The question, the grief, the excuses, and the return of 1990
“Are you leaving? How long will you stay?”
These are words that I have grown to detest, for they trigger the worst memories for me. These are words that we heard on a loop in the weeks that preceded our exodus from the Valley, when terror was a message painted on our doors and bullet-ridden bodies came home. Each death posed the questions: How long will you stay? Are you leaving? This is what we were asked at the end of each day that we spent in fear.
And yet, these are the words I heard myself repeat over and over again as I dialled number after number, calling family, friends, and acquaintances in Kashmir within hours of the ghastly cold-blooded terror strikes.
In 1990, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley began, marking the beginning of a new chapter in Kashmir’s tragic story. Now, targeted killings of minorities are happening all over again in Kashmir. It is a replay of events that are at the heart of our story of the exodus, and the sadly contested narrative of what happened in Kashmir three decades ago.
Within a span of days — rather hours — at least five families are grieving the loss of a loved one. Grief, anger, and shock have united families that may have had nothing in common.
The family of Makhan Lal Bindroo, the famed Valley pharmacist, who chose to stay on even during the worst of times, will now be asked: How long you will stay? Are you leaving?
These questions will also be asked to the family of Satinder Kaur, a school principal who was killed because of her faith.
The playbook of terror hasn’t changed either. The terrorists may have acquired newer, more sophisticated, weapons, but their pattern of striking fear, for making excuses for horrific murders, remains the same.
Bindroo was accused of links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), just as in 1990, when political activist and lawyer, Tikalal Taploo, was similarly accused before being gunned down in broad daylight.
Kaur, who was killed along with her colleague Deepak Chand — ostensibly for daring to unfurl the national flag — died just like so many others, including some prominent Kashmiri Muslims, for being Indian. Mohammed Shafi Lone, a taxi driver who was killed by The Resistance Front — the group that killed the other four — was accused of being a police informer. In the 1990s, bullets were pumped into innocent civilians on the charge of being a mukhbir (informer).
What has also not changed is the response to these targeted killings. Sure, there have been statements of condemnation from political leaders; people bringing up the fabled Kashmiriyat to denounce the murders; but there still exists a vestibule where conspiracy theories are churned out. If it was a Jagmohan then (the governor at the time), it is a sinister demographic change now.
When the mass exodus of 1990 forced hundreds of Kashmiri Pandit and Sikh families to flee their homes and take shelter in hurriedly put together camps that brought alive the horrors of Partition, conspiracy theorists spun a deceitful account of a single man orchestrating the migration to suit their political ends. It did not matter that the story of each of these families was uncannily similar; the leitmotif of these stories being despondency, uncertainty, and worst of all, the apathy of being accused of being pawns in a political game.
It is no surprise then that a predatory narrative is being spewed on social media, making its way into newspaper columns and family WhatsApp groups. The murders will wash up on the doors of a government drafting an imaginary demographic change. Mysterious gunmen will be blamed. The government’s response to the exodus also betrays a continued absence of concrete policy to protect the minorities and prevent the recurrence of people having to flee their homes.
Virender Paswan, a street hawker from Bihar’s Bhagalpur was not colluding to change demography or subjugate a community. He was not the government that is accused of committing excesses on locals. He was the father who travelled 1,000 kilometres to keep the kitchen fires burning.
Terrorism is the elephant in the room, and because we have not called it what it is, 30 years later, we are back to whispering into the phone: Are you leaving? How long will you stay?
The views expressed are personal