A lot has been said
about the atrocities of the Indian government in Kashmir. We’ve heard the
stories of the bereaved, we’ve seen the police check-posts. The militant
leaders who once wanted to join Pakistan are now ‘separatists’, photographed
annually as they help Amarnath yatris. But, there is another story from
Kashmir—the story of Kashmiri Pandits.
Rahul Pandita left his ancestral home in Kashmir in 1990. Twenty three years later, he relives his trauma in his book, Our Moon Has Blood Clots. Part-memoir and part-reportage, the book captures the last months of the Pandits’ stay in their homeland, and their years of struggle in other parts of India. We read the stories of people who died in the heat of the plains; who went back for salaries to fund their expensive stay in exile, and were raped, murdered, or both; who became invalids for life from the conditions they were forced to live in; who refused to believe their sons were dead, and waited with food for them every day, in times when one was lucky to get one’s hands on a single tomato.
The book, Pandita’s third and his first on Kashmir, has won acclaim and drawn criticism in almost equal measure. The author speaks about the aftermath of writing the book, and why he felt the story needed to be told.
You’ve said this was the first book you ever wanted to write. But there was Hello, Bastar and The Absent State before, and a lot of journalism too. What took you so long to write it? Was it the research, or was it that you were waiting to mature as a writer and journalist?
Well, many things happened. This book is partially the reason I became a journalist. I knew I wanted to write this book when I was in college. That was a long time back, 1993-96. But at that point of time, I had no idea how publishing works. I was very far away from the world of publishing, and I knew a little bit about journalism, that’s all. Then, I came to Delhi in 1997, and I struggled with television for some time. You know, TV leaves you very little time for anything else.
The other thing was that my language was very raw, I was still learning, so I did not know what form, what shape the book should take. So, I started writing it seriously from 2000 onwards. I wrote passages, I wrote stories. But there were certain portions that I found extremely difficult to write, especially the parts dealing with my brother’s death and later my mother’s illness, and those initial years of hardship which we faced in Jammu. Every time I picked up my pen to write about those events, I would have to give up.
I started writing [the book] from 2000 onwards. But there were certain portions that I found extremely difficult to write, especially the parts dealing with my brother's death and later my mother's illness, and those initial years of hardship which we faced in Jammu.
In between, the other two books happened, and I’m glad they happened, because they took my mind away from this book. When I returned after writing those, I had a clear idea how to go about this book and started working on it. Of course, I was again stuck while writing these passages. But I had to somehow wade through them, because I knew that if this book is not written now, it will never be written. And I’m glad that it took the form of a memoir, because it has retained a kind of rawness, which is essential for something like this, especially if you’re writing after so long.
To speak about the issue of the Kashmiri Pandits’ exodus is seen as politically incorrect. Do you think the fact that you have covered the Maoist movement for so long has helped your credentials, in that no one can accuse you of right-wing leanings?
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s been the biggest challenge for those who have been trying to diss this book. See, the problem is that the Kashmiri Pandit narrative has always been there; but there are some 40-50 people who run the so-called intellectual discourse of this country, and every time anyone spoke about the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, these people were very quick to bracket him in the BJP-RSS camp. They’d say yeh toh right-wing hai, he’s an RSS stooge, etc., etc. But they could not put me in the same category, because I have a certain volume of work behind me, and how much ever they wish to, they can’t do away with that. So it became very difficult with them to counter this book.
And this book has been written with a very strict journalistic regimen, because I’m aware of the fact that when I left the place, I was only 14 years old. And no matter how vivid and lucid my memory is, it can be quite slippery at times. I had a certain structure in my mind for the book, which was very linear, especially from 1989 onward. First, Tika Lal Taploo was assassinated outside his home, and then there was a series of bomb blasts, Rubaiya Sayeed was kidnapped, and then these processions started, demanding azaadi. And then, we went to my aunt’s house in the cantonment area, which was relatively safer. I remembered all these incidents, the firing outside my home, and so on, but I also wanted to completely validate it. So I did a lot of research, the way you do when you’re working on something as a journalist.
Kashmiris are in this extreme state of denial about what happened in 1990. There are very sane elements in Kashmir but no matter whom you speak to, 99.99 per cent of them will blame Mr. Jagmohan for the exodus. In their hearts, people who were adults in 1990 know exactly what happened on January 19.
