Sunday, January 04, 2015

My response to the CRPF IG's so-called clarification

My former employer, The Hindu, in its January 4 edition, has published a so-called clarification from the Inspector-General (Operations) of the CRPF in Chhattisgarh, Mr. HS Sidhu, over my report (carried in The Hindu on December 13, 2014) on the failure of command during a Maoist attack on a CRPF party in Sukma, Chhattisgarh on December 1. It is followed by a note from the newspaper's editor-in-chief, regretting "any inaccuracies that have crept into the reports". The reporter, in this case myself, has not been given a chance to respond. The newspaper has just gone ahead, presuming "inaccuracies", and by doing so has undermined its own editorial credibility.

Here's my response to Mr. Sidhu's so-called clarification:

1. After an encounter with the Maoists on November 21 in exactly the same area where it happened again on December 1, Mr. Sidhu had issued instructions to his troops, derived from "learning points" from encounter with Maoists on November 21. Its first point states: "Movement of Ops party in open ground ground is to be strictly avoided." On the morning of December 1, when Mr. Sidhu ordered the commander of the CRPF party, Mr. Sanad Kamal, to come and see him at a different location, wasn't he aware of the fact that the 100 troops of the 223 Battalion (plus others) were camping right outside Kasalpada village in an open field? Isn't he the IG, Operations of Chhattisgarh?

2. A day before the encounter that resulted in the death of 14 CRPF personnel, on November 30, hadn't Mr. Sidhu asked Mr. Kamal and his troops to move to a new GR (grid reference) where he said he will meet them. But after the party reached there, he was not there. As a result, the CRPF troops had to spend a night on a hillock (hill number 406), exposing them to Maoist attack.
3. In the same instruction list, point 13 states: "It is also noted that the behaviour of some personnel bordered on a state of panic... commanders should provide encouragement and demonstrate a positive attitude to personnel under their command." So, when Mr. Sidhu summoned Mr. Kamal, wasn't he aware that he was leaving the troops without a commander? And where? Outside a village which is known for its sympathy for the Maoists (it is from here that the IAF chopper was earlier fired at). Was any attempt made to sanitise the village before the troops were ordered to camp outside the village?

In the absence of their commander, the troops panicked and, as reported by me, fired over 7,000 rounds of bullets in response to a few hundred by the Maoists.

4. Whether Mr. Sidhu was 400 metres away or 2 kms. away will be clear in the inquiry initiated by the CRPF. It will be clear once the inquiry committee compares his GPS logs to those of the slain jawans. 5. Mr. Sidhu is right when he says his team was the first team to reach the site. But when did he reach? He reached when the Maoists had killed 14 CRPF personnel and looted away all their ammunition, including highly sophisticated and deadly weapons like Underbarrel Grenade Launchers. Mr. Sidhu strongly refutes the claim that he reached the encounter site at 2.30 pm, 4 hours after the firing started. If he did not, what time did he reach? If he reached earlier, as he claims, why did he not order the immediate evacuation of the injured and the dead personnel? Why did the party reach the Chintagufa camp only at 09.30 pm in the night - just 7 kms. away from the encounter site? Is it not true that at least one jawan died on the way to the camp? Had Mr. Sidhu reached the encounter site earlier, why couldn't the jawan be saved? I am a responsible journalist and do not twist reports. So there is no question of unfairness and malice, as Mr. Sidhu's lawyer has alleged. My report does in no way benefit me or anyone I know. As a journalist and a concerned citizen of this country, I am worried about the sorry state of affairs in the CRPF (and Maoist-affected areas) and how poor jawans and Adivasis are becoming sacrificial goats in the fight between the Indian State and the Maoists.

 Mr. Sidhu and his lawyer is most welcome to pursue this case in a court of law. I am open for any scrutiny.

(All highlighted documents are from the CRPF's internal communication, including situation reports filed by other officers, accessed by the reporter through his sources)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Puncturing the separatist discourse

The following post by Sualeh Keen, my friend from the Kashmir Valley, should not be seen as a review of Gowhar Fazli's review of my book, "Our Moon Has Blood Clots." I see it as a needle that has punctured the balloon of the separatist discourse in Kashmir. Sualeh's post is a reminder that no matter what academic halo you lend your discourse, all it takes is a plain set of truths to rip that halo off.

 1. ON DENIAL // While it is difficult to deny... // Gowhar Fazili seems to be speaking for himself, and he, at an individual level, may indeed find it difficult to deny that not just militants but many ‘unarmed’ people from the majority community also targeted the Pandits with various methods of intimidation. Gowhar needs to be congratulated for saying something that his fellow-separatists never ever acknowledge in public. But the fact remains that the majority of the majority (and I don’t say this lightly) continue to publicly blame the exodus of Pandits on Governor Jagmohan — purportedly, to clear the ground for the genocide of Muslims — as if the JKLF, SLF, Al-Umar and other militant organizations were busy elsewhere in administering polio drops to children!

 To quote Shantiveer Kaul, “No section of KP opinion has, as far as I know, ever suggested that all Kashmiri Muslims were complicit in forcing them to flee. It is painful to see large sections of KM opinion (more in the virtual world) consensually arguing that KPs left at the behest of Jagmohan who later unleashed terror on Kashmiri Muslims. This is a direct suggestion that by their act of absenting themselves from the equation, all KPs facilitated - and were thus complicit in - the miseries and misfortune suffered by the majority community. Nothing can be more degrading and hurtful than this preposterous insinuation.” In other words, the Jagmohan theory is a red herring that not only allows Muslims to disown total responsibility for the exodus (“Moral Disengagement”), it also, ironically, tries to depict the Pandits as evil Little Eichmanns who cleared the ground to facilitate the genocide of Muslims. It is the most disgusting accusation that can be heaved upon victims.

 What I am appalled at, however, is the sheer stupidity of arguing with actual victims that nothing happened to them and that all their memories are mere fabrications (even furnishing them the reason: Jagmohan!), as if the victims are going to say, “Perhaps you are right, though I don’t remember every receiving any directive from Jagmohan. Let us just agree to disagree.” No, they are going to protest and the amount of their bitterness will increase proportionally with the degree of denial. If Muslims really want to mend fences with Pandits, they could not possibly indulge in something more counter-productive.

Other red herrings from the separatist camp to distract from the communal nature of Azadi:

 1. “The Pandits are cowards to have run-away. Look at Sikhs; they are minorities as well, but they bravely faced the situations, just like brave Muslims. Thus, Pandits have only themselves to blame.” Rebuttal: Khalistani and Mujahiddeen were bhai-bhai back then. No slogans were sung about Sikhs and Sikhyanis.

 2. “It was a class struggle; the Pandits had occupied all the posts (some specifically mention 'bureaucratic posts' that additionally interfered in Kashmiri affairs). They had it coming because of their 'ku-karma'.” Rebuttal: As of 1990, Pandits did not have any advantage over Muslims in getting jobs (on the contrary, they were discriminated against, starting with the Bakshi government). This zero-sum theory (“our loss is their gain”) is a Leftist spin to show 'class' was the reason for targeting Pandits and not 'religion' (yes, that’s why a poor Pandit panwalla was targeted!). Well, at least this theory acknowledges that the Pandits were indeed targeted specifically.

 3. There are other ‘politically correct’ red herrings, such as blaming everything on the famous Foreign Hand (here, Pakistan/ISI), on “vagaries of time”, “violent winds of change”, qismat, etc. At least, ‘ku-karma’ doesn’t feature here, so no rebuttal. This Denial that the Pandits were intimidated by members of the majority is the backdrop of the book. Rahul Pandita has publicly declared that his book is an attempt at countering the denial by KMs in general of what led to the exodus of Pandits, via the narration of his personal ordeal. By brushing aside this salient feature of the book, Gowhar Fazili is shifting the goal-post of the review towards a direction more convenient to him and his ideological position. Actually, he is denying the book its very raison d’être! Thus, Gowhar Fazili’s review can only be called “A Denial of Denials.”

 Yes, Denial is the name of the game. However, it needs to be emphasized that one cannot really blame KM kids who were not born in 1990 or were too young to understand the events that unfolded back then. Their 'knowledge' is second hand and they are not to be blamed; the older generation is responsible for the misinformation that the new generation has been fed. It also needs to be emphasized that not everybody was aware of what happened, due to a number of reasons:

 1) Some were too preoccupied by the volatile situation to take notice what happened to the minorities.

