Amid Kashmir Files row, a journalist reporting Kashmir in ’90s traces the paradox of the Pandit-Muslim relationship.

Summer 2008

The chicken lies so submissively in its green plastic bag under the seat of the Sumo that I forget it’s there. It’s counting its last moments. The beautiful, dangerous Lolab Valley (District Kupwara), is about 24 kms long. When we reach one of the last villages nestled in its magnificent mountains, it will be cooked and I will eat it. It is a token of my host’s respect and desire to please me that he has bought it. Laden with other goodies like the fresh produce of Kupwara and its invaluable, prime commodity – walnuts – we have set off in time to beat the witching hour.

The gates in to Lolab will be shut for the night – even now there is steady infiltration of jehadi groups from Pakistan on this route. Entry and exit will be prohibited to slow down the militant traffic to the rest of Kashmir. That means I have to be in and out of there before 8:30 pm.

I’m doing this because I can and someone else can’t. I am here to take a story back to its starting – and to fathom an intriguing friendship between two middle aged men.

I am also here because a strict line drawn between two communities 18 years ago in 1990; has turned wavy and confusing. It no longer separates perpetrators from victims, aristocrats from serfs, oppressors from oppressed. Sometimes they switch places. It’s appealing to accept its dissonance, because challenging it is hard work.

Yet it is for this that I have come to a place people don’t usually want to come. I want to decipher this confusion and get a grip on something that makes little sense to me.

There may be plenty of time till 8:30 pm but I have a journey to complete and I am in a hurry to reach my destination.

* * * * *

The DC’s office is a vital spot in Kupwara town, the hub of District Kupwara. Its frontier like busyness comes with its location on the Line of Control. It had been prearranged through several phone calls between Jammu, Delhi and remote Lolab, that I would meet Nazir Ahmed my host, outside the Deputy Commissioner’s office when I arrived in Kupwara town. No fixed time was mentioned. I had no idea what he looked like and vice versa. Yet Kashmir is a place where strangers often meet through the generous exertions of bystanders. If I asked around for Nazir Ahmed of Lolab I had been assured over the line from Jammu that I would find him. Or he would find me.

Since I hadn’t been given his mobile number, a precaution taken for both of us, I couldn’t call him. This seemed as vague as things could get and considering I would be travelling practically to the country’s borders to see this man, pretty tentative to justify my efforts. Yet I also knew enough about Kashmir to understand these woolly directions would be enough.

In fact the scene played out as if it were on stage. I arrived at the entrance and asked around for Nazir Ahmed of Lolab. Within minutes he was there, beaming and wringing my hands in welcome, his face wreathed in a giant smile that conveyed the importance of my visit to him.

Beyond the ridge of mountains that encircle District Kupwara is Pakistan. State Transport Buses collect briskly at the frequently bombed market square ringed with the debris of small shops spilling out from their confining shacks. Some weeks later it will get bombed again but I will be far away and safe by then. Smoke blows as conductors holler out names of towns across the state and bang the sides of their buses with urgent, metallic thuds. People anxiously get on and go somewhere, schoolchildren jump over puddled holes in the slushy mudpack that passes off as a road and women and men shop for fresh fruit, vegetables, slaughtered, hanging goats, Surf, red buckets – the nuts and bolts of small town desires.

Nazir Ahmed has pleaded for a moment to pick up something before we start our journey. The clamour washes over me as I wait for him in the Sumo, almost hidden from view.

It is a loud clamour. Still, a subtler sound slowly overtakes its more obvious din. Its consistency makes it unnoticeable, a hum that rises above the ringed mountain town like a factory roar that workers don’t hear. I have to wait for other senses to register- the olive green, the fumes, the grumble of diesel engines – before I recognise the unmistakable resonance of gravel crunching under the giant tyres of a military convoy. It is the resonance of Kupwara – its heartbeat.

A couple of hundred thousand soldiers are stationed along this border. Their needs, their life and their raison d’etre determine this town. Their daily rations drive the sales of local traders. Their supply chains power the movement to this remote location. “The fauji will smoke one beedi minimum, he’ll buy a cake of soap, an egg a day at least?” says Altaf Rasool the walnut trader whom I have met just before Nazir Ahmed, dressed in a dark suit and silk cravat, a deliciously crazy spectre in this muddy, mountainous, garrison town. It is why Kupwara has a flourishing economy and why sharp, wealthy businessmen are no aberration here despite it being one of the most dangerous places in the world.

The walnut trade doesn’t hurt either. It brings in according to Rasool roughly calculating on his fingers, 750-800 million rupees a year and supplies the whole of India with its famed produce. Add to that the militancy – a profit making enterprise to rival the best. After all, even militants need porters, guides, supply chains, bribes. Kupwara is not known as the Gateway to Pakistan for nothing.

And finally there is the government. If the DC cannot send a man to the field area to pass bills because it is too dangerous, he will sign the bills in his office. There is no one to check whether the work has been done or not. That is how the Government of India has functioned for the last several years, keeping the economy afloat on corruption. The point being – Kupwara is flush with cash.

The Lolab Valley that starts just outside the busy town is one of nature’s extravagant gifts. “If you have been to Lolab,” Puranji told me last year in Jammu’s 41 degree heat, “there is no need to go to heaven. You are already there.”

Most people in Kashmir these days would correct him to say it has long been now, a stairway to heaven. IEDs, grenades, killings are what the Lolab is better known for. Five years ago during the elections, a young college student monitoring the fairness of the polls for a civil society group was killed when their car set off an IED on the road. The elections themselves were held in the strangest circumstances possible. Candidates were warned not to campaign beyond a certain point even if they belonged to the forbidden villages themselves. The security forces could not guarantee them protection.