I was also aware that
this book would create a lot of controversy when it was out, that it would have
to pass through a lot of scrutiny. So, I’ve underplayed many events, especially
in the chapter which deals with the events in 1947, when my grandfather’s
generation had to leave everything behind. My mother was a toddler. There were
a lot of atrocities back then, and I’ve said “hundreds of Pandits were killed”.
Whereas, actually, it’s more likely to have been thousands. But no
documentation was done around that time, and whatever archives there are from
then are not accessible to me, or anyone else. So, rather than exaggerating
these events, I’ve underplayed them.
Pradeep Magazine wrote a very critical article of Our Moon Has Blood Clots. In your response, you brought up the fact that people feel two narratives can’t coexist, that the Kashmiri Pandit story somehow undermines the Kashmiri Muslims’ story. It’s as if speaking of the forced migration of the Pandits from the valley is to justify what happened after.
Yes, and that’s ridiculous. Because, in the last 23 years, only one kind of narrative has come out of Kashmir. And I’m not saying that’s not a valid narrative, because there have been brutalities, human rights violations, and I’m aware of those factors because I’ve covered the Valley extensively as a journalist. But to say that there’s this one poor Kashmiri Pandit who has written his memoir, and this will be detrimental to the reconciliation between Pandits and Muslims, is ridiculous. Because this book is the truth, it’s my truth. I’m all for reconciliation. But that should not disallow me to write what happened to us in 1990.
The other problem is that the Kashmiris are in this extreme state of denial about what happened in 1990. There are very sane elements in Kashmir but no matter whom you speak to, 99.99 per cent of them will blame Mr. Jagmohan for the exodus. In their hearts, people who were adults in 1990 know exactly what happened on January 19. For God’s sake, don’t insult our intelligence, don’t insult our memory. There were no mobile phones, no social media networks, even basic telephone density in the Valley was so little. And yet, in that harsh winter, hundreds of thousands of people were mobilised in mosques across the Valley—not just in one town, or one locality. And Mr. Jagmohan was not even there. He was at Raj Bhavan in Jammu. He hadn’t even reached the Valley, to heap these alleged atrocities on the Kashmiri majority.
These truths make them uncomfortable because this is the victim narrative they have given to the whole world. So, when you turn around and say, “Hey, so you’re victims, fair enough. But you’re victims who happen to have victimised another set of people—Kashmiri Pandits”, what do they do? I have friends in the Valley who may not speak publicly about this, but they tell me how some delegates from America had come and they read my book and asked, “How come we never knew about this? Why is it you never told us about this?” But that’s the problem. Information about Kashmiri Pandits has been so marginalised, because it’s not fashionable to talk about this. But just because it doesn’t give you funding for an NGO, or a fellowship in a think-tank, or make you popular on television discussions, one must not shy away from the truth.
I like the fact that you have stuck to your story, and not made an obligatory mention of the Indian government’s excesses there. Have you faced any flak for that, though?
There are people who say, “You should have balanced this book. You should have also talked about the atrocities against Muslims”. There are so many books that my friends from Kashmir have written. Do they mention the plight of Kashmiri Pandits? Have the same people who asked me why I haven’t written about Kashmiri Muslims asked my friends why they haven’t written about us? Not at all. The other thing which I tell them is that the very fact that I wrote this book against a solid narrative, a seamless narrative of 23 years, is a balancing act in itself. They need to understand that.
It’s my memoir. It’s the memoir of a Kashmiri Pandit who was 14 years old when he left the place. Why should I balance it by writing about what happened to Kashmiri Muslims? That, I have done as a journalist. As a journalist, I’ve been going to the Valley since 1998. And because I worked with both television and print, I must have done—on a very conservative estimate—about 200 stories from Kashmir. And I think only 3-4 of them have been about Kashmiri Pandits. All my work in print is available on the Internet.
When you speak about the murders of Kashmiri Pandits, there are propogandists who say that only those who worked with the police and IB were killed. I wanted to make it clear that it was also government officials, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, chartered accountants, shopkeepers, housewives, children who died.
I’ve been writing those stories since 2006. That’s my duty as a journalist. But when I’m writing my memoir, I’m not going to do a balancing act just because it will make certain reviewers happy, or give me that badge of neutrality. That’s the problem with some of the other books that have come out on Kashmiri Pandits. Their own story is not adequately told, because they have taken so much care to balance this out, you know, let’s talk about the other side. Yes, let’s talk about the other side. But that’s not my story. And this book is my story.
