Pandits of Naidmarg: Revisiting Migration and Memory

  • Muneeb Yousuf
  • Publish Date: Aug 12 2018 10:09PM
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  • Updated Date: Aug 12 2018 10:09PM
Pandits of Naidmarg: Revisiting Migration and Memory

What is left of the village after a massacre 15 years ago

Nestled amid silent apple orchards, serpentine fresh water streams and an endless vista of poplar trees, Naidmarg is a Kashmiri hamlet lost in perpetual oblivion. Located just 37 miles south of Srinagar, the capital city of the State, the village has been witness to one of the most harrowing incidents of violence, an event, metaphor and memory – to borrow Shahid Amin’s theoretical construct – that has long been, like the village itself, forgotten in time, both historical and the contemporary.

This piece is a humble intervention to revisit Naidmarg, both as a geographic and socio-political entity, in the larger realms of death, migration, and memory. In what follows is an account of my field work in the village that I conducted in June this year. The idea of the field work emanated from my curiosity, as a student of international politics, to operationalise these ideas in the local context.

 

Naidmarg: The Wrong Turn?

The way to Naidmarg is a less explored route—abstract as well as practical. It has a narrow, non-macadamized road that almost dissects the village into two equal parts. I first came across this route during the summer of 2017. On a visit to Srinagar, we took this rather unconventional route because there was trouble on the usual road. We headed toward Yaripora, a town in Kulgam district, from where the driver took, as it seemed to me, a wrong turn. Since I was exploring this road for the first time, it caught my attention right away, precisely because I came across dozens of abandoned houses on either side of the road. It looked like a scene from a Hollywood war movie. “Whose houses are these?” I asked the driver curiously. “They belong to Pandits of Naidmarg village who have migrated to Jammu and other places,” he responded. Despite being a witness to killings and migration, Naidmarg village had all the captivating characteristics that could lure an observer like me. I would call it a blend of beauty and fear. For the past one year, the first glimpses of Naidmarg were lurking in my mind. Finally, I pushed myself to visit the village to learn what had befallen its residents.

 

A Blend of Beauty and Fear

The lawns are dotted with walnut trees, and cows and buffaloes are grazing. Here and there, wooden boxes for honey cultivation have been put up. It is a perfect ecosystem for bees to gather nectar all around. Yet, a strange melancholy soon takes over as the eyes meet abandoned houses. These houses belong to members of Pandit community, who left their homes all at once, after 23 of their members were killed by unidentified gunmen during a night of March 2003. The families had been asked to assemble under the village’s oldest Chinar. They were then fired upon, killing 23 including two children. The ‘oldest Chinar’ still lives, facing the temple’s entry. My conversations with the locals revealed that the killings took place after one year of the renovation of the temple. Today, outside the temple, a thick alpine tree is spreading its branches, giving a semblance of life and hope in the village that has witnessed, to quote Joseph Conrad, ‘horror, horror.’ Today, their houses – which once were homes– stand frozen in time, overwhelmed by the silence that continues to choke even a passerby. Yet, it must be added here that the village represented a clear dichotomy in terms of how Muslims and Pandits were positioned in the village. In a sociological understanding, the upper side of the village with access to fresh water was predominantly the Pandit locality while Muslims, who mostly belong to Sheikh caste, live at the lower side of the village (‘upper’ and ‘lower’ are merely navigational categories emphasizing geographic positioning). Still, I wonder what would befall a native Pandit after watching buffaloes grazing in his/her lawn? The kitchen gardens in which Pandit women once toiled have been reduced to cesspools.

In the local parlance (this I mention for the sake of cultural context) if anyone comes across a house that looks somewhat unkempt, the phrase “zan chu ath batte ghar baneomut” is invoked, which loosely means that the house has turned like an abandoned Pandit house. Similar phrases are invoked for a piece of land that hasn’t been tilled: “zan chu ath batte zameen baneomut” [It looks like the Pandit land]. The usage of such phrases may look natural but the underlying connotations that they hold cannot be taken for-granted.

 

Conflict: The Usurper of Peace

The armed conflict that broke out in Kashmir in late 1980s is believed to have created fear among the minority community of Kashmiri Pandits. The incidents of killing of influential Kashmiri Pandits led to the mounting of fear among Pandit community that might have taken such incidents as a warning for themselves and they left the Valley. However, the Pandits of Naidmarg continued to live there. Until that March night of 2003. Such was the horror of killings that the rest of the members of the community left the very next day, leaving the village in perpetual quiet. Why didn’t Pandits of Naidmarg take killings of influential Kashmiri Pandits in 1990s as a warning for their departure and instead stayed back? The reason for their stay is rooted in the strong communal harmony between them and the Muslims of Sheikh community. In addition, the distinct location of Naidmarg prevented it from the outside interferences of any kind. Pointing towards the ‘old Chinar’ where the Pandits were killed, Mohammad Ramzan recalled: “Under that tree we used to sit and watch our Pandit brethren celebrating Kheer Bhawani…”

Difficult to Talk about Violence: A Collective Silence?

