This account of my visit to my homeland last year is an attempt to express the pain, the bitterness and the anger I feel for being an Indian, a Kashmiri and a Kashmiri in exile at a time when the memory of another minority in another border state of India recently undergoing a more brutal, a more heinous 'pogrom' is still fresh.
"If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
When I talk to my KP [Kashmiri Pandit] friends about reconciliation and hope in Kashmir or even about atrocities committed upon the innocents in Gujarat, I am mostly shaken by the response. After so many years their anger and bitterness and hatred towards Muslims remains:
"Gujarat and Kashmir represent two faces of the same coin. When Pandits were killed and thrown out of Kashmir, no one in India gave a damn. Now Muslims were butchered in Gujarat, and no one in India gave a damn. Yet there are differences between the situation with Pandits and hapless Muslim victims in Gujarat - not in what happened, but in the manner how the social conscience in India reacted.
"Very few humanists in India came to the aid of KPs. No one linked militant Islam to growing fundamentalism in the National Conference, and almost no one blamed the State government for its ineptitude or demanded the CM should be declared a criminal.
"Gujarat, on the other hand, has become the hollowed ground for Indian humanists, who are eager to link berserk Hindus to the party in power, want the CM's head on a platter and see the "dubious hand" of the Center in the tragedy.
"In the end, however, Indian traditions of fate, indifference, passivity and burdens of day-to-day living have again triumphed in keeping the silent majority silent, whereas Hindu and Muslim criminals and humanists keep busy dispensing justice by tools of their trades."
A Kashmiri Pandit
For more than a year now, I have found myself unable to express in words the desolation, the desperation, the hopelessness and the living death of Kashmir which I was witness to when I was last there. This account of my visit to my homeland last year is an attempt to express the pain, the bitterness and the anger I feel for being an Indian, a Kashmiri and a Kashmiri in exile at a time when the memory of another minority in another border state of India recently undergoing a more brutal, a more heinous ‘pogrom’ is still fresh.
Back In Srinagar
At the top end corner of the famous Lal Chowk of Srinagar -- named after the Moscow’s famous Red Square -- stands Hotel Neelam, strategically placed in the heart of Srinagar at the tri-junction of its most active thoroughfare.
Looking straight ahead through the shattered glass panes of the hotel you will see the clock tower that never ever showed the correct time right from the day it came to be installed there after a fanfare inauguration by the Sher-e-Kashmir himself. Beyond the clock tower is the Residency road of the British Imperial times.
This road was later named Shahid Sherwani Road after the martyr who single-handedly stopped the Pakistani tribal raiders from reaching Srinagar in 1948 for which he paid by his life – a tortuous and agonizing death; he was nailed to a cross. The road was later, re-named its original name. After 1990, every other known and unknown landmark of Srinagar that even remotely suggested of Kashmir’s association with Independent India was re-named or not re-re-named at all.
To the left of Hotel Neelam are the now completely gutted Palladium Cinema and Hotel Lalla Rukh and beyond to Maisuma, Gow Kadal to Haba Kadal to Fateh Kadal and the infamous Downtown. To its right is the road that leads to the Amira Kadal, the first of the seven bridges of the ancient Srinagar city. The Srinagar city, at all times of the day wears a look of desolation and permanent mourning. After dark it is frightening.
To a poet who died before me
A patrol is stationed on the bridge and a car hoots like a cuckoo.
Agha Shahid Ali
Inside Hotel Neelam, one sad evening on a cold December day, an old man in his mid seventies was warming himself beside a bukhari along with another young man. We were the only three guests in the restaurant of the hotel that late evening. The streets had already emptied out. There was no electricity, which is usual in Srinagar’s winters, because the waters freeze and there is not enough of it left to run the power plants.
The locals, however, believe that most of the electricity generated in Kashmir is sold off to the neighbouring states in the plains of India, as part payment of unresolved debts of past. I was in Srinagar for the first time ever after the events of 1990. I was scared because, it was the first night of my stay in Srinagar and I was alone.
The old man asked me for a cigarette which I helpfully proffered. Before long, the old man started getting interested in me -- he asked me where I was from, why I was in Srinagar and last of all he asked me my name … I told him my name was Ajay Kumar and then I added Raina to it as a afterthought. I was not really sure than, if I could announce my identity to any unknown person in Srinagar so soon; an identity that did not matter to me elsewhere, but in Srinagar, could have been a matter of life and death to me at anytime in the past 12 years.
