The Myth of the Pandits’ Return
Kashmir remained in perfect harmony during the Partition
During the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, the return of Pandit Kashmiris to the Valley has been one of the prime justifications for the move.
This issue is in fact continuously raised by right wing forces to counter criticisms of undemocratic practices in the Kashmir valley, as well as rising atrocities on all minorities in the rest of the country.
A substantial section of the Pandit Kashmiri community —from Delhi to Dallas and Jammu to Johannesburg— hailed the move. Their jubilant celebrations were covered on the front pages of Indian newspapers and generously accommodated on gung-ho television news.
To them, the lockdown of the Valley was a very minor issue, not to be highlighted in the national interest, and justified by the prospect of the return of Pandit Kashmiris after three long decades.
The enthusiasm was palpable enough for a singer known for her affiliation to the right to call for Chhath Puja celebrations at the Dal lake, perhaps in the assumption that Hindu Culture is synonymous with that of the Gangetic Plains.
Was she oblivious of the fact that Kashmir has its own culture, including a set of festivals, which does not include most of what is celebrated in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?
After more than 90 days of lockdown, it is time to examine all these claims.
I had the opportunity to interview some Pandit Kashmiris living in various parts of the Valley. Contrary to perceptions and propaganda alike, some Hindus never deserted their homeland, and 808 Hindu families, mostly Pandits, still live in the Valley along with about 600 Sikh families.
Without going into numbers (which vary from 1.5 to over 7 lakhs) and the divided opinion about the role of Governor Jagmohan, the exodus of Pandit Kashmiris between 1991 and 1998 can be termed one of the greatest human tragedies in India since Partition.
It needs to be pointed out that while the whole of undivided Northern India saw communal violence and forced exoduses in 1947-48, the Valley remained in perfect harmony.
And, contrary to much Pandit opinion, what happened in Kashmir in the 1990s did not affect the mainland very much. Not much attention was paid to the exodus outside Jammu, for the obvious reason that the rest of the country was busy with Rath Yatras, the Babri Masjid demolition and its bloody aftermath.
The exodus started to gain prominence only after the emergence of the BJP as an electoral force and consequently into government.
Since then it has been most unfortunately used as a convenient tool to defend Hindu religious extremism, with a section of the Pandits obligingly joining in the rabid communal chorus.
To start with, while Article 35A prevented the rest of Indians from buying property in J&K, this was never the case with Pandit Kashmiris who emigrated at any point. They had state subject certificates which gave them every single right that resident Kashmiris had.
The deterrent, if any, was peace and security. But another factor is the lack of job and career opportunites.
Former minister in the state government and social activist Khemlata Wakhloo, who was abducted by militants in the early 90s, welcomed the abrogation, but was not quite sure about the implications for long-term peace in the Valley. Asked about Pandit Kashmiris’ possible return, she pointed to the distinct lack of employment opportunities compared to elsewhere.
Most migrant Pandits are well settled in various corners of India and beyond. Wakhloo’s own example is instructive: while she resides in the Valley, none of her children settled in Kashmir. Such is also the case with Vimala Dhar, who has a most magnificent house in Rajbagh, one of the more affluent parts of Srinagar. Her husband S.N.Dhar was also abducted by militants during that turbulence.
In fact, most well-to-do Kashmiri families are sending their wards outside Kashmir for higher studies and encourage them to settle down in more peaceful places with better job opportunities.
One of the claims made since August 5 has been about the opportunity to rapidly industrialise the Valley to generate employment. But land was always available to anybody to lease for commercial purposes.
In his in/famous speech after which he was duly sacked by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, then Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu termed Kashmir a “sold out destination” and characterised the Kashmir Problem as a social one, indicating that a lack of peace was the sole reason for the absence of investment.
And Amit Wanchoo of the famous H.N.Wanchoo lineage had a more pertinent query. ‘What investment should you expect in the Valley? You cannot establish heavy industry here. The best you can do is develop tourism, or make it an educational hub, or encourage herbal farming. That needs good governance, and peace.”
That peace is nowhere in sight. Sanjay Tikoo, who leads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation of Pandits residing in the Valley, laments that “non-resident Pandits’ celebrations have made our lives difficult here. The move on Article 370 will prolong the conflict for another 100 years, bring down tolerance levels, and sharpen the communal divide.”
This is quite evident from the continuing civil disobedience. Anyone moving about the Valley can feel the anger and total disillusion among the masses. Tikoo adds, “Why would any Pandit residing in peaceful localities of a metro and earning well return to the Valley? The question is, does anyone really want to return? If yes, then what was stopping them till now, and what has changed for them?”
This sentiment is echoed by Roop Krishna Kaul, who runs a medical shop on Hari Singh Street, and Ratan Lal Talashi from Walarhama in south Kashmir.
Manohar Lalgami, who lives in a transit camp in Seikhpura near Badgam, points out the decay as well as religiously charged radicalisation of the education system in Kashmir, which he holds responsible for the flight of students from the Valley. “How can you expect quality education when schools and colleges are closed for months every year?”
Thus, the elation of Pandit Kashmiris outside Kashmir seems to be coming from a sense of triumph over, and revenge upon those they hold responsible for their exodus, and less about the possibility of return.
The animosity between newer generations of Pandit Kashmiris and Muslim Kashmiris is cruder and more vocal, since unlike their parents or grandparents, they have no first-hand experience of living together, and have grown up on traumatic stories of the exodus on one hand and repression on the other.
The Jama’at has a deep impact on the Muslim Kashmiri psyche, and the resurgent Hindu right has likewise captured the imagination of the larger part of the migrant Pandit population, who have tried hard to merge with the larger Hindu identity by diluting their own ethnic one into it.
As Roop Krishna Kaul points out, “Forget the return of the Pandits, the real danger is the dilution and evaporation of Pandit Kashmiri identity and culture.”
Ashok Kumar Pandey is the author of Kashmirnama and is currently working on his next project, Kashmir aur Kashmiri Pandit.