When Kashmiri Muslims get defensive about the exodus, it’s understandable. But I find that a lot of Kashmiri Pandits themselves, who’ve either migrated earlier than 1990 for other reasons, or who have had enough connections to continue living in Srinagar, say that accounts of what happened were exaggerated. How do you deal with that sort of backlash?
You know, there’s this Hindi poet called Vidya Rattan Aasi, who wrote these lines long back:
Jaise maahol mein
jiye hum log
Aap hote toh khudkushi karte
So it’s not easy for someone who’s not lived in Kashmir through that time, even if he’s a Kashmiri Pandit, to understand what we went through.
Of course, there are Kashmiri Pandits who have never lived there, but have known of it through their family members and all of that. But, like any other community, there are people who have certain vested interests in keeping the majority in Kashmir in good humour. And that includes Mr. Pradeep Magazine, because he goes there as a journalist, and he likes his houseboat rides and he likes sitting with separatist groups and having his wazwan. I don’t wish him ill, but he should understand certain things.
You know, Pradeep had come to my book launch. I had not invited him, but he’d come. I was reading a couple of passages from my book, and the atmosphere was very surcharged, because a lot of Kashmiri Pandits had come. People had come from as far as Jaipur to attend the launch. People were crying inside the hall—obviously, it’s an emotional story for all of us. We’ve all gone through the same thing in one form or the other. Now, Mr. Magazine found this atmosphere very hilarious, and he left, because he felt that no one could say anything there, and he later wrote this piece.
Now, the problem is that those who cried on that day included Mr Magazine’s own nephews, who had stayed in Kashmir. He himself had left in the 1960s and went back only in 2008. So he has no understanding of what happened to us in 1990. But this is not only about him. There are so many others who know exactly what happened. And my impression is that it’s just not fashionable to talk about these things, it’s not something which is in the overall discourse of this country. It’s frowned upon, because then you’re not a leftist.
What has the reaction
been from the certified intelligentsia of the country?
Well, the same people who when I wrote Hello, Bastar invited me to their homes, and treated me to coffee—you know, all these big writers, who write 30,000-word essays—treated me like a pariah once I wrote this book. And I knew it would happen, because I’ve dealt with these people for a long time.
I’ve never compromised on my truth on Kashmir. Even when I meet senior Maoist leaders—you know, there are times when I’ve spent weeks in the jungles, and this issue crops up—I’ve been quite open about my stand.
I say there are certain things which I’ve sympathised with, but there are things you need to understand, because your ground workers in Delhi who hobnob with certain people don’t tell you the complete truth of the Kashmir Valley. You should understand these truths.
The tragedy with Kashmir is that there’s a lot of hypocrisy, double standards. Your private and your public stance is different. Many people, when they speak to me, are completely different people from when they write articles and appear on television.
But for me, my public stand and private stand on Kashmir are the same—when I go to the Valley, I talk about the same things. When I’m at home, in my bedroom, drinking whiskey, I have the same stand. It remains unwavering.
As a Kashmiri, I understand some things have happened from the other side also. The government of India has messed up. And, as Kashmiris, we need to move forward.
I’m all for reconciliation. But this reconciliation is not possible, no matter what happens, whether the Gods come down for the express purpose or the US intervenes, unless there is complete consensus on the circumstances that led to the exodus. And that is never going to happen, so there will never be reconciliation.
There’s a very large Twitter community of Kashmiris and Pakistanis. And all writing on Kashmiri Muslims, and the government’s atrocities in the Valley, has got a lot of mileage, whereas the Pandit narrative is much more subdued. The exodus is blamed on Jagmohan. Do you think your book has been an effective counter-narrative?
About a month back, a friend called me up and told me, “You know, your book is discussed every day for a couple of hours in the press enclave in Srinagar”. There’s a small lane with all the newspaper and press offices, and a lot of discussions happen there, they have these addas over tea. And he told me “Your book is being treated as a war document here”. (Laughs) So, obviously, for the first time, the undiluted truth has come out. And the time is very ripe to say something like this now. Because now Kashmir is more or less normal, in some senses. If you ignore the last few months, the index of militancy has really been down. You’re talking in terms of diplomacy and political initiatives.