He asked me my father's name and I told him… I do not know if it was just the smoke of the Bukhari, but I saw a film of cloud come over his eyes, a mist of certain sadness, a tinge of remorse perhaps? He said he used to know my father well; they had been professional colleagues till the time he had to leave... we got talking and he told me of an incident more than 40 years old.
"It was the Autumn of 1958…I was with a group of friends, having tea in this same restaurant, about the same hour as now, the hour of the evening news bulletins from Radio Kashmir -- as All India Radio is known in Kashmir. The news announced the release of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from one of his numerous incarcerations. There was an instantaneous jubilation all around.
"This, my friend," he concluded, "is the entire story of what has happened to Kashmir in the last 12 years since Kashmiri Pandits left because of a forced exodus."
"The shopkeepers downed their shutters and came out on the road and the people walking back home from office, old and young, all made up an impromptu procession that started from Lal Chowk and wended its euphoric way down the residency road, past hotel Lalla Rukh, past Biscoe school, past Partap Park towards Regal Chowk.
"It was a huge procession of people carrying lit candles, with thanksgiving songs on their lips. It was a huge mass of euphoria that turned into a mass frenzy in no time. At the Regal Chowk, someone from among the crowd, pointing to a house, started uttering the choicest Kashmiri abuses…
"In no time; a man (one of the cabinet minister or the party official - I don’t clearly remember which it was - of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s then government) was dragged down from his apartment and roundly abused and beaten up by the mob.
"With the light of the lit candles in their hands, the mob set that badly mauled and almost lifeless man to a blaze. Over his burning body, writhing in death throes, they danced…and they sang songs of thanksgiving to the God for Sher-e-Kashmir’s release.
"I was watching this gory celebration from the side pavement on Residency road near Regal Chowk. An old frightened man, a Kashmiri Pandit with his typical headdress and ‘tilak’ on his forehead, nudged me and asked me if I had a pen and some paper. I fished the same from my pocket and gave it to him…He wrote something on the paper and returned it to me with an urging, that I must preserve the paper and remember this mad moment…On the paper was written,
"'I may not be there when the same sight will repeat before your eyes, sometime in the near future. These very people who are singing the praises of their Sher-e-Kashmir today, will one day burn his effigy on these very streets of Srinagar. The person they revile now will in turn be visited at his grave with flowers by the same men.'
"In 1990, I saw the prediction of that Pandit come true. In the euphoria of ‘azadi’ and mass frenzy, the people of Kashmir, who so revered their Sher-e-Kashmir, actually wanted to dig up the very bones of their very dear leader from his mausoleum.
"The grave of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, to this day remains guarded 24 hours of day and night by a posse of heavily armed security man. His son rules Kashmir now. [This conversation, you'd recall took place last year, before the October 2002 elections -- Ed] He will in his own time anoint his own son as heir-apparent of Kashmir, in the same imperial fashion of Indian Maharajas, the way Sheikh Abdullah did more than 20 years ago when there was wide spread jubilation on the streets of Srinagar. On the other hand, the memory of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, the Chief Minister replacement of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953 remains unsullied…"
"At that time, in 1990, in the spirit of the Old Pandits prediction, I had made my very own prediction about the future of Kashmir:
" 'These very people who have brought our land and the Pandits of Kashmir to their present misery will one day turn upon each other and tear each other apart.’
I never met him again after that…but subsequently, I have come to know, and read and hear that during those initial moments of euphoria in 1990, the same kinds of forebodings and apprehensions had occurred to many older generation Kashmiris about the future of Kashmir.
The waters of the many sacred springs and revered religious shrines of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims had turned dark or had begun to overflow. The forebodings of imminent catastrophe in Kashmir are too numerous to recall, but magnitude of death and destruction that has visited upon Kashmir in the past decade, has permanently scarred the landscape of the valley and the psyche of its people within Kashmir and of those in exile in the plains of India.
Ajay Raina is a film maker. His film about homecoming - "Tell them, the tree they had planted has now grown" - won the Golden Conch award at Mumbai Festival 2002 and the RAPA award.