Rahul Pandita On Kashmir and its Stories
Image: Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Peter Griffin: Rahul, tell us about your new book.
Rahul Pandita: My book is called Our Moon Has Blood Clots. And it’s a memoir on growing up in Kashmir as a religious minority, essentially, Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Kashmiri Pandits—a small, miniscule community that lived in Kashmir for hundreds of years and were forced into permanent exile as refugees in their own country in 1989-90, when an Islamist movement broke out in Kashmir Valley. And we faced the brunt and the brutalisation in a series of violence led by the majority community in Kashmir. And I’m glad that almost a quarter of a century after what happened to us, this book is out. Because this book sets the record straight for the first time. Because the liberal discourse of this country and the media have, by and large, bypassed our story. Our story has been relegated to the margins.
PG: Why do you think it has happened?
RP: I think a part of the problem is that somehow in this country it is very fashionable to talk about the adivasis of Bastar or the brutalisation by the Indian state in Kashmir or the North East—which are very valid questions and they must be talked about. But the moment you talk about other issues like our exile, our exodus, somehow it is not fashionable because it does not fit into the left-of-centre discourse. That’s very unfortunate. For the media, it’s been a very black-and-white situation, where there’s been this section of people who were brutalised by the Indian Army. But what they forget is the fact that they are the same set of people who have brutalised another set of people, who happen to be Kashmiri Pandits in this case.
As a Kashmiri, and as a journalist who has reported extensively the other part of the stories—the forced disappearances, the human rights violations—I’m of the firm opinion that the problem in the Kashmir discourse is that for many people—journalists and civil rights groups—the private and public stand on Kashmir differ. But in my case, my public and private stand has always been the same: That things happened in 1989-90, and as two communities, as Kashmiris, we need to move on. But I’m afraid that truth and reconciliation, the way we loosely call it, will not be possible unless there’s a complete consensus on the circumstances that led to the exodus. I personally think the bigger betrayal than 1990 was the fact that we’re being denied our truth; that in 1990, there was a divide between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, and Hindus became a target not only for Islamist militants but for the majority community; ordinary people from Kashmir also took an active part in our brutalisation.
PG: How old were you at that time?
RP: I was 14, just an adolescent. And I remember those days very vividly, the kind of brutalisation we faced, particularly on January 19, 1990, when there was this whole series of slogans against the Kashmiri Pandit community; anti-India slogans and anti-Pandit slogans. I would like to point out one which really terrified us. It essentially meant, ‘We want our Pakistan without Pandit men but with their women’. That really terrified us. And I think from that day onwards, the exodus began. And it went on for a few months, from January 1990 to September 1990, till a point of time when 3.5 lakh Kashmiri Pandits were rendered homeless and even after 23 years, we are in permanent exile.
PG: What are your memories of growing up before that? This was obviously a flashpoint. And it would have been building up for a while before it reached this stage.
RP: Absolutely. I think, personally, from 1986 onwards, when I was 10 years old, I had been very conscious of my identity as a Kashmiri Pandit because of the bitter atmosphere. Once in a while, you become victims of communal riots that happened in this one part of Kashmir, in south Kashmir in 1986, where hundreds of Pandits were beaten up, their womenfolk raped, etcetera. From then onwards, it’s been slipping away from us.
But, having said that, we also lived a very beautiful life in Kashmir, where there was a lihaaz, a consideration, between the two communities; we shared a very beautiful relationship: My father’s colleagues and friends, my mother’s colleagues (both of them were government servants), they had a very good friendship and rapport with Kashmiri Muslims. But by and large that rapport was on a very personal basis. Individually, we were very good to each other but collectively, as a group, as a community, we always had this fear, this suspicion about each other, which culminated in the brutality in 1989.
PG: Over the years as a journalist, as a writer, you’ve been writing about unrest in other parts of the country and you’ve only now got down to putting this into print. Were you trying to stay away from it or were you just too close to it at that point? Why was this not your first book?
RP: I think this is the first book I ever wanted to write. And I began to think of it when I was in college, which was between 1993 and ’96. But at that point of time, my language was very crude and poor, I didn’t have a complete idiom. And I think even from 2000 onwards—when I seriously began to write it and wrote a few passages—I found it an extremely difficult book to write because of the personal history involved, especially about my mother’s illness, which you’re going to read about in the book, and my brother’s murder—he was dragged out of a bus and shot dead. I found these passages extremely difficult to write and I gave up completely.
