The Garden of Solitude and the Problematics of Kashmiriyat as a Totalizing Identity

  • January 29, 2021

The inherent contradiction and ambivalence in the relationship between the Kashmiri Hindu and Kashmiri Muslim identity lies at the core of divergent views pertaining to Kashmir, writes Jaalib Ahmed Bhat, deconstructing the monolithic concept of Kashmiriyat.


For centuries, it has been stated that Kashmir has witnessed an influx and intersection of varied cultures, ideas and faiths, all of which blended into its plural fabric, yet Kashmiri identity and history is not as homogeneous as it has been assumed to be. Below this officially sanctioned grand narrative, there exist many fractious contradictions, inequalities, ruptures and indeed some confluences. These are important for us to foreground for an honest understanding of the issue itself. It is in this context that one can read the novel The Garden of Solitude encapsulating all these ambivalences and contradictions in the recent times, and thus offering us an insight into the deeply problematic proposition of Kashmiriyat.


G.M. Sufi in his work Kashir: A History of Kashmir observes that “the cult of Buddha, the teachings of Vedanta, the mysticism of Islam have one after another found a congenial home in Kashmir.” Kashmir’s milieu embraced new creeds without discarding earlier ones. There thus evolved a unique socio-cultural fabric which gave primacy to shared values and tradition that has been defined as Kashmiriyat. Riyaz Punjabi in his essay “Kashmiriyat: The Mystique of an Ethnicity” considers Hari Parbat hill, overlooking the city of Srinagar, as the metaphoric “epicentre of Kashmir—geographically, mythologically and spiritually.” On the north-eastern face of this hill is the shrine of the great Kashmiri saint, Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom; on the south-western side is the abode of Chakreshwari Devi or Ma Sharada; in the foothills is the Gurudwara Chatti Padshahi. According to Punjabi, the hill epitomises the confluence of three important faiths—Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism—that epitomize the plural fabric of Kashmir in being a “a focal point where people of diverse faiths, coming from many directions, converge on one point—to provide a living instance of the adage that ways might be different, but they lead to one point.” This confluence has been assumed to symbolise the Sufi mystic tradition that marks Kashmiriyat. According to K N Dhar and numerous other critics, Kashmiri poetry abounds in “exemplary tolerance between different sects professing various religions.”

Lala Arifa, better known as Lalla Ded, is regarded as Kashmir’s first mystic poet who is praised for giving essence to the idea of Kashmiriyat in her verses. Carried forward by Sufis through centuries, her tradition was revived and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the proponents of an emerging Kashmiri nationalism based on secular ideals that gained sway under Sheikh Abdullah and in the poetry of such progressive poets like Mahjoor, Azad and Nadim. The adulation of Lal Ded is manifested in Kashmiri Pandits’ claim she was a Shaivite and therefore a member of their community; Kashmiri Muslims argue that she was born a Kashmiri Pandit but professed Islam in later life. Her spiritual successor is Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani or Nund Reshi, another figure essential to the idea of Kashmiriyat as both Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims claim him as their spiritual guide. The former refer to him as Shazanand or “one who has attained ultimate truth” while the latter call his verses the Koshur Quran or Kashmiri Koran. In 17th century, European travellers like Francois Bernier and W. Pickering had observed the absence of religious discord in Kashmir. However, the formulation of Kashmiriyat as somewhat all encompassing  and totalizing identity in the official parlance or historiography leads to a fallacy of gross overlooking of many vital facets of Kashmiri history and identity which include caste/feudal repression existing till 20th century or the recent state repression. It becomes especially ambivalent and problematic when one sees that through the reigns of harsh, authoritarian and exploitative rulers, it were the minority Hindus often patronised and privileged over majority Muslims. It came at the expense of the majority community’s deprivation. For instance, the Dogra rule lasted for a century, and was terribly autocratic and feudal in nature, in which, according to eminent Historian P N Bazaz, “the upper classes of the Hindus … consolidate[d] and fatten[ed] themselves at the expense of the masses.” For the common Kashmiris, it was a period of political harshness, economic exploitation, social oppression, and such educational deprivation that barring few upper castes, it was “unlawful for a Muslim to educate his/her children.” Due to their immense social and political capital, the Kashmiri Pandits continued to occupy the top and lower bureaucratic positions in J&K till the 1990s. This was vastly disproportionate to their population, and aroused ire of the majority Muslims borne out of class repression. These were called the Karkun Pandits, and they considered themselves socially superior.


