On my biannual trips to India, I usually look forward to eating my mom’s cooking and acquiring saris – my favorite garment. I also acquire books; when my children were young, it was a throwback to my childhood, with my parents taking them to a local bookstore and letting them pick something they wanted – usually, it was a few Amar Chitra Katha to add to our collection at home in Troy. These comic-like picture books are a great way to learn the stories from the Hindu puranas such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, as well as Indian history, for example about Swami Vivekananda, the great Hindu monk who charmed audiences at Chicago’s 1893 World Parliament of Religions, or Nobel Prize winning poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore. But this trip was without the kids, and my mom got me a book on Amazon India that I had not been able to purchase in the USA: A Long Dream of Home: The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. This anthology of stories from three generations of Kashmiri Pandits, who were systematically driven out of their homeland, was heart-wrenching – the lack of awareness around the world about the genocide of this Hindu community in Kashmir and the apathy about those who are still living in refugee camps in their own country is appalling.
Editors Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma brought together a wide range of people to narrate their experiences, ranging from those who were born and brought up in Kashmir, only to be exiled in their old age, to those who were born in migrant camps living off an inherited memory. All are Hindus of Kashmir, known collectively as the Pandits, the only Hindu community native to Kashmir. (Note: The word pandit is a Sanskrit term used to refer to a scholar or teacher – and has even been adopted into English). The Pandits lived for over 5,000 years in Kashmir, and while they faced persecution over the centuries from various Muslim rulers, the people of Kashmir – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists – have had an inherent secularism, a social consciousness and cultural values that brought them together, known as Kashmiriyat. The Partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan when the British left led to Kashmir becoming the battleground for three wars, as militants wanted to wipe out the “Indian element” and targeted the Hindu Pandits. From the book’s preface, “In April 1990 Hizb-ul Mujahideen, a militant outfit gave the Pandits an ultimatum to leave Kashmir in 36 hours or face dire consequences. Suspicion, betrayal and mistrust divided the Muslims and the Pandits… Militants kidnapped and killed several ordinary and prominent Kashmiri Pandits. This created so much panic and fear among the Pandit families that they started leaving their homes in Kashmir… By the end of 1990, about half a million Pandits had left their homes in Kashmir.” Many Kashmiri Pandits are settled in different parts of India and in other countries, but several thousand are still in India, internally displaced persons, or refugees in their own country.
While the book is divided into four sections, Nights of Terror which features narratives about what happened from 1989 to 1991; Summers of Exile featuring memoirs about how Pandits struggled for survival in the last 25 years of exile; Days of Parting which chronicles the horrific events and circumstances leading the mass exodus of the Pandits from their homeland; and Seasons of Longing which reveals the desire of the Pandits to return to their homeland, it was this brief description that took me to Adarsh Ajit’s story first: “In Ya Allah, they have killed them; pour some water into their mouths, Adarsh Ajit describes how his friendship with Muslim friends turned bitter owing to their differences in political ideology and religious belief. He also writes about the killings of his friends and some officers of the Indian Air Force by ‘mujahids.’” The pluralism advocate in me needed to understand how things had gone awry. But his narrative, which included his experiences from 1987 when he was a polling officer in the assembly elections, to incidents after his wedding in 1989, left me with questions.
Terrorists had killed some officers of the Indian Air Force. Fearing for their lives, no Kashmiri Pandit in the vicinity had dared to offer the dying officers water. Yet a Kashmiri Muslim woman who was passing by had poured water in their mouths.
When we reached our village, I was horrified to see a sea change in the people. Those who knew us very well avoided us and looked at us as if we were strangers. My wife wiped the tilak off her forehead because she wanted to hide her identity from the youths sitting on the banks of the stream…
I was baffled at the vacillating nature of the Muslims…They are the people who used to say that Pandits are integral to Kashmiriat. And they are the people who suspected Pandits and wanted them to leave Kashmir.
His story was echoed by others: the systematic targeting of Pandits created panic and fear, prompting the exodus in 1990. This was followed by targeted kidnappings, rapes, killings and massacres of those who lingered on. Security forces and police were unable to provide protection, the Indian state and central government made no effort to prevent the atrocities. Those in refugee camps perished due to disease, mental illness, hostile climate conditions and more. Kashmiri Muslims have also lost their lives, as Kashmir became one of the most militarized zones in the world – and there is still no solution in sight to restore peace and stability in Kashmir.
The editors offer this anthology as an end to “the silence of a community whose predicaments, ordeals and valid demands have not only been forgotten by the nation, but also not even addressed adequately by successive governments.” The book was not an easy read, filled as it was with stories told so bluntly, without any sugar coating, of violence so unbearable that I had to put the book away for a couple of days and find something to escape the nightmares it caused. But the stories of the Pandits, their struggles, their exile, their longing for home, need to be read and shared. For truth, reconciliation and justice to happen, we need to hear their stories, we need to know what has happened to the Hindus of Kashmir.