First a non-sequitor: the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley is fraught with great perplexities of emotion, organisation, and healthy sustainability. This contemplated return will not but be attended with consequences of historic import both for the State of Jammu and Kashmir and the subcontinent, one way or another. Of that there should be no doubt. Reason why the premises on which the project is undertaken need to be as comprehensively and objectively understood and acknowledged as may be possible.
I write, of course, as a Kashmiri Pandit who migrated from the State in normal course more than half-a-century ago; and, although I am in the Valley frequently—every second year if not every year—and have friendships and inter-actions that span a very wide spectrum of the population, I cannot possibly lay any claim to the substance of the experience of those Pandits who were forced to flee the Valley in 1990—a fact which, however, may not rob me of the prerogative to express myself on the question with otherwise a legitimate vantage, more perhaps than of those who are neither Kashmiris, nor Pandits, nor frequent visitors to the State, especially the Valley. It is just that those of us who have not experienced the brutalities we speak of worldwide have only the option of empathising with them with what sincere force of imagination we command.
I am of the view that the terms and modalities of the return of Pandits to the Valley must crucially issue from our understanding of the compulsions and culpabilities of the moment of their exodus.
Two broad readings of that moment offer themselves: one, that the exodus of January 1990 had the full endorsement of the Kashmiri Muslim population; and, two, that the ordinary lot of Kashmiri Muslims were as much at the receiving end of an organised militant putsch as the Pandits, and, although many Muslims across the Valley willed the Pandits not to leave, they were too helpless and afraid to do much more than to so will in view of both nasty admonitions from hostile ideologues and guns on the street.
Depending on which of these readings are favoured, preferred terms of the return will foreground themselves.
Should the Pandits wishing to return still remain convinced that their exodus had the endorsement of the bulk of Kashmiri Muslims, their projected return would inevitably be grounded in mistrust, and suspicion of a hostile demographic environment. Clearly, this frame of mind would be informed by a sense of identity of the returnees being more Hindus than Kashmiris. The insecurities that must inevitably issue from such a construct will not but dictate reposing trust in the State rather than the people. And, following from that, a sense of siege that can only yield a frozen communal divide. That such a divide would have the consequence of strengthening and formalising the clout of extreme Rightwing elements in either community must seem an inevitability. The question then invites itself: would a ghettoised isolation, however couched in “smart city” terms, be more conducive to the physical safety of the Pandits, however dour the security provided to the “townships” by state agencies, where any likely trouble-shooter could assume the silent backing of a consenting majority population? Not to speak of the interminable logistic conundrums of livelihood compulsions of everyday existence that would anyway render the secure isolation (sic) of the returnees a minute-to-minute hazard, since it would be foolish to underestimate the animus of a majority “other” that saw itself everyday of every week constructed as some sort of an unwavering and smouldering enemy both by the returnees and the state agencies protecting them. This model of return clearly seems one fraught with suspicioin, resentment, intractable logistics—how would the returnees go among the markets, the schools, the colleges, offices, hospitals etc. suspecting an enemy behind their back wherever they went, fearing potential violence. Its one virtue perhaps would be the assertion of a sectarian will and the reclaiming of lost territory—happy eventualities for some social forces in the fray.
The alternate paradigm of return could be one grounded in the perception that the Pandit exodus of 1990 did not have the endorsement of the bulk of the Kashmiri Muslim population, and that, whereas there may not have followed any concerted or organised attempt on behalf of the latter to seek the return of the Pandits, they have genuinely desired such return, albeit on a footing of equality rather than privilege. Such a view would of course require ideological reinforcement from long years of historical memory that belies the view that Kashmiri Muslims have always been inimical to the Pandits’ existence. It would require a recall to 1947, for example, when not a hair of a Pandit head was touched in the Valley (except those in border areas who fell to the marauding invaders from the new Dominion of Pakistan) while large scale massacres of Muslims did happen in the Jammu province. Fortunalely, in contrast to writing of the 1990 experience from a distance, I am able to speak of the events of 1947 from personal acquaintance. Any number of instances may be cited where Kashmiri Muslims saved Pandit lives and households at terminal risk to themselves. Such Muslims included my own six-footer Dai Ma, Zunat, who stood rock-like to prevent harm to two Pandit households in the village of Wadipora, three miles north of Handwara.
