Texture of Loss: Tapestry of a Withered Neighborhood from Kashmir
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Arshi Javid
Setting the Context
Nestled amidst the towering Himalayas lies the valley of Kashmir. The erstwhile independent princely state now stands geographically divided between India, Pakistan and China. The British exit from South Asia perpetuated a political crisis that ensured the partition of the Indian sub-continent into two political units along religious lines. The partition logic stated that Muslims and Hindus are two separate nations by every definition; therefore, Muslims should be able to have their own separate homeland in the Muslim majority areas of India, in which Islam could be practiced as the dominant religion. However, Kashmir despite being a Muslim majority area, became a part of India as the ruling Hindu maharaja acceded to the Indian state. Joining a Muslim majority state (Pakistan) would obviously have been an anathema for the Hindu ruler. Hence he favored joining India, disregarding the mandate of the Muslim majority in the state.
Four decades after the partition and following the establishment of the modern state of Jammu and Kashmir, popular armed militancy erupted in the valley. Though the immediate reason for the outbreak of militancy was electoral rigging, a plethora of underlying causes lay beneath the smokescreen of normalcy and stability. Denial of the promised plebiscite for self-determination, gradual institutional erosion of the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, structural paralysis in governance, and institutional discrimination were enough to cause the furor. However, the most unfortunate aspect of the militancy remains the migration of the minority Kashmiri Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits, at the onset of the militant movement.
Syncretism and Hybridity
Apart from the political aspects of militancy, the Kashmir story is a narrative of the rupture of a neighborhood, a neighborhood which might have shared latent strains, but where the working relations between the two communities stood nevertheless unimpaired. After all there were cultural commonalities between the two communities, bound by common language, food habits, and religious practices. One noteworthy point is that while Kashmiri Muslims avoided eating beef, Pandits regularly ate halal mutton, a favoured dish of the Muslims. Until the 1940s it was actually very common for both the communities to visit the mausoleums of Sufi saints and mystics. The culture of Pir-Mureedi existed partly because both religions lived a life of isolation unaware of their co-religionists across the mountains. For centuries, Sufi saints and Rishis, the religious ascetics in Kashmir, had preached mutual tolerance and non-orthodox religion and acted as common points of cultural reference for the development of an ethnic collective consciousness in geographically isolated Kashmir. This religious syncretism is said to have made Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits different from their respective co-religionists elsewhere.
However from the 1950s onwards, there was a gradual acceleration in the system of social communication in the Kashmir valley. This exposure led in turn to heightened religious and social consciousness among both the communities. Furthermore, major socially oriented government actions paved a way for class mobility among Kashmiri Muslims, who had historically been discriminated against by the ruling elite.
The moment of rupture
In 1989, militancy announced itself with the killings of prominent personalities who had some affiliation with the state. The militants, who were espousing Kashmiri nationalism, claimed the attacks were meant to destabilize the political edifice and were political in nature. Many Muslims were targeted along with Pandits. However, Kashmiri Pandits saw the militancy as an attempt towards Islamization by neighboring Pakistan. It was in the context of these circumstances and a heightened perception of threat that Pandit migration took place from the valley to Jammu, southern parts of Kashmir, and other parts of India. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus left the Kashmir valley within months.
Newspapers from the same year reflect the rupture that Kashmiri social spaces underwent. Each day the newspapers would be full of paid advertisements through which Muslim and Hindu individuals would distance themselves from the state and state-led institutions. A deep sense of fear had pervaded the public sphere. Kashmiri Pandits who have settled down in various cities of India, claim that the displacement of their community took place in an atmosphere of fear created by Muslim separatists who killed members of the Pandit community. It is noteworthy that many Pandits use the term ‘forced displacement’ instead of ‘migration’. Amidst personal conversations, one Kashmiri Pandit gentleman reluctant to be identified recalled that he had always been sympathetic towards the cause of Muslims but that the statements of militant groups in Urdu telling him to leave the valley and the slogans like, “you infidels you tyrants, leave our Kashmir,” from loudspeakers of mosques disturbed him. He also mentions incidents of young Muslim boys teasing him with the slogan “we want Pakistan, inclusive of Pandit women and exclusive of Pandit men.”