And this book has come out when you’re speaking about mass graves, and Kunan Poshpora. You have these Twitter jihadis who put everything on the net up there. Now, what has happened is that even those who do not wish to talk about us, will have to quote Kashmiri Pandits when they’re writing about the Valley. So, at this time, this book is like a thorn that they can neither swallow nor spit out. They have to live with it for some time.
Because before this, the narrative on Kashmiri Pandits was very problematic. And some of that fault lies with us, because whatever little has been spoken has been very exaggerated. That happens with the trauma of conflict. When you’ve gone through something, you magnify it in your own eyes, and then you talk about it. So far, our own leadership has also failed us in many ways, because even till now, there hasn’t been a proper documentation of even those who died in those years. The J&K government says 219, but other people say thousands. The fact is between 600 and 700 people died in those few months, and three-and-a-half lakh Pandits were forced into permanent exile from a land where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years. To get back to your question, yes, this has been a counter-narrative.
What has the reaction been to your book, from this particular audience?
Well, many things give you an indication of how frustrated these people are. Like the biggest-selling English daily in Kashmir, which is Greater Kashmir, published three reviews of my book in a span of ten days. All blasting my book, of course, but that tells you the level of frustration. I mean, no newspaper does three reviews of the same book, but they’re so hell-bent on dismissing me.
Now, the problem is that whatever counterarguments they’re producing are not logical, because they can’t counter the truth. So, they go back to history. “Oh, this is what happened before 1947, when Maharaja Hari Singh was there, and this is what the Kahsmiri Pandit elite did”. But that’s also a bloody untruth. When were the Kashmiri Pandits elite, ever? I mean, you have hundreds of years of Islamic rule, when there have been so many atrocities. There have been seven big exoduses of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley, in various batches. Mr. Nehru’s family came in one batch. People went to Lahore, to UP, to Madhya Pradesh, to South India, during Islamic invasions.
Now, even that argument is a dangerous one. For the sake of hypothesis, let’s assume there was a Pandit elite during the Dogra rule, who were not benevolent towards the Kashmiri Muslims. But if you’re justifying the violence of 1990, because of something the ancestors may have done, wasn’t it the same argument that the Congress goondas used to justify what happened to the Sikhs in the 1984 pogrom? And isn’t it the same argument the Gujaratis use when they speak about the 2002 riots?
You’ve spoken in the
book about how you tend to avoid the subject of 1990 with your Kashmiri Muslim
friends. How about the book? Is it something you skirt around, or do you
discuss it openly with them?
(Laughs) No, I’ve not spoken about this book to any friend of mine from the Valley. They’ve not spoken about it either. They know exactly what has happened. I know exactly what has happened. I’m sure they’ve got this book, but we’ve not uttered a word about it. Of course, a friend of mine in Delhi, who’s written books on Kashmir and their version of the story, talks to me sometimes. But that is strictly about the style or writing and so on. Some of them have complimented me, and said this was long overdue, and I have done the right thing. But that is something that happens in a 10-by-12 room, not publicly.
But what is the prevailing emotion among Kashmiri Muslims with respect to the Pandit migration? Is it guilt, or is it defensiveness?
Well, obviously, there’s guilt, but they don’t show that guilt. So the dominant emotion in the Kashmir Valley is defiance, you know. The unfortunate thing is that in the last few years, the Valley has also got radicalised. The other problem is the younger generation, who were not born when the exodus happened, or who were very young when it happened. So they’ve been fed on this myth, like what happened with the Jews—you have this anti-Semitism because of the stereotyping, that Jews are shrewd, they’re stingy and so on. So, we were the Jews of South Asia—spoken of as wily and shrewd. They’ve been told that we’re with the Indian government, and that we’ve heaped atrocities on the Muslims, and we’re BJP-RSS types. So, this whole generation of Kashmiri Muslims, boys and girls, have no idea about what happened in 1990. Some of them are in touch with me over social networks, and I see that what they believe depends on upbringing also. Some have parents who have told them exactly what has happened, and they know that you cannot blame Mr Jagmohan for everything, but there are others who’ve been fed with that idea.
When you were writing about the atrocities inflicted on Pandits, how did you figure out how much to say and what to leave out? Because you can’t really have a book that describes such violence in such detail all through. Was it difficult to figure out the structure?