And, in between, because of my other professional work and journalistic work which takes me to what we now loosely call the ‘Red Corridor’ (Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, some parts of Maharashtra), a couple of other books happened. And I am glad they happened because they took my mind away from Kashmir.
And very recently, in 2009-10, when I returned to it—and I am thankful to my editor Meru Gokhale and to Ram Guha, the historian, because he chose this book for the New India Fellowship—that led me into a particular way, and I started thinking that this should come in as a memoir. Because there were times when I wanted to fictionalise it. I’m glad it has come in the form of a memoir, because it really maintains that rawness of my emotion.
And I’m now hopeful that this book will set some kind of debate because history is complete, we know the other side of the story. Now, with this story coming out, for the first time being put on record, and being a part of history, the whole narrative is complete. I hope this triggers off some kind of debate between the two communities, where they can see, respect and accept what happened to us in 1989-90, and that there will be some kind of reconciliation in the near future.
PG: Kashmir went through a period of a lot of stress, and then in between they were comparatively opening up a little bit, and now things are looking tense again. What are the prospects of peace in Kashmir, real lasting peace?
RP: The prospects of peace are bleak at this point of time. As a Kashmiri, I am saddened by the fact [that] when I report from there, there’s not a single Kashmiri household from both sides which is not being directly or indirectly affected by this cycle of violence. I think it’s partly because of the fact that the Indian government does not have a clear cut vision on how to deal with Kashmir. I also think that before the two communities—the Pandits and the Muslims—set out for a dialogue, the Muslim majority in Kashmir needs to internalise this dialogue and get together and think… Think about what kind of life they really want to lead. Do they want to be a part of a country which is on the verge of collapse in many ways, which is a failed state? Or do they want to become independent and live the way some of their friends and neighbours have been living in terms of Azaad Kashmir from 1947 onwards? The idea of India is not perfect at all. But as a well-informed Kashmiri who is educated, I would lay my bet anytime on India than Pakistan or Azaad Kashmir. Because we still have that democratic space where so many narratives are being written and we are able to at least freely talk about it.
PG: My personal encounter with your writing online was lyrical poetry. I noted you first for that because I loved the work you were doing in poems. And it came as quite a surprise to me to see you doing the hard-nosed journalistic stuff. I even went back and checked whether this is the same guy. How do those two parts work? You still write poetry?
RP: Yes I do. I think every Kashmiri is a romanticist at heart, because of the life we live. You know, my grandfather used to say that Kashmir is so beautiful that even the gods are jealous of it. So that part of Kashmir is very much a part of our DNA, of every Kashmiri. So we can’t get poetry out of our system.
As far as my journalistic work is concerned, it stems out of… the kind of choices I made in journalism… they also stem out of this really strong sense of uprootedness and homelessness. Because, when I go to Bastar and I see these homeless adivasis, or when I see a Joe Sacco graphic novel where this old Palestinian woman is passionately hugging her olive tree which the Israeli forces are hell bent on cutting down, I empathise with that, I can identify with that, and that is what I try to do in terms of my reporting.
I never report from Delhi because in Delhi, you never get the correct picture. For me journalism is not about getting a couple of quotes, what editors increasingly call the ‘colour’ of the story. I think I have immense patience and empathy to go into the boondocks, into the hinterland, and talk to anyone who is willing to talk, and I can listen to his or her stories patiently for hours. And I think I can sense that helplessness in some of the stories I record from my job as a journalist. And that reflects very strongly in my work.
PG: Journalism also has been going through this period of flux. On one hand, we say that readers’ attention spans are getting increasingly smaller. They want the ‘nut ’graf’ and nothing else. They want just sound bites. But at the same time, there’s so much going on that needs nuanced, in-depth, long-engagement writing. Where do you see that going?
RP: I think it’s a vicious circle. On one hand, editors are increasingly shying away from reporting some of the stories. They say the target readership does not want to hear those sob stories. And, on the other hand, people come and say that the media does not give us those stories. These two positions somehow feed on each other.
