Grand Tamasha

Rahul Pandita on Kashmir: “You can leave Kashmir but Kashmir never leaves you”

Episode Summary

Milan talks to journalist Rahul Pandita about the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir

Episode Notes

Milan sits down with journalist Rahul Pandita to talk about the situation in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Rahul has an intense personal connection to the state—he was just fourteen years old when he and his Kashmiri Pandit family were forced into exile. He speaks with Milan about a recent reporting trip he took to Kashmir in the aftermath of the government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, ending seven decades of constitutional autonomy for the state.

Milan and Rahul discuss the fall-out of the government’s move, the contradictory narratives from the ground, and the prospects for violence. Rahul also explains his frustration with mainstream media’s “apocalyptic” reporting from Kashmir, which he says fails to adequately report all sides of the story.

Rahul documented the heartbreaking story of Kashmir and his connection to it in his 2013 book, Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir. Today, Rahul is a journalist with OPEN Magazine.

Episode Transcription

Introduction: 00:00 News Clips and music plays
Milan Vaishnav: 00:11 Welcome to the Grand Tamasha podcast. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav. Rahul Pandita was 14 years old in 1990 when he was forced to leave his home in Srinagar along with his family who were Kashmiri Pandits. The Pandits, a Hindu minority living within Muslim majority Kashmir were forced into exile by Islamic militants who declared them infidels who had one of three unpalatable choices: convert to Islam, leave Kashmir, or be killed. Rahul documented the heartbreaking story of Kashmir and his connection to the state in his 2013 book: "Our Moon has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir." Today, Rahul's a journalist with Open Magazine and he recently spent ten days back home reporting on events in the state and the aftermath of the government's decision to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution, which ended seven decades of constitutional autonomy for the state. He joined us by phone from New Delhi to talk about his recent trip. Rahul, thanks for coming on the podcast.
Rahul Pandita: 01:01 My pleasure, Milan.
Milan Vaishnav: 01:01 So, before we talk about recent events in Kashmir, I want to ask you about your own personal connection to Kashmir. You come from a Kashmiri Pandit family that was, like so many other Pandit families, forced into exile. It's a story that you document so beautifully in your 2013 book "Our Moon has Blood Clots." Since you've left Kashmir, tell us a little bit about the relationship that you've maintained with your home state.
Rahul Pandita: 01:24 When my family left Kashmir Valley on Fourth April 1990, I was 14 years old and like most of Kashmiri Pandits - about 400,000 people in those days - we left because of religious extremism in Kashmir Valley. Because we were being killed on the streets, in our offices, in our homes. Approximately 700 Kashmiri Hindus died in a matter of few months. My family has never been able to go back. My my mother has passed away, but my father, who is 74 now and was roughly my age when the exodus happened in 1990 does not want to go back. He says that he has a certain image of a pre-1989 Kashmir which he wants to keep intact. Because you know, from reports, from his conversations with people who have gone back, he knows that the Kashmir his family used to live in, the Kashmir where he was born and brought up no longer exists.
Rahul Pandita: 02:34 So he does not want to sully that image. I have been going to Kashmir as a journalist for the last twenty years. I was there in ninety-nine during the Kargil War between India and Pakistan. I was there during some of the massive crackdowns by the Indian Security Forces in the late nineties. I was there in early 2000s when a lot of fidayeen attacks were happening. I was there in 2008, 2010, 2014. You know, the cycle of violence in 2016 in 2017 when a police officer called Ayub Pandith was lynched by a mob of boys in downtown Srinagar. So I'd been going regularly as a journalist to Kashmir.
Milan Vaishnav: 03:28 So in the days leading up to August 5th, which is when the government announced its intention to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution, there were countless signs that something really major was afoot. You know, the government sent thousands of additional troops to the state. They rounded up local opposition leaders, put them under house arrest, and forced a total communications blackout on the state, shut down schools and universities. When you first heard the news of the government's intention to essentially gut Article 370, on that morning of August 5th, what was your initial reaction?