 2) Some lived in a locality where there was little contact with the minorities.

 3) Due to curfew, some couldn't even know what was happening next door.

 4) Some forgot what exactly happened during the build-up to the exodus, because new incidents were happening everyday in 1990 — massacres, killings, blasts, crackdowns, protests, encounters, targeted assassinations — and each day's news obliterated the previous day's news, until the exodus became a footnote in our (KMs’) own experience with the conflict. This is also why many KMs genuinely don’t recall the night of 19th January, for it was a night one among many similar ones that were to follow.

 5) There are also many instances where a panicked Pandit family did not even inform their closest relatives that they intend to flee during the night (Rahul Pandita too has mentioned this in his book). This secrecy was maintained because there were incidents where militants looted the Pandits who were about to leave.

 This vacuum of knowledge of 'why did my Pandit neighbour leave' / 'why the Pandits left' was soon filled by conspiracy theories conveniently supplied by separatist militants who orchestrated the entire thing as they saw no role of Pandits in their violent political project. THUS, one cannot blame the Muslims who had no role in the exodus or those who used to mouth the Jagmohan conspiracy theory because they don't know better. Besides, there were no Pandits left in the valley to ask the truth from. This cannot be called Denial; the word for it is “Ignorance.”

 HOWEVER, now that due to internet, one can directly ask any Pandit individual what made him / her leave their home, one can learn the truth right from the horse's mouth. One will come to know of threatening letters, of religio-fascist slogans that made the entire minority community cringe in fear, of targeted assassinations, of them having been advised by their well-wisher Muslim friends that it is beyond their ability to save them (Pandits) so it was advisable to leave. Ask the victims. Simple.

 We all should realise that all claims to 'victimhood' are interconnected. If we don't believe the victims of the minority community, how do we expect them to believe or sympathise with the victims of our own community? We need to acknowledge the truth — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Truth comes first in Truth & Reconciliation, and there can be no reconciliation without the former.

 2. ON FRIENDS AND FOES //“ makes for an overstatement to underplay the equally frequent narrative of mutual support between individuals that one gets to hear during conversations between the members of the two communities privately. Such underplay does violence to those aspects of shared memory.”// This is an unsubstantiated claim. So much for reducing Rahul Pandita’s personal experience as a “subjective” thingy, while pretending to eavesdrop on “private conversations” to go on to claim that the latter are “equally frequent.”

 How many people from the two communities were in touch with each other post-Exodus but pre-Facebook days? Few (and some of them were real estate agents...). Actually, given that widespread Azadi sentiment was about merging with Pakistan for religious affinity, the communalists easily outnumbered the friendly ones.

Nevertheless, let us assume this unsubstantiated, though possibly true, equivocation: In 1990, a minority of around 5% of the total population was surrounded by 47.5% friendly ones and 47.5% hostile people. [Am I the only one alarmed that as many as half the population was hostile to Pandits?! Should I be deflecting this glaring fact by pointing to the other ones who were friendly?! Well, it won’t be the first time when extremists hide behind the moderates in their fold. “Idhar nahin, udhar dekho!”] Nevertheless, the fact remains even the friendly ones — as large a group as they were — couldn’t protect the Pandits from the communalists, and in fact, the friendly ones, in many cases, were the ones who advised the KPs to move out as they feared for the latter’s life, an advice that could have been and most probably was well-meaning.

 This itself raises an issue that wades into even more uncomfortable territory. Let us take a look at what Gowhar euphemistically calls “mass rebellion”. Were the hundreds of thousands of people who led processions with green shrouds wrapped around their bodies, who braved the bullets and pelted stones, who picked up the gun to fight with Indian Army, *afraid* to confront the communalists amongst their fold? This simultaneous display of aggression and helplessness does not add up. Fact is that even Friends had resigned to a Kashmir without Pandits, thanks to the widespread belief in early1990 that ‘Azadi-is-round-the-corner-just-a-couple-of-weeks-away’. On 19th January, people were in a celebration mood. It was a Jashn-e-Azadi (‘jashn’ or celebration) when people gathered in mosques, played recorded Jihad songs and shouted slogans — anti-Kafir and, at many places, anti-Pandit) — on PA systems of mosques. And as we know, not many people remember their friends during ‘good’ times.

The point is, if the denials and red herrings continue, the accusations are bound to be even more vehement and tar-brushed, and even Friends will lose the R of relation and become Fiends. This denial business is only going to make things uglier...

Also, what is with the Friends that they only acknowledge the plight of Pandits in “private conversations”, while their public stand is that of denial, deflection, and whataboutery? The stark inconsistency between the public and private statements of Friends is also a sibling of Betrayal. I recall being told that a 2010 post on MVJKL titled “Who is responsible for the exodus of Pundits?” was the first instance of public acknowledgement by a few Muslims of the truth behind the exodus. For all I know, there may have been other instances of public acknowledgement, but I’m not aware of any. Anyway, I was shocked: What, not even once in public in 20-frigging-years?!

So, Friends, come out come out, wherever you are. Don’t you know your Public Silence does violence with the memory of the victims?


Harbir Singh Nain has already demonstrated how communal the Tehree-e-Azadi has been. I would like to add that Azadi is intrinsically communal because it is the ‘unfinished business of Partition’, which was along communal lines. Elsewhere, Dilip Simeon says, “The entire issue is a product of the communal partition in 1947, without which it would not exist. And there is no possibility of communal reconciliation without a recognition that communalism is one phenomenon, not two or three.”

Nevertheless, disregarding all evidence to the contrary, let us assume for a moment that Azadi wasn't originally communal. Then again, even if Azadi was not communal, the separatists made absolutely no effort to make it secular. How many Pandits were asked to join the Tehreek? Azadi was always communal, even when the word was not extant, even when its emotional equivalent was mere throwing of stones on the roof-tops of Pandits' houses in some areas whenever the Pakistani cricket team lost to India.

Gowhar Fazili's review goes beyond Rahul Pandita's book and furnishes a highly intellectualised apologia for the violent and communal religio-regional movement called Azadi, which in 1990 meant merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. Gowhar's apologia reminds me of Julien Benda's famous essay "The Betrayal of the Intellectuals," in which Benda argued that French and German intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century had often lost the ability to reason dispassionately about political and military matters, instead becoming apologists for crass nationalism, warmongering and racism (in this case, communal violence).

But I don't wish to spend time deconstructing the intellectual doublespeak. Instead, reality has a habit of cutting through the cranium. So let us see how reality stands next to a web of words.


Let me share one real incident — one of the less sensational, commonplace and therefore untold incidents of 1989-90 — from my hometown, Anantnag:

There used to be a small Pan Shop near Lal Chowk, Anantnag. This pan shop was run by a Pandit and the shop also sold newspapers, periodicals and comics (I was a regular customer for Indrajal and Diamond comics).

Those were the days when "Symbols" gave the dress code diktat for KPs and KMs (the women of former community had to wear tilak, so that they won't be thrown acid upon, which was meant for women of latter community who didn't observe the burqa... how considerate!). The "Symbols" gave another diktat prohibiting the sale of filmy and sensuous magazines, besides shtting down all movie theatres as well as the multitude of Video Halls (which are still absent from the valley, even after 22 years). Naturally, the Pandit's Pan Shop complied and stopped selling such magazines. But even that did not help.

On one of the curfew days, the Pandit owners of the shop, who lived a few hundred metres away in a Pandit mohalla, noticed smoke arising from the Lal Chowk area while they were basking in the sun on the top of their house. Within minutes, the whole Pandit Mohalla gathered in their sitting room (since all houses were internally connected). Some little bird had told them that their shop was being looted and some portions had been set on fire. All the Pandit men from the mohalla unanimously decided to violate the curfew (since it was already violated by the "Symbols") and stop the loot. After an hour or so, they returned home with bruises and blood on their faces and arms. All of them had been beaten up by the Police who did nothing to stop the loot. The Pan Shop owner's brother had — a high school teacher — just sat down in the middle of the road, helpless, and urged the Police and the "Symbols" (all known students and acquaintances who lived around Lal Chowk) to beat him as much as they wanted. Next day, there was a small column news story about it in some local newspaper, which was rather intended 'to send the message across': see what happens to those.


Reality! So what do we have here? Communalism, Common People, and Police, all of them together and pretending to be "Religious Symbols" that of course they are not. Verily, communalism and fascism soon sheds its organisational character, especially when it becomes a mass movement.

