Linking violence and trauma to the beautiful Kashmir Valley is indeed ironic. For centuries the beauty and splendour of Kashmir as a tranquil paradise has been glorified by poets, singers, travel writers and historians alike. As Rahul Pandita mentions in his memoir Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir, “Kashmir is so beautiful, my grandfather used to say, even the gods are jealous of it. Not only of its beauty, but also of its contribution to art and scholarship”.

Present-day Kashmir is a troubled state, a recurrent flashpoint of political mayhem, especially in the post-independence period. The last few decades of the 20th century, especially the 1990s saw the rapturous valley being rapidly transformed into a barbaric stage of prolonged ethnic cleansing of the native Kashmiri Pandits. As Rahul Pandita has pointed out, though just around three and a half lakh Pandits were affected and around 700 killed, the act of ethnic cleansing is comparable to the shocking violence in Bosnia. What is tragic is that most of the Kashmiri Pandits have been forced into permanent exile following their persecution and displacement from the Valley. Pandita uses the word ‘home’ only in the context of Kashmir ~ “It’s only in Kashmir’s context that I use the word ‘home’. I now have a flat in Gurgaon but I use the word ‘house’ for that.” As he asserted in the interview: “The idea of home is lost forever.” It is this loss of “idea of home” that keeps on recurring in the writings of Pandits in exile.

It is interesting to observe that the tyranny, subjugation and persecution of the Pandits in Kashmir is not a new occurrence. In fact, a close perusal of memoirs and contemporary history affirms that the native Hindus had been persecuted by successive Afghan rulers in the Valley leading to mass exodus in various phases over the centuries to Jammu and other parts of northern India. From the mideighteenth to early nineteenth century, Kashmir, largely under the rule of the Afghans continued the oppression and subjugation of the native population. In fact for most Afghan rulers, tyranny, persecution and repression of the Pandits was an integral part of their political stratagem. In his book, The Valley of Kashmir, Walter R Lawrence commented on one of the Afghan governors, Assad Khan: “It was his practice to tie up the Pandits; two and two, in grass sacks and sink them in the Dal lake.” Besides such humiliation, as Lawrence affirms in his book, the Pandits were subjected to other forms of oppression as well: ‘The Pandits, who formerly wore moustaches, were forced to grow beards, turbans and shoes were forbidden, and the tika or forehead mark was interdicted. It is said that the exaggerated forehead marks and the absurdly long turbans now affected by the Pandits, still serve to keep alive the memories of the tyranny of Pathan times. The jazia or polltax on Hindus was revived, and many Brahmins either fled the country, were killed or converted to Islam.’

It was only under the rule of the Sikhs and the Dogra regimes that the socio-economic position of the Pandits relatively improved. In October 1947, in the post-independence period, during the reign of Maharaja Hari Singh, tribal militants from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, aided by Pakistani soldiers attacked Kashmir, butchering hundreds of Pandits. It was at this juncture that Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession with India on 26 October 1947, paving the way for the Indian army to drive away the aggressors. In the subsequent decades, Kashmiri Pandits became more vulnerable with the rise of militancy in the Valley during the late 1980s. In their quest for liberation of Kashmir the militants wanted to obliterate the Pandits from the valley. In July 1988 the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, a terrorist organization, officially launched its jihad or armed struggle for freedom from India.

They initiated the ethnic cleansing with the gruesome murder of the leading Hindu community leader, Pandit Tika Lal Taploo in Srinagar on 14 September 1989. The subsequent months witnessed assassinations of several high profile Hindu personalities. These killings included Justice NK Ganju of the Srinagar High Court and the veteran poet Sarwanand Kaul Premi. The latter, a Gandhian, had participated in the Quit India movement against British rule. Sarwanand Premi had also played a significant role in the Quit Kashmir movement against the Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir in 1946-47. An outstanding scholar, he had translated Tagore’s Gitanjali and the Bhagwad Gita into Urdu, Hindi and Kashmiri. A deeply secular personality, he even treasured a rare manuscript of the Koran in his prayer room. Besides advocating the need for a secular Kashmir he became famous with his writings on the biographies of the saint poet Mata Roopa Bhawani, Swami Mirza-Kakji among others. Both Sarwanand and his son Virender were killed by militants in the most gruesome manner. Besides being shot, the police “found their bodies hanging from a tree a day later”. The terrorists had “hammered nails between their eyebrows, where the tilak is applied” besides mutilating their bodies with cigarette burns. Alongside these killings, atrocities on Pandits were perpetrated relentlessly as kidnapping and physical torture multiplied. As Shaleen Kumar Singh observes in his memoir Pandits and Dogras: “The whole Kashmir scenario changed in the 1990s, when 3,50,000 Pandits migrated from the Valley and sought refuge in Jammu. Men, women, children were dazed when they found themselves housed in classrooms, temples, inns, sheds, tents and dormitories. They were perplexed and aghast to see the condition they were in. The old presented a pitiable sight. Bleak future, uncertainty and a sense of loss were writ large on the faces of all the Pandits.’

The sudden splurge of violence and fundamentalism came as a rude shock to most people in the Valley. As Subhash Kak expressed in his poem Snow in Srinagar: “Who knew then that decades later a terror will come to Srinagar/ and I will be unable to see my home where I was born/ where we had played cowries on any new snows”.

Early in January 1990, anti India campaigns blossomed in the Valley in multiple forms. As masked terrorists filled the streets of Srinagar, inflammatory speeches were made at the mosques and walls were defaced with posters promoting a strict Islamic way of life. 1990 indeed was a landmark year as the militant outfit Hizb-ul Mujahideen issued an ultimatum for the Pandits to vacate Kashmir or face dire consequences. As editors Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma aptly summarise in their prefatory observation of A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits: “Suspicion, betrayal and mistrust divided the Muslims and the Pandits. Both the communities stood divided on religious and ideological lines. Militants kidnapped and killed several ordinary and prominent Kashmiri Pandits. This created so much panic and fear among the Pandit families that they started leaving their homes in Kashmir. Some, who didn’t want to leave, sent their children away and lingered on in their homes for some time, hoping that the turmoil would end.

Some of the Pandits managed to carry a few belongings while most left empty-handed in terror, unable to pack even their necessary household possessions. The security forces including the police were unable to provide protection to the minority community. The authorities in the state and the Centre made no effort to prevent the atrocities committed against the Pandits. Targeted kidnappings and killings, rapes and massacres of Pandits who lingered on became a routine affair. The massacre of Pandits by militants in Sangrampora, Budgamin March 1997, Gool in June 1997, Wandhama near Ganderbal in January 1998 and Nadimarg, Pulwama in March 2003, made it clear that Pandits were not safe in their own land.”

This atmosphere of suspicion also found an echo in verse written in exile. Poet Lalita Pandit immaculately captures this mood of suspicion and betrayal in her poem Anantnag where nature, (the apple trees) mourns at the exodus of its inhabitants. The poem concludes with an eerie picture, a haunted spectacle of uninhabited relics where fear looms large and past visitors are no longer welcome.

(To be concluded)