The dense mountain forests where once leopards and bears roamed free now played host to a different tribe – 350 armed militants from across the border. They were a multinational bunch – Pakistanis, Afghans and Sudanese – from the Jaishes and the Lashkars of the jehadi world. To ensure no one missed the message, posters were put up all over town promising 1000 rupees and the free “gift” of a bullet for the first person that cast his vote. Some of them – matted long hair, bearded, dressed in fatigues, came down from their mountainous hideouts and fired a volley of shots from their AK rifles in the local bazaar to make the threat real.

Mushtaq Ahmed Lone the MLA from National Conference who won, paid for it later with his life.

One of Lolab’s more famous sons is Mushtaq Latram, formerly chief of the Al Umer Mujahideen militant group who now currently sits in Pakistan directing terrorist strikes and operations in Kashmir. Through the 90s, the unpredictable and volatile Latram’s reputation for brutality created a reign of terror while he carried out several bloody attacks. Latram, along with Pakistani Azhar Masood and Briton Omar Sheikh were the three prize terrorists in Indian jails released in the hostages-for- terrorists deal during the Indian Airlines plane IC- 184 hijack to Kandahar, Afghanistan on New Year’s Eve 1999. While Omer Sheikh went on to kidnap and murder Daniel Pearl, Latram went on to coordinate the activities of the feared Jaish e Mohammed in Pakistan; formed in 2000 and led by its shadowy founder Azhar Masood, the third and most powerful released terrorist.

Today the Lolab is still a ‘hot’ militant zone in Army parlance. The old days of braggadocio swagger are long over but there is still a decent number of jehadis hidden in those thick forests. When I set off on my journey from Srinagar, the sprawling summer capital of the state – safe in comparison and familiar – I am warned by several Kashmiri friends. “You will be careful,” admonishes one like a schoolteacher. “No heroics.” Some confess they don’t have my “adventurous spirit”. They haven’t been there since the violence started 18 years ago and won’t go till it’s well over. Their confessions and admonitions have the natural effect – I am nervous. I want to hurry this thing up and get the hell out of there back to Srinagar.

My host looks nothing like I expected him to. Sitting in the Sumo now, on our way to his home and someone else’s, Nazir Ahmed’s face puzzles me – it is an old face. The pointed, clipped beard is snow white, the hair whiter. With his pink and white lined complexion, thin shortish physique and smiley face he looks like a pared down Santa Claus. This is not what I expected. Puranji looks nothing like him. He is dark complexioned and dark haired with a dark moustache. The heat and dust of the plains, life’s vicissitudes, have been piledriven deep in to his bones. At first thought he looks younger and wearier than Nazir Ahmed – later I can see their eyes are the same age. It’s difficult to believe however, that they studied together, ate out of each others’ tiffins, spent days shooting the breeze, talking, getting married, having children and leading a full life before one saved the other from certain death.

* * * * *

During the 300 odd years of non Muslim rule, when Sikh and Hindu Maharajas ruled the old kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, Puranji’s Pandit ancestors strutted with their chests out. This was the high point of their history when they practically ran the state. As a tiny, immensely privileged, minority of scholars deeply learned in literature, philosophy, aesthetics and language, they lorded it over the illiterate, peasant Muslim majority. Their ‘superior’, ancient Brahmin genes inspired a patrician condescension for their ethnic twins the Muslims, most of them converts from a few hundred years earlier.

Many Pandit community elders, find it difficult even today to shed the inborn dismissiveness of their generations-old scholarly inheritance, for the ‘ignorant’ Muslim ‘peasant’ and his ‘unlettered’ mind, still groping, despite his recent education, to find the cultured ease and vast sophistication of the former. Similarly, despite the anger and hatred that has flowed since the violence began, the older generation of Muslims finds it hard to shed a deep, ingrained deference to the Pandits intellectual ‘prowess’.

As Puranji puts it, “In the Maharaja’s time, the Pandit would walk with pride and 100 Muslims would follow him sure that he would take them to the right destination. Political power was in our hands though they were the majority.” This extraordinary political reality would form the fulcrum of the relationship between the two and shape their intertwined destiny for centuries.

For generations, the Pandit took pride in this scholarship, unmatched by the Muslim till very recently. And through history, he used his learned mind strategically, the way the Muslim used violence in 1990. As a tool – to gain power and keep it.

As a survival tactic, it ranked among the best. His scholarship negated his powerlessness in the numbers game. It was no easy ride. Pandits faced bitter persecution, forced conversions, even mass exile under eras of Muslim rule in the earlier centuries.

Yet their gift for survival and the rulers’ need for their learning ensured their continued prominence, bringing them repeatedly back to Kashmir’s influential, governing elite when the bad times passed. The Sultan may have been Muslim but his advisors were not.

As the privileged, landed zamindar, the powerful Court official, the authoritative kotwal – the Pandit remained the face of authority and power. It is the Muslim’s not so pleasant historical memory of him and the dominance he wielded over him for centuries.

Even when the Muslim gained political and economic ascendancy as he did after 1947, the Pandit brokered his fate with the Central government in Delhi. Pandits were the key interlocutors of Kashmir’s relations with Delhi, at times of agreement, but more often, betrayal and discord. The historical memory of them as untrustworthy brokers, as India’s men rather than Kashmir’s; became deeply entrenched in the Muslim mind.

In 1989, Puranji worked in a government department in Baramulla town about 50 kms from the Lolab. He had to change three buses to get there. “Lolab-Kupwara, Kupwara-Sopore and Sopore-Baramulla,” he explained to me. The route was the first thing that he had to change when the letters first arrived, at the start of 1989. Sometimes he would take the later bus, sometimes the slower one. On his way back he would change his timing, hang about at Sopore beyond time or suddenly take the earlier bus home. The letters didn’t stop. “Ya maro ya mix ho jao” they warned in the beginning – “Mix or Die”! To “mix” had only one meaning – conversion to Islam. By the time the new year dawned, even that option had dried up. Bhaago ya maro – “Leave – or die” they said.