The first part of Siddhartha Gigoo’s The Garden of Solitude is set in the 1980s, the decade preceding the era of the armed uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir. It describes its main protagonist, who is a fictional representation of Gigoo himself, Sridar’s peaceful life in his ancestral home in the downtown area of Srinagar. Gigoo describes that it was a relatively peaceful time in Kashmir when “children had complete freedom to play in the saffron fields and the orchards.” In that era, Gigoo observes that both Hindus and Muslims shared a harmonious social and cultural co- existence, so much so that it was difficult to identify a Muslim from a Hindu as both the communities “abandoned themselves to revelry and celebration” on each other’s festivals. One gets an idea that this bonding perhaps symbolised and defined Kashmir’s socio-cultural milieu. But it was not without its inherent contradictions and sociopolitical fragilities.


As the novel reminds, things changed dramatically with the rise of armed uprising in the Valley when militants targeted some of the prominent members of the Pandit community. Fearing persecution at the hands of militants as “fear ruled their hearts”, Pandits preferred to migrate out of the Valley to other safer places like Jammu and Delhi. Sridar’s family, like other Pandits, was completely shattered by this rapid change of circumstances. Although the novel The Garden of Solitude also has some references to the impact of India’s military repression on Kashmiri Muslims but the thrust of the narrative pertains to the Kashmiri Pandits and their lives after the inception of the armed conflict. In the novel, Kashmiri Pandits are portrayed as a privileged social class when contrasted with the Muslim characters who are portrayed as belonging to the marginalized classes. They are deprived of the same social standing as Pandits. Sridar’s great grandfather, Gulabju, is described as “an erudite man in his times,” and an eminent Sanskrit scholar who was known in the Valley as the first Kashmiri man to travel across Europe. Mahanandju, Sridar’s grandfather, is described as a well-known practitioner of traditional medicine and is held in high esteem by both the Hindus and Muslims. Lasa, Sridar’s father, is a school teacher. Professor Wakhlu, who taught Mathematics, is described as the most popular teacher in Srinagar. Another Pandit, Nilkanth, is also described as an erudite scholar. In contrast, most of the Muslims who appear in the novel are shown lacking the same social standing as Pandits, and sometimes portrayed in stereotypical terms borne out of class discrimination and inequality. The sweeper in Sridar’s household is a Muslim named Habib. Abdul Gani, Mahanandju’s neighbour, is a gravedigger. Gulakhar, the ironsmith of the locality and the father of two girls—the beautiful Nusrat loved by Sridar loved, and the mad Tota—lives in a dilapidated house. Bilal Khor, the butcher, is described as a goon in the locality. Khor translates as “mean” and is a common class slur in Kashmiri. In the novel, the only Muslim who in the eyes of Pandits has some social standing to be called a friend is Ali, the bookseller.

The militants’ targeting of Indian government officials also finds its reflection in the novel. Though JKLF militants claimed to target only those people whom they considered as “informers” or “intelligence agents,” and not any particular religious minority, it is true that most of those killed were Hindus, and this increased Pandits’ apprehensions. In the novel, in Sridar’s locality, a Pandit named Hira Lal, who worked for BSF, was kidnapped by militants who suspected him to be an informer.


