“Restoring pluralism and diversity in Kashmir valley”

 

Naveen Zalpuri-

More than a month and a half has gone by since Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India were done away with and two Union territories were formed out of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir.

Naveen Zalpuri

As the Kashmir valley limps on, my assessment is that it will be a long time before things become normal because, in the near term, for some Kashmiri Muslims, there would be anguish, angst and difficulties to adjust and reconcile to the new reality.

Looking at the not-so-distant history of the Indian subcontinent brings out an unfortunate trend; the places that had become Muslim-majority provinces over the centuries but continued to have sizeable percentages from the native populations professing Indic faiths have since 1947 seen an accelerated dwindling and decline of their non-Muslim populations.

Take Pakistan and Bangladesh. The non-Muslim population in both has been going down drastically, especially so in Pakistan. A continuous cycle of persecution, forced conversions and abductions of girls from the minority communities has resulted in near annihilation of the remnants of the non-Muslim populations. As diversity goes, so do tolerance and a spirit of accommodation for different perspectives.

In India we have seen this phenomenon in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. The population of the aboriginal Hindus of Kashmir, known as Pandits, has come down to a few hundred people from several hundred thousand not too long ago, in 1989. The underlying causes for this unfortunate trend have remained the same, with a section of radical elements with very little opposition, and sometimes tacit support, from a majority of their co-religionists being one of the predominant factors.

In the valley the situation was exacerbated by the armed insurgency of 1989 resulting in targeted killings of Hindu Pandits, which culminated in the forced eviction of the entire community of half a million Hindus and Sikhs in early 1990. The diversity that had remained after centuries of persecution suddenly vanished from the valley in its entirety. It was replaced by venomous radicalism and pan-Islamism.

When I went to school in Srinagar in the 1980s, half my classmates were Hindu pandits. Today there would be none, or maybe a single non-Muslim student in the entire school. So, restoring pluralism in the valley will be particularly helpful in rebuilding the syncretic culture of Kashmir. This will ensure peace and prosperity in the region in the long term. In the short term, however, it would be an uphill task.

Before Aug 5, it appeared that pluralism would never return to the valley; the place that was the fountainhead of Vedic tradition, Buddhism and Sufism was lost forever. But with Articles 370 and 35A in the dustbin of history, hope for restoration of a diverse and composite culture in Kashmir has been rekindled.

The most important aspect of these Articles for moderate Kashmiri Muslims was to ensure that the demographic character of the valley must never change. In the past, even Kashmiri Hindus and the Dogra community were supportive of the exclusivity that these Articles offered, because they believed these were protecting their interests, too. However, the armed terrorists among the valley Muslims and mercenaries from across the border engineered a mass exodus of Hindus from Kashmir, robbing Kashmir of its diversity.

As far as the demographic character of the valley is concerned, it is now nearly 100% Muslim. The minorities have become non-existent. No wonder revocation of the Articles got widespread support in Jammu and Ladakh regions and concern has only been voiced in the Kashmir valley.

The need to restore the pluralism and diversity that Kashmir has lost over the past several decades needs to be addressed quickly. Unless the government takes proactive and substantial steps toward that end, nothing will change. The recent statement of Dr Jitender Singh, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s office, that Hindu Pandits will return voluntarily without the need for any governmental plan is naive.

To restore diversity in the valley, the starting point must be to ensure the return of Hindu Pandits and all those who were forced out. The government must have a clear roadmap to bring them back. That said, only a small percentage might be able to return right away and the government should be ready for a prolonged process to get a critical mass back in the valley.

The important question is, which place do the exiled Hindus and Sikhs return to? Over the years some Kashmiri Muslims have been suggesting that they would welcome the Pandits back and want them to return to the homes they left behind in 1990. But that is rhetorical and impracticable.

For one, a large percentage of Hindu homes that were not sold under duress years after the forced eviction have either been burnt down or are in a dilapidated state. More importantly, the problem of security remains. Even if 5% of Kashmiri Muslims continue to be (mis)guided by radicalism, separatism and hatred towards the Pandits and India, it will not help to give confidence to the returning Hindus and they will continue to remain at the mercy of such elements.

So, returning to the original homes is out of the question. My assertion is that one of the reasons for the exodus was also the way the Hindu Pandit population was scattered across the Kashmir valley. Consequently, the Pandits did not know what to do other than to run for their lives and honor when from thousands of mosques across Kashmir threatening announcements were made in unison asking them to leave, die or convert on the night of Jan 19, 1990.

The only viable scenario for the Hindu Pandit return is to set up a new city in the Kashmir valley for all those who were exiled and for Indians of all denominations who would want to make Kashmir their home and/or conduct business there.

This city would be secular and cosmopolitan but one that is in part based upon Hindu Pandit character so as to ensure the cultural and social continuity of 5,000 years of their heritage. Hindu Pandits, Sikhs, Khatris and others who had migrated from Kashmir since 1947, or even before, should be encouraged and given preference to return. This will bring diversity and pluralism back to the Kashmir valley.

It is pertinent to point out here that the Kashmir valley is a small land mass, so this city could be set up in such a way that all districts of the valley have locational proximity to it. The government should encourage investment and setting up of businesses in and around the new city where people from across the valley could come to work and conduct business. This will result in assimilation and help Kashmir become a pluralistic society again.

This is an uphill task, but this will ensure that in the longer term, normalcy, growth and development in the Kashmir valley become everlasting. The key to the success of the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A and the formation of the Union territory of Jammu & Kashmir is to rebuild diversity in the valley. The government of India should take this up on priority as the next step toward integration of Kashmir in the national mainstream