NEW DELHI — Sagrika Kissu, a 26-year-old journalist was on her way to celebrate Shivaratri with her parents and grandparents in Jammu city, where they have lived since Kashmiri Hindus, most of them Pandits, fled Kashmir in 1989-1990.
Shivaratri is one day when politics takes a backseat and a feeling of bonhomie descends on her family. They decorate earthen pots with images of Hindu gods and eat walnuts soaked in water.
These, however, are troubled times. With the exception of a few arguments over the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance, the house was quiet.
“We did not really talk to each other,” she said. “They were perturbed about the Facebook messages abusing me for helping Kashmiri Muslims. They did not know how to react.”
Last month, Kissu, a reporter with NewsClick, went out of her way to help Kashmiri Muslims caught in thebacklash after the deadly attack in Pulwama on 14 February. A 19-year-old Kashmiri rammed a vehicle filled with explosives into a convoy of security personnel, killing 40 soldiers. On 7 March, three weeks after the Pulwama attack, Kashmiri dry fruit sellers werebeaten up in Lucknow.
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As students were landing in Delhi from states like Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and Haryana, Kissu found safe places for them to stay. Kissu helped 18 students who had left the cities of Ambala, Dehradun and Jaipur. When she was not arranging lodging and transport for the students, Kissu spent time with them.
Kashmiri students tweeted, thanking her for taking care of them. “She made everything possible n sent us home. Will never forget… Kashmir is seriously incmplt (incomplete) without pandits,” Raashid Ashraftweeted, with the hashtag #Kashmiripandit and #family.
Another Kashmiri student thanked Kissu for a “teary eyed family reunion.” Sheikh Zada Suhailtweeted, “…she treated us like family, we never felt homesick in your presence. #kashmiripandit, #family, #kashmir.”
For all this, Kissu was hit with a volley of vile messages, slander and abuse on social media. A post on Facebook, written by a Kashmiri Pandit, called her a “female,” who “is offering to help those Wahhabis who kicked out her family in 1989 out of Kashmir.”
HuffPost India has decided against repeating the messages containing abusive language, but readers can gauge the kind of backlash she has faced from the following: “Lot among us are suffering from Stockholm syndrome,” “she is a rotten apple,” and “it’s all about sex.”
This was not the first time that Kissu was targeted on social media. In 2016, she was criticized for uploading a photograph with Khurram Parvez, a prominent human rights activist in Kashmir. She removed the photograph.
In March, last year, she was bashed forreporting that Rohingya Muslims did not attack a Republic TV journalist as he had claimed. A Facebook post, with photos of her with author Arundhati Roy and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Umar Khalid, said she was seen with “anti nationalists.” “We Kashmiri Pandits were always nationalists and will remain nationalists come what may,” the post said.
Last month, Kissu felt a “little scared” about her safety, and worried about a backlash against her family, but she believes helping the Kashmiri Muslims was the right thing to do.
Many were appalled at the forcible expulsion of Kashmiris from states like Uttarakhand and Haryana. There were others who said — “What about Kashmiri Pandits in the nineties?”
This whataboutery defies logic. Kissu wondered whether she really had to explain why one is naturally inclined to help someone in trouble.
Still, Kissu gave an answer.
“I’ve come to realize that what Kashmiri Pandits went through was not because of Kashmiri Muslims but because of the conflict in the Valley. It is the same conflict that is killing Kashmiris right now,” she said. “What happened to Kashmiri Pandits was horrible, but what is happening to Kashmir Muslims is also horrible.”
What happened to Kashmiri Pandits was horrible, but what is happening to Kashmir Muslims is also horrible.
75,000 Kashmiri Pandit families — 3,25,000 people — lived in Kashmir prior to 1989, according to Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti based in Srinagar.
Tickoo, who did not leave in the mass migration, estimates there are 808 families — 2,867 people — left in Kashmir.
A survey conducted by his organization in 2008 found that 399 Kashmiri Pandits were killed after the insurgency erupted in 1990, most of them in the first year. This figure is higher than the official death toll of 219, but lower than the1,200 figure suggested by Panun Kashmir, an organization of displaced Kashmiri Pandits, which observes Kashmiri Hindu Holocaust Day every year on 19 January.
