Kashmiri Pandits are a minority Hindu community who fled Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region controlled by India, in the wake of the 1989 armed insurgency against the Indian state. Official accounts of the number of displaced Kashmiri Pandits vary greatly, from 150,000 to 300,000 individuals, but arguments over these calculations of suffering obfuscate the deeper truth: The events of 1989 and those that followed have radically altered Kashmiri Pandits’s self-understanding and their relationship to Kashmiri Muslims. They have created a trauma that refuses to be buried and a rage that it is time to address.
I grew up in a family where this rage and trauma were visceral. Though we lived in the United States, Kashmir remained ever present in our lives — in the lotus root and kohlrabi we cooked with asafetida; in the mellifluous Koshur language that bound us intimately not only with one another but also with Kashmiri Muslims, of whom I had only heard; and in my family’s stories about a vibrant home in Srinagar, the capital city.
But that home was no longer ours. In 1997, with no sign of being able to return to Kashmir, my maternal grandfather reluctantly sold the house that he had built 40 years prior, windowpane by windowpane, with the help of my grandmother and local laborers. In a conflict in which so many countless lives have been taken and so many others disappeared, it might be difficult to understand the significance of a single house. But losing our family home, 25 Balgarden, symbolized the loss of so much more. It was the loss of an identity, a history, one my family saw as being deliberately taken from them.
This sense of loss and erasure is precisely what Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, forces have capitalized on since 1989. Instead of treating Kashmir as a political matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have turned it primarily into a communal and economic one. They have stoked Kashmiri Pandits’s felt experience of injustice by pitting Pandit and Muslim suffering against each other.
Current Hindutva strategies of divide and rule in Kashmir echo techniques of imperial conquest that far precede the rise of the religious right wing in India. Such strategies were present during the pre-colonial period as well as following Indian independence, as the Congress party — now part of India’s opposition — did its part to systematically erode Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy, rig elections and splinter the political field. But the BJP has managed to push us to a precipice: It is using the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, in addition to arguments about “development,” to justify an undemocratic, illegal annexation of Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir and to instate one of India’s most severe sieges.
Given this historical backdrop, it is no surprise that the circumstances of the Pandit exodus have never been properly investigated. Nor is it surprising that Pandits feel so much rage and lack of acknowledgment, even as consecutive governments parade their cause. To break out of one’s pain and suffering is difficult when that trauma remains bodily and psychically unprocessed, as has been the case for many Kashmiri Pandit families. It becomes nearly impossible when that trauma is made to do the dirty work of governments intent on maintaining territorial sovereignty at the cost of human lives, political freedom and reconciliation. But the way to address intergenerational Kashmiri Pandit pain is not through the oppression of Kashmiri Muslims.
The work ahead for Kashmiris is to change the scripts we have inherited. For decades, the loss and suffering of Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims has been treated as a zero-sum game. Now, more than ever, young Kashmiris need to chart a path toward reconciliation, solidarity and allyship with one another. We can begin by actively seeking out one another’s truths and stories; resisting statist manipulations of our suffering; reading deeply and widely into Kashmir’s complex history; calling out bigotry and hate in our families; denouncing Indian atrocities in Kashmir; and imagining a Kashmiri political community that accommodates and celebrates difference without simply being reduced to competing identity claims.
Reaching beyond oneself may feel like a betrayal to our respective communities. But it is not. It is the only path to our collective healing and freedom.