Book Review: On Uncertain Ground – Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir

Cover page of 'On Uncertain Ground' / Courtesy : Oxford University Press

Brahmins of Kashmir, popularly known as Kashmiri Pandits, are arguably one of the most researched and written about caste groups in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). A significant section of this community migrated from the Kashmir valley in the early years of the 1990s under volatile political circumstances. Between 1990 and 2017, nearly four dozen academic, poetic, fictional, semi-fictional and journalistic accounts focusing exclusively on the history, culture and plight of Kashmiri Pandits have been written and published as books as well as scholarly dissertations by various Indian, Kashmiri and international writers, academics and journalists. The recently published monograph On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir by Ankur Datta is the latest in the series of such endeavours. Unlike many such works primarily produced by Kashmiri Pandit writers, the monograph has been written by a non-native Indian savarna anthropologist.

Given that the book follows a strictly academic schema, it does not employ overtly jargonistic language. This keeps it accessible for those outside academia, a difficult feat which makes it a refreshing change from dominant ways of presenting academic knowledge.

The book is divided into eight chapters. It begins with an exploration of theoretical categories such as forced migrants, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, placing them within South Asian academic and administrative contexts. It goes on to explore every day experiential and imagined perceptions of ‘migrants’ - the category used for the displaced Pandits as per administrative directives. The curated historical context is supplemented by testimonies which establish the tenor of the book. Chapters three and four explicate lives of Kashmiri Pandits outside Kashmir and in migrant camps. Chapter five discusses the class, caste and religious identities of Kashmiri Pandits in conjunction with their migrant status. Chapters six and seven explore ideas of victimhood, marginality, and rights of Kashmiri Pandits— who as a community have been vocal in asserting rights and status based claims on the Indian nation state. However the outcome of such claims is not explored or analysed in very clear terms. The concluding chapter sums up the Pandit position as ‘uncertain’ and reiterates the plurality of migrants’ lives as divided by their varying socio economic standings.

Quite early in the book Datta declares that displaced Kashmiri Pandits are not a uniform category and are constituted by different classes (actually two). In order to establish the divide between ‘poor’ and ‘well-to-do’ Pandits (pp. 157), Datta uses (migrant) ‘camp’ as a theoretical category as well as a site to present the more difficult living conditions for a set of Kashmiri Pandits, compared to the wider community scattered across the nation and the globe. The monograph therefore focuses on and documents the lives and experiences of Kashmiri Pandits living in the camps, who in 2011 were moved to Jakti, a township in Nagrota in Jammu district, developed by the central and J&K governments. The population in the camps, as is evident from data provided by Datta, constitutes nearly 18 per cent (23,567 people) of the total 134,376 displaced migrants registered in Jammu, from whom he has collected most of his ethnographic data (pp. 80).

The drawback of dealing with a caste group only in terms of internal class divisions is that such an approach makes it possible for the researcher to detach the community from the social structure of which it is a part, and explore their ‘struggle’ in a lab-like controlled environment. What further limits understanding is the absence of any kind of quantifiable data on the ‘well-to-do’ class, since that can provide a more holistic picture of the community in the post-migration era.

To understand South Asian communities, it is pertinent to locate them in their social structure, which is constituted of varyingly graded castes. Datta employs the ideas of ‘attributes and expectations’ (pp. 131) borrowed from Gerlad D. Berreman’s essay to draw an understanding of caste in the case of Kashmiri Brahmins. This analysis in terms of attributes bestows a race-like characteristic to caste which can be highly misleading and is potentially dangerous. Additionally, such a presentation of caste takes the focus away from unequal material realities it produces and reproduces and in turn reproduces itself in the changing socio-spatial contexts.

Duschinski’s (2007) study of Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Delhi provides some crucial insights in this regard. She documents how after the 1990 mass migration, a series of temporary market sites were made available to the Pandit migrants for starting small shops adjacent to the prime INA market in South Delhi. Discussing the resettlement and rehabilitation in the context of the relationship between local administrative and political bodies and Kashmir Samiti Delhi (KSD), a Delhi based Pandit organisation founded in early 1950s, she writes:

Shortly after the mass migration, BJP elected officials and municipal agencies in Delhi, through close coordination with the KSD, granted certain benefits to the Kashmiri Hindu migrants, including community halls throughout the city for migrant camps, free water and electricity in community structures, reservations for female school teachers in the public school system, and a cash relief payment per family per month. Displaced Kashmiri Hindus also received tehbazaari permits enabling them to sell products in market sites in heavily trafficked areas of the cities on a temporary basis. The KSD worked strategically to procure these tehbazaari permits through negotiations with local agencies, including the two city government municipal bodies, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the Delhi planning and development agency, the Public Works Department (PWD), and the central government land-owning agency, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).

