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Kashmir Files: Flawed Narratives Of The Fault Lines

Once again, Kashmir is the altar on which India is trying to refashion its national identity, this time with a distinctive majoritarian flavour

Kashmir Files: Flawed Narratives Of The Fault Lines
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Hardly anyone in Kashmir has seen the movie that is being vigorously debated in op-eds, social media and drawing rooms. They couldn’t have. Cinema halls, like several other manifestations of life, were closed down during the height of militancy and remain so. “You’ve come from India. You must have seen it. How’s it?” people ask.

Not many in Kashmir know that the Indian Army screened The Kashmir Files at its Chinar Aud­i­torium in Srinagar’s cantonment for a week, three shows a day, to spread the “nationalistic message”. Overlooking the snow-clad Himalayas, the auditorium had glistening army shops by its side, one of which was selling qua­lity liquor. Present during a matinee show among army men and their families, I, perhaps the only civilian in the hall, found people che­cking on their phones which JNU professor the character of Pallavi Joshi was based on. Two men, in the dark of the auditorium, googled Arundhati Roy and separatist leader Yasin Malik, seen together in a photograph in a scene of the movie.

In the resident Kashmiri’s eclipse—both Muslims and Pandits—from the most intense debate on the Valley in recent years, one can read the last thirty-two years of the Jhelum. The waters of conflicting sorrows, cruelly entangled, tied in an umbilical cord. One wave can’t be narrated without the other. The night of January 19, 1990, when the calls to eliminate Kashmiri Pandits were given from mosques, may remain incomplete without the Gaw Kadal killings a day later when some 50 Muslims were killed in firing by security forces. If it’s a story of those who were forced to leave their ancestral homeland, it’s also about those who were left behind. A lake where you can’t take fifty steps without coming across a heavily-armed gunman, a café that watches people speak in hus­hed tones before suddenly losing track of their own words, young men who are harassed in India’s major cities, a woman who repeatedly makes you aware of your “privileged Indian citizenship”, an old Pandit facing threats by milit­ants, a girl who recently discovered that she shared her tale with the Pandits.

And an ageing poet who is haunted by an unf­i­l­led dream. A dream his close friend, Bisham­b­har Nath Mattoo—the husband of his munhboli sister Rajdulari Handoo—often shared with him. “I want to see at least once in my dream that I am in Delhi, but I always find myself in the Devibal temple of Anantnag.” Forced to lea­ve the Valley in January 1990, Mattoo died a few years ago in Delhi but Bashir Ahmad Dada, who­se angulated face and piercing eyes reminds one of Clint East­wood, still carries the burden. “Not all were militants, many were our men too.”

Life was not kind for the poet Bashir eit­her. Soon he saw his community members bei­ng killed in mindless violence. He faced serious death threats by the government-supported militia Ikhwan, and a few years ago, his son Visa­lat, born years after that winter, couldn’t easily find a rented room in India’s most welcoming metropolis Mumbai because he was a Kashmiri Muslim.

No story can speak for all. But any authentic narrative is expected to be sensitive to the claims of the other. This is where The Kashmir Files fails as a movie.

No story can speak for all. But any authentic narrative is expected to be sensitive to the claims of the other. This is precisely where The Kashmir Files fails, both as a movie as well as a political statement. And this is also where the other commentary on Kashmir fails when it refuses to identify Islamic militancy for the fear of upsetting communal harmony. But if there’s to be reconciliation, truth must be embraced. In an impossibly militarised zone that sees a large number of Muslims with genuine grievances against the Indian State, people like Bashir are too few and far between. Eight of the 10 Musl­ims I met in Kashmir last week tried to rationalise, even justify the exodus of the Pandits.  One can argue that their own sorrow has made them oblivious, if not always resentful, to the grief of the Pandits who once shared the valley with them. Or, since a section of Pandits came to be associated with the “Hindu” India, it was inevitable for the “Muslim Kashmir” to turn against them. But, then, that grand construct of kashmiriyat gets contested. It perhaps stood contested the day a large number of Kashmiri Muslims celebrated the then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s famous “azadi” spe­ech: “The brave people of Kashmir do not fear death because they are Muslims. The Kashmiris have the blood of Mujhaid and Ghazis.”

