The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites

The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites
Photo Credit: Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
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On January 30, an octogenarian Kashmiri Pandit, Janki Nath, died in his home in Malvan village in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district. He had a government job, but he retired just as Malvan was emptying of its Pandit inhabitants in 1990. He sent his daughter to the safety of Jammu. She is married now and lives in Delhi. Even after the three massacres of Pandits in Kashmir Valley in 1997, 1998 and 2003 – a time when even most of those who stayed back chose to leave – Janki Nath decided to brave it out. He was an old man and preferred death to the uncertainty of exile.

After militancy forced about 400,000 Pandits into exile in the early 1990s, a few families, especially in the villages, had chosen to stay behind. Most of them did not have any member with a salaried job and depended on agriculture for sustenance. Janki Nath was among the handful.

After his death last Saturday, the news agency Press Trust of India reported that in the absence of any Pandit, his Muslim neighbours performed the last rites. The report, carriedlater on The Indian Express website, said that the deceased had been unwell for the last five years and that his Muslim neighbours were taking care of him.

That there were no Pandits present there is a blatant lie, but we will come to that later. First: why do journalists in Kashmir Valley feel compelled to report the death of a Pandit? Janki Nath was no poet laureate or social activist. He was no Padma Shri. Why is it news that a Pandit has died and his Muslim neighbours have come to his house in condolence or that they have helped in the arrangements of his last journey?

Vinod Pandit, an activist who lives in Kulgam district, says he often visits the bereaved families of his departed Muslim neighbours. But there are no cameras in tow. No flash bulbs invade the privacy of the grieving family.

Two: who among Janki Nath’s neighbours felt compelled to call the media? Malvan is a remote village on the edge of a forest and there are no TV stringers there. So who called the PTI correspondent and what did he see?

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

Did he see everything but choose to ignore it? He must have seen a man, wearing a pheran (Kashmiri loose coat), quietly tying in an arc over Janki Nath’s bier a thin mulberry tree branch, as per the centuries-old tradition of the Kashmiri Pandits. That person was Vijay Ji, a Pandit from a neighbouring village who rushed to Malvan along with three other members of his community after hearing about Janki Nath’s death.

The PTI correspondent must have seen another man, again in pheran, and a woolen cap, reciting a Shiva hymn, making balls of soft-cooked rice and ghee, to be offered as last meal to the departed man. That person was Jaw’e Lal, another Pandit from another neighbouring village. The PTI correspondent must have seen a woman putting walnuts and marigold flowers over a plate of rice grains and then lighting an earthen lamp over it and keeping it on the right side of the dead man’s head. Her name was Kishni Pandita and she also came from a village nearby.

The PTI correspondent must have seen a man who lit Janki Nath’s pyre. His name was Surinder Pandita. His family had to leave Malvan in 1990. Obviously, he knew Janki Nath and his family. He is a state government employee, currently residing in a camp established for Pandits who returned to Valley to take up jobs they badly needed. He was accompanied by a young activist, Rahul Ramesh Raina, who lives in the same camp. They took along a bundle of peanuts and candy, which is required for the last rites. Janki Nath, they realised, had kept his Ramnami cloth ready, as many elderly Hindus do in apprehension of their departure.

The PTI correspondent must have also seen an old woman, sitting quietly on one side, looking intently at the dead man. That was Rani, Janki Nath’s wife who lived all her life with her husband and was now mourning his departure. In all, there were at least 12 Pandits in attendance. Of course, there were several Muslim neighbours who were present as well during the ceremony. But in the presence of a priest and so many Pandits, there was no question of them performing the man’s last rites.

