Bollywood triggers debate surrounding Kashmiri Hindus

By Hilal Mir

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) – A Kashmiri Hindu woman broke down at the premiere of the movie Shikara, a romantic period drama loosely based on the migration of the community from Indian-administered Kashmir at the onset of an armed insurgency.

In a video which went viral on social media, the visibly distressed woman was seen screaming at filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra present at the theater in New Delhi claiming that he had commercialized the tragedy.

"As a Kashmiri Pandit, I disown your movie," she said, as members of the audience tried to console her.

The visually stunning movie shot largely in scenic Kashmir received a lukewarm response in the box office.

But it has triggered an ongoing debate on the migration of more than 150,000 Kashmiri Pandits from Jammu and Kashmir at the height of insurgency in the disputed region, which is claimed by South Asian nuclear powers India and Pakistan.

In a series of attacks by separatist militants in late 1989 and early 1990, some 215 Kashmiri Pandits were killed, according to official figures, triggering a wave of migration.

Over the years, Kashmiri Pandits sold their properties to Kashmiri Muslims who are fighting for an independent Kashmir or merger with Pakistan.

With this, an entire generation of Kashmiri Hindus have never lived in Kashmir and an entire generation of Kashmiri Muslims grew up never seeing Hindus. Years of hardened and competing political beliefs lie between them.

– Facilitating return

The Narendra Modi-led government is facilitating their return by giving them jobs and building housing projects.

A similar initiative was launched in 2008 by the Congress-led government, which is currently Modi's key rival, for Kashmiri Pandits willing to return home.

So far, about 4,200 jobs have been provided and returnees are living in walled and guarded apartment blocks in some parts of the Kashmir Valley.

According to Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit who never left Kashmir, there are about 400 Pandits who still live in predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods across Kashmir like in the pre-insurgency era.

But an overwhelming number of Kashmiri Hindus want a permanent settlement, an idea they believe only the Hindu nationalist Indian government could execute finally.

That is why many Kashmiri Hindus cheered the loudest when special laws granting autonomy to the Muslim-majority region was scrapped last August.

Anmol Tikoo, Pandit filmmaker and educator, says this has given rise to a stalemate situation which can only be overcome through dialogue between the Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus.

“Nobody can deny the fact that Kashmiri Pandits are Kashmiris and belong to Kashmir. The issue recently reverberated in the U.S. Congress,” he said.

– Political ends

Many Pandit intellectuals have accused the Indian state of exploiting the community’s exile for political ends.

When Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its autonomous character, Nishita Trisal, an American-Kashmiri Pandit academic wrote in Washington Post: “With this sleight of hand, the government has resuscitated an old strategy of instrumentalising the pain and loss of Kashmiri Pandits to legitimize its violence against Kashmiri Muslims.

“They have stoked Kashmiri Pandits’ felt experience of injustice by pitting Pandit and Muslim suffering against each other."

On social media sites, whenever a Kashmiri Muslim posts news about human rights abuses by Indian forces, more often than not a stock phrase pops up in the comments section: "What about Kashmiri Pandits?"

This question, Tikoo says, needs to be replaced with questions that will help overcome the inherent trauma this carries with it.

“The most important thing is that both communities recognize the strategic mistake they have committed by not engaging with each other. They have been so busy taking positions that they have gone adrift,” he said.

Tickoo, who heads a welfare group for Kashmiri Pandits, said an honest initiative should get the two communities to sit with the government to decide on a roadmap.

“Scrapping special laws didn’t make Kashmiri Muslims Indian. It didn’t make our return easy. All of us have to give space to each other,” he added.

In fact, says Satish Mahaldar, a Delhi-based Pandit activist, the government has actually stymied chances of a peaceful return of Kashmiri Pandits. He said all pro-India politicians in Kashmir talked about, and some actually worked for, return of the exiled community.

“Some of these people [Pandits] are American citizens. They don't want reconciliation. An American citizen can’t tell me how I should return to my homeland. We have to explore ways of peace and understand each other’s pain. There is no other way,” he told Anadolu Agency.

One reviewer has been critical of Shikara director Chopra for burying politics under "the garb of love and hope." But, it appears, politics is burying hopes of the acrimony-free return of Pandits.