See, there are so many other incidents I wanted to talk about, but there are two problems—one is that the narrative gets lost, because these incidents hijack the narrative, and it’s not a case study; the other is that I wanted to clear some of the myths about what happened to us. So, I’ve chosen the cases very selectively, to give a non-Kashmiri an idea of what kind of scale we’re talking about.
Normally, when you speak about the murders of Kashmiri Pandits, there are propagandists who say that only those who worked with the police and IB were killed. I wanted to make it clear that it was not only police officers, but also government officials, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, chartered accountants, shopkeepers, unemployed people, housewives, children who died.
By 1990, the divide between Pandits and Muslims was complete. For a lot of us, that denial is a bigger betrayal than what happened in 1990. Even now, there is so much defiance about it. They are not willing to accept what they did to the minority , to their own neighbours, colleagues and friends.
The other thing was the level of violence, the level of sickness which we faced in the Valley. I talk about this woman, Girja Tikkoo, who was kidnapped by her own colleagues, gang raped in a moving car and then cut alive on a mechanical saw.
The third thing that I wanted to make clear was that it was not only the boys who crossed the border and became militants and jihadis who took part in this brutality; in the majority of cases, they only came because your immediate neighbour or your friend or your colleague pointed you out to them as someone who has to be eliminated.
I’ve made this clear, especially through the case of a telecommunications engineer, Mr. Ganjoo. He was hiding in this rice drum and the terrorists could not find him, and they left. But the neighbour woman pointed him out to the terrorists, and they came back and shot him dead. So, as far as I’m concerned, it wasn’t those 3 JKLF militants who have killed him. It was that neighbour woman who is responsible for his killing, and for all we know, she’s still alive, living in that corner of downtown Srinagar.
You told me you were able to write the book, but you can’t read it. Since its release, you’ve been doing readings and speaking about it in interviews, especially the most hard-hitting parts. So, even if you don’t read the book as a whole, has reliving those experiences in the aftermath of the release been difficult for you?
Yes, it’s been very hard. You know, many people think I wrote this book because it would give me a sense of catharsis. But the case is really the opposite. I’ve become more angry. Of course, I do readings, etc. in an outside environment, because one has to do one’s duty. I become very emotional, though. Sometimes, I have to stop in between. But, trust me, right now, like when I’m sitting in my study, I don’t have the courage to pick up my book and read it. When you’re reading in public, you do it mechanically, which I can’t in the privacy of my room.
It’s a strange thing, because when I was writing this book, barring the difficult portions that I spoke to you about, this book took a life of its own, and I was so engrossed in writing it and structuring it and my daily discussions and arguments with my editor Meru (Gokhale), that I was never really into it. I was not reliving those moments when I was writing.
But the day the book was launched in Delhi, on the evening on January 21, I just woke up with a very heavy heart. And I wanted to see my brother, who was murdered. I have a picture of him, which I keep in my cupboard and never take out. But that morning, for some strange reason, I had this impulse to bring that photograph out. And I picked up the first hard copy that I’d received, and I started reading from it. And within ten minutes, I broke down. I just couldn’t read it any longer. And the same evening, when I was reading out those passages, I had to take breaks. I didn’t cry there, but I had to take very long pauses so that I could control myself. And since then, when I’m alone, I’ve never ever picked up this book and read from it.
You left Kashmir when you were an adolescent, at a very impressionable age. And it’s a weird age, because you’re fired up to do something, but you’re too young to, and it’s a very helpless sort of frustration. In the book, you speak about how you ran into some RSS people, who tried to recruit you. How do you stay neutral, now, in your work, after going through something like that?
It was very difficult when I was 14, and had it not been for my father, who steered me in a particular direction, God knows where I would have been. And, absolutely, like you said, adolescence is a very impressionable age—14 is young, but it’s not that young. I was in tenth standard, I understood everything that was happening to us, the dynamics of it. And anyway, when you’re growing up in Kashmir, you’re politicised, you’re aware of your identity as the religious minority, so I was completely aware of what was happening. And we had left something very comfortable, and we were thrown in this desert called Jammu city, and we had nothing—for days, my family slept on newspaper sheets because we had nothing, and I remember all that. And it was our first summer in the Indian plains, and it was torturous.
So, that breeds a lot of anger within you, and with that anger, I went to that shakha which was happening there. Had not my father been strict with me, I don’t know where I would have been.