“Life came first”, as Puranji puts it. At the time of the letters, the killings had already started in Srinagar the state capital when the state’s chronic political unrest exploded in to violence. Radical Islamist ideology brought in by Pakistan backed groups sucked up young, disaffected Muslim boys. They crossed the border for training and indoctrination and returned to wage war. Though the declared agenda of militant groups trained, organised and financed by Pakistan was independence from India, their first target had a religious identity. Their radicalism had no space for non-Muslims especially those as powerful as the Pandits had been.

‘Hit lists’ with Pandit names had been circulated in mosques. Prominent Pandits were being assassinated. A J&K High Court Pandit judge Justice Ganjoo, who passed the first death sentence against a Muslim separatist leader accused of kidnapping and killing an Indian diplomat; was gunned down on a busy street. No one came near him or tried to rush him to hospital. Lassa Koul, a Pandit – and the much loved Director of the Central government run state television was shot dead as he left his house for work in the morning. Another was shot limb by limb and delivered in a hand cart to the home of a Pandit leader who had appealed for peace.

Others were killed in particularly brutal ways, some in their own homes, one horrifically, in Pandit lore, – chased up to the loft in his house and shot dead hiding inside a rice storage bin in front of his pleading, screaming wife. Another was reportedly cut in half by a wood mill saw. Despite this, the Pandits stayed, hoping against hope.

Two days and two nights then decisively changed the fate of both communities.

On the nights of January 19th and 20th 1990, crowds, a hundred thousand strong, armed militants waving guns among them, swamped the streets of Srinagar and other towns as they had done for many days, shouting slogans, charged with the conviction of a swift independence. Fearing the imminent collapse and takeover of government institutions, All India Radio and Doordarshan by armed militants directed from Pakistan, New Delhi had already rushed in paramilitary forces to take over security from an overwhelmed and helpless local police force that had been infiltrated, terrorised or simply unable to use force against its own people.

On the morning of the 20th a thousand strong mob gathered at the historic Gawakadal Bridge in the old, downtown area of Srinagar, a religiously conservative area with staunch separatist sentiments. Protesting against the first major cordon and search operation in Kashmir, they charged across, roaring slogans of Pakistan and Independence. Panicky Indian troops, freshly inducted into the Valley opened fire. 52 people were killed according to most major reports – the first civilians to be killed in the conflict by the Indian forces.

The killings became a turning point in separatist history and the Gawakadal Massacre as it came to be known, goaded the fence sitters to decisively turn against India. As Kashmiri Muslims mourned their dead, anti-India rage spread like an itchy, out of control virus. Pandits, with their past history of forceful power broking in the Valley and an assiduously cultivated image as the upholders who kept the Indian flag flying high in the Valley – became the immediate targets of this rage.

On the nights of January 19th and 20th 1990, the Pandit community remembers sitting terrified, huddled in their homes as neighbourhood mosques and loudspeakers fitted to cars spewed out a barrage of abuse and threats aimed at them, exhorting Pandits to leave while frenzied mobs, some a hundred thousand strong, roared slogans of Independence and Pakistan, their Muslim brothers supporting them from across the border. Some of them had specific messages for the Pandits:

Aisi kya ghachi – Pakistan Batav rochtuy ta Batanyan saan

“What do we want? – Pakistan. Without the Pandits but with Pandit women

The subtext was very clear. Get out of Kashmir! The elite 5 percent minority that had coasted for centuries on the edge of their vaunted scholarship, fled for their lives. They left behind the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley, their home since time immemorial; to live in Hindu majority Jammu city – across the Pir Panjal mountain range that divides the two sections of the state. The original community of the soil was cleansed of it so well that hardly anyone remains today in the villages, few in the towns.

Many individual Kashmiri Muslim neighbours sympathised or tried to help but collectively there was silence and fear. No one tried to stop the Pandits when they started fleeing. No group spoke out against their exodus. No friend could guarantee their safety and neither could the government.

It was an impossible task – the police force had melted down, the intelligence structure had been destroyed, its operatives killed; and armed militants roamed freely in several parts of Kashmir. The state had virtually collapsed – it was hanging by a thread. For Pandits like Puranji caught isolated and scattered in the rural areas in ones and twos, there was no escaping the armed bands. A Muslim junior colleague he had once helped out for a promotion kept him up to date with the ‘mosque hit lists’ – an oxymoronic term that wasn’t – but other colleagues would avoid him.

* * * * *

Puranji’s elderly neighbour has entered the discussion while we are talking about the Muslims. “Let me tell you,” he leans in closer, “Muslims cannot tolerate the presence of non Muslims where they are in a majority – they will start the trouble by ethnic cleansing. Even at Independence – they couldn’t stomach the thought of living with Hindus – they had to make a separate Pakistan and throw all non Muslims out of there as well.”

Heads nod around him. “A Muslim is a fine, loving individual, the best friend you can ever have. But put him together with other Muslims and you have to run for your life.” Puranji’s expression conveys his assent to this picture.

Even so, a schizophrenia of sorts touches the relationship between the two. Fraught relationship aside, both communities have also been exceptionally close through the ages, with common temperaments, language, custom and history. Both have prayed

together at ziarrats – the graves of ‘saints’ they revere equally. Little wonder that the cramped room is crowded with emotions – they reek of a friend’s duplicity rather than an enemy’s expected assault.

The Muslims have their own betrayal to remember. In the 1940s, when a popular, mostly Muslim uprising broke out against the Maharaja, the Pandits backed their ruler, protecting their elite positions, finding it impossible from their vantage points as old elites, to believe how the illiterate peasants and shikarawallas, the bulk of the Muslim population would ever become the ruling class, be able to replace their vastly superior scholarship and learning.

They were caught on the wrong side of history. Post Independence and accession to India, an elected government replaced the Maharaja’s rule in Jammu & Kashmir. The Muslims would be setting the agenda in this Muslim majority state now – and their priorities would be different.

