Mainstream, VOL LII, No 20, May 10, 2014
Secularism in the Valley
Monday 12 May 2014, by
In this season of hurt sentiments, it is my turn—and with emphasis. It has been declaimed lately from a broad-chested but small-minded podium that Kashmir, pointedly meaning the Valley, has been turned into a “communal” place by the Abdullahs; the barely concealed sub-text being that it always has been so—a communal place.
I wish you to know that to the extent that my political and spiritual life has been shaped in a fundamental way by my experience of being a born and bred Kashmiri—an inwardness of being, intimate with my acquired intellectual attributions, a felt richness that serves me well even now in my seventythird year, and over fifty years of living away from the Valley— I am not striking an attitude merely when I say I am deeply offended at not just the ignorance, but the dangerous ignorance, that seems to have propelled that irresponsible comment about Kashmiri secularism. Thank God, there were others from Gujarat who knew better, among them a man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Just to recall. When much of the subcontinent was ablaze and red with sectarian butchery in the wake of the partition of India, the only place where he found a “ray of hope” was the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and, mind you, months before the accession of the state to India.
As to the Sheikh, he, the record will show, was wise to the distorted urgings of religious nationalism before many others were, and had the intellectual percipience to tell Jinnah that the reality of the idea of Pakistan was a feudal-Punjabi ethnic reality masquerading under a theocratic slogan—one to which a “sufi” Kashmir could owe no allegiance. At a time when his fellow-religionists from the new dominion of Pakistan then sought to force the issue through an invasion, and when there was no Kashmiri or any other Army to fall back upon, the Sheikh’s ringing invocation was “Shere Kashmir ka kya irshaad/ Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itehaad.” And, to the Muslim invader: “Hamla aavar khabardar/ Hum Kashmiri hein tayaar.” Any Kashmiri who was then alive and sentient as I was, must find it hard to relegate that moment in history, however disgruntled such a one may have become subsequently. Read the history books and you will find that the Moghuls, whom Kashmiri Muslim chieftans gave battle, continue to be written down as “invaders”.
Reference has been made to the exodus of the Pandits—a deeply tragic reality undoubtedly, about which hereafter—but, think, if the Kashmiri Muslim had wanted a Valley free of the Pandit the months between August and October of 1947 should have been godsent: we could all have been massacred, as, the broad-chested one ought to be told, hundreds of thousands of Muslims were in parts of Jammu Province. After all, there was nothing to stop them, and the co-religionist invader could have leant a helping hand. Instead, if Pandits are alive today it is in extraordinary measure owing to the political vision of the Sheikh which, in turn, remained unshakeably informed by and rooted in many centuries of secular thought and living within the Valley (barring episodes when foreign or indigenous tyrants wielded the sectarian sword). An internalised cultural and spiritual history that seeped down to the least Kashmiri Muslim, my magnificient godmother, Zunat, included, who saved two Kashmiri Pandit villages all by herself, the amazon that she was. What Pandit lives were lost were lost to the invaders in the outer reaches of the Valley, like so many Kashmiri Muslim lives, among them those like the young Maqbool Sherwani who gave the tribal invaders a run-around for three decisive days in Baramulla before he was found out and nailed alive for his patriotism.
I am in tears often when I recall the tending I and generations of young Pandit boys and girls received at the hands of Muslim Kashmiris in daily neighbouhood living, through school, college, university, through weddings and wailings, never once allowed to feel we were a pampered minority, never once made victims of resentments that were deep and genuine. (And when Kashmiri Pandit households practised a culinary apartheid in relation even to their most intimate fellow Muslim Kashmiri helpers on whom often their lives depended.) Over five decades since I left the Valley, every year I visit, I and my family have a home ready for us with my boyhood friend and brother, Sikander, and my darling bhabi, Zahida, whose delight at our coming surpasses all other delights they know. Alas, I cannot name a visiting Muslim Gujarati whom I know to be in a similar situation. And, let me say this too: the list of friends where we must visit for a meal when we are there is too long to enumerate, veritable angels who readily undertake to see to our least needs on a sustained basis. Indeed, pity the fact that we are able to do so little in return.
Yes, the Pandit exodus did happen, but what crude political skullduggery it is to hold the Abdullahs responsible for the same. As the current Chief Minister has underscored, all that happened under the watch of Shri Jagmohan, a Governor appointed by a United Front Government in Delhi, supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party. If the State failed to protect the Pandits the answerability lies not with the Abdullahs but elsewhere. And the State did not fail to protect just the Pandits but the Muslims as well, equally at the receiving end of a hysteria created by gun-toting extremists who did not represent the sentiments of Kashmiri Muslims en masse, however quiescent the latter may have been from sheer terror. It is well to recall that that season of targeted killings began in 1988 with the murder of Halim, an important worker of the National Conference, the party of the Abdullahs, who through the subsequent months continued to lose great numbers of their supporters for being pro-India. Just as other Muslims were murdered for their alleged status as informers (mukhbirs). Only a deeply communal reading of that phase in modern Kashmiri history would assert that all Kashmiri Muslims were behind the atrocities on Pandits, and that the murdering agents spoke for all Kashmiri Muslims. As grievously erroneous a conclusion as to think that all Indian Hindus are represented by the RSS or Bajrang Dal.
