The very idea of Kashmiri Pundit outlines a soft spoken person obsessed with deep inclination to be learnt and knowledgeable and the Punditani, quite discernible & delicate than her Muslim counterpart, often decorated in her preferred attire of dark maroon or blue and rich heritage jewellery. That was their exterior icon in the aesthetic heartland of downtown Srinagar, their mother city. Commonly known as Battas since ages they were renamed Pundits by a royal proclamation issued from the Mughal court in Delhi. Their traditions, food, literature and customs all have influence of Central Asian culture. Since ancient times the Pundit, with his cool and leaning temper, kept nurturing in him an expert and specialist in all matters, with teaching as preferred occupation.
Unfortunately majority of them migrated twenty seven years ago, mercifully leaving behind very few in the Valley who are precious in the current scenario for their own conservation and Kashmir’s future. They have migrated earlier also. At one stage great King of Kashmir Zain-ul-Abidin, who ruled Kashmir for fifty years from 1420, brought some Pundits back in an atmosphere of tolerance and justice. Ever since their migration in early 1990’s all forums including Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir Civil Society and all other political and social groups have been making consistent efforts for their return to their homes in Kashmir.
The two ethnic segments of Kashmir always identify each other as two Kashmiris and not as Muslim or Hindu Kashmiri which is not literally true concerning any two communities anywhere in India. Nor there is any evidence anywhere in the world where one community appear to be intensely anxious for return of people of the other community, who have voluntarily or otherwise migrated or separated from them in earlier times. This noteworthy narrative of them speaks volumes of coherence between the two which they have cultivated and refined together from their ancient past. This portrayal of them and their mutual relationship has puzzled rulers from outside Kashmir for hundreds of years. Pundits have been described as cunning by some outside rulers. However Kashmir’s own rulers & all ranks in their administrative hierarchy always had full trust and faith in them.
A human issue has been, however, disgustingly politicised all these years. Political parties have been as much like in a concert over this human issue for their political advantages. The restrained and conspicuous approach of BJP from very start of their regime in regard to Kashmir has been only the return and re-settlement of Kashmiri Pundits and assault on article 370 of the Constitution. However, it proved to be only a publicity stunt, the essence of which was to polarize situation for election benefits. The mission was to reroute them in their homeland with adequate funfair as an act of heroic valour for their political mileage and finally declaring their strategy to house K.P’s in protected colonies only to attract a legitimate reaction from the other community, thereby complicating a humanitarian issue once again.
In Kashmir who is not willing to welcome return of Kashmiri Pundits, whom the majority community consider their own clan even today. However, they are not returning any time now or in the immediate future. Those who could not settle well-off and are still in camps seem to be at cross-roads only for being let down by their own intellectual class who could not ever give them a true leader. Unfortunately those who were ready to re-settle in their home-land did not return due to the political stage show. It sounds regrettable that some Kashmiri Pundits identified themselves with a communal organisation probably to avenge their exodus although no one in Kashmir is responsible for their exit. They know for sure that their muslim brethren are longing for their return to the valley.
Quite happily, Kashmiris did not lose their other age-old associates, I mean the Kashmiri Sikhs. A handful of them who shifted to other places for their businesses returned back and are cheerfully pursuing their occupations. It is satisfying to notice that they share their joys & sorrows with their Muslim brethren throughout the length and breadth of Kashmir valley. Similarly, when several thousand muslims were cruelly and hard-heartedly killed in Jammu at the time of partition, the very few that were left behind did not migrate at all.
There are some heart-breaking and shattering instances which one can never miss to muse over. Aged and ailing Pundits living in camps had a strong desire to visit their homes before leaving this world. One of my teacher at the University had shifted in early 1970’s for a more lucrative and money-spinning job outside State. We met after forty-one years in 2015 on his surprise visit to Srinagar. As we settled down to discuss life at a restaurant on the Boulevard he broke down as his wife had died a decade ago. He cursed his option for a greener-pasture pursuit in his young age. His two children had settled abroad for their chance to chase bigger dreams. He felt too lonely and believed that a living in the vicinity of his earlier home back in Srinagar only could make a difference in his delicate days. A more shocking experience was meeting a couple, settled in U.K four decades ago who visited Srinagar for a brief stay at Khirbhawani in 2015. It was a terrible experience as the lady felt horrified to travel from airport to Tulumula. She remained horror-struck throughout her stay in Kashmir. Probably she mistook everyone, including my driver, as a militant and despite her husband, a doctor by profession, trying to pacify her she did not recover from the dilemma. The presence of about six muslim families, at Khirbhawani comprising of men, women and children from down town Srinagar, who had obviously come to see their family friends and one-time neighbours, also didn’t help which was quite shocking both for her husband as well as myself. These are only a few heartbreaking and shattering tragedies of our Nation.
The migrants are an integral part of Kashmiri society. They have lived in association with Kashmiri muslims ever since the advent of Islam in Kashmir. They have their future here, in our plural society and not in an exclusive enclave and that is how they can retain their identity. They must return for the harmonious co-existence of the ancient and the contemporary as it is with them that we can preserve our cultural heritage, most importantly our language. Kashmiri muslims are yearning for them and both must put lives in each other’s hands.
Pundits have historically remained divided among themselves and probably they can’t take a collective view on their return to the Valley. Those who have moved out from their roots in the journey of their future, being well settled may not return at all. The misadventure and politics of a section of them to score points against Kashmiri muslims makes less affluent pundits still living in camps suffer. They must end their campaign which can help those who are not well placed outside Valley and who could possibly return one day. A single instance would be enough to illustrate the point. In September 2016 some Kashmiri muslims collected somewhere on the roadside in California to protest killings and blinding of youth in Kashmir. As they started their protest few K.P’s arrived at the scene and raised slogans against the protesters. They started abusing them thus creating an absurd scene on a foreign land. Had they joined the demonstrators to protest killings in Kashmir it would have made a difference to protect our collective diversity.
The civil society and other social groups in Kashmir must continue their drive to persuade Kashmiri migrants living in camps to return to their original place of living. There should be schemes to make lives of KP’s, already living in Kashmir and those who would return, much better in all the ways. There ought to be attractive incentives for those among them who raise more than two children. This is the only way we can have a sizable population of them in Kashmir in the years to come. Those having settled for a lifetime in other parts of India or elsewhere in world would be, I am afraid, consumed in a larger field in a few decades from now.
The author is a retired civil servant & a social activist