In short, this paradigm would base itself in trust of the people rather than the state which in any event must always be seized with the responsibility to protect the lives of any and all citizens from either internal or external agencies that seek to harm them. One is quite aware of the fact that this option is not easy to take for those Pandits who did not merely leave the Valley but saw unconscionable brutalities at close quarters, and who may not feel too enthused by the further fact that all of the known culprits of those brutalities have some to no legal reckoning. A structure of feeling that corresponds to what many Kashmiri Muslims have experienced to see state agents culpable of gratuitous atrocities go equally without reckoning.
But, were this paradigm to be embraced as a transcendant act of faith, the conclusion that would follow would be that the best bet for the Pandits might be to rethink their view of Kashmiri Muslims and of the nature and quantum of their collective complicity in the putsch of January 1990, engage in reconciliation procedures, ask the state to rehabilitate them in localities where they belonged, and join forces with secular and democratic segments of the population to deter a common enemy—namely, the sectarian ideologue or militant, as well as the jackboot that complements their depre-dations. It does seem to this writer that, contrary to an obvioius view, the prospect of the Pandits and Muslims living in close proximity as before is likely to be far more conducive to the physical security of the Pandits than living in discrete townships. Not to speak of those townships turning into versions of a Juhapura in Ahmedabad, or, contrarily, islands of provocative prosperity—both equally deleterious.
On this issue, it ought to be a matter of considerable significance and counsel that the Secretary of the Association of Pandits who never left the Valley, Sanjay Tickoo, should have expressed the emphatic view that they may not be persuaded to shift into “townships” in preference to their traditional and existent location among mixed neighbourhoods—a reminder that a faultline has existed between Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley and those that chose to stay behind.
It should be obvious that depending on what option is exercised, commensurate consequences for the life of the Indian Republic (and Pakistan as well) will ensue, damaging or beneficial variously, not to speak of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. What needs to be understood is that rehabilitating the Pandits among the Muslims will simultaneously also affect the rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Muslims, a vast number of whom wish to live down the shame of having “failed” to prevent the exodus of the Pandits—a painful thought most explicitly expressed just the other day by the saintlike Education Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Naeem Akhtar, publicly, and in private confidence by many Muslim Kashmiris.
All in all, this might be a moment that carries within it the onus of extremely consequential possibilities, and therefore one that deserves to be weighed with deep foresight. All parties to the issue, for example, will need to recognise that if much has remained the same in the Valley over the last quarter-century, much also has changed. There is now a stoutly educated Muslim intelligentsia that, looking back, is persuaded that the gulf between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits for a hundred years or more has been one of class perceived as social experience; it is hardly to be expected or desired that the sort of hegemony that the Pandits once exercised over the life of ideas or officialdom be restored as part of some “package”. Kashmiri Muslim scholars, academics, and civil society ideologues I know and interact with are more than willing to have the Pandits come as equals and enrich the concerns and debates that range among them with greater empathy for the sufferings of Muslim Kashmiris than the Pandits may have so far felt or shown. Put another way, one would think that if the Pandits indeed wish to return to a life of composite Kashmiriyat, they might need to be less opportunistically “nationalist” than may have been their predi-lection, without any retreat from their allegiance to a republican India—same as the mainstream political parties in the Valley that still draw more than impressive support from the electorate. Indeed, their bold participation in the political process could not but have the effect of fleshing out new secular and democratic dimensions of cultural and intellectual concerns that may have remained quiescent over time, just so long as their politics remain free of communal-sectarian emphases. Ideally, one would have thought, such matters should have received wide public debate and attention preparatory to any precipitate legacy-driven impulse that may remain ill-thought.