Kashmiri Pandits may become an instrument of majoritarian forces: Former Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak

Shahid Tantray For The Caravan
14 September, 2019

Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims were once the warp and weft of the Valley’s rich social fabric, which began to tear with the rise of militancy in 1989. In their battle against the Indian state to secure Kashmir’s independence, militants also began targeting and killing Kashmiri Pandits, sparking their exodus from the Valley. Their trauma and struggles in exile spawned a new Kashmiri Pandit imagination, in which, for several Pandits, the Kashmiri Muslim was now their tormentor.

On 5 August, amidst a lockdown in the Valley, the central government read down Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and changed it from a state to Union Territory. An overwhelming majority of Kashmiri Pandits celebrated the move, which they perhaps viewed as a punishment to their aggressor.

Yet there are Kashmiri Pandits who have not let their trauma efface their memories of the state’s syncretic culture and who vehemently oppose the 5 August decisions. Among them is Kapil Kak, a former Air Vice Marshal, who joined five other citizens in petitioning the Supreme Court against the government’s decision to effectively nullify Article 370 and alter the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir.

On 8 September, Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, spoke to Kak about the government’s Kashmir moves, the psychology of the Kashmiri Pandits and why their politics has shifted to the right. Referring to the government’s Kashmir policy, Kak said, “It is behaving like a guy who jumps from, say, the seventeenth floor. As he hurtles down each floor, he keeps saying, ‘So far, so good.’”

Ajaz Ashraf: You are among the six people who petitioned the Supreme Court against the government’s decision to read down Article 370. How strongly do you identify with the thoughts and feelings of the Kashmiri Pandit community, which has largely welcomed the change in the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir?
Kapil Kak: I have multiple identities. I am, first of all, an international citizen. I am also a very proud Indian. I joined the Indian Air Force in 1960 and opted for combat flying. I believe in India’s democratic, pluralistic and deeply ingrained secular ethos. In the Air Force, I absorbed the cultures of those places where I was posted. Lastly, I am a Kashmiri first, before being a Kashmiri Pandit, and I have a problem with the abrogation of Article 370 and the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir.

AA: How would you distinguish between Kashmiri and Kashmiri Pandit identities?
KK: The distinction is between the ethno-religious identity of the Kashmiri Pandit and the construct of a larger community defined by culture, cuisine, music, scriptures, geography and history—essentially elements that define the mind and character of human beings in a particular area. For instance, seasons influence the way of life of both Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Pandits.

The term “Kashmiriyat,” which is much maligned now, does not distinguish between the Kashmiri Pandit and the Kashmiri Muslim. The only difference is that a Kashmiri Pandit goes to a temple and a Kashmiri Muslim to a mosque. There are shrines and astans [Sufi shrines] where the two communities pray together. Even today, the style of reciting the Daruood Sharif [Verse 56 in Chapter 33 of the Quran] in mosques in Kashmir makes it sound like Vedic, Sanskrit hymns. When I enter a Kashmiri mosque, which I have many times in recent years, and listen to the recitation of the Daruood Sharif, I feel I am in a temple. It has the sound of a bhajan. Nowhere in the world, not even in mosques in Jammu, does the recitation of the Daruood Sharif have the same feel as it has in Kashmir.

Of course, the Kashmiri Pandits have their own culture. But for me, my Kashmiri Pandit identity is a relatively smaller component of my larger Kashmiri identity.

AA: Your community does not seem to perceive the Kashmiri Muslim from your perspective.
KK: In the manner of [the French-Jewish philosopher] Jacques Derrida, you have to deconstruct the Kashmiri Pandit community to better understand its thoughts. I do share with my community its sense of utter pain, sense of loss and despair over having been clawed out of our millennia-long geo-cultural mosaic of the Valley between 1990 and 1991. Those years were the peak of religious extremism and associated violence, primarily propagated by the Pakistani establishment. In recent years, three prominent Kashmiris have done a mea culpa to say that the majority community should have made greater efforts to prevent the tragic exodus of Pandits from the Valley. They are [the former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister] Omar Abdullah of the National Conference, the late Shujaat Bukhari, founding editor of Rising Kashmir, and Gowhar Geelani, the journalist and author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason.