The PTI report begins with the clichéd phrase: “In a heart warming example of Kashmiriyat…” The Pandits often wonder about this strange word which has permeated ink-like through the blot paper of our existence in exile. We wonder about it because we are like Luis Borges’ Funes the Memorious, unable to forget anything. We remember that it couldn’t warm the hearts of men and women in Malvan as their Pandit neighbours were fleeing one after another in 1990. We remember the coldblooded murder of a young Pandit teacher and his father in the neighbouring village of Ashmuji in July that year (The teacher, Shiban Krishan Kaul and his father, Radha Krishan Kaul were killed by terrorists after destroying their house. His wife, Nancy Kaul, stayed with the corpses the entire night as no one came to their rescue. The two were cremated the next morning by the army.)

Courtesy: Rahul Pandita
Courtesy: Rahul Pandita

This is not the only time when false stories like the one from Malvan have been reported from Kashmir. We read these stories every year. It is not that senior journalists or the civil society in Kashmir do not know the charade behind these stories. But they choose to keep silent.

Eleven days before Janki Nath’s death, a newspaper in Kashmir published this cartoon. It was the day when we were observing the 26th anniversary of our exile. In hindsight, many of us are relieved that someone created this cartoon. Because it is on such occasions that the veneer comes off and everyone can see what lies beneath.

I ask our erstwhile neighbours and erstwhile friends from Malvan, Ashmuji and elsewhere in the Valley to do us a favour: stop engaging with us on what happened in 1990. Do not tell us that you were equally helpless. Because, as Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote to his German friend, there exist a thousand ways to manifest one’s solidarity with the oppressed. Propagating the falsehood of warmth is not one of them.

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As right-wing BJP seeks to appropriate Bose, a reminder: Congress expelled him for being too left

As right-wing BJP seeks to appropriate Bose, a reminder:  Congress expelled him for being too left
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For some time now, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been on the look out for historical icons. After building an impressive present as India’s largest party, it is only natural that it would now look to construct a notable past. Given the colossal role that the Congress played in the freedom struggle, the BJP has necessarily had to poach some Congressmen for this task, the main figure there being Vallabhbhai Patel. Since Patel leaned to the right, however, his inclusion in the BJP pantheon isn’t all that incongruous ­– after all the Congress that led the freedom struggle is the collective inheritance of all Indians, not just the present Congress party.

What is more difficult to swallow is the BJP’s sudden love for Subhas Chandra Bose. Bose’s popularity has endured despite almost being ignored by the powers-that-be in Delhi since 1947. The BJP has sought to hitch its wagon onto Bose’s appeal and in its latest move declassified papers related to Bose on January 23, his birth anniversary. Unlike Patel, however, Bose was a self-described leftist. What’s more, he was expelled from the Congress precisely because of the extreme left, anti-imperialist positions he took, which threatened the right wing of the party.

Challenging the Congress right wing

The left had been a growing presence in the Congress all through the 1930s. However, the party was still a largely conservative body and Congress pressure groups such as the Congress Socialist Party or the Royists (followers of MN Roy, founder of the Communist Party of India) did not control the levers of the organisation.

In 1938, the left wing achieved a major success with the election of its firebrand leader, Subhas Bose, as Congress president. This was not, however, a break with the right, and Bose had been elected with Gandhi’s support. Matters came to a head in 1939, however, when Gandhi made it clear that he did not want Bose to stand for re-election.

For the first time since 1920, Gandhi, however, was opposed within the party. Bose decided to stand for re-election nevertheless, challenging the Mahatma’s candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Bose’s campaign was centred on an issue that had split the Congress’ left and right wings: cooperation with the British. The right wanted to collaborate with the British and work a new form of government, laid out in the Government of India Act 1935, which promised a substantial measure of democratic government at the provincial level. The Congress left, however, wanted no truck with the Raj at all, and preferred to launch a mass agitation – a demand that had become more urgent given the turmoil in Europe as World War II loomed.

Pyrrhic victory

The election was, therefore, fought on ideological lines. On Gandhi’s side stood the entire old guard of the Congress. In a speech at the time, C Rajagopalachari warned that Bose’s boat was “leaky” and the Congress should trust the “old boat but big boat, piloted by Mahatma Gandhi”. (Nine years later, when Rajaji was made governor of West Bengal, he was taunted with shouts of “leaky boat” in Calcutta).

