Kashmiri Pandits have emerged as the new precariats of the Indian democracy. The proposal by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to set up separate zones for Kashmiri Pandits to facilitate their return to the Valley is creating more anxiety than opportunities to heal old wounds. Although the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) – BJP’s coalition partner in Jammu and Kashmir – initially supported the proposal, it eventually retracted from it, sensing the hostile reaction from Kashmiri Muslims and other political forces. There is an apprehension that rather than bringing the Pandits and the Muslims together, this move will create a situation like that in Palestine. It is against this perceived ploy that Hurriyat and Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front called for a shutdown in the Valley on 11 April. The shutdown is also seen as an objection to any renewed claim that India might make over Kashmir in the name of the Pandits. The 1990 displacement of Pandits is still a contested idea for many in the Valley. The Pandits feel it was mainly due to militants with silent support from the local Muslim population, who did not come forward to protect them even if they were not actively involved in the hate campaign. Kashmiri Muslims who debate this issue, however, feel that Pandits left of their own accord and contend that it was part of a planned move by then-Governor Jagmohan, who ensured there was no significant threat to the minorities. The proof of this is cited in the perfectly ‘normal’ and safe lives that the Pandits who stayed back in the Valley lead, by which they mean as secure or insecure as that of the non-Pandit population.
What the five-decade long conflict in Kashmir has meant for the Pandits raises intriguing questions for India as a democracy. Despite being a minority in the Valley they are considered part of the ‘majority’ in the rest of India. But this socially privileged group – both in religious and caste terms – continue to face hardship in living the lives of migrants. It is imperative to note that Kashmiri Pandits are no longer a homogeneous group that imagines a shared future together. It is widely perceived that those who were economically poor stayed back, and it was the well-off who could afford to migrate. Today, the Pandits are divided in the Valley between migrants who stay in camps and those who reside with the rest of the majority Muslim population in the towns and the villages.
In many senses, Pandits in the Valley have become the representatives of India and its army for many.
Pandits living in the camps are perhaps the worst-off, with little freedom to move around, and suffer from a sense of anxiety. They returned to the Valley as part of the Prime Minister’s Relief and Rehabilitation Package announced in 2008 to resettle them by offering jobs. However, local Muslims and Pandits who had stayed back treat them with suspicion. The resettled Pandits often refuse to make a distinction between the militants and the locals, since many who joined the ranks of the militants had come from villages and towns in Kashmir, and not from Pakistan. While the local Pandits feel that these migrants get benefits and privileges they do not, Muslims believe that the majority Hindu population of India by and large harbours a false idea of Muslims in the Valley as being fundamentalists, and even terrorists. The local Pandits see the Pandits in the camps as part of that majority.
The local Pandits feel that they are left with no narrative of their own, in spite of continuing to hold on to their Hindu identity and preserving the local temples, while those who migrated are counted as victims despite doing well for themselves. As a corrective measure, the state government in 2012 announced an employment package for the Pandits who chose not to leave the Valley. These endemic divisions within the community tell us about the effects of violence, militancy and territorial rule, essentially through extrajudicial mechanisms. The loss of a coherent narrative for the Pandit community that comes close to self-blame is a historical tragedy of no small proportion.
In a different light
In many senses, Pandits in the Valley camps have become the representatives of India and its army for many, and thereby sometimes attract the ire of the local Muslim population. It has been established that today the divide between the Muslims and the Pandits is more political than religious. Many Pandits continue to believe that Muslims on a personal level are warm and friendly but are a ‘different lot’ at the level of the community. This idea of the community is essentially constructed through available political discourses, and in that Pandits in the Valley have positioned themselves against the majority Muslim population. They therefore believe that scrapping Article 370 would allow more Hindus to buy land in the Valley and change the demography of the place. Similarly, they perceive the Indian Army as being friendly to the Pandit population, especially those in the camps. They continue to live in denial of gross human-rights violations by the Indian Army, and wish to see them as ‘collateral damage’ and support the use of AFSPA as being necessary for the protection of the Hindu population. This counter-narrative of the Pandit population continues to provide the support necessary for statist discourse of exceptionalism, and Pandits remain the precarious symbols of why such strategies remain relevant.
In other words, Kashmiri Pandits constructed a discourse that is in opposition to the popular sentiments of the region – the hurts and grievances of the majority Muslim population. This, in turn, has triggered off a process of Islamisation, only furthering the difference in identities and gradually smudging the gap between a political and a religious divide in the Valley. The majority Muslim population is visibly moving from a culture of kashmiriyat to perceiving a need for an Islamic state, one with implementation of shariah and special status of Islam in the Valley. Radical Islamisation is perceptibly more pronounced among the younger generation of Kashmiri Muslims who have taken little interest in what the Pandits had to undergo. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the majority of youth, who have become the face of the protests in Kashmir, begin to believe that Pandits no longer belong there. The latest proposal by the BJP to create separate zones for Pandits might trigger a point of no-return for both communities.
~ Ajay Gudavarthy teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
~This is an updated version of the article first published on 11 May 2015.