The fact is that the exodus of the Pandits was as much the expression of a natural instinct to escape death as it was a miscalculation which neither the government of the day nor any voluntary resistance movement sought to prevent. We ought to remember as well that although Kashmiri Muslims equally at the receiving end had fewer options of safe havens outside the Valley, over a hundred thousand of them still left the place for the mainland. The richer ones, who had networks in Bangalore, Delhi etcetra, took house there; the many hundreds, who were labouring oustees suspected of loyalty to pro-India parties, set up their miserable hearths in make-shift camps like the one I visited in Shahadra on the outskirts of Delhi. And I remember their children going out for alms with paper in hand which said who they were, since they were not eligible for “migrant” status either. It is thus a grossly distorted reading of that occurrence to put it down as a communal strife between the mass of Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits—a distortion that continues to be belied by the very real longing and warmth with which Pandits continue to be welcomed to the Valley as they make visits, increasingly in very large numbers, to some of the prime spots of religious obser-vance and pilgrimage where Muslim Kashmiris see to every aspect of their requirement and comfort. Speaking of which in passing, would you imagine a Muslim equivalent, in size and duration, of an Amarnath Yatra passing through the heartland of that broad-chested Gujarat in welcome and safety of the kind that Yatra receives in, don’t you know, the communal Valley? I rather think you would not.
In passing also, it would be instructive to compare the lot of those Pandits who never left the Valley with the lot of Gujarati Muslims who exist in that ghetto of ghettos called Juhupura, also kindly nomenclatured “Pakistan” where, especially after 2002, no Gujarati Hindu deigns to set foot, buy or sell, or otherwise inter-act, and where the government spends not a farthing of its revenues. Now of course, lately, a scion of the Sangh Parivar, Giriraj Singh, has said to all Indians what Muslims in Juhu-pura and other ghettos in Gujarat are routinely told: those that do not vote Modi have no place in India and belong in Pakistan. Nobody in the Valley to this day has ever issued similar instructions to Pandits who still inhabit the Valley.
But, coming back to the subject of the Pandits, having left the Valley, their return was never going to be an easy operation for a multiple of reasons wherein blame is not so easily placed on one or the other parties to the conundrum, although I must confess to some disappointment in the fact that, genuinely fraternal intimacy to the contrary, there has not been any organised, not to speak of sustained, collective voluntary effort by Kashmiri Muslims to force the issue of their return. One suspects that economic reasons here operate as a silent inhibitor, and not until thorough means are generated to make their return economically viable for them as well as prevented from becoming an economic threat to Muslim Kashmiris may an answer be found to the despairing tragedy. Which is not to say that some miniscule section among the separatists may not see their return as the reinsertion of an Indian fifth column into the Valley.
If I have an apprehension it lies elsewhere—one that I share with fellow Kashmiris with as much candour as I do anything else. There are sections now among Kashmiri Muslims, especially among the intelligentsia, who would wish to see the mellifluous sufi traditions of personalised forms of seeking and spirituality in the Valley yield to a more hardened creed—one that disregards the age-old forms of devotion that send ordinary Muslims in droves to Ziyarats, Dargahs, Khankahs, and other spots of worship espoused bySufi Silsilas—a new Puritanism, if you like, that locates its allegiance to the letter of the Scripture, disallowing the notion of a universal and humanist spirit of love as Islamic. Thus there has come to be within the Valley a theological divide between what are called the Aiteqadies and the Gaer-Aiteqadies, meaning those that still believe in the worship of sufi saints and those who consider such humanist worship inimical to Islam. Such a rather Saudeised hardening finds expression in an ordering of do-s and don’t-s that by general opinion are wholly alien to sub-continental Islam, not to speak of Kashmiri Islam. One of the sad casualties of such an emphasis is, for example, the long-held culture of music as a form of worship, now looked upon as a sinning indulgence. And, yet, here too, at least as of now, none of this seems to take root, or translate in any discernable change of attitude towards fellow Kashmiris who are not Muslims, for example, the Sikhs who still thrive in the Valley. Indeed, whatever the unstated prohibitions, Sufi shrines within the Valley remain as chock a block as ever, despite repeated attempts by hardliners to burn them down—a fact that bears testimony to a complex reality—that the same religious faith across the globe is rarely an undifferentiated monolith, but is everywhere fraught and imbued with other cultural imperatives and histories that challenge homogenising impulsions, impulsions that, if forced by fiat, often lead to violent internecine catastrophes. Indeed, when one considers recent and current issues within the Muslim Ummah in diverse nation-states, this becomes sadly apparent. I have the faith that all that can never happen here, although, recalling Sinclair Lewis, whose title I have just used, it is foolish to be prophetic about history. Remarkably, as I said, these tendencies within the Valley do not yet seem to have wilted the love that the Kashmiri Muslim still bears the Pandit. Few things as delightfully absorbing as when they get going in Kashmiri. Shades of Bangladesh?
One thing that must rankle is for anyone from modern-day Gujarat to accuse Kashmiris of communalism, or indeed from anywhere else in the subcontinent. If Kerala is way ahead of all other States in social and human develop-ment indices, Kashmir is still, after all that has happened, ahead of all else in both the under-standing and practice of secularism. If you find that hard to chew, go live in the Valley for some length of time and come back wiser.
The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.