Rahul Pandita: 04:01 Well we had been getting a lot of signals from the sources within the government, sources within the security forces but nobody had a complete picture. That's the one you know that's the one very significant feature of this government that not many official secrets get leaked these days. But joining the, the dots together, we had a very clear sense of the fact that 35a and 370 are going to be removed. And actually I landed in Kashmir on the day when it was announced in the Parliament by the Union Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah. When I heard it, I heard it in the Srinagar Report. We were in the middle of the ed when it was being announced in the upper, in the in the Rajya Sabha in New Delhi as a Kashmiri you know, frankly I felt nothing.
Rahul Pandita: 05:08 There was no there was no sense of victory. There was no sense of defeat. I you know, it just did not register much. But as a journalist - as someone who has covered the significant intricacies, the complexities of the situation in Kashmir - I know for a fact - and this is my personal opinion - that if this is handled well, I think it could mean good things for Kashmiris in the longer run. But right now as we all know, they are very angry. They are very agitated. But I speak from a position of experience, from a position of understanding of how complex this has become, how many thousands of young Kashmiris, ordinary Kashmiris, poor Kashmiris have died in the name of jihad. In the name of this special status. I think it would be good in a longer run. And that is what I thought when I left Srinagar Airport on the day.
Milan Vaishnav: 06:13 Now you've just spent ten days in the state traveling across the state talking to military officers, to private citizens, to government officials. I know it's impossible to encapsulate everything that you saw when you were there on the ground. But tell us a little bit what you saw. What was the reaction of all of these people from various walks of life on the ground?
Rahul Pandita: 06:34 The first thing you are taught as journalists is that when you when you get into a zone where some significant event has happened, especially in a conflict zone what you try to do initially is to get a sense of sight and sound for your audience, for your readers. That is what I was interested in the first few days. When I, when I traveled from one place to another. The first impression was when I left Srinagar Airport, towards my hotel, there was really less traffic on roads. Most of the shops were closed. But inside or when you went off main roads a number of neighborhood shops were open. I also realized that though there were a lot of barricades on the roads, but people, if they had a vehicle they could easily move from one place to another except in certain problematic areas or certain high-security VIP areas
Rahul Pandita: 07:33 Like Gupkar Road. Or there was a complete lockdown of downtown Srinagar, which has been a source of violence when has happened between stone-pelters and Indian Security Forces. So there was a complete lockdown there. But of course, apart from that there was a complete communication blackout. There were no landlines, no mobile, no internet. And people were really, really finding it difficult to communicate with one another. I also got a sense that when people actually heard what was going to happen many of them actually felt relieved. Relieved, because weeks prior to this they were getting a lot of mixed messages from, from all over. I know for a fact because many of these people spoke to some of my friends who are part of the security grid in Kashmir and there were a lot of speculations about what the Indian government was about to do on fifth August.
Rahul Pandita: 08:43 There were speculations that a big group of Jaish terrorists and Lashkar terrorists had entered and the Indian Army was going to launch a major operation against them. There were murmurs that India and Pakistan is on the brink of war. That is why there is too much militarization in Srinagar. Whatsapp videos, were doing rounds where you could see some big guns shifted in Jammu along the international border. So there was, there was, there was a lot of fear but when it actually happened I think for many, the first reaction was that of relief that nothing, you know, nothing which poses an immediate danger to their life and to their family. It's not happening. But of course, apart from that I spoke to a cross section of people. I went to Central Kashmir.
Rahul Pandita: 09:40 I was moving all around the Srinagar in the normal civilian car. I went to South Kashmir. My impression was that people were really, really agitated and angry about it. Wherever they got a chance, they came and they spoke to us. My impression also is that a majority of them do not have a, have an exact idea about what the abrogation of Article 370 means. I think that is what the government is trying to do. Now. There are a massive outreach programs in several parts of Kashmir happening in current times these days in which there is an attempt to reach out to people and to tell them that in the longer run the - Artic- the abrogation of this article means good things.