The Pandits in the novel see themselves in such vulnerable conditions. The protagonist himself has a close escape when a funeral procession of a militant is fired upon and dozens of people are killed by the military. Pandits also witness the rape and murder of a girl, allegedly, by the military in Sridar’s locality. In this state of chaos and confusion, they do not know how to cope; they feared for their lives; and the only alternative left is migration in the hope that things will improve in a new environment. As the panic set in among the Pandits, they were ultimately forced to leave the Valley.


In these circumstances, Kashmiri society was plagued bitterly by religious hatred as Hindus and Muslims began to view each other as enemies. The bitterness of forced exile amongst Pandits made them view Kashmiri Muslims as the enemy. On the other hand, Pandit migration was perceived by many ordinary Kashmiris as a betrayal, in which they were left behind to face repression at the hands of the Indian state. In The Garden of Solitude, Gigoo depicts the departure of the Pandits through Manzoor, a Kashmiri Muslim, who tells Lasa, “Muslims are safe in Kashmir so long as the Pandits live here. Once the Pandits leave, the Indian forces will kill us.” A weeping elderly Muslim pleads: “Pandits, do not leave your motherland. It is a conspiracy by our enemy to separate brother from brother. We will all be slaughtered like sheep now. It will rain bullets on innocent Muslims. Jhelum will turn red with the blood of your brothers. Please, listen to me. I speak from soul. Pandits, do not leave this place. Without you, how will we exist?” Another instance of this sense of desolation can be seen in Ali’s letters to Lasa. Gigoo succinctly writes: “Every day I vacillate between hope and fear. Every day I attend a funeral procession of some dead person. The children in our neighbourhood raise slogans about freedom— Azaadi. Women march on the streets, beat their breasts, defy curfew and mourn their dead children. A father awaits the return of his only son. A young woman disappeared only to return with wounds and seeds of shame…Shrieks of the people and sounds of the guns pierce the day. I don’t want to live any more…The nights are hollow.”

The physical distance between migrant Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims was compounded by the mental distance between them. Kashmiri Muslims were maligned by an extensive campaign of denigration against their whole community; they were branded as fundamentalists and denounced for their “genocidal oppression” against the Pandits. Communal elements in both communities seized the opportunity by transforming the distance between the two communities into an unbridgeable gulf through propaganda and rumour-mongering. Some Hindu right-wing organisations wildly exaggerated figures of Pandits killed by militants. Many Pandits believed that Muslims could not be trusted; many Muslims opined that the Pandits were essentially disloyal and every Pandit was a mukhbir/informer, collaborating with the Indian military establishment. Many Pandits were killed by militants on this suspicion. Gigoo foregrounds this mistrust between the two communities in the novel: “Fear ruled the hearts of the Pandits, and they became suspicious of the Muslim neighbours and friends with whom they had shared close bonds for years. The same fear shattered the love Muslims had for the Pandits. The Pandits became suspects—informers and agents of India.”