AA: Did you have family members staying in the Valley at the time the Pandits were ethnically cleansed?
KK: We had a house in Srinagar, as did my wife. We sold the family house for a song, as did my wife’s family and many other Kashmiri Pandits. We also had a large number of relatives living in the Valley. They left because, in an overwhelming sense of fear, they thought the situation was somewhat getting out of control. They also thought they’d return soon. The number of Kashmiri Pandits killed numbered around 700. As the saying goes, “Kill one, frighten a thousand.” In addition, announcements would be made from the loudspeakers of mosques threatening the Pandits to leave. I wouldn’t just blame the Pakistani groups. There were indigenous militant groups which fell for the Pakistan establishment’s diabolic plan that the Kashmiri Pandits must be made to exit to create what was termed nizam-e-mustafa [or the Rule of Allah].

AA: The events of 1989- 1991, obviously, moulded the Kashmiri Pandits’ psyche.
KK: Two conceptual clarifications need to be made. First, what was witnessed between 1990 and 1991 was a political movement, not a religious one. And it remains that way till date. Religion may have been employed to mobilise public opinion. But there were elements, both in Kashmir and the rest of India, who portrayed it as a religious movement.

Second, the Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley were welcomed with open arms by the right-wing forces elsewhere in India. Some of the majoritarian-oriented state governments reserved seats in professional colleges that made for upward social mobility of Kashmiri Pandits. Undergoing pain in exile, the community, contrary to its inherent liberalism, shifted to embracing majoritarian and right-wing impulses so inimical to Kashmir’s syncretic culture. I represent perhaps just 20 percent of my community. These 20 percent of Kashmiri Pandits, despite their tragedy and deprivation, still maintain their equipoise and continue to be committed to the Constitution and a democratic, pluralistic and inclusive India.

AA: Given that you represent just 20 percent of Kashmiri Pandits, did you get threats from community members for petitioning the Supreme Court against the reading down of Article 370?
KK: Yes, one has been ostracised by some of the hyper-patriotic and uber-nationalist TV channels. I also faced a demonstration by 50-60 people, who ostensibly represented the “voice” of ex-servicemen, outside the gated apartment complex in Noida where I live, with large banners and placards denouncing my action to petition the Supreme Court. There have been instances of opposition to me when, in recent years, I along with the late Shujaat Bukhari took young professionals and intellectuals from the Valley to the rest of India, to amplify the voice of Kashmiris. In one particular case, a small group from my community created a ruckus and shouted slogans against me at a closed-door session on Jammu and Kashmir that I was chairing.

AA: Don’t these protests scare you?
KK: If one has like me gone through two India-Pakistan wars and had one’s aircraft shot at by anti-aircraft guns, these protests are par for the course. One cannot compromise one’s beliefs and commitment because of protests.

AA: Why didn’t you and the 20 percent of your community become bitter or turn right-wing as many Kashmiri Pandits have? Your family members, after all, were also driven out of the Valley.
KK: It is indeed painful to be away from your shrines, from the piece of earth that was yours, the seasons you experienced and loved. Only people who have undergone the utter pain of the loss of a home can understand it. That said, I must say I did not live in Kashmir all through my life. I left the Valley when I was a teenager, and when I retired 35 years later, the family property was gone and Kashmir ceased to be home. But my many visits every year connected with track II peace-building initiatives kept my emotional batteries charged.

How does a person subsume the pain under the broader understanding that conflicts in a nation are endemic to life? Having fought wars and understood conflicts, I could understand that what happened in Kashmir was an internal conflict of the kind India has had in, for instance, Nagaland or Mizoram or Assam or Chhattisgarh. You have to move on in an India where nation-building is still a work in progress.

AA: Are you suggesting that the failure of Kashmiri Pandits to move on had an inimical impact on the country?
KK: Unfortunately, those of my community brethren who failed to move on are in danger of becoming an instrument of the majoritarian forces to beat down other Kashmiris in the Valley. It has to be understood that the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits strengthened the majoritarian forces, which did indeed welcome the former. The time interval between the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and the destruction of the Babri Masjid was two years or so. The gap between the Babri Masjid demolition and the targeting of minorities in Mumbai was just two months.

