What is it like watching Shikara in Kashmir? It certainly is not the same as watching the movie outside the Valley where its subject – the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley in 1990 – has strongly resonated with people. It has played to an audience long weaned on Pandit story, now a staple in the national political discourse. More so, over the past several years, due largely to its politicization by the BJP and also to its increasing use to counter the Azadi narrative in Kashmir.
Shikara is thus seen as a welcome Bollywood recognition of the Pandit tragedy and an ode to the community’s resilience on the 30th anniversary of the exodus. Criticism, if any, has generally been about the movie not being explicit enough about the atrocities perpetrated on community in the Valley forcing them to flee.
But in Kashmir, on the other hand, Shikara has become contentious for its politics and the portrayal of the events that led to the exodus. Being without cinemas and high-speed internet, Kashmir isn’t the place where you can see new movies. Only fewer people have been able to watch Shikara by downloading its cinema print at selective facilities for broadband internet. But the media buzz around the movie which has largely framed the Pandit migration as the organized expulsion of the community by Kashmir’s Muslim majority has offended people. What has riled them even more is that Shikara is seen to faithfully reproduce the Pandit account of the exodus, passing over the Muslim side of the story.
Holding Kashmiri Muslims responsible for Pandit expulsion is like blaming the victims of a tsunami for those affected by a storm.
Kashmiri Muslims have an alternative narrative on the exodus, which disputes the version of Pandits and some of the terms used by them to describe their expulsion like ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’ and for that matter even ‘exodus’. Kashmiri Muslims never tire of quoting the official Pandit casualty figure of 209 spanning the period from 1989 to 1994. Ever since, according to figures quoted by a former J&K minister Raman Bhalla in the then state Assembly in 2010, no Kashmiri Pandit has lost his life in the ongoing conflict in the region. Similarly, as for exodus, Kashmiri Muslim hate to be accused of forcing out Pandits, arguing the revolt in the nineties wasn’t a communal riot between the two communities which could have created conditions for Pandit exodus but a struggle against New Delhi’s rule over J&K as it has been ever since.
Both narratives reflect only a part of the truth. Or highlight only the convenient parts of it. And over the years the two accounts have become so sacrosanct that one can only them challenge them at one’s risk. But it is also very important that it is done. It is true that many Pandits were killed by the militants for being alleged informers of the security agencies but so were Muslims and in much more numbers. If we go only by the official number of the killings in Kashmir, around 42000 people have lost their lives in past thirty years – unofficial figure routinely quoted by media is twice this number- among them 14,038 civilians, almost all of them Muslims. And they have died in cross-firings, grenade attacks, massacres and custody killings by security forces and of course a significant number was killed by militants for being alleged informers.
It is also true that the mosque loud-speakers crackled with slogans through the nights as rightly shown by Shikara. But these slogans were meant to be a part of the protest against New Delhi as their meaning would amply demonstrate. People chanted slogans like ‘Hum Kya Chahte, Azadi (We want freedom)’ and Ae Zalimo, Ae Jabiro, Kashmir Hamara Chor Do (O, oppressors, leave our Kashmir)’. The oppressors here meant New Delhi and its security agencies in J&K. The slogan is still chanted in Kashmir.
From the outbreak of the armed separatist campaign in the middle of 1989 until January 19, 1990, the day now observed as the exodus anniversary by Pandits, there was no communal riot in the Kashmir Valley. In fact, there has rarely been any in the Valley in the decades preceding 1990. Fewer that have been were localized and limited in scale.
But yes, there was every reason for Pandits to be terrified of the evolving situation in the Valley. As the 1990 rung in a new decade, Kashmir was sinking into a deeper turmoil with every passing day. More and more youth were taking up arms against New Delhi and more and more protesters were hitting the roads, which often continued through the night. And here was a community caught unenviably between the expectations of a majority community seeking Azadi and its own allegiance to New Delhi. This severely tested Pandits’ efforts to negotiate the divide and after a point they gave up the effort. Random killings of the members of the community only further accelerated this end of the road feeling. They couldn’t support the demand for an independent Kashmir or its accession to Pakistan but they were nevertheless dying alongside Muslims as part of the ongoing struggle.
It was this dynamic that precipitated the Pandit exodus than an organized Muslim campaign against the community as is being projected. That said, the Pandit exodus remains a darkest chapter in Kashmir’s troubled history of the past three decades. The community’s suffering has been enormous. What is more, the community is beset by a real prospect of an ethnic extinction.
But tell it to Kashmiri Muslims, they will readily acknowledge the Pandit suffering, albeit they remain contemptuous of the blame for the community’s exodus, and occasionally charge the then J&K Governor Jagmohan for encouraging the community to leave. They say they are victims of a far bigger and an ongoing tragedy, pointing also to the current siege in the Valley. Some contend that both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits are victims of the lingering conflict over Kashmir. Or as a journalist friend of mine remarked holding Kashmiri Muslims responsible for Pandit expulsion is like blaming the victims of a tsunami for those affected by a storm.
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