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Present, continuous TV debate at Lal Chowk, Srinagar

Many Kashmiris still share the sentiment—the first azadi came when land was given to the tiller in the early 1950s, the second was the Pan­dit exodus, the third still awaited. Like elsewh­ere in India, despite the camaraderie and photo­-­ops, a religious divide existed in the Valley that made the minority community its victim—Muslims in Gujarat, Pandits in Kash­mir. Sitting in his opulent home in Srinagar, Bashir vividly recalls Mattoo’s words: “Bashir dada, why didn’t you take me into confidence before beginning your insurgency? Why did you let me leave Anantnag?”

No one stands unquestioned in the Valley, with the first question reserved for the narrator. “You must make your position clear that you are writing as a citizen of the Indian State,” a Kas­hmiri Muslim scholar in her early ’30s tells me in a Srinagar café on Monday. She speaks hurriedly, citing Edward Said and Gayatri Cha­k­ravorti Spivak. Jeans, t-shirt, cropped hair loo­sely flowing over her face. “I don’t look like a Kashmiri. Bad genes,” she laughs. She is pursuing a doctorate on Kashmir from a foreign university. “It is rude to ask someone born after the exodus about the Pandits’ tragedy,” she is clear.

The abrogation of Article 370 is essentially an attempt to refashion collective memories. A state was downgraded to a UT, without any recommendation or consultation.

Most young Kashmiri Muslims carry an acute political consciousness and are well-versed with the region’s history. They recount fine det­a­ils about “India’s colonial occupation” of Kas­h­mir, vividly describe fake encounters of Mus­l­ims by security forces, and yet they have little memory of the exodus of the community that had been living amid the chinars for centuries. Is it because they don’t want to face a past that questions their own understanding of the militancy, that challenges their self-identity of being a tolerant, secular Kashmiri?

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Construction of memories is perhaps inevitable in a conflict zone, a necessary human condition to cope with sorrow. Even the deceased gets a new identity. For several decades, a graveyard inside Naqshband Sahib Shrine in Khawaja Bazaar was known as Shaheed Marguzar (martyr’s graveyard) where 22 people killed by the Dogra king’s forces during a protest in 1931 were buried. A new graveyard, which came up after the death of people in firing by security forces in 1990, now stands as Shaheed Marguzar in public memory.

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The abrogation of Article 370 is essentially an attempt to refashion collective memories. A sta­te was downgraded to a Union Territory, wit­hout any recommendation by its legislature or consultation with residents, to launch a political project of “nationalism”. The Tricolour and the national anthem are now compulsory in educational institutions. “Mosques are asked to do only religious preaching, and not deliver any incendiary message,” says a senior army officer. “Kashmir hardly had any imagery of India. Sch­ools barely taught about Indian icons. It was not Bharatiya Rail, but Rail. A child grew up without any memory of India. We have to change it,” says the officer, sharing details about how the establishment is “building a national identity in Kashmir”.

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Residents at Pandit colony, Anantnag Photographs: Ashutosh Bhardwaj

The last 30 months have seen a surge of seve­ral “pro-India” voices—individuals, journalists, act­i­vists and NGOs—in Kashmir. The establishment gives these young Kashmiri men and wom­en fun­ds, security cover, residential and office property. Behind the recent closing down of the Sri­nagar Press Club is a campaign by “pro-­India” journalists who believe that the institution had become the hub of “pro-Pakistan” jou­rnalists. The newspapers, Rising Kashmir and Greater Kashmir, once a symbol of resista­nce, are now rep­lete with photographs and news of the prime minister or the lieutenant governor.