And yes, Mr. Anonymous: Curfews were broken. Deal with it.


But the Pandit family did not 'migrate' (as it is called, a la Butterflies) even then. They did not leave even after 1st Jan 1990 when they found a 'Quit Kashmir' threatening on JKLF's letterhead pasted on their outer gate. The wordings, it began very comically, "Dear Pandit ji, Happy New Year" and then in next two paragraphs "Quit kashmir", "dire consequences", "your family and children" and all other banal and innocuous "Symbolic" phrases. No, even then they did not leave, though they packed off their children to Jammu where an uncle used to live since 1986. By May 1990, the entire mohalla was deserted except for a Pandit couple (the teacher and his wife) who stayed there with the hope that things might turn around. A family friend IQBAL stayed with them and dissuaded his "freedom fighters" to spare them at least on two different occasions. It was only when the Azadi militia knocked at their outer gate that the couple in their bed clothes ran through — devil knows better — what kotchas and sadaks, paid every single paisa they had to a taxi driver who brought them to Jammu. They say you should have seen the look on their faces when they arrived in Jammu.

So, Gowhar Fazili would us believe his apologia? And he would ride the high horse of self-righteousness by using one Iqbal as the shield behind which the mob and police at Lal Chowk and an entire violent and communal movement can hide? Ath dapaan, “Phakass thaavun sarposh” (Keeping a lid on the stink). This, coupled with his rather amusing defence of the spread of the religion of the community he hails from, suggests (though I cannot say with certainty) that he is playing to the "Jazakallah!" gallery and Leftist circles where batting for and playing down Muslim communalism qualifies as a certificate of secularism and liberal thought.

And um, btw, people should read Rahul Pandita’s book to decide for themselves. Nowhere does he deny an Iqbal when there was one.


//To look at Pandits as active political actors would also mean to understand their complicity through silence over the systematic state violence that has prevailed in Kashmir pre and post Pandit departure.//

This is a false assertion. Sure, Pandits were proud of the fact that the first PM of India (Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru) and his family hailed from their community. Sure, they though BSF are security forces of their country. But to say that Pandits played an active role in the political scene of the valley is a lie. They didn't even figure at all. In fact, their electoral number was too low to make any dent in any constituency, save in one or two constituencies in Srinagar. In fact, many of them were so disinterested in the Sher and Bakra fights, NC-Congress showdowns, etc. that they didn't even bother to vote. So, yeah, they were disinterested and therefore "silent" about the sham democracy that prevailed, the rigged elections, etc. In fact, this numerical disenfranchisement may be another reason why they identified more with national politics than the local one.

But this assertion is not just false, it sounds as insensitive / malicious as the common separatist argument that "Jagmohan asked the Pandits to vacate the valley so he can massacre more Muslims." So, according to Gowhar Fazili, the Pandits as evil Little Eichmanns ("the elite embedded in the system") whose "silence" contributed towards the violence that existed. I had said that the Jagmohan Conspiracy Theory is the most disgusting accusation that can be heaved upon victims. I was wrong; there can be even more or similarly disgusting accusations.


Couldn't help but notice that a friend on Gowhar's thread talked of a delegation of Pandits going to Ranjit Singh and used that as an instance of "Active Politics of Pandits." This is quiet amusing when people jump from 1990 to antediluvian times. Most likely that the delegation was led by one Pandit who had accrued a large tax liability and was finding ways of waiving that off, with what better than a coup d'etat! Amusing it is, when the people, who protest that Rahul Pandita has cast a monolithic picture of the KMs, themselves generalise about the Pandits based on a bunch of people who had their own motivations for approaching the Sikh leader! And where are the oh-so-sensible Sufis? Didn't Makhdoom Sahib invite the Sunni Mughals to Kashmir, to stave off the Shia Chak rulers, or it that okay because you belong to...? Alas, it seems that in our side of the world, communal identity lurks under the surface of every second person we happen to scratch.


//Leveraging tribal raids, Islamism and violence against minorities in Kashmir to undermine or drown out those political claims is ethically as well as logically unsustainable. This may find emotional resonance with the Hindu rightwing in India and sadly that may be exactly what is sought.//

Being the concluding paragraph, this is the take home of the presentation spin of Gowhar Fazili, who, I am sure, is too literate not to use all the ammunition in the literary arsenal.

And Gowhar Fazili's review will help ......? Fill in the blanks; by now, you would have gotten the answer.

In any case, knowing Rahul Pandita and his consistent public stance over the years, any suggestion that he is working on behalf of the Hindutvavdis is not just downright ridiculous, it is actually another Red Herring (a special case of Fallacy of Association, that makes people ideological allies if they all believe that the earth is round) intended to distract the audience from the factual contents of Rahul's memoir.

So, shall we stop talking of Islamist communalism because it will furnish the Hindutva brigade material they can use? And shall we stop talking of Hindutvavad because it helps Islamists? No. Not done.


@ Kashmiri Muslims:

Au contraire, far from a rear-guard defence of Hindutva, Rahul is a sane and sensible humanist: complete opposite of the Hatemonger the Azadi-mongers are trying to paint him as. Take a look at this short video, in which he is accused of being anti-Pandit just because he speaks what he thinks is the truth.

Why cannot we let him express his anguish, without pointing fingers at his Hindu name? He is a victim as well.


An excerpt from Our Moon Has Blood Clots pages 102 to 105:

(Btw, the phrase in the title is by Pablo Neruda, who in his "Oh, My Beloved City" wrote: "...and an earlier time when the flowers not stained with blood, the moon with blood clots!").

//It was at Geeta Bhawan that I had an experience that could have altered my life forever. One evening I saw some boys and a few elderly men gathering at a ground behind the Bhawan. They wore khaki knickers, and one of them erected a wooden pole in the middle of the ground with a saffron flag on it. Then they formed two rows and put their hands over their hearts and chanted some mantras. One of the men spotted me watching them and signalled me to come towards him.

'Are you a Pandit sharnaarthi?' he asked.

He made me sit next to him. Another boy joined us, sitting in front of us on his haunches, listening intently to the man.

'You've been evicted out of your own homes by Muslims. You know that, right?' he asked.

'Yes, they evicted us,' I replied.

'What does it do to you?' he asked.

I was not sure what he meant so I kept looking at him. The boy intervened. 'What Guruji means to ask is whether you feel something inside about it. What do you feel?'

I tried to gauge how I felt about it. For a few seconds, so many images crossed my mind. Of those boys claiming our house. Of the fear on the dark night of January 19. of the searing heat in my room. Suddenly I felt very hot under the collar.

'I am very angry,' I said.

He looked at me sternly. 'How angry?'

'Very angry.'

'Say it loud. How angry?'

'Very angryyyyyyyyy!'

'Good,' he said. 'Now the question is: what do you want to do about it? Will you accept it silently like a napunsak or do you want to take some action?' he asked.

Napunsak. Impotent. Suddenly I wanted to do something. Suddenly I wanted a gun in my hand and I wanted to kill. I wanted a bomb in my hand and I wanted to throw it in Lal Chowk at one of the processions.

'We are from the RSS. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. We will give direction to your anger,' he said. 'Come, let's go join the others,' he continued, looking at the other men.

We went and stood in front of the saffron flag.

'Put your hand on your chest,' the man said.

I had seen them doing this earlier. So I did it exactly as they did. And he made me recite a mantra.

'Come here every day,' he said. 'We meet here every day. We will teach you many things and make a man out of you. A man who is willing to fight for his rights, not only for himself but for his entire community. We are Hindus after all. Have you heard of Parshuram?' he asked.

I had. I knew some of the verses of a poem about the warrior ascetic's dialogue with Lord Ram's younger brother Laxman. I recited some of them. He looked at me, not understanding what I had recited. He did not know those verses. I explained what I had recited.

'Oh, of course, now I remember,' he said, breaking into a smile.

'Come tomorrow, I will see you here,' he said.

They all shook hands with me.

I was so excited I ran all the way from the ground towards the main building of Geeta Bhawan to look for my father. It was very crowded so it took me some time to find him.

'There you are,' Father said the moment he spotted me.

'Kot osuk gaeb gomut?' he asked. Where had you disappeared?

That was my father's favourite phrase when he was mildly angry. I ignored it and began animatedly telling him about my encounter. I was so excited that I did not see his expression change.

'I am going to see them tomorrow and every day now,' I went on. 'They will teach me how to fight the Muslims who made us flee from our home.'

