July 2001 
Cover Story

Sisters at a summit

A new initiative to bring Muslim, Kashmiri Pandit and Sikh women from the Valley, to share their grief and try to reconcile differences, makes an initial breakthrough


A group of Kashmiri Pandit women have assembled in the garden of a Srinagar house that belongs to one of 
 them. It’s a very beautiful garden — lush green carpet of grass, flowerbeds aglow with colour, fruit trees forming the backdrop. But the peace and beauty of the garden is deceptive for it shuts out the reality of the Valley. In a way we are awakened to a deeper appreciation of that lovely garden for it helps us forget, if only for some brief moments, the harsh realities that lie beyond the garden wall. 

Who are we? We are a group of women from inside and outside the Kashmir Valley. Pandit women, Muslim women, Sikh women. Women who have come together for a rather unusual enterprise – an attempt to understand and share each other’s grief and hopefully to reconcile differences. 

The conflict in the Valley has taken its toll and not just on lives. It has also driven deep wedges of suspicion, distrust, even hatred across the communal divide. The Valley is the worst sufferer. Over 30,000 orphans – a large percentage of whose parents are victims to the violence from India’s security forces – are a shameful cross for India to bear. But the displaced and terrorised Kashmiri Pandit community has had to bear it’s own specific legacy resulting from the violence. In the past year, Sikhs, too, have joined the community of victims of violence. And migrations out of the state are creating communal ripples in the home state of Punjab.

That’s enough reason for an urgently needed initiative so that hands can get linked across the boundaries of hate and suspicion. To ease some of the pain and suffering — a legacy of nearly a dozen years of armed conflict. Its not always the easiest of tasks for such initiatives across existing human divides often means opening minds and hearts to alternate perceptions, unlearning bitter certainties to forge common understandings. 

Just the previous day Syeda (Saiyidain Hameed), Usha (Desai) and I had sat with another group of women, also talking, learning to listen. In this gathering of Muslim women, there’s a lone Kashmiri Pandit. She, too, is no foreigner to suffering and trauma. Kidnapped by militants, her husband, a doctor, was released only after nine agonising months. 

 “Will you stay on in the Valley or migrate now?” his captives had asked the doctor shortly before they released him. “It all depends on how our Muslim neighbours have looked after my wife in my absence,” the doctor had replied. As it turned out, the Muslim neighbours showed such compassion and took such good care of the wife through the nine long months of her husband’s captivity that the couple decided that the Valley must continue to be their home.

Apart from her husband’s captivity, Ms Raina, has also had personal encounters with the militants. Twice they burnt down the school for around 250 Muslim girls being run by her. Twice she restarted the school. After the second round of arson and reconstruction, the militants confronted her threatening to burn down the school again. “You cannot stop me”, the unflappable Ms Raina told the insurgents. “I will rebuild the school as many times as you destroy it”. They have stopped bothering her since then.

To return to the evening’s gathering, where Ms Raina is the only Hindu amidst many Muslim Kashmiri women, she wants the group to face up to some bitter home truths. She begins recounting the terror experienced by Kashmiri Pandits in the early days of militancy in the Valley, especially the deep fear and insecurity they felt at the time when slogans against Pandits were raised from inside some mosques. 

One of the Muslim women present at the gathering tries to shut up Ms Raina, denying that Muslims had threatened Pandits. But two of the other Muslim women present rise to her defence. “Let her speak”, the two chorus. “We must hear what she feels. We must have the courage to listen to what she has to say.” Ms Raina proceeds to recount before the assembled group how Jagmohan alone was not responsible, nor the main factor in the decision of a large bulk of Kashmiri Pandits to migrate out of the Valley. 

We can see that this is not easy for her to say, nor is it easy for others to hear. But it is the bitter truth. Most important, women from both sides, Muslim widows from the Valley and displaced Pandit women, too, have decided to speak and also to listen to one another. This is the beginning. 

Such a process always begins with difficult, painful and bitter conversations that need to take place. This demands a lot of courage from both the speaker and the listeners. But for Jammu and Kashmir, the breakthrough between Pandits and Kashmiris, the resumption of dialogue, before faith and trust are regained, are vital for a lasting peace, even as the scheduled Indo-Pak summit in mid-July 2001 needs to hammer out differences at quite another level.

She also narrates her own encounters with the militants and their leaders. She recalls the kidnap of her husband, the care and compassion shown to her by her Muslim neighbours through long months of ordeal She adds that the compassion she experienced at a moment of such deep personal crisis made her and her husband decide to stay on in the Valley. A rare decision for a Pandit couple in these strife-torn times.

That was yesterday. The Pandit women I am sitting with in this beautiful garden this evening are very bitter. They speak of their suffering – the suffering of displaced people. Would I, who has never lost her ancestral home or property, ever fully understand what this loss means? What would the summit between Vajpayee and Musharraf mean for their community? Will it enable them to return to their homes and ancestral lands? 

I reach out to Nimmi, another Pandit woman, who happens to be sitting beside me. I try being as gentle as I can. “I understand your pain. You have every right to feel bitter. But how can I, an outsider, compare the suffering of one community to another? Suffering is suffering. All I know is that those who have suffered can better understand the suffering of others. Is it not our moral imperative as women to help the widows of the Valley?”

After unburdening their pain, the Pandits also listen to the accounts of the suffering of thousands of young widows from all over Kashmir who were left alone with children and no one to show any concern, leave alone help. 

It takes me a while to realise where the root of the anxiety for the Pandit women lies. It is the uncertainty of their situation. Are the Pandits at all wanted by the Valley and would they ever be welcomed back?

When I recount to them what many Kashmiri Muslims have told us in the last few days, there is stunned disbelief. I tell them that even now any number of Kashmiri Muslims that I have spoken to say and believe that without the Pandits in their midst, the idea of Kashmiriyat is hollow, incomplete. I share their fears but also try communicating to them the fears of the Kashmiri Muslims. 
I tell them that the Muslims from the Valley whom I spoke to repeatedly expressed the fear that any communal solution to the Kashmir dispute (like the suggested trifurcation of the state on religious lines) would repeat the bloodletting of an earlier communal ‘solution’ – the Partition of 1947. The fear that another communal solution would mean another bloodbath.

“So they do realise it?” asks another Pandit woman before blurting out: “Why did they not protest at the time and do something to prevent the exodus from the Valley?” 

An elderly Pandit woman shares her pain about her husband dying outside the place of his birth – Kashmir Valley. She has returned after her husband’s death to live in Srinagar. At the end of this first, intense session, she tells the group, “I can speak Kashmiri. I would like to go to villages and help the young widows.” 

“Will you take me?” she turns to me and asks.
This for us is a real breakthrough. The capacity that women have to overcome their own pain and individual suffering and to reach out to others, despite real and assumed betrayals, I believe, will determine what tomorrow’s Kashmir will be.        

(To protect the identity of the Kashmiri Pandit woman quoted extensively in the article above, we have used a psuedonym).    
(Sushobha Barve is founder member of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation). 

[ Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Khoj | Aman ]
[ Letter to editor  ]
Copyrights © 2001, Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt. Ltd.