The Burnt Shrine: A Personal Journey in Kashmir

Burnt Shrine_Munshi_2012
     Valley of Saints (by Sadaf Munshi)

As a child I grew up in a fairly peaceful period of Kashmir, listening to the stories of Heemaal-Nagray, Zehra Let, Lal Ded and Haba Khatoon. Weekends were spent waiting for Doordarshan to broadcast the one and only Hindi movie a week on a well-to-do neighbor’s black-n-white television set. Life was quite laid back and everything was seemingly normal. My ancestral home was situated in one of the narrow lanes of a small neighborhood by the banks of river Jehlum. The locality is named Khankahi Sokhta, or in Kashmiri Dodmut Khankah, which literally means ‘the burnt shrine’. The name always intrigued me though I still do not know about the shrine after which the area was named. There were mosques – both Shi’a and Sunni mosques, and there was a Hindu temple in the area. It was a fairly cosmopolitan neighborhood.

After school, we would play saza-long (hop-scotch) and tule-langun (another game popular among Kashmiri girls in those days). In the evenings I would take private tuition lessons from my Hindu (Pandit) teacher who lived a few blocks away. After the tuition lessons, I would often stand by the kitchen door observing the lady of the house as she cooked for dinner — dam-olav ‘steamed potatoes made with seasoned curry’, neni-haakh ‘mutton and collard greens’, and so forth. However, that was the boundary-line. Being a Muslim, I was not allowed in the inner parts of the kitchen by the Pandit household. Further, my mother – a conservative and devout Muslim – had strictly advised me not to eat their food lest I should be committing a gonah (‘sin’) for which I “will receive a punishment in the hereafter”. It would be okay, however, to eat dry snacks or cookies as these were bought from the market in sealed packages. It did not matter who made those cookies; as long as you didn’t know, it was Halāl.

Sometimes I would break the rules of communal discipline and disturb the purification rituals of my mother by deliberately mixing the cups and saucers she had kept aside for use by the non-Muslim guests with the rest that were for use by the family and other guests. My father, who was more secular and open-minded than my mother, would often make fun of her by reminding her of an incident many years ago when Toth, my grandfather, had singled out my father’s only Pandit friend at their wedding reception. Grandfather had made a fuss about the fact that he had had to arrange a separate meal for the groom’s Pandit friend who would not have shared nor been able to share a plate with a Muslim (In a traditional Kashmiri Muslim wedding, four people eat together from the same plate called Traem; for a Hindu and a Muslim to eat from the same plate would be no less than a blasphemy). On Heirat, or Shivaratri, however, everybody at home would impatiently wait for and merrily relish the water-soaked walnuts (heirat-dooyn) offered by the Pandits. I also had the fortune to enjoy some Pandit weddings in the neighborhood – listening to Henzee, the Hindu version of the traditional Kashmiri folk song Vanvun, admiring the rangoli, dancing and singing along with other girls.

Coming from a fairly conservative family, I had learned to follow a strict Islamic dress code from when I was 9 years old. This, however, was not a common trend in the Kashmir of the eighties. In fact, I was the only girl in my classroom to observe hijaab. Women were quite up-to-date when it came to fashion. Figure-hugging Kameez and skin-tight Shalwaars were in vogue; purdah was only popular in certain families. Burqa was already viewed as old-fashioned. Nevertheless, traditional Kameez-Shalwar was the most acceptable dress code for women. Many women would put the thin georgette or chiffon dupatta over their head as a mark of respect in front of elders and remove it elsewhere. Occasionally I would see a young woman or two in western clothing walking in a neighborhood street and, like many other girls, secretly admire them. Cinema halls were a common recreation for the young and the old. A number of movie theaters were running in the city – Palladium, Shiraz, Khayyam, Neelam, Firdaus and Regal; many parts of the city are still named after these cinema halls though none of them exists today. As a child I participated in sports and other activities at school– race competitions, singing, dancing performances, and so on. And on Independence Day we sang Allamah Iqbal’s composition sare jahan se accha Hindostan hamara.

