In August 2010, at a time when Indian security forces systematically shot down stone-throwing protestors all over Kashmir (112 were killed), various relatives living elsewhere phoned my mother to ask when she was planning to leave Srinagar. Her answer was simple: We aren’t planning to leave; this is home, and the weather is lovely. Some years later, at another moment when violence rippled through Srinagar, I called to speak to her, and because our home adjoins Maisuma, a neighbourhood known for its protests, I could hear shots being fired. Are you fearful, I asked? Why, she said in response, do you never have bullets being fired on the streets of America?
I mention these two instances (I could recount others) because my mother taught us a quiet lesson each time. If you are Kashmiri, and a Pandit, you need to go home and to make it yours, regardless of the privations you suffer. And Kashmiris have suffered, and continue to suffer, all manner of deprivation. But if Kashmir is home, you need to be there, to insist, even in your declining years, that you will suffer the inconveniences and the fears that are a staple of life, because it is home. (Yes, she and my sister were marooned in our attic during the floods in 2014, and had to be rescued, after a harrowing 10 days, by a group of our local friends. Do I need to say that the friends were Muslim?). There had been a decade and more when my parents were not able to spend time in our ancestral home in Srinagar, but once they returned in 2003, they made it a point to be there for the long summer months. My father passed away in his favourite chair in the home his father built. My mother died in Delhi, too frail in her last year of life to go to the Srinagar she longed for. But they returned us to Kashmir, and taught us what it means to be Kashmiri in a time when Kashmiris have been denied basic dignities and rights.
Of course, my parents’ example cannot be generalised. They had an apartment in Delhi, and so they did not suffer as most Pandits did who left in 1990 and after. Our home in Srinagar is in a neighbourhood ringed by paramilitary bunkers, and while it was twice broken into, it did not suffer major damage. This was not the case with many Pandit homes, which were burnt, or commandeered by soldiers, or were sold at distress prices, or still stand as decaying, empty hulks. In camps or in homes outside Kashmir, Pandits struggled with adversity and loss, and found the resilience to recover. Many elderly people died, bewildered and miserable away from home. Successive central and state governments treated them with a malicious cynicism — Pandits were of importance only as political pawns, to be trundled out as examples of the ravages of fundamentalist Islam.
Explained | The Kashmir Pandit tragedy
Pandits had left Kashmir in fear of their lives. I should make clear that it does not matter if you believe in the canard that all Muslims in Kashmir turned upon them, or if you believe in the equally self-serving theory that Governor Jagmohan encouraged them to leave so that Indian paramilitary forces could act with impunity. The fact is, a tiny minority community felt scared enough to give up their homes and livelihoods and no one did anything about that displacement. Their absence has warped the substance of Kashmiri life. Kashmiri Muslims, particularly the older generation, lament their loss but after decades of being subject to far worse forms of the violence that the Pandits feared and experienced, their sympathies are strained.
What lies ahead, now that Pandits are pledging to return home (#HumWapasAayenge)? I hope large numbers of us do just that but we should know that we cannot expect any government to provide more than token financial help. It is absurd to think of life in armed encampments, or in protected enclaves, that will be forcibly planted in Srinagar and elsewhere. If there is to be a rapprochement between Kashmiri communities, Pandits must live as we did before, sharing our lives with our Muslim neighbours. Will this be easy? Not at all, for it will take years and years for mutual suspicion to wear away. But if Pandits return and insist upon their right to be full citizens of the land, their claim will be as strong as that of the tens of thousands of non-Muslims who have lived in Kashmir all these years. Will they face threats to their well-being and lives? They almost certainly will, as do their Muslim and Sikh and Pandit neighbours today, for Kashmir is a conflict zone and will remain so for a while to come. But it is our right to live in Kashmir, and such a right can only be claimed through individual effort, not the devious sponsorship of state agencies.
There is also a major obstacle in the way, which will take great integrity to surmount. Pandits by and large see their future, and that of Kashmir, to lie within India; most Muslims desire an independent, or at least, largely autonomous nation-state. Pandits will have to display great fortitude in choosing to live as Indians while recognising the immense alienation of their Muslim neighbours from the Indian state. They have the right to their political positions, which they will have to fight for within a larger polity that seeks self-determination. The popularity of the tehreek has only increased since the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, and the vindictive anti-Muslim actions of BJP-led governments all over India have worsened Kashmiri fears. If Pandits return to Kashmir, they will realise just how life has been disrupted and violent for years now, and they will live as their Muslim and Sikh brethren have lived, in fear of the soldiers who control civilian lives.
Both Muslims and Pandits will have to find the empathy and generosity to overcome their political differences, particularly since state agencies will do all that they can to blunt any developing solidarities. This is a very difficult task, but if we want the return of a tolerant, shared, syncretic Kashmir — and indeed a tolerant, shared, syncretic India — we have to try.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 29, 2020 under the title ‘The right to return.’ The writer is A M Rosenthal Professor, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania
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