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Of home, mutton curry and picnics in Shalimar Bagh

Are all Kashmiri Pandits united on the Article 370 move? A writer ponders the complexities as she remembers the Kashmir she once knew, and has now lost

People picnicking in Nishat Bagh, a Mughal garden, on the outskirts of Srinagar, in 2007.
People picnicking in Nishat Bagh, a Mughal garden, on the outskirts of Srinagar, in 2007. (Photo: Reuters)

Last night, I dreamt I went to 2, Exchange Road again. Like Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, I went from room to room, looking for old faces, remembering stories from the past, hearing the laughter of my childhood summers.

When I woke up, I realized that much like Manderley, my state had ceased to exist, reduced to a Union territory, a status shared with Ladakh.

It was 6 August, and the messages were pouring in. You must be happy. You can finally buy land in Kashmir, a friend SMSed. My son came home from school saying a classmate, the son of a property dealer, was being flooded with calls from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, even West Bengal, from people who want to buy land in Jammu and Kashmir. An aunt from Pune was, like me, thinking of returning to our shared Srinagar home, where she taught me the words to Cliff Richard songs and the frequencies to tune in to for BBC World Service and Voice Of America on her battered old radio.

For my community of almost 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits, spread across India and the world, a little by choice but largely because they were terrorized into leaving the valley, the government’s move on Article 370 (which gave six special provisions to Jammu and Kashmir) and Article 35A (empowering Jammu and Kashmir state’s legislature to define “permanent residents" of the state) mark the fulfilment of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s promise. On 5 August, the reaction of most members of the community could only be described as triumphal and feral. This was the moment they—who had been exiled overnight, reduced to living in refugee camps and the squalid heat and dust of the plains—could finally claim their homes. As a Kashmiri woman not born in the state and married outside the community, I had no right to buy land under Article 35A—now I could.

I suppose I should be overjoyed. Except the Kashmir I once knew, loved and lived in is gone. My family left Kashmir immediately after independence, thanks to a peripatetic grandfather who went from being political editor of Blitz in what was then Bombay to special aide to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. We always went back every year, the day summer holidays began, to be with the extended family—my mother’s six sisters, their husbands, and their many offspring. It was a time straight out of a 1960s Bollywood movie: a procession of cars, blankets, badminton rackets, cricket kits, and—always—a pressure cooker carrying the mandatory mutton dish, to Chashma Shahi or Shalimar Bagh. There were games in the vast grounds of my grandfather’s home, racing around apple trees, ruining carefully tended vegetable beds, and mysteries featuring the attic or the outhouse or both.

And then one not-so-fine summer, in 1990, we didn’t go home. The next time I saw our home, it had changed owners, was stripped of its trees and denuded of its grass, the road to it accessible only through a tangle of concertina wires.

My extended family survived but others left with nothing but the clothes on their back, their homes burnt down or destroyed later by militants.

The dates of departure differed. For Deepa Kaul, a 54-year-old industry professional who grew up in Srinagar, things changed irrevocably and overnight in 1984, when the Farooq Abdullah government was dismissed and Ghulam Mohammad Shah was appointed chief minister. She was studying at the Regional Engineering College (REC) at the time. “That’s when we were packed off from REC for an early summer break. The army was brought in, the city was under siege, with endless curfew days, and troops of unforgettable strength. When we returned, we were dumbstruck: There were brazen slogans on the walls, ‘Indian Dogs Go Back’.’’

The situation nosedived, the final nail being the abduction of then Union home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya Sayeed and her release in exchange for militants in 1989, and the green flag being hoisted in downtown Nowhatta. “I saw that on TV but I felt we lost Kashmir that day," she says.

A commodity trader, Rashneek Kher, 17 at the time, left Srinagar in 1990, like many other Kashmiri Pandits. Three months later, his family home was razed. He believes those who are rejoicing now do not comprehend the complications. Who will buy land in a state under siege? Even if the number of militants in the valley is brought down to less than 100 in the next two years, it will be considered an achievement. But will it be enough to revive the political process, especially of panchayats, crack down on hawala dealings and rebuild institutions? As for emotional integration, bringing back the citizens from Wahabi Islam to the values of Kashmiri mystic Nund Rishi will be difficult given the deep distrust, mutual suspicion and, yes, even paranoia.

There is no going back for him or Kaul, whose home was looted and occupied, first by terrorists and then by the J&K police, but there is no thought of revenge either. Who and what does one seek revenge for? Two generations have passed since the trouble began. And as for suffering, it is impossible to measure. Who has suffered more? The Hindus, who were forced to flee? Or the Muslims, left behind to live in a state of siege, increasingly turning towards a more fundamental form of Islam, learning to hate, understanding from a young age the meaning of martyrdom?

The Kashmir my mother lived in will never return. Those days of bunking college to watch the latest film at Regal theatre, or stealing away from home to eat at Shakti Sweets, are long gone.

M.K. Raina, 71, a theatre artist who has continued to work and perform in Kashmir even during its darkest time, feels betrayed by Indian democracy, “I pray that no lives are lost. Enough blood has been sacrificed by Kashmiris, security personnel, Indian Army, and this is where we have landed today.’’

Perhaps the government believes only a bold move can achieve real peace. Now citizens of India will have to decide whether they want to integrate with the former state that acceded to them in good faith, with certain guarantees, or a reinvented Union territory which keeps alive the idea of India, its inclusivity, its generosity, its spirit of forgiveness, and its ethos of reconciliation. Only pressure from the rest of India can show what humanity can achieve. A victory over hearts and minds, and not the acquisition of second-hand homes and new addresses.

Kaveree Bamzai’s first book, No Regrets: The Guilt-Free Woman’s Guide To A Good Life, is being published by HarperCollins.

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