February 19, 2020
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Haven’t We Met Before?

A Facebook group to bring Kashmiri Muslims, Pandits together catches on

Haven’t We Met Before?
Tribhuvan Tiwari
Haven’t We Met Before?
outlookindia.com
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  • Srinagar-born group found a Facebook group to bring together Kashmiri Muslims, Pandits
  • In five months, already hits 1,000-member mark. Largest number from Delhi, followed by Srinagar and foreign cities.
  • Wants Pandits to have a living connection with Valley; plans to organise 100 homestays in Muslim homes in the Valley
  • SSARL members raise Rs 1 lakh for Kashmiri woman in hospital

***

In a film, this might have looked contrived. In real life, it was a moment of unscripted magic. A few Sundays ago, around a table in a crowded room in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, sat a couple of dozen people, speaking animatedly. Until a few names were mentioned—Rahul, Sohail, Pradeep, Irfan—it was hard to tell who in that light-eyed, light-skinned, long-nosed crowd was Kashmiri Muslim or Pandit (apart from the odd skullcap-wearer). The talk, in Kashmiri and English, was about conflict, lost identities, shared cultural bonds. As poetic touches gave way to more frank comments, a white-haired man, a Pandit, struck a wry note, asking what use Sufi traditions had been when Pandits had fled in fear from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. A Muslim stood up agitatedly, and it seemed the moderators might have work to do. But before they could intervene, a flute did. As a Kashmiri tune, played by a man who had barely spoken, filled the room, tense expressions dissolved into rueful smiles. Civility was restored.

Will it be anti-climactic now to reveal that Facebook enabled this encounter? In the year of Tahrir Square and Anna Hazare, have the political uses of Zuckerberg’s creation lost all power to surprise? Perhaps yes. But consider then the difference between disaffected people drumming up numbers for marches and sit-ins, and ordinary people venturing, without prodding by the usual sarkari or ngo suspects, into the grey, ambiguous, territory of bridge-building with an intimate enemy.

But “ordinary” may be the wrong word to describe Vivek Raina, Gowhar Fazili and Aamir Jalali, the young Srinagar-born founders of the five-month old Facebook group ‘Saariy Samav Aksey Razi Lamav’ (after a line from a verse by the Kashmiri mystic Lal Ded, which means “Let us pull the common rope together”.) It takes not just youth and optimism, but also compassion and boldness, to do what they’ve done: shed communal straitjackets and create, first in their own minds, then in cyberspace, and finally, on the ground, a meeting place for individuals from the Kashmiri Muslim and Pandit communities, estranged for two long decades.


SSARL members meet locals in Srinagar. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

“I thought Muslims and Pandits weren’t ready to look into each others’ eyes, but through Facebook, we could do it,” says Aamir, an Amritsar-based bank officer. Delhi-based engineer Vivek, who met Aamir on the Net after the tumultuous Kashmiri summer of 2010, says they were clear that “Facebook was just a front, a hub for connecting Pandits and Muslims interested in reconciliation”. The idea, says Gowhar, a PhD student of sociology at Delhi University who soon came on board, is to build on commonalities, “what we both value as central to our being Kashmiri.”

The terrain is a complex one. The late Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali’s words, “Your history gets in the way of my memory. I am everything you lost,” could well be an epitaph for the layered Pandit-Muslim relationship. There certainly are commonalities: a shared gene pool, language, food, jokes, a rich oral tradition. But there are also conflicting political perspectives, different narratives of the past—crucially of the 1990 exodus of Pandits from the Valley, why it happened, who’s to blame—and competing perceptions of victimhood (“our suffering is greater than yours”).

And yet, gratifyingly for its founders, the group was, from its November-end launch last year, taken rather seriously. First came the phone calls, from within and beyond India, all asking the same questions, “Who are you, who’s funding this?” People wanted reassurance, explain Gowhar and Vivek, who are now ssarl’s main propellers, that there was no “hidden agenda”. After that, membership of the closed group (new members only join through older ones, and saboteurs get thrown out) grew steadily. The 1,000-members mark was achieved in three months, in a 60-40 Muslim-Pandit ratio. The largest number is from Delhi, followed by Srinagar and various Indian and foreign cities.

