We need civil society engagement in Kashmir

September 12, 2022 12:00 am | Updated 05:32 am IST

This alone can create confidence, restore trust and strengthen inter-community bonds

Over the last six months, the targeting of Kashmiri Pandits and other Hindus in the Valley by militants has once again brought forward the question of their right of return as well as the safety of minorities living in the Valley.

After the Pandit exodus from the Valley in the 1990s, the first few years of this century saw government efforts to send Pandits back to the Valley. The United Progressive Alliance, under the Prime Minister’s return and rehabilitation of Kashmir migrants scheme, created government postings in the Valley for Kashmiri Pandit “migrant” youth. Mostly teachers, these government employees have lived in protected high-security enclaves, but their work requires them to leave these enclaves and mingle with the rest of the population. This had posed no threat to their lives until last October. Another segment, known as “non-migrant” Pandits because they never left the Valley, has lived in their own homes, without state-provided protection. Both sections feel vulnerable now due to the new incidents of violence against members of the community. The threat of a second exodus of the Pandit community has loomed on the horizon since last October. When, and in what circumstances, can Kashmiri Pandits expect to return and live without fear, without barbed wire walls, alongside Kashmiri Muslim neighbours? Can the pain and bitterness between the two communities ever be healed, trust restored, and the relationship between the Pandit and Muslim communities be rebuilt?

The importance of dialogue

In two decades of working in Jammu and Kashmir as a member of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (CDR), I have learned that there is no top-down solution to the complex question of return. The government can enable it, but individuals and civil society will need to create conditions on the ground. They will have to encourage people to give up the blame game. Individuals or communities will have to search their hearts for where they have wronged the other, and build courage to acknowledge mistakes and restore trust.

Based on this, CDR supported the initiative for a dialogue proposed by two prominent young Kashmiris — one a Muslim and the other a Pandit — who had decided not to join the 1990s exodus. Both men had lived in Kashmir through the violence of the 1990s and the subsequent decades. Their sharply different perspectives on the incidents of that decade could have ended their initial conversation. But they decided to listen and talk to each other. Their conversations led them to persuade their larger communities that talking could lead to healing. It led to CDR’s ‘Shared Witness’, a Pandit-Muslim dialogue series, in December 2010.

Public intellectuals and other influential persons from both communities were participants. The dialogue series coincided with the launching of the Prime Minister’s job scheme. These dialogues created a social environment that enabled Kashmiri Pandits to take up government postings in the Valley. They focused on the events in and around 1990, and the incidents that triggered the displacement of the Pandit community. The conversations were difficult and emotional. Yet, no one left the table.

By the third dialogue, participants were sharing individual experiences that did not fit into the narrative that each community had built about the other. In that room, good and bad personal experiences were shared and tears shed — the lived reality of what happened in the early 1990s. There are similar stories of Partition — stories of cruelty and killings of thousands, but also stories of individuals and families who helped, rescued and protected people.

The conversations dived into the heart of communal differences. Participants pointed out that interdependence was not peculiar to Kashmir and was grounded in wider cultures; myths should not be created about an imagined past of communal “togetherness”; and relations between Pandits and Muslims in Kashmir could be described as “living together but separate”. Was religion the primary basis for the separateness? And were class and power centrally imbedded in the relationship between the two communities? The word ‘hatred’ was used repeatedly. What then could be the “minimum principles of engagement” towards reconciliation?

The issue of apology

The Muslim participants felt the Pandits were in denial of the struggle of the Muslims in the Valley, who were facing violence from the system. The Kashmiri Muslim was always portrayed as being misguided, aided and abetted by Pakistan. The protest in Kashmir was not against religion, but against structures of power and oppression. Pandits were aggrieved that the Muslims did not protest the Pandit killings, not even when the killers claimed them. That greater responsibility lay with the Muslims as they were the majority.

The issue of “apology” was also discussed. One Kashmiri Muslim said the violence perpetrated on Pandits was committed by people not chosen by him to represent the Kashmiri cause. Why should he apologise for the crimes of others? Other Muslim participants jumped in to say an apology was appropriate to acknowledge the failure of civil society to avert the exodus of the Pandits from the Valley. This failure was one of the most difficult conversations in the dialogue. And this question remains most relevant to the situation of Kashmir in 2022. One Muslim participant forcefully said civil society had failed then, acknowledged his personal failure in the matter, and said Kashmiris had to pay a heavy price for this subsequently. If some social organisations had acted quickly, the exodus could have been stopped. He also reassured the Pandits that they were not alone anymore. This had the effect of changing the atmosphere in the room immediately.

A respected Kashmiri Pandit public intellectual observed that the Pandit community too had suffered from a lack of leadership. At the time, senior political and intellectual figures in the community should have met and taken stock of the situation, and reached out to leading figures in the Muslim community. If this had happened, the exodus could have been prevented. Second, even after migration, a good leadership might have prevailed upon members of the community not to sell their properties in the Valley in a hurry.

The Pandits asked the Muslims, what kind of freedoms do you want? Which freedoms do you not have under the existing system? But they also acknowledged the need to understand why Kashmiri Muslims had these demands. There was a strong demand for cultural, economic, political safeguards for the Pandits’ return. They discussed the possibility of setting up a ‘Truth Commission’.

The reason I am writing about this dialogue so many years later is to show that attempts at healing were made during the past decade and can be made. Unfortunately, some of the gains have now been lost. We need an urgent civil society engagement between communities in Kashmir once again. This alone can create confidence, restore trust and strengthen inter-community bonds. It could also enable Pandits to fulfil the long-cherished dream of return — in peace and with dignity.

Sushobha Barve is Executive Secretary of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Coordinator for the Concerned Citizens Group and has worked in J&K over two decades

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