Kashmiri Pandits, the nowhere people



There are few days sadder than the anniversaries of the exile of the Kashmiri Pandits. Over the last few days, there have been postings on the internet and some impassioned tweets but we all know – with an air of tragic inevitability – that when this anniversary passes, when bloggers have moved on to other subjects and something else is trending on twitter, that the Kashmiri Pandits will be exactly where they have been for the last two decades: nowhere people with no homeland to call their own.

I’ve been writing about the plight of the Pandits for over a decade now. But, try as I might, I cannot understand the attitude of general indifference which greets their situation. Put brutally, the truth is that hardly anybody seems to care.

And yet, it is hard to see why this should be so. The fate of the Pandits is an international scandal by any standards. Between 1989 and 1992, the majority of Kashmiri Pandits were forced out of their homes by militants. Men were murdered, women were raped, property was destroyed and threats were issued. It was made clear to the Pandits that they were no longer welcome in Kashmir – a state that constituted the only home they knew – because they were Hindus.

Hundreds of thousands of Pandits fled because they feared for their lives in an exodus that was a microcosm of the Partition’s flood of refugees. Some believed that this was a temporary phase – exactly as many refugees had believed during Partition – and that when the violence was over, they could return to their homes and resume their lives.

This was to prove a doomed hope. The ones who did dare to go back faced more violence and intimidation. And as for the others, there was less and less to go back to. Their homes were forcibly occupied and taken over by strangers. Their shops were looted. Their businesses were closed down. And in many cases – in what must count as the greatest tragedy – the Pandits found that their neighbours had profited from their absence and actively opposed their return.

There is a term for this sort of thing even though we, in India, are reluctant to use it: ethnic cleansing.

Whenever ethnic cleansing has occurred over the last few decades – in Eastern Europe for instance – the world has sat up and taken notice. The United Nations has got involved. The world press has treated it as a global story. And Western governments have tried to find solutions.

Except that in the case of the Pandits, nothing has happened. Nobody seems to care.

Forget about the international community, even our own government has remained curiously indifferent to the Pandits. There has been no serious attempt to resettle them. Lakhs of people have lost everything and have been reduced to poverty, swallowing their pride and living on hand-outs in refugee camps. But few politicians – across parties – seem to feel that this is a national shame and that India owes it to the Pandits to give them their pride back.

As for returning to Kashmir: forget it. It is not that all Kashmiri politicians are hostile to the Pandits. This Thursday, chief minister Omar Abdullah tweeted that Kashmir would remain incomplete until the Pandits came back. But the truth is that neither Omar nor any other Kashmiri politician can guarantee the safety of the Pandits or offer them any cast-iron assurances that they can resume their lives. And with each passing year, Kashmiri Muslims get more and more used to the idea of a Valley without Hindus. An entire generation has grown up in an Islamicised environment without Hindu colleagues or Hindu schoolfriends. Many young Kashmiris simply do not remember an era where Kashmiriyat – the idea that all communities could live together in peace in Kashmir – was the prevailing ideology.

I have often wondered why the situation of the Kashmiri Pandits does not attract more attention. Consider the case of the Valley’s Muslims. I do not believe that the majority of them are necessarily separatists – my guess is that they just want to live in peace without being hassled by militants or the Indian Army – and yet the world acts as though India is hanging on to the Kashmir Valley by force, denying millions of people the right to self-determination.

The reality is that Kashmiri Muslims have the right to elect their own government. And they enjoy much more democracy than they ever would on the Pakistani side of the border.

And the reality is also that Kashmiri Pandits don’t have the right to elect their own government because they no longer have anything to call their own – no home, no state. Their tragic plight is a blot on Indian democracy.

I suspect that the reason the world doesn’t care about their situation is because so little attention is paid to the Pandits in their own country. New Delhi is so obsessed with winning over the majority community in Kashmir that it treats the exiled minority as no more than a tiresome irrelevance in the politics of the Valley today.

Nor is there a vast Pandit diaspora. The Sri Lankan Tamils have been able to turn their condition into a global cause celebre because the Tamil diaspora has worked hard to draw the attention of the world. The Pandits simply don’t have that advantage.

There is another factor. Why do we pay so much attention to Kashmiri militants? The answer is: it’s not because they are Kashmiris; it is because they are militants.

In today’s world, the best way of getting people to listen to you is to use violence. Plant a few bombs, hijack the odd plane, mastermind a massacre or two, and suddenly, those in power will beat a path to your door. There will be negotiations, peace talks, conciliatory proposals and finally, you will get some measure of justice.

But the Kashmiri Pandits are decent, educated people who have always eschewed violence and who, in the face of grave provocation, have never resorted to attention-seeking terrorism. Instead, they have put their faith in Indian democracy, hoping that politicians will recognise that injustice has been done to them and offer some recompense.

Sadly, both India and democracy itself have failed them. Nobody pays any attention to their cause. And politicians do not regard them as electorally significant enough to merit any concern.

As for the rest of the world, when global conferences are held on tension in south Asia and on finding solutions to the Kashmir problem, the Pandits don’t even get a mention. They are the invisible people, too uncomplaining to matter and too decent to count for anything.

It is to the credit of the Kashmiri Pandits that they have not turned their cause into a Hindu-Muslim conflict. They recognise that Kashmiri militants are not representative of Indian Muslims and frame their case in terms of justice rather than communal feeling.

I wish that we could say that the future held out some hope for people who have done everything liberals advocate – followed a non-violent, secular approach – but I fear that the truth is that the world only cares for those who have a global lobby behind them or a few ounces of RDX in their pocket.

This anniversary will pass. But the tragedy will endure.

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