AA: Do you think Kashmiri Pandits have welcomed the change in the status of Kashmir because they think the Indian state has avenged on their behalf what was done to them in the Valley?
KK: The disappointing part of the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir was that it was marked by triumphalism all over India. This triumphalism led to a sick kind of commentary. For instance, one [person] said they can marry fair-skinned Kashmiri girls. Another said his state has a poor gender ratio, but they can now import brides from Kashmir. This caused deep pain and anguish in the Valley, because Kashmiris, regardless of their religion, are deeply cultured and civilised. India’s syncretic culture, which has increasingly come under pressure in recent times, has its origin in Kashmir, a point that [the former prime minister] Jawaharlal Nehru made repeatedly in his writings. He said his idea of India came to him from Kashmir, where people of different religions co-existed for centuries and yet shared common cultural attributes.

AA: How many Kashmiri Pandits are still there in the Valley?
KK: There are around nine thousand Kashmiri Pandits spread over a hundred-odd locations in the Valley. They don’t have security; they live with their Muslim brethren. You will never hear or read their stories in the media.

AA: I had the impression that the number of Kashmiri Pandits living in the Valley would be much lower.
KK: In 2012, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to create 12,000 jobs for Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley. These jobs were to be largely bankrolled by the centre and the state, in due course of time, was to take over responsibility. Before Singh made the announcement, the number of Kashmir Pandits was around two thousand eight hundred. Because of Singh, 9,000 jobs were sanctioned, of which about six thousand are in place today. That is how the number of Kashmiri Pandits who live there has gone up to about nine thousand. Initially, these people lived in transit camps. After mingling with their Muslim brethren, many became inclined to rent houses to live in the hustle and bustle of the city.

AA: Have you interacted with these nine thousand Kashmiri Pandits?
KK: Yes, I have with many of them. They have told me that they just don’t have any problem living there. Occasionally, a mischievous boy would throw a stone, but they don’t feel they have anything to worry about. The fact that they have not been targeted is proof that they are happy. Some relatives of mine live two kilometers from the airport. They have an open drawing room. Neighbourhood kids walk in and out. They will be asked for tea or food. Forget about the 1980s, that is how the two communities live even today. Our culture is what [takes inspiration from the Sufi poet] Jalaluddin Rumi, who spoke of loving human beings, not just tolerating them. The fourteenth-century Kashmiri mystic saints, Nund Rishi and Lalleshwari, said much the same.

AA: You did your college in the 1950s. From 1947, there were several tumultuous events— tribesmen from Pakistan invaded the erstwhile state, there were United Nations resolutions on plebiscite, communal riots and then the arrest of [the National Conference leader] Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. Didn’t these tumultuous events fray the Kashmiri Muslim-Pandit relationship?
KK: The relationship between the communities was never tense other than the horrible period between 1990 and 1991. Please remember that during the Pakistani invasion in 1947, Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs together chanted the slogan which, in English, translated to, “You invaders, better watch out, we Kashmiris are prepared.” In the spirit of the times, Kashmiri women were carrying rifles and sticks for self-defence against the Pakistani invaders. A significant slogan of that time, valid even today, was: “What is the wish of Sher-e-Kashmir [a reference to Sheikh Abdullah]? Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs should live in harmony.” During the Partition violence, no Hindus were harmed in the Valley, even though the rest of India was burning.

AA: What is your explanation for Kashmir not witnessing violence?
KK: It did not experience violence because of Kashmir’s syncretism, eclecticism and its Sufi-Shaivite tradition. How could one think of indulging in violence against somebody who was one with you?

AA: What impact will the change in the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir have on the psychology of Kashmiri Muslims?
KK: It will shatter whatever hope they have had until now.

