Mahima Razdan is a Kashmiri Pandit.
H-O-M-E – four letters, one syllable; arguably one of the simplest words in the Indian language. Something that children are taught to spell and understand when they are five years old. And yet, for as long as I can remember I have struggled to answer the very innocuous, mundane question, ‘Where is home for you?’ I always pause. I always hesitate. I know what I want to say – Kashmir. It is what I associate my identity the most with it, even if, the first time that I was finally able to visit the valley was in 2008 – twenty years after the exodus in which my family had to flee the Valley in fear for their lives.
Am I still allowed to lay claim to a home that some people would argue I don’t belong to because I come from a Hindu family in a Muslim majority district? (notice, I don’t say state) How do you explain this to someone you are meeting for the first time? Every time someone asks me this question, I face this dilemma and I feel a fresh sense of loss. Every. single. time.
This has been my inheritance – my inheritance of pain.
I have often been asked (and avoided answering until today) what the Kashmiri perspective of the conflict is – again a simplifying statement. Kashmiri perspective? The state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is an area of 101380 sq. kms. is divided into:
– Kashmir 15%,
– Jammu 26% and
– Ladakh 59%.
There are more than 14 major religious/ethnic groups – Shias, Dongra’s, Kashmiri Pandits, Sikhs, Buddhists, Gujjars, Bakarwals, Paharis, Baltis, Christians and more. Our stories, perspectives and experiences are very different depending upon who you ask. So who among us then is the actual Kashmiri really? Whose opinion is more or less valid and whose perspective do we take into account?
My story begins at the end of 1989 – three years before I was born, funny how that works right? My grandfather on my mother’s side was the MD of J&K Industries – well, he was MD in all but name because he was a Kashmiri Pandit, and the ruling majority at the time was Muslim. Until the day that he left Kashmir my nana was forever acting MD. My mother despite having topped the medical board exams was unable to get a seat in the medical college because she was a Hindu – the firebrand that she is, she took the whole medical board to court and was able to reverse the decision – for herself and several other Hindu students who had been refused seats that year.
Communalist rhetoric had been rampant in the valley since 1970 and the Islamization of Kashmir began during 1980’s when Abdullah Government changed the names of about 2500 villages from their native names to new Islamic names. Increasingly in the 1980’s Abdullah began to refer to Kashmiri Pandits as “mukhbir” or informers of the Indian government. A tale as old as time, history is testimony to the fact that separatism wins votes – Hitler, after all used the same strategy in Nazi Germany against the Jews.
Everything came to a head in 1989, when the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits began. My grandfather got a call in the middle of the night that as high-ranking Hindu government official his name was on a hit list and that he should leave. So, he did, he packed his bags with enough clothes for 10 days – planning to return to the valley when things had calmed down. He was unable to return for 20 years. In the ensuing violence that followed approximately 1,300 Sikhs and Hindus lost their lives. Under intimidation of the approximately 300,000 to 600,000 Hindus living in the Kashmir Valley in 1990 only 2,000–3,000 remain there in 2016.
I have heard people in the valley decry Israel for crimes committed against Palestinians – don’t get me wrong, rightly so – but every bone in my body wants to scream, what about the Kashmiri Pandits? You care about the Palestinians living thousands of miles away but not about your own people? Your neighbours, your friends, the people you grew up with? Why not make a stand for them? There are Kashmiri Pandits living in refugee camps 30 years later – why aren’t you protesting to bring them home?
Having lost their home, most of their belongings, their businesses, all. My family was extremely fortunate because my grandfather had a flat in Delhi – they did not have to reside in refugee camps. Because he could never go back to Kashmir, my grandfather took an early retirement had to survive on a minimal government pension.
The losses didn’t end there – five years after having moved to Delhi my grandfather lost his wife and my mother lost her mother. My grandmother had lived with a heart condition all her life. She had been healthy and had exercised but after the loss of her home and the betrayal of lifelong friends and business partners who were quick to grab assets that had been left behind – she quickly deteriorated in Delhi and died, quite literally, of a broken heart.
As punishment for this violence the Indian medical board decided to no longer recognise medical degrees from J&K – something that was the beginning of the end of my mothers’ medical career. She had finished her MBBS and was training to be a surgeon but now could no longer get admission into medical master’s programmes in India. She still was able to practise medicine but despite being one of the best students of her class she was never able to be the lead surgeon – only the assistant. Eventually was able to get into a residency programme in the US but who knows what she would have achieved otherwise?
