‘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.

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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.

Has The Nation Forgotten Kashmir?

Between the multiplying rainbows of Shaheen Baghs all over the country and new waves of mass non-violent protests, the resounding defeat of hate politics and the victory of AAP’s s welfare agenda of health, education, bijli and paani in Delhi, and new videos of unprecedented police brutality on students in Jamia right inside the reading rooms the library, has the nation forgotten Kashmir, under a military and communication lockdown since August 5, 2019?

Has the world too chosen to allow the BJP regime get away with the total violation of the Indian Constitution in Kashmir, the denial of fundamental rights, and the continued detention under draconian laws of three former chief ministers, and scores of others, on flimsy and bizzare grounds?

Surely, all indications are there that in the frozen white expanse of the Valley, with the snow still refusing to melt, the simmering angst and anger at the grave injustice done to its 8 million people remain etched like a dark and relentless memory in infinite bad faith. And this memory moves in a circle of tragedy, outrage and despair, beyond the ruling regime’s rhetoric of ‘national security and terrorism’, troubling the democratic conscience of the nation and the world. The undiplomatic behavior of the current regime has not helped matters.

This has been starkly reflected in the rejection of visa to British Labour Party MP Debbie Abrahams. She was allegedly denied entry into India and was “deported” at the Delhi airport on Monday after landing there. Her e-visa, surprisingly, was rejected. Chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kashmir, the British MP has alleged that she was indeed “treated like a criminal”. She said the immigration officer was rude and aggressive, and shouted at her — “come with me”.

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She had apparently written a letter as a chair of the British group on Kashmir, to the Indian envoy, expressing serious concern on the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. If that be the reason for her ‘deportation’ in such humiliating conditions, then it only reflects, yet again, the insecure foreign policy initiatives marking this government.

Earlier, New Delhi had botched up badly by inviting a group of Rightwing and Far-Right politicians from abroad, organised by an unknown and shadowy organization, for a sponsored sojourn to Kashmir, with doctored meetings with planted pro-BJP loyalists, and officials. The entire exercise turned out to be a big disaster.

Besides, despite the best efforts of the external affairs ministry, Kashmir did become ‘internationalised’ even while top media organisations in the West, like the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, The Guardian etc., blasted the Delhi government for human rights violations in Kashmir. The media trend seemed to have continued in the recent past, despite the best efforts in lobbying by the external affairs ministry.

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Recently, 25 foreign envoys were taken to Jammu and Kashmir for yet another diplomatic foray to mark a paradigm shift in global opinion.  The French Ambassador, Emmaneul Lenain, made a loaded but crypic statement. He said that while the government was making “significant efforts” to “normalise the situation”, the remaining restrictions should be removed “as soon as possible”. 

One day earlier, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Virginie Battu-Henriksson had categorically stated: “Some restrictions remain, notably on Internet access and mobile services, and some political leaders are still in detention. While we recognise the serious security concerns, it is important that the remaining restrictions are lifted swiftly,” she said.

The fact is that India’s relation with a big chunk of the powerful EU has been marked with a certain pronounced bad faith since August 5, which has only been aggravated by the massive protests all over the country against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. In January last, as many as 626 of the 751 members of the EU Parliament took up six resolutions concerning  Kashmir and discriminatory laws for discussion creating much concern in the Indian ruling establishment. It has postponed a vote on the resolution, but the discomfort is for the whole world to see.  Indeed, most top university campuses in the West have stood up in support of the protests against the CAA/NRC in India.

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Earlier, despite Donald Trump’s big brotherly affection for the Indian prime minister, several top leaders in American politics, especially among the democrats, have taken up the issue of Kashmir and the willful discrimination against the minorities in India under the current regime.  With the United Nations taking it up after more than 70 years, and China upping the ante, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, brought back bad memories of fascism under Adolf Hitler in Europe while talking about the Indian situation vis-à-vis Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the imposition of the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) on two former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, without an iota of evidence to prove the charges, has been widely criticised in India. The allegations in the dossier against them are bizarre and smacks of mindless vendetta, and does not really add up to the moral high ground around the prime minister or his best buddy, the Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, who also led the botched-up Delhi elections with a daily cacophony of lies, crude hate politics and muscle flexing.

For instance, Omar Abdullah, who has also been part of the BJP-led NDA regime in Delhi under Atal Behari Vajpayee, has been accused of subversive activities. “The capacity of the subject to influence people for any cause can be gauged from the fact that he was able to convince his electorate to come out and vote in huge numbers even during peak of militancy and poll boycotts,” reads the alleged government dossier, accessed by NDTV.

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Apparently, his last tweet hours before the imposition of the communication and military lockdown, while being arrested, said: “Violence will only play into the hands of those who do not have the best interests of the state in mind. This wasn’t the India Jammu and Kashmir acceded to, but I’m not quite ready to give up hope yet. Let calm heads prevail. God be with you all.”

Journalists in Kashmir are up in arms against the hounding and harassment of mediapersons by the authorities. Some journalists were asked to disclose their sources, even as the internet lockdown and the military clampdown restricted freedom of press to a minimal in the Valley. Journalists say that theirs is overt and tacit censorship at all levels.

Locals say tourism in the Valley has touched an all-time low, unemployment is at an unprecedented high while all educational institutions are closed. And with regards to detention, the focus has become concentrated on the politicians. There is little mention of scores of others, including youngsters, who are lodged in jails outside the state (now Union Territory)! There is a widespread belief in the valley that several youngsters and other innocents are still imprisoned in various jails, especially in UP, with mothers and relatives just not able to track them.

The Supreme Court has given notice to the Centre and the J&K administration, on a petition filed by Omar’s sister, Sara Abdullah Pilot who had petitioned that the exercise of powers by authorities under the CrPC to detain individuals, including political leaders, was “clearly mala fide to ensure that the opposition to the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution is silenced”.

The petition said that “similar orders of detention have been issued by respondents (authorities of the union territory of J&K) over the last seven months in a wholly mechanical manner to other detinues, which suggest that there has been a consistent and concerted effort to muzzle all political rivals”.

Her petition pointed out there is no new evidence or material available available to detain a person who has already been under detention for six months and the “grounds for the detention order are wholly lacking any material facts or particulars which are imperative for an order of detention.”

In the same manner, the dossier against Mehbooba Mufti, who was the last chief minister in the state in an alliance with the BJP, is full of absurd allegations.  “In new India, dossier on an ex-chief minister slapped with draconian PSA mentions insidious machinations & being a ‘Daddy’s girl’ as charges,” her daughter Iltija Mufti had tweeted.

“Not unusual that she adored, respected & loved her father. They had an unshakeable bond & were each other’s closest confidante. Which is why she honoured Mufti sahab’s commitment after his sudden death in 2016. Didn’t know loving your parent constitutes a crime,” she wrote. This is a question that needs to be answered if current regime wishes to honour the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee who spoke about insaniyat (humanity), jamhooriyat (democracy) and Kashmiriyat.