The Migration

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 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 etc have provided numerous Indian civil servants, diplomats, professors, lawyers and judges 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.


Names have their own stories

It is unsurprising that the two main ideologues of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal Lahori and Muhammad Ali Jinnah were both from recently converted Hindu families. Iqbal’s grand father Rattan Lal Sapru was a Kashmiri Pandit who went rogue (i.e. married a Punjabi Muslim and converted), whereas Jinnah’s grand father Meghji Thakkar a Gujarati Lohana (Khatri/trader class of Saurashtra) converted, as far as we know, of his own volition.

I am told (by fellow blogger Omar Ali) that there seems to be some confusion around Jinnah’s name. I was not aware of this. However, hopefully this post would clarify any confusions that may exist and raise other interesting questions.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born “Mahomed-ali Jinnahbhai” to one “Jinnahbhai Poonja”. Apparently the name change (dropping the -bhai) was deliberately done by Jinnah himself:

From BR Nanda’s “Road to Pakistan”, biography of Jinnah

Note that it is customary in the Indian regions of Gujarat and Maharashtra to use one’s father’s name as the middle name followed by a caste/occupation denoting surname. So, say, the Indian PM Narendra Modi’s full name is Narendra Damodardas Modi, where the middle name takes after his father’s first name: Damodardas Modi. The surname Modi is the Gujarati caste of shopkeepers/traders (common amongst Parsis too).

Furthermore, Gujarati language uses the suffix -bhai as an honorific. Its use in polite discourse is similar to Sindhi -saeeN or Japanese -san. So, Narendra Modi would be formally referred to as Narendra-bhai Modi in formal speech, say, when addressing the person on a letter. Even within close family, people can be referred to as “bhai” (or “behen”) when the addressee is not actually a brother (or sister) – leading to hilarious results in some situations.

Frequent formal usage of “bhai” (especially as a part of one’s registered name) is rather antiquated in urban areas and I’d be hard-pressed to find many such examples in city-dwelling Gujaratis of my generation. As is the norm for most social conventions in the Subcontinent, however, things take longer to change in the rural hinterland. My own anecdotal understanding is that the practice survives in mofussil towns and villages of Gujarat and nearby areas. The use of “bhai” in the Mumbai underworld (and now in the vernacular and popular culture) to refer to local crime lords also takes after the same custom due to the preponderance of Gujaratis in Mumbai.

So, it is rather obvious that the suffix -bhai in Jinnahbhai is a common Gujarati honorific. The same suffix can also be found in its Anglicized form -bhoy within Gujaratis (cf. Rai > Roy is an equivalent Anglicization in Bengali surnames). But what of the root morpheme “Jinnah”? The Gujarati context clarifies this too, as Jinna (pronounced jiNa, with a retroflex N) simply means “small” or “little” in Gujarati and is often used as a diminutive. So, the name “Jinnabhai” would really imply “little Sir” or “little mister” and is a well-attested name amongst Gujaratis. E.g. see this (excerpt below):

Jinabhai as a Gujarati first name

Finally, as far as I am aware, there is no native IA etymology of Gujarati jiNa. The apparent lack of a phonetic correlate in Sanskrit makes me conjecture that the word is actually a Dravidian lexical borrowing (maybe part of the Dravidian substrate). Sure enough Tamil (and sister Dravidian languages Telugu & Kannada) has the word chinna with an equivalent meaning and similar usage in nomenclature (e.g. chinnappa lit. “little father” or “little lord”, being a common South Indian name / surname). The word-initial /ch/ <> /j/ phonetic shift between affricatives is entirely plausible. However, we would need more examples to see if this is a systematic effect in Dravidian loanwords to IA (or vice versa).

Why Democracy?

The idea to write this blog post on Democracy arose out of the need to describe what it is in context of Brexit. For more on the Brexit referendum itself see this. In this post I am trying to distill my own understanding of Democracy and have included the results of a numerical experiment I ran to quantify some ideas around the concept.

