Varad Sharma

No Justice, No Reconciliation

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes says, “Writing is struggle against silence”. I say, writing is struggle against distortions too. Whenever there is an attempt to distort your story, you have to raise your voice and reiterate your story because your story, the truth, is the struggle for your existence. More so when you are away from home, in exile!

On Sunday evening, there was a debate on NDTV’s “We The People” on the subject “Kashmiri Pandits: In Search of Home”. The topic of discussion was the rehabilitation of exiled Kashmiri Hindus in Kashmir in wake of the recent Konsar Nag Yatra controversy. The reconciliation between majority and minority communities of Kashmir valley (Muslims and Pandits) was also discussed. That discussion prompts me to write this story.

Time and again, the reconciliation between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits has been talked about and debated under the ambit of Kashmiriyat (like the rhetoric that the solution of Kashmir conflict should be under the ambit of Insaniyat). Ah! This Kashmiriyat and Insaniyat! Kashmiriyat is used as a ploy to pretend that nothing happened in the valley to Kashmiri Pandits. When Pandits demand justice for the killings, rapes, loss, and homelessness, they are told there is Kashmiriyat.

Kashmiriyat, if ever it existed, is a term given to the mutual and peaceful co-existence of Pandits and Muslims in the pristine valley of Kashmir much before insurgency and terrorism. It has died in the valley many times in the past. Recently, Kashmiriyat died when the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits happened, resulting in their displacement from the valley. It died when Pandits were selectively targeted and murdered heinously. It died when a Pandit woman was raped and then cut into pieces by a mechanical saw. For those who don’t know, the exodus of 1990 is the seventh exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley.

That is not to say that Pandits and Muslims were always at conflict with each other in Kashmir. Of course, they lived together for hundreds of years till 1990. On an individual level, Pandits and Muslims have been very amicable. But as communities, they disagree, particularly over political views. Those disagreements led to a rift in 1990 when the majority of the majority community of Kashmiri Muslims (not all) supported the cause of secession of Jammu & Kashmir from the Union of India through an armed struggle in which Hindus were killed. They failed in their struggle for Azadi. Jammu and Kashmir is still very much a part of India. It will remain so. In the meantime, Pandits lost faith in the majority community of Muslims who happened to be their neighbours. Many Kashmiri Muslims chose to support the gun rather than their neighbours. There has existed a trust deficit since then.

It has been twenty five years since the exodus, but I haven’t seen even once the community of Kashmiri Muslims stand up for the Pandits whom they call their brethren. Rather, they have sided with those who have been responsible for their displacement. How can there be reconciliation between the community of Pandits and Muslims? There can’t be any reconciliation while there is silence over the killings and exodus of Pandits. Moreover, the myth factory in Kashmir valley still propagates the “Jagmohan theory” which states that the then governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Jagmohan, is responsible for the 1990 exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the valley.

For reconciliation to happen, the past needs to be addressed. The path of reconciliation is through admission of failure by the community of Kashmiri Muslims in protecting their Pandit brethren. The path of reconciliation is by shunning the voices of separatism and religious intolerance. Reconciliation is difficult without justice for those Pandits who were murdered and raped. From past experience of the last two decades, frankly speaking, I don’t see that happening in the near future.

On the question of return of Pandits, it is not only about the level of militancy in Kashmir. It is about the nationality and religion/faith of Kashmiri Hindus on which they won’t compromise. How is the return of Pandits possible when there has been a continuous attack on their faith in the last two decades? A recent example is the shutdown of Konsar Nag Yatra by local Kashmiri Muslims. They had a problem with a small group of 40 Pandits who were supposed to visit Konsar Nag, a glacial lake located at an altitude of 12000 feet in Kulgam district of south Kashmir, as pilgrims. These Kashmiri Muslims believe that the Pandits will pollute the environment by going for a pilgrimage. It all happened under the garb of Kashmiriyat. The more they attack the faith of Kashmiri Pandits, the stronger their conviction becomes. Period!

