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Book review: Superflous people - Rahul Pandita’s ’Our Moon has blood clots’

by Dilip Simeon, 8 May 2013

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Dilip Simeon’s Blog

This is my review of Pandita’s new book. It was posted yesterday on the online journal North East Review and is also accessible here :

Superflous people
Normal men don’t know that everything is possible
David Rousset, The Other Kingdom

Rahul Pandita, Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits
Random House India, Noida, 2013
ISBN 978 81 8400 087 0

This is a childhood memoir that grows into a bittersweet chronicle. It is not a history of Kashmir, though it deals with historic events. Pandita was an eyewitness to the enforced migration of the bulk of the Valley’s native Hindus. The book begins with a brief survey of Pandit culture and myths, an account that reminds us that Pandit lives and history were a part of Kashmir. A series of cameo sketches skillfully put together take the reader through memories of a family home in a house built with love, the books in its almirahs, childhood friendships, schoolboy days, fruit orchards, visits to cinema halls and temples, of boyish flirtations and feasts and rituals on ceremonial occasions. The story speaks about communal feelings over Indo-Pakistan cricket matches, including the India-West Indies encounter in Srinagar in 1983, when Jamaat-i-Islami banners were displayed in the stadium, and the crowd jeered at the Indian players.

Towards the late 1980’s there were portents of bad days ahead, with a young man from the neighbourhood beaten up by the BSF after a street fracas, and the milkman advising the author’s mother not to spend money on the house, which would soon change hands. There were bomb blasts in 1988, and displays of fitness exercises by young men who, it was later surmised, were among those who had returned from arms training camps across the border. A Pandit woman was killed in a blast in March 1989, and a male political activist named Tika Lal shot in his home in September. In June pamphlets warned Muslim women to comply with Islamic standards of dress and Pandit women to mark their foreheads for identification. A Hindu shrine was gutted in September, and a wireless operator of the CRP shot the same month. Islamist slogans became more audible and there were further bomb attacks on banks, wine shops and cinema halls. In December 1989, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was appointed Union Home Minister by the V.P. Singh government. Soon afterwards, his daughter was kidnapped and released in exchange for captured militants. The tehreek-i-azadi had begun. The book takes us through these frightening times from the vantage point of a teenage boy in a Pandit family.

Ours is an era of superfluous people. Or we could say that it is an era of nation-states, a political concept that is characterised above all, by the impulse to render some amongst us superfluous. Nation-states were formalized by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which had to re-draw the map of Europe after the disintegration of four multi-national empires, including the Ottaman and Hapsburg. Conceived in Woodrow Wilson’s ideal of a world order based on self-determination, they were designed as marriages between territory and ethnicity. The underlying assumption was that all nation-states possessed a natural core, conceived as an ethnically homogeneous majority – a concept that rendered all heterogeneous elements into something called minorities, bearers of a ‘question’ or a ‘problem’. Nation-states soon became institutional arenas for majoritarianism, a political-arithmetical device for the transformation of the state from being an instrument of law into an instrument of the ‘Nation’. They were doomed from the start, because homogeneity was a chimera, and also because the international order was incapable of protecting the people who were deemed to be a problem. The several Nations soon transferred the matter to the police, the Gestapo being the most notorious example.[1]

The disastrous and bloody events of the 1930’s leading up to the Second World War were - in part - a ramification of the vengeful and exclusivist nationalist ideologies that had risen in central Europe and Japan. The era of chauvinist nationalism cast a long shadow over anti-imperial movements in the colonised world as well, where majoritarian doctrines were espoused by contending elites. Hindutva and Muslim nationalism were the Indian variants of these projects (Zionism was another prominent example) to conquer the state in the name of the Nation. I would qualify this by noting that whereas the birth of Pakistan took place as an avowedly Muslim majority nation, the status of Hindutva in India remains that of an aspirant for hegemonic power, albeit one that has entrenched itself in the Indian polity.