AA: The national security advisor Ajit Doval does not seem to think the Kashmiris are particularly angry, evident from his recent statement that not a single bullet has been fired in Kashmir ever since the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir was changed.
KK: As the late poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote, “They make a desolation and call it peace.” I will say the peace in Kashmir is the peace of the graveyard. The situation in Kashmir is extremely worrisome. I have always believed that the Kashmiris never let down India; it is India that has repeatedly let down the Kashmiris. To my mind, the Kashmiris are unlikely to reconcile to the abrogation of Article 370—a much-cherished marker of their special identity, and the humiliation of being downgraded from an important state of India to a Union Territory.

In 1947, India had offered Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, to join the Union on the conditions he wished to lay down. The Maharaja acceded to India on the three subjects of defence, foreign affairs and communication. On all other subjects, the state was to have the sole jurisdiction. After the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, the central government evolved a quad of policies and options. The first of these was to use corruption to bind the society, vertically and horizontally. From peon to chief minister, everyone had his hand in the till. Two, it puppetised the regimes. Three, to install its favourite puppet in power, the centre rigged the elections. Fourth, it engaged in stealthy constitutionalism.

AA: I suppose stealthy constitutionalism is a reference to the erosion of Article 370.
KK: Absolutely. The result is that, over the years, out of 97 articles in the [Constitution’s] union list, 94 apply to Jammu and Kashmir; as many as 260 of 395 articles of the Indian constitution apply to Jammu and Kashmir. This is why there has been a spiraling of Kashmiri resentment against the state. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the rigged elections of 1987. Those young leaders, who were denied electoral victory through massive rigging, went across to Pakistan, which provided them assistance in starting the militancy in the Valley that has lasted three decades.

Even before the 5 August decisions, where was the autonomy, where was Article 370? Really, there was little to repeal through the 5 August decisions. This was purely an ideological initiative to fulfil the promise made from the days of [the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder] Shyama Prasad Mukherjee to abrogate Article 370. The promise was made in the BJP’s election manifesto of 2009, and repeated in the party’s 2014 and 2019 election manifestos. With the 5 August decisions, the alienation in Kashmir will now run even deeper, because of the people’s sense of hopelessness and humiliation. Doubtless, this would provide opportunities to the Pakistani establishment to fish in even more troubled waters.

AA: Did the Kashmiri Muslims’ sense of betrayal by the Indian state play a role in their turning against the Kashmiri Pandits?
KK: I would not want to generalise. I would say what happened between 1990 and 1991 was an aberration. If it was not an aberration, why are 9,000 Kashmiri Pandits still living so peacefully in Kashmir? They are there everywhere, even in south Kashmir, which is considered the hub of militancy. There are also between sixty and seventy thousand Sikhs who still live in Kashmir. I do not think it is justified to think of Kashmir as the place where the majority community is targeting minorities. From 1989 to 1991, it was people who came across from Pakistan who targeted the Kashmiri Pandits, no doubt with the help of locals. It is perverse to Kashmiri Muslim culture to use a saw to kill a Kashmiri Pandit woman. These despicable actions are not in consonance with the Kashmiri character.

AA: Do you see the Kashmiri Pandits returning to the Valley anytime soon?
KK: Your typical Kashmiri Pandit, who is so vociferous about returning to Kashmir today, was a toddler when he left the Valley in 1990-91. He has a settled job in the rest of India. Why would he leave his job and go there? Don’t make the mistake of believing that a slogan is the fact. A slogan may be completely counter-factual. They say they want to return to the Valley. Their grandfathers had a job there. They are no longer around. Their fathers have lived outside Kashmir. The Indian state has failed to create an adequate number of jobs for the Kashmiri Pandits to take up in the Valley. Livelihood and living space are inextricably linked for the Pandits to return.

AA: How do you see the future unfolding in Kashmir?
KK: My fear is that we are likely to witness an even longer period of tremendous instability, regardless of whether this gets expressed through violence or nonviolence. The government does not seem to have much of a clue. It is behaving like a guy who jumps from, say, the seventeenth floor. As he hurtles down each floor, he keeps saying, “So far, so good.” The Kashmiris could very well be thinking that till now, the centre was tiring them out, but now they will tire out the government. Nobody can tell what might happen between six months and a year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.