Apart from the above self-explanatory example, what also emerges is the interesting fact that some Pandit shopkeepers could afford to employ migrants from Eastern states of India as workers and helpers. The trajectories of these two varying migrant groups in India cannot be simply analysed in terms of their class status as attempted by Datta in the case of Kashmiri Pandits, They need to be seen in the light of their social identities and the availability or lack of resources and safeguards based on them. The ‘temporary’ shops have been around for three decades now and a section of Pandit population have already moved away from these small businesses and keep these as subsidiary to their income.

The ‘poor’ section of Pandit community may or may not exhibit all the ‘attributes’ which require them to qualify as archetypal Pandits; however, as part of a hegemonic Brahmin caste group, they have been provided with services and support at a scale incomparable with the same for the non-savarna communities who have had to migrate after Indian ‘independence’.

Surprisingly, the role of other communities in Jammu, Kashmir or any other place to which Kashmiri Pandits have migrated has not been problematised enough, apart from sporadic mention in a few testimonies and otherwise. That some of the ‘poorest’ Pandits in the migrant camps have the means and support system to employ other local castes in their bakeries (pp. 91) and shops on the pretext that such manual work is below Pandits’ ‘caste status’ is telling of their place in the socio-economic hierarchy as well as of the reproduction of what Datta calls the ‘attributive’ nature of caste.

 The book does raise a very important issue concerning the Pandit ‘historic stereotype’ of being ‘elites’ (pp. 156) in the Kashmir valley. The Kashmiri Pandit migration, as presented in the book, provides the scope to ask: what qualifies as elite? The case of Pandit migration needs to be contextualized and understood alongside multiple other migrations that have taken place within the state of J&K and in other parts of India. As discussed above, by 2011 the ‘poorest’ Kashmiri Pandits were rehabilitated in two-room tenements (TRTs) in Jakti, which were not provided to millions of lower caste migrants from Marichjhapi, Mirchpur (2010), Muzaffarnagar (2013), Gujarat (2002) and Bhagana (2012), to name a few. On the contrary, the treatment of these migrant groups has been rather harsh, with many of them systematically left to die by cutting off the supply of essentials by the state. The rehabilitation process for Kashmiri Brahmins has actively involved state as well as central government organisations putting together policies that have been successfully instituted and implemented.

Against this background, to use categories of elite and non-elite confuses more than it resolves. However, employing both qualitative and quantitative analyses to understand what share of resources has been allotted to whom in such a startlingly heterogeneous population, may tell us more about the kind of power certain castes/communities wield as governing classes in India.

Datta suggests to be assigning ‘merit’ to Kashmiri Pandits in the concluding chapter. He underlines that they have been able to ‘achieve a certain standard of living’ (pp. 228) for themselves despite migration, and undervalues the significant socio-structural components that ensure and restore their place in the caste society. It is pertinent to mention here that similar constructions of meritocracy have been deployed to counter constitutional affirmative action meant for depressed classes in India.

Further, there are a few factual errors that run the risk of mis-constructing socio-political notions about J&K and its residents. For example, Datta notes that ‘Jammu is the part of the state where the majority of the population support the union with India’ (pp. 29). He makes such a declaration without providing any reference to substantiate his claim. In another instance, Datta writes that ‘all Kashmiris are equally fluent in Urdu and Hindi’ (pp. 32): such a generalization is in contrast with reviewer’s own fieldwork experience in both rural and urban regions of Kashmir.

The monograph challenges one to question the purpose of ethnographic documentation focusing on particular communities. The dominant discourse on this issue repeatedly reflects the narratives of a historically privileged community fallen on ‘bad times’. This is reflected in the sheer number of books and articles, also mentioned at the beginning, which make a case for Kashmiri Pandits and their fallen status without elaborating on basic social and economic facts about them, the larger society and nation they live in and the official and unofficial policies influenced by such a discourse. The book repackages already circulating themes and ideas on Kashmiri Pandit migration; however, the ethnographic data therein yet again points to the differential treatment of migrant communities guided by their location in the overarching socio-political structure.

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