Why awarding Jagmohan a Padma is merely rubbing salt in the wounds of Kashmiri Pandits

Why awarding Jagmohan a Padma is merely rubbing salt in the wounds of Kashmiri Pandits
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In the winter of 2000, when I went home for the first time after the exodus, it was to make a film about why my family and my community had left Kashmir. It was still smoldering from the fires of an insurgency that had yet not been completely smothered. This was almost 11 years after the exodus of my family and my community in 1990. Though it was still thought a dangerous time to be back, yet I wouldn’t claim to be the first Kashmiri Pandit to have done so.

Many exiles, including my dear departed father and family friends, had travelled to Kashmir on many occasions earlier, incognito or with the knowledge of only a few Kashmiri friends they could trust. They would certainly not have had dared to venture into the capriciously volatile valley unprotected and with a camera crew in tow. I did not want to shoot my film under the shadow of an Indian soldier’s gun or in the company of local fixers. Though unnerving and fraught with risk to self and my crew, it was not entirely a very unrewarding lesson in fear.

A violent past

In 1990, when the exodus happened, I was not in Kashmir. I was not a direct eyewitness to the violence, killings, fear, feelings of anger, persecution and the various developments that may have led thousands of Kashmiri young men into joining the insurgency and more than 60,000 Kashmiri Pandit families to leave their hearths and homes, jobs, businesses, farms, cattle and orchards behind. I only know it second-hand that when the immediate members of my family left our newly constructed home in Kashmir, they did not even leave together. Till the day – and after traversing through the homes of many relatives and searching for various options for survival in Jammu and Delhi – they all assembled at my hostel room door in Pune, I was not even aware that they had left Kashmir forever.

Before 1990, I was a migrant by choice. Like any other small-town Indian wanting to pursue my ambitions in the big city, I had left Kashmir a few years earlier. At that time, I was sure that even if I would not want to return permanently, Kashmir would always be home. But now, 26 years later, I am still a refugee.

Following the government of India announcement last month that Jagmohan, the erstwhile Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, would be awarded the Padma Vibhushan, I was not so much surprised that the Muslims of Kashmir saw it as adding insult to their injuries, but indeed more shocked to hear that a large number of the self-styled spokespersons of Kashmiri Pandits go to town, hailing it as recognition of his role as their saviour.

Fixing the blame

Like any Kashmiri, I am nearly certain today about whom to blame for my exile, but I am not sure if there is anybody I can claim as a saviour of my community or for that matter of any Kashmiri in those trying days. It was not only the Kashmiri people, who in general failed each other miserably, but also the states and the institutions of India and Pakistan.

It is difficult to forget that at the time Kashmir burst into flames, Farooq Abdullah, the chief minister, abnegated his responsibility to his people by resigning from his post in a huff and running away to the UK.

It is important to remember that Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the first Kashmiri Home Minister in the VP Singh government, the person with a leading role in the decision-making process in the Government of India, was the one who may have decided to parachute governor Jagmohan to fire-fight the insurgency in Kashmir. Moreover, it was the same Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who in silently acquiescing to the Indian state’s surrender before the secessionist militants of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, in letting them go free in exchange of his hostage daughter, not only expediently reneged his oath to the constitution, but in doing so became instrumentally responsible for adding fuel to the fire of Kashmir insurgency.

But if Kashmir continues to smolder today, it is not only for not holding Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Sayeed accountable for willful dereliction of their constitutional responsibilities to the people, but also for what they could not do as chief ministers of the state after returning to rule later.

Searching for answers

While most Muslim Kashmiris still remain terribly wedged between India and Pakistan with their heart-breaking, unreasonable craving for a freedom laced in utopian Islamist dialectal, the Pandits on the other hand, even after making leaping strides in their middle-class station, have still continued to nurse a hemorrhaging grievance not only against the Muslims of Kashmir but also against both Pakistan and the secular representatives of Indian state. Therefore, it needs be asked: What did Jagmohan do to earn scorn from one section of Kashmiri community and approbation from the other? What great work earned him the nation’s prestigious honour, while his legacy remains mired in great controversy?

Besides a multitude of abusive allusions in Kashmir to his dubiously alleged role in facilitating the exodus of my community and a few massacres, there has not been much objective, definite and serious evaluation about Jagmohan’s failings during the five-month period when he was the governor of J&K in his second stint. Considering the magnitude and significance of the deaths and destruction that Kashmir has witnessed, we continue to remain in the dark about who stands responsible for those crucial decisions in the third week of January of 1990 that changed the course of Kashmir’s history.

