Thirty years on, still no spring for the Pandits

Ensuring the secure presence of the Pandit minority would be Kashmir’s most important marker of sustainable peace

Updated - January 22, 2020 11:26 am IST

Published - January 22, 2020 12:02 am IST

After three decades of exile, the promise and possibility of the dignified return of the Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley seems as elusive today as it was in 1990. And yet, it is clearer than ever before, the secure presence of the Pandit minority would be an (if not the most) important marker of sustainable peace in the Kashmir Valley. Much has happened since those cataclysmic days of the 1990s, including the restructuring of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the dilution of Article 370, and the repeal of Article 35-A; and yet other than schadenfreude, the events have brought little joy to the Pandits or indeed increased the possibility of them returning home.

Triumphs and obstacles

Make no mistake; the Kashmiri Pandits are individually members of arguably the most successful ethnic minority in the country; collectively, however, they are confronted with a loss that is painfully difficult to fathom or describe to those who do not share that sense of anomie. Returning home then is not just about atavistic roots of longing, but as much about reclaiming an intellectual space of belonging. In this sense, both personal triumph and collective tragedy face them in almost equal measure, with no signs of an actionable plan for their return.

Indeed, the intriguing history of the Kashmiri Pandit community is an anomaly in contemporary times that has privileged stories of ideological clashes, confronting cultures and competing nationalisms. Where else would you find an educated (with 100% literacy) mostly professional, materially successful, religiously liberal, politically flexible, totally non-violent, microscopic minority inhabiting one of the most conflicted and contested parts of the country? They lived, in retrospect, fairy-tale lives; and that charmed life turned into a nightmare in the 1990s.

Forgotten episode

Sadly, for most liberal political analysts and thinkers, the Kashmiri Pandit exodus became part of the larger tragedy of the Kashmiri issue and was forgotten or marginalised. Meanwhile, the Kashmiri Pandits struggled, adapted, built new lives, in the midst of adversity, in India and abroad, and succeeded. Apart from those who live in camps or makeshift accommodation, they are today a model of material success. But in many ways, the continuing displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits represents not just the continuous failure of successive governments, but is also a stark shortsightedness of the failures of the liberal Indian state.

It is profound irony that in the 1990s, during the worst years of displacement, the Pandits, then one of the most liberal and accommodative of minorities, found succour only in the Shiv Sena’s Balasaheb Thackeray who ensured reservations for them in professional colleges in Maharashtra. As analyst Rishi Razdan put it in a recent social media post, “a persecuted Hindu minority from a Muslim-majority state within a Hindu-majority country [was] a damning validation of all the fears that Hindutva had been peddling for decades”. And one of the great failures of the Indian liberal Left was “losing the moral courage to speak loudly and clearly for those who needed their aid”.

But what next?

In the summer of 2015, the former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), Mufti Mohammad Sayeed tasked me, as his adviser, to coordinate with Ram Madhav, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s general secretary for J&K, to organise a meeting with Kashmir Pandit leaders, primarily from the Sangh Parivar.

It was intended as the first step in building trust that would eventually help in the dignified return of the Pandits. The Chief Minister spelt out his policy and vision to the Pandit leadership: “You do not need us. We need you. Aap aabad hain, jahan bhi hain (you have shown your mettle, wherever you have gone). But we, without the diversity you contributed to the Valley, without our syncretic culture, are the ones really exiled.” Mufti reiterated these ideas, in my presence, over breakfast with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Parivar’s sah sarkaryavah, Krishna Gopal. That meeting and those dreams faded with the passing away of Mufti and the manner in which his political legacy was frittered away.

A diasporic transition

In February this year, like every year for nearly three decades, more than 50 families will gather in Mount Martha, in the breathtaking Mornington Peninsula, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne in Australia. They will perform the “vatuk puja” for Shivaratri: symbolising the wedding of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, with the Bhairavas in attendance.

All these 50-odd families belong to the Pandit community, most of them are outstanding professionals; almost all have moved to Australia in the last three decades of the troubles in Kashmir. They are cosmopolitan in almost every sense: they can adapt and be part of any professional culture across the world. They are liberal in a practical sense: they are not bound by dogmas or driven by orthodoxies of the past. They put a premium, as they have done for generations, on education; the younger generation is full of “toppers” even while their values and their accent may increasingly be Australian. Like with many diasporic communities, memories of the past continue to haunt the present. The Kashmiri Pandits can neither forget their beloved Kashmir nor the circumstances under which most of them have had to leave the Valley in 1990-1991.

The families in Melbourne symbolise a microcosm of the world of the Pandits. Most Pandits who left J&K have flourished materially. From Sydney to the Silicon Valley we find stories of Pandit success. In almost every field of human endeavour, the KPs (as they are popularly known) have carved a niche for themselves, and made a place in the world they inhabit. They are seen as model law-abiding citizens.

Those who stayed

It is difficult to get reliable evidence of numbers, but even by the most generous demographic figure, the Kashmiri Pandit community, across the globe, would count for less than a million. A little over 600 families continue to live in the Valley: they never left and these “non-migrants” have a “privileged” position with the Muslims in the Valley. A few thousand employees (through a special package) have been given jobs in the Valley and live in special enclaves in Haal, Vesu, Matan, Sheikhpura, Baramulla and Kupwara, many with their families. Their story is mixed: they have returned for jobs, but whether they will stay on in what are mostly cramped, isolated conditions is debatable. Another 3,500 jobs will be soon made available under the package, but they are mostly at a lower clerical level.

The Kashmiri Pandit professionals seemed to have vanished from the State. Not even one doctor and only a few engineers applied for the jobs advertised by the Public Service Commission in the last few years. Outside the Valley are about another 5,000 internally displaced families who live in the township of Jagti ( built in the most disgusting Stalinist style of architecture) and the frightening camps in Nagrota, Purkhu and Muthi: all in the Jammu region.

A meeting point?

Is there a prospect of reconciliation with the past and returning back to the Valley? In the Manichaean worlds that Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims inhabit today, their narratives are almost diametrically opposite. While most Pandits view their departure as part of a systematic “ethnic cleansing” by a section of the Kashmiri Muslims, most Muslims see in the departure of the Kashmiri Pandits a deliberate conspiracy of the Indian state with two objectives; to give them a bad name and simultaneously give a free repressive hand to the security forces.

This divide shows few signs of being bridged. Under these circumstances, the prospects of reconciliation seem bleak unless there is a common project like a new Sharada Peeth University that could bring them together, and recreate the bonds of interdependence that had held them in good stead over much of history.

Amitabh Mattoo is Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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