirs, and solidly factual accounts like Jabbar’s, the story that either Pakistan, or Governor Jagmohan, or both, were responsible for the Pandits leaving their homeland gained currency. These untruths promoted a sense of denialism among the Muslim political leadership of Kashmir. The Hurriyat, the People’s Democratic Party and the National Conference all came to pretend that Kashmiri Muslims had nothing at all to do with the expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus.
Through the 1990s, as the Pandits sought, heroically, to rebuild their lives outside Kashmir, they found themselves facing a fourth tragedy—that they were becoming the cat’s paw of a rising Hindutva. The sufferings they faced were used — rather, misused — to erase memories of the violence inflicted on Indian Muslims in Bhagalpur in 1989, in Mumbai in 1992, in Ahmedabad in 2002, and a hundred other places besides. The Pandit question was used by ideologues to silence these other, and entirely relevant, questions. Hindutva’s culpability in crimes against Muslims in other parts of India was sought to be washed away through Islamism’s culpability in crimes against Hindus in Kashmir.
And now we have a fifth tragedy unfolding—that the abrogation of Article 370, and the savage State repression which has followed, is being welcomed across India as just retribution for what was done to the Pandits. The young Kashmiris now locked up in jail, shut away in their homes, denied access to their families, and facing shortages of food, medicines and other essential items had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to the Pandits in the early 1990s. Yet, in the unforgiving and increasingly communalised Indian mind, they must now bear the costs.
In the days after August 5, I have naturally thought a lot about Kashmir, and about Kashmiris I have known. The one who has been most in my mind is my friend and former boss, TN Madan. He is now in his late eighties, physically frail, but, as ever, intellectually alert and morally upright. I wrote him a mail saying I was thinking of him. This was his reply: “These are calamitous times. Although I have always had misgivings about Article 370, and although my mother, brother and his wife had to leave our home in 1990, the home which my father had built, I feel deeply distressed that the people of the Valley should be humiliated and tyrannised, held prisoners like they are, cut off from everybody. I grieve over the severe threat that the idea of a humane culturally plural India faces today. But I remain a pluralist myself, and hopeful.”
Such are the wise and compassionate words of a great Pandit scholar, a scholar who knows a great deal about Pandit life and Pandit suffering himself. If there are enough Indians who share his understanding, there may be hope for Kashmir (and India) yet.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World
The views expressed are personal