‘Kashmir Will Never Be The Same Without Pandits’

Khushboo Mattoo, displaced from Kashmir in 1990, talks about the hope that abrogation of Article 370 gives to those Kashmiri Pandits who wish to return to their homeland

I can still recall the night of January 19, 1990 when my family, and thousands of other Kashmiri Pandits, packed whatever little we could carry and left for a safe roof. Our lives were at stake. Pandits were being threatened, a lot of them kidnapped and warned to leave the Valley or face consequences. Distraught families left in buses, trucks and Tata Sumos, to live in shanty camps of Jammu and beyond.

Since then, it has been a journey of struggle and survival. A community which was 100 percent literate, never imagined that they would be left in the lurch at one unholy stroke of midnight. The exodus also initiated the process of Islamization of Kashmir. Probably, that was the plan. Thus, as a Kashmiri Pandit, all I want is that my community should be able to return to their homeland and rebuild our lives without a shred of fear. Kashmir is incomplete without Kashmiri Pandits.

The abrogation of Article 370 and 35A brought hope for people throughout the country and particularly to Pandits. The regressive Article debarred women who were domiciles of J&K but got married outside the state from getting property rights. The West Pakistani refugees or the Valmikis who were staying in the state for decades could not be called as domiciles of J&K. But now that problem is resolved too.

No one can compensate Pandits fully for their loss. What the government can do is to make the process of rehabilitation comfortable for Pandits, both in terms of jobs and property. Maybe if we get on a rapid pace of development, the youth in our families will be able to find jobs in Kashmir. The common man of Jammu-Kashmir wants to see food on his plate and a corruption-free administration. It appears to me that the Centre has set the ball rolling.

Mattoo visited the Valley with her husband in Autumn 2020

Having said that, I know the return of Pandits to Kashmir is not easy. Returning to a homogenous Valley where 28- or 30-year-olds have never seen a Hindu in person and where the term secular is alien to public life – will be a challenge. Pandits are understandably afraid to return. Wahan darr kar rahne me kya fayda (What is the point in living under perpetual fear)? We hear news of sarpanchs, political leaders being killed every day. Pandit families will be easy targets. Who would want to return in this environment? There must be social acceptability as well. The process of reverse migration has to be gradual and the Valley citizens have to be welcoming.

In the last 30 years, Kashmir has become a milch cow. Every government and political party has milked it to their benefit. They are clueless about our struggle and how we channelised our anger, with hard work and our learning, to better our lives instead of picking up the gun. This doesn’t make us weak; it makes us stronger. The guns will fall silent, not the pen.

ALSO READ: ‘Pandits Can Return If Kashmiris Ready To Accept Them’

There are people who say that by coming out of a violent Valley, Pandits got better job opportunities and quality of life. I want to tell them that Pandits lost more than they gained. Nobody is happy when one gets uprooted from their homeland. They all remember life back there so vividly. I speak to a lot of Pandits on a daily basis and half of the time we are only talking about Kashmir. Whether a Kashmiri Pandit is staying in America or Australia, he knows everything about Kashmir. He knows when it snows in Kashmir. He celebrates ‘Nausheen’, the first snowfall of the season year after year.

Whenever I get a chance I go to Kashmir, the first thing that strikes me is that everyone is talking in my mother-tongue. It is like homecoming, connecting with the land. This cannot happen anywhere else. A lot of my friends in Kashmir often invite us but it hurts to be treated as a guest on your own land. Who knows if we were in Kashmir, how prosperous it would have been, how healthier our families would have been. Nobody can reverse the tragedy.

I have travelled extensively in the Valley in the past five years. I would like to tell the young Pandits (or youth of any community) to visit the place themselves to know what it is like to be in Kashmir. It is not as bad as one may have imagined. The hospitality and ambience are heartening. I am not saying they should get involved politically but they should at least know about their heritage and culture. It is very important.

