Book Review: A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories by Siddhartha Gigoo is a collection of short stories which takes you to the world of turbulence and banishment. The short-stories are about the loss of human lives, longing for the home, the resurrection of the exiled people, old friendships, memories, desolation and sufferings. The stories will move your heart, make you shudder and think about the happenings described in them.

The book begins with a story The Search which is about a researcher interested in histories and biographies of banished people. His study in the museum library leads him to the discovery of a disappearing clan. The story is attributed to extinct human species of Kashmir valley – Kashmiri Hindus. The author hints at loss of culture, language, and desecration of ancient Hindu heritage in Kashmir. In this story, the author mentions about eleven original specimens left in the entire world. The author actually refers to the time in Kashmir, centuries ago, when only eleven Hindu families survived in valley during foreign Islamic rule.

Another story titled The Last Haircut is the depiction of time in Kashmir when the Pandits were getting killed by their acquaintances. The two young boys who have taken to guns were given the task of killing their teacher who was a Kashmiri Pandit. But they didn’t succeed as the teacher never returned home that day. After some days, the young boys came to know by a chance encounter with the teacher’s wife that he never returned back to his home that day when the boys had planned to kill him. This story highlights the period in Kashmir of 1989-1990 when Hindu families were planning to leave their homes after selective killings of their community members.

In Poison, Nectar, the author narrates poignantly about a family of Kashmiri Hindu refugees living in squalid camp in exile away from their home. Around two years ago, the author has made a short-film The Last Day based on this story.

There are, in total, sixteen stories in the book which portray the different aspects of the lives of human beings. The book ends with a story A Secret Life which is about a monk, who upon having a chance encounter with a young man at a railway station, doubts his own knowledge and understanding of human nature and life.

Siddhartha’s stories are very allegorical. Even without mentioning Kashmir explicitly, he narrates very well the varied narratives of people who faced turmoil without taking any sides. Through fiction, the author has tried to paint the cataclysm of the land – to which he belongs – on paper. The stories talk about conflict societies, and how the conflict takes toll on the people and changes their lives. His stories unravel the predicament people face in conflict regions. These stories are the author’s stunning imagination put on paper.

While some stories are easily understandable, deciphering of a few stories is not so easy. There are some stories which you may not understand in first reading. Nevertheless, the effort you take to read those stories again and interpret them is worthy.

This book is a beautiful addition to Indian writing in English, more so, an addition to the literature on Kashmir. Read this book for its metaphorical writing and stunning imagination and of course, for Kashmir.

(Published in DNA)

BJP’s gamble in Jammu and Kashmir

On 1st March 2015, People’s Democratic Party’s founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took oath as Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. This being his second stint as chief minister of the troubled state after 2002. He was the Home Minister of India in the VP Singh government. After around two months of talks and consultations, BJP tied the political knot with PDP. It was given the official stamp when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed met Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi on February 27, 2015. While talking to the media, Mufti Sayeed termed the BJP-PDP alliance as the meeting of North Pole and South Pole. He added emphatically that the BJP-PDP alliance is a political alliance first and then an alliance for governance.

Prime Minister Modi while campaigning for the elections in Jammu and Kashmir had termed PDP as the party of Baap-Beti. The mandate given by the people of the state made BJP and PDP to join hands and form the government. We saw the same Modi hugging the Baap of PDP.

While some say BJP allying with PDP is opportunism and greed for power, others argue that it is their best chance to be in power. I tend to agree with the latter part. BJP-PDP alliance represents the three regions of the state. If it works, well. If it doesn’t, then also fine. BJP’s alliance with PDP in J&K is a gamble for the party. The two parties are poles apart ideologically — BJP being a nationalist party while PDP being a soft separatist one. The two parties have agreed to govern the state on a common minimum programme.