During those days of my childhood, the majority of the Kashmiri people were divided along the Sher-Bakra political lines (and in a way still are, though the terms are outdated nowadays). Sher (‘lion’) and Bakra (‘goat’) were the terms originally used for the two political rivals and later their followers – Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah and Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah (the latter for sporting a beard; Shah was the uncle of Mirwaiz Muhammad Farooq, the father of the current Mirwaiz, Maulana Umar Farooq). Sheikh Abdullah had, in 1938, parted ways from the Muslim Conference to form National Conference, which became the largest political party in Jammu & Kashmir claiming a secular ideology. Pertinently, it was Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah, later his political opponent, who had initially introduced Sheikh as the president of the Muslim Conference at its inception in 1930. Sher-Bakra became a very strict political dichotomy in Kashmir after 1938 and continued over generations. Ironically it was Sheikh Abdullah who launched the Quit Kashmir movement in 1946 when Yusuf Shah had supported the government led by the Maharaja. Two groups that were more or less outside the purview of this blanket distinction of Sher-Bakra were the minority Shi’a and the Pundit community, whose loyalties to the either side were generally suspect. Often one would have to face questions like: “Are you Sher or Bakra?” Imagine the disappointment and surprise if you were to say, “Neither” and/or the sense of fear at being encountered with a supporter of the opposite side. This was besides: “Are you Shi’a or Sunni?” — a question I often had to face at school. It was very common in the Kashmiri society to identify people through these denominations. My father used to tell us stories about how my aunt would sit by the windowsill, watching people come and go on the street, and wondering, “Is he Shi’a or Sunni?”

There was one more subtle division — amongst the Kashmiri Muslim sections – that of supporting either India or Pakistan during a cricket match. This, however, was not a very clear-cut division. Within my own family we had supporters of both the countries. So, there always used to be a possibility of “conflict” during a cricket match. Pictures and paintings of Quaid-e-Azam (Muhammad Ali Jinnah) and Allamah Iqbal decorated the walls of almost every Muslim household. These figures were highly revered and even deified by many elders, so much so that any “disrespectful” comment was highly admonished and disapproved of. I often used to wonder why somebody in my family would support Pakistan and not “Hindustan”, their own country, during a cricket match, or why a fellow Muslim girl in my school would sometimes put butter on the bald head of Mahatma Gandhi on a picture hanging in our classroom. But then I realized later that for many of these people “Pakistan” was simply an ideology, an emotional matter, something they had been associating themselves with since its very inception. Many friends and close family members, which included my father’s and my mother’s immediate cousins, aunts and uncles, lived across the border; brothers and sisters, even husbands and wives were separated. It had been a very cruel partition back then in 1947.

I remember it was September 1982 when the “Lion” of Kashmir — Sher-e-Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah passed away. We were told that his body was kept in a refrigerator for a few days before it was put to rest in a grave next to the famous Dargah (Hazratbal) on the banks of the Nageen Lake in Srinagar. Hordes and hordes of people had gathered in the Polo Ground to pay homage to the deceased Lion. My grandfather carried me on his shoulders so I did not get trampled upon or lost in the maddening crowd. It was a great frenzy. There were people everywhere — on the ground, on treetops, on every thing they could possibly hold on to — to get the last glimpse of Sheikh Sahab. Some said that his giant body could not fit in the coffin. Such was the strength he had exhibited and the charisma associated with him during his lifetime that people did not believe that Sher-e-Kashmir could actually die. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had arrived to pay her tributes as well. Many days followed in quiet mourning and disbelief. Sheikh’s son Dr. Farooq Abdullah became the next chief minister.

Over the course of its electoral history, the central government, for a record, never allowed a single dominant political party to successfully emerge or flourish in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Dr. Farooq’s nascent government collapsed in 1984 when the Governor Jagmohan dismissed him; apparently the Congress-led government at the Center was not happy with the rise of the National Conference. A Congress-led government was put in place with Abdullah’s brother-in-law, Ghulam Muhammad Shah, as the new chief minister. Shah too was replaced after a short span of time in 1986 by a new Congress-National Conference government, again led by Abdullah. Shah’s reign was a particularly unstable period in Kashmir. A new party, Muslim Mutahida Mahaaz, or Muslim United Front, came into existence in 1987 and apparently managed to garner a strong support base. The party, however, could not win the (notoriously “rigged”) 1987 elections (which gave rise to armed insurgency in Kashmir) against the Congress-National Conference alliance, and Abdullah became the CM once again.