P.S. I was speaking to my father over the phone yesterday. Among other things, we talked about upcoming assembly elections in J&K. He said, “There seems like a concerted attempt in goofing up of the electoral voter list of Pandits. How come there are mistakes (distorted names, missing names etc.) in electoral voter lists when these same voter lists were correct before. Is this a further attempt to erase them from Kashmir valley?” My father has been filling correction forms every other day.

(Originally Published in Newslaundry)

Book Review: Karachi, You’re Killing Me!

Pakistan! The name strikes only one thing in mind – a country which has been epicenter of terrorism and always has been at loggerheads with India since it birth in 1947. There is more to Pakistan than terrorism, killings, etc. We don’t get to hear stories about people, culture, life etc. in India. Stories from Pakistan have always aroused interest in me; about its cities, people, festivals etc. Here comes a novel – Karachi, You’re Killing Me! – which takes you through the city of Karachi, its people and the life there.  The novel is written by Pakistani journalist Saba Imtiaz.

The main protagonist of the novel is Ayesha Khan, a journalist in her twenties. She is working at Daily News in Karachi. Ayesha reports on all sorts of things – bomb blasts, literature festivals, murders, kidnappings, fashion shows, protests etc. Kamran, who is Ayesha’s boss at Daily News, is not at all kind to her. Kamran was gifted the newspaper by his industrialist father on his twenty sixth birthday ‘following a giant tantrum.’ Ayesha desperately wants to move out of Pakistan but her attempts don’t succeed. She is stuck with low-paying job at Daily News. Ayesha lives with his father who perhaps loves his cat more than his daughter. All of that has made Ayesha’s life dull and miserable.

There is Saad who is a banker and works in Dubai. He is Ayesha’s best friend since fifth class. Saad has been a great support to Ayesha and the one who cheers her up. There is Zara who is a fine investigative reporter working with Morning News TV. Zara is the one who tries to make Ayesha’s life lively. She takes her to parties and fashion events. They smoke and booze together. Zara also wishes that Ayesha finds a man in her life. She introduces her to Hasan. After seeing Hasan for some months, her relationship with Hasan ended on a day when Ayesha arrived late at his birthday party and then left abruptly after being called by her boss Kamran. Amidst all the commotion around, will she finds love in the city of Karachi? I am not going to tell you. Read the novel.

Each chapter of the novel as well as the section within begins with a headline which tells you about the happenings in Pakistan. It is a diary of a journalist struggling in the city of Karachi with the chaos in her life and around. In the novel, Saba Imtiaz paints the picture of problems faced by journalists in Pakistan on a daily basis. Being a journalist herself, she has done a fine job in doing that.

Saba’s novel seems semi-autobiographical in nature. The characters and the events in the novel look genuine. The novel is funny, thrilling, and intriguing. It is a novel which will keep you gripped. The novel is a good read over a weekend or when you are going for a long distance travel. By the way, don’t expect literary pearls from this novel. Karachi, You’re Killing Me! is a perfect plot for a Bollywood movie. A thriller!

(Originally Published in DNA)

Of Men and Monuments

Last night, I watched the film, The Monuments Men, directed by Hollywood star George Clooney. The film is loosely based on the book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by American writer Robert M Edsel. It’s about a group of men who were given the task to save art works, artefacts and masterpieces from the Nazis during World War II and return these to their owners.

Clooney plays the character of Lieutenant Frank Stokes, who leads this peculiar mission. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had planned to build a Fuhrer museum in Austria in which he wished to keep all the art works stolen from neighbouring European countries.

In the movie, Lieutenant Frank Stokes (deftly played by Clooney) addresses his fellow comrades as they embark on their mission: “You can wipe out the generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, and somehow, they will still come back. But if you destroy their achievements and their history, then it is like they never existed. Just ash floating! That is what Hitler wants. And it is the one thing we simply can’t allow.”