Democracy is essentially an algorithm to correct political error. In that respect Democracy belongs to a special class of algorithms, with Darwinian evolution, scientific peer review or machine learning being other notable members of the same class. The kinship between these disparate and very fundamental processes is not coincidental. It is explained by Popperian epistemology, which makes the existence and mitigation of error central to the idea of any knowledge generation.

Any discussion of the process of knowledge creation may seem like a digression at this point. However, please persevere for the next three paragraphs as setting this context is important for the central thesis on Democracy. According to Popper, knowledge itself can be understood as explanations, i.e. guesses or conjectures with two major criteria for goodness: falsifiability and parsimony. Any knowledge creator (sentient or otherwise) must therefore create knowledge in exactly this manner: creatively produce guesses or conjectures (including even, what look like, wild ones) and criticise them to remove those that are erroneous. Two immediate corollaries of this theory arise: a) existence of error is a permanent feature of any form of knowledge. Claims of knowledge that are perfect (e.g. a manual revealed by so-called prophets) are therefore, for want of a better word, baloney. And b) boundless knowledge-generation must require the ability or enabling culture to air seemingly wild guesses and criticise even ostensibly unimpeachable maxims. Continue reading “Why Democracy?”

What’s the fuss about dog meat?

Fellow blogger Omar Ali’s recent post on the perils of Orientalism uses the example of an Orientalist’s apologia for the rather uncharitable views on dogs (as filthy animals etc) prevalent in Muslim societies. The Yale professor in question concludes thus:

Knowing this past not only gives us a fuller picture of the most ubiquitous nonhuman animal we welcome in our midst, but it also helps us to understand how our histories with other animals have shaped our current world.

which got me thinking about how parochial the world-view of some Westerners can be.

The lychee and dog-meat festival in the Southern Chinese city of Yulin went ahead as planned last month, in spite of all the brouhaha and rumours of a ban on social and news media both within and especially outside China. The sheer lack of compunction that characterises the Chinese regime is rather well known, so I am not surprised in the least. However, the unease of Western commentators at this Chinese practice is quite obvious and surprising coming from a culture that considers anything from sheep to horses rather kosher. Consider this piece in the latest Economist issue that I read just yesterday on my commute home, which ascribes the popularity of the event to criminality and treats trade in dog-meat at par with drug trafficking!

The “animal love” that is rather partial to the members of the Canis family is a deep-seated Western fad, rather akin to the cow-craze in India. I recall a conversation with a potential (elderly English) landlady many years ago in London, who asked me if I hated dogs. I said I didn’t and added that I’m indifferent to them. That was enough to visibly rile her up! She could fathom people disliking dogs (or liking them, as she obviously did) but an expression of indifference to such “ubiquitous nonhuman animal” was absolutely beyond her tolerance. I can only imagine how she’d have responded if a Chinese tenant in my place had innocently let slip that he found dogs tasty 🙂

I am not quite sure why the dog is such a holy cow for Western (or Westernized) animal lovers. Is it more of a mammal than a cow, or a goat, or a pig? I can understand Indian (including Hindu) aversion to the idea of eating dogs, which takes after the unclean status of dogs in the Islamic world. The same holds for Hindu aversion to pigs too – again an internalised Islamic fad – with a clear religious pathology behind it. But it is hard for me to comprehend how a Brit or an Italian could gobble up finely minced offal cuts of a pig (raised and slaughtered for its meat) packed in the entrails of that very animal for breakfast and yet find the idea of dog steak on a plate emetic.

A dog isn’t anymore angelic than a pig and, who knows, probably dogs taste better. I don’t think the Chinese (or indeed anyone else) should limit their gastronomic repertoire just because some Westerners find it off-putting. If the animal-lovers are doing it out of a genuine moral duty, isn’t saving the poor cows of this world from the abattoir an equally noble endeavour? If so, they ought to be supporting Indian beef-bans too (akin to the ban on commercial sale and consumption of dog meat in the US and various European countries), i.e. unless they do not mind being called specieists. Knee-jerk reactions on dog-meat are reminiscent of the loony Hindutva fringe, who are wont to get their knickers in a twist every time someone mentions the b-word. To their credit though, caninophiles haven’t lynched a Chinese person, at least not yet.