Overnight land reforms without compensation stripped Pandit landlords of their elitist swagger and unshackled the Muslim peasantry. Successive state governments tightened Pandit entry in to government jobs by affirmative action for Muslims, sidelining them to ensure their bright minds would not suck up all the jobs on offer. The need of the hour was to help the less educated and less privileged Muslim catch up to form a new middle class. A new elite would start replacing the old.

A story, apocryphal or not, about Chief Minister Bakshi who lowered benchmarks for medical and other admissions in the 1960s, goes like this. A Health Department official came to him with a complaint from the state medical colleges about the lack of cadavers for students to practice surgical skills on.

“Don’t worry,” he is reported to have grinned. “Tell them to wait a couple of years – there will be no shortage once these students become doctors and start operating!”

Gradually and surely, the Pandits’ only weapon – their educated mind – was taken away from them. In a land where they had been king makers and dominated the buraucracy, they had to start looking for options outside government and state.

Young Pandit children were turned away despite getting the highest marks, their 5% numbers too little to accommodate all the toppers of their community.

Effectively then, though they had not been rulers, they had lost an empire.

It was as traumatic as it has historically been to nations and communities – something a Muslim is familiar with. Inevitably they were shrunk to size by reforms, unspoken quotas and the changing balance of state support that now tilted unmistakably, towards the Muslims.

Yet Muslim insecurity refused to relax its guard, its jagged edge sharp with disbelief and mistrust still smarting even after years of power, from the bite of Pandit condescension and their still influential, trusted advisory role in New Delhi. A powerful New Delhi, that could still topple Chief Ministers and rig elections or pull the rug out from under their feet. It ensured the Pandit image persisted as the illegitimate usurper of power positions that Muslims should rightly enjoy even though their role was greatly diminished.

The popular, underlying itch to see them being knocked off their perch was egged on by the Pakistan directed groups. This mythology of insecurity held powerful sway in 1989-90 when the Pandits were forced to flee by militant groups and would be rightly or wrongly, a key reason for Muslim silence. The undeniable fact that Muslims benefit today from an overwhelming domination of government jobs in Kashmir previously held mostly by the Pandits – was another.

The most potent however, was the ideology of violent Islamist radicalism that dictated that Kashmiri Muslims had a separate destiny – with Pakistan. To enable this destiny, Pandits had to be cleansed from the scene and it was Kashmiri Muslims who did the job.

Puranji’s younger Pandit friend Aiman Raina who has been listening quietly to the story of the flight recalls his moment of truth. On a posting in Jammu for his first job as a junior officer, he received a late night call from his terrified family on January 19th eighteen years ago.

“I could hear the roar of the crowd in the background,” he recalls. “They were begging me to somehow rescue them. I could do nothing absolutely nothing for my father, my mother I was just helpless, sitting here. I desperately rang up whoever I could, whoever I knew from here but no one was there, no officer would pick up the phone.”

His rage is smoking up the room even now – as a younger man, he carries the full historical weight of this bitterness between the communities. Friendships with Muslims were cut short before they could mature enough to lighten its load.

Aiman’s emotions are unexceptional among the Pandit community that blames the zealous pro Islamic colour of the violence for their flight from the Valley in 1990. He takes a hardliner’s view of the hit ‘lists’ and even the ‘friends who helped’.

“I feel today that even the lists were a conspiracy. No Muslim can be a friend,” he says. “No Muslim group said ‘Stop! This is wrong’. Real friends come out when a person is in trouble – who the hell came out? With the passage of time I have understood. They used to sit in the mosque and conspire to kill us and give the hit list to a ‘friend’ who would tell you – so you would have to flee.”

* * * * *

The narrow lane is part of a labyrinth. ‘Houses’ of a single room each are built haphazardly, stretching far in to the distance – it’s obvious there was never a plan here. A tap pokes its brass head out of a wall in a dingy looking toilet with dank, dark walls and a single bulb. Fresh water gushes out as a bucket overflows, then runs in to the open gutter below, coated with slime. Flies buzz above it. It is visible from Puranji’s room in the refugee camp where we are sitting in Jammu’s sweaty April.

Does safety truly mean so much? Is this overcrowded single room really preferable to the risk of living in one’s own home and land however dangerous it may be? I try to imagine what it would be like to think of neighbours as predators, to suspect colleagues, and best friends, children’s school buddies. Or to see threat lurking in the most familiar, routine things like home, office, well travelled routes, local markets.

There is an air of ‘normalcy’ in Jammu that makes it difficult to do this. It’s easy to see why Puranji feels ‘safe’ here, with his ‘own’, where he is no longer a religious minority. Possibly, being free to say who he is and which nation he wants to belong to without worry, soothes his temperament.

He has not had this freedom since 1947 when Pakistan was born. Though the Pandits remained safe in their overwhelmingly Muslim Valley even as the whole of India went up in flames with riots and ethnic cleansing; the physical peace was only the glitter that wasn’t gold. Nothing would remain the same between the two.

Pakistan’s Two Nation Theory claimed Muslims were a separate ‘nation’ regardless of shared ethnicity with Hindus. Therefore they needed a Land of the Pure.

Kashmir’s Muslims may have bucked that trend and chosen to stay within India because of the special status and protection they got from it – but the Theory changed every single thing about their identity. A shared past, shared language, genes, poetry and common ethnicity were held to be an embarrassment. Muslims were to deny all that bound them to their non-Muslim past.

Most of all the Two Nation Theory changed the way the two communities saw each other. Old power or class issues of a feudal past were now processed only through the prism of religion. Both downgraded the ethnicity that bound them together.

For the Muslim, Kashmir came first, where he was in majority and held the reins of power. He also held out the unspoken threat of Muslim Pakistan.