'Listen, you fool!' My father tried suppressing his anger, but the tone of his voice hit me like a slap. 'We are not here to fight but to make sure that you go to school and get your education. You don't need to worry about anything else. Where we live, what we eat, where the money will come from---none of it is your concern. You just concentrate on your studies. And, yes, tomorrow we are admitting you into a school.

'And don't you dare meet those men ever again,' he hissed.

Years later, I saw Father reading a report on the slain Ehsan Jafri, brutally done to death by a Hindu mob in Ahmedabad's Gulbarg Society, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. As I sat next to him, I read how Jafri had nurtured a nest of barn swallows in his room and to protect them, he would not even switch on the ceiling fan. That day I realized that Father had gifted me something invaluable. Something that enabled me to calmly face an uproariously drunk army general one night in television news studio. We were there to debate human rights violations in Kashmir and I pointed out that there needs to be zero tolerance towards such crimes. 'How can you say that?' he barked. 'It is they who have forced you out of your homes, turning you into refugees.'

I looked him in the eye and said: 'General, I've lost my home, not my humanity.'

(typos: all mine)


I have an inkling why Rahul Pandita has chosen to do so. He has stated in an interview that Pandits were hounded out because of two reasons: 1) Identifying with India. 2) For practising their religion. Also, a victim's theistic beliefs does not make his victimhood less so. In fact, the 'religious shroud' plays a vital role in highlighting the centrality of religion in this particular conflict. After all, many Pandits were targeted for solely their religion as well, and not because they were 'confirmed mukhbirs'. Now, if a return of Pandits is ever going to happen, it can happen only if their religiosity is not just accepted but also expected, by default. As an atheist, many passages in the book sound silly to me: whether it is the Durga mantra, the premonitory dream, etc. But that does not distract me from the facts, which continue to be factually correct. No. I wish Gowhar would point to some error in facts, rather than resort to ad hominem criticism of religious overtones and wishing that an atheist should have written the book. In my opinion, Rahul Pandita would have done his community a disfavour had he pretended to be an atheist / irreligious.

Also, much of what Rahul has written, including a concise history of past exoduses of Pandits, is what he recalls hearing, for it is a memoir he is writing. Anecdotes, such as one in which a Pandit talks of Superior Genes to Rahul Pandita do not reflect on the author. I am sure a highly literate person like Gowhar Fazili would know that some character says in the memoir need not be and are not that of the author. Also, Rahul Pandita himself is well-qualified to know what it brings to the fore the chauvinism that some members of his community suffer from, and he should be congratulated for telling it like it is, instead of glossing over it.

Even when he presents the concise history of Pandits, he also mentions Chaks and says that Sunni Muslims were also oppressed that rule. He also mentions that Pandits were treated well by the Sikhs/Dogras and Muslims ill-treated, with a special mention of forced labour. It is a classic case of Confirmation Bias on part of Gowhar to complain that Rahul Pandita was brief about it and did not elaborate. I see no reason why Rahul should have talked of the Buddhist era and talked of persecution of Buddhist people by Hindu kings (though he mention the Buddhist phase in passing). Let a Buddhist write one more book to satisfy the literate Gowhar Fazili's appetite for history for the sake of it. This whataboutery is crude.

I feel it is perfectly all right (though not necessary) to mention illustrious predecessors to let the audience know where the people come from. And hackneyed as it sounds that "the Pandits are 'aboriginal' people", I think that is something that Leftists, who romanticize the adivasis, should know, despite their ingrained dislike for Brahmins.

That the book is an account of victimhood of one community only is assumed by the subtitle and its single-mindedness is therefore declared forthrightly right at the outset. Gowhar Fazili cannot point to what the author has already declared as his own "Gotcha! Caught you, Rahul!" moment.

I didn't get the feeling that the book is conveying a "seamless narrative" that Muslims had one-point agenda of persecuting the Kashmiri Pandits over the centuries. That Pandits have had exoduses in the past as well is well-chronicled. Why feel bad on behalf of But-Shikans of history when Zain ul Abideen is also mentioned? Isn't the whole idea about denouncing the But-Shikans and preventing them from rearing their ugly heads again? Indeed, that is what is required. In fact, without that happening, it is unlikely that Pandits will return.

As for accusations that Rahul Pandita hold "historical grudges" against the Muslims, they are patently false. Don't believe me? See for yourself what Rahul Pandita is about, and how he contrasts with the Hindutva right wing and Panun Kashmir:

I think that is about it. Will make brief responses to queries and other comments. I sign off by sharing my feedback (posted in another thread at MVJKL) from a few days back on the book:

It is always an uncomfortable position for me to defend something I haven't read (outside of my default defence of the right of expression). But I also had full faith in Rahul Pandita's integrity. It also helped that I did not find anything particularly untrue in the much-maligned 'excerpts'.

Now that I have read the book in full, I am relieved and can say with authority that I did not see any fabrication or propaganda in it. Have to say that there was no new revelation in the book for me (because I am already aware of what happened to Pandits... I am neither in denial mode nor do I have confirmation bias). However, I found the personal account of 'internal displacement' in 1947 --- the memoir within the memoir --- quite evocative, especially in how a person cannot even reconcile with Homelessness, even if the exile is from Baramula to Srinagar.

And anybody having misgivings that the memoir holds All KMs responsible for the exodus are patently false. The memoir recalls individuals as they were -- the good, the bad and the ugly --- and these memories resonate with my memories of those times as well. The grief at the death of one militant who was helpful to Rahul's family is genuine, as is the anger at some other non-militants.

Rahul, in one of his interviews, made a categoric statement that he does not hold only Militants responsible for the exodus, but also local people from the majority community. I fully agree with him here. There were many non-combatants who exploited the situation, e.g. someone sent threat letters to his boss for instant career escalation, someone else coveted Pandit property, non-combatants dancing over spilled Pandit blood, etc. It was a strange time in which even housewives schemed of ways to target people by using their militant contacts. What is so controversial about this; these are all facts. And they do not suggest that every last person was involved, but certainly a whole lot of militants (who also came from the majority community), and non-combatants as well, targeted Pandits, and often not because the latter were 'confirmed agents'.

This book fills the lacuna about Pandits present in Curfewed Night (which depicts the exodus by referring to 'empty benches' in classroom, without going deep into what made the Pandits leave). Thus, 'Our Moon...' should not be seen as antagonistic to any narrative, as it completes the information about 1990 already well-known.

The only things factually incorrect in 'Our Moon..' are a few grammatical mistakes, and at one place, it should have been Awantipura instead of Martand, and in another place, the author misconstrues the reason Muslims distribute uncooked meat on Bakr-e-Eid... that's about it: all trivial errors, inconsequential to the thrust of the book, which is based on facts. Similarly, you cannot discredit Curfewed Night because the author wrote 'sleepers' instead of 'slippers'.

I was thinking of writing a review of 'Our Moon...', but now I am not sure any more. How does one 'review' some personal memoir, whose literary merit or lack thereof is secondary. And though the literary flourish of Curfewed Night was slightly better, Our Moon is a an account of personal suffering, which Curfewed Night was not, and which therefore makes Our Moon understandably a more personal book. I just read it uncritically, taking in all the experiences, living them in my imagination, and now they are part of my own memories.

It is a book that had to be written, and a book that needs to be read, especially by those who are still in the dark about that dark chapter of tehreek-e-azadi.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

There Are No Attendants

Every man is an island. That is what I was told when I arrived in this city as a new migrant. But even when I knew nothing about its machinations, I did not believe in the aloofness of the human soul. I plunged myself in friendship, and in love. On certain nights, some of us would sit in a second-hand white Fiat, whose only one door opened, drinking beer in a bar called Sonarupa, on the Janpath road, and then sing loudly “Dil to Pagal hai…” Some of us fell in love with married women, and some with women much older, writing forty-page love letters till motors were switched on in the wee hours of the morning in water-deprived Punjabi colonies.