“Much of the bitterness has washed away after 21 years. The pain now is my daughter, 5, knows little about Kashmir.”

Pretty quickly too a group within the group wanted to meet. Thirty venturesome souls turned up in December at the capital’s Lodhi Gardens for kahwa, Kashmiri bread and conversation. Explaining why he went, Rahul Dhar, an IT professional who left Srinagar as a boy in 1990, tells a story echoed by other Pandits in this group: “The first 10-12 years were horrible,” he says. “To tell the truth, we couldn’t bear to see a Kashmiri Muslim; but in 21 years, much of the bitterness has washed away. The pain now is that my 5-year-old daughter knows nothing about Kashmir.”

Since then, there have been scores of meetings, big and small. Sohail Rather, a news anchor with Doordarshan who was at the Lajpat Nagar gathering, says: “For my generation, born in Kashmir in the ’80s, Pandits belong to an imaginary landscape. In Delhi, the Pandits I saw made me angry, people from groups like Panun Kashmir cashing in on the victimisation hyperbole. It was a relief to meet Pandits who spoke the way we speak.”

Beyond meetings, there’s a job to do: organising a 100 homestays for Kashmiri Pandits in Muslim homes in Kashmir. And underlying that, a message: long-exiled Pandits must get to have a living connection with the Valley. To further this objective, a band of members recently went on a gruelling 900-kilometre bus trip from Dehi to Jammu and the Valley. In Jammu, they found an attentive audience in 200 people at the Mishriwala migrant camp. In Srinagar, 60 people turned up for a meeting in a park at which 25 were expected, young and old, traders as well as professors. Vivek, who had fled and lost his own Srinagar home as a teenager, stayed with Gowhar’s family, amid 25 ‘homestay’ offers from other families.

The organisers have little doubt now that the 100 homestays will happen (“this summer, next summer”), depending on tensions in the Valley. Meanwhile, they want you to take a good look at what’s already happening—at least 50 Muslims and Pandits who were till recently strangers are now in constant touch. It’s significant, agrees ssarl member Siddhartha Gigoo. “At a collective level, reconciliation doesn’t seem possible; but if people are meeting as individuals, it means something.”

For some, it’s more than just meeting. Irfan Wani, who met Chennai-based Kuldeep Pandita at Lodhi Gardens, later found himself seeking his help for a relative in distress in Chennai. The relative now works for Kuldeep’s water purification business. Businessman Virinder Mattoo, after no contact with Muslims for decades, now hosts them at his Jammu home, and plans to visit a Facebook friend in Anantnag. ssarl members raised a lakh of rupees for a Kashmiri Muslim woman hospitalised in Delhi and, in a city where Pandits and Muslims live in different ghettos, Gowhar has moved house to live near Vivek.


Piped Peace Tensions melt as the flute comes alive at a Delhi meeting of members. (Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari)

“Other attempts at reconciliation have been led from the outside. Here, people are owning something...it’s theirs, not a corollary of somebody else’s agenda,” explains Gowhar. It was to protect that spirit that the group politely rebuffed a request from a Kashmir interlocutor to attend one of their Jammu meetings. So what of the conflicting politics, the opposing narratives? Are they bypassed, addressed, are they in the way? All three, it seems. After seeing its share of fireworks, the Facebook site, say members, has achieved a functional decency. Sohail, though, fears the group may “fall into the trap of monotony” after a romantic first phase unless it tackles “unglamorous questions” like who was to blame for the exodus, and why Pandits don’t speak up against human rights abuses in Kashmir. But Gowhar, while agreeing on the need for some acknowledgements, says, “It’s not for the group to fix everything...some differences will remain.”

Some members do bring up touchy issues, like Delhi-based businessman Irfan, who repeatedly says the Muslim community must share the blame for the exodus (“We blame Jagmohan, but why did we not give Pandits the confidence to stay on?”). “I needed a non-political platform to say these things, where no one would take advantage of me,” he says. Creating that precious, fragile space in a discourse dominated by hardliners is an achievement, but clearly not one to crow over. “The group has not matured to a level that it can take on these questions,” warns Gowhar. “This is only round one of communication.” It’s being well-handled, it has to be said, of course with a little help from the occasional flute.

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