For the Pandit India came first and with it, it’s counterbalancing threat. He may have now lacked the political power that he had before in Kashmir – but he had the safety back up of the ‘mother’ country India, as the ‘nation’ that would command his first loyalty.

Neither side could shed old baggage and make the leap to the new paradigms of India – democracy and secularism.

Once the Muslim elite began replacing the old, the Pandit sought security in flaunting his Indian connections. He saw himself as a heroic minority.

Says Puranji, “We saved Kashmir for India. If we had supported their ideology as they wanted, Kashmir would have gone to Pakistan years ago”.

“Whoever says ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ – he is our man! We don’t believe in Kashmiri nationalism,” bites out Aiman. For him the Muslims are Pakistani stooges and Indian traitors.

The Kashmiri Muslim on the other hand saw his chances of power outside these Indian connections. The Pandit in his eyes remained an Indian stooge and Kashmiri traitor who blocked and resisted Kashmiri popular aspirations for separation. The silence at the Pandit’s forced migration and the targeted violence came from this deep seated belief – despite the friendship and despite the shared culture. Neither could view the other’s version dispassionately.

“They thought people from India would just come and take care of them like this,” a Muslim college principal once told me, snapping her fingers, her face angry. “They never dreamt we’ll be sitting in those miserable camps for twenty years and our children will never see Kashmir again”. It is a notion Aiman confirms. “We had a phobia” he says. It is an interesting word he uses as a replacement for ‘an article of faith’. “We thought if one Hindu is killed in Kashmir, 100 Muslims will be slaughtered in the rest of India.” He laughs. “When we started fleeing, one brother didn’t know where the hell the other was!”

* * * * *

Puranji like Aiman, too trusts no Kashmiri Muslim – he has made that very clear. He quotes an old saying:

Zovuai vasa pose?

Musalman banea dost?

Roughly translated it means something unpleasant. Can you take the skin off lice it questions? No, he shakes his head explaining. Then how can a Muslim be a friend, his fingers twist to ask? Both tasks are an impossibility!

Rishta unke saath? Na zyaada gehra, na zyaada door.” Not too close, nor too far. But that would be an insincere friendship I argue.

“Yes it is a fact. It won’t be a sincere friendship – but it cannot be!” he argues back. “They have given us such a body blow that it will take seven generations to recover from it.”

Yet there is one sacred friendship exempt from this category.

“Except my friend who warned me and saved my life.” Puranji’s face physically softens as he forgets the bitter things ranting in his head, the anger that has taken him over. “Woh friend bachpan ka tha – from school! We studied together, started work together, lived our lives together. He saved my life, my honour and dignity. Except for him I can trust no other Kashmiri Muslim”

“His children call me Mama,” says Puranji’s wife. “They call every Tuesday,” adds his daughter. “We feel really close to them – they are like our own brothers and sisters. They come every year.”

What were relationships like before all this happened I ask. He reflects, eyes distant. My question has taken him past the bitterness into a sweeter place. The Muslims are after all, Hindu converts from just 400 odd years ago. This is not an easily discardable ethnic bond. Perhaps why the shock of betrayal is so real on one side and the denial of guilt so vehement on another.

“They were not normal – but very delicious,” he rubs his fingers with his thumb.

“Caring ka culture tha. If my wife was coming on the bus, immediately boys would get up and offer her a seat – just – as a Hindu lady! If somebody’s daughter was going somewhere, they would automatically take care just because she was a daughter of the community. Eating, drinking, working, living, dying, – everything was together in the neighbourhoods.”

He disregards Aiman’s conspiracy theory. His friendship with Nazir Ahmed has withstood not only the weight of the Pandit flight from the Valley but also the historical angst the communities’ relationship has borne for centuries. That’s an awful lot of weight. But then, this is quite a friendship.

The decision was taken for him during his usual game of hide and seek on the 4 pm bus from Baramulla on the 22nd of February 1990. It was the evening before Shivratri, the biggest Pandit religious festival of the year. He got a chilling though polite message from the group known as Allah Tigers.

“Tomorrow is a holiday. We will come to your house. We will wish you on the occasion of Shivratri and then eliminate you.”

The Allah Tigers had cultured people on their roster who would remember to greet members of the other community before killing them.

* * * * *

Halfway through the beauteous Lolab, past the giant gates that will be locked at 8:30 – a far more relaxed time from the earlier 5 pm deadline -, past the two checkpoints early on where we get off and register our “entry” so that we can get back out unhindered; there is no sign of anything unpleasant nor any hint of fear on the faces of the local residents who are visibly milling around on the meandering central road that cuts through the entire valley.

Hundreds of schoolchildren reassuringly spill out from scores of schools that dot the route. Some sit under trees with slates, some inside classrooms in neat uniforms. A bunch of schoolteachers flags us down to have tea with them in the Middle School by the side of the road – delighted, we accept. Schoolgirls in red checked kameez of the 2nd class sit neatly under the tree. The 4th class is indoors and sings a Kashmiri poem for us in the high pitched voices so typical of Kashmiri folk music. Its sweetness is piercing – among the trees, the fresh, peaceable silence and birdsong outside, the little school and the lovely, guileless faces of the children, it embodies the Lolab for me in ways that no gun ever can.

It makes me reflect on my reason for this journey to the far corners of this troubled state. On paper it is to meet the one, single friend Puranji says is the exception to his rule of Muslims as a community of insincere betrayers. But there is more. From the outside, living in Lolab today sounds terrifying – swarming with jehadi Afghan and Pakistani terrorists, located in the first district next to Pakistan from where this traffic originates, violent and tightly controlled by both the militants and the Indian Army stationed there. What could be more alien for a non-Muslim?

Yet it was home for Puranji and many of his community – it had to have been different in the older days. And living in an almost purely Muslim land in such small numbers, Puranji must have been immensely comfortable with Muslim life – the sound of the azaan, the sight of the skull cap, the neighbourhood pagoda roof mosque, bearded friends, festivals. So much that he may have even felt alien in Jammu with his ‘own’.

