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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 37

Heal and Renew

Wednesday 3 September 2008, by Badri Raina

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark;
- O cursed spite
- That ever I was born to set it right.
- (Hamlet)

In an act of conspicuous courage (some might say ‘audacity’) the young, bright, and fiercely upright Omar Abdullah has breached the pall of silence in which the Valley has remained suffocated since the coerced exodus of the Pandits in 1990.

In a statement recorded on his blog, Omar has made the following candid aversions that interrogate Kashmiri Muslims as a whole:

”It is so easy to say that we will lay down our lives to bring Kashmiri Pandits back to the Valley and I appreciate the sentiment as I am sure the Kashmiri Pandits reading it will. Pity that the sentiment was missing when our mosques were being used to drive these people out...

None of us was willing to stand up and be counted when it mattered. None of us grabbed the mikes (microphones) in the mosques and said: “This is wrong and the Kashmiri Pandits had every right to continue living in the Valley... Our educated, well-to-do relatives and neighbours were spewing venom 24 hours a day and we were mute spectators, either mute in agreement or mute in abject fear but mute none the less...

“And talking about mosques—what a great symbol of mass uprising they proved to be. While I can’t claim to have lived through it, I have enough friends who did and they tell me about the early nineties where attendance was taken in mosques to force people to pray.” Questioning the “spontaneity” of processions taken out in 1990, Omar said people were forced out of their homes to participate in “mass upsurges” against “Indian occupation” and the same enforcement committees went from door to door. Thus, as Hamlet was moved by the noble example of his deceived father-king, Omar speaks today the noble legacy of the Sheikh yet again. And not a day too soon.

(Not long after that exodus, the rath-yatra to Ayodhya was to beat a similar drum of intimidatory, exclusionary cultural politics, resulting in the deaths of some nine hundred citizens in the riots that followed in Mumbai.) The pity is that a state that had stood rock-like as an example of fraternal inter-community existence during the shameful killings of 1946-47, taking on aggression with collective resolve, was to be rendered self-alienated by the events of 1990, not only in social terms but as a spiritual/cultural space.

II

OVER the last year or more, increasing number of Pandits have been revisiting the Valley, chiefly to perform puja and pilgrimage. Media reports on these visits, especially coverage undertaken daily for half-an-hour each by the ETV Urdu channel, have repeatedly shown how affecting these renewed contacts between Pandits and Muslims have been.

Pandits have been moved to discover for themselves how in many places Hindu shrines are tended by local Muslims, and how close the inter-community interface still is among Pandits who never left the Valley and their Muslim friends and neighbours. Often in distant villages reports have shown that Pandit weddings and cremations are assisted and managed by Muslim Kashmiris.

Just the other day, as nine Pandit families returned to their old homes in Verinag to save their houses from being demolished to make way for parking space, these families were astonished at not just the warmth with which their erstwhile Muslim neighbours greeted them, but the bold stand taken by the latter in defence of the right of the Pandits to retain their houses, and the desire expressed by the Muslims to live again next door to them as of old.

The quality and substance of these syncretic cultural reassertions are precisely the sort that this writer has consistently experienced in my visits to the Valley. (See the author’s “Valley of Love”, Frontline, August 1, 2003)

III

BUT, something has been missing—a credible and decisive expression of contrition and complicity in regard to the events of 1990. Kashmir has been waiting for its Hamlet, a whistle-blower who would speak the word of cathartic shame and healing, letting the genie out that would begin to scatter the dark cobwebs of guilt and silence. Omar Abdullah has come forward as that angel that blows the conch of confession and renewal.
In saying what he has said, Omar gives voice to the truth that, cruelties and inhumane distortions notwithstanding, the demons of the culture of hate-filled exclusion remain alien to the heart of Kashmiris. And, as I have said, he recalls a legacy that in modern times was enunciated by that towering human being, his grandfather, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah.

Recall that in late 1947 when Sardar Patel invoked the Nawabs of Junagarh and Hyderabad to follow the will of the people in the matter of accession, the Sheikh, agreeing with that view, posed himself the question: what should Kashmir do? And, weeks before the aggression from across the line, or the accession and the coming of the Indian Army, answered that question in a public speech on October 4, 1947; and this is what he said: ”We shall not believe... ...the two-nation theory which has spread so much poison. Kashmir showed the light at that juncture. When brother kills brother in the whole of Hindustan, Kashmir raised its voice of Hindu-Muslim unity. I can assure the Hindu and Sikh minorities that as long as I am alive their life and honour will be quite safe.”(See M.J. Akbar, Kashmir: Behind the Vale, p. xiv) And, speaking to the UN General Assembly on February 5, 1948, this is what the Sheikh said: ”I and my organisation never believed in the formula that Muslims and Hindus form separate nations. We do not believe in the two-nation theory, nor in communal hatred or communalism itself. We believed that religion has no place in politics. Therefore when we launched our ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement it was not only Muslims who suffered but our Hindu and Sikh comrades as well.” (ACHA, Archive of Kashmir Resources)

(See Riyaz Punjabi, “Kashmiriyat: Mystique of an Ethnicity”, Miraas, vol.i, January-March, 2008 for an account of the conjoint spiritual resource which informed the Sheikh’s conviction, or informs Omar’s remorse now, or glosses the silent shamefacedness of Kashmiri Muslims today who find it hard to break out into a forthright communalist position on the question of the ousted Pandits, even as they seem equally reluctant yet to build any forceful opinion for welcoming them back into the Valley.)