– As told to Mamta Sharma

‘Pandits Can Return Only After Kashmiris Agree To Accept Them’

Surbhi Sapru, 31, who belongs to a displaced Kashmiri Pandit family, says her return to the state is not possible unless the ruptured social fabric is restored in Kashmir

My family used to live in the Habba Kadal area of Srinagar, an area that saw mass exodus of Pandits in the 1990s. However, my grandfather had decided much earlier to leave the place, because socially active people like him had been getting targeted, threatened, much before ordinary people and in 1982 he (an educationist) decided it wasn’t safe for my family to remain there.

My brother and I weren’t born yet, so it is our parents and family who had to leave a piece of their heart and hearth behind in Kashmir. My family shifted base to Jammu, still hopeful that things might get better in Kashmir, but that was not to be; things only got worse from there.

I was born in 1990, at the cusp of change, when Kashmir’s history, geography, everything was being re-written. Even the Dogra community was against us. So when my father got a chance to settle in Jaipur, he jumped at it. Jaipur became home for us the next 14 years.

Abrogation of Article 370 did bring hope, but it is only a flicker and it is a long road before Kashmiri Pandits can think of going back ‘home’. The Jammu & Kashmir issue might be seen as a political issue but deep down it is a breakdown of the social fabric. People from different religions have coexisted in different parts of India, but in Kashmir that gets caught in religious turmoil.

Surbhi says her grandfather (left) would break down on every Maha Shivratri, which their family celebrated in Kashmir with much pomp

If the ordinary citizen understands each other, then the issue can be resolved, otherwise nothing will change, the problem will linger on. Thus both the Kashmiri Pandits as well as Muslims will have to reassure each other: Hum ek doosre ko jante hain padosi ke taur par, hum kisi teesre ki baton me nahi aayenge (We will resolve matter between us as neighbours; won’t allow a third party to mediate). While many leaders have advocated a special, safe zone for Pandits, labelled Panun Kashmir, I say why can’t Pandits stay wherever they want in Jammu & Kashmir?

We have been displaced once. If the government is talking about rehabilitation, then Pandits need to feel safe; that they can trust everyone around us in Kashmir. Let me share an incident. I had gone to our Kul Devi (family deity) temple (Kheer Bhawani) in 2016 along with my mother on a Friday. Right after the juma namaz got over, our car started getting chased by many people. Every few minutes, we would be stopped by someone or the other. Our driver, a local Sikh from Kashmir, kept on requesting people to let us go. Apparently there was some strike and they were angry that Sardarji was still driving us in his taxi and that we were Hindus.

ALSO READ: ‘Situation On Ground Is Improving In J-K’

Those angry faces, the fear that I felt that day cannot be explained in words. We also gave lift to two Ladakhi policemen midway, who were in the same predicament as us. They weren’t liked there. I was utterly surprised to see that even a 10 year old was threatening us. But how many people can you reason with? At one point a group of people pushed open the taxi door, to pull us out, and only after a lot of pleading from the Sardarji, we were let off.  Till the time this hatred among Jammu-Kashmiri citizens is there, the return of Pandits is not possible. Who knows one might be made to leave again.

I remember the teary eyes of my grandfather, on every Maha Shivaratri which they used to celebrate with great pomp in Kashmir. He told us a story that when he was posted in Gurez, a Peer Baba (holy man) had asked him to take the responsibility of educating a Muslim child. My grandfather followed his instruction and treated the boy like a son in the family. However, the family had to leave him behind. He still sometimes comes to meet us, now that we have shifted to Delhi, and my parents reminisce about the olden times.

Dadaji is no more. But his love for Kashmir flows in our veins too. But unless there is reassurance for peace on the ground, not by the political leadership, our return to homeland is not possible. I bear no hatred for any community in my heart, but also expect that we are not hated for our beliefs as well.

