In a state shredded by cynically engineered sectarian violence between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims, the election of Asha, a Kashmiri Pandit, by a largely Muslim village population, is reason for hope.
The recent elections, inspite of calls by hardliners for boycotting the process, and threats of violence, have evoked tremendous response with voter turnout ranging between 70 to 80 per cent.
Although Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims have traditionally shared spiritual, cultural and physical spaces without discord – this co-existence being the very fabric of Kashmiriyat – the political strife over the past three decades have seen Kashmiriyat worn thin, and even dismissed as a myth. In the face of targeted communal violence, an estimated two lakh Pandits fled the valley in the 1980’s and 1990’s -- barely 2,500 remain in the valley. Bhat’s family, however, chose to stay back in Wusan. Along with her kin, four other Pandit families refused to leave Wusan and have not regretted their decision. Now, Asha Bhat’s election by her Muslim neighbours, has repaid this trust in the shared ethos of Kashmiriyat.
Initially reluctant to contest elections, Bhat, a 51 -year-old mother of two and helper in a local school, was convinced to do so by her neighbours who are unanimous in saying that her popularity makes her religion irrelevant. Abdul Hamid Wani, for example, says that “…she is a good woman. We gave her preference over the Muslim candidate.” Wani also felt that by voting for Asha, the villagers would send out the message to their erstwhile Pandit neighbours, that it was safe for them to come back. He states that none of the Pandits who fled the area in fear for their lives, have sold their land. Their roots were still intact. Similarly, another neighbour, Halima, led Asha's door-to-door campaign rather than campaign for the other woman candidate who happens to be Muslim.
Wusan itself has an interesting heritage – it is the final resting place of Baba Payam-ud-din Reshi, a sufi pir, equally revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Hidden amongst the pines and streams that so typify rural Kashmir, this shrine is a living symbol of a culture of mutual respect and co-existence that hardliners on both sides of the communal divide seek to deny.
Although Asha Bhat is new to politics, she is clear about what she’d like to see happening in Kashmir – she has appealed to Kashmiri Pandits to return to the valley – “…not to the camps or colonies set up by the government but the places which they call home.” She has also asked for more delegation of powers to the panchayats under the Constitution’s 74th amendment and wants electricity to be brought to her village.
As for Sarwa Begum, the “muslim sister” Asha defeated by 11 votes, she sees a larger victory in her own defeat – vindication of the fact that Kashmiriyat, like the springs that bubble down unseen through the pine forests, still runs crystal-clear in the hearts of most Kashmiris.
-- This article is based on articles in TOI-Crest, May 14 2011 and Pioneer, May 14 2011.