IV

YET the problem remains with us. Subsequent to the rupture of 1990, many Pandits look for a cultural tradition exclusive to them, and in so doing, revisit the earliest Sharda literatures, beginning with the Nilamat Purana, etc., as they seek to reinvent an exclusively Hindu-aboriginal identity. Conversly, some Sunni Muslim groups propagate that syncretism was always a false construction, and that Muslims are enjoined, as in Arab countries, to follow the pristine Salafi/Wahabi path which forbids the notions of a personal discovery of godhead, the ethic of eros, music, worship at Sufi dargahs, ecstatic ritual, commingling with non-believers, and so on.

It is another matter that some eighty per cent of Muslims actually live outside the Arab world—some seventy per cent in Asia—and that in each national culture and history religions have always acquired features all their own. Indeed, within the Indian subcontinent itself, it is the diversity of cultural practices among Muslims in various regions—as among Hindus—that makes of subcontinental Islam so rich and instructive an archive.

Be that as it may, there is evidence that the people of Kashmir continue to internalise syncretism in ways that no theoretical formulations of an imposed nature are about to dislodge. Omar Abdullah’s call to confession and reconciliation indeed would have been either unthinkable or already severely castigated had that not been so. A striking evidence of that truth is, for example, to be found in the pages of the book, Eightythree Days: The Story of a Frozen River, by Dr S.N. Dhar, a highly reputed Pandit physician.

Dr Dhar was picked up by militants early in 1992, constantly moved from location to location but held captive for eightythree days. The book recounts what he suffered and what he learnt: among other things, he was to conclude: “In spite of the atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion, I found most of the young gunmen innocent and caring, some of whom held the Kashmiri Pandits in high esteem.”

And upon his release and return home: “Within no time my neighbours, then more people and then even more people arrived, greeting me with showers of almonds and shireen... I was overwhelmed by this spontaneous expression of love and concern... ... ... Something had happened, somehow an ordinary Kashmiri’s emotions of love hitherto suppressed, burst like a volcano, transforming into touching and dramatic scenes, for which a Kashmiri is known anyway. The more I saw of this, the more I resolved to be where I belonged—losing my freedom once again—this time to the chains of love.” (pp. viii and 180)

An old college senior and cricketing friend, Dr Dhar, invited me to his home in Raj Bagh in 2004 along with other Kashmiri friends of all denominations. There I had further proof that what we had lost was both recoverable and poignantly desirable of recovery.

Kashmiri Pandits, who say they want to go back but to a sequestered “homeland”, must introspect just as much as Omar Abdullah and Dr Dhar do in what I have cited. Apart from taking in with open minds the experiences of those others, besides Dr Dhar, who never left the Valley and whose lives remain watched over by their fellow Muslim Kashmiris.

V
WHAT, then, must now be discussed among all groups is how ways are to be found to extend the Omar initiative into a more embracing collective endeavour directed at exorcising the ghosts of the unnatural events of 1990. Other states and nations have done so with inspiring successes, although without chasing the faultless perfections of utopia.
It is to be noted that many secular Pandits who wish to return have had the experience of being warmly welcomed for a while, but gently also instructed that for now it may be best for them to stay where they are—in the camps.

A circumstance that lends weight to the suspicion that there may not exist any felt collective impulse among Kashmiri Muslims to see them return and live as they did, and urgency to the effort to galvanise such an impulse into a public movement if indeed what our Muslim brothers and sisters say in private is to be credited. Such Pandits rightly argue that the taste of the pudding must be in the eating: any credible programme of recall to the Valley must take in to account such things as work opportunities, housing and other paraphernalia of steadfast permanent residence above and beyond the mere goodwill of their Muslim brothers.

VI

INDEED, these unexpressed slippages are precisely the faultlines that acquire the status of the unbreachable in moments of renewed acrimony and hostility—real or imagined.

No better instance of that than the current turmoil over the Amaranth shrine-related land-transfer imbroglio.

Kashmiri Muslims have argued that since the Governor of the State who controls the Shrine Board is not a “permanent resident” under the law, any transfer of assets to him breaches the stipulations of Article 370. In the case under discussion, therefore, a euphoria has been sought to be built over the fear that Delhi seeks by subterfuge to cause a demographic change to happen in the Valley—a course of action that the RSS has had in mind. However the facts may contradict that suspicion, the strength of the protest testifies to the allegiance that Kashmiris feel towards the terms of Accession.

Yet, however understandable the law in the matter of the transfer of the land to a non-permanent entity, Kashmiri Pandits equally understandably retort with deep pain that nothing severe is ever said by Kashmiri Muslim leaderships about the catastrophic demographic change wrought by the wholesale eviction of the Pandits from the Valley. Indeed a historic event for all to see, and one that makes Omar Abdullah’s chastisement so precious.

Thus, intended or not, the matter has stood to be communalised. Especially the province of Jammu has felt that yet again the hegemony of the Valley has received the preferential nod. Interestingly, and a fact that would go to suggest how the regional question in fact tends to override the religious, Muslims who reside in the Jammu province seem to share that hurt.
This writer would suggest that the land transfer problematic may indeed be turned into an opportunity.

Nothing would release more inter-community and inter-regional trust than if the whole onus of looking after the yatris to the shrine (which for more than a century has stood as a syncretic icon and event) was taken away both from the Governor and the government and entrusted to an autonomous Board comprising Kashmiri Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims, to be funded by the government of the day.

Given that the pilgrimage to the shrine has in any case been a happening in which Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims have participated with endorsed harmony, it is such a Board constituted as a voluntary citizen programme among Kashmiri permanent residents across the religious spectrum that would stand the best chance of restoring trust and harmony. Indeed the success of such a venture could well lead to an intercommunity revival of larger dimensions, and contribute towards concretising the aspiration towards which Omar Abdullah’s contrition tends.

It is also the only sure way in which the demons of communalism in the heartland of India and Pakistan can be shamed and defeated. n (Courtesy : Kashmir Times)

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62