This fragmentation of society made Sanjay Kak, a writer, independent documentary film-maker, and prominent Kashmiri Pandit, reveal to David Barsamian in an interview that the imbroglio in Kashmir is not communal in the sense of “tension between Hindus and Muslims”; rather, it pushed these migrants “straight into the hands of the Hindutva right wing.” This complicated matters further in the Valley. The novel indirectly refers to the political machinations of a Governor, Jagmohan, to underline this and an old man shouts at the fleeing Pandits, “The Hindu Governor has asked them to leave this place. He is the real villain. Islam does not teach violence. It is not right.” Later, Ali writes to Lasa to say that this Hindu Governor betrayed them all by driving a wedge between Pandits and their Muslim brothers, but the Pandits’ homes and hearts were in Kashmir. They would surely return and live with their Muslim brothers and sisters someday as “Kashmir without the Pandits is no Kashmir. By losing you, Kashmir lost its soul.” Sridar’s friend, Shabeer, is depicted as seeing the whole issue of Pandit migration as “a conspiracy by the Government of India to get Pandits out of Kashmir, so that the army could fearlessly unleash terror, quell the freedom movement and kill those who stood for it.” This, ironically, is in sharp contrast to another view held by most Pandits that they owed their lives to the Governor who assisted their migration, “Otherwise, we would all have perished in our homes.” The contentious issue of Pandit migration gets stuck in these two sharply opposing versions which are indeed difficult to resolve. Gigoo’s response to these versions also finds its place in the novel: “[People] believed what their leaders wanted them to believe. The truth did not matter. The truth did not exist…Nobody knows the truth. Falsehood has become the truth and people like to listen to things which are not true.” The politicisation of the dislocation of Pandits from the Valley and weaponisation of their tragedy by the Indian state also finds its echoes in The Garden of Solitude when a conference is to be held in Delhi by Panun Kashmir, a rightwing Pandit organisation, to press their demands for a separate homeland within the geographical boundaries of the Valley. Gigoo writes of an Indian politician who addressed the conference saying that Kashmiri Pandits would play an important and decisive role in the future of Kashmir, that they had “to be patient and hold on to one another” as “Pandits were better outside Kashmir”, and that “the Government of India would use the Kashmiri Pandit card at the right time at the negotiation table to complicate the matters if it came to secession.” This is a subtle pointer to the machinations of the Indian state and the apprehensions of Kashmiri Muslims.


All these aforementioned events in the novel give an idea into the deep ambivalences and contradictions which underlie the totalizing narrative of Kashmiriyat. Many more similar illustrations can be found in the novel. When a young man shouts at the Pandits: “Let the Pandit men leave Kashmir, but let them leave their women behind”, he is immediately rebuked by an elderly man: “Young man, I don’t want to argue with you. Some day you will realise your mistake.” When the militancy begins to get a foothold, leading to the fears of persecution among the Pandits, Lasa tries to allay the fears of fellow Pandits by saying that nothing will happen to Pandits as they have co-existed with Muslims for hundreds of years. Tathia, his neighbour, counters him, saying that there was never any trust between Pandits and Muslims as the former were eyed with suspicion for being too loyal to India. Muslims give assurances to Pandit neighbours in unanimous terms: “Do not worry. No one will touch you and your family. This is your home. This land is yours too. You are safe.” Manzoor, a former student of Lasa, goes to the extent of saying that “Don’t leave your home. I will die to protect your family. You are my teacher.” Another neighbour says: “Don’t leave your house. You will live with us in Independent Kashmir.” None of these assurances from Muslim neighbours and friends, however, has any impact as their worst fears are echoed through Nilkanth, an elderly Pandit, “We will be butchered and thrown into the Vitasta”, the Sanskrit name for river Jhelum. The Pandits are alarmed with the Muslims’ welcome for gun- toting youth, hailing them as heroes. For majority of the Muslims in Kashmir, Gigoo states in the novel, India stood for “oppression and imperialism” and lends credence to Chitralekha Zutshi’s argument that “the movements that have arisen in the Valley in the postcolonial period seek to address Kashmiri regional, political, and economic aspirations through an appeal to people’s religious identities.”

In his essay, “Midnight’s Children: Kashmir and the Politics of Identity,” Patrick Hogan distinguishes between two kinds of identity. “Categorical identity”, he says is “one’s self-concept which in turn, comprises of the hierarchized series of categories like sex, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality and many others, while “practical identity” perceives Kashmiri tradition as “the complex of habits, beliefs, and attitudes … shared by all the inhabitants of Kashmir regardless of their religious affiliations.” In the 1990s in Kashmir, categorical identity was manifested in the beginnings of the movement for independent nationhood and had religion as its motivating force. The categorical identity of Kashmiris thereby confronted their practical identity. Kashmiri Pandits, bound to Muslims through practical identity, suddenly found themselves in a precarious position as they “didn’t know what to do [and] waited helplessly for things to unfold and confined themselves to their houses” while slogans like “Freedom from India” and “We want Free Kashmir” reverberated across the Valley. This complicates the conception of Kashmiriyat as a standard analytical tool in studying the culture and politics of Kashmir. Chitralekha Zutshi in her book Languages of Belonging locates and interrogates Kashmiriyat as a historical entity, asserting that Kashmiri regional identities have been far more ambiguous, and certainly more complex than the term Kashmiriyat would lead one to assume. Zutshi argues: “To suggest that a Kashmiri identity, Kashmiriyat, defined as a harmonious blending of religious cultures, has somehow remained unchanged and an integral part of Kashmiri history over the centuries is a historical fallacy. Certainly, Kashmiri identities have followed a distinct trajectory depending on a host of factors, including state and economic structures, political culture, and the religious milieu at particular historical moments.”

