A Muslim Pandit's viewpoint

Aditi Bhaduri | Updated on February 10, 2011 Published on February 10, 2011

Mohammed Shafi Pandit. Photo: Aditi Bhaduri

It's time to treat Kashmiris as citizens and not subjects, says this IAS officer from J&K.

Mohamed Shafi Pandit, the current Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Public Service Commission also happens to be the first Muslim IAS officer from that State. The soft-spoken, erudite and efficient officer is not someone who rests on his laurels. As President of the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI), the environmentally conscious bureaucrat is involved in efforts to clean up the once-majestic Dal Lake in his native Srinagar. Wearing many hats, Pandit now works for civil society engagement between Kashmir and the rest of India.

Retracing his entry into the world of bureaucracy, he says, “I had always wanted to be a doctor but my father motivated me to become an IAS officer, as he was a senior bureaucrat under the Maharaja.”

After completing his Masters degree, he recalls visiting a bookstore in Delhi where study material for the IAS exam caught his eye. “In some ways it was fait accompli … I decided to take the exams, and was No. 3 in my batch.”

Recently, another Kashmiri was in the news for topping the IAS exams. To allegations of Kashmiris being discriminated against in the bureaucracy, Pandit has a different take. “There is no discrimination in the selection process. As Chairman of the UPSC in J&K I can vouch that the process is foolproof. However, there is a glass ceiling.” He himself had a first-hand encounter with that ceiling — he was, for instance, never made Chief Secretary of J&K despite being the senior-most bureaucrat “and having always faithfully served the country, for which I have been called a ‘traitor' in Kashmir”.

Militants had tried to assassinate him for being ‘pro-India', and there was a period — at the peak of insurgency in the early 1990s — when his family was also targeted.

Nevertheless he is convinced that “J&K's accession to India, which Sheikh Abdullah had decided, was made on the basis of the secular, socialist, pluralist path that India had chosen”. He is equally certain “this decision reflects the Kashmiri ethos — shaped by centuries of Hindu Rishism and Islamic Sufism. The Kashmiri does not believe in the two-nation theory — that Hindus and Muslims constitute separate nations. That is against the Kashmiri ethos.

“Sheikh Abdullah looked up to Jawaharlal Nehru as his mentor. In fact, soon after he became Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in March 1948, he made the famous remark that he and Nehru had become one person, he the body and Nehru the soul. Nehru too was very emotional about Kashmir, the land of his forefathers.”

Yet, the scenes witnessed daily on the streets of Kashmir today are a far cry from that period. Regular uprisings, demonstrations and protests by Kashmiris — especially the youth — with cries of ‘Go India Go' are the order of the day.

So how and where did things go so drastically wrong?

“The stone-pelters are young, angry Kashmiris. Delhi does not seem to be listening, and its stand is that it is being promoted by those who are paid agents of Lashkar-e-Toiba or Pakistan's ISI. There could be some mischief-makers in the crowd, but paid agents alone could not have produced such sustained mass demonstrations. They would have been limited to certain areas and for a while only. These protests reflect general angst and the anguish of Kashmiris against the continuous humiliation, death and destruction suffered by them,” says the bureaucrat.

Wistfully, he reverts back to history: “Since Sheikh Abdullah's dismissal from power in August 1953 most governments in Kashmir have been imposed by New Delhi. The Sheikh himself, in spite of his closeness to Nehru, was imprisoned and released with the lower rank of ‘Chief Minister' of Jammu and Kashmir (from the position of Prime Minister). There has since been a continuous erosion of the autonomy that the State was promised.

“Draconian security laws, elevated military presence, lack of political freedom and the right to dissent, lack of depth of economic infrastructure and institutions, imposition of corrupt and inept local regimes, and failure of judicial redress have all combined to alienate the Kashmiri people.

“But, at the same time, Kashmiris do not want to be with Pakistan. They know well of her failure and also because Kashmir has a distinct cultural and religious history. So to invoke Pakistan every time the Kashmir issue comes up is disingenuous.”

Still, he feels, all is not lost, and there is a glimmer of hope on the distant horizon.

“To begin with, the Central Government should provide full support to the State Government to deliver on the ground. The Chief Minister is young and well-meaning, let him make use of the current crisis to reach out to the people and win their hearts and minds.

Also, he feels, there is no justification for the continuation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the “even worse Disturbed Areas Act. These were relevant when the guns were out; today the people are only armed with stones. These laws should be withdrawn and all political prisoners arrested during the recent protests should be given amnesty.”

The security forces should be reduced to minimal levels and sensitised about the accepted protocols for crowd management. The Government should also engage those who call for Azaadi, and creative and mutually agreeable solutions should be thrashed out. In the long term, the 1952 talks between Nehru and Sheik Abdullah can be a good basis to begin a dialogue about restoring J&K's autonomy within the framework of the Indian Constitution. “We do not mind being called Indians, so long as we are called Indian ‘citizens' and not ‘subjects',” he adds.

And, in a bid to ensure Kashmiris can be ‘citizens' and not ‘subjects', Pandit has turned to civil society — as a participant. He has hosted civil society groups from Delhi and other cities, and some members of these groups such as Swami Agnivesh have stayed at his house.

He thinks it is important for the civil society of Kashmir to engage with civil society in the rest of India to find a solution to the problem. “Even as the President of the Youth Hostels' Association of India I have tried to foster greater integration of Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir and also national integration by bringing the youth of the country closer to each other through visits to various cities and towns in the country.”

And then he smiles and recites a couplet from Kashmir's famed Shaivite mystic poet Lal Ded, also known as Laleshwari:

‘Shiva is all pervading/ Not Hindu or Muslim/ Don't discriminate between Hindu and Muslim/ If you are wise understand your own self/That is how Lal could attain the Light.'

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Published on February 10, 2011
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