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Saturday, 8 February 2014

'The All-Pervasive Politics of Rhetoric': A Short Story

Two Kashmiri Sunni friends, Khalid and Amjad, with quintissential Kashmiri features, were discussing the plight of the Kashmiri Hindus. They were well aware of the ongoing events, for their own Hindu acquaintances had been subjected to violence and threats by militants, some of whom were also their acquaintances. Khalid’s family had secretly given sanctuary to a Hindu family they were close to, the Kauls, and was helping them to leave the valley for the time-being, hoping they would return one day, but they had not shared this with any Muslim.

Khalid was disgusted by the way fellow Kashmiris were being killed, raped, driven away, and said to Amjad - "Whatever happened to Kashmiriat? Whatever happened to our humanity?" Amjad replied annoyingly at what he perceived to be Khalid's naivete - "Why do you care about these rascals? These Hindus ruled over us for a hundred years (Dogras), deprived us of positions of power and made us engage in forced labour. And they are still ruling us (India). These folks have a screwed up religion - they worship cows, trees and what not, and even a child stealing butter as God! They have a history of burning widows with the bodies of their deceased husbands.They openly support India and not our azadi tehreek...These Pandits are all IB agents, let me tell you!" Khalid was annoyed, but felt it was futile to argue. If someone had chosen to pass judgment on a religion without studying it, was sure of all Kashmiri Hindus being IB agents and wanted to avenge wrongs committed by rulers back in history, there was little to be said. And though he believed that religion ought to be evaluated in the light of humanism and not vice versa, he decided to speak to Amjad in a language the latter would understand; so, he said – “Doesn’t Islam prohibit this? Our religion gives us rules of warfare, which prohibit cutting living trees and killing animals, except for the sake of food; then, where’s the question of killing unarmed human beings? And the Quran says that jihad is to be a defensive war against deprivation of the right to freedom of religion or forced displacement. No one is displacing us, nor is anyone stopping us from practising our faith. We have led peaceful lives as Indian citizens praying in our mosques and Sufi shrines and earning money by way of an influx of tourists from across the country and other parts of the world; then, what is this jihad for? I am talking of the Islam you and I have learnt from our pirs, not what these new madrasas are teaching.” Amjad looked a little confused, then said – “As Muslims, we must be governed by the sharia.” Then, he confidently asserted – “And why does India not implement the UN resolutions for a plebiscite? And why do they rig elections?” Khalid did not agree with Amjad’s version of the sharia, but did see a point in the rest of what he was saying (oblivious to the fact that the UN resolutions mandated a plebiscite only after Pakistan handed over the so-called Azad Kashmir to India or that Nehru had even tried to arrange a plebiscite, but the proposal got scrapped because the Pakistanis insisted on an American plebiscite commissioner), though he still couldn't get why unarmed Hindus had to be shot dead, and he knew that there were other Kashmiri Muslims, even those who were anti-India, who were not as radical-minded on the issue of the Kashmiri Hindus as Amjad was.

Khalid’s grandfather had been a participant in Shaikh Abdullah’s Quit Kashmir Movement and a fanatical admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru (justifying even his detaining Abdullah) and his idea of a socialist, secular India with J&K as a Muslim-majority province, something Khalid's father and Khalid had inherited, but he could indeed make sense of where the anti-India resentment in the minds of most Kashmiri Muslims, like his friend Amjad, was coming from.

Given the volatile situation of the valley owing to the militancy and human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian military and paramilitary forces, Amjad moved out in 1991 and settled in Mumbai. Khalid ran his handicraft business in the valley, giving money to militants when they asked for it, though he despised them for their theocratic and communal outlook and believed that Kashmiriat could be best safeguarded by way of Kashmir remaining a part of a country that prides itself in pluralism – India, though his blood did boil whenever he heard of a fake encounter or a rape by an Indian soldier, and he hated the life of curfews, as also how the Indian media, by and large, was apathetic to what the Kashmiris were having to undergo, but he recalled how in his childhood, some of the visiting non-Kashmiri Indian Hindu tourist families who used to come to the handicraft showroom, then run by his father, came across as nice people and had become close friends, visiting the valley in summer holidays every year. He could not get himself to hate Hindus in general. Yes, usually, the soldiers were rude and brash, but he reminded himself that that is how government officials are across feudal-like South Asia. As for their human rights violations, he knew that many of the militants were no better, even with Muslims when they wanted to extract money or marry a girl, and had read about what the Bengalis of East Pakistan, mostly Muslims, were subjected to by the Pakistani Army. Yet, he dared not articulate his views publicly anymore, for doing so would be life-threatening. He loved Kashmir and he loved the idea of India because he loved Kashmir, and his attachment to the land of his birth prevented him from moving elsewhere in India or overseas. He wanted to last it out in the valley for as long as he could.