In the corner of a field stood an abandoned house, wild grass creeping over its founding stones. There was no front door, making my way easy into a corridor that resembled a dark tunnel. I used my camera flashlight to take a clearer view inside. Awash in light were two rooms and a kitchen, as I perceived them they could have been once. The hearth in the kitchen was coated with brown mud but deep cracks were quite visible, again a metaphor to allude to cracks in our society that the conflict wrought on us all. It seemed as if the hearth was waiting for light to be lit inside its bowels. Dry twigs were on top of the hearth, perhaps having descended through the chimney. A knee-high wall of brick and mud divided the kitchen into hearth area and dining area, a classic kitchen division found in Kashmiri houses. Peeping through the windows, I saw a young boy walking down the stream. I began a conversation and asked him about the Pandits. Little hesitant, the boy, wearing a blue kurta, remarked that the Pandits were killed.

On the edge of the abandoned houses was an elderly couple harvesting oat plants. Adjacent to them were few new house plinths, probably laid by Pandit families before their migration. A solitary pomegranate tree in its full bloom stood little away from apple trees which were quite young to produce any flowers. The elderly man shrugged off when I tried to enter into a conversation. “You know what? I don’t belong to this village,” he said to me blankly.

I was left with no choice but to visit Sheikh mohalla.

The path to Sheikh mohalla goes beside the temple, which is located at a higher altitude as if it stands on top of a hill. A mosque marks the opening of the mohalla, with a school just opposite it. The lanes were deserted. As I walked, I saw a loosely-tied tarpaulin, that acted as a makeshift fence, hanging in front of a house. Above the fence’s height, I could see members of a family sitting in their lawn, talking to each other. I greeted them and began to talk. The conversation began well but once it was driven towards the Pandits of their village, an elder, who must have been in his fifties, stood up, and busied himself with rearranging a haystack. It seemed as if he didn’t want to talk about the subject, perhaps too gory to be even talked about. The other man, much older than the former, probably in his sixties, couldn’t resist and said: “Nothing has happened here. The Pandits left on their own.”

This was in stark contrast to what the young boy told me. Perhaps, he was too young to self-censor. As it appeared to me, there is possibly a certain degree of unanimous consensus – informal rather than formal –among the locals that does not allow them to talk openly about it. Yet the elderly man remarked: “asei oos panvanien varaah asal, te sarei aeis akh aek sund ghare gasaan” [we had good relations with them and used to visit each other’s homes].

After our conversation, the elderly man leaned against a walnut tree and mused: “yath lanjeh taaf, that lanjeh chu shuhul te pevaan” which loosely translates that there comes both good and bad time in life. Although the elderly man refuted what has happened with the Pandits of his village, implicit in his phrase “that lanjeh chu shuhul te pevaan” are the volatile remnants of an event, metaphor and memory. The memory of violence lives with an individual and it generally does not come out easily. It transpires in different forms and ranges, among others, from deep sighs to invoking of phrases.

As I was leaving Sheikh mohalla, the elderly man, who said nothing had happened at Naidmarg, accompanied me to the main road, as a humble gesture to a guest. It came to me as a surprise that the man, who was harvesting oat plants and said he lived in a different locality, was walking towards the Sheikh mohalla. Pointing at him, I asked the elderly man, “Does he belong to this village?” He answered in affirmative and bid me goodbye.

Postscript: The Kashmir conflict has witnessed deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and the mayhem continues. The migration of Kashmiri Pandits has snatched one important component to the multicultural bowl which Kashmir represented. There is an urgent need to bring this element back into the discourse – both academic and the popular – so that this kingdom of heaven restores to its multicultural charm which it once possessed. The human rights defenders in Kashmir must equally talk about the miseries of Kashmiri Pandits. The Pandits who have migrated to different places outside the valley must be thinking about their native places. The popular saying of Kashmiri patron-saint Sheikh-ul-Aalam truly depicts the importance of a home. “ghare wandhai ghar saasa barra nearhai ne zanh /tchetit haasy koh saasa che hue khaasa wuchum ne kanh” [Home, I will sacrifice thousand houses for you, I don’t want to go beyond your walls/I have been to several places but I have seen no place dear than you].

 

(Muneeb Yousuf is a Ph.D candidate at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)