As Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passes a resolution on the return of Kashmiri Pandits and the debate on their return gains momentum, the word "batte" (Pandits) turns me nostalgic about an era which I never witnessed but only heard about. I was just born when the community left their homeland in very unfortunate circumstances, as I learned later. As I was a kid, I could hardly even notice discussions around their migration. As the days went by, stories of their lifestyle and relationship with their Muslim neighbours started creeping in my mind and I slowly tried to make sense of the events that took place close on the heels of my birth.
My village, Sogam, had a separate neighborhood of Pandits eastward – Butte Mohallah. Yet, it was not a ghetto but a habitation just as there was a Mohallah of carpenters, a Biradiri of preachers and a neighbourhood of bangle-sellers and the like. It was only one among the Mohallahs. As I heard stories from my parents, my elder siblings and neighbours willing to share their memories, it became almost a puzzling bunch of historical facts. Their faith was hardly relevant in their social lives except when they entered their temples. There were Pandit teachers who had memorized Para-e-Umm, the last chapter of the Holy Qur'an and they were entrusted the task of teaching Suras to Muslim children! There was one particular Pandit, my parents tell me, who was friendly enough to invite the nickname of "Jama'et Butte" (A Pandit with Jamati orientation)! My elder siblings also narrate their friendship tales with Pandit boys and girls bringing nostalgia. My elder sister just turns tearful when reminded of Vickey, her childhood friend whom she was not able even to say a good bye. She and her classmates had written a song- a farewell song in her absence and recited it in the classroom. For her, the combination of feelings of insecurity and the conspiracy of the then administration together encouraged Vicky and her family to leave, never to return. For some time, I just wished I lived a little back in the past and had friends among a people who were different yet similar to me.Wouldn't the life have been more colourful? Given my religious upbringing, could I have shared verses from Quran and the illuminating life events of the Prophet(SAW) with them hoping at least that they appreciated the greatness of my religion? What if they shared stories from Ramayana and Gita with me and hence could have learned about their concept of God, the mystery of death, the Rebirth and the Hereafter? Other stories that spoke about badness of Pandits just made me conclude that there were good Pundits and there were bad Pandits just as there were good Muslims and there were bad Muslims. Nothing less.Nothing more.
As I grew up and went to school, the ruined Butte Mohallah en-route to my alma-mater always caught my attention. Initially, too young to understand, the dilapidated houses, the desecrated walls and the abandoned orchards led me to conclude that the Mohallah had, perhaps, invoked divine retribution just for being Hindus and refusing to believe in God's own religion.The stories of divine punishment in Qur'an to tribes like Madyan, Thamud etc. The way they were narrated to me, confirmed my simple belief. In my mind, there were striking similarities between those stories in Qur'an and the ruin I was witnessing before my eyes. With the passage of time and the growth of my understanding of both my religion as well the tragedy I witnessed, I concluded that sometimes, mankind could take divine law into its own hands and wreak as much havoc as God didn't entrust it with wreaking. Where did those houses go? Did the inhabitants destroy them in desperation before leaving or they just vanished in the thin air? Where did the walls go? What happened to the orchards? The walnut trees, the rice fields? Nobody answered these questions to me. As I grew up and started reading Qur'an, it created a great unease in me as the Book of Allah called upon its believers not only to bear witness to truth even if it goes against their interests but also never to render injustice to a community even if they were their avowed enemies. By the day, I was uncomfortable with the fact that the custodians of the Book of Allah had not only failed to render justice to a people who just happened to have a different faith but also shirked from being a witness to truth.
Now that I am a grown-up man, I face similar dilemmas around the question of Pandits, facing which would be my real test. Irrespective of the galvanisation of many of them around extremist Hindutva cause, I must decide clearly how much should I tolerate them back in the Butte Mohallah if they happen to return. Would it be a "separate colony" or the same Butte Mohallah of the good old days? What if they despise my political beliefs and continue loving to be a part of India? Or worse, should I grant them the right to choose to be a part of whom we call Hindutva fascists, if they desire so? What if they choose or are made to live separately at some distant place? Would that still make my life colourful? Do they really want to live back or just indulge in politics? What if they choose to acquire some habitation yet live in some city or a distant corner of Indian mainland and in that case, would my life be as coulourful as I had wished as a kid? Keeping these questions apart, the modal of communal brotherhood that I heard stories of during my childhood is worth re-learning not only by our own selves but any people living in multi-cultural societies.That is a proud contribution from our part to the world.
Author is teaches at Govt High School Wani Daroosa, Lolab