One consequence of these doctrines was the need to deal with and/or subjugate those deemed to be minorities. Such peoples were then made the target of a spectrum of policies designed for a surplus population. They became refugees, doomed to live in ghettos, or as stateless people, or a people denied the basic protections of law. The Nazi regime invented the Final Solution, viz; extermination. The enormous growth in numbers of stateless people in the world, many of them in South and West Asia, is testimony to the inevitable demographic outcome of modern nationalism. In a word, minorities in a nation-state are those marked for special treatment. Liberal nationalists mark them for protection, fascist nationalists for permanent intimidation. Modern nationalism is a form of prayer, a sacral discourse with a ‘chosen race’. It is an ideology that carries a propensity to render some of its subjects superfluous. The words majority and minority are an expression of a doctrine that posits natural belonging for some, superfluity for others.

In the early 1990’s, it appeared to me that the Kashmiri agitation was in a way, a refusal to accept the partition of 1947. How much more powerful the cry for azaadi would have been had it been unmarked by communal affiliation, had the superfluity of Pandits not entered the domain of possibility; had they not been denied their Kashmiri identity. But that was not to be. Who is a Kashmiri? Is it an identity automatically carried by all those who reside in the various parts of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir? Is it the emblem of those who speak Kashmiri? Of those who reside in the Valley? Who defines the self of self-determination? Does definition bestow ownership over the ‘people’ defined? Ironically, the one thing that binds Kashmiris to India is an indisputably Indian phenomenon called communalism, that armoury of ghastly abstractions about Hindu-ness and Muslim-ness whose sole aim is sovereign power and whose sole accomplishment is the devastation of daily life for everyone in whose name it speaks.

The Kashmir conflict may be seen as a product of contending nation-statist projects. As a result Kashmiris have been subjected to competing strategies of ethnic cleansing, and ruthless policing operations. Two mutually hostile nationalist ideologies have been at work here (and of late a third nationalism has emerged), attempting to mould an ideal ‘people’ out of an ethnically mixed population. All three have failed, leaving Kashmiris mutilated, yet having re-iterated an implicit set of questions: what is a nation? Is it the land or the people, and who are the people?

Divergent truths
1989-90 is the date which Pandita marks as the point at which the truths of Kashmiris diverge. For some it was the beginning of a freedom movement, for others, the beginning of exile. It would be too facile to classify these divergent opinions into straightforward community divisions, for the targets of the militants included Muslims deemed to be traitors or informers; and among the Pandits there were those torn between fear on the one hand and lifelong attachments to home and friends on the other. Some migrants returned briefly in 1990-91, only to be targeted once again. As always in a tale so complex, the devil is in the detail. But even though many Kashmiri Muslims too fled the troubles, a binary understanding of it crystallized over the years, as horrific and tragic events tumbled upon one another burying even the recent past under the debris of broken life. And Pandita reminds us how justice always eluded the refugees, for even a self-proclaimed killer of Pandits could not be convicted due to the ‘total disinterest’ of the public prosecution. This has been the norm in hundreds of similar murder cases.

Pandita’s re-telling of his uncle’s memories of the tribal raid into Baramulla in 1947 is vivid, and brings to life the devastation first experienced by members of his family as a consequence of the dispute over Kashmir’s accession. We get a sense of the religious distinctions experienced by a composite population – distinctions that were never glossed over, but never even close to the enforced monolithic fabrications that they have become. The Pathan raiders, first reported as Kazakhs were seen as barbarians, but those resisting them included Maqbool Sherwani, a National Conference worker and friend of the narrator (the uncle), who misled the intruders towards paths away from their destination, and paid the price for his good-neighbourliness by being nailed to a cross and shot. Not before shouting ‘long live Hindu-Muslim unity’. Within the knowledge and vocabulary of religious differentiation and even animosity, Kashmiris retained an awareness of other forms of identity. There was an acceptance of these differences that did not encompass, or call for total division and mass migration.