Frank Stokes’ powerful words resonate and underline the importance of preserving art. Art is, after all, fundamental to the character and essence of any civilisation. As American Opera Soprano, Beverly Sills rightly says, “Art is the signature of civilisation”. In fact, civilisations across histories have expressed themselves through art. Isn’t it?

The film reminded me of the destruction of Hindu temples and shrines in the Kashmir valley by fanatical groups. It is worthwhile to note that in the humdrum of daily news, a protest in this context went largely unnoticed. Neither society, nor the so-called intelligentsia bothered to take note of a group of men and women who held a protest march in the heart of Srinagar demanding the passage of a Bill for the protection of temples and religious shrines in the Kashmir valley, among other things. Twenty five years ago, the guardians of these temples and shrines had to abandon them in order to save their own life.

Kameshwar Mandir, Habba Kadal, Srinagar

Kameshwar Mandir, Karfali Mohalla, Habba Kadal, Srinagar
(Photo Courtesy: Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, Srinagar)

This wasn’t the first time the people of the ethnic Hindu minority community in Kashmir were protesting. They have been protesting for years now. These demands regarding the protection, rebuilding and restoration of Hindu shrines in Kashmir valley have been made for years.

These temples and shrines are not the usual places of faith. They represent the 5,000-year-old civilisation that existed in the Kashmir valley. The architecture of such shrines and temples is more than just a form of art. The idols of deities are masterpieces depicting ancient history.

Shiv Temple, Bijbehara, AnantnagShiv Temple, Bijbehara, Anantnag
(Photo Courtesy: Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, Srinagar)

Such magnificent art works were destroyed and desecrated by fanatics, much in the same way as Nazis destroyed art and artefacts in Europe during World War II.

In recent times, we have witnessed the destruction of artefacts by those who try to distort history. In 2001, the Taliban destroyed the world’s largest standing Buddha statues in Afghanistan. The destruction of such statues which are more than thousands of years old was carried out to erase the ancient Buddhist history. Likewise in Mali, Islamists damaged the shrines of Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu.

It is more than a year since I had last written on temples and shrines of Hindus in Kashmir – The Gods Have To Wait. Not much has changed since then.

We have seen many politicians of Jammu and Kashmir, including Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, assure the Pandit community about extending protection to temples and shrines in Kashmir. But these assurances are just hollow words. The fact is Kashmiri Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill hasn’t been passed by the state government of Jammu and Kashmir till date.

Shiv Temple, KulgamShiv Temple, Kulgam
(Photo Courtesy: Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, Srinagar)

Watching the movie, a thought crossed my mind. I wish there were Monuments Men who could have saved the symbols of Hindu civilisation in the Kashmir valley. Had they been there, the temples and shrines wouldn’t have been desecrated.

I wish such men existed to protect the magnificent places of faith. And that the fanatics who desecrated the temples understood that these temples, shrines, idols and so on, don’t belong only to Hindus. They represent the collective ancient history of the Kashmir valley. In the Kashmir valley, the gods are waiting from more than two decades for their abode to be restored and for their guardians (Kashmiri Hindus) to return.

Safe Journey Home

In a joint address to the Parliament of India – the first after the formation of the new government – President Pranab Mukherjee spoke about Kashmiri Pandits. President Mukherjee said, “Special efforts will be made to ensure that Kashmiri Pandits return to the land of their ancestors with full dignity, security and assured livelihood”. [Source:]

This was perhaps the first time in the last two decades that a President was talking about the minority Hindus of Kashmir who are refugees in their own country. Immediately after that, writer and film-maker Siddhartha Gigoo (who is a Kashmiri Pandit) tweeted, “It is so nauseating to come across the rant about the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits”. [Source:]

The tweet is telling of the distrust and loss of faith among Kashmiri Pandits in the Indian state. Things have more or less been the same for the exiled community of Kashmiri Pandits even after more than two decades. During his election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken of the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits back to Kashmir valley. The Bharatiya Janata Party had also mentioned the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits back to the valley in its poll manifesto.

