I got married in February. Half the marriage functions were held in Jammu where my family is now based post forced eviction from Kashmir in 1990. The other half of the marriage was held in Delhi where my wife’s family is based due to the same events of 1990. A Muslim friend from Srinagar who attended my marriage could not help but notice on a sad note this “scattering” of a Kashmiri community. “Chakravun” is the exact word used for scatter by all Kashmiris.
“Aap logo kay saath accha nahi hua (You people had it rough),” the mehendiwalla hired in Jammu chirped while putting henna on hands of an aunt. As often is the case, the mehendiwalla turned out to be a migrant worker from Rajasthan. He then proceeded to prove how well he understood the Kashmiri Pandit story.
Most people present were surprised and delighted that people now know the story. Pandits always feel people are oblivious to their story. People asked him how come he knows all this. He gave his source, “I saw it on that Zee TV special about pandits of Kashmir. And that video by Anupam Kher.” Everyone thanked Anupam Kher for telling their story, as it is.
It was the Hindi television news channels that did the work. I was already having a tough time convincing people that what Anupam Kher is doing with the Kashmiri Pandit story is wrong. It has been conveniently moulded into a handy weapon for communal political ends that in no way redress the genuine issues faced by Kashmiri Pandits. So, where is this weapon getting used, how and why?
A month later, I was in Rajasthan with my wife. In Udaipur, a local shopkeeper guessed from my looks that I was a Kashmiri. He said I looked like the guy who runs the shop next to him. The next shop was of Kashmiri handicrafts and shawls. The two were good friends.
On entering Jodhpur, I could see that a lot of walls had an appeal painted on them, “Gow Mata kay hatiyaro ko phansee do (Hang the people who kill the cow).”
While leaving the city, I asked the driver to stop for tea. Just outside the city on the way to Jaisalmer, we stopped at a local roadside tea stall. As I ordered tea, a middle-aged man sitting on a plank under a tarpaulin shed called out to me. I turned around to see it was in fact a gathering, a bunch of men with nothing else to do, just sitting and talking. I was going to be the topic. I greeted the man with a smile and walked to them. I sat down and we talked.
“Where are you from?”
Over the last many years, I have answered this question in a lot of different places all over India. Earlier on hearing Kashmir, conversation would be about “Halaat kaisey hai” and “terrorism.” However, since the last few years, conversations are becoming more invasive.
“ Dharam. Jaat. Gotra.”
Everything was asked.
“I am a Kashmiri Pandit.”
On hearing the words, what followed was a discourse in which the doctor had finally found the patient about which he had read and studied a lot. The man proceeded to diagnose Kashmir and kept testing my pulse to look for a communal beat. To him,
It was the usual report: Nehru was a dumb idiot, UN was not needed, Brahmins were always weak, Jagmohan saved the Pandits, Muslims cannot be trusted. What they did to you was wrong!
“Aap log sadak par aa gaye (You have been reduced to penury)”
I could not help pointing out, I was traveling in a car, whereas he was sitting by the roadside.
It was obvious he was performing to an audience that had gathered. He was the local genius who sits under the banyan tree dispensing wisdom. It was the Sangh narrative.
I was not biting. I tried to reason. But, it was as if the man was on some drug.
He offered the medicine.
“Modi will get you back. Just see. We are all with you.”
I told him Modi was no good for me.
He suggested, “Go back. Answer them in same language. Kill your neighbours. Take back your homes.”
The narratives in which all Kashmiri Muslims are seen as perpetrators of ethnic cleansing is at work here.
I laughed and asked, “You mean everyone?”
“You can’t trust them.
I must have laughed nervously for my driver now intervened as the casual banter was taking a heated turn.
“Kya Bakwaas kar rahe ho? (What is this rubbish that you are talking about?)”
My driver was a Muslim from Mount Abu. For the entire length of the journey, he only played Muslim religious songs in the car. He had been listening to the sermon silently till now. The man offering the sermon was suddenly aware of the presence of a certain other.
“Tum kaha say ho bhai? (Where are you from?)”
Ajju Bhai, the driver was not going to play along.
“Calcutta say! Tu kya kar lega? Calcutta! What is it to you? Chalo Sir, we have a long distance to cover.”
I could not leave without doing a bit of a performance of my own. All that people understand these days is acting.
The secular performance, “Log kharab nahi hotey. Halaat hotey hai. People are not bad, time is.”
Back in the car, Ajju Bhai explained, “These guys are jokers.”
