Leave Or Die
Rahul Pandita is an angry man. He is also a Kashmiri Pandit. Given his history in the last 20 years, it is likely that if he is the latter he will also be the former. And perhaps his new, autobiographical account of his childhood growing up in Srinagar, his ejection from the Valley with the rest of his community and his struggle to cope with life as a dispossessed refugee with little hope of return to his homeland, is a way of coping with that rage.
In Our Moon Has Blood Clots, Pandita unveils a narrative that India’s Left liberal consensus is strikingly uncomfortable with and has long avoided mentioning. Because of the disproportionate clout this consensus wields in the influential English media, it’s a narrative that gets sporadic mention but no headline-grabbing or influential campaigns of support that shape discourses for years ahead.
Side-by-side with the standard, anti-State, human rights rhetoric that has come to characterise the only politically “acceptable” understanding of the Kashmir issue, there has been a conspicuous and unethical silence on the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. Because it doesn’t fit in to the convenient yet disingenuous Left-wing understanding of minority politics, it lands by default in the BJP camp whose rule ironically also produced no great shift in this scenario.
Rahul Pandita seeks to change that. To set things down for the record – like another Kashmiri Pandit he mentions who has taken it upon himself to document every Kashmiri Pandit who was killed in the Valley or died in the exodus later in their stiflingly hot one bedroom allotments at the refugee camps in Jammu. He also seeks to challenge the Muslim-centric narrative of victimhood and helplessness that has come to rigidly dominate the Kashmir story at the cost of important and inconvenient truths about power and governance.
The pity is that Pandita, engrossed in his own story – perhaps understandably – doesn’t do this strongly enough. Losing a beloved older first cousin and hero, Ravi (shot dead after being pulled off a bus), to the conflict, and seeing his mother slowly degenerate into a paralysed, voiceless state, moving over 20 houses, and knowing the pain of the distress-sale of an ancestral home, are events that do have a way of concentrating the mind wonderfully.
Yet, equally important, are the larger truths that one can glimpse in his book.
Unfortunately they remain glimpses, a string of statements for the record. Key amongst them is the motif of the early Nineties in all conflict reportage from the Valley, that the exodus of the Pandits was a conspiracy of the State to discredit the Muslims. Evidence suggests that while the State may have organised some forms of basic and inadequate help once the Pandits began leaving in large numbers, the tipping point for the exodus remains the nights of January 19th and 20th 1990 when threats, jeers and open abuse broadcast over mosques all over the Valley all night long became the climax of a year-long campaign of targeted and brutal assassinations designed to send a clear message. Leave or die.
Pandita deals with this in one page, when an entire book could be written on why Muslims felt the need to create this myth and what it meant in the early days of the conflict. He has other stronger emotions to share, fonder illusions to shatter.
Friends – the thread of betrayal is strong on every page – and friendship is one such illusion. Without saying so in clear words, he busts the idea that neighbours and good friends, people who grew up together came to the help of their beleaguered minority in their time of need. Instead, the Pandits were dispensable in the glorious narrative of the future as an independent “Switzerland of the East” – the grand ambition that Sheikh Abdullah laid out for them.
It showed in little ways, brutal and mild. The 1998 Wandhama massacre, where according to the only survivor, the Muslims of the small village turned up the sound of the mosque loudspeaker to muffle the sounds of bullets that killed 23 Pandit fellow villagers. Or the communal venom that suddenly slipped out from a close school friend as he deliberately desecrated the image of a Hindu Goddess. Or when a gang of Pandita’s fellow cricketers in the neighbourhood, idly discussed at his gate in 1990 – as he watched from behind curtained windows – which Pandit house they would grab in the locality, sure in the knowledge that they would flee sooner or later.
Yet in the larger picture that must be kept in mind as the reader journeys through Pandita’s tragedy that mirrors thousands of others, there is an inevitable rider to ponder. Can a minority as tiny as the Pandits ever hope to be spared by the majority if its thinking, mindsets and loyalties are so totally at variance with the latter’s? If an independent Kashmir is what Muslims aspired to since 1949, could Pandits really be fierce, proud Indians and hope to get away with it?
Pandita asserts he is an Indian and could never be anything else. In this he is no different from thousands in his community who believe they kept the tricolour flying high in a Valley hell bent on separation. (Or indeed, those who clapped for Pakistan in the Seventies and Eighties in Bombay’s Bhendi Bazaar, convinced they were upholding the flag of Islam).
Kashmiri Pandit and Muslim, each remained a traitor for the other. Both caught in the treacherous, seductive argument of the Two Nation theory that Religion equals Nation rather than neighbours, humsayas, friends or the common culture and language of the land that sustained them both. The tragic denouement of January 1990 was perhaps inevitable and there were hints aplenty that things were heading that way – a point Pandita makes when he asserts that his community had learned to live in Kashmir – not as a proud minority but with their heads kept down even when their temples were desecrated and humiliation heaped upon them.
Yet like other young Kashmiri Muslim writers writing about their conflict, Pandita who has reported on human rights abuses in Kashmir in his professional life, has clearly drawn the lines that separate an “us” and a “them”. The Muslims focus on their tragedy, he on his. Rarely does the twain meet or even intersect.
The night of January 20th for instance is a legend in another history of the conflict, but not for the reasons Pandita outlines. It’s the night that 50 protestors were shot dead by the CRPF on Srinagar’s Gawkadal Bridge and the tipping point for a whole other narrative of suffering. Tellers of that story never mention the haranguing, vicious abuse suffered by the Pandits that night. Pandita doesn’t mention the head count of Gawkadal in his account either.
Other inconvenient truths? That the concept of a “special” Kashmir that deserved to be independent was first floated by Pandits, quite sure of their perpetual dominance as super-educated bureaucrats over the illiterate peasant Muslim majority. Few Pandits will concede that.
Or that the land reforms that severely disadvantaged the Pandit community and the deliberate reversal of the Pandits’ grip on government jobs was made possible only in a secular democratic so-called “Hindu” India that let Sheikh Abdullah and later Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed encourage the blossoming of their poor, less educated peasant Muslim majority at severe cost to their talented, powerful, meritorious Pandit minority; in the name of the egalitarianism its Prime Minister and Constitution upheld. Even fewer Muslims will concede that.
Perhaps also, it is too much to expect either of them only two decades into their armed conflict.
What the reader takes away from Pandita’s effort is the pages permeated with sadness and deep, grievous, irrecoverable loss. Key to this sadness is the realisation that a Kashmir where once Pandits lived deep inside Muslim territory and nurtured rich, strong connections with them, has been too deeply destroyed in the impulsive rush to “Azadi”, conceded too much ground to Islamist power-brokers to stumble back on a return journey. Like Partition, this is a line that will not be erased in this generation’s lifetime or the next, however hard peaceniks work at it.
It is a tale that needs to be told and documented again and again. And if the teller is also a part of the conflict he narrates, the reader needs to concede his right to tell his very personal, very own story. In the end, that is what Rahul Pandita does with elegance and eloquence.