Every Pandit in Kashmir faces identity crisis

By Aarti Tikoo Singh, The Times of India| May 29, 2016

If all the components of a wrecked ship are replaced and restored, is it fundamentally the same ship? The question is Theseus’ Paradox — the thought experiment about identity, originally recorded in the late first century and poignantly captured as recent as in Anand Gandhi’s 2013 award-winning film Ship of Theseus.
The dilemma of ‘who am I’ in the absence of one’s ethnic community and in a conflict-ridden society, led a Srinagar based organization to investigate, for the first time, whether Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, were really who they thought they were two decades ago.

Pandits claim to be the aborigines of Kashmir and boast of a rich cultural heritage and ethnicity. Around 3,00,000 Pandits were driven out, most of them in 1990, with the eruption of Islamist separatist insurgency in Kashmir. As of now, there are only 2,765 Pandits (651 families) left in 192 places across the Valley.

Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), an organization of Pandits, in a survey that took almost two years to complete, discovered that 100% Pandits in the Valley faced “identity crisis” and over 99% Pandits did not find their identity the same as it was before 1990. Over 62% Pandits, the survey revealed, had a “compromising self-image”.

The findings are alarming — until now only the displaced Kashmiri Pandits had been complaining about the loss of their identity due to the loss of their homes, the inability of a scattered community to preserve its culture against dominant local cultures across the country and a high rate of inter-community marriages. It is however, for the first time that Pandits in the Valley, have acknowledged their loss of identity.

The survey findings also assume significance in view of the Central government’s initiative in collaboration with the state government to build composite colonies for the return and rehabilitation of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits.

The 2008-2010 survey that KPSS president Sanjay Tickoo shared exclusively with the TOI is based on interviews with 1,326 Pandits in the age group of 13 to 80 years from all the 651 families that stayed on. The respondents include housewives, college going students and retired government employees.

Over 51% respondents recorded serious mental and physical health issues including hypertension, clinical depression, psychiatric disorders and heart ailments which they trace to separation from their community. The survey found that 70% of Pandits in Kashmir felt that the mass departure of their community members led to the breakdown of their traditional family structure; 74% felt that it had affected the marriage prospects of their children.

Due to their small numbers, the community’s youth do not find desirable matches in Kashmir and are therefore increasingly opting for inter-community marriages outside Kashmir. Almost 59% respondents said that their children were culturally alienated and after high school and college chose to leave the Valley for higher education or employment.

Tickoo pointed out that Islamic prayers in both private and public schools had affected Pandit children immensely.

The survey attributed the “dilution of their identity” through such various markers to the absence of their community, social isolation within Kashmir, inability to celebrate religious festivals with the freedom as they once did, destruction of temples and shrines by militants, and the scarcity of priests to officiate at ceremonies. “There is no encouragement from any government to preserve our culture or celebrate our festivals,” complains Tickoo.

He also pointed out that Islamic prayers in both private and public schools had affected Pandit children immensely. At Kothi Bagh high school, Tickoo had to request the principal to exempt his daughter from standing in the queue for Islamic prayers. “My daughter felt uncomfortable and it raised issues about our identity in her mind,” he says.

The other major factor that has led to the identity crisis, Tickoo says, was the “hostile” attitude of youth towards Pandits in the Valley. Girja Koul, a Srinagar housewife adds: “The older generation understands shared culture and identity. But the young boys here have no respect for who we are. They mock us on the streets. It is very insulting and painful.”

As per the survey, 82% respondents regretted the decision to stay back. “We feel betrayed by everyone. The government is concerned only about the displaced community, but those who stayed back are neither acknowledged nor looked after. Our 562 youth are unemployed and instead of absorbing them here, they are being forced to leave the Valley,” says Tickoo.

“On top of that, mainstream political parties and separatists have vitiated the atmosphere so bad about the return and rehabilitation of the displaced community that most Pandits here regret that they stayed back,” he says.

Avtar Kaul, a retired government employee says the communal separatist rhetoric of the last 26 years in Kashmir has affected him psychologically. “It has not been easy to be a Kashmiri Pandit here,” he says. The famous Descartesian fundamental about identity—’I think, therefore I am’– doesn’t seem to provide any solace to him and other Pandits in the valley.
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