The Congress, however, was now increasingly growing impatient at the thought of cooperating with the British. The entire Congress left came together to award Bose a stunning win of 1,575 to 1,376 votes.

This was, however, to be a pyrrhic victory for Bose. Gandhi soon announced that this had been a personal defeat for him and, in a typically loaded statement, remarked, “After all, Subhas babu is not an enemy of the country”. In response, the entire Working Committee, loyal to the Mahatma, resigned (the resignation letters had been drafted by Gandhi himself). The only person who remained on, apart from Subhas Bose himself, was his elder brother and a giant of Bengal politics, Sarat Chandra Bose.

Gandhi’s loyalists resign

At Tripuri, as the Congress session got underway, GB Pant, another key member of the Congress right-wing, moved a resolution asking Subhas Bose to appoint a working committee “in accordance with the wishes of Gandhiji”. This was patently undemocratic and practically overturned Bose’s valid election as president. Vallabhbhai Patel, who was a bitter ideological and personal rival of Bose justified this by saying, “The lion becomes a king by birth, not by an election in the jungle”.

Patel might have been brusque but he was not saying something altogether untrue. Election or no election, Gandhi was too big to fall ­– Bose could hardly match up to the Mahatma’s national popularity. Seeing that this would splinter the Congress, large parts of the Left including most significantly, Jawaharlal Nehru decided to abandon Bose. Ram Manohar Lohia’s argument carried the day: “Leftists in the Congress should not aspire to set up an alternative leadership to the present leadership of the ‘Right’”. Later, Bose, bitter at being abandoned by a ideological fellow-traveller, would write privately, “Nobody has done more harm to me personally, and to our cause in this crisis than Pandit Nehru. If he had been with us, we would have had a majority. Even his neutrality would have given us a majority. But he was with the Old Guard at the time.”

Bose forced to resign as President

Bose, now pushed into a corner, sought a rapprochement with Gandhi. He wrote to him, agreeing to resign as long as Gandhi would “resume the struggle for national independence”. Gandhi, though, was in no mood for compromise and now “seemed determined to oust him”. Nehru, still sympathetic to Bose, wrote to Gandhi pleading that to “push him [Bose] out seems to me an exceedingly wrong step”. Gandhi, did not bend, refusing to either launch a mass struggle or work with Bose in the Congress.

Totally outmanoeuvred by Gandhi, Bose resigned from the presidentship of the Congress. Rajendra Prasad, another right-winger, was appointed in his stead. Bose, though, did not give up on his ideology and formed the Forwards Bloc, as an umbrella body for Congress leftists. He also did not abandon his dream of an organised movement against the Raj.

Bose expelled for threatening Satyagaraha

The Congress ­­– still looking to work with the Raj and anxious to crush Bose’s rebellion – now moved to stop any sort of mass movement against the British. Resolutions were passed which declared that no Congressmen could launch Sataygraha without the express permission of the Working Committee ­­– a body firmly loyal to Gandhi. Bose protested against this move and was immediately removed as president of the Bengal Provincial Congress as well as disqualified from holding any Congress post for three years.

Bitterly, Bose wrote:

“I welcome the decision of the Working Committee virtually expelling me for the Congress for three years. This decision is the logical consequence of the process of right-consolidation[…]By trying to warn the country about the continued drift towards Constitutionalism and Reformism, by protesting against resolutions which seek to kill the revolutionary spirit of the Congress, by working for the cause of left- consolidation and, last but not least, by consistently appealing to the country to prepare for the coming struggle ­­– I have committed a crime for which I have to pay the penalty[…]. I feel no doubt in my mind that the cause which we leftists represent is a just cause.”

