On 15 August 2016, the police in Bengaluru registered a first information report against the human-rights organisation Amnesty International India under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including sedition. The FIR was registered after representatives from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—a student body affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—sought action against the organisation. The ABVP activists claimed that “anti-national” activities had taken place at “Broken Families,” an event that Amnesty India had hosted two days earlier at the United Theological College in Bengaluru, as part of its campaign against human-rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Protests against the human-rights organisation, primarily within Karnataka, have intensified since, and Amnesty India’s employees have reportedly been asked to work from home as a “precautionary measure.”
I have waited to get some clarity on what actually transpired at the event. Now that I have it, I feel compelled to say a few things. I hope they are read and pondered over in the right spirit by all parties, especially Kashmiri Pandits.
There is no doubt that the Amnesty International, like most rights groups, has turned a blind eye towards the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. That the organisation is sympathetic to Islamic groups became clear after the head of its gender unit, Gita Sahgal, left it six years ago, accusing it of “ideological bankruptcy.”
On the question of morality, the Pandits have had an edge so far. The azadi movement in Kashmir lost its moral high ground in 1990, when the minority Pandits were hounded out of their homes and over seven hundred of them were brutally killed by Islamist extremists. Even after they were driven out of a land that their ancestors had lived on for thousands of years, and forced to reside in tattered tents, in exile and extreme humiliation, the Pandits never took up arms.
There was no dearth of attempts to radicalise us. But, instead of picking up Remington pistols, we chose Resnick-Halliday textbooks. Amnesty may think that the Pandits do not deserve to be included in events on “Broken Families” [of Kashmir]; Tara Rao, its programmes director in India, may not have had accurate statistics on the number of Pandits thrown out of the valley when she spoke at the event; but the fact remains that nobody can take our truth away from us. In the last 26 years of exile, hundreds of Pandits, from Jammu to Johannesburg, acting individually, have braved adverse and belligerent crowds to put forth our narrative.
But let us look at what happened in Bengaluru. Amnesty India had invited a few individuals from the valley who have lost their near and dear ones in rights violations committed by Indian security forces. There were disconsolate mothers and grieving fathers, hoping to be heard outside Kashmir, perhaps hoping for some catharsis.
Then, a handful of Pandits came in, wearing T-shirts, which reportedly read: “Kashmiri Pandits.” RK Mattoo, the president of the Bangalore Kashmiri Pandit Association, was on the dais (he was invited by Amnesty India at the last moment after he threatened to protest outside the venue with his group). The attempt should have been to listen to each other; the attempt should have been to narrate what happened to Pandits in Kashmir in the name of azadi; it should have been to remind them of what happened in Kashmir on the night of 19 January 1990, when hundreds of thousands of people were out on the streets, asking that Kashmir be turned into Pakistan, without Pandit men, but with Pandit women.
Mattoo began on a discordant note. He accused Amnesty of ignoring the story of Kashmiri Pandits. Then, he made a comment on the Indian army being one of the most disciplined forces in the world. The seven or eight Pandits who were wearing the “Kashmiri Pandits” T-shirts reportedly applauded this statement.
While this may be true of the Indian army, you do not say it in a hall filled with people who have directly suffered at the hands of the armed forces. The assertion was obviously not well received by those from the valley. Even then, things would have settled in a few moments had it not been for one chest-thumping Pandit in the audience, who stood up and called the other group “terrorists.”
What have the Pandits achieved from this event? A few sufferers have returned to Kashmir, with a very bitter experience. In their hearts, perhaps, some may now even justify what happened to the Pandits in 1990. The Pandits have not been able to put across even a single, coherent fact about their truth at the event. While the Indian army should be lauded for the valiant efforts it has made to fight terrorism in Kashmir, why do the Pandits feel compelled to be alambardars (flag-bearers) of the army, or for that matter, the Indian state? Isn’t the failure of the Indian state responsible for their exodus and their long exile, which is, despite the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s bravado, almost becoming permanent?
Suddenly, an event that could have paved the way for Kashmiris to reach out to each other, has instead catalysed a debate on sedition. At the heart of it, the Kashmiri Pandit has come across as a rabid, extremist villain who has no tolerance.
Let us stop this madness. Let us fiercely defend our story, and let it not be at the cost of others’ stories. Let us not lose our morality.
Rahul Pandita is a Yale World Fellow and the author of “Our Moon Has Blood Clots”, a memoir of a lost home in Kashmir.