Milan Vaishnav: 10:33 So in your latest essay for Open Magazine titled "In the Mad Waters of Kashmir," you write that quote, "Fear is like a pest that afflicts the apple crop in Kashmir sometimes. There is no pesticide that works against it. It can come from any quarter; it spares nobody. Everyone in Kashmir is on alert." End quote. It seems that there are multiple dimensions of this fear that you described. Rahul on the one hand, some Kashmiris fear the loss of autonomy and what that means for them. On the other hand, there are those who celebrate the government's move, but they live in fear of openly saying it because they worry of reprisals. Help us try and understand and locate these two seemingly contrarian positions.
Rahul Pandita: 11:14 Well, one kind of fear. I already described to you, Milan. But my main grudge against the dispatches or the narrative coming from Kashmir Valley was that more journalists did not make any attempt to listen to or gain any access to the other side of the story. Other side of the story remains that, you know, there are, there's a significant number of people in Kashmir Valley today to whom the abrogation of this article is acceptable. They may not be very happy with it, but they think that in the longer run their future lies with the idea of India. Some of them are explicitly happy about it. We know for sure - I know for sure that - when things became very, very bad in 2016 in the aftermath of the death of Hizbul commander Burhan Wani it led to a lot of chaos in, in Kashmir Valley.
Rahul Pandita: 12:14 A kind of chaos which Kashmir Valley has never seen before. Which meant that there were violent mobs, there were groups of moms who are going from one place to another, and these moms were absolutely leaderless. It created a lot of fear among certain sections in a Kashmir. I know for sure that some of these people who are scared have been calling journalists in Kashmir - Kashmiri journalists - and asking them to request the Indian government to send the Army. It sounds very surprising, right? But it is a fact because you know, it almost turned into - in many sections, it almost turned into a class war. I'll give you a small example. For example, in the posh quality, called Raj Bagh in the heart of Srinagar a woman who had just left her house because one of her relatives had died somewhere else and she was going there to express her condolences was stopped by one of such group.
Rahul Pandita: 13:18 And she was sent back. She was manhandled and she was asked to go back. And the reasoning given was that you know, so many of us have died. Our mujahid brothers have died. Have you gone there to expect condolence? No, you haven't. So you go back. So, you know, a lot of, a lot of population saw that also, and the tragedy with the tragedy of New Delhi on Kashmir has been not only in the last few years, but for the last 70 years that people who, who, who are friends of India or of the Indian state inside Kashmir Valley are not given protection. In 2014, when Mr. Narendra Modi came for the first time with a solid mandate, many in Kashmir thought that the Kashmir problem will be solved once for all.
Rahul Pandita: 14:22 But in a major surprise to them. The, the same government embraced a very popular mainstream party, which is also seen as a soft secessionist party in Kashmir. So the people who would have ideally wanted to stand for the idea of India were silenced, they did not know how to deal with it and they retreated. This time though, you know, they do not want to come out like this. They are exercising a lot of caution. When I talked about fair we must also understand what happened to journalist Shujaat Bukhari in his last days. He tried to create a bridge between Kashmiris. He wanted to initiate a dialogue and the intelligence masters in Pakistan just assassinated him. So a lot of people in Kashmir are afraid of that unidentified gunman waiting for them outside their office, outside their business establishment, or outside their home. They do not feel confident enough to invest in the idea of India right now simply because they think that the Indian state is incapable of protecting that interest in Kashmir Valley. So I thought it was very important for me to speak about that other fear.
