Rahul Pandita, Basharat Peer and Kashmir's contradictory stories

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 25, 2013 05:37 hrs

I haven’t been to Kashmir yet. When I was a child, the ‘Paradise on Earth’ was converted in newsprint to ‘Hotbed of Militancy’. Its mythical beauty came to me only through movies, and old photographs taken by my grandfather in the Fifties. My understanding of the region has come to me through various accounts, some firsthand and some literary. And together, they make me wonder which the real Kashmir story is.

Is it the story of boys in fake branded clothes and sunglasses crossing the border to fight a false war? The story of the boys left behind being given electric shocks and cigarette butt burns? The story of crying mothers and bereaved families, of men who have lost their potency and lives, of a repentant militant returning home to find his road back had glistened with mirages? The story of a humiliating show of identity cards to prove one has no ulterior motive in leaving one’s home?

Is it the story of terrified soldiers, turned paranoid by armies of teenage stone throwers? Of men living far from home, living with the fear of being killed unless they kill first? Are they soldiers who hate what they do? Are they torture experts who enjoy what they do? Is it the story of men trying to protect hostile civilians from bombs that make no distinction between Kashmiris and Indians?

Is it the story of women who were asked to wear tilaks only to be marked out for rape? The story of the empty sockets of a young man whose eyes were gouged out and tongue cut out by his own friends? The story of his mother, who refused to believe he was dead and would cook food for him and leave it on the parapet outside her tent in a refugee camp where even tomatoes were rationed? The story of a father-son duo, found with nails hammered into their foreheads where their caste marks would have been?

If it is all these stories, where do they meet in a narrative that has so many contradicting truths?

Weeks after the execution of Afzal Guru, and the fresh wave of ‘anti-India’ sentiment it engendered in Kashmir, I read Our Moon has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita – the third book on the state I have read in the past five years, and the first written from the perspective of the Pandits, whose forced migration from their homeland is referred to as ‘The Exodus’. Only, there was no Promised Land.

To speak of this migration is politically incorrect, even for Pandits. Rahul Pandita writes, referring to conversations with Kashmiri Muslim friends, “We did not share sadness beyond this. Because then the topic always veered to the events of 1989-90, and that was the point at which our truths became different. For them, the events of 1990 were a rebellion against the Indian state. For me, these same events had led to exile and permanent homelessness.”

For those who are not Kashmiri Pandits to bring up the ‘exodus’ is akin to referring to the Sabarmati Express burning in the context of the Godhra riots. It is to imply two wrongs make a right, it is to confess to being a right-wing bigot.

When it is brought up in conversation, you may hear either of two versions – that it was prompted by panic intentionally spread by the lying, Muslim-hating Jagmohan, Governor of Jammu and Kashmir; or, that women were raped, men were killed, houses were burnt, and their shells sold for small change by owners who huddled in squalid refugee camps. Pandita’s account draws from his teenage memories. It is the only firsthand account of the ‘exodus’ I’ve read, and the first book on Kashmir that has good things to say about the former governor. And one would hesitate to accuse the author of ‘Hello, Bastar’ of right-wing leanings.

The book is a hard one to read. How can it not, when a boy who used to hit tomatoes for sixes while playing cricket speaks to us from the end of a snaking queue for a single tomato? When a man realises he could own a house in Delhi, or any other part of the world, but not in his homeland? When one reads the story of Girja, a young woman who was gang-raped by four men and then cut alive on a mechanical saw in a wood-processing unit, because she had realised that among her rapists was an acquaintance she knew well enough to recognise by voice?

In a poignant passage, Pandita says, “Like our misfortune, the rain was also waiting for an appropriate moment to show that we were born when the gods had been looking the other way”. Pandita doesn’t shy away from telling us he is religious. His pain as he speaks of having to live with the desecration of the temples in Kashmir is palpable.

He makes an effort to remain neutral, recounting the story of a Muslim doctor – with a forehead abraded from prayer – who treats a Pandit and doesn’t flinch even when the exhausted patient vomits into his shoes.  Speaking of a TV show in which he was a panellist, Pandita quotes his own reply to a question by an aggressive fellow-panellist who was all for a hard line on Kashmir by the central government – “I’ve lost my home, not my humanity.” He speaks of his Muslim friends who escorted him to the house his family used to own, who broke down outside, shedding tears for the man who must ask permission to enter his own home, from the person who has taken it over.

Later in the account of his visit, Pandita speaks evocatively of his imagined response to the current owner, who grumbles that the house is in ‘bad condition’ – “Sir, quote a price and I will buy it from you right away. Bad condition! Do you, sir, even realize what it means for me to be sitting in this house? This house built with my father’s Provident Fund savings and my mother’s bridal jewellery.”

But the pent-up rage finds an outlet when he says “I’m angry at the TV show where our murderers speak about our return”. And when he comments, ironically, after describing a series of cruel murders, “This is what the seekers of freedom were doing to the religious minority.”

