Opinion

India ends Kashmir’s separation, giving hope to Hindus looking homeward

Kashmiri Hindus, known as “Pandits,” perform rituals at the Kheer Bhawani temple during an annual Hindu festival in Jammu, India, on June 2, 2017. Hundreds of Hindu devotees flocked to celebrate the festival dedicated to the goddess Durga at the temple, a replica of the original Mata Kheer Bhawani Temple near Srinagar, that was made in Jammu by Kashmiri Pandits after they were forced to flee from Srinagar and the adjoining valley areas in the early 1990s. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

(RNS) — On February 16, 1990, my uncle, Ashok Tikoo, was walking to work in Srinagar, in Kashmir, when he was targeted by a would-be assassin. He survived only because his attacker, a Pakistan-trained militant, instead struck Anil Bhan, a 26-year-old Kashmiri Hindu, in a case of mistaken identity.

Bhan’s mother found his body in a pool of blood just a few feet from her home. We will never forget her screams.

Bhan’s murder was part of a larger campaign to incite terror in the Kashmir Valley’s indigenous Hindu community known as the Kashmiri Pandits. For my family, it was also a wake-up call.

One month before, in January, after the Indian government responded to rising violence by imposing direct rule, mosques throughout Kashmir blared threats to all “kafirs,” — non-believers — “Ralive, tsalive, ya galive” (convert to Islam, leave or die).

The disputed Jammu and Kashmir territory on the border of Pakistan, India and China. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Several weeks later, a prominent Kashmiri newspaper published a letter from the terror outfit Hizbul Mujahideen demanding that all Hindus leave the valley. Posters appeared on our doors from various terror groups, declaring, “Allah-o-Akbar, infidels get lost. Jihad is approaching.” Thousands chanted on the streets, “Kashmir banawon Pakistan, Bataw varaie, Batneiw saan” (“We will turn Kashmir into Pakistan, with Kashmiri Hindu women, but without their men”).

My uncle’s near miss was a jarring reality check for us. My family fled that night with only a few suitcases, leaving behind family heirlooms, photos and other precious keepsakes. We gave up our ancestral homes, our friends, our places of worship, our jobs and our future — the only life we had known.

A few months later photos arrived of our home, which had been destroyed and looted. We cried as the loss of our past and our uncertain future caught up to us.

We were not alone, as the terror campaign of rape and murder killed thousands of Hindus. Thousands of Pandit homes, businesses, and temples were destroyed or occupied, and 350,000 Pandits fled in a mass exodus, many forced to live in squalid tent camps with high rates of suicide, depression and other ailments.

The soul of Kashmir was lost along with the majority of its Hindu inhabitants. We were a minority in Kashmir, but as indigenous people of the valley worshipping in temples dating back more than 1,500 years, our place of shared identity as Kashmiris was never in question.

Kashmir is only one region in the larger state of Jammu and Kashmir, home to Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, as well as Muslims. This multi-religious state, the bedrock of a diverse array of religious and cultural practices for more than 5,000 years, is integral to India’s identity as a secular country.

My family adhered to Kashmiri Shaivism, a branch of Hinduism that believes in experiencing Lord Shiva through Shakti, the primordial cosmic energy representing the feminine aspect of the divine. The majority Muslim community were largely Sufis, a mystical tradition of Islam. Despite periods of communal strife, my family’s stories are full of Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims celebrating a bond as neighbors.

Hindus and Muslims celebrated holidays such as Eid and Shivaratri together, where Muslims served as caretakers of Hindu temples, and where typical Kashmiri surnames, such as Pandit, Dhar, Malik, or Bhat, could signify either a Hindu or a Muslim.

Hindu and Muslim Kashmiris, including many of my uncles, served with distinction in the Indian military, government and civil services. They saw themselves as part of a diverse, polyglot and pluralistic Indian nation.

So, when earlier this month the Indian government finally abrogated Articles 370 and 35A, two articles of the Indian constitution that belatedly conferred Kashmir a “special status,” my family celebrated. In those Articles lay the seeds of a cleavage between Kashmir and the rest of the Indian nation—one that allowed the state to render many of its residents second-class citizens.

Those Articles freed the state government to engage in extraordinary discrimination of religious minorities, refugeeswomen, children, and the LGBT community. Amid unchecked corruption, cronyism and ineptitude, the autonomous state passed laws that violated India’s democratic constitution without accountability.

As I follow the news from Kashmir since the abrogation, I feel great empathy for former neighbors who are enduring a curfew and a communications blackout to ensure peace. These stringent measures have stirred resentment and put a great strain on Kashmir’s inhabitants. India must provide a roadmap for opening government services, restoring communications to the outside world and respecting human rights for those in Kashmir.

Kashmiri Muslims shout slogans during a protest after Eid prayers during a security lockdown in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, on Aug. 12, 2019. Hundreds of worshippers gathered after the prayers and chanted “We want freedom” and “Go India, go back,” witnesses said. Officials said the protest ended peacefully. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

The possibility of violence in Kashmir is real. Today there are more training camps for Islamist militants in the region than there were in 1990. The flags of Jaish-e-Mohammed — the “army of Mohammad,” whose leader, Masood Azhar, is designated an international terrorist by the U.N. Security Council — as well as the Islamic State, are being unfurled in Kashmir.

But as the world is transfixed by the security measures and rising tensions in Kashmir, we also need to begin discussions about the repatriation of exiled Hindus. So far, the ordeal of the Pandits has been an afterthought. From my vantage in the Pandit diaspora, here in Dallas, Texas, my voice, my people, my history, my tragedy, stand erased. As the media raises objections to the abrogation of the articles, the story of the ethnic cleansing of thousands of families like mine is largely ignored.

Instead, Pakistan’s prime minister just tweeted that there is “an attempt to change demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing” — referring to the Muslim majority.

The world in its collective amnesia may forget the tragedy of Kashmir that swept up my family. But with the end of the Articles, I dream once again of bringing my children to visit their ancestral roots and worshipping in the temples of my youth.

I look forward to a new, vibrant Kashmir whose women, children and minorities enjoy the same rights and protections as citizens of other Indian states, where businesses can thrive, and where all are able to live and worship free from interference, as Indians, under the secular constitution of India.

(Rajiv Pandit is a board member of the Hindu American Foundation and is a practicing head and neck surgeon and clinical instructor in the Department of Surgery at Methodist Dallas Medical Center. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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