Back then I wasn’t born. I was in a slumber sleep in the womb of my mother covered with multi-protective placental and other biological sheaths. Yes, I was born in the tumultuous 90s in Kashmir. My mother recapitulates the incidents of those days till date. The days when she would tighten me with an embrace in her lap, not to escape the cold weather, but to mute the horrific sounds of gunshots. The days when instead of sleeping in a hanging cradle, I would sleep in a fleeing Kashmiri’s arms, who ran away to escape the brutality of Indian armed forces. There were virtually no toys to play with, no jingles to listen and no picnics to visit. The only familiar things children came to learn were RR (Rashtriya Rifles), AK-47, military, mujahids, crackdowns etc.
Being the multi-religious society that Kashmir was, Pandits formed a significant portion and a vital component of what we call as Kashmiriyat. I wasn’t fortunate to live in such an environment. But the reminiscences of Pandits through the words of elders suggests it shall have been a classical example of communal harmony and interreligious affinity.
The Pandits left the valley in 1990 out of fear and certain security threats, their evacuation facilitated by the then cunning Governor of Kashmir, Jagmohan. The latter effectively gave peace and reconciliation absolutely no chance, instead ran a vicious propaganda, that of the proper establishment plans of refugee settlements in Jammu. The fact that some armed resistants did kill Pandits can’t be negated, which eventually served as a caution to rest of the community. But to say that Muslims aided Pandit exodus is a gross fallacy.
Courtesy the repressive Dogra rule, Muslims were always the downtrodden class in the society with meagre education and lacklustre facilities. The subsequent generations of Kashmiris who excelled in academic and professional fields could never have made it large but for the noble guardianship of Pandits. Pandits occupied the top ranks in every department and, unexpectedly, never shun off the responsibility to tutor young Muslims. My own parents, and I must say everyone’s, still speak in high terms of the Pandits. There was one teacher, Mr. Haandoo, who would take extra classes after routine school hours that too for free. There was the benevolent village merchant called Chuuni Lal. And also the aged Premnath and Gopinath, who died as recently as 2010 in our own village, busting the myth that there was any forced expulsion.
The Pandits had left amid tears. They took whatever they had and left the remains in charge of Muslim brethren. Their houses would later be burnt by armed rebels to render them unusable for anyone. In 2000, a man, with face masked, appeared on our door and asked for my uncle. Armed resistance hadn’t died down. Fear of crackdowns and encounters still loomed. He turned out to be an old Pandit family friend. In the darkness of proceeding night, we accompanied him to his abandoned house where he sat on the footsteps weeping as a child does. The emotions were sinking in. In that moment, I came to understand what Kashmiriyat meant. Now in a more calmer political environment with armed resistance fading away, the old Pandits pay us a visit every year. In fact, some families still live in a village sans any fear. They have never been harmed by anyone whatsoever.
Pandits have suffered extremely, that’s not to be denied. They not only lost their houses but homes as well. But none can say that their Muslim brethren have benefited as such. Where blood has been spilt and bodies buried in unmarked graves, that land can never compare the two sections of a society. Whereas Pandits migrated and got detached from the tradition, culture, brotherhood, the condition of Muslims has only got more deplorable. The fact is that – both sides suffered, one more than the other.
The return of Pandits is one helluva tool used for politicisation. This card has always been by played by every other political party in Kashmir. There has never been any issues with the return of Pandits. In fact, the term “return” itself is misleading. Had it been the case of “returning”, how come Pandits would be living sound and safe in Shopian, Baramulla, Kulgam, and Budgam districts. No ordinary Kashmiri would resist return to their homeland. But yes, we have to stringently oppose the colonial policy of creating “composite townships”. That’s similar to what Israel has done in Palestine and this, after India’s cordial relations with the former, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pandits are Kashmiris and should live among Kashmiris. Settling them in separate colonies will marginalise them further. For India, the longer this conflict continues, the beneficial it is for them to portray Kashmir as a clash of communities.