Mufti Mohammad Sayeed raked up controversy on day one when he credited separatist outfit Hurriyat Conference, terrorists and people from across the border for allowing peaceful elections in Jammu and Kashmir. There was not a word for people of the state, security forces or the election commission. It left BJP, which was for the first time in power in the state, red faced. At a failed attempt in the beginning to defend the indefensible, BJP had to dissociate from the statement of J&K CM later. Even Prime Minister Modi, during his reply to discussion on motion of thanks in Rajya Sabha, disapproved Mufti’s statement without naming him. He reiterated that there will be zero tolerance towards terrorism and government in J&K is formed on the basis of common minimum programme.

The second day of the government, there was another controversy. A group of PDP Legislators along with MLA from Langate constituency, who is known for his separatist tendencies, Engineer Rashid demanded that the mortal remains of executed Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru be handed over to his family. It was rejected by Ministry of Home Affairs. Afzal Guru was hanged on February 9, 2013 inside Tihar Jail in New Delhi.

It has been only a week since Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took oath as CM of J&K and he has reportedly ordered release of so-called political prisoners lodged in jails of the state.

On Saturday, chief of J&K Muslim League and Hurriyat Conference leader Masarat Alam, who had organised anti-India protests in Kashmir which resulted in the death of more than 100 people in the summer of 2010, was released from Baramulla jail. Mufti Sayeed has also directed the DGP of J&K Police to prepare a comprehensive plan for the rehabilitation of surrendered and released militants so that they are integrated into the mainstream of the society of the state. It looks like Mufti Sayeed is back with his ‘healing touch’ policy.

Certainly, these moves are aimed at pandering to the separatist Muslim vote bank in the Kashmir valley which was displeased by PDP’s alliance with ‘communal Hindu’ BJP. These controversies won’t affect PDP as much as they dent BJP’s image in Jammu, Ladakh and rest of India. Giving the position of Chief Minister to PDP by BJP has already been seen as a compromise which was further added to by no change in constitutional status (Article 370) of Jammu & Kashmir. On the issues of West Pakistan refugees as well as the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir which BJP claims to be their priority, there is hardly anything substantial in the common minimum programme. In addition to that, the major cabinet berths have gone to PDP in the state council of ministers.

While Mufti Sayeed’s moves will consolidate PDP’s position in Kashmir, it will have a reverse implication for BJP in Jammu and Ladakh. The more the PDP treads the path of soft-separatism, the more the BJP moves away from the trajectory of national interest. BJP is as much responsible for the action of J&K government as much as PDP. They can’t do away with it as they are in power. Before it gets too late, Modi needs to put a restraint to Mufti’s adventurism. Though it is too early to judge BJP-PDP government’s policies and performance in J&K, if such adventuristic moves and controversies continue to happen time and again, it will be a gamble in which BJP will lose each passing day till the time the party is in power in the state.

If BJP continues to be a weakling in the alliance while Mufti continues his adventurism and separatist-friendly policies in the name of reconciliation, then it will pose a security threat to the state as well as the nation. New Delhi’s position in Kashmir will be weakened. Governance and development will take a back seat then. The relative peace in the valley is hard-earned and has entailed sacrifices of our security forces. We can’t afford to have turbulent a valley.

(Published in Mid Day)

Fractured Mandate in J&K: Case for Division of State?

In the last two days, the PDP and the BJP leaders have separately met NN Vohra, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, for talks about government formation in the state. Both the parties want to be in the power though there is no decision between the two on an alliance yet. The PDP sent feelers to the BJP for forming an alliance by praising former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s approach towards Kashmir imbroglio which was welcomed by the BJP. At the same time, the NC has offered unconditional support to the PDP. The Congress party is desperate to be part of the government and has invoked “secularism” to keep the “communal” BJP away from power. In the coming days, hopefully, the deadlock over government formation will be broken.