Milan Vaishnav: 15:46 You spoke a little bit about journalism and I want to ask you about a piece that you wrote in the Times of India where you had some particularly choice words for journalists, particularly Delhi-based journalists reporting on Kashmir. You call out their apocalyptic reporting, arguing that many are essentially reeling from the fact that their access to the traditional Kashmiri elites has been rendered futile, useless under the new dispensation. And you link this to a part of a larger problem that you say of journalists being so violently anti-Modi that they target any journalist who's reporting doesn't accord with their own narrative. What motivated you to write this piece?
Rahul Pandita: 16:27 I think it's - you know - it's an old problem in journalism in India, especially after 2014. When you're reporting, there has to be a certain sense of proportion when you are, when you're reporting from from any area, especially from an area like Kashmir. When I landed in Kashmir and, you know, I started reading some of the dispatches which were being sent from Kashmir Valley. You know, I was shocked to see only one kind of version. Nobody gave a correct picture in my opinion. You know, it was of desolation - this apocalyptic desolation - which these pieces talked about. Of course, I mean, there's no denying the fact that you know most people are angry in Kashmir Valley, but, you know, to describe the curfew in the way it does not exist.
Rahul Pandita: 17:27 I think that is journalistic dishonesty. These pieces should have mentioned that, you know, the restrictions, at least on the road, are partial. They are soft. The other problem has been with a set of journalists. And that is what I mentioned in the Times of India article. You know, it's problem with access journalism basically where you go and you know some prominent politicians in Kashmir, you know, who they are, old friends and that is the, you know, that is one dialogue. You know, I sarcastically used in that Times of India article, it's like, you know, "Farooq, do you want to come and join me for breakfast?" You know, that kind of intimacy with a certain set of politicians. And you know, many of these, many of such journalistic dispatches are absolutely based on the briefing
Rahul Pandita: 18:21 Some of these journalists get from their political leadership that, you know, who are friends in Kashmir Valley. Now that political leadership is gone. So that access is gone. What I was really disappointed with is that instead of - and this is a problem, you know, since 2014 - instead of trying to understand what has happened in this country, why there are so many people who have voted for one man why there are people among the Dalit community, a formidable Dalit community who have voted for this particular person. What are the grounds, you know, grassroots artisan think? What do young Muslims think? You know, there is absolutely no understanding of these things. And that is what happened with Kashmir also. I mean, if you are a journalist and you've been reporting from Kashmir for 25, 30 years, how difficult would it be for you to get an internet connection for ten minutes every day?
Rahul Pandita: 19:29 Like some, some of us did, but that also became an object of ridicule. You know, whenever I would access my Twitter handle in the evening, but I got on internet at with a source for 10, 15 minutes every day. And sometimes this internet, you know, you would have to wait. A second day, I waited for that internet for eight hours, but I had persistence and I waited for the internet and it finally came at 10 o'clock in the night. And that is when I sent my first dispatch on Twitter from, from, from Kashmir Valley. But then, you know, I absolutely became - and, some of other journalists became - a target of, you know, self-styled interrogation from federal journalists. When are you getting this internet phone? I'm not duty bound to reveal my sources to you. I'm not duty bound to tell you where my internet connection is coming from.
Rahul Pandita: 20:25 The other problem became that you know, on the day of Eid about 60-70 journalists you know, from organizations like Headlines Today, Times of India, Zee TV I think CNN/IBN also lent Network 18. They were, you know, they were at a particular place because going from one place to another and we happened to be at the information department and we were told that the government was willing to take some of us in a chopper, right, which lasted 15-20 minutes per batch. Why would the journalists say no to a chopper ride over Srinagar Valley to understand what is happening to get a sense of the desolation on the streets? And that is exactly what I did after that chopper ride. But unfortunately, no Kashmiri journalist was present there. And you know, the problem even now is that, you know, there are various untruths spoken about the inaccess - the so-called inaccessibility.