My advice to all the caninophiles of the world: like any other domesticated animal, your pet’s species is edible too .. get over it! Now how about some Dalmatian kebab with lychees?

Brexit: the oxymoronic democratic referendum

Being a foreign-born Londoner and one who has sold his soul to the big bad world of finance, the momentous decision of the British electorate to leave the EU has personal resonance. Therefore, I have been meaning to pen my thoughts on Brexit for some time.

The run-up to the Brexit process rent the country into two politically (and sometimes personally) antagonistic camps – the Leavers (buccaneering “Brexiteers” to the latter) who wanted UK to leave the EU and Remainers (“Remoaners” to the former) who wanted to stay. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the referendum pitted brother against brother, friend against friend and neighbour against neighbour. Leave and Remain campaigns saw a lot of familiar dog-whistling about immigrants, fanciful promises of redirecting EU transfer payments to the UK National Health Service painted on buses, lofty talks of Independence from the Eurocratic elite, facetious (and patronizing) arguments about EU being a civilizing force etc. Where one fell on the Leave-Remain axis was, rather unsurprisingly, correlated to family income distribution, age and rural-urban background. Typically, older people hard of means hailing from small towns were the implacable Brexiteers, as opposed to Remoaning younger city crowd in well-paying jobs. However, out of these three main explanatory factors, age was by far the strongest determinant: even the city-dwelling, indubitably middle-class, older folk tend to be Brexiteers. As the adage goes, Brexit was a gigantic fuck-you! from the grand-dads and grannies.

The Brexit referendum itself was a political gamble by the ruling Tories, led by David Cameron. The decision to hold the In-Out referendum was primarily Cameron’s, widely advertised as a Tory election promise. Cameron’s intention was to use the Remain result (famous last words!) as a giant UK-sized stick to beat the traditional Eurosceptics in his party with. However, the Brexit referendum decision was also endorsed by other political parties, notably UKIP (UK Independence Party), a party of right-wing fruitcakes in Cameron’s own words. The decision to hold the public referendum was arrived at in a rather slapdash fashion, with very little understanding of the public mood, no recourse to a stronger two-thirds majority (as any Constitutional change normally requires, esp. one of this magnitude) and no forethought or planning about the political cataclysm an Out (Brexit) vote would unleash.

The nominal objective of the Brexit referendum was to leave the EU, which essentially meant moving out of the European Council-Commission-Parliament triumvirate and removing the European Court of Justice as the supreme law-making body for the UK. For the uninitiated, the EU law originates from the European Commission, essentially a cabal of bureaucrats drawn from the upper echelons of the civil services – one from each of the 28 member states – that is paid to think European. Any draft directive initiated by the Commission is then debated by the rather emasculated European Parliament, consisting of MEPs elected on a proportional representation basis in constituencies throughout the EU. The number of constituencies (and therefore the number of MEPs) per country is notoriously not proportional to the population of the country. The degressive proportional system leads to perverse outcomes such as the vote of one Luxembourgish or Maltese worth those of over 10 Brits or Germans. It is essentially the same recipe that led to Trump becoming President in spite of a smaller vote share and the last we saw such perversity in our own neck of the woods was Pakistan’s so-called Parity Scheme in the long build up to Bangladesh Liberation. Finally, the Council comprises the heads of member states and the bureaucrat-in-chief a.k.a. President of the Commission. It is meant to provide guidance to the bureaucrats of the Commission and make strategic executive decisions in times of crisis, and throw lavish dinner parties in the meanwhile. The obvious democratic deficit, seriously bloated bureaucracy and other systemic flaws of the EU model are not unknown to European leadership either.

Over the years the European Union has created a financial and economic ecosystem too. This includes, primarily, the European Economic Area (EEA) within which any individual can have visa-free access, seek employment and do business without restrictions or tariffs, a Eurozone i.e. the region where Euro is legal tender (largely isomorphic with the EEA, with UK as the notable exception) and a Eurosystem of banking and finance under the aegis of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt – the lender of last resort for the Eurozone. The complex network of these institutions (other than the Eurozone which the UK is anyway out of) is what the Brexit referendum sought to sever the UK from permanently.