Do I agree with the concept of integrating the state of J&K with the rest of India? – I most certainly do! I think this finally gives an opportunity for people to have better lives, for there to be more investment, better schools, more scrutiny on the army and the money-making racket between local politicians and militants that has been occuring there for the past two decades.
This decision also makes the most demographic sense. Let’s look at the facts and figures: there are 22 districts in in J&K. Out of which there are only 5 districts where separatists have their say – Srinagar (my home town), Anantnag, Baramullah, Kulgam and Pulwama. The other 17 districts are pro-India. The separatist writ runs in just 15% of the population which are Sunni Muslim dominated. Shia (12%), Gujjar Muslims (14%), Pahadi Muslims (8%), Buddhist, Pandits, Sufis, Christians and Jammu Hindus, Dongras (approx. 45%) are totally opposed to separatism.
However, I am completely opposed to the way in which this has been handled by the Modi government. The government has almost arbitrarily taken this decision without the backing of the legislative assembly – making what would have been an otherwise sound political proposal completely illegitimate.
Moreover, just because violence broke out in the 1980’s doesn’t give the government the right to put people under house arrest and switch off internet in the Valley. It doesn’t just justify putting all the political leaders under house arrest, and it most certainly doesn’t justify the curfews, the use of pellet guns and the violence that the population within the valley (5 districts mentioned above) have faced since 2016. This is wrong – in my opinion even if 5 districts in the region want independence, they should be allowed to voice that and dissent and protest.
A few years ago during a walking tour in Copenhagen I suddenly burst into tears. The guide had been telling a story of how when the Jewish people had to flee Denmark during the War, their neighbors had kept their house clean, their gardens watered and their business running so that when the Jews returned to their homes, they could just pick up their lives where they had left off. I cried because of the contract that had been my experience. I cried for my family and all they had lost. For all the losses faced by the people I didn’t know and for the injustice Kashmiri Pandits had faced.
When my grandfather, homesick for the valley went back after 20 years, in 2008, against all advice – he found that his ancestral home had been completely ransacked. Everything that could be taken had been stolen, right down to the plumbing and pipes. This, by people who he had worked and lived with. People who had been his friends and family. Yet, despite everything when he moved back, my grandfather found the strength to rebuild.
He found the strength to forgive. He found the strength to move forward. I do not know how he did it, but he did.
And that is what I am trying to find the strength to do – to draw a line. Violence doesn’t justify more violence. Being in pain doesn’t justify creating more pain.
Over the past two years I have started to write my opinion about Kashmir and have stopped midway – it was too difficult to say what I wanted to say without somehow demonising a section of the population or making it appear as if there are just two sides, or somehow justifying violence. Words have power and there are enough people spreading hate and division – I did not want to be a part of that narrative.
I think though there comes a point when you can no longer be silent. That point for to me came when a friend posted on social media that India was moving towards ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Muslims!
WHAT? (ethnic cleansing is what happened it the 90s! Apologises to the friend I ranted at, you see it’s an emotionally charged word for me)
That is not what is happening today at all. I have heard too many conversations like that over my whole life – from both sides – the most common from the other side of the debate being ‘All Kashmiris are terrorists.’ Really? All of them? Even the five-year-old child who was pelleted while crossing the street?
Whatever your view if you are posting some half-considered inflammatory sentence on social media, you are doing everybody a disservice and, in my opinion, preventing peace. Think about it, can there ever be any sort of compromise if you assume that the person on the negotiating table in front of you is a caricatured villain out of a day-time soap, with no justification for their actions and no redeeming qualities of humanity whatsoever? After all, if the person in front of you is the devil incarnate than surely whatever action you take, no matter how heinous, is justified?
It is time for us shed our biases, our past and take a measured, considered view. We cannot let our opinions be defined for us by people who have vested interests and more importantly we cannot forget that the people in front of us ARE PEOPLE – despite their views, despite their religious or political affiliations – these are PEOPLE – with families and hopes and dreams. They bleed like us. They hurt like us.
What we allow to happen will shape countless lives going forward. Do we decide to end the blame and the violence and the finger pointing and decide to come to a resolution together? Or do we harbor our age-old grievances so that the only thing we have to pass on to the next generation is once again, an inheritance of pain?
– Mahima Razdan