But it’s later that you understand how these political parties have let you down. I feel everyone used us, barring a few personal gestures, like Bal Thackeray’s. I’ve never agreed with Thackeray’s politics, but as a community, we’re grateful to him, because he paved way for us in technical institutes in Maharashtra, and that helped us a lot in regaining some of the dignity we’d lost in the Valley. That helped many of us stand on our own feet again. So, those should be acknowledged. But the right-wing parties, overall, used us in many ways for furthering their cause.
Remember, that was the time Mr. Advani took out the Rath Yatra, and they brought this Ekta Yatra to Srinagar, in early 1992. I remember a meeting when Mr. Sudarshan, the RSS chief, came to Jammu, and he said that the only difference between the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims is that the Pandits don’t eat beef. For God’s sake, is that your understanding of Kashmiri Hindus? To hell with you! I mean, we’ve kept our sacred thread alive for thousands of years, under the kind of persecution that was inflicted on us.
Do they know what kind of persecution we’ve gone through? There have been islands made out of our bodies in the Valley. And during Aurangazeb’s time, three mounds of janeu (sacred thread) were burned down. They used to tie us back to back in leather and grass sacks and drown us in Dal Lake. Of course, the majority of Kashmiri Muslims are converted Pandits. But despite all the forced conversions, we have kept our religion alive and thriving. Through our scholarship, Buddhism travelled to Central Tibet, to Java, to what was then Ceylon. We’ve done all that in such extreme circumstances. And then, in 1990, all someone knows about us is that we don’t eat beef?!
So, some of us understood—when you grow up, when you read books, when you expand your mind, you understand what these politicians are up to, you know you can’t fall into that trap. I don’t need BJP-RSS support to tell my story. I have my own convictions. I have my own ideology. These are things I like to keep private. And as far as my journalism is concerned, my ideology is the truth of what happens—whether it’s in Assam or Kashmir or the jungles. And when I tell my story, I’ll tell it the way it happened.
You’ve been very open about the fact that you’re religious, and that’s not very fashionable either, is it? Do you have to explain the difference between religiousness and bigotry while justifying your book, given that among our liberals, atheism is a stamp of intellectuality?
A couple of reviews had pointed out the fact that I seem to be extremely religious. See, I’m not religious-religious, but it’s also my upbringing. My grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar, and he lived in this village which was a seat of learning, and where there’s an ancient shrine of the Goddess. But I don’t see a conflict there. I’m not rigid and dogmatic about Hinduism. But it’s just a part of our culture. And many people are surprised when they see me adjusting my janeu. You don’t wear it because it’s a religious thing. For me, it’s a cultural symbol that connects me to my roots, to where my grandfather came from. It doesn’t prevent me from doing anything, or make me a religious fundamentalist.
To me, it isn’t associated with that extreme form of Brahminism where you don’t drink water from a so-called lower caste well, or don’t touch some people. To me, that’s bullshit. But this identity is very important to me, and that’s why I wear the sacred thread. And I’m not ashamed of it. Why should I be? It’s something that comes naturally to me, something I don’t think about.
You spoke about the radicalisation of the Valley over the past few years. There’s this growing influence of Salafism and Wahabism there.
I think it’s only growing. As a journalist, I’ve been visiting very regularly, and you feel a change in the air, you can see it on the streets, where you have these young girls who’ve been forced to wear the headscarf. That was never the case when we were growing up, it was much more tolerant. But I think Wahabism is spreading its roots, and that is dangerous.
But that hasn’t been written about much, especially not by people from the Valley. Why do you think that is?
No, I think people have written about it. I’ve also alluded to it in many of my articles. There are people, not from Kashmir, but from outside, who have visited, and expressed their concern about the fact that this is happening. Obviously, it’s worrying, and under these circumstances, it becomes a lot more difficult to reconcile and return.
As for Kashmiri journalists, you know, even if you’re honest about your work, it’s very problematic for them to point out certain things. Because reporting from Kashmir is not easy at all. There are militant threats, if you speak about certain things. The other problem is that many of them are radicalised themselves, and they become a tool in the hands of separatists. Obviously, there is a lot of honest journalism there too. But the overall issue remains that, in Kashmir, everything is silenced because of “the movement”, the muhim, as they call it.