In the early years of the armed conflict, Kashmiriyat was rapidly being replaced by a new kind of nationalism which appealed to the people’s religious identity— in this case, the Muslim identity. Gigoo points to a new kind of identity being articulated by the proponents of militant nationalism: “The names of towns and streets were changed to reinforce a new cultural identity. Green was decreed to be the colour for all signboards of the shops and commercial establishments. The time in all the watches and clocks was turned backwards by half an hour. Pamphleteering became an obsession. New militant organisations put posters all over the city announcing their mission. The posters carried warnings against those suspected to be harmful to their cause and the movement.”


It is worth mentioning that eminent Kashmiri-American poet, Agha Shahid’s poem, “Farewell”, which he refers to as a “plaintive love letter from a Kashmiri Muslim to a Kashmiri Pandit”, poignantly, alludes to this aspect of the rupture in Kashmiri identity:

At a certain point I lost track of you.

You needed me. You needed to perfect me:

In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.

Your history gets in the way of my memory.

I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.

I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.

Your memory gets in the way of my memory…


Lalita Pandit, another Kashmiri-American academician and poet, also reveals this aspect in her poem “Anantnag” in these lines:

What of that? Now you are

a stranger, an enemy.

Children stare with

suspicion. They have learnt

to hate; they are afraid.

Hollow eyed ghosts

walk the streets.

Kashmiri Pandits, thus, became cultural as well as spatial migrants in their own land by having to give up the markers of their cultural and geographical identity when moving out of the Valley into Jammu. Once they had been a community with power and prestige; for long, they had been a politically, socially and economically dominant community. Many Pandits claim persecution by citing the era of Sultan Sikander, who they call “But shikan” or idol breaker. His reign was, what many Pandits allege, marked by forced conversions and destruction of temples which forced all but eleven Kashmiri Pandit to flee from the Valley. The sense of victimhood marks the telling of this tale down generations. This stands in contrast to the known fact of their status as a privileged class during the larger part of their history. Alluding to this in the novel, a Pandit settled in Delhi, tells the protagonist: “Good that we left Kashmir long back. What did we have there that belonged to us anyway? There was no beauty at all. It was a wretched darkness. Pandits were living on borrowed time. This had to happen one day. There was no trust between the Pandits and Muslims; only pretence. Exile has always been our destiny. I lost my old house ages ago, but I gained my freedom outside Kashmir.”


On the other hand, an old Pandit couple, despite the ordeal of migration, also recount the love and compassion of their Muslim neighbours to the protagonist: “All of our Muslim neighbours and friends were dear to us. We were all together most of the time… Their children played in our courtyard every day. They were like our family. Women cried bitterly and beat their chests when they heard we were leaving our homes. [Our neighbour’s] wife stood on the street and pleaded to God to stop the Pandit families from migrating from the village. She even thrashed her son with wild nettles for keeping silent and bringing a gun home.”

This inherent contradiction and ambivalence in the relationship between the Kashmiri Hindu and Kashmiri Muslim identity lies at the core of divergent views pertaining to Kashmir, thus deconstructing the monolithic concept of Kashmiriyat.



The author is a blogger and writer from J&K


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