Rahul Pandita: 21:28 No journalists - I repeat, Milan - no journalist has been prevented from doing his or her work. I know people, you know, on the first day when I was there, I saw a very young woman from a local cable TV channel from Rajasthan who had traveled all the way from Srinagar - she had absolutely no support system in Kashmir - reporting bravely from the historic Zero Bridge in Srinagar in the heart of the city. We traveled in civilian cars. We have no major support systems in Kashmir Valley. Our support systems are frankly much weaker than what Kashmiri journalists have. They know everyone, we do not know everyone. They, you know, they break bread with a lot of people in the police, in the federal military forces, in the government paraphernalia. I did not see anyone being prevented from going from one place to another. But to create a false impression out of it and say that, "Oh, we are being stopped from doing our work." So you know, this is what made me angry and prompted me to write the Times of India article. Sorry, it's a long answer, but I thought I should clear these things with you.
Milan Vaishnav: 22:43 No, I think it's exceptionally useful to get your perspective on this. Because there has been quite a lot of back and forth on social media and the Op-Ed pages on, on the situation on the ground. Let me turn to the situation on the ground, particularly what happens next. There are many journalists who have been reporting from Kashmir who described the population as seething. As full of rage. As a tinderbox. You yourself has said that there's a lot of anger on the streets. Now, right now, the state still exists under a communications blockade and a partial shutdown. What happens in your view, once that blockade is gradually lifted? Is there a real threat of explosive violence as soon as it does?
Rahul Pandita: 23:26 Well, it can be looked at both ways. I think you know, the communication blackout is there primarily because of this reason. Because the government has learned a lot of lessons from their mishandling of the situation in 2016 after Burhan Wani's death. When the morbid update on the streets and especially in South Kashmir and many areas became almost a liberated zones where no police offers that or any officers from civil administration could venture into for weeks altogether. The FIRs, the first information reports, the police reports, for example, for civilian crimes, used to be recorded with the telephone. So this time I think the government did not want to take a chance because lot of incitement of violence also happens who we know for sure. Through WhatsApp messages, people are asked to assemble to recorded messages on WhatsApp, et cetera.
Rahul Pandita: 24:28 If you follow security operations where you know the police or the army laid a siege outside the building, outside the house where terrorists are hiding, immediately someone in the vicinity will record a message on WhatsApp and, circulate it all over so that people can assemble and, you know, intervene in these in these military operations. So they're resulting in the death of many, many civilians where these operations are disrupted. So I think the government wanted to learn a lesson from that example, and that is why you see this communication blackout. I think nobody knows for sure what is going to happen once this blackout is lifted. We know for sure that in, in certain areas, in Soura for example people are fighting a lot of pitched battles.
Rahul Pandita: 25:27 But I think that right now the main priority of the government is to make sure that there are no casualties. And the government is hoping that with each passing day the anger will lessen the, you know, the intensity of the anger will lessen. And then you know, situation will become normal. But like a, you know, very experienced cop in Kashmir told me he said that "the milk will come to boil at least once." So I think there's a fair chance that once the communication is you know, the, the blockade it is lifted we will see some violent clashes happening. Between people and security forces.
Milan Vaishnav: 26:13 Rahul, reporting over the weekend from the Indian Express has said that the top four-to-five rungs of the major Kashmiri political parties had been placed under house arrest. In light of the government's move. I want to ask you, what does party politics look like in the state going forward? You know, because the BJP has justified in part their action by blaming the oligarchy of a handful of political families for essentially hollowing out the state over the past several decades. Do you think we have reached some kind of tick tipping as far as the state's politics are concerned?
