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Tara and The Dilemma Of Kashmir

By Shyam Kaul

The imam at the principal mosque at Safapur was concluding his address when a man walked in, went up to him and whispered something in his ear.

A shadow of grief fell over the imam's face. He turned to the congregation and broke the news of a death in the village. "You will be sorry to learn", he said, "of the death of Tarawati, Mokdambai (headwoman) of Kolpur, a little while ago. As there is no Pandit now here in the village, I call upon you to proceed to Kolpur, after offering your prayers, and arrange the last rites of the deceased in an appropriate manner".

It was early 1990, the heady days of the freshly-arrived cult of terrorist violence in Kashmir. The boom of guns, bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootouts, had heralded the arrival of the new cult. Gun-wielding "mujahids" had appeared from nowhere, getting into the headlines straightaway. The attention of the whole world got focussed on them after they organised an unprecedented operation, the abduction of the daughter of the then Home Minister of India, Mufti Mohammed Sayed. This sent the entire population of Srinagar city into frenzied excitement by creating delusions of "Azadi", which, at that moment, appeared to be just round the corner.

Against the run of this torrent of all-pervading euphoria, the minuscule Pandit community was gripped by fear and panic, for the "mujahids" had practically launched their "liberation" struggle by selective killings of Pandits, beginning with a BJP leader, TL Taploo, a retired judge, NK Ganjoo and many others. They made it appear that the Jehad was not only against India, the very name of which became a malediction, but also against Pandits, who were inevitably identified with India, it was then that Pandits started fleeing the Valley. The wave of panic swept across the villages and hit Safapur with a powerful blast that damaged the house of Kauls, a well-known Pandit family of the paragana. In a couple of days the entire Pandit population of Safapur, not exceeding fifty souls, was on its way to Jammu, via Srinagar. Tarawati, the widowed headwoman of Kolpur, which formed part of the larger Safapur village, her son and daughter-in-law, were among these fleeing Pandits.

On reaching Srinagar, Tarawati's son left her and his wife behind, and proceeded to Delhi to explore whether he and his family could find shelter there, instead of any other place outside Kashmir.

Tarawati had been in Srinagar hardly for three days when homesickness started tormenting her. Then one morning she took a bus for Safapur, telling her daughter-in-law, that she would be back when her son returned from Delhi.

At that time Tarawati could not have imagined that those were the final hours of her life and that fate was drawing her to Safapur, perhaps only because of her life-long bonds with the soil and the people of her village, on the banks of picturesque Manasabal Lake.

Back at her home, Tarawati found a new life vibrating inside her, but she also found something ominous in the village ambience. It was taut with fear and tension, and spontaneity in people's behaviour was missing. This however did not prevent the old lady from mixing and mingling with her Muslim fellow villagers as she had always done before. But the joy of reunion was short-lived and only after three days she had a stroke and died peacefully in her home, with her neighbours by her side.

The prayers over, a large section of the congregation at the mosque, hurriedly made its way to Kolpur. By then, a large crowd, including women, had assembled at the headwoman's house. The village women took care of the last rites of the deceased, before menfolk carried the body to the cremation ghat at the banks of the lake. Some elderly villagers, who were fairly conversant with Pandit customs and rituals, helped cremate the octogenarian headwoman properly, as a large gathering stood by reverentially, praying for peace to the soul of the departed.

Tarawati had come to Safapur as a 13-year old bride, married into the nambardar family of Kolpur, and had spent all the 72 years of the rest of her life in the village, going out only occasionally. She would sometimes go to Srinagar, to attend some function of her relatives, or to her ancestral village, 20 kilometres away. She had once been to Jaipur where her son had served with the army.

Widowed at the young age of 40, Tarawati had not only brought up and educated her children, but had also discharged her functions with utmost responsibility as headwoman. Over the years, she had acquired a protective, motherly image, loved and respected by all.

In the evenings, during summers, flocks of children would come to play in the sprawling compound of Tarawati' house, under the shade of the big chinar tree that stood at the gate of the compound. She would call the chinar her mother-in-law, because, as she put it, "when I came here as a young bride, it was this chinar which greeted me before I stepped into my new home. Since then it has been an inseparable friend and a part of my life. I have rested under its balmy shade and watched and enjoyed children playing under it as mellifluous birds sang in its thick branches".

In her more ruminative moments Tarawati would recall, with traces of old grief in her eyes, how she had spent her lonely evenings, after the death of her husband, sitting against the supportive trunk of the chinar, and shedding silent tears.

To the frolicsome and noisy children, Tarawati had always something to offer by way of small eatables like a walnut, a pear, smoked corn, or whatever she found in the house. She also had always something to give to the small children of poor fishermen, who lived a little distance away on the fringes of the lake. They would often come in the mornings, asking for something to eat and she would never disappoint them. In fact every night she saw to it that some food was left over for the fishermen kids next morning. Some of these children would be so small that they could not even call out 'Tara' the fond name given to her by the villagers. They would call Tala or Taya.

Her older neighbours and other villagers were her frequent visitors too. They came to seek her advice, guidance and help in resolving disputes pertaining to lands, marriages and inheritances. She went all the way out to share their joys and sorrows.

Tarawati was an illiterate woman, but her close affinity with her fellow villagers and her deep understanding of their day to day problems, had made her into an institution, to which they always looked in their moments of distress and difficulty. Every villager mourned her death. Her departure created a feeling of emptiness that no one in her neighbourhood could easily reconcile with.

But those were the days of rapid changes in Kashmir. Militancy had gained phenomenal immensity and taken control of everything, including the lives of common people in cities and villages, who could not even talk and act as they would normally do. In fact when a woman neighbour of Tarawati wailed loudly over her friend's death, a gun-toting youth from a neighbouring village, walked into her home next morning and scolded her for shedding tears for a "Kafir".