There is talk about a comprehensive plan being formulated for the dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits who were forced to flee in 1989-1990 owing to insurgency. The special package being proposed would include enhanced financial assistance, security to life and property, government jobs and other employment opportunities.

There are 58,697 Kashmiri migrant families registered with respective relief authorities that include 38,119 families in Jammu, 19,338 families in Delhi and 1,240 families in other places in India. (As per the written reply by Mullappally Ramchandran, then the Minister of State for Home, to a question asked in Lok Sabha on May 15, 2012.) [Source:]

It is a good sign that the Narendra Modi-led government is concerned about the return of Kashmiri Pandits. But are they committing the same mistake like that of the previous UPA government who failed to address the fundamental issues of justice and security first?

The previous government led by Dr Manmohan Singh had also announced a return and rehabilitation package in April 2008 which failed to bring Kashmiri Pandits back to the valley. The package included assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh per family for repair/reconstruction of fully or partially damaged houses, assistance of Rs 2 lakh per family for dilapidated/unused houses, assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh per family for purchase/construction of a house in Group Housing Societies for those who had sold their properties during the turmoil in 1989, before the enactment of “The J&K Migrant Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Restraint of Distress Sale) Act, 1997” on May 30, 1997. [Source: Jammu & Kashmir Division, Ministry of Home Affairs]

The Pandits didn’t leave the valley for financial reasons. They left because they were unsafe in the valley. Linking economics with the return, without promising justice to the community and addressing security concerns is bizarre and blinkered.

More than 700 Pandits have been killed in the valley due to armed insurgency.  There have been brutal rapes and gruesome crimes committed against Hindu women. Barbaric massacres (Wandhama, Nadimarg, Sangrampora, etc) have taken place in the Kashmir valley in which Pandits were murdered. There have not been any convictions in this regard. Doesn’t this ethnic community deserve justice? There has been no judicial commission/probe about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1990. What is appalling is that no one talks about prosecuting those behind the ethnic cleansing of Pandits from Kashmir. There is a haunting silence. Human rights organisations remain mute spectators.

The return and rehabilitation program for Kashmiri Pandits must include the delivery of justice. In fact, this should be the first step in healing the wounds of this community. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government must act in delivering justice to the ethnic community who are the aborigines of Kashmir valley.

Keeping aside the return and rehabilitation plan for a moment, the pertinent question is that whether the valley is favourable for the return of minority Hindus. Of late, there have been incidents of killings of Panchs/Sarpanchs in the valley. Which implies that terrorists are still very much at large.

I spoke to Sanjay Tickoo who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), a valley-based Kashmiri Pandit organisation. He said, “Keeping in mind the unrest in 2008 and 2010, I am apprehensive about the situation on-ground. Is the present situation conducive for the return and rehabilitation of Pandits? I have doubts”. On being asked about the special package for rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the valley which is being talked about, he said, “Has the government of India done sufficient exercise and taken all things into consideration including speaking to the community members before deciding on the return plan? If the government is planning townships for Pandits in the valley, then it would be concentrated zones. Despite the security for such townships, a person has to travel for work outside these townships. What about security then?”

The valley is relatively at peace but security remains the main concern for the Pandits in the valley. What is the guarantee that the Pandits will be safe in the valley after their return? There is no surety that terrorists won’t make an attempt to attack the Pandits in the valley. This needs to be taken into account while formulating the plan for return and rehabilitation.

Also, the rehabilitation program should cater to the political aspirations of the community so that there is no foul play in future. There are contradictory views among Kashmiri Pandits over political aspirations, though. Some sections among the Pandit community want reservation of Assembly and Parliamentary seats for the community. Others want a separate homeland to be carved out from the present day Kashmir – a demand which is espoused by the Pandit organization, Panun Kashmir.