As per the mandate, the BJP and the PDP should form the government in Jammu and Kashmir as people voted against the NC and the Congress. However, if no consensus is achieved between the BJP and the PDP, the PDP has an option to go with the NC and the Congress while the BJP will sit in Opposition. That alliance would be considered as the domination of Kashmir Valley over the politics of J&K which has been the case in the state. Since the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Union of India in 1947, the Valley has controlled the political scene in the state. Except Ghulam Nabi Azad’s nearly three years stint as chief minister from November 2005 to July 2008, the chief minister of the state has always been from the Kashmir region.

Perhaps, this is for the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir that hegemony of Kashmir over the politics of entire state has been challenged so audaciously. The credit goes to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for their “Mission 44+” campaign. The party was aspiring to form the government of its own in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir for the first time. The party campaigned in full force in the Valley and banked on displaced Kashmiri Pandit votes. The BJP softened its stand on abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

There were contrary views from the party on this issue. BJP’s candidate from Amirakadal constituency of Srinagar, Dr Hina Shafi Bhat, grabbed media attention the most with her comments about Article 370. She said that she will be the first one to pick the gun if there is an attempt made to abrogate Article 370. She even alleged the rigging in elections in Kashmir. BJP’s campaigning was so strong that Dr Mehboob Beig, who quitted the National Conference and openly supported PDP, remarked that BJP’s Yalgaar could be stopped by only one person in the Valley and that is Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. However, “Mission 44+” was not achieved as the party couldn’t get even a single seat in Kashmir region. Also, the party surprisingly couldn’t win in Ladakh region which has four assembly seats of Leh, Kargil, Zanskar and Nubra.

These elections marginalised the separatist voices of Kashmir valley as people voted out in large numbers. In this election, Sajjad Gani Lone who is a separatist-turned-mainstream politician tried his luck and won from Handwara constituency of North Kashmir. His party won two seats in these Assembly elections. The irony is that his brother is a member of separatist organisation Hurriyat Conference and he is married to a Pakistani who is the daughter of Amanullah Khan, founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.

It is said that high voter turnout was because of the fear of Hindu CM in the state and preventing the BJP from winning in the Valley. Even if Kashmiris voted out to keep the BJP out of the Valley, their participation in democratic process is a success. However, it should not be inferred that separatist voices have totally been rejected. That would be stupidity but overall such high voter turnout of 65 per cent is a step towards the mainstream.

The election results exhibited regional as well as religious polarisation with Jammu region majorly voting for the BJP while Kashmir region for the PDP. Ladakh surprisingly voted for the Congress party which bagged three out of four Assembly seats in the region.

The fractured mandate of Jammu and Kashmir illustrates the divergent political aspirations of the state. We have witnessed that in 2008 during Amarnath agitation and 2010 summer unrest. It should not be forgotten that the religion (read Islam) forms the basis of Jammu and Kashmir conflict which cannot be ignored.

As the political parties are busy in number games and discussions to form government in Jammu and Kashmir, it won’t be inappropriate to think and debate on the political reorganisation of the state. The three regions of state differ culturally, geographically, linguistically and politically. Statehood for Jammu region has been voiced many times. In case, the BJP doesn’t become part of the new government in J&K, it will add fuel to the debate over political reorganisation of the state. Union territory status for Ladakh has been demanded so as to end the abandonment of this particular region of the state.

Is trifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir State the solution to address the regional imbalance? In the past, the Centre’s interlocutors — Dileep Padgaonkar, Radha Kumar, and MM Ansari — have recommended creation of three regional councils, one each for Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, with legislative, executive and financial powers.

For the displaced community of Kashmiri Pandits, some Pandits advocate the creation of separate homeland to be carved out of present Kashmir. The cause of separate homeland is championed by organisation named Panun Kashmir which recently commemorated “Homeland Day” in New Delhi on December 28, 2014. If their demand is taken into account, then it would lead to quadrification of the Jammu & Kashmir state — Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and Panun Kashmir. However, not all displaced Kashmiri Pandits favour that formula of separate homeland in Kashmir for reversal of their exodus which occurred in 1990.