In my private conversation, I don’t think it is true that the middle class of this country or the intended readership does not want to know what is happening in the boondocks, what is happening in their backyard. I think it’s, at many levels, the failure of the media, of people like you and I; we’ve not been able to really fight out the way we do journalism in this country. A lot of journalism I see happening in this country is lazy journalism, where you don’t move out of your comfort zone of New Delhi or district headquarters. And even if you venture to a place like Bastar, you only venture to a point where you can always return to the comfort of a clean hotel bed sheet in the night. I am afraid that is not how journalism is done. At least, that is not my definition of journalism. I’ve worked with many media houses and I have never faced a problem in reporting the kind of stories I wanted to do. It’s also the lack of persistence at the end of the journalists that they don’t want to go to these places. And when they ultimately go, my grudge is that they also take it as a career-enhancing option. Get a report from Bastar, get a couple of pictures clicked with Maoist rebels in their military fatigues and then they put it on Facebook; as long as they can do it on Facebook it is fine. I also do it on FB and Twitter. But they should also understand that that is not the story. They are not the story. The kind of dangers while they went there, that can be put later in a book which they want to write later. But as far as hardcore journalism is concerned, we should always remind ourselves that the people who you are talking to are the story. Their lives are the stories; not the kind of dangers or the mosquitoes you encounter in a place like Bastar. That’s a very strong distinction you have to make in your mind while reporting from these areas.
PG: There was a young photographer from Tehelka who passed away because of illness contracted while he was out there.
RP: And I wrote a very strong piece about that. Because I have always believed that there are lots of dangers when you are reporting from these areas. But some of the danger can be surely taken care of. When I’m traveling to a place like Bastar, and I know it beforehand, I always pop my anti-mosquito tablets that only makes sure that my chances of contracting malaria are reduced by 50 percent. But at least, 50 percent is taken care of. As they say, ‘a dead journalist is a bad journalist’; there’s a very thin line between guts and stupidity. I think you need to be brave and courageous to be venturing into an unknown terrain like Bastar. Places like Bastar are snake pits; you can get killed any time. But if you are sensible enough, you will minimise a lot of danger, which also involves a lot of standard operating procedures: When you’re going to Raipur, make sure that you maintain a very low profile; don’t roam around too much; don’t talk to people in the reception area of your hotel; don’t tell them where you’re going; take necessary precautions, pop a couple of malaria tablets, speak to your doctor, take a proper mosquito net, take glucose etcetera. These things need to be taken care of. Unfortunately, there’s no training regimen in this country when it comes to conflict reporting. I think we loosely believe that if a young reporter has covered a lathi charge on Raisina Road in Delhi, he’s well equipped to report from Bastar. That is the kind of linkages we make. They are really unfortunate. So, you need to go to Bastar a little prepared. That’s my only contention.
PG: Do we see more books happening about Kashmir in the near future? May be opening up a dialogue with this book?
RP: I think a number of books will come in the next few years from the Kashmir Valley. And I’m also hopeful that my book will trigger off some emotive…because there are so many stories that need to be told from my side of Kashmir. There are so many stories which I’ve not been able to put in a single book. I really hope that youngsters, all Kashmiris, come out and write more and more about their experiences, stories about forced disappearances, about lives in refugee camps in Jammu and elsewhere, the hardships of being in permanent exile in the last almost quarter of a century. These issues need to be talked about, written about and the more you do it, the more we come near to some kind of reconciliation.
PG: And what’s Rahul Pandita’s next book? The next big project?
RP: I think there are a couple of books in every person which he or she needs to write compulsorily. In my case, my two books are already out: One is the book which I always wanted to write and it is out now; and one is from what I’ve seen in Bastar and other areas for many years. Those two books are out. I think I’m going to take a long break now. I also want to catch up on my reading; I’ve not been reading too much in the past many months. I’ve been reading very haphazardly and that is one thing which I really detest. So I’m going to take a long break in terms of book writing but I’m going to continue doing my journalistic work: Reporting from Kashmir, the North East, Bastar and elsewhere. I’ve not been able to travel much in the last few months because of the work involved in the book. But once this madness is over, I think I’ll resume my travels. And I would immediately like to go back to Jharkhand and Orissa and Chhattisgarh.