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Has the peace process forgotten the Pandits?

By Ramananda Sengupta
Last updated on: September 22, 2005 10:34 IST
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Invisible transfers, long distance calls
hollow laughter in marble halls
steps have been taken, a silent uproar
has unleashed the dogs of war
you can't stop what has begun
signed, sealed, they deliver oblivion
we all have a dark side, to say the least
and dealing in death is the nature of the beast
one world, it's a battleground
one world, and we will smash it down
one world

-- Pink Floyd, Momentary Lapse of Reason

On August 15, 1947, what was known as the Indian subcontinent was forever divided on religious lines into India, East and West Pakistan.

Some Muslims, perhaps worried about living in a Hindu majority nation, and that too one which they had ruled for hundreds of years before the British arrived, wanted -- and got -- their own homeland.

Tens of thousands died in the religious carnage that followed Partition. Thousands more have died since.

The Empire, it seems, had the final laugh.

My grandfather, Dhaka's first Indian civil surgeon, and his family fled that city for Assam and then eventually Calcutta, months before Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan.

Frankly, I didn't worry, or even think about Partition during my formative years, being too engrossed traveling with my father, who was a consultant to the UN.

It was only during my high school days in Calcutta that I recall noticing that some Bengalis spoke in a singsong dialect which seemed strange to me, and being told that it came from Bangladesh.

I was also flummoxed when I was once asked whether I was a ghoti (a steel utensil for usually meant for drinking water) or a bati (a smaller steel bowl used for mealtime accompaniments like the daily dal or sabzi). At least, that's what I thought they meant. But actually they meant whether I was from this side of the border or that.

'Time to undo the follies of Partition'   

But my real brush with the anguish and anger caused by Partition came when I moved to Delhi, where almost every Punjabi over 60 I met had horror stories to tell. Almost all of them shared a visceral hatred for Pakistan.

In some cases, this hatred was passed on to their sons and daughters, who were not directly affected by the division of India. More than half a century later, memories of the inhuman carnage of 1947 remain embedded in the national psyche of both India and Pakistan.

It was in Delhi that I also met a young Kashmiri Pandit, who lived in a large, squalid hall in Delhi's upmarket South Extension. It was optimistically described as a 'transit camp' for the Pandits displaced from their homeland by marauding militants in the early 90s.

Almost every Kashmiri Hindu forced to leave the valley talks about their roots and culture, and how hard they are trying to retain them despite their eviction and subsequent isolation in India, by Indians.

The pawns without a vote   

This young man recounted a sad but telling story about his cousin, then five. It seems that the little one, in his interactions with other children in the scorching Delhi summer, would recount how 'in Kashmir, they had played in the snow.' The child had been born in that Delhi camp, and had never been to Kashmir.

This is the Kashmir over which we have fought three wars (four, if you count Kargil, and you should) with Pakistan since partition.

Today, as part of the peace process, we are talking with the so-called Hurriyat Conference, whose leaders are among those who forced these Hindus out of their homes. Many of them are blatantly anti-national. Some of them are accused of killing Indian soldiers.

Today, we are talking with Kashmiris across the border, while totally ignoring Indian Kashmiris who were forced to leave their homes at gunpoint.

I can understand -- though not condone -- the reasons behind the dramatically dwindling Hindu populations in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But the thought that this could happen in a state of 'secular' India makes me want to throw up in the face of the government(s) which condoned -- some say even encouraged -- this.

Secularism Zindabad!!!!

Enough has been said about the plight of the Pandits. It is time we did something about it.

One thing we can do is tell Pakistan -- so self-righteously adamant about 'Kashmiris' having a say in the peace process -- that we will discuss this issue only after all those who were forced to leave due to Pakistan-sponsored militancy are readmitted to their homes and allowed to participate in the local government.

Until then, anyone who declares himself or herself as representing the Kashmiri masses should be viewed with suspicion. And that includes elected officials. Because any election conducted after the ethnic cleansing that took place in the state is per se faulty and skewed.

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Ramananda Sengupta