Whichever political parties join hands to form the government in Jammu and Kashmir, the regional imbalance in the state should be seriously addressed. Is division of the J&K state an answer? Let there be a debate over it.

(Published in Daily O)

Letter to Pradhan Sevak of India

Dear Pradhan Sevak of India,

On January 19, 2015, that is today, Hindus of the Kashmir valley will complete 25 years of forced exile away from their home. Ah! A Silver Jubilee of Exile!

25 years of homelessness. 25 years of loss. 25 years of desolation. 25 years of melancholy. 25 years of longing. 25 winters.

Your party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has always supported the cause of the return and rehabilitation of the minority Hindus of Kashmir. Your party has spoken about displaced Kashmiri Pandits time and again in the last two decades. Kashmiri Pandits find mention in your poll manifesto, though I am not sure whether your party believes in this cause in letter as well as spirit.

There is lot of difference in what is done and said. Words remain hollow as long as they are not followed by actions.

In recent times, while campaigning for 2014 Lok Sabha as well as the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) State Assembly Elections, you spoke about the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits on several occasions. Your utterances on Kashmiri Pandits, who have been living in exile from more than two decades, were welcomed by the Pandit community. It stimulated a new sense of hope – the hope of a return back to our homeland.

The Lok Sabha elections are now a thing of the past. You have become Prime Minister of the country. Even the J&K State Assembly elections have concluded. Now we’re wondering when we can expect some forward movement regarding the return of Kashmiri Pandits.

Recently, I read a report in The Economic Times that said, “Kashmiri Pandits would be provided with ‘good quality’ 1,000 apartments built at a cost of Rs 40 lakh each near Srinagar, a far cry from the shabby two-room transit accommodation provided to them in Jammu, to motivate them to return to J&K.”

I cannot comprehend why the government (both at the Centre and State level) fails to understand the fundamental reason for the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990. The Pandits didn’t leave Kashmir for financial reasons. They left owing to an attack on their very existence perpetrated by Islamic terrorists and insurgents. Had it not been for religion, there would not have been barbaric massacres committed against Kashmiri Pandits (those who chose to stay back) after 1990 – WandhamaNadimargSangrampora and so on.

When you address the issue of the return of Kashmiri Pandits, you have to first address the ethnic cleansing that happened because of religion and nationality (allegiance to India). The United Nations defines ethnic cleansing as rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area, persons of another ethnic or religious group – in the context of Kashmiri Pandits, to create a Kashmir valley homogeneous in its religious character (read Islam), Pandits were driven out from their homeland.

You may be aware that the homes of Pandits have been burned and their temples/shrines have been desecrated and damaged. This is part and parcel of the ethnic cleansing I speak of – it involves the removal of all physical vestiges of the targeted group through the destruction of monuments, cemeteries, and places of worship.

Though the J&K government states that only 219 Kashmiri Pandits were killed since 1989, Kashmiri Pandits strongly argue that more than 700 have been killed. Also, brutal rapes and murders have been committed against Hindu women. Where is our justice? Must we simply ignore it? Can we? I hate the silence that hangs over the issue.

This displacement has impacted three generations of Kashmiri Pandits – the older ones who became disorganised and demented; the younger ones on whose shoulders there was suddenly the huge responsibility of supporting their families while exiled in an unknown land; and the toddlers who were disconnected from their roots, losing language and culture as a result.

The exile of Lord Ram was 14 years-long but the exile of his followers from Kashmir still continues. Even after 25 years, the Pandits are looking for answers about the displacement, the killings, justice denied and above all, the return back to the Kashmir valley (but on their own terms).

I am reminded of Kashmiri poet and writer Arjan Dev Majboor’s lines:

Gayem Wæs Lyekhan Yeth Dastaan’as, Dazith Khouth Wark-Warke Aasmaan’as.