Advantage Zero In Kashmir

In northern Afghanistan, as an unrepentant Taliban captures territory, even while so-called peace talks are underway, reporters are entering the tattered make-shift tents of the refugee camps without water, electricity and food, scattered across the hinterland, in about 50 degree Centigrade, with a scorching Afghan sun shining on the stoic masses. Desperate people are once again running to save their body and soul, and women are telling terrible stories which they have not yet forgotten. The terrible stories narrate emotional degradation and sexual slavery under the Taliban before 9/11, like a thousand terrible suns.

The untold stories of women, mothers, daughters, girls and boys, and homes destroyed – they are often the time-tested testimonies of a society under siege. Surely, Kashmir is not Afghanistan, and the Taliban is still far away. But, somehow, its shadow seems to be looming large in the Valley too, as the Americans leave, and the uncertain landscape changes colour into a murky grey, across the line of control.

Experts are therefore reading between the lines as the muscular Modi-Shah regime made its first strategic U-turn recently on Kashmir by inviting its top leaders for talks in Delhi. So, what is brewing?

It’s been two years since the massive military clampdown was imposed on Kashmir on August 4, 2019, with the arbitrary abrogation of Article 370, the dismantling of the state assembly, the arrest of all top political leaders, including three former chief ministers, and hundreds of innocent citizens accompanied by an atmosphere of total terror. The entire Valley was under siege. There were armed barricades across the nooks and corners of a desolate Srinagar, its sublime Dal Lake bereft of a single tourist boat.

Apart from the crippling economic losses which ran into billions, and some businessmen behind bars, what was striking on the empty streets and markets of Srinagar was the absence of women and children. A silent stasis of suppressed mass trauma and alienation had penetrated the deepest layers of Kashmiri society.

At the famous Hazratbal and Jama Masjid, there was nobody to feed the pigeons. The legendary Lal Chowk was steeped in solitude except for the armed barricades. University campuses had their huge gates shut. An uncanny unhappiness stalked this scenic land.

Mothers and children had withdrawn into their homes. There were no kids out there flying kites or playing cricket on the streets; no one was going to school with their back-packs. It was like the Joan Baez song: Where have all the children gone?

ALSO READ: Has The Nation Forgotten Kashmir?

Mothers were not walking out with their children asking them to buy ice-cream or popcorn. Sisters were not playing pranks with their little brothers in open spaces. Children were not playing in the courtyards just across the tense army barricades every few minutes; they were not exchanging notes across the rows of terraces touching each other in old Srinagar with its myriad mappings of inner lanes crisscrossing the inner city.

Windows and doors were tightly shut, internet was shut, the media was shut, lips were shut, hearts were shut, eyes were shut wide-open; this was a ‘shutdown’ much before the sudden ‘lockdown’ in the rest of India in March 2020. This was armed occupation, under army jackboots. This was forced social quarantine. This was a total denial of democracy and fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

So what do we say of a beautiful city where there are no sounds of children anymore? Where children do not play anymore?

What do you say of a State which shuts its own children into silence, condemnation and exile? For a reporter in Srinagar two years ago, the wounded memories are etched.

Two years later, there seems to be a tangible and tangential linkage between what is happening in Afghanistan, and the sudden and unexpected ‘big move’ being played out recently by the super-duo in the capital.  They, surprisingly and ironically, invited the mainstream political leadership of Kashmir for ‘talks’ in Delhi. Many of these leaders were put in detention by them for prolonged periods after the clampdown; they were called the ‘Gupkar Gang’ by Amit Shah after their release.

This refers to the formation of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) by political parties in Jammu and Kashmir, after the release of their top leaders. Mr. Shah had tweeted, “The Gupkar Gang is going global! They want foreign forces to intervene in Jammu and Kashmir. The Gupkar Gang also insults India’s Tricolour. Do Sonia Ji and Rahul Ji support such moves of the Gupkar Gang? They should make their stand crystal clear to the people of India.”

In response, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, who had earlier made a government in alliance with the BJP in Srinagar, said, “Love jihad, tukde tukde and now Gupkar Gang, dominates the political discourse instead of rising unemployment and inflation.”