Then everything began to change gradually. The city overwhelmed us. Only memories remained of friendship, and of love – memories that would make me smile to myself when I sat alone on humid nights, on bare floor, drinking alone. Sometimes I would take out an old polythene bag from the storeroom, going through its contents, relics from those wonderful days: photographs with lipstick marks in the back, bracelets, letters, a well-thumbed copy of “Lust for Life” that I almost knew by heart at one time. All these sentiments had become extinct. Love had turned into some fossil.
This change, this face-off with loneliness felt like another exile. I had faced one long ago, in Kashmir. It was in 1990, right after the Shivratri, which is our most important festival. It is a festival of elaborate rituals, and of feasting that lasts for days as we celebrate the marriage of Shiva with Parvati. In exile, though, this marriage feels almost as if they are getting married secretly in a courtroom. But still, we manage the basics. In this city that essentially means that we go to the INA market, buy walnuts, and lotus stem, and collard greens, and pooja paraphernalia including an almanac that guides our lives.

This year I went myself, carrying an empty rucksack to fill things in. I bought everything father had asked me to, and I climbed down to the metro station to return home in the suburbs. No sooner had I entered the coach that something happened to me. My heartbeat went berserk, there was a strange sensation in my arms, acid rushed upwards from my stomach, and I felt dizzy. I got down at the next station, kept my bag down and sat on a bench. Ten minutes later I felt better. I thought of what had happened to me. It felt like a heart attack. I picked up my bag, slowly climbed to the main road, and called a doctor friend whose clinic is in east Kailash. I got into an auto rickshaw. Hardly had we covered a mile or so when the second attack hit me, this time more severe than the previous one. I was becoming disoriented with each passing moment, and incoherent. Before I thought I would collapse, I told the driver that I possibly didn’t have the time to reach east Kailash. I asked him to take me to the Emergency in Moolchand hospital, which was not far from where we were. I also realised that I needed to inform some one. I have friends; it’s not that I don’t have. But somehow in that moment of panic, I couldn’t think of anyone. There was traffic jam, and I was now almost collapsing. I remember the driver looking at my face through his rear-view mirror, taking the auto on the wrong side, and driving me in to the hospital. As I entered, I called a friend whose office is not far and told her what had happened. And then I got myself admitted.

Minutes later, I was on the bed with all kinds of wires strapped to my chest. My finger was attached to a monitor, and someone inserted a needle in the back of my hand. Someone took a blood sample. A nurse tried to put oxygen mask that I refused to wear. The ECG was taken, and blood pressure, and blood sugar. All of them turned out to be normal. But I was shaken completely. I’m not afraid of death. But it is strange how I thought of my father when I was collapsing, and what he would do if I were to die. This thought made me shiver. I couldn’t feel the base of my spine. I looked over my left. On the bed next to me, a man was puking blood. My friend had still not turned up. I realised I could die, and nobody would be around to even hold my hand. I closed my eyes. And I remembered a small hymn my grandfather had reluctantly taught me when I was a kid. It was from the Durgasaptashati that he would recite every day, before sunrise, in the abode of the Goddess in his ancestral village. It is believed to be too dangerous; apparently it releases too much energy, and some are even believed to have lost their mental balance while reciting it. I remember how I had thrown a fit, refusing to eat for a whole day before grandfather gave up and taught me how to recite a portion of it. And now on the hospital bed with my shirt buttons open, I recited that hymn. I felt calm afterwards. Suddenly, nothing mattered. I was ready to face anything.

After a repeat ECG, the doctor said I could go home. There was nothing wrong with me. “Has his admit card been made?” she asked a nurse. “We are waiting for his attendant,” the nurse replied. It is then that I got up from the bed. “It’s okay, I will go and get it made,” I said. I looked at my bag. The collard greens would be ruined if not kept in the fridge soon. I went to the reception, got myself admitted on paper, and, fifteen minutes later, I was discharged. I took a taxi and went home. I managed to save the collard greens.

Next day, I consulted a Cardiologist. I set the TMT machine afire, exceeding my desired heart beat rate. I could have run on it all day.

I still don’t know what happened to me. And it doesn’t matter. Tonight, I will fix myself a stiff drink. The attendants might not turn up. The man might indeed be an island. But as long as he remembers what his grandfather taught him, he will be fine. As long as he has that old polythene bag in his storeroom, he will be fine.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

There never has been a home

“But is it wrong for a man to make a house, a place where he can return in the evening?” – The Journals of John Cheever

There never has been a home. He thought of it many times. In the cacophony of train compartments. At some airport lounge. On some night journey in a bus. He has not been able to sleep. He gets up in a fit, at some odd hour in the night, and then he cannot return. In the darkness of the night, he stares at the tiny red light on his mobile phone. Sometimes he feels warm breath on his neck. Or a nail digging into his arm. Or a leg plonked on his thigh. But he knows there is nothing.

The other day, he was in this departmental store, picking up some grocery. He felt strange putting garbage poly bags and disinfectant in his shopping trolley. He didn’t know why, but right afterwards, he also picked up biscuits and chewing gum. He didn’t need them. But he picked them any way. There were too many things that didn’t make sense. He didn’t think of them. But there never has been a home. He thought of it many times.

Sometimes he felt life had bypassed him. Sometimes he was not sure of that. Sometimes he felt he was still seeking love. Sometimes he was not sure of that. Earlier, he would mingle around, during the day – talk about food, about someone’s marriage gone kaput, about a film that was being raved about. The nights were different. In the night, he turned into someone else – someone he had no clue about. The nights had always been like this, more or less. The nights were always tough. But now, even days were turning him into someone he had no clue about.

He would wake up in the morning, go to the balcony, look at the cars in the parking, and then turn back to the room. He would read the newspapers without even registering a word. He would drink tea. He would put last night’s socks into the washing machine. He would stare at his shoes. They stared back at him. Finally he would get up and put them inside the shoe rack. He would keep on checking time on the table clock as if he was not sure time was passing. He felt like getting out, and yet when he did, he would long to return back to the room. There was always the comfort of a whisky bottle lying half hidden behind the sofa. He could always hide behind what lay half hidden behind the sofa.

And, more than often, he returned. He would then get up in the night, and find himself resting against a lean pillow. He would have drifted off to sleep like that. His neck would be sore. He would taste loneliness in his mouth.

In the darkness of the night, he again imagined things. But he knew there was nothing. There never has been a home.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Hypocrisy of Distant Cheers