For which Professor Arvind Gigoo offers this English translation:

I spent my age writing this legend.
But the pages leapt towards the sky.
A dusty cobweb besieged me.
Time was at work.
The fault was not mine.

A few moments were given to me in trust.
The world maligned me.
Now stranded in wilderness
I wait for the tree, the water and the light.

I am the mosaic.
My glass-house will not crumble.
Each day I light a lamp in the whirlwind.

I am a stage of the caravan.
Peep into me and listen to the ancient ballad.
It is endless.

After more than two decades, finally, the issue of Pandits is been talked about. It took just under 25 years for the Indian intelligentsia as well as the media to start a discussion about it. I wonder how many more years it will take for Pandits to actually receive justice and subsequently return and be rehabilitated back into their homeland.

I am in exile, along with my fellow seven lakh Pandits, because I pledge my allegiance to India. I am in exile because of my Indian-ness. It is the duty of the Indian state to protect its citizens, a task which, in this case, the country has failed. When somebody asks me about my home, it is difficult to answer because an exile no longer has a home. When will I find an answer?

It is high time now that the Indian government, which is headed by you, moves beyond just lip service and instead, walks the talk.

An exiled Kashmiri

(Published in

Long Dream of Home

January 19 marks the exodus/displacement day of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley. The Hindus of Kashmir valley started leaving Kashmir on this day in 1990 because their blood was sought by Islamic fanatics. Around four lakh Kashmiri Pandits took a hard decision of leaving their ancestral homeland in order not to get slain. They left with the hope that they will return soon as the situation becomes normal in the valley. 25 long winters have passed since then. There has not been any return.

Faith and nationality were the fundamental reasons which led to the tragic exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley – faith in Hindu religion and nationality of India. More than 700 Pandits have been killed till date. Gruesome rapes and murders have been committed against Pandit women. The Indian state failed to protect them.

Even after 25 years, there is no justice for Kashmiri Pandits – no enquiries, no commission, no trials. Will Kashmiri Pandits ever get justice? Those responsible for this tragic exodus – the largest displacement after the partition of India – roam free in the Valley and have now become ‘political leaders’ in Kashmir. They have the support of the people of Kashmir, who were once neighbours of Kashmiri Pandits. It is infuriating to see such kind of apathy by the very same state to which Kashmiri Pandits owe allegiance.

Kashmiri Pandits have been fighting for their rights in a peaceful manner for the last 25 years. The ethnic community, which lost its home to Islamic insurgency and terrorism in 1990, has been resilient in their struggle, despite the odds. The Pandits are keeping the exile consciousness and the struggle for reclamation of their homeland alive through books, blogs, films, and debates. Like every year, this year, too, you can see Pandits commemorating the exile peacefully in parts of India, especially in Jammu and Delhi, where they are living in large numbers after the displacement from Kashmir.

A new government is at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his election campaign rallies, had talked about the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back in their homeland Kashmir. Though it has raised a new hope among Pandits, they are still wary because nothing happens on ground. A Pandit activist, while discussing about the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Hindus back in the Valley, said that the Indian government only listens to the sound of guns and not the sound of voices. You can sense the exasperation and agony in the remark.

In these 25 years, a new generation of Pandits has grown up in exile, away from their ancestral home. This disconnect has resulted in loss of the language and the culture, though Pandits are trying to preserve it. The old generation is fading in exile, with the unfulfilled longing of returning to their roots where they had spent an entire lifetime.

Exile is a ‘long dream of home’, according to French poet and writer Victor Hugo. The return to the home is a dream for Kashmiri Pandits. They see that dream every day, and will continue to do so because that dream keeps them alive in exile.

25 years of homelessness has left an indelible void in the hearts of Pandits. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who was forced into exile when he was seven years old, echoes the homelessness and hope of return in the following lines:

Take me as a relic from the mansion of sorrow;
Take me as a verse from my tragedy,
Take me as a toy, a brick from the house,
So that our children will remember to return.

(Published in Mid Day)