The last segment of the book relates events closer to contemporary events, including the state government’s apparent complicity in taking over selected Pandit-owned lands ‘for public purposes’; the rampant corruption in the deployment of funds meant for resettlement colonies outside Jammu (are corruption and communalism the only truly Indian habits that bind us together?); the sad experiences of those who choose to return to the Valley under the PM’s resettlement plan of 2008 to especially-built colonies for returnees. Here too, the story is painful. Apart from bad living conditions, they face rejection and resentment from their fellow-Kashmiris. Not to mention sexual harassment and innuendo. The five colonies under the scheme are ghettos. Nowhere do they restore to their inhabitants the free lives of composite communities that they left behind more than two decades ago.

Our strangers
Pandita’s account contains serious ramifications, a few of which need to be mentioned because they arise directly from the text, which recreates the halcyon atmosphere of the author’s childhood and the manner in which it was pierced by an unexpected animus. One question that arises is the pre-history of such animus. When and why had it incubated to the point where it could be directed towards the goal of expelling vast numbers of people? Another point is the systemic manner in which violence and brutality was deployed to create a climate of intimidation; and the many instances of complicity by neighbours and known acquaintances. This is a known feature of communal crises in the sub-continent, where violent ruptures in the pattern of daily life become an occasion to settle personal scores and/or grab property. Pandita describes a frightening experience one night, when young men gathered outside their house and spoke in loud tones of how they planned to take over various Pandit homes. There were also expressions of lust for Pandit women.

These behaviour patterns are a reminder that communal animus is not alien to ordinary people, or imposed on them by evil politicians; rather, it is a part of us. The racism propagated by right-wing movements in the western world have been known to attract mass working-class support. If evil persons incite us, we still need to be willing to be incited. The 1984 killings in Delhi were not merely engineered by political hoodlums. (It is worth remembering that some of the late Sanjay Gandhi’s close associates were the leading lights of the violence, and that the bulk of the BJP’s voters transferred allegiance to the Congress in the 1985 elections). The carnage in the streets was witnessed by ordinary people, and in some areas celebrated as a festival. It is precisely because communal animus is so deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of humble people, that it can assume the form of a mass ideology. The extra-ordinary lies very close to the ordinary. And it is quite possible for the apparently conflicting compulsions of revenge and remorse to co-exist in the same person. We are war with ourselves. Civil war has entered our entrails.

The third ramification is (what appears to be) evidence that the slogan for azaadi was at its inception combined with the desire to rid the Valley of non-Muslim Kashmiris. It was not just the ‘use’ of religious symbols but an expression of a passionate conviction that looked upon Pandits as representatives of an oppressive system. Slogans such as Eiy zalimon, eiy kafiron; Kashmir hamara chhod do were an expression of this sentiment. A consideration of these matters carries grave implications for an understanding of Kashmir’s recent history. Had Pandita’s book purported to be a contemporary history, it could be faulted for many lacunae. These would include a description of the fault-lines going back to the early 1950’s, the rampant electoral corruption that gave the lie to the claims of Indian democracy, and once the movement had gained momentum, the curfews, massacres, disappearances and mass humiliation (during counter-insurgency operations) inflicted upon entire localities. To add to this, there is the fact that from the 1980’s onward, the communalization of the Indian polity had taken a sharp turn for the worse, with the rise of Khalistani terrorism, the occupation of the Golden Temple by Sikh extremists, the Blue Star operation of 1984, followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the carnage of Delhi’s Sikhs. It is arguable that the bureaucracy and security apparatus were influenced by communal bias and that this atmosphere influenced the behaviour of state organs in Kashmir as elsewhere.

This situation was compounded by the expulsion of the Pandits, who were denied even the status of internally displaced people, and in utter disregard of the forced nature of their flight, dubbed migrants in official discourse. Added to this was the distorted focus of civil society activists who (with honourable exceptions) tended to overlook, ignore or underplay the violation of their human rights. On the other hand, the Hindutva ideologues and their front organizations used it to ratchet up a hate campaign against Muslims, which has been their staple for many decades. This served to reinforce the atmosphere of communal animosity in the Valley. The Amarnath yatra became a political football and in June 2008, Hindutva activists hiding behind the national flag blockaded movements of essential supplies to Kashmir. The divergence of public opinion in Ladakh and other areas inhabited by non-Kashmiri speaking groups tended to be drowned out in the rising tide of communal hatred.

