'You whose heart bleeds for the Gujarati Muslims, have you ever stood up for the Kashmiri Pandits?' The question has been thrown at people like me not only by hardliners but many others who have so far looked at the world with tolerance if not empathy. These are the people that I, as a Muslim, do not want to lose as friends. So I decided that I must find the answer for myself.
The search for answers has taken me again and again to the Valley. In December 2002, it took me to Jammu - I was part of a group of 32 women who had gathered for a "Dialogue of Understanding - Issues in Peace-Making". Pandit women from Jammu and Muslim women from the Valley sat for three days to talk about past hurts, present conditions and future dreams. The meeting was organized by the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, an organization which believes that the only way out of the present crisis is to talk with honest intention in order to understand and ultimately reconcile.
It was bitterly cold at the newly constructed Hotel Savoy, situated at a short distance from the Raghunath Temple, so recently the site of senseless violence.
Women had come from Jammu, Doda and Rajouri; Muslim as well as Hindus. From the Valley, the women were all Muslim. (A few Hindu and Sikh women of the Valley who had been invited could not make it.) A few of us - outsiders - were there to begin the process by introducing not ourselves but the woman sitting next to us. I turned to the Pandit woman sitting by my side. I had never seen her before. "Tell me about yourself," I said.
Once she began, it was like a dam had burst. Driven out of the Valley in 1989, she has lived with her family in Jammu for 13 years. Her husband, a government official, had received the dreaded threat: 'Leave, otherwise the consequences will be bad'. They left reluctantly, casting wistful glances at their home, land and belongings - carrying only what their suitcases could hold. Her mother-in-law refused to leave, so she stayed back with the other son.
In 1990, she said, 2 to 2.5 million Muslims stomped the streets. The air was ringing with sounds of 'Nara-e-Takbir-Allah o Akbar'. That was the time when 700,000 Pandits came out of the Valley at the point of the gun. "No we don't like it here at all. We feel suffocated. If only I was given security I would happily go back. My children know nothing about Kashmir."
Her story was everyone's story. At the Nagrota migrant camp, different versions of the story came through. Those used to open skies and the fragrance of almond blossoms were living in miserably cramped quarters. Unused to the different weather conditions, they had to contend with a water crisis, the lack of privacy, no sanitation and the menace of snakes and scorpions.
The camps had been set up in the wilderness, infested with poisonous reptiles, and the children were frequent victims of these. Three generations lived in one cramped quarter: married couples, the in-laws and the children. Men became impotent and young women were affected by menopause; fewer children were born to the young couples; and people suffered from hypertension and diabetes.
The Pandit women welcomed us; they offered us their kangris to warm up but as they spoke, the bitterness poured out. They said in Kashmiri, 'Curse the Muslims'. They did not ask if we were Muslims or Hindus. In one breath they cursed, and in the other they said, "If our neighbors guarantee our safety we will go back today". They said 'neighbors' not 'government'.
Having seen the camp conditions for ourselves, we walked back with heavy hearts to begin the dialogue - what has occurred and what needs to be done now was the biggest question. Every one has suffered - not just the Pandits. In our midst was a Muslim girl from the Valley; she recounted an incident when she faced the militants. They wanted a lift in her vehicle; there was no choice but to take them in. She broke down as she spoke. "I was sure they would rape me. I came so close... so close." And then she left Srinagar. She could not bear to return, not for a long time. Pandit women sat listening to her in stunned silence. Violence spares no one; it does not discriminate between Muslims and Hindus.
Pandit women spoke of the self-respect and dignity of their community, "We Pandits are a proud people," said a woman from Jammu. If there was nothing to eat in the house, she said, Pandits would boil stones so that smoke rose from their chimneys and people did not know that they had nothing to cook. "My husband came here at the age of 32; since then he has been without a job - at the prime of his youth. I have seen him diminishing before my own eyes."
Women from Doda and Rajouri spoke about their areas. The neglect of Doda, the rampant militancy and the growing communalism in her area was a festering sore for the young Muslim woman - a college lecturer - who spoke. "What do you care? All you worry about is the Valley and occasionally Jammu. We suffer from gross neglect. We are targeted by the militants everyday. What hope do our children have? For us, every regime is the same; they play with our lives."
The Jammu women spoke of "these Kashmiris", referring to the Pandits and the Muslims in one breath. "They come here, they draw pension, they take our jobs. Is this fair? Kashmiris are Kashmiris no matter whether they are Hindus or Muslims." Something amazing was happening. It was a bonding of non-Kashmiri Muslims and non-Kashmiri Hindus, and the consequential bonding of Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims.
When the Pandit women narrated the decay in their society - especially the increase in social violence as a consequence of their exile - the Muslim women said that this was happening to them as well but for other reasons. Together they tried to look for solutions. One Pandit woman said, "What has happened has happened; let us move ahead and concentrate on arresting the decline of our youth."
The days melted away. We played identity games, read stories of the 1947 holocaust, and in the process grew close to one another. On the last day, a woman arrived from Srinagar. She is a distinguished educator and the principal of a women's college. "Ham dekhte hi rah gaye aur aap yahan aa gaye (We just watched helplessly as you moved here)," she told the Pandit women.
"Do you know what you have done to us? You have taken away the spring season from Kashmir. Our flowers and trees are desolate; our lakes have lost their luster. We miss you everywhere. Our festivals are incomplete; our songs have lost their lilt. My Pandit teacher - who was closer to me than my own father - could I ever imagine a life without him? We are nothing without you - you complete our existence; and without us, your existence is incomplete."
There were not too many dry eyes in the room.
Today, as I write these lines, my eyes too are tear-soaked. My only claim to Kashmir is that I was born there. What I saw in Jammu last month was a self-healing process. I saw the birth of hope. These women - with or without us - may be able to build the bridges and regain their lost Kashmiriyat. Perhaps, once again, Kashmir will show the way to the rest of us who are floundering in this miasma - just as it showed the way to Mahatma Gandhi 55 years ago.