A book I found as hard to read was Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. The book itself seemed to me, at least at that time, to be a well-moderated account. Since then, Peer’s writing seems to have become progressively biased, but more on that later.

I read the book with growing horror, for what else can one feel at the thought of a school-turned-military-camp from which the screams of teenagers being electrocuted emerge?

Early in the book, Peer writes: “Despite the rather sleepy existence of our village and my ignorance about the political history of Kashmir, I had a sense of the alienation and resentment most Kashmiri Muslims felt against Indian rule”. There’s no explanation for the sentiment, and one wonders whether it is a confession to holding a prejudice. He speaks of the bewilderment caused by the increased presence of mullahs, but there are only subdued references to Pakistan, and crucial questions in connection with the country’s role in Kashmir are sidestepped.

While one understands the rebellious act of cheering any cricket team – especially the Pakistani one – against India in this context, I find it strange that Pakistan’s role in the militancy is glossed over in passive voice : “Most of them received training between early 1988 and late 1989”. In one place in the book, Peer does say – “They returned as militants carrying Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, light machine guns, and rocket launchers issued by Pakistan”. He also refers to ‘Pakistan-administered Kashmir’, a neat alternative to both ‘Azad Kashmir’ and ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’, though Indian Kashmir is only called ‘Indian-occupied Kashmir’.

While Peer mentions the killings of Kashmiri Pandits – and even ‘pro-India Muslims’ – as well as the destruction of temples by militants, they’re spoken of in passing, and the narrative moves on immediately, and disconcertingly, to the hero-worship of these same militants.

He confronts the realities in a section about learning to like Delhi – the reality of many Indias, “Indias that I liked and cared about, Indias that were unlike the militaristic power it seemed in Kashmir”. To his credit, he also deals with the issue of the term ‘India’ becoming suddenly relevant to Kashmiris preparing for the UPSC exams.

It is an honest account, and it must be acknowledged that speaking to the victims of either side is bound to sway one’s neutrality.  Even so, Peer makes it a point to include incidents that bring out the kindness and guilt of certain paramilitary officers.

But what I find troubling in the book are the covert implications. Speaking of an officer, who barges into a newspaper office, Peer says, “The power of the caste system was evident in his first smile.” He later quotes the officer saying, “I was a different man before I joined the force and came to Kashmir”, almost in apology. However, there is an uncomfortable equating of mainstream India with Hinduism.

I find the same echoes in Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator, a novel that I thought extraordinarily well-written in parts, but disquieting in other parts. This book’s treatment of religion is worrying, mostly in the last chapter, where it appears that, along with India, all things evil or cruel may be equated with Hinduism.

As I wrote in an earlier review of the book, “It would be understandable for the narrator to do this if there were some indication of his being a bigot, or being indoctrinated, or even raised to believe certain things; or better, if we could sense a slow shift in his beliefs that prompted him to embrace a more rigorous interpretation of Islam, to be won over to a ‘side’ in a Pyrrhic war. However, when the narrator is portrayed as an educated boy, and more importantly, as a reasonable young man who understands the pathos and pointlessness of both ‘sides’, who is as vehement in his anger at Pakistan as at India, it makes the writing appear agenda-driven when ‘garish musical devotion’ (referring to mantras) is contrasted with ‘sonorous azan’.”

When the idea of religion is associated with the Army, I wonder – are no Muslim soldiers from other parts of India posted in Kashmir? In plays, novels, and works of non-fiction, it appears all Hindu soldiers posted in the region subscribe to a set of religious rituals. Waheed’s book even has sadhus being flown in to accommodate the whims of a Commanding Officer. Such insinuations border dangerously on religious chauvinism.

Mirza Waheed chose a protagonist who would allow him to present as close an objective view as possible for someone so close to the issue. The narrator doesn’t truly belong anywhere, not even to Kashmir – member of a nomadic Gujjar community, he’s seen as less Kashmiri than themselves by Kashmiris. His allegiance is owed neither to India nor Pakistan, and he appears to dislike both countries. The tasks he is set by either side sometimes make his mind unravel, and sometimes make him see both agendas clearly. Those are the best parts of the book.

But the narrator’s apparent disinterest becomes a device to justify a very obvious bias – the bias is felt most lightly in the references to ‘Azad Kashmir’, as if the puppet government installed in the region were truly autonomous. It’s felt most ominously when fiction masquerades as reality – when a character, who is designated ‘Captain’ but is the Commanding Officer of a special camp (poor research into Army hierarchy, perhaps?), gloats about what the Army does with the boy-soldiers they capture, and how they make up the numbers by killing civilians.

As in Peer’s non-fiction work, Waheed’s fiction too accommodates the valley’s confusion over the gradual Islamisation of villages that couldn’t give a toss about religion. We see the impossibility of determining which ‘side’ is right, as he speaks of the families the aspiring militants left behind, and what became of them. Can someone be a hero when he abandons his aging parents and young siblings to the interrogations he knows they will be subjected to?