I ask a little 4th standard girl if she has ever heard about the Pandits “Haan.”

What has she heard?

“They are clean people. They keep their homes very clean and hygienic.”

Listening to her, I discover what I actually want from this journey. I want to reclaim a slice of that relationship the two communities shared, scoop a bit of its unspoken ease, its comfort and its deep understanding and space for one another. In this day of ranting believers, this unspokenness is what I want to retrieve – perhaps for myself, perhaps for this so-beautiful land and its people.

There are plenty of Army Headquarters of every level permanently settled in the area since 1947. Though no soldiers are conspicuous on the road except for the three checkpoints we pass, signs of their presence are all around. Tiny shrines of local saints – the secular ziarrat tradition now under fire from the jehadis – lie on the route, many draped with giant green chaadars, shiny and new, with florid slogans in the alien Devnagari script – clearly underlining their non-Kashmiri status.

They are offerings from the army and paramilitary units posted in the area. . The Army units are alien even as they are not; many have been stationed here since 1947 when it became India’s border. Things have changed since the wild times five years ago. A forcible peace exists. Local sentiment remains alienated from the Army yet it is dependent on it. Its presence can be burdensome, yet it has brought back routine and daily livelihoods. There is resentment and anger against the soldiers with the power to target anyone they deem suspicious. Their faces and languages are visibly different and identifiable. Yet covert support also exists in several hidden pockets for the peace they are able to bring. So overwhelming is the Indian Army presence today with practically every inch patrolled, that militant activity has been severely leashed.

Perhaps it is time for my Srinagar friends to be ‘adventurous’.

Nazir Ahmed confirms it. “Things have calmed down a lot” he beams. Are conditions then good enough for Puranji to return? His face falls. “Abhi nahin,” he says, the regret spilling out from every pore as if his entire body is a sigh.

I switch topics, ask him about Puranji – his face lights up again. “At school, people would say what do you two talk about all day long – don’t you get tired whispering secrets to each other? We even got married one after another. He came with the baraat to Lalpora – got a suit for my wife and for me.”

What did you like about Puranji’s family I ask?

“Everything!” he answers eagerly and enthusiastically with such shining brightness that I am taken aback at the intensity of his emotion. “Har cheez!” he repeats. “His sociability – he was a very candid person – truthful! I loved the way they ate their food, the way they lived. I got a lot of love from their family – more than a real brother would. On Shivratri we would stay with them for two days. We would soak walnuts in water to use during the pooja at night – then go along with all the relatives to distribute it among the neighbours – we’d walk to Wavoora till late at night – no fear of the militant, the Army, the gun On Eid they would spend 3 days with us.

In the jehadi ideas circulating in the Kashmir of today, the very notion of a Muslim participating in any little way in a Pandit’s prayers would be blasphemous. It would invite threat and fear. Nazir Ahmed is perhaps careful about whom he tells these stories to.

Puranji’s departure was traumatic.

“My heart broke in two” says Nazir Ahmed in his extravagant, emotional way. “I never wanted to let him go – I didn’t want him to become a migrant. I told him you shift here to my house. But when he said ‘my life is not safe, zyaadti mat karo, let me go – I had to give in. He told me make the arrangements so I fixed up the car, never told anyone.”

Bound with his tradition, Puranji’s story contains the strands of his soil, his religion and the interlocking weave of Hindu and Muslim sacred and profane. At 11:30 at night on the 22nd of February 1990, his house was incandescent with the light and music of prayer and celebration as the nearly 20 strong joint family in the three storied house where they all lived observed the holiest day of their calendar – Shivratri.

Nazir Ahmed arranged for the car to arrive precisely then. Leaving the rest of his extended family behind amidst the chanting as prearranged – they would follow 20 days later- Puranji, his wife and their two daughters, one aged three years and the other a little baby, nine months old; sneaked out of their home together for the last time in their lives, walked quietly across their vast field and reached the road where the car was waiting with Nazir Ahmed and his eldest son. Quickly they loaded it and set off for Kupwara.

In the time honoured departures of migrations, partitions and cleansings, people never imagine this will be the last time they will see the homes and lands they have lived in for centuries. They sever the link with the earth that has nourished their tradition without knowing of its finality. They entrust their houses to neighbours as in pre-Partition India, keep their keys safely for years as in Palestine and cannot think of a timeline beyond a few months. “My mother lived in Kupwara proper,” says Puranji’s wife. “We woke her up in the middle of the night. The bus was coming from Jammu in the morning. We sat in it and reached Jammu on the 24th. At that time we thought – we’ll be back in 5-6 months.

“There were only tears when we said goodbye in Kupwara”, remembers Nazir Ahmed. I thought they’ll be back in a year”.

Eighteen years later Puranji’s family still lives in a one room quarter with a tin roof in a refugee camp in Jammu. Summer temperatures go up to 45 degrees – a matter of trauma for Kashmiris who pride themselves on their ‘inability’ to bear the heat of the plains. It has the clutter of schoolchildren’s things, kitchen utensils neatly stacked in the corner, mattresses, suitcases and naked bulbs on the ceiling. There is also now a red telephone but in Kashmiri style, no furniture, just cushions on the durrie covered floor. This is where they sleep, eat, study and cook. Puranji also has a son born in the camp who has never seen Kashmir. The family of five shares a single bathroom with four other families.

Their own family is scattered all over Jammu. Puranji went back to collect them and returned for the last time in April hoping to sort out family affairs. On the sixth day of his visit the message came again – ‘Aap aaj raat yahaan nahin bitaenge!” He left on the 28th.

On the first of May 1990, the massive Lolab style timber house was burned down by militants. It took three days to burn. “The policewallas took the tin roof away – that was all that could be salvaged.” he ends. 182 kanals of their land adjacent to it remain fallow.