A history of Jammu & Kashmir would also need to cover developments along the fluid borders of India and Pakistan in the months following the partition of British India. It would include the geo-strategic calculations of the receding British Empire, the genocidal activities of communal militia aided by the armies and police of the princely states all along the emergent international border stretching from the Northern Areas, through a bleeding Punjab to Multan. For recent developments, it would need to take stock of politics in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran – indeed, Pandita does mention the connection between the rise of Islamism in these countries and the politics of Kashmir’s azaadi movement.

However, the book is not such a history and it is pointless to expect it to imitate something that it does not claim to be. The authenticity of an account rendered by an eye-witness to the 1984 carnage (for example) is not undermined by a failure to demonstrate detailed knowledge of Bhindrawale’s activities or of the Khalistani movement. Nor may a victim of murderous mobs in Gujarat in 2002 be blamed for her disinterest in the origins of the Ayodhya dispute. Pandita’s memoir is a source for future historical research, for it provides a valuable addition to what is known about the human cost of the conflict in Kashmir. Thus, he vigorously counters the view that the exodus of Kashmir’s Hindu population (roughly 3 lacs) from the Valley was devilishly engineered by governor Jagmohan to clear the way for a security crackdown.[2] Rather, Pandita attributes the exodus to the atmosphere of terror induced by communal killings and hateful slogans that made most Pandit men and women fear for their lives and their dignity.

Pandita’s story is a deeply personal recounting of one family’s forced exile, and as such, it provides material for seekers of truth to engage with. It carries the sense of authentic experience, as much as do the stories of humiliated and bereaved Kashmiri Muslims; and in future no attempt at a truthful history of Kashmir can omit or gloss over the Pandit experience. One of his informants is the redoubtable Sanjay Tickoo, founder of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, who has remained in Srinagar through the darkest times, retaining his links with his neighbours, resolute both in his resistance to communal stereotyping as also in his determination to catalogue the names of hundreds of Pandits killed, the hundreds of temples desecrated. If Tickoo were to write his version of events that would broaden the picture even further.

It is one of the few signs of hope in our country that people dealt the most horrible blows by fate manage somehow to retain their humanity. I remember a young Sikh woman who had lost both her parents to mob violence in Bokaro in 1984. She was forced to bring up her two young siblings on her own. There was not the slightest trace of communal bitterness in her - to the contrary, she would fiercely resist such talk among fellow Sikhs when she sensed the appearance of stereotypes in their utterances. I remember too, the privilege of meeting two middle aged men from Meerut in the late 1980’s. One was a Sikh, the other a Muslim. They were close friends, and each had lost a son to communal violence. They had decided to devote their lives to proving that love conquers hate. I’m reminded too, of Jyoti Punwani’s report on an elderly man who lost his wife in Godhra. Even after his wife was burnt to death in the Sabarmati Express on February 27, 2002, Girishchandra Rawal refused to support the massacre of Muslims in Ahmedabad. He told this reporter: ‘I would like to burn the entire society. But my religion doesn’t permit me to do so. There’s no space for revenge in it.’ Gladys Staines didn’t wait for Dara Singh to be sentenced before she forgave him; she did so immediately after he had caused her husband and two young sons to be burned alive. And as Pandita says at one point in his narrative, we may lose our homes, but need not lose our humanity.

This persistence of faith in our fellows is the basis for a philosophy of everyday life, life lived without the weight of messianic projects of the kind that invariably invoke martyrdom and celebrate violence in the name of a bright future that never arrives. Its presence cannot be denied. Without it, and given the scale of injustice that ravages the sub-continent, there would have been complete chaos – as things are we still live on the edge. For those who are naturally inclined towards trusting others, it can only be called a blessing. For others who have to learn restraint one way or another, or have it taught to us, the first step remains the acceptance of bitter truths. It is a feature of human nature that we prefer the simple to the complex, black and white judgments to shades of grey. It makes us comfortable to have all the good on our side, and to place the entire blame for evil on the side of our (preferred) enemies. But lies, especially the ones we tell ourselves, have a tendency to disturb our equanimity. As the philosopher Karl Jaspers said, the violation of truth poisons everything gained by the violation.

