In Call to Fight for 'Identity', Seeds of a Counter-Narrative Among Kashmiri Pandits

That the spokesperson of a Pandit group has sought statehood hints at the possibility of Kashmiri ethnicity taking primacy over religion once more.

Middle-class views of historical moments tend generally to be informed by a despairing lament that nothing ever changes – or can change.

Yet, historical processes ought to instruct us time and again not to attach any finality to our elations or dejections.

A week can indeed be too long in politics.

The seeds of a Kashmiri Pandit counter-narrative in regard to the ongoing imbroglio in the state seem to be sprouting.

The co-ordinator of a group called Return and Rehabilitation Team for Kashmiri Migrants, Satish Mahaldar, has issued an interesting and potentially significant statement which reads:

“Our demand is give our Statehood back. Give our Assembly the right to make independent decisions for us. Give us the right to protect our land and culture.”

Further, in an open letter to Kashmiris, Mahaldar has urged them, irrespective of their religion, “to fight for our identity”. The letter goes on to say: “We pledge we will fight till we get our Statehood back. We will fight till our lands are protected, our culture and language are protected. Parliament should ensure this.”

On a visit to the valley in June and July, Mahaldar claimed 49 Pandit migrants were ready and willing to return to the valley.

Whereas it would be premature, perhaps even reckless, to project this intervention as the harbinger of some precipitate turn of events, some of the emphases in what the group has said deserve underscoring.

The importance of language

In an earlier article, this writer, commenting on some controversies with respect to Kashmiri language use as severally among Muslims and Pandits, had argued how the historical backbone of the exemplary syncretism of living in the Kashmir Valley through the long ages had been the all-important devotion and commitment to a common language, reducing to a secondary status communal identities.

A plea was made not to allow the nefarious nationalist project to reverse that admirable reality by seeking to foreground Kashmiris’ disparate religious identities as primary coordinates of Kashmiri life, rather than common language use – a bit to submerge the secular strength of the Kashmiri ethnicity below their religious differentiation.

Also Read: Kashmiri: Let Not Religion Divide What Language Unites

Ever since the tragic and criminal ouster of the Pandits from the Valley by sectarian Jihadi forces, a profoundly disquieting damage has tended to be done to Kashmiri Pandit thinking about and evaluation of past histories of life in the Valley. Bluntly put, Jihadi antagonism was to have the consequence of spawning a hardened mirror-effect of an overriding communal consciousness among Pandits who had lost home and hearth to an existential shock of unprecedented proportions.

As we know, this eventuality has led influential Pandit spokespersons to demand that Pandits be rehabilitated in exclusive zones in the Valley where they would have the full protection of the security apparatus and of the Indian Constitution. That such a demand could have little traction among decision-makers at the Centre of any hue could, of course, be foreseen.

On the other hand, migrant Pandits have also been alive to the experience of receiving age-old warmth and hospitality every time they have revisited the Valley to attend Pandit religious shrines and festivals.

These contexts, then encourage a longer-time assessment of the statements made by the coordinator of the Return and Rehabilitation Team.

A protest by Kashmiri pandits. Photo: PTI

A return to primacy of ethnicity?

These new averments clearly indicate a renewed revival of an older ethnic sentiment. In seeking the right to protect Kashmiri  “language and culture”, “irrespective of  their religions,” these statements signal a rejection of the nationalist euphoria with regard to a Hindutva-oriented assimilation of Kashmiris into the Union, and a return to forms of self-perception and social cohesion once again grounded in aspects of culture that override religious formations.

Indeed, the tone and tenor of these statements are clearly laced with the renewed search for a home wherein the coalescing of inter-communal living had induced Gandhi to say, at the dark hour of Partition, how the only light he saw was in Kashmir.

After spending the whole of June 2019 in the Valley, interacting with a large and diverse tranche of Kashmiri Muslim students, scholars, teachers, political workers, common working people, I can vouchsafe for the fact that the ground there is more than ripe to respond endearingly to this new thinking among a group of Kashmiri Pandits.

What remains to be seen is how the above statements are received and read by the powers-that-be.   Although these new Pandit articulations do not explicitly call for a restoration of the nullified Article 370, it is more than obvious that what they ask for in substance is tantamount to such restoration.

Also Read: Open Letter to President Kovind Asks J&K BDC Elections to Be Postponed

Many Pandits who are not part of the above group, however mutedly, acknowledge the disillusionment issuing from the substantive fact that the nullification of Article 370 carries little concrete meaning for their lives and demands. They face the prospect of losing special rights to land ownership and state jobs, rights which had, ironically issued from Pandit-led agitations in the 1920s, and that gallingly remain in place in other states.

These new stirrings, therefore, merit wider support from both other Kashmiri groups and from secular and democratic advocates in the rest of the republic. That this turn of events bodes well for customary mainstream Kashmiri political formations should be obvious. These statements by the Return and Rehabilitation group clearly indicate a recognition of how this mainstream has been at the centre of Kashmiri identity and self-regard, and how any movement away from it can only lead to a disastrous clash of extremes guaranteed to bring Kashmiri life to ruin.