A tale of conflicted gathering: When Kashmiri Pandits, Muslims meet on Eid

People being served Eid lunch at Jantar Mantar
For nearly two weeks, the Indian government's unprecedented lockdown of Kashmir — to the extent that there is no free circulation of even daily news from the Valley — has led to an information vacuum, to put it mildly.

The central government, which imposed severe restrictions on movement and a communications blackout, claims that calm has prevailed after it decided to revoke the special status and statehood of Jammu and Kashmir. The mainstream media, hampered and acquiescent, has largely toed the line. The government has grudgingly accepted reports, after initially calling them fabricated, by some foreign publications that cited large-scale protests in Kashmir.

In a scenario that doesn’t allow for the airing of voices from the Valley, one can only listen to diasporic Kashmiris, those who left their land for an assortment of reasons and who are now disconnected from that land all too literally.

The occasion of Eid al-Adha in and around the capital earlier this week offered a glimpse of what they are grappling with and how the unfolding crisis lays bare the complex relations between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits.

College students led the event in Delhi
In Gurugram, a handful of Kashmiri Pandits hosted an Eid lunch at a private “club” in an apartment. A heart-warming invitation made the rounds on social media, but only around 30 people turned up. Most were Pandits, apart from a few journalists and a couple of Kashmiri Muslim men.

One of the organisers recalled how Pandits like him experienced a looming uncertainty ahead of a major festival a few decades ago. In 1990, Shivratri occurred on a day that witnessed the exodus of Pandits from the Valley. The speaker drew a parallel to the current "disruption" that has cut off Kashmiris from the rest of the world, including their relatives. He emphasised the fact that the lunch wasn't about numbers, but about the good intentions of the Pandits.

Folk songs were sung and food was shared (before the crowd queued for lunch, one of the hosts laughingly promised that the meat served was halal), and many of those gathered talked to each other in Kashmiri.

A Kashmiri Muslim speaks at a lunch hosted by Pandits in Gurugram
But were they really speaking the same language? Although this wasn't a platform to voice one's politics, it betrayed a certain condescension, a hint of patronising behaviour, something that smacked of paternalism.

All the Kashmiri Pandits present at the event welcomed the government’s decision to abrogate the contentious Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. There was consensus that it would pave the way for the reconciliation of communities and the development and integration of Kashmir. After the lunch, the hosts huddled together for a photo-op. At the last minute, one of them remembered to ask the few Kashmiri Muslims sitting in a corner to join them.

A Kashmiri handicrafts businessman in formal attire concurred that trade would now thrive in the troubled state. And a Kashmiri Muslim lawyer based in Mumbai, who had come to meet his brother, a software engineer in Gurugram, spoke fondly of a bua (aunt) who was close to his family. He never got to meet her, as she left the Valley along with other Kashmiri Pandits before he was born, and now he didn’t know of her whereabouts. Thanking the people for hosting him on Eid, he said that humanity was bigger than religion.

When I chatted with him privately, the lawyer asserted that Kashmiris had been stabbed in the back by a patently wrong decision taken by the government without taking them into confidence. His words echoed fears of separatist sentiments being fanned by the Centre's decision and the manner and scope of suppression that has crippled everyday life for a region arguably unlike any other previous instances.

Accounts of Kashmiri Pandits who lived alongside Muslims for decades hark back to a harmonious past, when religion marked out “us” and “them” identities without antagonising one community against the other. When I ask whether newer generations who have either lived through or were born post-1990 harbour ill-will towards each other, the lawyer replied: “We speak the same language, of course we love each other. We'd only want Kashmiri Pandits to return to the Valley. Why do we need separate townships (the Bharatiya Janata Party reportedly plans to revive a resettlement plan) for them?”

On the same day, a similar but open-air event witnessed scenes that were starkly different from the smug, private, self-congratulatory affair in Gurugram.

The venue was Jantar Mantar, the protest hub of Delhi. People from Jammu and Kashmir, led mainly by college students, observed a sombre Eid, “unhappy and exiled”. A poem read out by a native of Kashmir moved some in the crowd to tears. Among an encouraging crowd of a few hundreds were local residents as well as writers, artists and activists including author Arundhati Roy and film-maker Sanjay Kak. The latter, a Kashmiri Pandit who has made documentaries on the Valley, and several others brought biryani, seviyan (sweet vermicelli) and other local recipes.

A couple of undergraduate students from a Delhi University college had similar tales of being cut off from families in the border district of Poonch in Jammu.

One of them said his two siblings had left from Jammu, but one week on he had yet to find out if they had reached home safe. In Delhi, at their college they have seen mixed reactions — some celebrating the government's decision as being in India’s best interests, and some friends and teachers expressing empathy with them. Immediately after the decision was made in Parliament on August 5, the fearful teenager didn't go to college for a couple of days. “I wasn't sure about coming to Jantar Mantar today, but the people here made us feel a sense of belonging and being loved,” said the civil services hopeful, who is enrolled in a humanities course.

He, too, felt that the government decision has only resulted in greater oppression of the people of Kashmir, who have also been denied easy access to health care. “The more oppression there is of the people, the greater likelihood of the young picking up guns. Those who wanted unrest in Kashmir have only found a better opportunity to trigger it,” he said, questioning the selective coverage in the media and how a certain section of society can celebrate when another suffers.

Inder Salim, a migrant Pandit and a performance artist based in Delhi, felt that sharing food itself can be a political message and become an act that cements bonds between communities. “This event is a step forward that can counter the narrative of hate,” he said, adding that a black-and-white narrative has sprung up after a coexistence that intertwined religious practices of Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir was ruptured.

One has to create and renew one's own narratives to take on the grand narrative, added Salim, who grew up listening to a Kashmiri folk song on the radio at this time of the year. It went, “Eid aayi ras ras/ Eid kah wass wo” (Eid has arrived slowly/ Let us go to the eidgah). In the light of the latest developments, he suggested wryly, one has to rewrite the lines by replacing the word “eidgah” with “Jantar Mantar”.

Despite the difficult recent decades, a common language or food can sew up wounds between communities that have shared a syncretic past. As the gatherings on Eid suggested, words may not always convey solidarity. Sometimes, silent grieving or empathy is just fine.

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