First Person | No Room for Nostalgia

The reality of Kashmir is so harsh today that romanticism only makes it worse

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

It was one of those coincidences that make you pause and wonder if the universe is trying to tell you something. The responsibility then to correctly interpret the message becomes not only onerous but critical too.

The coincidence here was an invitation to speak on the politics of displacement (with reference to Kashmir) at a book release function on January 16 and the appearance of an article by General N.C. Vij on the army’s role in Kashmir on January 17 in which he concludes that peace can only be said to have returned to Kashmir once ‘Kashmiri Pandits will feel confident enough to return… To my mind, the return of Kashmiri Pandits should be our real objective.’

But first the book, sombrely titled Tears of Jhelum, written by a former academician and now a full time writer Anita Krishan. Tears of Jhelum narrates the story of a Muslim landlord and his family who are forced to escape the Valley when militancy threatened not only their lives but their worldview as well. Anita invited me to speak on the politics of displacement. Though she didn’t say this, I presumed that by displacement she was referring to Kashmiri Pandits.

I was a tad uneasy speaking on a subject that always draws volatile reactions, primarily because I have had some reservations according enormity to the tragedy of Pandit-displacement that some Pandits demand. Also, I have trouble appreciating the claimed yearning of some of them to go back to the place they left behind.

Before I am judged harshly or prejudicially, let me hasten to add that I am convinced a large number of Pandits suffered terribly and escaped the Valley in haste, leaving behind not only their worldly possessions but a part of their lives too, but over the years so much politics has been played on this issue that my sentiments are a bit mixed on this subject.

Anyway, Anita was persuasive and she told me that I could speak on whatever I wish to. She had an even more persuasive champion in J.R. Nanda, CEO, AviOil, whom I simply could not say no to.

Ghazala Wahab

My unease was not unfounded. Actor-director Anupam Kher was invited to release the book. Sure enough, as a Kashmiri Pandit, he spoke about a Pandit’s pain, even though his family left the Valley well before the trouble started. But he narrated the story of an aunt who had to leave after insurgency began. The trauma of leaving so affected her, that she lost her mental balance, he said.

The first speaker was author-journalist Rahul Pandita who has written a book on the politics of Pandit’s displacement from the Valley and the agony of their exiled lives. He narrated a very emotional account of his family’s flight from Srinagar after a severed head of one of their neighbour was placed in their courtyard as a message to them. The family fled. Pandita spoke about what he has also written in his book, that neighbours and former friends were complicit in what he calls the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Kashmiri Pandits. That it was not the outsiders but the local Kashmiri Muslims who went on a rampage against former colleagues, sometime friends and neighbours. It was indeed a heart-rending account. He concluded his talk by saying that there is a need for some kind of truth and reconciliation commission a la South Africa in Kashmir too.

Incidentally, the current chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), before he assumed power, also urged for a truth and reconciliation commission, but of course he was referring to a commission to address the Indian state versus the Kashmiri civilians.

When my turn came, I opted to speak not on the politics but the tragedy of displacement. My reasoning was simple: it was the politics which was keeping the wounds festering, wounds which would have healed by now.

The biggest tragedy about displacement is that it takes away the right to return, for the simple reason that displacement does not leave a void behind. The term implies that something or some people replace the displaced. As a result, what you leave behind, no longer exists, so where do you return to, even if conditions of peace are created. Hence, what Gen. Vij says in his piece, smacks of mischief, hypocrisy and veiled political motivation. However, coming back to my talk, the other aspect of displacement, and this is particularly true of the Kashmiri Pandits, is that displaced people build new lives in new places. They move on. Even if there was an option of going back, the new generation would never want to go back, except maybe for a holiday, because no amount of natural beauty and ancestral memories, can replace the opportunities and comforts of mainland India.

And now for the bigger tragedy, which has befallen those who were not displaced: the average Kashmiri, most of whom happen to be Muslims, though not all. At least, the displaced live. But those who have either replaced them, or were not displaced, continue to live every day in mortal fear. Fear of death, dishonour and debasement. No empirical evidence is required to establish this. Only yesterday’s newspapers carried reports on Indian Army deciding to close the investigation into Pathribal killings. A short sequence of events would put things in perspective. The Indian Army did not initiate investigation into the Pathribal killings on its own. It did so when the Supreme Court, based on the CBI report gave the army two options: either allow the civil law to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of the encounter, or prosecute them under army law. Taking the second option, the army instituted its own investigation, which it very nobly closed day before yesterday, pleading lack of sufficient evidence.

Incidentally, earlier this year, in another incident of fake killings, which came to be known as Macchil encounter, army did find six of its personnel guilty and ordered a court martial, three years after the incident. Though only three innocent Kashmiris were killed in April 2010 in Macchil at the hands of the army, in the ensuing protests which gripped the Valley for the next five months, over 120 innocent people were killed in police and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) firings. So technically, the victims of Macchil encounter were not three, but probably 123!

Today, all Kashmiris, 25 and below, have not seen any other life except the one blighted by fear, death and uncertainty. And that’s roughly 50 per cent of the state’s population! For them, getting through each day and staying alive is a full time job. They have very little to look forward to in life, by way of education, entertainment and career prospects.

The displaced Pandits, nostalgically recall walks down the boulevard in Srinagar or the evenings at a coffee shop or at the movies. The young Kashmiris today hang around in martyr’s graveyards, in Jamia Masjid or one of the prayer halls depending upon which Islamic sect they have offered their allegiance too. There are no movie halls, no coffee shops (sure now there is upmarket Cafe Arabica in Hotel Broadway, but it’s far too steep for the locals), and no malls to while away the idle hours. As a result, an increasingly large number of them are turning to religion, both for succour as well as a means to do something with the long hours at hand due to frequent curfews and crackdowns. A mind enslaved by religion gradually surrenders its capacity for independent thinking and ends up being a puppet.

This is the new reality of Kashmir, which people with ostrich-like tendencies are prone to ignore. Religious radicalism and exclusivism is slowly creeping in the Kashmiri society, creating fissures not only between Muslims and non-Muslims but within Muslims too. Starting with Sunnis and Shias, differences are now growing within Sunnis, with adherents of communities like Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahle Hadees etc holding on to their rigidity. Not only have they separated their mosques, they have separated their timings of prayer as well. That these differences are not benign was seen last year, when desecrated copies of Quran were found outside one dargah owing allegiance to a particular Sunni sect. Local lore held another Sunni sect responsible for the act. The government, of course, plays these incidents down as private rivalries. Let’s hope that these are results of petty rivalries and not the beginning of Pakistan-styled sectarianism.

With this reality, is it sensible to indulge in nostalgia-induced politicking? Or to fly opportunistic kites as Gen. Vij seems to be doing? Kashmir has never been military’s problem or a military problem. It has always been a political problem and now the social problems have compounded the situation. No matter how honourably or generously the army functions in J&K, its very presence militates against normalcy or dignity of life for the people.

Pakistan will remain a factor till a resolution acceptable to both countries is found. Yet, as a people we can reduce the significance of Pakistan being a factor considerably by increasing the confidence of the Kashmir youth in Indian nationhood; by making them a part of the Indian growth story; by firing their imagination; by showing them how they can start living, instead of merely surviving. Only the government and people of India can do this, not the army. After all, it is not its job. By obstinately trying to do someone else’s job, it is undermining its own core competency and allowing the real stake-holders to abdicate their responsibility.


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