The nineties in Kashmir, perhaps, marked the saddest era in the post-independence history of this ancient land of sages and rishis, known for its traditions of peace, amity, non-violence and tolerance. It witnessed not only the displacement and exodus of tens of thousands of people like Tarawati, but also the annihilation of the noble civilisational heritage they represented.

After Tarawati's departure, it was not long before her "mother-in-law" chinar fell to the axes of money-hungry militants. One morning a group of them came, followed by a team of axemen who immediately got down to their job. It took them several days to bring down the whole tree, limb by limb and branch by branch. It was sold right there, partly as timber and partly as firewood, fetching a fat price for its destroyers. It was not the only chinar that met this fate as gun culture thrived in Kashmir. Hundreds of chinars all over Kashmir, as also other trees in government plantations and forests, were felled in similar fashion for satisfying the greed of "liberators" of Kashmir, drunken with the power of newly-acquired guns.

It was also not long before the three-storey house of Tarawati was set ablaze and reduced to a mass of rubble. None of her neighbours came out to make an effort to put out the blaze. Perhaps not because they would not want to do so, but because times had changed. The writ of the gun-wielding insurgents ran supreme, and arson formed a part of their agenda which no one could defy. Those who had dared, though rarely, had paid a heavy price. Hundreds of Pandit houses, government buildings and schools went up in flames that way.

Some years later, in 1997, a grand nephew of Tarawati, who had also lived in Safapur and owned property there, visited his village. His house had once stood next to his grand aunt's. He found village dogs snoozing on the wreckage of Pandit houses, including Tarawati's imposing house of Maharaji bricks and deodar. The boundary walls of the large compound had disappeared. No children played there. Instead it had become a grazing ground for village cattle.

The gentleman who, as a boy and later as a youngman, had been a witness to the busy comings and goings in the headwoman's house, wondered whether the place where dogs lolled now, was the same where she had once spoken words of advice, counsel and comfort to her Muslim fellow villagers.

He could not exactly locate the spot where Tara's great chinar had once stood, in all its glory and grace, rising high into the sky. The place had been levelled into a barren patch.

When he came back from Safapur, all he got with him, as evidence of what once was a thriving Pandit locality, presided over by a grand old lady, were pictures of some obscure ruins that once had a name. He told his friends in Jammu that standing there, all by himself, and trying to paper into his past that lay at his feet in the shape of burnt bricks and charred wood, he felt like crying. But there were not tears in his eyes, for the tragedy was beyond all tears. Or perhaps the ever-blazing fire, from guns that never fell silent, that had engulfed his homeland, had also burnt up all his tears. Just as the ruins of Tara's properties had reduced to ashes also her identity and her presence in Kashmir's historical, cultural and social mosaic.

Tarawati is no more. Her children and grandchildren live in exile. Their identity in Kashmir is erased for all practical purposes. But in the new description of Kashmir, that has emerged after the rise of terrorist violence, who now is the real Kashmiri ' The one who raced from a mosque to a cremation ghat to ensure that a Panditani got a decent and dignified funeral' Or the one who later set her house on fire and felled her chinar, only to destroy her roots and wipe out her identity as a true Kashmiri' That precisely is the dilemma of Kashmir.

The diaspora of the children of Tara, and those of thousands of other Kashmiris like her, notwithstanding, the dilemma remains. And as long as it is there, Kashmir will continue to bleed.

Kashmiri Pandit has been the worst victim of this dilemma. The zealots of "azadi" refuse to see and accept him as a Kashmiri, before anything else. For them he is a symbol of India, an eyesore of Indian presence in Kashmir and therefore something to be got rid of. That has been the way of all zealots all over the world.

But destruction of symbols never destroys what they represent and stand for. If it were so, then this world would be bereft of many civilisations and cultures, and many religious beliefs and political ideologies.

During the course of its history, Kashmir has suffered too due to the baneful medieval peculiarity of destruction of symbols. Even now this outdated curse is being revived here and there, as happened in Kashmir, where the militants went after many symbols in a bid to destroy the entire past of the Valley. From the witch-hunt of Pandits and nationalist Muslims, to the siege of Hazratbal and the burning down of Chrar Sharif, there is a chain of instances of calculated attacks on the symbols of Kashmir and Kashmiriyat. The design behind these pre-meditated attacks, obviously, was to obliterate Kashmir's heritage of noble values based on human brotherhood, peace and non-violence, and foist on it an alien culture of violence, narrow-mindedness and religious fanaticism.

Perhaps that is the true concept of "azadi" which the zealots in Jammu and Kashmir have envisaged. The dilemma persists. Today the Kashmiri is a case of split personality, torn between religion, politics, regional aspirations, parochial complexes, sectarian loyalties, accession, de-accession, azadi, autonomy, India, Pakistan, et al. The muddle has been made worse by exploitative external interventions.

The Kashmiri has lost his way in the maze of India's mishandling of situations, Pakistan's instigations and phoney promises, dangling carrot of UN resolutions, machinations of self-serving politicians, and interference of foreign powers and other busybodies. All this has made him into a political schizophrenic. Time has now come for him to cure himself, rediscover himself and then judiciously choose and mark out his future course of action.

He has to decide whether he will remain a Kashmiri, true to his responsibility, his land of birth and his cultural heritage, or whether he will surrender to the zealot who has intruded into his personality and his individual and collective psyche.

Today's Kashmiri has to look back, as well as, ahead of him, to ensure that he is not wrenched away from his moorings, and also, that he is prepared to go along with forward-looking, universal and progressive visions of the twenty first century.

Unless the Kashmiri does that, he will continue to be bedevilled by dilemmas.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

 
 

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