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The Forgotten Kashmiris Of The Valley
Monday, July 23, 2001 in


In the run-up to the Agra summit, as much as in its aftermath, only one word has dominated the headlines on both sides of the border -- Kashmir, Kashmir, and more Kashmir. But Pakistan's single-minded projection of Kashmir as synonymous with the Valley and the Valley with Kashmiri Muslims completely left out Kashmiri Pandits, the group which has suffered immensely since the eruption of extremism in the Valley, from the agenda of negotiations. Surprisingly, despite Pakistan presenting the Kashmir issue as a matter of India's denial of the Kashmiri Muslims' right of self-determination, the Government of India too fought shy of bringing the plight of Kashmiri Pandits in the negotiation discourse.

It was the eruption of terrorism in a big way from 1989-90 that pushed out 350,000 to 400,000 Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley. The violent attacks on Kashmiri Pandits that preceded this migration have been a subject of fierce political debate in terms of identity and motives of the attackers. However, most agree that the attacks were pre-meditated and meticulously planned to instill fear among the community to achieve ethnic cleansing. Though the plan succeeded in its objective, it fractured the otherwise cordial coexistence of the two Kashmiri religious communities, who shared not just physical space but centuries of socio-cultural traditions. In fact, several common surnames suggest that despite conversions to Islam over centuries, the shared culture survived, which neither community ever attempted to disown.

However, a hiatus between the Hindus and Muslims of the Valley developed during the Dogra rule itself. The Dogras ruled the Valley with an iron hand, selectively using the Hindus and Sikhs for repression. Though the Dogras cultivated influential educated Pandits for running the administration, the Kashmiri Pandit community leaders today strongly refute that they were the collective beneficiaries of the feudal regime and furnish data too to substantiate their claim. However, since the Muslims in the Valley were discriminated against, they remained backward. The movement against Dogra rule was launched by the Muslim Conference.

Despite its transformation into the National Conference -- a secular movement and political party championing the cause of all the Kashmiris, irrespective of creed -- rough patches remained on the social terrain. True, the Kashmir Valley, sharing the traditions of Sufism, Nand Rishi and Lal Ded, did not witness communal carnage till politics created the explosive mix by the mid-1980s. But despite the avowed secular nature of the government since 1947, a subterranean feeling of 'its our government and our opportunity now', seems to have overtaken the society in the Valley. It is important in retrospect to consider this tendency in the context of competitive electoral politics, where community mobilization is important.

The bond of Kashmiriyat
Commentators have pointed out that 'Kashmiriyat', a common, shared cultural tradition, including rituals at the time of birth, marriage, death, language, food, dress and names, reflecting a common ancestry, bound the Kashmiris of different faiths together. Not only was the cultural heritage common, the living tradition of Kashmiriyat, where foster mothers of Kashmiri Pandits were commonly Muslims and vice-versa, created a special societal bond, giving Kashmiri society a unique hue and flavour. The synthesis of mystical Shaivism and Islamic Sufism represented by adherence to Lalleshwari and Lalla Arifa as well as reverence for Shaikh Nooruddin as Nand Rishi and Shaikh by Hindus and Muslims respectively certainly indicates that despite different faiths, Kashmiris did share a number of common beliefs.
However, many Kashmiri Pandit community leaders describe this Kashmiriyat and shared traditions as a myth created by the media and politicians. 'Had there been such a tradition', they question, 'we would not have been compelled to leave the Valley.' They insist that with Islamization the common traditions have eroded over time. Yes, they did live together, but the living together, according to them, had nothing to do with the imagined 'Kashmiriyat'.

Gradual marginalisation
In this context, they point to their gradual marginalisation in the electoral arithmetic and politics of the Valley. To begin with they did not have the numbers to matter; in course of time constituencies were deliberately delimited so as to marginalise them further. In fact, special benefits reserved for the Muslims of the Valley, they point out, put them in severe disadvantage, causing a trickle of migration over the years, before the torrent began in 1990. They feel that they remained suspects because they neither supported accession to Pakistan, nor azadi to Kashmir.

The onset of extremist politics made the situation worse for them. Despite the apparent bonhomie, they had become suspects in the eyes of strident leaders and terrorist outfits as supporters of India. Yet, most of the Pandits scattered across the valley would never have dreamt of leaving the serene surrounding which was their home for centuries, though cautious ones had begun to migrate to Jammu and other places in north India.

Mass exodus
The massive exodus of Kashmiri Pandits took place on the night of January 20, 1990 following the gang rape and murder of Sarla Butt, a Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital, Srinagar, by extremists. Before this incident selective massacres of Pandit families had taken place in villages Telwani and Sangrama (Badgam district), where not even a child from the victims' families was spared. Though the January 20 exodus remains controversial due to the alleged role of Governor Jagmohan, who had taken over only a day before, the community leaders pooh pooh this thesis, saying that such a massive migration without could not have taken place on the basis of a false or engineered fear.

Ever since, nearly 250, 000 of these migrants have been living in the camps as well as in alternative accommodations in the city of Jammu and nearly 143, 565 in Delhi and surrounding areas. The rest are scattered all over the country. Though the precise number of migrants is not available, the plight of the families living in one-room tenements provided to them in camps is pathetic. They allege that they have been abandoned by the State government and the relief provided by the Central government is not sufficient to meet the rising expenses. The State government employees living in these camps are being paid salaries without work, but they complain that they neither get increments, nor promotions. Of course, no plan has so far been worked out for alternative employment for them.

The greater problem, however, is with regard to the future of the migrants. Unfortunately, each time an organised attempt for their return to the Valley was made, a major incident of terrorist violence against them stopped the process. The survivors report threats from the militants, in some cases with a tip off from the neighbours. In a number of cases, material greed got the better of their erstwhile neighbours, who took advantage of the situation to acquire properties at throwaway prices. They themselves may not have been involved in violence, but aggravated the fear psychosis to make the best of the situation. In some cases of return, the returnees were killed.

The Kashmiri Pandits feel betrayed today. They find no place for themselves in the discussion and discourse revolving around the Kashmir Valley. Even though they are as much Kashmiris as are the people leading the movement for the "right to self determination" for Kashmir, they have been driven out of their homes and the government finds it inconvenient to even make a mention of them. They feel betrayed by the electoral arithmetic. The rhetoric during the Agra summit that ignored them completely has reinforced their bitterness, particularly against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that supported their cause in its quest for power but has apparently forgotten them in its quest for international glory.

(Dr Ajay K Mehra is Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida.)

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