Bose’s final moves in India

After this final break with the Congress, Bose became increasingly militant in his language even as World War II broke out with in Europe. To consolidate his base in Bengal, he fixed a seat sharing agreement with the Muslim League in the prestigious Congress stronghold of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. As a first step, he aimed to launch a movement to remove Holwell’s monument, which publicly commemorated the Black Hole incident during the time of Siraj-ud-Daula, the last Nawab of Bengal. It was a strategic issue, chosen to unite Hindus and Muslims against the Raj. The British, alarmed at this and acutely aware of Bose’s popularity in Bengal, decided to arrest him a day before the movement was to start.

Thus ended Bose’s role in the direct politics of India. He would escape from this detention, famously outfoxing the feared Calcutta CID. His radical stand for an uncompromising attitude towards the Raj ­– often derided as hot headed – was actually proven correct when the British brusquely dismissed all offers of Congress cooperation. The mass struggle that Bose had urged in 1939 ultimately came about in 1942 in the form of the Quit India movement.

Bose’s left-wing legacy

After Bose’s death (or, disappearance, if once believes the many conspiracy theories), his elder brother and mentor, Sarat Bose, left the Congress in 1949 after a futile attempt to ensure a united sovereign Bengal (as an inheritor of CR Das’ mantle, the communal partition of Bengal was obviously opposed by him). Sarat Bose then tried to launch a coalition of left parties to take on the Congress in West Bengal as well as SP Mookerjee, the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s earlier avatar. He had some limited success, even winning an Assembly by-election in 1950 against the Congress candidate in Calcutta but died within weeks of the result. The party Subhas Bose founded, the Forward Bloc, would, two decades later, go on to be part of another “left front”, this time led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that would rule West Bengal till 2009.

Subhas Bose was, therefore, the inheritor of CR Das’s legacy and his politics of Hindu-Muslim accommodation. His own politics was firmly left-wing and Bose saw his expulsion from the Congress as a straight battle with the right. Even his political legacy in West Bengal is staunchly socialist, with his elder brother launching a left-wing coalition and the party he founded being a part of one till today. The fact that Bose is now being used by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to shore up its historical bench strength is at best an example of intellectual confusion that displays an ignorance of history, or a cynical disregard for it.

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A Kannada-speaking mixed-race journalist listens in to conversations about him as he travels through through his hometown.

'People like him do drugs, have a high sex drive': A Nigerian-Indian takes an auto ride in Bangalore

Photo Credit: Akshay Mahajan
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Over the past few years, I’ve stopped keeping track of the news on a daily basis. No good seems to come from it. As a result, I’m the last to know about anything. On Wednesday, while I was running around on a writing assignment in my hometown of Bangalore, my editors from Mumbai called me to ask whether I was safe. I wasn’t sure what exactly they meant, so they quickly relayed the news – a Tanzanian girl, beaten, stripped and paraded naked by a mob in my city with the police standing by silently – and impressed upon me the need to be careful. My initial response: unbridled laughter. I wasn’t laughing because I found the heinous incident funny but because it was happening again. As a queer person with one parent who is Nigerian and the other Indian, I was being violently reminded that it’s dangerous to be different in India.

Though I was slightly shaken by the news of the attack, I am determined to think of myself as the local I am and ignored my editors’ request to travel only by cab over the next few days. I caught an autorickshaw but it seemed like the city was determined to teach me a lesson. The auto driver turned out to be a Kannada chauvinist, who insisted on interrogating me about the reason I had learned the language, constantly checked my knowledge about the route and generally rode in a jerky, speedy, nonchalant fashion.

This kind of needling from macho auto drivers is common and expected but in the light of the recent incident, his showy and reckless driving made me aware of the attention it was bringing to me. At the next stop signal, two bikes halted on either side of the auto, suddenly there were four pairs of eyes from behind helmets staring into the auto, looking me up and down. In a few seconds, the four men and the driver began to discuss me in Kannada. They were wondered about “his rate”, “whether he was a boy or a girl”, “the origin of people like him” and insisted “that people like him with curly and rope-like hair do drugs and have a very high sex drive”. I listened silently, astonished that despite speaking Kannada to the driver, he wasn’t at the least affected by the banter. In fact, he participated quite actively in the conversation. I was rattled enough not take the ride all the way to my apartment gate.