For business purposes, he decided to make a trip to Mumbai in January 1993, and also cash on the opportunity to meet his friend. Some people told him that it was not safe to travel to “India” because the Babri Masjid has been demolished. Nonetheless, he decided to make the trip, telling them that Kashmir wasn’t safe either.

However, on reaching Mumbai, he realized that the warning had merit. Innocent Muslims were being killed by Hindu extremists with policemen, some exceptions notwithstanding, as casual bystanders. All in the name of Ram, who had been described by Alama Iqbal as Imam-e-Hind, Khalid thought to himself. He was seething with anger and equally, he was scared, but he somewhere had this feeling that Indian secularism would outlive this, that all Hindus cannot be stereotyped, given that the campaign leading to the demolition of the mosque had been opposed even by many Hindus, as per what he could decipher from the media. His Hindu acquaintance, who was to host him and with whom he had business, was seemingly a nice man but told him that he could not risk a Muslim staying in his house, for the sake of his family. Not knowing what to do, Khalid called his fellow Kashmiri friend saying that he wanted to meet and then, Khalid would try to return to the valley as soon as possible. His friend said – “Is this the India that you love? So very secular, I must say! We can meet at a restaurant on ABC Road, it's quite secluded. But don’t let anyone here know that you are a Muslim. If your Kashmiri looks make someone suspicious enough to ask you, tell them that you are a Pandit. That might win you sympathy for them to not strip you to check!” The two met and were sipping tea, when they overheard a man greet another saying “Jai Shri Krishna!” They were suddenly gripped with fear. Though dressed in western attire, were these people genocidal maniacs? Then, they heard one say - "I am ashamed of what these Shiv Sainiks are doing. Whatever happened to Indian secularism? And how is this in line with our religion that advocates ‘Ahinsa Parmo Dharma’, something the Mahabharat attributes to a lizard telling a king when he is out to engage in genocide?" This calmed down Khalid and Amjad, but the other fellow replied saying - "Oh, come on... These bastards ruled us for hundreds of years, destroyed our temples and imposed jaziya. They have a bizarre religion in which they circumcise their kids, beat themselves up on Muharram, oppress their women and what not... They support Pakistan in cricket; they are all ISI agents, let me tell you!"

Khalid looked at Amjad, and asked him very softly – “Does this ring a bell?” Amjad replied even more softly saying – “Of course, it does! Let me tell you that many of the local Muslims I know here actually cheer for India in cricket, even against Pakistan. I told you what sort of people these Hindus are but you never believed me.” Khalid replied –“Well, the guy condemning the violence is also Hindu….” Amjad interrupted saying – “There are exceptions…” Khalid went on saying, “But do you remember the debates we had about what the Hindus in our valley were being subjected to? You and this Hindu extremist, both criticize the practices in the other religion, talk of wrongs by some rulers who are dead and gone and in a baseless fashion, make sweeping assumptions about association with an intelligence agency. I thought you would be impressed by his arguments!”

Amjad was confused, then was quiet for some time, thinking of how the Kashmiri Hindus were vulnerable like he was right now. Finally, he replied, saying – “You are right. Now, I can imagine the plight of those poor Hindus, the shopkeeper Raju and school master Ajay Sir… they were so nice to us…” Tears rolled down his cheeks and he was now loud enough to be noticed.

The Hindu extremist heard him crying and came up to them. He placed his hand on Amjad’s shoulder and sweetly but somewhat arrogantly said - “Hey, don’t cry, my friend. Life offers its challenges, but Krishna takes care of everything.” Looking at Amjad and then Khalid a little carefully, he asked – “Are you Kashmiri Pandits?” Khalid replied in the affirmative, and the extremist turned to the table where his liberal Hindu friend was sitting and said – “Look, these are the victims of the actions of these evil, aggressive Muslims. Ask them what they think of Muslims.” Khalid got up, got Amjad to get up too and recalling the gratitude of the Kauls to his family, said – “We love our Muslim friends in the valley. We are alive because some of them helped us escape safely, protecting us from the militants, who had a mentality much like yours! And don’t forget, what you do to Muslims here can have an adverse effect on the Hindus still in the valley. Jai Shri Krishna!” And the two left the restaurant.

© Karmanye Thadani 2014

PS - I would like to thank Sualeh Keen for his constructive inputs.