While all these political changes were taking place, Kashmir politics entered an era of increasing communal influence. A lot of madrasas (Islamic schools) had mushroomed in many parts of the Valley. For us, girls, a women’s organization to impose a strict Islamic dress code had been established in 1987. The ‘daughters of the nation’ Dukhtarān-e-Millat (led by Asiya Andrabi) became the women’s aide to the freedom fighting organizations in the years to come. Post-1989, the ‘daughters’ would pay regular visits to schools and colleges providing lectures on azādi and shariyah. A strict dress code was imposed, which included, for a short period, wearing burqa – the complete veil covering your body and face. A number of hand grenades were hurled at women crowds near educational institutions on the pretext of not observing purdah. There were incidents of smearing girls with color if they did not follow the rules. This was one of the worst forms of public humiliation for women of “respected families”, and hence, the immense pressure of following the norm. Non-Muslim women were instructed to disclose their identity by wearing a bindi on their foreheads lest they were not made a target in mistake.

1989-90 was the landmark year when life came to a standstill in Kashmir; all fun activities came to an end for us. I was taking my tenth class examinations when I found myself amidst the first crossfire. During that period I lived at my maternal grandparents’ house in Kamangar Pora, a small neighborhood very close to Jamia Masjid — the grand mosque in Srinagar; Jamia Masjid and its surrounding areas became the epicenter of political activity in the coming years. For the first time we heard about mujahids (Islamic militants pursuing a holy war, Jehad, in Kashmir) having arrived from across the border in order to “liberate Kashmir from the Indian occupation”. We also heard about the “UN Resolutions”, “the promise of Plebiscite by Jawaharlal Nehru”, and the “(forced) cultural domination of Hindustan”. What followed was an atmosphere of extreme tension on the one hand and an immense enthusiasm amongst the (Muslim) youth to “fight for freedom” on the other. Songs of azaadi were broadcast on Radio Azad Kashmir and aired from the loudspeakers of the local mosques: watan hamara azad Kashmir ‘our homeland is Azaad Kashmir’, jāgo jāgo subah hui ‘Wake up, wake up the morning is here’. Slogans of azādi resounded on the streets, from the rooftops of the houses, at night and in the broad daylight. More and more young people – teenagers, little boys aged 12, 13 and onwards — were recruited for the “freedom struggle”.

Anybody who was seen as a threat to the “movement” or as being a mukhbir ‘(government) informant’ became a target. The minority communities — the Shi’a Muslims and the Pandits — were warned to either “join the movement or face the consequences”. I still remember when the head of Tehseen Billa, an alleged mukhbir belonging to the minority Shi’a community, was seen flying in our neighborhood near Kamangar Pora reportedly in a grenade attack; the entire locality was dumbfounded. In a similar incident, a retired sessions judge from the Pandit community, Neel Kanth Ganjoo was killed at Hari Singh High Street; Ganjoo had held Maqbool Bhatt, the co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, guilty of a said crime back in 1984 after which Bhat had been hanged to death (Note that the death sentence was in fact upheld by Justice Murtaza Fazal Ali; supporters of Bhatt alleged that the verdict was given in a hasty manner. Further the court had denied handing over the remains and the belongings of Maqbool Bhat to his family). Having foreseen the consequences of not joining the “freedom struggle”, which was initially largely a Sunni-dominated movement, the Shi’a community finally succumbed to the pressure; the Pandits, however, did not see a future within what was very likely projected to become an Islamic state, and, therefore, opted to stay aloof. Many killings, kidnappings and death threats took place in the times to come.

By the winter of 1990, the situation had so drastically changed that it seemed as if azādi were round the corner. People started talking about Pakistan as if it were our imminent destination. Many even changed their clocks half-an-hour behind. Slogans of Pakistan se rishta kya: laa-ilaha-illallah (‘what is our relationship with Pakistan? La-ilaha-illallah (Arabic. There is one and only one God)’), azādi ka matlab kya: laa-ilaha-illallah (‘what is the meaning of azādi (freedom)? La-ilaha-illallah’), became more and more vocal on the streets and on the loudspeakers of the local mosques. It became more and more evident that it was a “movement” towards the formation of a conservative Islamic state where mullahs and maulanas stood at the forefront of giving directions for what was claimed to be a “political struggle for independence”. Most of the political speeches were offered from the pulpit of the Jamia Masjid. Often the armed militants sought refuge in mosques or shrines; what followed would be the “desecration” of the shrine/mosque by the security forces and bloodbath.

