This is second in the series of posts on Kashmir (on its language, people, politics and culture). This one is my perspective on the specific targetting and ethnic cleansing of autochthonous Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits) from the Valley, euphemistically referred to as the Migration within the community. I realize that the politics of Kashmir as a topic can be controversial, even incendiary sometimes. Any political take on the topic is bound to ruffle someone’s feathers, and I imagine this post may ruffle a few. But then, as the rhetorical Kashmiri proverb goes pazar daryi, apzis kaeThyh katyi? [truth will stand, (but) where are lie’s knees?]
Kashmiri society became increasingly politically Islamized in the late 80s. This was partly a result of the Afghan Jihad and the copious resources that the Americans (and Saudis) pumped into Pakistan, which was under (surprise, surprise!) military control at the time led by Zia al-Haq. A sizable fraction of the money was funnelled by Pakistani military junta to support Pakistan’s proxies in Kashmir. For more on Pakistani military junta’s dalliances with the US and Arabs see this and this.
Besides the Cold War, the larger geo-political situation in the 80s (in India and its near abroad) was nothing to write home about. An Islamic theocracy had recently taken control in Iran, ethno-religious (Sikh) insurgency was going strong in Indian Punjab (many Hindus were killed in Punjab, followed by mass rioting and killing of Sikhs and general lawlessness in the capital and across North India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination), while the statist-socialist License Raj economics bled India dry. To make matters worse in the latter half of the 80s, the Indian Army was also sucked into a pointless counter-insurgency offensive in Sri Lanka against the dreaded LTTE, whom ironically the Indians had trained only a few years earlier. Social fissures exposed by the politics of caste and reservations (cf. Mandal commission) were festering too. In short, in the run up to the 90s the Indian state was beset by deep crises: politically unstable, economically near-bankrupt and socially volatile.
This was the time when many of the training camps in Northern Punjab and so-called “Azad Kashmir” (in reality neither Azad nor Kashmir – more on that in the next instalment) were being set-up and run by veterans of the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets. In that respect, the Pakistani Army was trying to do what it had always done – use the people (primarily tribals) of its peripheral hinterlands as cheap cannon-fodder to engage a larger enemy. The porous mountainous borders of the Line-of-Control made infiltration rather easy. Nor was cash a problem (fake Indian currency came later), as the entire Jihadist economy of Kashmir in the early 90s ran on the greenback. I have personally seen wads of US dollar bills (and an AK47 concealed under the phyeran) with a student of my dad’s, who (I now suspect) couldn’t help showing it off to me as I was just a kid.
The infiltration into the Valley and strengthening of the hardline Islamist extremist fringe (backed by Pakistan) within the Valley’s Muslims put the, small but influential, Kashmiri Pandit minority in an alarmingly difficult position. A short note on who Kashmiri Pandits are is probably necessary at this point.
vedaiH śaDaMgaiH pAdakramayutair vedAntasiddhAntakais
tarkavyAkaraNaiH purANapaThanair mantraiH AgamaiH ||
paurANaśrutitarkaśAstranicayaiH kim cAgnihotrAkitair
viprair dhyAnatapojapAdinirataiH snAnArcanAdyutsukaiH … kaśmIrabhūr uttamaH ||
[With the Vedas, the six appendices, with the Pada and Krama (texts), with Vedanta and Siddhanta, logic and grammar, Purana recitation, with Mantras and the traditional sects. With its masses of Puranic, Vedic (śruti) and logic disciplines (tarkaśAstra), and, moreover, marked by Agnihotrins (fire priests), with Brahmins (vipra) devoted to meditation, asceticism, recitation and so on, and zealously engaged with ablutions, worship, and the like ... the land of Kashmir is the best - Dvitiya Rajatarangini of Jonaraja composed during the reign of Zayn al-Abidin]