 “I can understand the frustration behind this attack by the Home Minister. He had been briefed that the People’s Alliance was preparing to boycott elections. This would have allowed the BJP and newly formed king’s party a free run in J&K. We didn’t oblige them,” said another former chief minister, Omar Abdullah.  “The truth is all those who oppose the ideology of the BJP are labelled ‘corrupt and anti-national,” he said. “We are not a ‘gang’ Amit Shahji, we are a legitimate political alliance having fought and continuing to fight elections, much to your disappointment.”

According to the ‘Ninth Report of the Concerned Citizens’ Group on Jammu & Kashmir’ (July 5 -7, 2021), brought out by Air Vice Marshal (Retired) Kapil Kak, former Union minister Yashwant Sinha, senior journalist Bharat Bhushan, among others, there is abject alienation across Kashmir. The report says: “What upset the businessmen most was that some of them were arrested and jailed after the Centre’s policy change in J&K in 2019. ‘Political leaders were arrested but why us? Why were businessmen taken into custody? I am very angry with India. You say there are only about 200 militants in Kashmir and yet you punish all of us for that,’ a business leader complained. He felt that instead of calling political parties from J&K to Delhi, ‘the government ought to invite businessmen, traders and horticulturists to discuss our issues directly with us.’”

According to the report: “A social worker from Pulwama claimed that youth was being pushed towards militancy because of the harassment faced by people at the hands of the army personnel. There are no jobs for the young. ‘They have only two options before them – militancy or committing suicide,’ he said, pointing to a spate of suicides by youngsters in the Valley.”

Surely, in this zero sum game scenario, it is advantage zero on all sides. After two years of a crackdown, all that remains is a cracked mirror. Clearly, the Modi-Shah double whammy is starker in Kashmir, than a thousand terrible suns!

‘Slowly The Situation On Ground Is Improving In J&K’

Priyanka Pandita, a 29 year old Kashmiri Pandit, says life of a Jammu-Kashmir citizen has improved marginally since August 5, 2019, when the Centre abrogated Article 370

As someone who belongs to Jammu & Kashmir, we see the world differently and in turn are seen differently by the rest of the country (or the rest of the world). So far there has been no possibility of having a good education or work life in Kashmir and those of us who can move out of the state, do so. But when we go to other states for studies or work, most people see us only as Jammu & Kashmir residents and less as people who have dreams, hopes and aspirations of a better life.

Till Class 12 I lived in J&K, but after that I have lived in Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Karnataka for higher studies and just shifted to Mumbai post-marriage, but the story was the same everywhere… Kashmir just meant violence and terrorism to other people.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we have had an identity crisis of sorts. There are so many of us who long to be a part of the wider landscape but the goings on in Kashmir for the past few decades had led to more and more isolation of the residents of Jammu & Kashmir… until August 2019, when Article 370 was abrogated. It will now be almost two years to that (in my opinion) momentous day and I feel it is in the best interest of Jammu & Kashmir that it happened.

As far as I can see, the ground reality has changed for the better. I now feel like part of a whole and hopefully it will change for other people as well. Identity of the residents of this region won’t be pigeonholed anymore. And it is not just about us Kashmiri Pandits (living in Jammu region) but also many Muslim friends of my father have mentioned how there seems to be more peace around, how the mahaul is more conducive for business and also tourism (of course once coronavirus is under strict control).

Pandita says ‘mahaul’ is more conducive for business and tourism now

The endless curfews, the looming shadow of when violence might erupt, suspension of internet… it was all beginning to take a toll on people who longed for normalcy. Instances of stone pelting have come down. And people have finally begun to listen to each other’s point of view. The communication breakdown that had happened is being repaired little by little. Earlier there was no possibility of having deep conversation with fellow Kashmiris on the matter of terrorism or even how the government was faring.

People would get defensive so quickly and a conversation would turn into an argument. All solutions begin with a conversation and now I feel people have begun to talk to each other a little more openly. I have also begun to worry less about my parents and other loved ones who live there, no matter which part of the country I am in.