In January 1990, Jagmohan was reappointed as governor to control the situation and crush the rebellion. Within a day or so, people gathered in overwhelming numbers protesting at Gowkadal (Maisuma, Srinagar) and chanting slogans of hum kya chahate: azaadi (‘what do we want: freedom’), yahan kya chalega: nizame-mustafa (‘what will prevail here: the order/government of (the Prophet) Muhammad’). About fifty people were killed on the spot when the Central Reserve Police Force opened fire on the protesters. One of my neighbors had been caught under a pile of dead and injured; for a minute he thought he “was dead”. Blood-smeared bodies of people were horrific to look at. We closed our eyes and howled: it was a gory episode. Amidst this entire frenzy, the small population of the Kashmiri Pandits was petrified by an all-abiding fear, terrified and cringed. Truckloads of Pandits left the valley in the dark of the night on January 21, 1990 and many more followed suit in the next three months or so. An extraordinary silence followed. Many people from the majority community saw the exodus as a “conspiracy by the governor” who was planning “a large-scale operation to kill Muslims indiscriminately” in order to clean the valley of the mujahids and “crush the movement”. Nevertheless, the migration of Pandits was largely seen as temporary, and it was believed that “within a few months the situation will be stable and the Pandits will return”. That, unfortunately, was never meant to happen.

For us, the leaving of the Pandits meant no more Hindi teachers in schools. Some of the very dear friends were never to be seen again. No heirat walnuts, no more bhajans to be heard from the nearby temples, no more visiting Pandit neighbors and friends. The deserted homes of the Pandits slowly turned into ghost houses. The militants occupied some while others became the abode for the security forces; some lucky ones, however, were able to sell theirs off (Note that some of these sales were “distress sales” and properties were sold for peanuts). My first encounter with a Kashmiri Pandit as an adult was after a period of about eight years in the winter of 1996-97. I had left Kashmir to pursue a Masters program in the University of Delhi. On my first day in the women’s hostel, while tightening the laces on my sports shoes in front of the hostel canteen, I was greeted by who turned out to be a Kashmiri Pandit girl, “Hi! Are you Kashmiri?” I could not hide my Kashmiri look; my nose was a testimony to my identity. I said, “Yes!” Soon after we exchanged a brief greeting and our names, the question that followed put me in a state of great unease: The entire Kashmiri Pandit community was uprooted from their homeland. Who do you think was responsible for it? I felt like the whole world had come to an end, the earth had shattered and the ground was slipping from beneath my feet. I did not have an answer. I do not have an answer.

The migration of the Kashmiri Pandits was the strongest blow to the Kashmiri ethos of Hindu-Muslim communal harmony and the much-harped notion of Kashmiriyat (‘Kashmiriness’). A stringent bitterness and suspicion had developed between the two communities, which continued and crystallized over the two decades or so post 1990. After leaving the Valley, many Pandits had lived in extreme circumstances, in makeshift tents in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi for years to come. Only the affluent ones had been able to find better opportunities and better places. The hot weather of the plains did not suit the people used to the lush green valleys and the snow-covered mountains. The pain of separation from the beautiful homeland, reshwair (‘valley of saints’) and the anger and dissatisfaction at the silence of the majority community as well as the government’s incapability in rehabilitating them was immeasurable. Back home in Kashmir, the majority community was busy wailing over the loss over the years and the atrocities and human rights violations by the security forces. Tens of thousands of people had lost their lives – some fighting for freedom, some innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire and some soldiers on the roadside. A strong void had developed between the two separated communities, which seemed to be widening over the course of time. There was an increasing need of a sense of acknowledgement of the pain and suffering from each side.

Today, when I look back at these many years of great yearning and loss, I inspire myself by these powerful lines attributed to Lal Ded, the mystic poet of the 14th century Kashmir:

Shiv chuy thali thali rav zān
Mau zān Hyund ta Musalmān
‘Lord Shiva abides in everything that is,
Do not differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim’

Perhaps that day is bound to come when the expectations are met, the acknowledgements are exchanged.
© Sadaf Munshi. July 1, 2012

(Originally published at: )

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