The warnings and threats from militants were carried in the local newspapers. Two Srinagar-based newspapers, Alsafa and the Srinagar Times, carried direct threats in April 1990, allegedly issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen, ordering Kashmiri Hindus to leave the valley or be killed. Panun Kashmir, a far right Kashmiri Pandit group, claims that Kashmiri Pandits were driven from their homeland after a campaign of intimidation and harassment was launched against them by the military-wing of the secessionists. It was done, they argue, to create a minority-free Kashmir, where the goal of Islamization could be easily forced on ordinary people. One of the Pandit migrant families I interviewed in Jammu noted that posters were put up outside mosques labeling Kashmiri Pandits as agents of India and that they had always and invariably acted as traitors and stabbed Kashmiri Muslims in the back.
Muslims contest this by saying more than real attacks it was the atmosphere of fear and the perceived threat from the “other” that played a major role in driving Pandits from the valley in large numbers. They often quote reports from prominent international and national outlets, refuting allegations of communal incidents or burning and looting of houses, misbehavior with women, etc. Muslims feel that they have been insulted by the Hindus, because while there was no danger to their life or properties, they left the valley and so defamed the whole Muslim community. However, there is no denying the fact that some killings at the beginning happened, although not on the basis of religion. Pro-self-determination groups claim that whoever worked for Indian agencies or acted against the movement was killed, irrespective of religious identity, which is why Muslims killed by militants outnumbered Pandits.
The other narrative holds the state machinery responsible for the migration of the Pandits. Most of the pro-self-determination groups, irrespective of their ideological differences, blame the state for facilitating the migration of Kashmiri Pandits in order to stigmatize the political movement for self-determination as being communal in nature. The state machinery, including the police, bureaucracy, and the press had come directly under the control of the governor’s office.
Continuity of Loss
The last thirty years have been the darkest period of Kashmir’s history, as two generations of Muslims and Pandits have grown up without knowing each other. It is ironic that the Pandits are remembered in Muslim households and vice versa, day in and day out, through stories of past friendships and how life existed before the Pandits left. For people of my generation, who were born around the time Pandit migration happened, Batta (the Kashmiri word for Pandits) existed in everyday stories and conscious food choices. Adults would talk about the Pandits selling off their properties and the reluctance of ethical elders to buy their properties. Very often one would hear about a relative or an acquaintance guarding Pandit houses and belongings in their absence.
In the initial years, there was a hope among Pandits about returning to the valley. However, thirty years is a long time for nursing such hopes. Now they do not know what to go back to, if they could go back at all. Siddharta Gigoo, a young Kashmiri Pandit novelist, writes, “Nothing remains of their homes where once they flourished and dreamt of living and dying. Not even ruins.”
References and further reading
Jalal, Ayesha, (1994). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lamb, Alistair, (1991). Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846-1990. Hertford: Roxford Books.
Ganguly, Sumit, (1996). “Explaining the Kashmir Insurgency: Political Mobilization and Institutional decay.” International Security,Vol. 21, No. 2: pp. 76-107.
Zutshi, Chitralekha, (2004). Languages of Belonging: Islam and Political Culture in Kashmir. London: Hurst and Co.
About the Author
Arshi Javid is a doctoral candidate at the Department of South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her PhD looks at the “Contested Politics of ‘Self’ and ‘Other’: The Case of Kashmiri Nationalism, 1989–2016.” Earlier she earned her MPhil on the Role of Women in Peacebuilding in Kashmir, 1989–2014 from the same university.
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.
Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.
Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.
Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.
Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.
Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.
M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, 21 November 2019.
Kai Vöckler, Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods, 27 December 2019.
Citation: Arshi Javid, Texture of Loss: Tapestry of a Withered Neighborhood from Kashmir, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.01.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/21222.