Beyi sund dod chhui bemaane/ Yas akkis banih te sui zaane
(Another’s pain is without meaning/ Only the sufferer knows what it is like) – A Kashmiri saying
Ms. Mridu Rai sent her piece to Open first. But as per her own admission, my piece angered her so much that she didn’t care whether my magazine would publish it or not (“Just writing it is proving to be a soothing balm”, she wrote on Facebook). Nevertheless, even after she was soothed, and without waiting for Open’s response, Ms. Rai’s piece was published in Kafila by one of its administrators – a little boy whose idea of activism is getting a picture clicked in front of a photoshopped board that reads: Screw India.
It took me some time to pick up from Ms. Rai’s academic hubris the questions she has asked. She begins by questioning my right to express my views on a literary festival that was to be held in a land where I was born and where I would have spent my life had we not been driven out by religious extremists in 1990. Like other authors, and publishers, and artists, I was also a part of the advisory committee of the Harud festival. Of course, my interest was to make the festival a success. But how does it amount to conflict of interest, as Ms. Rai thinks it is? Suppose, as a member of the government’s National Advisory Council, Jean Dreze expresses his view on something counter-productive done by the rural development ministry or any other power on the NREGA, does that amount to conflict of interest? Just how?
The other problem Ms. Rai has is with my assertion that in the festival, I was going to talk about ‘everything.’ By ‘everything’, I was only referring to the range of issues whose one end simply doesn’t exist for Ms. Rai and many others like her. There are barbed wires, unmarked mass graves and red-eyed CRPF troopers in Kashmir. But there is also the mass untruth about the killings and the subsequent exodus of a small community called Kashmiri Pandits who became the Tutsis of Kashmir in 1989-90. Those who were killed amidst slogans of Assi gacchi panunuy Pakistan, batav rostuy batinen saan (We want our Pakistan, without Pandit men, but with their women) included poets, academics, teachers, doctors, old men and women, and infants (Please search #OtherGraves on twitter for details of some of these gruesome murders). Not a single person responsible for these killings has ever been convicted. Does Ms. Rai ever raise this issue in her numerous writings or in the seminars she attends? Forget the Kashmiri Pandits for a moment. Has she ever even put up a Facebook message on other killings of innocents in the valley, for instance, of the brutal murder of two young sisters in Sopore in February this year?
Then Ms. Rai goes on and refuses to acknowledge even my hangnail Kashmiri identity as someone who has been in exile for 21 years now. She wants to know what I mean when I say I am “a writer who is from Kashmir.” Well, Ms. Rai, no beating around the bush. I am a Kashmiri Pandit. That makes me a ‘writer’ who is from Kashmir, and not a ‘writer’ who is from Delhi. And that coupled with the fact that I have extensively reported from Kashmir gives my voice the unique legitimacy irrespective of whether you recognise it or not.
Yes, I know that the police clamped down on some of those who expressed their dissent through cyberspace (I will return to it towards the end). But it is also true that the reporter, who broke the story of unmarked mass graves, and many other important stories, continues to live in Kashmir. Those Kashmiris who had accepted the invitation to be a part of this festival also live there: Rahman Rahi, Naseem Shafaie, Shahid Budgami, Shujaat Bukhari, Zareef Ahmed Zareef, Anjum Zamrud Habib, and many many others like the journalist Iftikhar Gilani, whose jail diary “Tihar ke Shab-o-roz” won him the Sahitya Akademi Award (He was to speak at the Kashmir University session but will now attend the forthcoming Jaipur literary festival).
I stand by my usage of the word ‘sabotage’ in my previous piece because I know that some of these writers were called and dissuaded from attending (not necessarily by those who signed that letter against Harud). And they couldn’t say No because they were silenced in the name of the ‘cause.’
Ms. Rai and others had problems with the so-called apolitical nature of the festival. Had Anjum (who was charged under POTA and has written a book, Prisoner No. 100) attended the festival, what would have she spoken about? Houseboats and carpets? The festival, by the way, was to begin with a session titled: Conflicts and Contradictions (Tehelka’s Shoma Chaudhury, writer Omair  Ahmad and myself). And, suppose, for argument sake, even if the festival were to be apolitical, who is Ms. Rai or others to decide what the Kashmiris who live in Kashmir want? If a young Kashmiri wants to meet Chetan Bhagat or get a book signed by Shobha De, who is Ms. Rai to decide otherwise?
The problem with the likes of Ms. Rai is that they suffer from what a friend the other day termed as “Nelsonian vision”. Factor this: Ms. Rai calls the holy Amarnath Yatra a “militarily enabled jingoistic exercise”. What does that mean? That the yatra cannot happen without the military taking over it? (Not true at all since the pilgrims have been welcomed by the locals even at the peak of the 2008 Amarnath agitation). And why is the pilgrimage to one of the holy abodes of Lord Shiva a ‘jingoistic exercise?’ Because Hindu pilgrims from all over the world come there, singing paeans to the almighty, chanting Har Har Mahadev. What should they exult in to win Ms. Rai’s favour? Yahan kya chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa?
Further, Ms. Rai urges us to use our ‘influence’ to “prevail on publishing houses” to print the story of many Kashmiris. How much influence has Ms. Rai used herself for making their stories heard – in publishing, or at least in seminars and conferences that she attends, from Delhi to Dublin?
The truth is that Kashmir has, to quote another friend, turned from war economy to intellectual economy. And it is in the interest of the likes of Ms. Rai that this cheering from distance should go on. A young Kashmiri, Junaid Azim Mattu makes it clear to Ms. Rai in a response to a different matter:
Looking at conflicts and occupations through lenses of liberal academic thought and theory makes us oblivious to certain core realities. When mobs driven by emotions do so, it’s understandable. When grieving families driven by grief do so, it’s justified but when the ideologues of chronic and default anti-statism in New Delhi, Calcutta and elsewhere cheer thirteen year old kids to face automatic weapons with stones – it’s blatant hypocrisy”.
On Ms. Rai’s Facebook post, someone called ‘Rumuz E Bekhudi’ responded by writing: Rahul Pandita shouldn’t be alive. “You mean he should die of shame?” Ms. Rai quips.
Ms. Rai, I will die when I have to, and God willing, it will not be of shame. But I will tell you a story of ‘cyberspace dissent’ that perhaps only you may not feel ashamed of: Last year, on Independence Day, Mumbai’s Free Press Journal carried Vox pop of young Kashmiris on what they felt about India. A bright Kashmiri girl, a Srinagar-based budding artist, spoke about the concerns of ordinary Kashmiris, and then also went about praising chief minister Omar Abdullah. After that, all hell broke loose. Through a Facebook group called “Bekaar Jamaath” (Idle group), and on e-mail and phone, she was threatened and abused by fellow Kashmiris. She was so scared and intimidated that I believe the article had to be removed from the cyber space. Did you, Ms. Rai, know of it? Perhaps not. Had you known of it, would you raise your voice? Not at all, because it doesn’t fit in your vision of ‘freedom of speech’.
And the question of freedom of speech brings me to a question that I want to ask Ms. Rai:  Suppose for a moment that Salman Rushdie was indeed invited to the festival, and that he had accepted it. What would her stand be? And those of others who signed that letter?
But, as of now, I believe, Ms. Rai is tired. On Kafila, she has asked the 14 original signatories of that letter to return her ‘soul’ and ‘individual agency’. “They were only on loan, you know!” she writes.
What does that make Ms. Rai? An intellectual mercenary? 

Previous Post: The Autumn of Hypocrisy

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Autumn of Hypocrisy

Tonight, they will raise a toast. Tonight, they will pat one another’s backs, and, in the confines of their apartments in New Delhi and elsewhere, may even take out victory marches. Someone might even hurl an imaginary stone, declaring that finally, the Internet Intifada has been successful. Congratulatory messages will flood Facebook and Twitter. After all, a sinister design has been defeated. The Harud (Autumn) Literary Festival, scheduled to be held in Kashmir Valley in the last week of September, has been cancelled. It was a State conspiracy, as they would like everyone to believe.

The truth is that the festival has been sabotaged. A letter circulated on the internet condemned the literary festival, claiming that it would portray a false sense of normalcy in the state. The group circulating the letter also had issues with the organisers’ terming the fest an ‘apolitical’ event.

As a writer who is from Kashmir, and who was invited to be part of this festival, I didn’t care how this festival was being described. I was going to be there to talk about everything I felt strongly about: the killings of the past few summers, the unmarked mass graves, the unfortunate spectacle of an old man being made to frog-jump in front of his son by a CRPF trooper, the untruth about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, the hypocrisy of the mainstream media when it came to reporting on Kashmir. I also felt the festival would enable young Kashmiris to interact with prominent writers and artists, and also serve as a platform for them to learn about literature and the process of writing. But saying even this much is apparently taboo. How dare someone teach anything to Kashmiris? After all, young Kashmiris now read Edward Said and Dostoevsky.

As a journalist, every visit to an army officer’s house, draped as it was like a mini Kashmir Arts Emporium, would leave me seething with anger. Here I was, a Kashmiri in exile, who hadn’t even been able to salvage his ancestral shawls and carpets when forced to leave home one cold January night in 1990. And, no, it was not because of Governor Jagmohan.

I feel the same anger now at those who have turned Kashmir into their personal fiefdom, into a monopoly nobody else can touch. All those who opposed the fest—and this includes some of my friends—will get other platforms to present their work. But for many Kashmiris, that opportunity is lost. As a writer friend who was to attend the festival said: “The call for boycott means that those who can express their opinions without being under threat are the only ones who will get a chance to speak. The rest, especially those in Kashmir who have never been part of the conversation before, will find themselves forced to take sides even before the literary festival has begun, silenced in the name of ‘the cause’.”

The process of boycotting this festival has also exposed some severe fault lines in the Kashmir narrative. Somewhere, a careless journalist reported that Salman Rushdie had been invited to attend the festival. This prompted someone to create a ‘Boycott Harud festival’ page on Facebook. Some of the comments here are chilling and one major factor why the organisers decided to call off the festival. One of the members of the organising team, Minhal Hasan, wrote a post on the page denying that Rushdie had ever been invited. She added: ‘We seek support for the spirit of the festival which is plural, inclusive and aims to be a platform for free speech and expression.’ One Adil Lateef responded to her post, writing: ‘Just come here, we will behead you.’ Another wrote: ‘Whoever defends a blasphemer is a blasphemer and should be stoned to death.’

When two of my writer friends took a stand against the festival, I was flooded with calls from journalists of both the national and foreign press for a counter quote. In one of my earlier statements to a news agency, I mentioned how this summer had been peaceful in Kashmir and how I hoped that the fest would bring further intimations of peace. In an hour, the agency reporter called me back. He wanted me to elaborate on ‘peace’. That is when it struck me: I had stepped on a land mine. I immediately made my stance clear. I said: “The festival will not make CRPF soldiers disappear from the streets. The fundamental issues about Kashmir will remain the same. But the festival should be held since I personally know so many Kashmiris who are keen to tell their stories. We need to hear them out.”