Rahul Pandita: 26:45 I think the the priority of this government would be to establish some sort of political leadership in the next few months. And I know for sure from my sources that the government that there is an attempt right now to identify people, especially a young politicians and to motivate them into forming a political formation of kinds. But it has its pitfalls. We must remember that the People's Democratic Party in Kashmir was formed with India support in the late nineties to counter the kind of soft separation propagated by another mainstream political party in Kashmir, we call the National Conference. But when it came to existence the second party, it became an even bigger advocate of secession-ism in Kashmir than National Conference. I think that's a major part of a problem in Kashmir where how the local leadership behaves has also led to a sort of - and I use this word very responsibility -
Rahul Pandita: 28:03 It has led to a sort of schizophrenia. People did not know whether they must stand for New Delhi or they must stand for the idea of Pakistan because in the last 70 years, what this entire row of political leadership has done is that when they came to New Delhi, you know, they were all praises for the Indian government. They said that the future lay with the idea of India. But when they went back to Kashmir they sang a different tune altogether. So that remains a major challenge for New Delhi right now. My impression is, and it is based on my conversations with people you know, who are negotiating with some of the some of the politicians who are under detention. And by this I do not mean National Confr-, you know, the main political leaders like Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
Rahul Pandita: 29:01 But I think many younger politicians are, you know, are being you know, there is some sort of conversation going on with them. There are a lot of politicians who have one the Panchayat election there or the local urban body elections. I think that some sort of a conversation going on with them also. But I get the sense that this time when this new political front is created in Kashmir I think they will be given a sort of a template by New Delhi and they will have to follow that template that will be that you have to be pro-India. You have to call a spade a spade. You cannot call someone like Burhan Wani a misguided man, or a mujahid or a militant. You, you know, you have to be, you have to be sure about your vocabulary. You have to be sure about your definition of who is who and you have to call them a terrorist. But from her past experiences, sometimes I would say most times from our experience of 70 years I think most times the Indian government fails in this endeavor. But what they do right now remains to be seen.
Milan Vaishnav: 30:25 On this issue of political parties, Rahul, a lot of opposition leaders and journalists have been criticizing the BJP saying, you have argued that a handful of families has had a iron grip on politics and Kashmir and that they have led to such a state of affairs where we find ourselves today. But, you know as recently as last year, the BJP was in a coalition government with the PDP. And so essentially this was a party that was playing footsie with separatists. Do you think that the BJP's credibility on this score is somewhat weakened? Because of what they've done and how they behaved in Kashmir over the last few years?
Rahul Pandita: 31:07 Absolutely. I think that alliance with the PDP you know, in the first time, during the first term came as a big surprise to many. And it led to the, I mean, it roughly led to the chaotic situation we are into right now. I mean, during Ms. Mufti's tenure the tenure resulted in giving a general amnesty to 14,000 stone pelters. I know for sure that many senior police officers have been feeling quite frustrated about the fact that, after a lot of hardship they would arrest a stone-pelter or an over ground worker of a terrorist organization. And suddenly the phone would ring and it could be someone from you know from the political party and he would be forced to release that leave that person. That is what led to a, a major chaos especially in South Kashmir, which is the bastion of the People's Democratic Party. So I think on, on the trust front, like I said before there's a lot of skepticism about whether, you know, the current provisions will remain or not from the police point of view. For example I spoke to a lot of senior cops and they don't know what happens tomorrow after one, one year, one and a half years you know, the BJP again enters into some kind of alliance with the same people. With Mr. Omar Abdullah or Ms. Mehbooba Mufti.
Rahul Pandita: 32:44 And then, you know, when he or she becomes the chief minister you know, there's a fear that they may have to report back to them. Right now, Many of them are happy about the fact that, that they will not be answerable to, to, to the state leadership. They will be unstable to the union home ministry in New Delhi, their bosses Mr. Amit Shah, And they can do whatever they want. They can they can you know, they can counter terrorism, they can arrest people without the fear of them getting released within a week or within a few days. I think that skepticism will remain for for some time.
Milan Vaishnav: 33:25 Rahul Pandita is the author of three books including the 2013 title "Our Moon has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir," he's a journalist with Open Magazine who spent a lot of his years reporting on the ground from Kashmir. He joins us today on the phone from New Delhi. Rahul, thanks so much for coming on the show. It's been great to have you.
Rahul Pandita: 33:47 Thank you, Milan. It was a pleasure speaking to you.
Outro: 33:50 The Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.