Amidst the debate about the return of Pandits with the new government at the helm, Dr Ajay Chrungoo, Chairman – Panun Kashmir, says “So far governments have been addressing the issue of non-return of Kashmiri Hindus instead of the issue of religious cleansing”.

Since the declaration of Narendra Modi as the prime-ministerial candidate by the BJP, there is hope amongst the Pandit community that their issues will be redressed and that there is the possibility of safe and dignified return if he comes to power. Now that Modi has become the Prime Minister of India, it has to be seen what kind of plan he and his government will chalk out for the return and rehabilitation of Pandits back to the valley. The new government must talk to the Pandit community before preparing any plan for the return back to Kashmir valley.

(Originally Published in Newslaundry)

Sikhs and The Idea of India

Last Friday morning, violent clashes broke out within the premises of the Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar in which many people were injured. The violence erupted between Sikh radical group Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann) and Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) Task Force during a ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Operation Blue Star.

It was dismaying to see clashes inside the Golden temple which is revered not only by Sikhs but also by people of other religions. The magnificent Golden temple, popularly known as Darbar Sahib or Harmandir Sahib, was fully constructed by the fifth guru of Sikhs, Guru Arjan Dev in 1601 A.D. For a believer like me having immense faith in Gurudwaras and Guru Granth Sahib, it was horrific to see wielding of swords inside Harmandir Sahib. The sacred Harmandir Sahib is not only of Sikhs but of those who believe in the idea of India.

The Operation Blue Star was carried out from 3rd June to 8th June, 1984 to flush out armed militants holed up inside the Golden temple led by Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Bhindranwale advocated a separate nation ‘Khalistan’ for the community of Sikhs.

I will leave the discussion on the subject of Operation Bluestar for the experts and the journalists who have covered the incident. For that you may read three columns of Shekhar Gupta ‘First Person Second Draft’ in The Indian Express or Hartosh Singh Bal’s essay ‘The Shattered Dome’ in The Caravan.

The fact of the matter is along with army personnel and police men, many innocent people died in that operation which was aimed at cleansing the sacred temple of armed militants. It was unfortunate that the security forces had to enter the premises which led to bloodshed inside the temple. The entry of security forces and the damage to the temple resulting in mayhem left an indelible mark on the psyche of Sikhs as it marred the sanctity of temple.

The Operation Bluestar was followed by assassination of then the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards named Satwant Singh and Beant Singh which was seen as an act of retribution. Subsequently, thousands of Sikhs were killed in the anti-Sikh pogrom sponsored by the Congress politicians.

On the 30th anniversary of Operation Bluestar, Simranjeet Singh Mann, the head of the Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann), reportedly said that Khalistan is the only solution which is in the interest of all communities. It left me perplexed to see such elements stoking the fire of separatism even after 30 years when there should be talk of progress, growth and development.

There is resentment among the Sikh community which is justified because justice hasn’t been delivered to the people in the bloodshed of 1984. That should not move towards separatism rather it should be channelized for pursuing justice. The new government in the centre led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take immediate steps regarding the same.

The Sikhs are part and parcel of this very nation India since historic times. Their patriotism is undisputable. The history tells us that the Sikh gurus have laid down their lives for the nation India when perpetrators from outside came to India and unleashed their barbarism. Who can forget their martyrdom for protecting the Indian ethos and civilization?

When Bhindranwale and ilk are praised by some Sikhs, it is saddening because it implies supporting his cause for secessionism from India which is very much against the idea of India. The community of Sikhs should ponder and decide whether it is justified to eulogize Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who challenged the idea of India.

The Sikhs have been the defenders of the idea of India. I believe they will continue to do so. The brave community of Sikhs should shun the fire of separatism evoked by these vested groups. Also, the Punjab state government needs to deal with these separatist elements strictly so that such incidents don’t occur in the future.

On a personal note, Harmandir Sahib is the most beautiful and mesmerizing shrine I’ve ever visited till date (not disrespecting the other religious shrines) which emanates peace, sanctity and harmony.

(Originally Published in TheNewsMinute)

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