There have been countless other comprehensive histories, in-depth analyses, or detailed personal memoirs, in books, articles, documentary films and works of fiction about those dark days in Kashmir, but remarkably not much concrete evidence has surfaced about his suspected – dark or benevolent – role in the turbulent first few months of Kashmir’s insurgency. There is, of course, his self-authored tome, My Frozen Turbulence, in which he offers his own one-sided bland explanations of all the good he did and the bad he attempted to nip in the bud, but the official narratives, typically, remain obtuse about his decision-making processes and methods.

Reading My Frozen Turbulence again, however, has also renewed some of my old questions and frustrations about Kashmir. How much sense can we really make or what justification can we provide of the Indian state’s knee-jerk and counter-productive, counter-violent response to the unwieldy and violent separatist movement of Kashmir?

The desire and the impossibility to untangle the complicated history of Jagmohan’s brief second stint as the Governor of J&K state not only takes me deeper into the maelstrom of Kashmir’s entangled and conflicted present, but also makes me suspect my own subjectivity even as I try to make sense of our heavily mythologised recent past. Can we truly overcome our biased truths, limited understanding, vague recollections and sociopolitical prejudices to have any kind of constructive or meaningful discussion about it today? I am sceptical.

Turning the tide

I have met him once, when he presented me my “college honours” at our college annual day function. I think it was just a few days after he had toppled the Farooq Abdullah government. It was his first stint as the governor of J&K (1984-1989). Like many ordinary Kashmiris, I vaguely picture the image of Jagmohan as a haughty, controversial and divisive character. He was much touted as a man of action, an able administrator, a doer and the one who got things done. He is said to have earned many admirers in his first stint as a builder of roads, bridges and temple Shrine Boards and also a few detractors for many ruffled feathers in high and in low places.

But more crucially, as the iconic representation of Indian state’s repression in Kashmir, Jagmohan stands on the top of my list as one among so many other characters from that turbulent era, who impinges upon my memory like the dark shadow from a nightmare named Kashmir. So, writing about him is also an exercise in exorcism of at least a part of that nightmarish past.

When Jagmohan was hastily summoned for his second stint as governor and air-dropped on Kashmir on January 19, 1990, his task was to reclaim Kashmir for India. Admittedly, it was not going to be easy to salvage a lost political situation from the ashes of Farooq Abdullah’s deliberate or genuine blunderings, but he had seemed among a few no-nonsense people who had a very precise idea what the separatist movement was all about. Immediately, he had set forth curbing its infectious momentum with prolonged curfews and massive search operations in downtown Srinagar. It may be an unintended consequence, but the fact remains, and it reflects entirely to the discredit of Jagmohan that this resulted in countless massacres of peaceful processions of Kashmiris, at Gow Kadal, Zakura, Tengpura, Handwara and Hawal.

In effect, what Jagmohan thought would stem the tide, actually helped turn a very serious insurgency, supported and financed by Pakistan, into a full-blown people’s movement. Looking back in hindsight, it is plainly obvious that what we see in Kashmir today is more a consequence of the continued heavy-handed mishandling of the situation that Jagmohan started as a means of last resort and his successors followed as a policy. The massacres of unarmed protesting civilians by the soldiers and of the cowering minorities by the militants had continued even under the democratically elected reigns of Farooq Abdullah and Mufti Sayeed. That Jagmohan, in fact, managed to turn a bad situation into worse in the few months of his second stint as governor (we are not discussing the role of other leaders and governors here) must certainly have clouded the reason of the government that awarded him the great honour of a Padma Vibhushan.

Moral culpability

That the few months of Governor Jagmohan’s stint in J&K also coincided with the near-absolute emptying out of the Pandit community from the valley of Kashmir does not also recommend awarding a high national honour to the very person in whose wake this catastrophic event happened. He may perhaps not have been in any position to stop the exodus, but as the administrative head of the state, as the authority figure of India in Kashmir in those turbulent times, he shares the moral burden of letting it happen just as much if not more than the rag-tag band of militants who deliberately targeted the Pandits to scare them away.

Perhaps an equivalence of his moral culpability may be seen in how the Sikhs of Delhi or the Muslims of Gujarat would look at Rajiv Gandhi or Narendra Modi after they let the anti-Sikh and the post-Godhra carnages happen in their wake, and what they could have done but did not do in their positions as the prime minister of India and the chief minister of Gujarat to prevent them happening.