Tickoo believes the exodus was the result of the Indian state’s inability to protect Pandits against Islamist radicals.
“I would say 60 percent of Kashmiri Pandits were saved by their Kashmiri Muslim neighbors and colleagues. Otherwise, there would have been maximum killings. The government and the army failed to protect us,” he said.
While she was growing up in Jammu, Kissu’s family talked about their painful exodus from Kashmir, every day. There is nothing she wants more than for her parents and grandparents to return home. It took many years for Kissu to reach a point where she could mourn the tragic circumstances of her family and community, but not share her parent’s prejudice against Kashmiri Muslims.
Kissu quite literally calls it an “evolution” of her heart and mind. “I evolved,” she said.
This is not to suggest that the vast majority of Kashmiri Pandits harbor a prejudice against Kashmiri Muslims, but that aided and abetted by social media, it is the divisive voices that prevail. The whataboutery and ensuing blame game has real and dangerous consequences. An estimated 4,000 Kashmiri Muslims, mostly students, have left college and returned to Kashmir after the Pulwama attack.
There are others
Like Kissu, there are other Kashmiri Pandits who have for the first time in three decades tried to challenge the prejudice against Kashmiri Muslims in their homes.
HuffPost India spoke with three Kashmiri Pandit women who grew up listening to stories of loss and suffering, but have come to believe that ending the “cycle of hate” is better than reinforcing it. They have educated themselves about the complexities of the conflict in Kashmir and the violence that forced thousands of Kashmiri Pandits from their homes.
This prejudice against Kashmiri Muslims, these women believe, has not grown organically, but through concerted efforts of right-wing organizations and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who see political opportunity in exploiting the grief of the Kashmiri Pandits. They are troubled that the younger generation has inherited “this hate” from their parents, while little is done to bring about healing and reconciliation between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits.
These women have sparked a conversation in their own families and with their friends, in the hope of bridging the chasm.
“All I’m saying is that give peace a chance. You never know what could happen,” said Kissu. “Political parties, especially the BJP, are exploiting the agony of Kashmiri Pandits to gain votes. This is very disrespectful.”
Political parties, especially the BJP, are exploiting the agony of Kashmiri Pandits to gain votes. This is very disrespectful.
Going against the grain
Shvaita Kaul was seven-years-old when her family members fled Kashmir under the cover of darkness in March, 1990. Her memories of Kashmir have faded, but she remembers that the bus driver who ferried them to Jammu was a Kashmiri Muslim.
“The driver said, ‘Don’t worry, nothing will happen to you. I promise I will take you to safety.’ We trusted him,” she said. “Even as a child, I thought that all Kashmiri Muslims hated Kashmiri Pandits when why would he drive us to safety.”
Her parents made their way to Jammu and eventually to Haryana, where she attended a school run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing organization that promotes Hindutva.
In school and at home, Kaul said that she heard people blaming Muslims for almost everything. Once she went to college in Maharashtra and met people from all walks of life, it did not take long for her to unlearn the things she had heard as a child.
“My personal experience contradicted everything I was told. My prejudice was broken,” she said.
Kaul, who works as a translator in Varanasi, and is an activist with the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a youth organization founded by Bhagat Singh in 1926, has tried speaking with her family.
“When relatives get together, the talk is always anti-Muslim. If you give a logical argument then someone will say something that is completely illogical. You cannot argue with anti-logic,” she said.
My personal experience contradicted everything I was told. My prejudice was broken.
Nineteen-year-old Muskan Dhar, who is studying history at a college in Delhi, finds living with hate to be oppressive.
“There is so much hatred. I don’t think it is relevant or rational. When the Kashmir floods happened, I heard things like it was a good thing,” she said. “I don’t want to be part of that kind of hate.”
Dhar, whose parents live in Jammu, was born ten years after her family had fled Kashmir, but she has grown up on stories of the exodus and understands their pain.
Dhar was in class 10, when her elder sister went to a liberal arts college in Haryana. The stories about the classes and the guest lecturers who came to her sister’s college triggered new ideas. Now, she has her own lectures and seminars to attend.
“It is like a renaissance,” she said.
It is like a renaissance.
