As was only to be expected, the recent macabre targeted killing of members of the minority communities has generated widespread panic in Kashmir. Much of Srinagar has also been overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu — a frightening reminder of the 1990s when select killings and an overwhelming fear had led to the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. But this is not the 1990s. And despite the deep angst within the Kashmiri Muslims over government policies, we may be beginning to see a new sliver of hope: The possibilities, finally, of a real reconciliation between the two communities that cohabited (despite the historical ups and downs in the relationship) the same space for centuries. Ironically, then, the terror of the past few weeks may have opened up a new window of opportunity.
I write today, not as an academic but a resident of Srinagar, who spent most of the last few weeks in the city seeking to understand the sentiment on the ground. What follows, therefore — at its most pedestrian — is street gossip and, at its most uplifting, vox populi.
For the most part, my day began — until the killings — by following a familiar routine — walking to the Shankaracharya temple on the hill from Gupkar Road. Gupkar is the meandering gateway to the vistas of the Dal Lake, which runs from the desolate offices of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) at Sonwar to the fading charms of erstwhile royal palaces on the banks of the lake. It is here that security agencies are nested in close comfort with the political and business elite, and where interrogation centres have morphed into “haunted” guesthouses.
The Shankaracharya hill gives you a breathtaking view of the densely packed city, with its shrines, temples and churches, but the hill is also a reminder of the city’s ancient roots and atavistic heritage; the non-dualist Shaivism of Kashmir, but also the earlier Mahayana Buddhism and the later Sufi Hallaji passion. Adi Shankara’s Advait captured in Nirvana Shatakam (“I am consciousness, I am bliss, and I am Shiva. I am Shiva”) seems to blend seamlessly with Mansoor Al Hallaj’s Ana Al-Haqq (“I am truth”) as you absorb the sounds and smells of the city. And as you reach out to the steady stream of visitors on that gentle trek, it is clear that Kashmir’s composite heritage is robust and alive on the hill. But not just there.
Once a single coffee shop was a luxury on Residency Road, today cafés and coffee shops jostle for space in virtually every neighbourhood. Srinagar may not be a smart city but it is home to a remarkably talkative and reading society (a women’s collective, a Kafka society, a Brecht playhouse, etc) where former residents return to pay homage and find inspiration — from the opinion editor of The New York Times to the former head of Twitter India. And in all that talk, there is space — space for Kashmiri Pandits to come back and for the two still separate civil societies to argue, to disagree and to build trust, perhaps even on the terms of engagement.
Was 1990 then an aberration? In an almost Rashomon-like cinematic imagination, the Kashmiri Pandit exodus of the 1990s invites multiple narratives that are embedded in Manichaeism. What is not disputed is that the departure led to a gulf between the two communities, which has still not been bridged; polarised narratives only reflect a sharp divide and the return of the Pandits remains, admittedly, an elusive project. Today, there are just a few thousand Kashmiri Pandits who did not leave during these troubled years, other than those who live in camps (in Sheikhpura, Varmul, Hal, Vesu and Mattan) under a special employment package scheme of the Prime Minister.
But there is the possibility of recovering the sentiment that helped the Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims live in relative harmony. It is possible for Kashmiri Pandits to return with respect in the foreseeable future but it is critical to do so organically in constant dialogue with Kashmir’s civil society. Through talking, talking and more talking. The killings may have then unleashed a positive force that the new militant outfits could never have imagined or believed possible.
Consider this. The killing of Makhan Lal Bindroo, the Pandit pharmacist, invited real shock from all sections of Kashmir’s civil society for a number of reasons. Bindroo had stayed in Kashmir through the troubled years, had a deep personal connection with his customers, and enjoyed the confidence and trust of the people enough to persuade his accomplished endocrinologist son to return to Srinagar to serve the people. Bindroo’s was also a success story: From a small chemist shop to a fancy pharmacy with a clinic, he was proof that a Kashmiri Pandit could be successful in Srinagar without compromising on his faith or lifestyle. When his daughter Shraddha Bindroo spoke to the media (after her father’s killing), she spoke with courage but without rancour; a remarkable testimony to her Kashmiri upbringing.
Consider also this. The most remarkable example of Kashmiri Muslims seeking to reassure and reach out to the minorities is the first citizen of the city, Srinagar’s Mayor, the remarkable Junaid Mattu — who I have often disagreed with in the past. This time, however, I was deeply impressed by his clarity and his unambiguity when I met him in person. He has since said: “We will have to stick our necks out and stand as shields to give our minority communities a sense of safety and belonging. This is not the time for conspiracy theories and nuanced condemnations. This is the time to call a spade a spade.”
The onus of beginning a fresh process of confidence-building rests on the leadership of the two communities. The best the government can do is neither interfere nor be seen as directing the process. Anecdotally, it is also clear that Kashmiri Pandit forums like the Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora (GKPD), for one, are ready to take steps to begin a dialogue and take concrete steps to recover a common bond. This is an opportunity, if missed, that may never come back again.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 15, 2021 under the title ‘In Valley, no return to ’90s’. Mattoo is professor at JNU and an honorary professor at the University of Melbourne. He is currently on sabbatical, dividing time between Srinagar and Melbourne.