“These things keep happening to you,” is one of the most common responses to my retelling stories of these kinds of experiences. People don’t seem to realise that the fact that I have these kind of experiences is a problem in the first place. I’d rather have had an uneventful, boring auto ride like everybody else. Or walk down the road without someone shouting, “African” at least once every day. Yes, I’ve learned to carry on with my life, to ignore these voices, and have even protected myself from hands trying to invade my personal space or mark my body. But it’s tiring and bloody exhausting.

Nobody should live with this feeling of being targeted. But the reasons for being attacked are increasing. They could be anything from being black to beef-eating. I thought Bangalore was safe but that isn’t the case anymore. These incidents are happening too often to be ignored. We can’t even turn to the police for help, because they’re the biggest perpetrators of these crimes.

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Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race

Billed as semi-final for 2017 assembly elections, Punjab bypoll is now a one-horse race
Photo Credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP
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It was being seen as a semi-final, an acid test for the main contenders before the Punjab assembly elections next year. But the Khadoor Sahib assembly bypoll is now turning out to be a damp squib, with two of the three major parties pulling out of the contest.

While the outcome of the February 13 by-election would not have necessarily served as a bellweather for next year’s state elections, the emergence of a virtual one-horse race has killed the possibility of a cracking contest in what was once the hotbed of militancy.

The Aam Aadmi Party had declared well in advance that it would not contest the election. The party has not contested a single bypoll since its surprise victory in four Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 general elections. Instead, it has devoted itself to meticulously preparing for the 2017 Punjab polls.

The Congress, the state’s main opposition party, was toying with idea of fielding a candidate in Khadoor Sahib till the eleventh hour. But the party, currently in resurgence mode since former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh took charge of its state unit, eventually decided to pull out.

Although there are seven Independents in the fray, a candidate fielded by coalition partners – the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party – should saunter to victory virtually unopposed.

Divided house

The by-election was necessitated by the resignation of the Congress legislator Ramanjit Singh Sikki in October. His decision was prompted by a series of incidents of the Sikh holy book being desecrated as torn pages of the Guru Granth Sahib were found at several places. There were widespread protests and in one incident, two protesters were killed in police firing. Sikki had resigned to demand the arrest of the culprits and action against police personnel who had opened fire on protesters.

The Congress has now cited the same grounds for not fielding a candidate in the bypoll. Party leaders tried to convince Sikki to contest, but his reluctance and the absence of a strong alternative candidate forced the decision to pull out. There was even a suggestion that one of those injured in the police firing last October could be made a candidate, but the proposal was shot down.

The party remains split over the final decision. Some leaders, including former MP and a member of the national executive of the party, Jagmeet Singh Brar, said the party was “running away” from the contest and said the decision was a “fraud”. Some feel the move will demoralise party workers, while others think it was for the best as the Congress was almost sure to lose the by-election – a result that would have cast a shadow on its prospects in the assembly elections next year.

A major factor in the decision not to field a candidate was apparently advice from Prashant Kishor, the political strategist who engineered the Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar last year and is now an advisor to chief minister Nitish Kumar.

Although the Congress is yet to entrust him with its 2017 campaign in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh has been in touch with Kishor in his “personal capacity”. Kishor is said to have conducted a study and advised Amarinder against contesting the bypoll. Kishor is believed to have already commissioned a team to study the Congress’ prospects in the next assembly elections and to prepare a strategy for the party.

With a virtual walkover on the cards for the Khadoor Sahib bypoll, the only remaining point of interest is the voter turnout. Congress’ Sikki has asked voters to boycott the election, while AAP seems indifferent. For the Akali Dal, which is facing anti-incumbency, a low turnout would be a setback. With this in mind, it has entrusted every group of five villages to a minister or legislator for the purpose of reeling in voters. The Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party meanwhile will be hoping that many voters hit the None Of The Above button.

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