Like Dhar, Kissu, who was born two years after her parents fled Kashmir, heard stories about Islamic militants were killing people in broad daylight, there were posters that called for the slaying of Kashmiri Pandits, and chilling announcements blared from the local mosques.
But it was her grandmother who fired her imagination, telling and retelling stories about their wooden house in Kashmir, utensils with intricate carvings, the snow, and how her father learnt to swim in the Dal Lake. There were some nuggets that struck her.
The day after Shivaratri was called ‘Salaam,’ Kissu learnt from her grandmother. It was a day that Kashmiri Muslims would visit their Kashmiri Hindu neighbors to say ’salaam’ and share a meal.
When Kashmiri Pandits started fleeing, it was their Kashmiri Muslim neighbors who begged them not to leave, Kissu learnt from other Kashmiri Pandits. “They said that we will stand in front of your house. The bullet will go through us first.”
While living in Delhi in her early 20s, Kissu talked politics with friends and roommates till two in the morning, read books and met with Kashmiri Pandits who had a different perspective on the conflict and the exodus.
“I was only told that Kashmiri Pandits were kicked out by Kashmiri Muslims. I was not told that Kashmir is a disputed territory. I was not told that there were Pandits who supported the cause of azadi,” she said “I’ve come to think of myself as Kashmiri, not a Kashmiri Pandit. I have to acknowledge that Kashmir is a disputed territory.”
I’ve come to think of myself as Kashmiri, not a Kashmiri Pandit.
Alienation and Evolution
It was in class 8, when she was 13-years-old, that Kissu visited Kashmir with her family for the first time. She was told to wait in the car while her mother and grandmother went to see the old house they had sold before fleeing. A decade on, Kissu recalls her grandmother was “crying like crazy,” and then she fell so sick that her family cut the trip short and returned to Jammu.
“As a kid, I saw my grandmother crying. I heard my parents talk about this place every day. I used to think that it has hurt them so much that they just can’t get over it. she said. “They are sad every day. There comes a point when you cannot distinguish between anger and sadness, and then anger become frustration. That frustration and sadness came into me.”
Kissu believes the anger that her generation has inherited is leading to a growing sense of alienation.
“I want my generation to come out of the hatred and think of alternatives. How can we return to the Valley? If the Indian state cannot do this, if our parents cannot do it, then our generation needs to do what our parents could not do,” she said.
I want my generation to come out of the hatred and think of alternatives.
Kaul believes that a forum for Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits could be one way for the younger generation on both sides to reach out to each other. “In a situation like the attacks against Kashmiris after Pulwama, such a forum could help express solidarity,” she said. “But this cannot be a permanent solution.”
Kaul said that if she could vote in a referendum on the status of Kashmir, she would opt for independence from India and Pakistan. “I support the right of self determination. The non fulfillment of the promise by the Indian state is a betrayal,” she said.
Dhar finds the “hate” to be growing around her. “The hate has expanded from Kashmiri Muslims to Muslims. Now, if it is a Kashmiri Muslim or a Kerala Muslim, I don’t think it makes a difference,” she said.
For Dhar, it makes sense to reach out to her generation of Kashmiri Pandits rather than argue with her family.
“You cannot debate with them because I do not think they can forget. I did not go through what they went through. I did not see the things they saw. I see no point in hurting them. It makes me feel guilty,” she said “It is the present generation that has to think rationally.”
Over and above the countless arguments she has with her family, Kissu, who has been reporting from Kashmir, tries to deconstruct the stories she writes.
On her first reporting trip to Kashmir, Suhjaat Bukhari, a well-known Kashmiri journalist, was shot and killed by militants. Instead of the interview that she had scheduled with him, Kissu wrote his obituary. Her next assignment took her to the funeral of a 12-year-old, who was caught in the crossfire between Indian security personnel and stone pelters in Pulwama district.
The many funerals she has attended have left her feeling “numb,” Kissu said.
“While deconstructing these stories for my family, we have fights,” she said. “They do listen, but at the end of it, the feelings and memories they have of the past are just overwhelming. Nothing gets past that.”
Still, Kissu believes there is some change.
Recalling her father’s reaction to the backlash against her, she said, “Two years ago, he would have called up my office, told me to quit and come home immediately. This time, he told me to be careful and not post anything on social media.”