Before coming to the nub of this blog post – i.e. whether the Brexit decision was the right choice – I would like to briefly discuss the nature of democracy, which I think is critical in informing the debate around Brexit. [I was initially planning to cover this question in some detail here, but I realized that it’s important enough to need a blog post of its own. So I will be brief and ask you watch this space for a soon upcoming blog post on Democracy.]

Democracy is in its essence an error-correction mechanism. In political terms, it’s a system to remove bad leaders without violence, not a system to elect good ones per se. This may initially seem like a trivial statement, but I urge readers to take a moment to mull it over. This definition of democracy was first mooted by Karl Popper in his seminal work on The Open Society and its Enemies coincidentally published in the same year the Third Reich fell, yet still remains rather poorly understood. What the true will of the people is, or whether such a thing even exists, is of little importance or consequence in a democratic setup. What’s more important is how the system is designed to use that will expressed via the ballot box to ensure terrible leaders (autocrats, revanchists, communists, religious-fascists and other forms of political-utopia seekers generally) can be removed non-violently before it’s too late. The better any electoral system translates the swing in public sentiment into gain/loss of power, the better it is for hedging against downside political risk. It can be argued that First Past the Post tends to do this better than all such systems currently in existence.

Another corollary of this definition of democracy is the nature and function of whom we elect to power. The primary function of chosen representatives (not delegates) isn’t carrying out what some vaguely-defined popular will delegates to them, anymore than it is an airline pilot’s job to fly the plane on passengers’ instructions. Nonetheless a certain class of politicians, the populists (e.g. Messrs Kejriwal, Farage and Trump), take the silly idea of the will-of-the-people too seriously and are perfectly happy to crowd-source solutions to intricate questions of constitutional law and political organization. Such exercises of popular “decision-making”, the kind that animates a populist’s wet dreams, are called referendums. Referendums are therefore (rather paradoxically) antidemocratic, because they confound the whole point of the exercise of seeking votes from people.

The political brinksmanship behind the In-Out referendum decision, dog-whistling of the Brexiteer populists, oligarchical nature of the EU Commission (fancy continental version of a village panchayat or tribal jirga), democratic deficit of the EU Parliamentary system and the sheer pointlessness of putting Constitutional changes to popular vote makes the Brexit story look like a farcical plot from The Thick of It rather than real life. But it is very real and it happened, even after several prognostications by leading opinion-makers of British society that the actual Brexit decision was too radical to come to pass. Brexit and the political drama in its aftermath has also inspired creative fiction, which has essentially been critical of the decision.

My personal take on Brexit is that it’s a terrible means to a good end. Referendums like Brexit and Indyref (the one before on Scottish Independence) have created a terrible precedent in UK’s political culture to settle debates by popular voting. It encourages rank populism, incentivises escaping responsibility/blame in politicians by outsourcing important decisions to the prevailing whims and fancies of the public and diminishes the historically constructive role of the Parliament. Nonetheless, Brexit did save the UK from an undemocratic (and frankly dangerous) Eurocracy. Europe’s democratic politics is still in its infancy. E.g. most countries of Continental Europe have not had a long experience of democracy – half of Germany became a proper democracy in the 50s and the second half in the 90s, Spain and Portugal in 70s and 80s, Italy in the 50s, France in roughly 1890s and the less said of Eastern Europe the better – compared to UK’s Bill of Rights of 1689 that made the Parliament sovereign. As many Europeans themselves will grudgingly admit (perhaps after a pint or two), the British invented the modern concept of Parliamentary Democracy. Therefore, the British ought to be justifiably protective of their superior political culture against its slow dilution by the ever paternalistic EU. In conclusion, the normative last word on Brexit is a function of how consequentialist one is prepared to be – to follow Gandhi’s example or Kautilya’s. I chickened out and chose the former when voting Remain.

On the “Aryan” debate – the linguistics POV

There has been a recent flurry of activity online (mostly on Twitter and mostly by Indian Twitter trolls, not counting yours truly) around the Aryan invasion/migration issue sparked by one piece in particular – namely written by Mr Tony Joseph in the Hindu. The original piece can be accessed here. Since I have a few substantive points to make from a linguistics standpoint, and lacking any expertise in genetics whatsoever I will focus of the former.