“They are all low caste. Men with too much time and no work. We don’t even talk to them. And this is not a good time to discuss such matter.”
Ajju Bhai it seems was an expert on Manusmriti. His opinion on caste was another debatable topic, however, I could see the talk at the tea shop has impacted him in a different way. The way it is supposed to—cause a little burn. It was no play. He told me that the previous night there had been minor rioting in Jodhpur city. He had been up half the night keeping a vigil in the streets where Muslims live. It all started when head of a cow was reportedly found outside a temple. Soon, a crowd was stoning the Muslim shops. Few men were arrested.
Far away Kashmir was just a fuel in such local stories.
We reached Jaisalmer. I was not looking for a guide. At a tea stall, a man with Sandalwood tilak on his forehead offered to show me the fabled Yellow City. From the talks he seemed like another performer. I hired him. The man selling the tea exclaimed, “Kaha say pakad liya! (Where did you find him!)”
Ten minutes into the tour, it became obvious that the man’s brain is littered with saffron bombs. Explaining the Gadisar lake, he reached Israel and claimed Jews are actually Hindus too.
“Where are you from? Dharam. Jaat. Gotra.”
When I gave him the answers, he pulled out a rudraksha necklace from around his neck and claimed to be a “first class Brahmin.”
The usual narrative started, “Nehru idiot…”
Purohit, the guide, claimed to be a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) worker having worked for them for more than 15 years. The delight of being part of a secret group reflected like a glint in his eyes.
“Caste has weakened Hinduism. I don’t believe in it. We believe in Sanatan Dharam.”
I asked him if he was okay with a Brahmin marrying outside the caste. He evaded the question, continued to prove Yahoods were actually Yadavs, so part of Sanatan Dharam.
There’s a small ill-maintained crafts museum just next to the lake. The guide thundered how Indians neglect history. He claimed Muslim fakirs had predicted the fall of Hindu empire in Rajasthan; how foreigners will walk like bulls in its streets. I looked around and saw a foreign tourist was keenly trying to make sense of the sermon. The guide claimed the local VHP unit works closely with the intelligence unit of the state, reporting on smugglers and other threats. He believed he had some power. He believed he could put a spell on politicians and make them lose. “I will give them all cancer.”
We reached a square in the fort city, he exclaimed out aloud, “Make way! This here is an intelligence agent from Kashmir.”
I could not help but chuckle at his antics. In Kashmir, in certain circles, a Kashmiri Pandit was and is always an intelligence agent.
“Aap logo kay saath acha nahi hua (Whatever happened to you guys, wasn’t right)”
Again, I could see who the audience of Kashmiri Pandit story was. Where the daggers were getting sharpened.
We reached the top of the fort. Purohit climbed on top of a view point next to a rusty cannon and pointed out at a Haveli the owner of which in old days had molested an entire Brahmin village. He turned around and claimed there’s only one real hero in India—Nathuram Godse. He screamed it at the top of his lung.
He showed me the Jain temple inside the fort city. Proudly he pointed out the Ganesh inside the Jain temple. With a sly nudge he pointed out the stones in “Kamasutra” pose. Then insisted I visit the old Hindu temple too.
On the way down he claimed to be a Kabirpanthi. I told him I did not know that Kabirpanthis were also members of VHP. I left the thread, did not want to offend Kabir.
Outside the shop, Ajju Bhai caught up with us. Purohit’s language changed. He and Ajju Bhai got along well. I told them to drop me and my wife at the famous Bhang Shop. Ajju Bhai was a little annoyed. He only believed in Zarda. Purohit proceeded to sing a hindi paean about the benefit of Bhang. I could not understand it. They laughed.
We left Jaisalmer and headed back for Udaipur via Barmer. It was late at night when we stopped again for tea. I was hungry and asked if anything could be had. He had only tea to offer. I noticed a 786 in the shop name. Ajju Bhai probably noticed it too. His language changed. He now talked with a heavy tinge of Urdu with the shop owner. As if to tell the owner that he is a Muslim too. The owner of teashop was from Gujarat. He used to work in the diamond industry but due to heavy loss in business had to leave everything. He was starting over again. I could see, behind the shop he had setup a little house. His infant child was in a makeshift cradle. His wife, head and face all covered, walked out to us with a big plate of papaya.
“How much for the papaya?”
“No charge for that. You asked for food. We had nothing. Just this papaya. We offered you half.”
In house of a dispossessed man, I finally found some respite from Kashmir.
First published in Economic and Political Weekly