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“You wake up to witness the propaganda. It’s an everyday humiliation,” says a bulky Kash­m­iri man, his wife, wearing salwar kameez and gold jewellery, next to him. She is a teacher at a government college. “When they forced me to sing the national anthem, I felt I was being raped.” The husband emphasises that “she is not at all political and yet she couldn’t bear the state’s brutal force”. The sentiment of humiliation was more visible during my last visit in Nov­ember-December 2019. It then seemed that the valley might erupt anytime soon. The sentiment seems to have invisibilised now. Army off­i­cers note that violence has come down, infilt­ration drastically declined and tourists are back, with over 72 lakh footfalls since last September. The number of militants is below 200 for the first time. Of the 128 youth who joined militancy last year, 73 were killed and 16 arrested. There are multiple reasons for the reduction in violence—greater coordination among security forces, the transformation of the J&K police into a first-rate anti-militancy unit, crackdown on separatists and dissenters, enhanced military capacity and an intense sec­urity grid. “Above all,” many people add, “Pakis­tan is silent these days.”

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Pakistan has not been able to deliver arms to Kashmiri militants after India managed to place it on the FATF list of countries accused of terror financing. But Kashmiris reject it. “You don’t see the eruption, because we are erupting inside. I am sitting with you by the lake, smiling, but I am angry within,” a Kashmiri man said one dark evening, Srinagar’s Zero Bridge gleaming in the distance. Faraway shone the lights of the army cantonment on the mountain. “Where is peace? It’s the most militarised zone on the planet. The presence of these soldiers is itself an act of violence,” the woman scholar is restless. An “outsider Indian” can’t easily detect the trauma and anger their soul is carrying. One morning, a “pro-India” youth shares a fascinating insight. “We have changed our way of resistance. We can’t afford to lose any more lives in asymmetric conditions that are brazenly in favour of security agencies.”

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Shakur Ahmad and Abdul Rashid

There’s a pattern to the protests in the valley. It was mostly in the form of rallies and sloganeering in 2008. The next year saw stone-pelting with slogans, and it was predominantly stone-pelting in 2010. Burhan Wani was a by-product of the 2010 protests. The 2016 killing of Burhan gave birth to hundreds of Burhans, but without proper training and weapons these young boys couldn’t face the might of Indian forces. “The model that can work now is what Adil Ahmad Dar did in Pulwama,” says the young man, referring to the suicide bomber who caused the death of 40 CRPF personnel in February 2019. “We need to use our lives strategically,” he says, and quickly adds: “But it will destroy Kashmir completely.”  

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All secrets stand unveiled in the Valley. One can hear conversations about the fine operati­o­nal strategies of the militants. One evening in December 2019, already dark, I took a bus from Khanabal, just across the DIG office. A charming Class VIII boy on the next seat knew the int­ricacies of Article 370 and 371, the finer dis­t­inctions between the LeT, JeM and Hizbul Mujahideen, and could name the militants ope­rating in his area. The military crackdown has hushed these conversations and intensified public expressions of “nationalism”.

On March 23, Pakistan Day, a TV debate was being held at Lal Chowk, with the Tricolour dotting the street and the stage. Kashmiri speakers boasted their love for India and condemned the pro-Pakistan lobby in Kashmir. Lal Chowk, once the headqu­a­rters of the insurgency, had taken a turn. The show was org­a­nised by ANN News,  the only channel operational in the valley as all others were banned by the government a few years ago. Among the people present at Lal Chowk was a retired Guj­jar colonel Dev Anand. A native of Raj­a­s­than, he has been touring the valley to strengthen the nationalist sentiment among the Gujjars in the Valley. The ruling establishment has a special focus on Gujjars as part of nation-building.

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Sanjay Tickoo at his home

Little do they know that the calendar in the Valley is marked with red dots. The month when the mass Pandit exodus began, March 1990, saw a sequence of the most treacherous killings a decade later—Chitti­sin­g­h­pora, Path­ribal, and Barakpora—in 2000. Exa­ctly 22 yea­rs before the Lal Chowk evening this March, some army officers allegedly pic­ked up Gujjar Muslims from Brari Aangan village in Anant­nag, and killed them in Pathribal claiming they were “foreign militants”. Their relatives commemorate the anniversary of the killings every year. On March 26, two men, Abdul Rashid and Shakur Ahmad of Anantnag, shared their sorrows. Their voices were dripping with anger as they narrated how the forces had killed their fathers.