We need to hear the young MBA graduate who connected with me on Facebook, and then again, by sheer coincidence, in a protest outside Kashmir University last summer. We need to hear journalist Suhail Bukhari, who was forced to take refuge in Delhi after he was booked for waging ‘war against the nation’ because he had simply chosen to report the truth. We need to hear political activist Anjum Zamrud Habib, who was wrongly declared a convict and sent to prison. Anjum was supposed to attend the festival, but backed out once the battlelines were drawn, forcing everyone to take stands.

Some of those opposed to the festival had also called some invitees in order to dissuade them from attending it. They issued veiled threats as well. “We will be launching smear campaigns against those who decide to attend this festival,” one of the invitees was told. For me as well, I am told, they had devised a strategy. They had plans of dubbing me a ‘right-wing fascist’ who is also a member of the Kashmiri Pandit group Roots in Kashmir (RIK). I laughed when I heard this. The fact is that because of my position on Kashmir, I am hated by every RIK member, except one, a young man called Aditya Raj Kaul who remains a friend despite our ideological differences. I am sure even my friend Yasin Malik, against whom the RIK had initiated many campaigns, will be amused. Will the general-secretary of the party for whom one of those opposed to the festival used to make revolutionary posters in his student days call me right-wing? Well, best of luck, mates.

This reminds me of a musical a group of students had wanted to organise at Kashmir University some time ago and were forced to call off. The future of Kashmir will also depend on who emerges a winner in such battles: those who opposed this musical or who were for it. Unfortunately, those who opposed Harud have ended up strengthening radical voices in Kashmir.

To my Kashmiri friends I say this: we need to fight our own battles. The Twitter messiahs will come and go. They have no stake in our story. For them, we are just case studies. For another article. Or a film. Or white paper. It is time we owned our stories. The story of Fancy Jan, who received a bullet in her heart. The groom whose henna-dyed little finger went lifeless. The old poet in whose forehead they drilled a nail in place of his tilak. Or the young Kashmiri who travelled from Delhi to Jammu in June 1997, and, at the Punjab-Jammu border, saw a photo of his brother’s bullet-ridden body splashed on the front page of Daily Excelsior.

I will tell that last story. Harud or no Harud.

Rahul Pandita is a Kashmiri writer. A staffer with Open, he was a member of the advisory committee for the Harud literary festival


Friday, August 26, 2011

Guerilla in the forest

This girl is a member of the Chetna Natya Manch, the cultural troupe of the CPI (Maoist). Along with other members, the girl travels from village to village in the guerilla zone. If need be, she can also defend the group in case there is a police ambush.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hello, Bastar


"Rahul Pandita had done something unusual - He had studied the Maoist movement at ground level for more than a decade, growing ever more interested in the way it functioned, travelling through the remoter jungles of Central India for weeks on end and spending time with the tribal people." -- PATRICK FRENCH, British writer and historian.

"This book could be useful for any future dialogue between the government and the Maoists which is an urgent necessity": Jailed Maoist ideologue KOBAD GHANDY

"Angry, restrained, detailed, circumspect...a strongly felt portrait of the Maoists of Bastar": BUSINESS STANDARD

"Pandita achieves a sensitive and humane account of the real lives of the people in the Maoist movement by cutting through not just State and media propaganda but also through Maoist ideology": TEHELKA

With direct access to the top Maoist leadership, Rahul Pandita provides an authoritative account of how a handful of men and women, who believed in the idea of revolution, entered Bastar in Central India in 1980 and created a powerful movement that New Delhi now terms as India’s biggest internal security threat. It traces the circumstances due to which the Maoist movement entrenched itself in about 10 states of India, carrying out deadly attacks against the Indian establishment in the name of the poor and the marginalised. It offers rare insight into the lives of Maoist guerillas and also of the Adivasi tribals living in the Red zone.

Based on extensive on-ground reportage and exhaustive interviews with Maoist leaders including their supreme commander Ganapathi, Kobad Ghandy and others who are jailed or have been killed in police encounters, this book is a combination of firsthand storytelling and intrepid analysis.

Hello, Bastar is the story of:

•How the idea of creating a guerilla base in Bastar came up
•What the rebels who entered Dandakaranya had to deal with
•The Jagtial movement that created the ground for the Maoist movement
•The first squad member who died for revolution
•How Maoists and their guerilla squads function
•Their goals, recruitment, party structure and funding Their ‘urban agenda’
for cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai
•Their relationship with people and peoples’ move- ments
•Maoist supremo Ganapathi and other top leaders
•Anuradha Ghandy’s journey from Bombay to Bastar

Available in book stores across India from June end onwards.
Tranquebar Press/Paperback Price Rs. 250

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Sunday, May 01, 2011


Long time ago I used to know this woman who was much older than me. We met at a bar one cold winter night where we sat at different tables, both of us alone, and both of us nursing the same brand of whisky. The waiter who served us both knew me well since I was a regular. At one point, and I think I was on my third drink, my glass and that of the woman emptied about the same time and we asked for a refill. She noticed that I was also having the same whisky, and I looked at her, and a smile passed between us. We got talking.

On that lonely night we opened up to each other, and we talked about many things. I remember most of what we shared, but there is one thing that I remember the most. As we left we held each other in a light embrace. The woman flicked the ash off her cigarette.

Before she turned, she looked at me, and she said: “I am so tired of being an emotional anchor.”

It has been many years. I have lost touch with that woman. The bar where we met has been turned into a convenient store. And now I am tired. Not out of being an emotional anchor – that I cannot be, I suppose. I am tired of many things.

At one point in “Alice in Wonderland,” Mad Hatter tells Alice: “You used to be much muchier. You have lost your muchiness.”

I think I am tired of the absence of that muchiness in life.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Unsaid Words

A woman remembers her best friend, a man dubbed a Maoist and killed by the Republic of India. He happened to be her journalist husband

“For the first time in my life,” says Babita Pandey, “I had a wifely chat with Hem a night before he was to leave for Nagpur.” They discussed how they never took a holiday in their eight years of marriage, she says. “I told him that there were so many things that had been left unsaid in our relationship, and that we needed to plan our lives.” She remembers his putting aside the book he was reading and smiling at her. She remembers his words. “He said our life is a part of the larger events that shape this society, and that it cannot be separated from what’s happening in India or elsewhere in the world.”

Babita sits on a boulder at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and her eyes well up at the memory of Hemchandra Pandey, her husband: “My best friend,” as she calls him. It is sunny and she squints, perhaps as a ruse to hide her tears. Sometimes, she brushes imaginary dust off the dial of her Sonata wristwatch. Sometimes, she looks at her worn socks or her hang-nail fingers clutching her knees. A cup of warm tea sits by her side. It is two days since the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Centre and Andhra Pradesh government on a petition filed, among others, by Babita, seeking a judicial probe into the killings of Maoist leader Azad, 58, and journalist Hemchandra Pandey, 32. “We cannot allow the Republic killing its own children,” a court bench had observed.

The two were shot dead together last July by security forces in an alleged fake encounter. Azad had on him a letter written by Swami Agnivesh, the mediator appointed by the Centre for talks with Maoist insurgents. The police said that Hem was a Maoist as well and that both were killed in an armed engagement in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh, close to the Maharashtra border. Civil rights activists, however, allege that both of them were picked up from a hotel in Nagpur, flown in a helicopter to the jungles of Adilabad, and then executed in cold blood.

Azad was supposed to travel to Bastar from Nagpur to seek the opinion of a section of the Maoist leadership on talks with the Centre. The post-mortem reports of both Azad and Hem suggest that they were shot from very close range, even as an independent probe carried out by human rights groups tears apart the police version of events in Adilabad’s jungles. Activists allege that Hem was killed alongside Azad because the police did not want an eyewitness to survive. An agitated Swami Agnivesh, who has complained about what he terms the “Government’s deceit” (in luring Azad into a talks trap), had been demanding a judicial probe into the ‘encounter’.

