Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s recent statement on Kashmiri Pandit settlements has evoked divergent extreme reactions, much on expected lines. There are those who support his idea of opposing separate zones for returning Kashmiri minorities versus those who smell xenophobic tendencies in what he said. From a man who, among many others, remained silent on displacement of Kashmiris for more than a decade and then made some occasional right kind of noises with a welcome visit to the Kashmiri Pandit settlements when they came back last year, he is once again been viewed by the Kashmiri minorities as a potential threat to their safety. But it would be a folly, in a complex place like Kashmir where things cannot be deciphered in black and white without taking the gray zones into account, to simply dismiss what he said without putting things in the right perspective.

Firstly, it is important to interpret his statement only on the lines he spoke, not in how a major section of the media presented it. Geelani was emphatic in opposing the method of rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits but made it clear that they were welcome in Kashmir but should settle in colonies along with majority community, in their original homes with government to financially aid them in rebuilding their properties or buying them back. Clearly then, his statement is less driven by xenophobia and more by a collective fear Kashmiris have nursed for decades – of a bid by Hindutava elements backed by the Indian government to change the demography of the state.

One does not know whether Geelani had any empirical evidence to back up his conclusions that ‘in the garb of settling Kashmiri Pandits, government is settling in Sangh Parivar elements from outside the state in the Valley’ but the fears of the same are certainly not at odds with a phobia that Kashmiri Muslims have lived with for years, exacerbated further by clumsy and ill-conceived, perhaps even devious, moves of the government as also the frenzy raised by the Islamic religious right wing, in the last two decades.

But then a leader like Geelani, who likes to project himself as a man with a wider appeal with a stature that makes him inclusive and not exclusive to any particular region, sect or religion, was hardly expected to be tempted by the idea of speaking only for one community without realizing the sensitivity of his uttered words. Just a year ago, while visiting the same Kashmiri Pandit settlements he now opposes, he called for better facilities for the returning community. So why did he forget the intricate laws of fear in a place of conflict – it’s just plain and simple never ever one sided? Did he not realize the potential threat he may expose the Kashmiri Pandits to with vested interests waiting for opportunities like these to vitiate the atmosphere? Did he not realise that his remarks would suit the designs of Hindu right wing, who would love to oppose any move of restoration of Muslim-Pandit ties in the Valley and destroy any remaining edifices of a plural society? And, look at what the statement, despite the muted tones of reaction, has done – widened a gap that had just begun to be filled up after two decades!

While Geelani’s fears may not be totally misplaced, nor is his notion of settling KPs in their original homes bereft of logic. That is the way it ought to be. But the way he went about the entire affair is not something that smacks of pragmatism, much less secularism. The return policy for Pandits has to be rooted in the majority-minority relations with minorities already living in the Valley acting as the bridge. The government endeavour to bring back Pandits by wooing them with jobs and settling them in ghettos is not only a short cut to return, it is also something that is not likely to sustain without facilitating revival of community to community bonds. People like Geelani with substantial mass base could have filled in the vacuum in this regard left by the government. Unfortunately, he seems to have gone the other way round, after his feeble effort a year ago. It might have yielded him far better results, had he not gone public with his fears but shared it with the minorities and taken them into confidence.

Unfortunately, it is the inability to reach out to the ‘other’ or understand the fears of the ‘other’ in sheer panic that lies at the root of threatened pluralism of Kashmir, as also rest of the state. A wee bit of trust-deficit eventually paves way for a massive one. That is what happened in the 1990s, as Muslims got enchanted with the ‘azadi’ movement, at that time pioneered by young gunmen, and the alarmed Pandits went into their shells as any minority would. Neither side thought of the other, as one thing lead to another – frenzied young men taking to arms using mosques or other Islamic motifs, making the ‘movement’ exclusive; and thus adding to the fear psychosis of a microscopic minority already fed by an exaggerated notion of selective killings and appearance of mysterious threatening posters. Let’s not get into generalisations. While all killings, threats were not selective, some definitely may have been. Equally, the then governor Jagmohan may be held responsible for facilitating the enmasse flight of Pandits but certainly he could not have enticed them to leave without a certain fear lurking collectively in the minds of the Kashmiri Pandits. (Jagmohan’s designs are too well known, chronicled, and evident in the fact that a series of massacres starting from Gawkadal massacre followed the first mass exodus of the Pandits. But do we need to blame the Pandits for that, without acknowledging their distress and sufferings at that time). The exodus furthered the gap between the two sides with extremists on either side unleashing competitive propaganda, often fuelled by exaggerations, and propagating two parallel histories, both equally biased, making the return far more difficult than it should have been.

We would once again be repeating that unnecessary history if each community builds its own cocoons of fear without acknowledging or understanding the fear of the other. The fear of the Muslims, as given vent to by Geelani, stems from a probable design to create Israeli type settlements to effect demographic change. The government’s irrational moves of both wooing Pandits back to ghettos in Valley and at the same time, providing them far better facilities in Jammu to encourage them to stay put further plays up such fears. At the same time, it is not without fear that a handful of Pandits returned, completely skeptical of the majority community, for many reasons including the fact that they supported the indigenous militant and later tolerated the foreign militia, labeling them as ‘guest militants’. The Kashmiri Muslims may have to resolve this conundrum to escape the tag of being hypocrites – of welcoming one set of outsiders and fearing another. After all, foreign terrorists, though not so much in sight anymore, induce the same fear in the minds of the Kashmiri Pandits that saffron brigade’s Hindutva terrorists inspire in the minds of their Muslim counterparts. There would be no path forward, if both sides fail to understand each other’s respective fears and pain.