On the cover of A Kashmir Century (HarperCollins India) by Khem Lata Wakhlu is a black and white photograph from 1943, which aptly mirrors the subtitle: Portrait Of A Society In Flux. The author's grandfather, Pandit Ram Chandra Dhar, at the centre of the photo, is wearing an achkan and dastaar (turban); three members of the household help in the back row are also sporting a turban. The elderly women are in the Kashmiri Pandit outfit of pheran and taraga (headgear), no longer in use today. The younger men are clad in suits and ties and the women in saris—a juxtaposition of the traditional and modern.
At the heart of the book is Rishi Vihar, home of the Dhar family, built by Ram Chandra in the early 1900s in Srinagar. The stories, spanning a hundred years, look at life within and outside this house. The Dhars, a large joint family, shared a compound wall with the Peers (a Muslim priestly class)—the women of the two households would cross over into each others homes via a ladder over this wall.
It's a glimpse into another time: Wakhlu’s grandmother Mal, who was not formally educated, would quote Persian couplets in her day-to-day conversations; the first snowfall of the season was a joyous occasion, greeted with nav-sheen mubarakh; and in peak winters, feasts would be held when there was pacchin (pintail duck) on the menu.
It was a century which saw Pakistani armed tribalsmen raid Baramulla on 22 October 1947 and Maharaja Hari Singh finally signing the instrument of accession with India on 26 October; land reforms being implemented in Jammu and Kashmir in 1952; the Kashmiri Pandit agitation of 1967 when a Hindu girl converted and married a Muslim man; and the armed militancy of the 1990s, leading to the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits.
In fact, Wakhlu, now 83, and her late educationist husband were kidnapped from their home in Srinagar by Hizbullah militants in September 1991 and spent 45 days in captivity. A few months later, her brother, Dr S.N. Dhar, who had also stayed on in the Valley, was kidnapped by the Al Umar group and held captive for 83 days.
Wakhlu, who is a writer, social worker and has served as former state tourism minister (1984-86), however, feels the ethos of Kashmir, shaped by diverse cultures and rulers ranging from Buddhist and Afghans to Sikhs and Dogras, is still alive and holds out hope for the future. According to her, "the anti-India sentiment has always been part of a small fringe of people". Edited excerpts from an email interview:
You and your late husband continued to live in the Valley even after being kidnapped. What prompted that decision?
It is true that after the kidnapping of my husband, Omkar, and myself in 1991, we did return to Srinagar—after about three years or so—going against the guidance of the J&K administration. The reason for this is simple: both my husband and I had experienced terrible anguish during the kidnapping, and short of actually being killed, we went through a lot. In a way that intense experience strengthened our resolve. Furthermore, we also got to understand how superficial and shallow was the indoctrination of our captors. We knew then that we would stay back and do whatever we needed to do, to change things for the better. I was clear that Kashmir had been home to Kashmiri Pandits for millennia and we were therefore unwilling to be forced out by anyone.
What changes have you seen in the past 30 years—has the anti-India sentiment hardened or do you see a change in the youth?
Before that I need to give you a glimpse of the Kashmiri psyche. Firstly, Kashmiris are all very curious, sharp, and intelligent. They are therefore quick to grasp whatever is happening around the world and in our neighbourhood. They change their approach to life, based on what they see around them. Secondly, during the start of the terrorist violence in the 1990s, the majority of the people stayed quiet, or even played along, because due to our brutal history, we are all driven by the need for survival. This means we are easy to intimidate and subdue, especially if force is used. Given these factors, I am seeing a significant positive change in people. They are breathing easier, with the fear of the terrorist gun having been largely eliminated.
The anti-India sentiment in Kashmir has always been part of a small fringe of people since the creation of the Muslim League. These were and remain a small minority. The majority, including the youth, wishes to hitch its fortunes with India; and though not terribly vocal, are making a significant positive difference to blunt the anti-India narratives that were prevailing in the 1990s and later, and which the small minority tends to rake up occasionally.
Some would say you are downplaying the anger following the effective abrogation of Article 370 and the state becoming a Union territory.
Yes, there was anger, but it was not common Kashmiris—the hardworking people of the Valley—who were experiencing it. It was visible in those so-called "leaders" who had used the temporary Article of the Constitution to carry on with their self-serving, and often illegal, activities with impunity since 1950. These "anti-India" vested interests obviously became vocal and angry in August 2019. They saw their entire edifice of corruption, land-grabbing, Islamization, disregard for the rule of law, and the cooked-up narratives to justify what they were doing, come crashing down.
The Prime Minister spoke about removing “Dilli ki doori" and "dil ki doori”. How do you think this alienation can be bridged?
The phrase "Dilli ki doori" is laughable. Kashmiris love Delhi. In winter, many of them spend months in the Capital. As far as the "dil ki doori" is concerned, the efforts of the Central government are on the right track. Also, there have to be more informal and spontaneous people-to-people interactions between members of diverse communities (Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians), and the civil society to bring about healing and reconciliation. More of this needs to happen. I am not in favour of this being done "formally", because the healing of wounds needs time and cannot be forced.
How important is it to document these personal stories and the rich cultural history of Kashmir instead of looking at it through the lens of the past 30, 70 years?
I think it is vital to document as many personal stories about Kashmir as we can. I was also motivated to write, largely because I did not want the narratives of the past 30 years, and the news about violence, to "drown in noise" the rich and prolific contribution of Kashmir—for thousands of years—to the entire Indian subcontinent. I was also keen that my grandchildren and their generation should know how we lived, and went about our lives; relying on our spiritual values, and service orientation to help others, thereby leading fulfilling lives, despite the myriad difficulties, poverty and uncertain social conditions.
For a place which was called "the garden of mystics and rishis", what is the Kashmiri ethos and culture today—is there space for Pandits?
On the basis of my interactions with Kashmiris, I can state without fear of contradiction, that the Kashmiri ethos, the spiritual underpinning of Kashmiris and their character—of Pandits, Muslims and Sikhs, alike—remains intact, despite the violence and the turmoil of the past three decades. These aspects—the spirituality, and innate goodness of Kashmiris—also constitute the soil from which a new, and vibrant Kashmir will emerge, where there is place for everyone. The "garden of mystics and rishis" is therefore alive and well; and with loving care and sensible tending by people, will bring about reconciliation, peace and the well-being of all.
Does Rishi Vihar still belong to the family? What about the Peers?
As my father and some of my uncles moved on, the family decided that it was time to sell the property; more so, since members of my generation had already built homes for their nuclear families in other parts of Srinagar or in other cities in India. The last major event that was held in Rishi Vihar was the wedding of my niece in 1987. Some members of the Dhar family still lived there at that time. The entire property was sold soon after. The Peers also sold their property and moved elsewhere in Srinagar and Delhi. The contact between the two families diminished after the tumultuous years that commenced in 1989.