Kashmiri Pandits are the Brahmins of the Kashmir Valley, who largely survived numerous changes in the volatile political climate of Kashmir Valley until the present day as a single, cohesive community. However, Muslim rule in the Kashmir Valley since the 14th century, forced a sub-division within the Pandits into karkun and goaru/zutish classes, the former taking up employment of the state (as scribes, historians, administrators, tax collectors, civil servants etc) and the latter as the sub-priestly class exclusively performing the rites & ceremonies. This function continued as Kashmir passed from the hands of local Chak (cf. Skt. chakra) Sultans to the Moghals to Afghans to Sikhs to Dogras (under the British) and finally to the Indian Republic. Similar to other states and regions of India, the Pandits/Brahmins of Kashmir constituted 4-5% of the population of the Valley. However, owing to their traditional access to education, and other cultural attributes (honed over centuries of living under, what essentially was, foreign occupation), representation of Pandits in the cultural, educational and technical spheres, legal services and bureaucracy was an order-of-magnitude higher than their fraction in the general population. Under the Moghals, Sikhs and then the British, Kashmiri Pandit communities thrived in pre-Partition Lahore and Peshawar, and also in Delhi and Lucknow. Notable members include the Nehrus, descended from a scholar of Persian, Raj Kaul, a Moghal courtier under Farrokhsiyar. Dinanath Razdan was the Divan of the Sikh Empire in Lahore. Mohammed Iqbal Lahori descended from the Sapru family (one of whom, son of the Divan of Barakzai Pashtuns in Kashmir, married a Muslim lady and was excommunicated from the Kashmiri Pandit fold). Generations of Dhars, Kauls, Razdans, Saprus, Katjus, Duranis, Nehrus etc have provided numerous Indian civil servants, diplomats, scientists, professors, lawyers and judges, politicians and military chiefs since Independence.
The predicament Kashmiri Pandits found themselves in the early 90s was rather grave. Hit lists by the early Jihadi tanzeems featuring Kashmiri Pandit names were commonplace. I recall some names from my childhood as JKLF, Allah Tigers, Harkat al-Mujahideen whose hit-lists (i.e. lists of names pinned to electricity poles overnight in neighbourhoods across Srinagar) I have seen personally. Some of the Pandit names on these lists were related to Police or Defence Forces, but many were Judges, Doctors, Professors, Surgeons, Civil Servants etc (including few of my family’s acquaintances and relatives). Common Muslims, esp. in the rural hinterland, of the Valley did not bear grudges against the Pandits, and there are many stories of how close ties were between Pandit and Muslim families. However, a systemic anti-Pandit bias did exist amongst some elements of the more urban Muslim bourgeoisie: begrudging the economic and social status of Pandits coupled with the typical Islam-is-superior spiel. While such views can be common in a jostle of cultures and usually not dangerous, they are kept in check by a natural equilibrium (cross-cultural tolerance) that a settled society achieves after centuries of co-evolution. But this social equilibrium can be easily damaged if violent extremist voices are left unchecked, which is essentially what happened in Kashmir 80s onwards.
The type of people who joined the tanzeems in Kashmir in the late 80s and early 90s were the local thugs and ruffians, many engaged in petty crime (or with some sort of criminal record), largely unemployed and easy to sway into some grandiose-sounding religio-political rhetoric. Many of them found complete sanction of their narrow-minded views from the cash-rich Islamist ideologues (many backed by Pakistan). Funding of local Kashmiri mosques, which by the way look more like Buddhist pagodas or Hindu temples, by Saudi and Emirati governments also rose a lot in this period. In addition to the above, there were some genuine, hard-working middle class boys too, who joined the fray thinking of it as some sort of revolutionary duty. There were some I knew personally as they were my Dad’s students at Kashmir University. They were lovely guys who treated me like their own younger kid brother, taught me to ski and play cricket. The guy who showed me what US Dollars looked like was one of them. As I later got to know from my dad, he had joined the JKLF in spite of my dad’s cautious dissuasion, crossed the Line-of-Control to train in Pakistan, joined the Jihadist ranks as an area commander and died within weeks as the grenade he was to throw (presumably at a Central Reserve Police Force convoy) got entangled in his phyeran. Clearly, the Pakistani training had failed to take into account Kashmiri sartorial preferences. Horrible deaths (or torture of captured militants) at the hands of the J&K and Central Police forces were commonplace.