Babita remembers the day very well—the day Hem left for Nagpur. It was 30 June, and Hem left for his office to check the last page of the Hindi magazine he used to help bring out. He returned in the afternoon, Babita says, and left soon after to catch his train to Nagpur. “I called him in the evening,” recalls Babita, “he picked up his phone and laughed gently. He said there was a fat man sitting on his seat. He said, ‘I’ll sit in a corner.’ I said, ‘No, you ask him to vacate that seat—after all, it’s reserved for you.’” That night, Babita didn’t call again, to her everlasting regret. The next morning, when she called, Hem’s mobile was not reachable. She tried again later in the day. This time, she found the phone switched off.

“I got really worried since Hem would make sure that he calls me from wherever he was,” Babita says. On 2 July, Hem was to return on a train that would have arrived in Delhi at 7.30 am. Babita cooked him a breakfast. He should have been home by nine. When he didn’t arrive, Babita went to the railway station to check whether the train was delayed. It was not. By late morning, news of Maoist leader Azad having been shot dead in an encounter was breaking across TV news channels. It was not all that was to break that day.

A friend of Babita caught a picture of Hem’s body in a newspaper, and alerted her brother to it. The horror took several staggering moments to sink in—he too had been shot. “He was wearing the same shirt I had taken out for him,” says Babita, “a cotton shirt, since I knew it gets very hot in Nagpur.” The shock began turning to numb acknowledgement only once she saw Pandey’s decomposed body. It was a sight all too painful, worsened by the labels some sections of the media started slapping him with. “He was just a left-leaning journalist who would spend most of his meagre income on books,” she says.

Both Hem and Babita are from Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand that shares its boundary with Tibet and Nepal. In his college days in the late 1990s, Hem was an active member of the students wing of a left-wing party. Babita was still in school when they met. “He would come home with my brother. I liked his serious demeanour. He spoke very little and introduced me to the world of books,” says Babita. She remembers Hem lending her Premchand masterpieces like Godaan and Gaban and also Gorky’s Mother. “I was very young and understood very little, but I read them all,” says Babita. It was in 2002 that they got married—in July.

Even after marriage, Hem would prod his wife to read and write on women’s issues. “He often said that self-independence was the first step towards women’s liberation,” Babita says. The two moved to Almora, where Babita worked for a newspaper while Hem immersed himself in people’s movements such as peasant agitations and calls for prohibition.

Babita says her friends or relatives never understood their marriage. “They would say, ‘You people never go out, say, to watch a film or dine at a restaurant.’ Some of them thought we had hit a rough patch. But I always had the best possible time with him, though his lack of interest in domestic issues would sometimes bother me.”

The Pandeys moved to Delhi in 2006. Hem began working as a freelance journalist, and, according to Babita, wrote more than a hundred articles for various newspapers, mostly on agricultural issues. He was a true leftist, she says. “In my absence, he would clean the house, wash utensils and even cook food. He would not let me make tea in the morning, asking me instead to go through newspapers and tell him about reported events.”

All that is now long gone. After his death, Babita has been trying to get back to a regular life. “This is what Hem would have wanted,” she says. But it has been tough. A police party even raided their house in her absence and claimed to have found ‘incriminating evidence’ of Hem’s Maoist links. What they’d found was a stack of books no more subversive than the works of Lenin and Engels, she says, and some Maoist press releases. “There were no binoculars, or for that matter any fax machine there, as the police claimed. Only one computer was there that Hem would use to write. Books, yes, but is that a crime?” If the cops were suspicious, Babita wonders why Hem could not have been arrested instead of shot. “Even if he was a Maoist, the police had no right to kill him. You know, he had sympathies for the lower strata of the police force as well, and he would say that they were just trying to earn a living.”

After Hem’s name surfaced along with Azad’s, many friends advised Babita not to speak of Azad, since that would associate the name too closely with her husband’s. “But I cannot do that,” she says, “Azad and Hemchandra Pandey’s names are linked in the same chain now. Moreover, Azad’s death is equally tragic.”

Babita pauses every now and then, as if to give her best friend’s memories some space. He was young, she says, too young to have died like this. Thoughts ebb and flow in her mind—perhaps Hem would still be alive had she called the night he left. Or if she had accompanied him, as she had wanted (a plan spiked by lack of money). She misses the tea he’d make. She misses the articles he’d read aloud, and explain word by word. Like Arundhati Roy’s account of her visit to Maoist territory.

After Hem’s death, Babita has not returned to her East Delhi residence. But she plans to go there one of these days. She hopes the police have left untouched a pair of shoes she had bought for Hem from Delhi’s Karol Bagh market just days before he died. Or his shirts, the few he had. Or his books, the many. “I just want to keep them with me,” she whispers.

After the interview, as we walk towards the university gate, Babita has a question for me: “You own a house?” Then, another: “How much do you earn?” And then she suddenly goes silent. Perhaps she’s saying to herself what she couldn’t say to Hem in eight years of married life. Saying what was left unsaid.

Pic by: Raul Irani

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hemlock Destiny

“Why do you say every man is a planet?” the demon asks him, licking his scalpel.

He lies on the ground, wounded, bruised, tattered, crippled, fragmented, nauseated, destroyed. He passes a faint smile at the demon. “Leave that, tell me, where does one get strength?” he asks.

“It’s too late for you. Ha ha ha,” the demon laughs. And then he stops. “But why do you ask?” he is greedily looking at his flesh, whatever is left of it.

“To listen to Rachmaninov,” he replies.

“Your mind is your boon and bane, you fool,” the demon is shaking with rage. “You want to clean your bag with soap and water. Then you look at the mirror work on your pillow and want a tear drop to fall on it. Then you wonder about the phrase ‘the fat lady has not sung.’ And then you want to wriggle out wax from your left ear. The bed sheet is not properly tucked in, and it worries you. Then you look at the idols of God. You pretend to talk to them as if they were your drinking buddies. Stop it, stop it. It is consuming you.”

“Will you let me drink some tea?” he asks feebly, feeling his lips with his tongue.

“You know when you were in your mother’s womb, she used to have a lot of watermelons,” the monster says. “Would you like some?”

“Here drink this hemlock, you fool,” he says. “Stay like this.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fever is a jilted lover

It is so tough to unsettle the haze, he thinks. The haze inside his chest. Sometimes it scares him. And then he has to close his eyes and imagine light - red light - surrounding him, like some sort of celestial shower. When there is haze, no song stirs his soul. The blue-chested bird perched on the high-tension wire evokes no feeling. A young girl in school uniform only makes him aware of lost youth - of family that could have been, of that feeling of oneness that he knows would never dwell in his heart.

Out of sheer habit he gets up, struggling on his feet, on to the kitchen, to prepare coffee. He imagines pictures on the door of refrigerator, like the ones his friends put up on theirs, stuck with magnets - pictures he associates with that oneness; portraits of time spent in quaint hill stations, or in bright-coloured rubber rafts in foaming waters, or posing in front of an antique shop in some exotic foreign land.

He comes out on the balcony, holding his cup. Amidst empty shoe cartons, beer bottles (one of them is half-filled, he notices), old newspapers, a discarded lampshade, he sits quietly and lights a cigarette. If the haze can't be unsettled, it can be thickened at least, like some story plot. The thought makes him smile.
He coughs a little.

Bright red flowers in dried milk tins, typewriter, silver paper cutter and someone complaining of knee pain - this imagery would only exist in his dreams. This is his parallel world, his live phantasmagoria. Here, on this balcony, there is only loneliness, like a vague toothache.

He remembers he had planted a few tree saplings in front of his house a few months ago. Now he realises they are gone, chewed to death by stray cows, crushed under the wheels of a car parked in hurry, or just because of his indifference. He looks at his right foot. He imagines it frowning at him, as if it had a mind of its own. It reminds him of a woman's foot - a rebel guerilla's. He had met her many years ago in a jungle of Sal trees. She had dipped it in a streamlet while she cleaned her gun. Would she be alive, he doesn't know.

The coffee is over. The cigarette as well. He feels his forehead. The fever has returned. Like a jilted lover, it too takes its revenge.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Long March

Walking with Maoist guerillas along a flooded river, somewhere along the
Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border

Among the guerillas

With Maoist guerillas somewhere on the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border

The Absent State

My book, "The Absent State" (with Neelesh Misra) is out in book stores now. Hachette India has called it the non-fiction book of the year. It has already topped the non-fiction list of The Hindu.
Here are some reviews of the book:

Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra in the Hindustan Times
Ved Marwah in Tehelka
Nithin Belle in Khaleej Times
Shylashri Shankar in The Financial Express

You can buy the book online from here.