Deaths in the family
Pandita’s style is simple and direct. What comes through repeatedly is a sense of a child speaking, whether the child is the author himself, his uncle, his other informants, or Vinod Dhar, the fourteen year boy (in 1998) from the village of Wandhama in Gandarbal, who witnessed the assassination of twenty-three members of his joint family in one night. The author relates how difficult it was to meet Dhar and to get him to talk. Throughout it all, there remains the sense of bewilderment at catastrophe, of disbelief at the sheer undeserved-ness of tragedy, of innocence violated. The destruction of childhood is the worst thing adults can do to the young, especially because children do not ask to be born, nor deserve to have their minds and bodies overrun by the accumulation of past misfortunes. Among other things, this book should remind us of the thousands of young lives that have been destroyed or traumatized by the conflict in Kashmir.

In 1997, Pandita lost his cousin, Ravi, whom he describes as his brother and hero, to terrorist bullets. Ravi was a botanist in Srinagar university and a favourite with Pandita’s own mother. He had refused to migrate and insisted he was secure. Of Ravi’s two closest friends one, Latif Lone joined the insurgents, and was shot by security forces in 1990. Not before (on a prior occasion), rescuing Mrs Pandita from the scene of a shoot-out and escorting her to safety. When news came of his death she could only repeat through her tears that Latifa was in the prime of youth. In the summer of 1997, Ravi was pulled out of a bus and shot while on the way out from Jammu. He left behind a young wife and infant son. The pain is rendered more profound when the other one of Ravi’s close friends, a fellow botanist still in the university, avoided the author’s repeated efforts to re-connect.

The effortless quality of Pandita’s prose stems not from literary flair but the searing emotional experience that it recollects. That does not take away from his abilities of description. At one point he says of Kashmir, that it is ‘an overdose of nostalgia’; at another, remembering a happy duration in Chandigarh, that ‘those years passed like a Mobius strip.’ But above all, he records his experiences and those of his informants in plain language, without embellishment. Truth-speaking can only lead to good results, even if it is bitter sometimes. I hope in this case that it will provoke thinking citizens to exercise their mental vision without the use of ideological prisms. Indians should resist communal hatred, and stand up for the democratic rights of every one of us, regardless of their caste or religion. And those rights include the right of Pandits to call Kashmir their home, in reality and not merely with nostalgia.

So here we are, burdened with our respective stories of sorrow and loss and humiliation, attempting with varying degrees of success, to stop the mountain of bitterness from collapsing upon our very souls. Who is to say which mountain bears greater weight? Why think that way at all? To tell a story, especially one so close to the bone, can relieve the teller of a burden. It may make him feel more at home in the world. But do all the stories of Kashmir cancel themselves out? Our speech has become indistinguishable from silence, because every utterance is marked by communal identity and therefore subject to automatic consideration or dismissal. We have raised ad hominem argumentation to surreal status. Pandita speaks of an eccentric and learned old man he remembers from childhood, who was known to walk on a bridge mumbling to himself: ‘I’m on bridge, bridge is on water, bridge-bridge cancel, I’m on water.’ We are all on water now, cursed by an unbridgeable half-ness. Our shikara has sprung a countless leaks. No shore is visible, and only we can repair the leaks. Will we take time off from screaming at one another to save ourselves from drowning? I cannot say. But when we stop and listen, with attentive silence, to the stories that make us uneasy, the first step will have been taken. Listening is healing. Thank you Rahul, for making us listen.

pad pad oh hazaar kitaabaan
kadi apne aap nu padheya nahi
ja ja varde mandir maseeti
kade mann apne vich vadeyaa nahi
avein lardaa hai, shaitaan de naal bandeya
kadi nafz apne naal ladeya nahi

Dilip Simeon