That these two leaders earned resounding mandates from the people following the carnages in their wake cannot obfuscate the fact of their moral culpability in failing the very people they were constitutionally and by their office bound to protect. But in the case of Jagmohan, even if not wished for, his actions or blunders contributed to long-term failure of Indian state on both fronts it had intended to resolve: The Muslims remain alienated from India and the Pandits have yet to return home. But it was not a one-off failure considering his complicated and controversial history.

This was the same man who previously, in the dark days of Emergency, as Vice Chairman of the, Delhi Development Authority, and as an active minion of Sanjay Gandhi’s Five Point Programme implementation brigade, rose to infamy as the mastermind of the Turkman Gate Massacre. This was the same man, who ten years later, in his first stint as the governor of J&K state (1984-1989) dismissed an elected government and replaced it with Gulshah curfew puppet-regime supported by Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party and 13 National Conference deserters.

It was in his wake, after his ill-thought insistence on meat ban on certain auspicious days for Hindus that the first anti-Pandit riots in South Kashmir happened. There is much discussion about the role of Mufti Sayeed, the then Mirwaiz of Anantnag and Shabbir Shah in those riots, but for now let us confine ourselves to Jagmohan. Again, though it is Farooq Abdullah who is rightly blamed for the rigging of the 1987 state elections that changed the course of Kashmir’s history, we cannot forget that it happened when Jagmohan was at the helm as its Governor.

Inconclusive answers

There is, however, the very serious allegation often levelled at Jagmohan and directly at Kashmiri Pandits, not only by many Kashmir experts and leaders but also the ordinary people in Kashmir that the exodus was a conspiracy masterminded by Jagmohan in cahoots with the Pandit leadership. Their contention remains that Pandits were, in fact, asked to take a vacation to Delhi or Jammu for a short while till the Muslim insurgency in Kashmir could be sorted out – with mass killings, or carpet bombing of Kashmir’s towns and villages, if necessary.

This is, of course, still in the realm of hearsay and refuted by all Kashmiri Pandits in exile with such morally forceful vigour that it could put any Holocaust denier in shame. But if the Kashmiris remain unmoved and wish to persist in their conspiracy theories about the exodus and a few other incidents that cast a bad light on the azaadi movement without furnishing any definite proofs, then justifiably, they must also be willing then to look at every other event that casts India and its army in evil light with similar conspiracy-tinted glasses. If we must be party to doubting or casting aspersions on the sufferings of the Pandit community with unproven allegations of their own complicity in their suffering, how can the pain and suffering of the majority community then be expected to be believed or even respected?

I did try to confront this allegation or conspiracy theory head-on in my documentary film,Tell Them, The Tree They Had Planted Has Now Grown (2011) on a couple of occasions. Once, at the headquarters of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the militant organisation responsible for most of the minority killings, when I asked Javed Mir, one of the four top leaders of JKLF in the initial years of the insurgency, if Jagmohan was responsible for the exodus, he answered, “It was our mistake. Some of our boys are still in jail for the [Pandit] killings.”

On the second occasion, when, in presence of a Pandit who had not migrated, I confronted a local journalist about the Pandit exodus, he did allude to Jagmohan vaguely, but couldn’t provide any valid justification except hearsay. It was the Pandit, who refusing to concur with his assertion, blamed the capricious times instead. In all my work in Kashmir since my first film, I have yet to come across a single story or an incident that could come close to validating what the majority community believes as an act of faith.

Over many years, contrary to what is expected after the fatigue of unresolved disputes and confrontations set in, the picture of Kashmir, instead of becoming clearer as the time passes, looks murkier today. A noteworthy aspect of the irresolution of the conflict of Kashmir is its entangled theme of victimhood, guilt and shame. In the many years since 1990, under a continuous onslaught of viciously mounted ideological campaigns and societal stresses, the people have turned on one another even within. In many stories and memories about the events of 1990, various narrators from either side, typically continue to portray themselves as hapless, innocent victims or defiant resisters and the absent other as the perfect enemy.

Having said so, it is therefore, not my intention or desire to pass judgment or paint any community, or people, or just one single person, as the villains of Kashmir. There are countless others, too, in high and low places. Though I do not wish to judge, it is certainly within my right to question why someone like Jagmohan, who as a living symbol of the Indian state’s dubious and controversial record in the affairs of Kashmir, instead of having been held accountable for the mess that Kashmir is in till today, is recommended for a national honour that rubs salt on many unhealed wounds. Here, I only speak for myself. I ask for my constitutional right and that of many peaceful Kashmiris to justice, dignity and honour, to be better governed, to be protected and taken care of as a law-abiding citizen.