ALSO READ: ‘Modi Interested In Optics, Kashmiris Want Statehood Back’

I believe Covid was also handled well because the Centre was in charge here. In fact there has been less corruption for the past two years as far as I can see. I last visited my family in November, 2019. After that the pandemic meant travelling has been difficult, but I have kept myself updated.

Also, the local leaders whose policies so far reflected only resistance have begun to think of cooperation (even if it is miniscule right now), I feel after they were arrested or put under house arrest.

I feel once the final creases are ironed out (like the restoration of statehood, elections), Jammu & Kashmir will truly be on the path of development. The Taliban’s advancement in Afghanistan has rung bells of concern for the subcontinent, but I believe that the strong leadership of the current government will keep them at bay and Kashmir will truly flourish, even if it takes one baby step at a time towards the future.

As Told To Yog Maya Singh

‘PM Interested Only In Optics; Kashmiris Want Statehood Back’

Joy Abhishek Nowab, 18, a polytechnic student, fears that any untoward incident in J&K may cause their Internet services to be suspended and affect his online education

With the never-ending lockdowns, finally the rest of the country has begun to perhaps understand the incessant curfews, the shadow of fear and uncertainty that residents of Jammu & Kashmir have lived under for years. However, while the rest of the country’s students can attend online classes, we the students of Kashmir don’t know when the internet might be snapped off.

I am currently pursuing my Diploma at Polytechnic and post 2019 (after abrogation of Article 370) nearly one and half years have been wasted. Then came the pandemic. I feel the current government at the Centre is more interested in maintaining an image than doing actual ground work. The recent all-party meet also was an image-building exercise according to me.

The all party meet was held at the PM’s residence in New Delhi. Why wasn’t such an important meeting held in Kashmir? The PM could have flown to the state and that would have given confidence to the people that local leaders/representatives are respected. Narazgi to hai hi Kashmir ke leaders me ke kaise unhe jail me dala gaya ya nazarband kiya gaya. (There is resentment among Kashmiri leaders for being put under house arrest or jail). But perhaps the PM wanted to show that the power on Kashmir is in his hands.

Nowab says there is resentment among local leaders against BJP policy on Kashmir

They have talked about turning Jammu and Srinagar into smart cities, but the ground reality is that very little work is being done. We Kashmiris want development but we also want to be included in the decision-making processes. I hope the government gives us back our statehood soon and holds free and fair elections only after that.

My father’s side belongs to Kashmir but my mother’s side belongs to Punjab, both states that have been riddled with militancy at one point or another. Sometimes I wonder if we could drive militancy out of Punjab and restore it to normalcy, why can we not do the same in Kashmir! Where is the political willpower?

ALSO READ: Has The Nation Forgotten Kashmir?

We have grown up in the shadow of guns and security forces and as kids. In fact children in Kashmir grow up sooner than the rest of the country. We keep an eye on all political news, all local and national developments because our lives depend on it. For youngsters in the rest of the country, news does not hold that importance. Just a few days ago there was a blast at the IAF base in Jammu and we wondered if our internet connections would be snapped off again and our education would suffer. Thankfully that didn’t happen.

Sometimes I wonder how our future is going to turn out, but then each day I pull out my faith from greater depths and march on towards my dreams. I have a small set up called Nowab Electronics & Electricals and I would love to make it big, but the continuous internet suspensions make it difficult. But as I said earlier I keep my faith.

Ours is a Christian family living in Kashmir and there is a sizeable population of Christians here. My father is a priest as well as a Principal and we talk about faith often; many a times that is the only thing we have to hold on to as we have no idea what will happen in the state. But right now I am really looking forward to the restoration of statehood and dialogues between state and central government leaders. My parents kept my name as Joy Abhishek Nawab to signify that we believe in love and secularism (Joy for Christianity, Abhishek for Hinduism and Nowab for Islam).