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But if the crackdown after August 2019 has left many humiliated, it has also given them the space to express those sentime­nts that were not possible earlier. Not long ago, massive funerals were mostly reserved for militants as people could barely mourn the dea­ths of those who fell to milita­nts’ bul­lets. Since the abrogation of Art­i­cle 370, Kashmiris can be seen mourning all Kashmiri lives lost to bul­lets. A new solidarity has eme­rged based on the desire for collective survival, irrespective of the identity of the deceased Kash­miri. A realisation that eventually they have merely one identity—Kas­­hmiri. Last week, several thousand people gathered at the funeral of a special police officer and his bro­t­her who were killed by militants in Budgam.

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Away from these convoluted neg­otiations, the Pandits in the valley have been yearning for dignity. In December 2019, Sanjay Tickoo, pre­sident of the Kashmiri Pandit San­­g­harsh Samiti, said that “he felt more threate­ned after the abrogation of Article 370 than he did during the 1990s”. He lives in an old home in the Barbar­shah area of Srinagar. The ageing man is losing hope amid the rene­w­ed threat calls. “The esta­b­lishment is worried about me. If something happens to me, the last Pandit voice in the Val­ley will vanish.” His bedroom has a thick layer of colourful carpets, com­mon in traditional Kashmiri homes. A sli­ght wrinkle in the fabric leaves him annoyed.

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Dal Lake

“Everyone uses Kashmiris as a bearer cheque. You can use us in whichever way you want—in the name of Muslims, Pandits, Dogras,” his voi­ce drops at the last sentence. Besides, several Pan­d­its who work with government departments live in migrant colonies set up in the valley after the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ann­ounced a relief package for the community. The­se ghetto-like habitats suffer from water sho­rtages, poor drainage and cramped homes. The Kashmiri Pandit colony in Vessu, Anantnag, has 177 quarters shared by 695 families, who once had big homes and sprawling orchards in Kashmir. A resident, Bharat Bhus­han Bhat saw The Kashmir Files in Jammu. “The movie depicts real incidents. But it won’t help us. We want dignity,” he says.

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Back in Srinagar, “pro-India” law­yer Jah­e­n­geer Dar found Ind­ia more suitable than Pakistan, pur­ely on rational grounds. Like many Kas­hmiris, he was fanatic about cricket and skipped a meeting in Srinagar because he had a match planned in Anantnag. “You should have joined us,” he smiled, and added with a tinge of sadness: “I couldn’t do well with the new ball.” When it came to the Pandits, he empathised with their tragedy but added: “If their moon has blood clots, our moon is drenched in blood.”

These were his last words that mo­r­ning, an affirmation of his liv­ed reality. But Anika Nazir, a medical student in Srinagar, had a dif­­­ferent memory. Last November, she went to Himachal Pradesh for a workshop on peace building with Kashmiri youth—Mus­lim, Pandit and Ladakhi. “There was a session when we had to wear our traditional dresses and perf­orm. We Kashmiris wore the pheran and sang our song. Ladakhis wore their dres­ses. Kash­miri Pandit students managed to wear the phe­r­an but they couldn’t sing Kash­miri songs,” she said. “They didn’t even know their songs.”

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The ice cubes in her mango shake were turning liquid. The girl who looked much younger than her 22 years, picked up a tissue paper and wiped her eyes. “Finally, we were asked to sha­re our life stories. We were second-generation kids. But it was surprising to find that we, Kashmiri Pandit kids and I, still shared our stories, that our stories were remarkably similar.”

And then she turned silent. There was nothing more to add. It was still possible to share your moon.

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70,000 Pandit families fled Kashmir between Dec 31, 1989-May, 1990

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800 Pandit families in Kashmir now

693 Pandits killed in Kashmir till March 30, 2022

7,000 Number of Pandit families living in different migrant colonies in Jammu.

Source: Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti

(This appeared in the print edition as "Triptych of Narratives")

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