By: Dr. Sadaf Munshi
“The Return of the Kashmiri Pandit” – this phrase has come to sound like that famous 1985 horror movie-cum-black comedy The Return of the Living Dead. Given that we Kashmiris are so hypersensitive that a slight tinge of satire may stoke unwanted emotions, I hope being candid does not lead to my being misconstrued. The analogy is admittedly a bit absurd, but the popular response generated by any government offer to rehabilitate the displaced Kashmiri Pandits gives an impression as if the KP community would have a comeback as the horde of hungry zombies out to devour the unsuspecting Muslim population.
Today, many separatist leaders and commonplace Kashmiri Muslims are nervous that the proposed “townships” offer for the Pandits might be very “dangerous” for the majority (Although it seems that the government had to clarify that the offer did not really imply “isolated” colonies but an attempt to “reintegrate” the displaced KP community). Some people even went to claim that the proposal might lead to an “Israel-like situation” in which the majority will eventually be replaced by the minority. Honestly, I do not know what to call this kind of attitude if not extreme paranoia.
First of all, Kashmiri Pandits are not some foreigners trying to grab the “rightfully inherited” land of Kashmiri Muslims. Secondly, we do not see any imminent population explosion in the KP community, which might result into a situation where they could outnumber the Muslim community any soon (But, wait a minute! Doesn’t this remind us of the mindset warning the Hindu India of the “increasing” Muslim population?). Thirdly, out of the 62,000 displaced KP families, how many are actually likely to return? The affluent and lucky ones, who have dispersed and settled in many foreign lands with better employment and educational prospects, would be least interested in a comeback, just like the many Kashmiri Muslims settled elsewhere. Finally, how many of them do we strongly believe will return willingly and stay there for good? More than one state government has made promises to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits. We have even seen attractive job packages being offered in the past. Unfortunately there have been few takers so far. In fact, we have heard reports of people leaving soon after they had joined these jobs. Why? Let’s think about it!
In the summer of 2013, I visited the remote area of Shopian in Kashmir with some people as part of a project documenting Kashmir oral history. We were greeted by several ghost houses, ruins of the foundations of razed buildings once inhabited by the Pandits who had fled in terror many years ago in the 90’s. Despite witnessing arsons and attacks on their neighbors, a single Pandit family had decided to stay back. We met them. They prepared lunch for us – chicken, mutton kofte, and yogurt drinks. An elderly woman looked at me with great affection as we listened to the story her husband narrated. I returned her gesture with the same warmth. The woman gave me a tight hug and showed me around. After the lunch we stepped outside and took a closer look of the neighborhood. The house stood amidst an array of giant trees and ruins of the burnt down houses of which only the worn down foundations remained. It was a quiet, isolated place; not a single neighbor was within sight. “It is scary,” I turned to my companions. The elderly man, in his 90’s, said in a reassuring voice:
We have become used to it now. We are not scared any more. The policemen guard our house and property at night. They come around 10:00pm everyday and leave in the morning. We wish we had some neighbors, some relatives around here that we could share our joys and our sorrows with.
We may brag about our “composite culture” and our “shared past”, or take pride in the much-hallowed notion of “Kashmiriyat”, but the reality on ground says a slightly different story. We have turned into an exclusivist society in which people belonging to other religions or ideologies do not quite fit. Except for a few isolated elite colonies (I would call them “sophisticated ghettos”), there are few neighborhoods in the valley, which can boast of being truly “composite” in nature.
Setting aside the endless debates and conspiracy theories on who or what was responsible for the KP exodus, let’s be honest in admitting the fact that both the state government and the majority community have so far failed to facilitate the return of our “Pandit brothers”. The miniscule population of Kashmiri Pandits, just like other minorities, cannot be a threat to the majority. Conversely, it is this population that has been continuously vulnerable; the many migrations of KPs are a testimony to this fact.
If the representatives of various schools of thought are really sincere in wanting the displaced community back, it’s high time they put a full stop to knee-jerk responses and insensitive statements that cause further alienation of the KP community. A well thought out plan for the rehabilitation and reintegration of the interested members by the government in consultation with various people, which will not expose the community to any vulnerable situation, is the need of the hour.
About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the College of Information at the University of North Texas. For feedback, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the daily Rising Kashmir (April 9, 2015): http://www.risingkashmir.com/the-return-of-the-kashmiri-pandit/