The society was so polarized that even my school-mates, 7 year old kids at my school, were affected by the propaganda. Obviously the kids didn’t quite realize what they were saying – nor did I grasp the full import of what was being said – but looking back I shudder at the rhetoric even little kids weren’t spared from at home, which they were inexorably parroting in the school. I was called an Indian dog in my school bus and asked to “go away, leave Kashmir”. My friends told me songs of the mujahideen who were going to come to Kashmir and sweep away the Indian Army. I was too little to know who the mujahideen were, but it clearly left an impression that something wasn’t right. Many kids played make-believe games, where they pretended to keep rifle magazines in their pockets. Older kids started threatening teachers to declare Friday (in addition to Saturday & Sunday) as a school holiday in accordance with Islamic laws. Muslim kids used to ask other Muslims not to clap when a non-Muslim got the school prize or stood first in class and mocked Hindu religious practice.
Many mosques became rallying points for local radicals and all kinds of political sloganeering from the loud-speakers was rife. The common refrain meant for the Pandit minority in those days was simply:
raelyiv, tsaelyiv ya gaelyiv
(convert, flee or die).
And which ethnic-cleansing exercise worth its salt can be complete without references to rape of women?
assyi gatshi panu’nui Paekistan, batav rostuy, batnyav saan
(we’d like our own Pure-land, without the Pandit males but with the females).
The hindu temple in our locality and a school right next to it were torched by a crowd in front of my eyes. Pitched battles of stone-pelters with the Police was a common sight – the stone pelters didn’t even spare my school bus many times. We woke up every morning with tears running down our eyes as the air was so heavy with police tear gas shells used to disperse crowds the night before. Local youth would come knocking late at night asking for my Dad’s snow boots, warm sweaters etc with an implicit threaten of violence if he failed to comply – these were obviously needed to cross the LoC to Pakistani training camps. Killings and assassinations of Kashmiri Pandits, especially prominent ones, was rife. A university professor, a high court judge, an All India Radio employee and a surgeon were shot dead in quick succession in my neighbourhood alone – as the azadi activists ticked names off the hit lists. It was open season on Pandits and many killings had nothing to do with any Jihadi narrative either – Pandits with killed due to long-standing feuds, property deals, alleged RSS memberships and sometimes for the pure wanton pleasure of it, cf. Wandhom massacre, Nadimarg massacre etc.
It was in the early 1990 that things became so serious that some of my Dad’s students/acquaintances strongly advised him to leave – perhaps because his name was doing the rounds for the next hit hist. The growing incidents of violence against Kashmiri Pandit families coupled with the realization that this could happen to us at any time made the penny drop for him. My parents (and grandparents) decided to leave Kashmir almost overnight, with very little planning, and barely any foreknowledge of how permanent this was going to be.
The day I left Kashmir remains forever etched in my memory. It was the 4th of February, 1990. I saw a bomb blast right in front of my eyes – an entire bus was blown to smithereens near Lal Chowk – the centre of Srinagar city. Many Pandit families (including mine) were gathered there, all about to leave their homeland for similar reasons. Thankfully the bus, which was empty, took most of the impact of the blast and except an old Pandit woman (who died instantly) there were no further casualties. I do not know if the blast was meant to kill us (or merely scare us away), what I do know is that I could easily have been a blast victim that morning.
Around 150,000 Kashmiri Pandits were ethnically cleansed from the Valley. They all (including myself) remain card-carrying Internally Displaced People. Terms like genocide or holocaust are clearly exaggerated claims, yet the reality remains that the majority of the Kashmiri Muslim society remained mute spectators when the minorities were hounded out. There was no backlash by the Muslim civil society of Kashmir, no so-called Kashmiriyat on display as the debate became completely hijacked by the right-wing Islamist elements.
Conspiracy theories on what precipitated the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits abound in the Valley. Some may tell you that Kashmiri Pandits had it coming, that they were living cozy lives at the expense of poor Muslims of the Valley and like any (Brahminical) upper class were legitimately thrown out by the revolution for Azadi that continues to this day. Some others might spin it as a conspiracy by the Indian Government who delibrately wheel Hindu refugees out to delegitimize the rightful struggle for Azadi. Any policy mooted by the Indian Government for re-settlement and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley triggers a smorgasbord of reactions from plain reluctance to open hostility amongst the Muslim majority of Kashmir. Needless to add, this experience has caused deep resentment, anger and vindictiveness in a large section of Kashmiri Pandits, which are not going to go away any time soon.