* * *

We stop at a small village shop to buy something. The village idiot is drooling next to the Sumo, his eyes squinting, his face helpless and unfocussed. He sways from side to side and holds out his hand. He leans forward to accept the change I am giving him, the drool threatening to fall on the car. The driver has a fit and shoos him away. Nazir Ahmed is back, beaming with a green plastic bag he shoves under the seat in a flash. It has a live chicken in it, with feathers and eyes and beak. I try to suppress my city squeamishness but there is no sound from the doomed bird.

“People didn’t know but the threat was there because of our friendship” he carries on the conversation interrupted. “Reports were coming from militant quarters that this was against the movement. There were two militants in the village – illiterate, ignorant. They sent a chap to eliminate me. He came to our house, we fed him and hosted him for four days, treated him like a king. After that he said that the ‘report’ against me was false – that I was not actually a traitor to the movement. Baad mein, those two were finished off by the Army”.

His face is a mixture of relief, contempt and serves-them-right. I imagine the family politely hosting an armed militant in their home with children, young girls the pressures, the terrible anxieties. Being a Muslim, Nazir Ahmed has paid a real price in fear and tension for this friendship. And unlike Puranji, there was nowhere to escape, no one to look to for support. No one would raise the cry of Islam being in danger if a Muslim was brutalising a fellow Muslim.

It has been two hours since we left Kupwara including our leisurely stop at the school. “Soon,” Nazir Ahmed says. We are nearing the place I have come to see. He counts off the villages we pass.

At a turn when we see a mountain straight ahead, signalling the end of the Lolab Valley he stops the car. We get off. There is green, fertile, empty land on both sides of the road, mountains on all sides. Children play cricket on one side. “This is all Puranji’s land,” says Nazir Ahmed spreading his hand out in an arc that covers both sides of the road.

“Where is your house,” I ask with anticipation, expecting it to be next door since they were so close.

Nahin nahin”, he says with startled eyes – “They were wealthy… they had a lot of land. My house is a little further away”. It’s the first time I am made aware that there was an economic disparity between the two friends.

He points to a clump of trees at the far end on the other side. “His house was there.”

I can’t see anything. We decide to walk up to the spot – there is no motorable road till there, just empty fields. As we go nearer, I can see some houses at the back.

I am expecting some ruins, some empty burnt out shell but I still can’t see anything except the stunning, green beauty of the place. Nazir Ahmed has stopped and is searching intently for something in the ground. He looks around and bends low. I am puzzled.

“Where is it?” I ask.

Yahaan idhar, He summons me triumphantly having found what he was looking for.

Dekho yeh paudiyaan, yahaan darwaza tha.”

He sketches out a door frame with his hands. I look. I see two exposed brick steps on one side of an uneven ridge in the grassy field. Two steps! The cement is long gone, grass already filling in the cracks. This is all that is left of Puranji’s house. If I didn’t see the steps, I’d never know anything ever existed here. Within a year or so they will be gone too.

In this wonderland of a place, there is a gurgling stream on the left, tucked in to the end of the small valley, cosy in its small beauty with towering forested mountains around it as if they were made for the family’s personal viewing pleasure. The clump of trees next to it is graceful and majestic – there is pine and walnut. A duck paddles in the brook, the setting sun giving its rushing, full waters the patina of an old jewel. It looks like a desktop screen. This is the way nature intended things to be.

Truly Puranji was right – if you are in Lolab, there is no need to go to heaven, you are already there. Yet in this place of his heritage, the cradle of his language, scriptures and poetry, there is not a trace of Puranji, not a whisper that he once lived here as did his ancestors, one of the oldest races on earth. The contrast with his one room in the refugee camp is horrible and painful even for me. It must be unimaginable for one who has lived a life here in this paradise.

Nazir Ahmed walks me through the rest of the ‘house’. He opens the imaginary front door and points to the staircase going up in empty air. We turn left from the porch to ‘enter’ the main room where everyone sat together in the evening. It overlooks the stream. The rooms were upstairs his hands wave out. I imagine them. Puranji’s words from the Jammu camp sketch in the rest.

“There were 36 rooms in a 3 story house with 3 ‘sets’. It was a joint family– everyone would eat with Pitaji. When we sit together now, it is like we used to be – 25-26 of us all together in one room. But it’s just not like the old days – you just can’t create that atmosphere here.” His wife’s memories -“Two elder bhabhis with me – chatting, doing the housework together all day long, the kids, the family. Here I’m alone all day long ….

Puranji’s struggle with himself – “My father had 182 kanals of land left after the land reforms. We still have it – it’s become a desert. In my middle age I still feel I should get this property. If I dispose of it at least I will get something. My daughter says let it go to hell. The generation that’s grown up in Jammu is least bothered about these things. Till as long as I am alive, I can think about it. If the problem isn’t solved till my death – who will tell them this land belongs to your father when I die? No one, absolutely no one.”

Shaken by the vision I have just seen, I am quiet. So is Nazir Ahmed, lost in the memories of the old days. We get back in to the Sumo and head to his house five minutes away, that lies nestled at the bottom of the mountain that ends the Valley. Beyond it lies Pakistan. A rushing stream is crossed by a little fairy tale bridge down a path that leads to his Lolab style wooden log house. There is huge excitement at my visit and the fact that I have come via a very special connection.

The chicken in a plastic bag is discreetly passed to the lady of the house to meet its fate. The family seems endless, children of different sizes keep appearing out of every nook. “I have eleven children – the youngest is seven years old – I am a sinner,” Nazir Ahmed confesses, touching his ears, so sweetly repentant that I have to laugh. The first grandchild is already five years. Three more have been born. It is necessarily a large house and next to it he is building another, but this one is a brick house.