You’ve spoken often about how, for you, closure would be going back to live in your ancestral home in Srinagar. Do you see the return of Kashmiri Pandits happening? Of the laws changing so that Pandits can buy land there, or at least buy their homes back?
It’s not going to happen in the near future. You see, the conditions are not ripe. It’s very difficult for us to return. Look at the handful of youngsters who have tried to return under the PM’s 2008 package. Look at the kind of harassment they’re facing. So, obviously, it’s not something people in the Valley want right now.
Ideally, what they want is that you come as tourists, stay in a nice houseboat, spend a few thousand rupees on a Kashmiri carpet, buy some dry fruits, and after a week or two, they’ll bid you a teary-eyed goodbye at the airport before you leave. But the moment you talk about a permanent return, about settling there, it becomes very difficult. Under the current circumstances, it will not be safe at all. It will be like sitting on a time bomb, never knowing what is going to happen.
In Our Moon Has Blood Clots, you alluded to the fact that your heritage through language and culture is being lost. Do you see, among your own generation, an effort being made by people to teach their children or nieces or nephews the language, and everything that an upbringing outside Kashmir would deny them natural access to?
Many of us are. But that’s really not enough. The problem with my generation was that many of us lost the scholarship that our fathers and grandfathers had. Most of our youth was spent in regaining some of what we’d lost, especially financially. So many people got into engineering, and got jobs and bought houses. But they became so insecure about certain things, that the whole race in life was to graduate from a 2-bedroom house to a 3-bedroom house, and from that to a penthouse, and so on. And in that race, our culture was lost, our moorings, our language.
It also became very
difficult to spend time with children, and make them understand the nuances of
the language, because nobody speaks Kashmiri in many households. Like, I stay
with my parents. I leave early in the morning, and come back late at night.
There’s hardly any time to speak to my parents. And even when I speak, it’s
In Jammu, it’s a bit different because the Pandit diaspora is very large there. But even there, things are changing. There’s so much influence from other cultures. Like our weddings are more Punjabi than Kashmiri now. A lot of urbanisation has happened. I’m not sure something like that would have happened in Kashmir. We’ve lost a lot of our culture too.
If you look at the various pogroms in history, even back in 1947, along with the stories of atrocities, there are these little heart-warmers about neighbours helping neighbours. Didn’t that happen with the Pandit narrative?
See, in 1947, after the war, there have been many recorded cases where Kashmiri Pandits have been helped by their Muslim neighbours. But in 1990, those cases were almost nil. That’s because of two things—one, the atmosphere was like that, there was a frenzy of violence, and this euphoria about, “Next month, inshallah, Kashmir will be part of Pakistan”. In that frenzy, the old relations are forgotten. So, no one came to our help. And in very few cases, where they wanted to help us—maybe in a locality one neighbour would have wanted to help—but the whole situation was so charged up that he did not dare help that lone Kashmiri Pandit neighbour. So, the incidents of neighbourly aid can be counted off one’s fingers, really. By 1990, the divide between Pandits and Muslims was complete. And, for a lot of us, that denial is a bigger betrayal than what happened in 1990. Even now, there is so much defiance about it. They are not willing to accept what they did to the minority, to their own neighbours, colleagues and friends.
After the release of your book, a lot of Kashmiri Pandits who are already in the public arena began to speak up. Sanjay Suri was involved in the book launch. Anupam Kher tweeted about your book. And now, Vidhu Vinod Chopra who grew up in Srinagar has spoken about making a movie based on the book. Do you see more voices emerging, more people wanting to speak about their experiences?
Yeah, with Vidhu Vinod Chopra, we are in the process of finalising the project. It will be made. And I wish, I hope that youngsters from my community will come forward and not shy away from telling their stories. Because there are so many stories that have been left untold. I would like to know, for example, what it was like to live in a refugee camp. Because though I’ve touched upon it, I don’t have the actual experience of living in a refugee camp. I know so many people who have. I would like them to come forward and write about those, make films about those, make documentaries about those times.
Now is the time when you must speak about these things. Now, the community has stabilised. We’re not facing the crisis we faced in the 1990s. Most of us are financially independent. We’re doing well in our individual fields. The generation after us has not gone through the trauma. People from my generation, who have been in refugee camps, should come forward. If my book becomes a trigger for all these stories to come forward, and all these people to come forward, I don’t think anything could make me happier.