The feelings and memories they have of the past are just overwhelming. Nothing gets past that.
A much needed conversation
For Nisar Ali, a noted economics professor, and the former dean of the social sciences faculty at Kashmir University, the absence of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir is a huge “cultural loss,” especially for the generations of Kashmiri Muslims born after 1990.
“They do not know about the cohesive culture that existed here. We have to tell them. They can hardly believe it because they have never seen it,” he said.
While a forum for young Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims, as Kaul suggested, does not exist, there have been some efforts to initiate a dialogue between them.
From 2010 to 2013, the Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, led by Sushobha Barve, organized six sessions for Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits living in Jammu and Kashmir State to meet each other and discuss a range of issues, from the exodus to current politics.
Some of these sessions, Barve said, were “very explosive.”
“What one has to understand is that neither young Kashmiri Pandits nor Muslims have the experience of living with each other,” she said. “Once you encounter each other, your prejudices are addressed. Amazing things can happen.”
Neither young Kashmiri Pandits nor Muslims have the experience of living with each other.
Fearing backlash from conservative Kashmiri Pandits, the sessions, which were held in Jammu and Srinagar, were not widely publicized. There was a backlash when word spread, Barve recalled, and it was one of the reasons for ending the sessions. The others were lack of resources and the rise in communal tensions after the BJP came to power in 2014.
“Building trust in an ongoing conflict is a very difficult proposition and very difficult work,” she said. “You only need a handful of people to get vitriolic and it gets amplified.”
You only need a handful of people to get vitriolic and it gets amplified.
Parvez, the human rights activist in Kashmir, who helped organize the dialogue sessions, believes the onus is on the Kashmiri Muslim community to make the Pandits feel welcome.
“It is not about Hindu or Muslim, but it is the responsibility of any majority community to ensure the safety of the minority community,” he said. “Why does India not show us how to protect minorities? Let India set the example.”
Why does India not show us how to protect minorities? Let India set the example.
‘So much whataboutism’
The dispute over the Ram Temple in Ayodhya and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits have been the most widely used instruments of religious polarization. Nothing angers the three Kashmiri Pandit women more than the political exploitation of grief.
As a journalist, Kissu has reported on the Jagti settlement, a migrant camp of Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu, where she says the paint is peeling of the walls of houses.
“BJP has made a joke of Kashmiri Pandits and used our longing to return for politics. If a Kashmiri Muslim raises a question, they say what about Kashmiri Pandits. The BJP has done so much whataboutism,” she said.
“I want to ask the BJP what have you done for the Kashmiri Pandits? You have only used us to negate what Kashmiri Muslims say.”
I want to ask the BJP what have you done for the Kashmiri Pandits? You have only used us to negate what Kashmiri Muslims say.
The BJP government at the Centre had promised a “just and honorable” resettlement of displaced Kashmir Pandits to Kashmir, but nothing has been achieved in the past five years. The central government’s plan to build “composite townships” was scrapped, amidst concerns that these structures would be like Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory.
A recent Right to Information (RTI) reportfound that the Home Ministry does not have the figures of how many Kashmiri Pandits have been resettled since the BJP came to power in 2014.
When People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP came to power in Jammu and Kashmir in 2015, the coalition government promised to bring Kashmiri Pandits back, but the state government did nothing.
So far, not a single Kashmiri family has been rehabilitated, according to Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti in Kashmir. The 4,500 Kashmiri Pandits who have moved to Kashmir for work under the 1,600 crore rehabilitation package, announced by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2008, are still living in “transit camps.”
“The BJP government has done nothing for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits,” Tickoo said. “No one is asking the question why the Kashmiri Pandits have become a football for political parties.”
The BJP government has done nothing for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits.
Kaul said that she does not want to live in Kashmir, and doubts very much that the vast majority of young Kashmiri Pandits would want to go back given the lack of opportunities in Jammu and Kashmir State.
“There can be no greater injustice than being torn from your roots, so I cannot speak about emotions, but only from a practical point of view,” she said. “Today, many Kashmiri Pandits are working in software jobs in Pune, Bangalore and Noida. What kind of future would they have in Kashmir?”
Kissu, however, does want to live in Kashmir. “I get that longing from my parents. That longing is in my blood,” she said.