Within half an hour I am eating the fried chicken, Kashmiri bakery bread, apples cut just for me, kehwa and the walnuts cracked and kept before me in a little plate. Nazir Ahmed beseeches me with the pleading urgency of a mother feeding a recalcitrant child to eat, eat just a little bit more, his hand piling up my plate till I can have not even a walnut more to please him. We grapple hand to hand over a piece of the chicken. The hospitality of a rural Kashmiri cannot be outdone, no matter how poor he may be. Meri achhi behen he calls me, my good sister. His wife is twice his size with a smiling face. She bounces the latest baby on her lap and never says a word.

Perhaps she is not as fluent in Urdu.

The photo albums tumble out. Puranji’s family came last year to visit for the first time in seventeen years. He didn’t come. His wife is in the photographs wearing smart dark glasses and uncovered head in the bright sunshine at a government tourist guest house nearby on plastic folding chairs. Nazir’s wife stands next to her with her traditional clothes – she looks far older, like the grandmother she is. All of them in this very room, laughing, chatting.

“We never, ever felt this Hindu-Muslim thing – we didn’t even know what it meant,” says Nazir Ahmed. “We drank from the same cup. Once Puranji’s wife picked up a piece of meat from my plate. A Pandit lady looked at her shocked – she told her – we are all brothers and sisters. Relations were very, very deep.”

There are also pictures of Nazir Ahmed’s son Inam visiting in Jammu. These show him with Puranji’s smart young daughters dressed in jeans and shirts, arms casually slung around his neck, smiling in to the camera; his 12 year old boy dressed in long shorts and sleeveless torn T shirt with a back to front cap. He has an ‘I’m so cool” expression for the camera. Inam looks like he is a conservative schoolteacher trying hard to look fashionable in jeans. In another, the whole family and Inam are sitting winter Kashmiri style under quilts in the one room at the camp. Inam looks happy and has a can’t-quite-believe-this expression on his face.

The pictures are telling a story that Inam will confirm on the way back to Kupwara.

The eating and drinking has brought in the evening hours – darkness will fall soon. I will have to start well in time before the heavy gates shut the Lolab in for the night. But first I have to take my leave and bid farewell to the family. It has barely been four hours since I met Nazir Ahmed. He entreats me to stay the night, his elaborate rural hospitality will settle for no less. I insist I must go. We say the sentimental farewell, offer lavish phrases of sister and brotherhood and wave the fond goodbye.

It is not an insincere one. Nazir Ahmed’s generosity to me and his remarkable emotion for his friend through eighteen years is a rare thing to see and experience. We have been through an overwhelming personal journey together as strangers, with Puranji as the ghost who accompanied us. Like several experiences in Kashmir, a lifetime has been lived in a couple of hours.

Inam is deputed to escort me back to the gates. We discuss the Jammu photographs in the car where he feels free to talk in his father’s absence.

Ajeeb lagta hai, it feels odd” he says when I ask him about his first visit to Jammu and seeing girls on the street wearing jeans and tight clothes.

“Ladies shouldn’t wear such clothes,” he admits hesitantly. But if everybody wears such clothes then is it okay? “Haan its okay” he says, embarrassed; but clearly his demeanor suggests otherwise.

The incongruous photos of this Muslim village boy with his smart city ‘sisters’ and the cool younger ‘brother’ have spoken of this embarrassment already. The girls, unaware of his conservatism, casually posing with him, his struggle to disguise his awkwardness and unfamiliarity with more modern modes of behaviour, his desire to keep up with the city lights – all this is visible in every frame.So too is the realisation that modernity has snatched the migrant away forever.

There is no way Puranji can come back here even if he can – at least with his children. His migrant life has moved far, far ahead of this simple, rural existence where emotions are extravagant and friends are for life. His wife has shed her rustic demeanour to acquire a city slick that leaves her rural sister far behind. His children may be at home in Delhi or Bombay but hardly in the conservative Lolab. The opportunities the world has given him and his children outside his sheltered “heaven” may never compensate for its loss. But they won’t let him go back easily either – may be not at all. This partition-held-in-abeyance will turn out to be as real and as divisive as any in history.

I drop off Inam before the gates and head onwards to Kupwara. I remember the last conversation with Puranji.

“Do you miss that collective society”? I asked him.

Na yaad hai na asar – no tears at all.” says Puranji. “Shouldn’t be either,” interjects Aiman. “They gambled with us – gave us hell,” says Puranji. “Just imagine – our own blood! All converts!

“The people who have snatched our childhood away, can they ever be forgiven?” slips in Aiman as he exits the room to meet a neighbour.

The conversation carries on after a pause.

“If attitudes change ” begins Puranji, drifting off. From righteousness, his expression has changed to something tentative. He wants an acknowledgement of the trauma he has endured, some respect for the loss he has suffered. After that….

“Do you feel the Muslims betrayed you?” “Definitely – yes,” he nods.

“But you miss them still?” “Yes”.

And you can forgive?”

The answer comes before the question is over. “Yes.”

The apology may be a long time coming. Neither side believes it is wrong, both believe the other ‘owes’ them. But Puranji’s tempered anger against the community he feels betrayed his is matched only by his obvious love for his friend. The overwhelming emotion I register during my meet with Nazir Ahmed is sorrow and pain. “Apna khoon” is how Puranji has described his tormentor and closest friend the Kashmiri Muslim – his “own blood”. The pull of this blood may be too strong to fit in to the precisions of nationalism and religion.

We reach the gates – they are open, the soldier waves me on ahead with a smile. I return it with some sense of relief. The Lolab is left swiftly behind me in the evening darkness as I re-enter the relative safety of Kupwara town.

Post Script: The current regime has announced at various times since 2020 that it will reverse all distress land sales by Kashmiri Pandits.

Alpana Kishore wrote this piece in 2008 while travelling through rural Kashmir for a Scholar Of Peace Fellowship by WISCOMP on nationality and identity shifts in the Kashmir conflict.

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