Jewish writer and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel, in the Preface of his deeply poignant memoir, Night, says, “In retrospect, I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.” I draw inspiration from the profound words of Wiesel. I feel a similar moral obligation which Wiesel talks about.
19 January 2021 is here, marking 31 years of exile of Kashmir’s aboriginal community of Hindus – the Kashmiri Pandits. I am commemorating my own ethnic cleansing and subsequent exile by writing on it yet again. Also, remembering my community’s struggle for survival despite massive adversities.
The date, 19 January, has become some sort of a ritual which Pandits commemorate worldwide. Then, there are dates that individuals remember as the day they bid farewell to home, as the forced expulsion of Pandits by Islamist separatists and terrorists spanned over more than a year. My family remembers this date as 14 April 1990 – the day we said goodbye to our ancestral home at Akura village in Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir.
We commemorate 19 January to make sense of what happened to us – an ethnic community of about half a million people of Kashmir – and why it happened. After all, the main purpose of life is the continuous quest for meaning. Another Auschwitz survivor and renowned Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl says, “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
The Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits
We know the meaning of our ethnic cleansing very well. Our faith – in Hinduism as well as in India – got in the way of "soldiers" spearheading "fidelity" and "purity" in Kashmir. Some of us were killed, some womenfolk were raped, but we survived as a community, although we got scattered across the globe.
Pandits are adept at survival and know how to thrive in spite of onslaughts. They have done so seven times in last 5,000 years – the exodus of 1990 being the seventh exodus of Hindus from Kashmir. There is a Kashmiri refrain among the community – Satim ti Patim, meaning the seventh exodus will be the last exodus; a resolve to return to our homes in Kashmir.
We cling to our homes – abandoned, dilapidated, non-existent – because the idea of home in Kashmir keeps us alive and agile in exile. The homecoming doesn’t simply mean going back to Kashmir and rebuilding our homes. It also means connecting with our roots and moorings that have been tattered in last thirty-one years. An anticipation of homecoming. A dream of glorious return. A long dream of home.
Life existed in these numerous abandoned and dilapidated houses of Pandits across Kashmir, some time ago. Now these are lifeless structures as the inhabitants were driven out. When you look at them, these structures stare at you as if they are trying to tell you a story – the story of merriness and goriness, the account of joy and desolation, the saga of existence and nothingness.
While we await justice for ethnic cleansing, which has been denied to us for more than three decades now, we carry our wounds inside us. These wounds get reflected in our conversations over tea, marriage functions, and at cremation grounds. We remain tenacious for justice. We seek answers and remedy through constitutional and peaceful ways. We have protested, made appeals to the government and human rights organisations, as well as knocked on the doors of the judiciary. We will continue to do so. That’s our way of seeking justice. That’s our dharma.
We must not forget those Pandits who stayed back in Kashmir and witnessed the horror and terror. They didn’t stay back because there was some special bonhomie in the air. They stayed back because their circumstances didn’t allow them to leave their homes.
We have encountered colossal losses at multiple levels – the home, the way of life, the language, the customs, the places of worship, and the people. We have tried to salvage as much as we can. We have failed in salvaging sometimes. But we have persisted, too.
Seeking Solace to Overcome Buried Losses
We seek solace in Kashmiri things in an attempt to overcome the buried losses – be it Lavasa and Telwour from Kashmiri bakery, Monj-Haakh (kohlrabi) and Rogan Josh (red spicy dish of goat/lamb) prepared in our homes and during marriage functions, or just plain cup of kehwa and sheer chai (pink-salty milk tea). We rejoice while listening to Kashmiri folk songs and music – we recite as well. We pray to our gods and goddesses – Shiva and Shakti (in many manifestations such as Sharada, Sharika, Ragnya, Tripursundari, Jaya, Uma, Katyayani, Kulwagishori, Bhargshikha, Jwala, Bhadrakali, Pingla, Gauri, Chandika) Bhairava, Yaksha, etc. – and ask for our well-being, forgiveness, and peace.
We have survived the assault on our existence and we are living away from our homes. We can’t perish because we are the harbingers as well as living symbols of the Indic Civilisation in Kashmir. We are the descendants of Rishi Kashyap, the originator of Kashmir.
We must continue our fight for existence and presence in our homeland and demand genuine rights while being away from our homes. It is for our parents and grandparents – who faced extreme trials and tribulations but didn’t capitulate – that we ought to return to Kashmir even if hope vacillates between flaring and fading.
These words by Wiesel offer me the courage to strive – “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
(Varad Sharma is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled ‘A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, published by Bloomsbury India. He tweets @VaradSharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)