On Tuesday, Jammu and Kashmir casts the first vote in what’s probably its most consequential election in many decades.
The house of the Abdullahs, the first family of Kashmiri politics, is palpably in decline. A new “outsider” claimant to power — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP — is in dramatic surge.
he field is abuzz. Players like Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s PDP and Sajjad Lone’s People’s Conference too are backing themselves in what is the most open contest the state has seen.
It is an election pregnant with implications, for India and for the region. What could it mean if the
BJP were to grab controlling stakes in India’s only Muslim-majority province? How will it impact relations with Pakistan, which occupies one chunk of Kashmir and is deeply and violently enmeshed in the affairs of the part India governs?
There is another, oft ignored, facet that this election could be about, a brutally plucked piece of the riven map of J&K — this is also the 25th anniversary year of the hounding of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes, a calamitous chapter that left a populace adrift and the Valley a radically altered space.
Kashmir’s Pandits restively await the end of exile. Is this election to be the herald of that hour? A status report on India’s unspoken Partition
Mun tu shudam
Tu mun shudi;
Man tan shudam
Tu jaan shudi;
Takas na goyad bod azeen
(I am You and You are me; I am your body, You are my soul; So none should hereafter say, I am someone and You someone else)
So singing out Amir Khusro’s sufi verse, Mohammed Sheikh Abdullah turned to embrace Jawaharlal Nehru, Kashmiri Musalmaan to Kashmiri Pandit, in front of thousands gathered at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk.
It was November 2, 1947; the ink on Kashmir’s accession to India was only a week old. What followed would knock the stuffing off that sublime vow and render it a tattered feast for vultures.
Banihal, Nov. 24: This is an obituary notice that has long required posting: Kashmiriyat is dead.
But never mind, nobody’s shedding tears. Not least the standard-bearers of that celebrated covenant of syncretic concord and peaceable, if not also rich and festive, cohabitation.
A quarter century after they tore ties, suture upon suture, Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits have heckled Kashmiriyat to gory expiry. That achieved, they have dumped its cask and stomped off opposite ways to curse the faith they once together espoused.
The few that insist Kashmiriyat is still alive are stoking wishful rumour, frosted embers at the bottom of a kangri, the signature Kashmiri hotpot. Kashmiriyat? Then you must also believe the “Happy Valley” suffix to Kashmir isn’t a cynically deluded indulgence.
Down opposite sides of the Banihal Pass, up 9,291ft in the Pir Panjal bridgehead between Jammu and Kashmir, has come to prosper a migraine aspiring to become a civil war. If there is a broken truth on earth, it lies here, it lies here, it lies here.
The travesty is, there aren’t a more kindred people likely to be found — they come from common roots and genealogy, they kiss the same soil, eat the same food, speak the same language. But their conversation has become a grisly caterwaul ringing in the depths of the Jawahar Tunnel, a connector that has now become a divide three kilometres long.
To one side of this lofty passage chinar trees won’t grow and to the other, gulmohurs; to one side cows are milch gods, to the other they are often meant for the table too; to one side flows the Chenab and to the other the Jhelum, both murderous of spate this monsoon, they only ever get to meet near Jhang in Pakistan.
To one side resides an agitated Hindu majority, to the other, India’s biggest and affronted Muslim pocket. Together they still make up one state called Jammu and Kashmir, but there isn’t a more divided province likely to be found.
About this time 25 years ago, a murderous drift took hold of the Kashmir Valley and shook the foundations of state and society alike. The gun-blazoned “aazaadi” insurrection invited a jackbooted military crackdown, but the crossfire brought upon the Pandits a harsh, and yet unresolved, banishment.
The hurricane barrelled into the Valley’s core and its far corners; it swept an entire people off their gabled townhouses and farm acres and deposited them in tattered tent shanties across the Banihal.
Of a count of 367,289 at the time, 364,130 Pandit heads fled under violent coercion or in panic. In the months preceding their flight, militant separatists had killed 219 Pandits. Those are official figures, Pandit logs put the figure of the dead much higher, closer to 500.
On such a procession of the dead travelled India’s largest, and most intractable, internal migration.
In the years since, many brave declarations have been made by Pandits of their impending return. And many entreaties have been sounded by Muslims from the Valley.
But between intention to return and invitation, a crevice has come to widen, overrun with an outcrop of mistrust and loathing.
Pandits who are resolved to return say conditions apply — “No more shall we live under Muslim threat or subjugation, clear the place.”
Muslims who say they wish the Pandits back also say conditions apply — “Don’t come home riding bayonets of an occupying army, stay away if you can’t return unarmed.”
In Jammu, Pandit rights protagonist Agnishekhar tells me their return to the Valley is “now nothing short of the national cause resettling Indian in Kashmir, which is colonised by anti-nationals”.
In Srinagar, Hurriyat leader Yasin Malik issues a shrill riposte to who he calls his Pandit “brethren” — “If they want to come here in the arms of the Indian Army, they had better scrap their plans; who comes home in an armoured carrier?”
It is the accepted, if not always stated, discourse in the Valley that the Pandits deserved to be thrown out because they were “fifth column traitors”, a community of India’s unpaid spies.
In Jammu, the charge lies openly stated that the Valley’s Muslims are the battering arm of Pakistan who will not hesitate to pick up the gun and shoot the neighbour.
Between conversations on this side of the Banihal and that, the pages of my notebook have begun a cantankerous quarrel; it is one calcified sword bidding the other to yield, willing to concede nothing.
It is probably a measure of how coarse and embittered this argument is that they won’t shy invoking in Kashmir not a common holy land but a Siachen of the gods —this summer’s catastrophic flood was played by some émigré Pandits as divine “wrath”; the abrogated pilgrim yatra to the Kausarnaag lake became to some the “triumph” of another divine will.
Three generations down the politically cobbled concord of 1947, Sheikh Abdullah’s invocation of Amir Khusro has become a metaphor of cantankerous separateness, a Biblical dispute over faith and myth, and a temporal altercation over exile and homeland.
In a rare moment of candour, Yusuf Teng, wizened impresario of Kashmiri culture and ghost-writer of Sheikh Abdullah’s autobiography Flames of the Chinar, opened his doors to me and let out the stalled cat of sham Kashmiriyat.
“It is a myth that Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits have lived in peace forever,” Teng wistfully told me at his Baghaat bungalow in Srinagar. “We have always lived in each other’s mistrust. In fact, among the last things Sheikh (Abdullah) sahib wrote was a treatise on what he thought to be a conspiracy to undo Kashmir’s Muslim majority character.”
Never mind if Khusro’s verse sounds like a sardonic dirge for Kashmiriyat.