I found Basharat Peer’s book admirably restrained, under the circumstances, for the most part. But his subsequent rhetoric has been increasingly vehement in tone. The author’s Letter to an Unknown Indian, for instance, tends to see the Indian population as one with the Armed Forces, and the accusatory tone is unnerving.

In the letter, Peer writes: “Kashmir remembers what is done in your name, in the name of your democracy, whether its full import ever reaches your drawing rooms and offices or not. Your soldiers of reason carrying their press cards might dissuade you from seeing it, comfort you with their cynical use of academic categories and interpretations of Kashmir, they might rerun the carefully chosen, convenient images on TV, but Kashmir sees the unedited Kashmir.”

More disturbingly, there are parts that almost justify the militancy and backlash, such as: “They too remember, the boys whose masked faces you see, carrying stones in their hands. One of them remembers a bunker by a bridge in Srinagar and hot iron rods leaving marks on his forearms that he now hides with a full-sleeved shirt. One of them remembers the cold edge of a dagger on his throat and a question shouted at his grandfather, ‘Where did they go?’ On August 13, 2008, a 21-year-old house painter from a tiny village near Sopore saw unarmed people being shot in the village of Chahal near the Line of Control. His mother remembers now, looking at a framed picture of him. The house painter’s memory brought him to Srinagar on January 7, 2010, carrying a gun, shooting, and eventually being killed after a 27-hour long encounter with the troops, that you might remember.”

Reading this passage, one is tempted to ask whether it would be as tragic for a Kashmiri Pandit to be killed while going on a shooting rampage to avenge a massacre he saw.

The reactions to the article are summarised in two comments, from opposite ‘sides’ of the fence:

Vivek Bhatt writes, “As a Kashmiri Pandit, I remember the genocide against my people. Perhaps it wouldn’t be inappropriate to remember those victims too. They were not causing riots, attacking security forces and property with stones. Nor were they being traitors. They were killed off for being ‘kaffirs’.”

In response, Aamir Shafi, who states he is from ‘Indian-occupied Kashmir’, writes: “If India considers Kashmiris its own people, then they should trust them and let them decide their fate in a plebiscite, knowing that they will vote for India. But India only considers Kashmir as its integral part, not the Kashmiris. They want land, not people. How can we live with a nation which considers Muslims as viruses. We can’t forget genocides in Gujarat , in Mumbai , in Jammu, in Kashmir.”

Shafi goes on to charge that “As for [the] minority community in Kashmir, most of them were killed by government gunmen on the orders of the then governor Jagmohan, in order to spread fear psychosis and pave the way for exodus of Pandits, so that Indian occupational forces could crush the armed rebellion in Kashmir with full might, without worrying [about] collateral damage to [the] Pandit community.”

Conspiracy theories aside, I find this line of equating all Indians with the government particularly troubling because the equivalent doesn’t seem to hold true for Kashmir – in the aftermath of Afzal Guru’s hanging, Kashmiris in the virtual sphere were quick to disown the state, represented by Omar Abdullah. Is it fair then, to bring in an ‘us and them’ narrative, in which non-Kashmiris are not allowed to disown the central government?

One of Abdullah’s most ‘favourited’ and ‘retweeted’ tweets was: “If J&K assembly had passed a resolution similar to the Tamil Nadu one for Afzal Guru would the reaction have been as muted? I think not.” Here, everyone appears to forget that Abdullah technically had the same power as his Tamil Nadu counterpart Jayalalithaa to push such a resolution forward.

It is normal for readers to be prejudiced, but it becomes problematic when writers and public figures disguise prejudice with a patina of neutrality. I’m not saying anyone does this consciously. I’m not denying the efforts to overcome a natural bias. One example is in Peer’s account of the Hajj pilgrimage, in which he quotes JKLF chairman Yasin Malik confessing that he started a war, in which seventy to eighty thousand Kashmiris lost their lives, while achieving nothing politically.

But the gallery is a large one, and growing every day, not least thanks to Twitter and the mileage it generates. Those who claim to be liberals are required by protocol to maintain a certain line – one that ridicules such articles as Manu Joseph’s (in)famous ‘Kashmir is Happy’ piece, and applauds Arundhati Roy’s declarations and declamations. It’s hard not to play to that gallery, and to resist the protocol it prescribes for an audience.

However, it appears there are many truths and many lies about Kashmir, interchangeable depending on the speaker. It’s a land of repentant militants and aggressive ones, where some fathers send sons out to war and other fathers live in fear of waking up to an empty bed one day, a land where militants mutilate people on suspicion, and soldiers torture people on suspicion. Maybe it can only be interpreted through multiple narratives, and perhaps Pandita’s book is a start to providing an alternate one.

As we struggle with our own personal biases in coming to terms with these narratives, and accepting them all, it is perhaps most important to remember that an institution doesn’t necessarily represent the will of the people whom it represents.

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The author is a writer based in Chennai.

She blogs at
http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com and tweets at  @k_nandini