The controversy, dating back to the colonial period and weighed down by a lot of colonial baggage, has essentially been around the origin of the various peoples of India, primarily in the North & the North-West. The idea that the basis of what we now call Hindu (or more generally Indic) culture is actually European in origin (and brought to India via the Aryans) was first mooted during the colonial period. With the expansion of the British Empire, British orientalists starting from Sir William Jones (one of the founders of IE linguistics and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta) and followed by people like James Prinsep (decipherer of the Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts), Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Sir Olaf Caroe, Col James Tod, Alexander Cunningham and the suchlike, came to India and contributed to this general theme in various ways. Note that most, if not all, of them were first-rate scholars of history and driven by a genuine desire to research their subject with due diligence. However, even the best researcher has a context in which (s)he operates and for these colonial historians the idea of an exogenous origin of Indian culture had a strong pull. Furthermore, all this historical research work done on the general topic of the “Aryan invasion” was, by necessity, devoid of any substantiation by population genetics – simply because the field was not invented until the 1930s. The idea of noble Aryan invaders of the hoary past who brought civilization to barbarians clearly resonated with the 20th century Fascist regimes* too, who imbibed a half-arsed notion of Aryan-ness and usage of symbolism like the Swastika, also from Sanskrit svastikaH, a compound (or samAs) form of the phrase su-asti-karoti iti (lit. good-is-doing that).

It is the linguistic and cultural notion of what Aryahood really is (the old problem) that I am interested in. While population genetics can certainly shed some light on magnitude and timing of population transfers into the Indian subcontinent, it really cannot say very much about cultural and linguistic development because that information is not encoded in our DNA but rather in our literature, in our everyday language and to some extent in our socio-religious traditions.

did Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves Aryans, stream into India sometime around 2,000 BC – 1,500 BC when the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end, bringing with them Sanskrit and a distinctive set of cultural practices? Genetic research based on an avalanche of new DNA evidence is making scientists around the world converge on an unambiguous answer: yes, they did.

Therefore, when Mr Joseph answers the second clause of his question in a ringing affirmative based on genetic evidence, he is on really thin ice. Did these self-avowed Aryans (henceforth Arya, as that is the correct Sanskrit term) actually bring Sanskrit with them? Can they be called outsiders in any meaningful sense? Is the oldest extant literature composed by people who self-designated as Arya non-Indian? The answer is an emphatic no! to all three questions.

  • Let’s start with the they-brought-Sanskrit-with-them spiel first. It is well-hypothesized that Proto-Indo-Iranian (the putative ancestor of the Indic and Iranian language families) split off from Proto-Indo-European around 2500-2000 BCE, quite possibly a result of a drawn-out process of a feudal elite immigrating, influencing or inter-marrying with tribal chieftains across Central Asia. These people clearly had a technological edge in horse domestication and use of horses yoked (cf. Skt. yoga, lit. to join together, past-participle yukt) to chariots (Skt. ratha cognate with Latin rota or Old Saxon rath, i.e. wheel). The process of largely cultural transmission took around a good 500-1000 years, before we can date use of Sanskrit in India from ~1500 BCE.

Does that mean Sanskrit isn’t native to India? Of course not. Languages aren’t things fixed in time and space, but evolving speech patterns. What we call (Vedic or pre-Classical) Sanskrit is a time snapshot of the language of Northern India and (what is now) Pakistan from around 1500 BCE (composition of the earliest Veda) to roughly 500 BCE (roughly contemporaneous with Panini) with a strong local substrate effect visible all through this period. This implies that whenever the native speakers of the old substrate language switched to a newer one, it was long before the existence of speech forms we now label Sanskrit, and Sanskrit itself evolved entirely on the subcontinent. Saying that Sanskrit is exogenous to India is as foolish as claiming that French is exogenous to France – which is obviously silly because even though (vulgate) Latin was picked up by the local Gallic-Celtic population of France under Roman rule, the French language developed entirely within what’s now France. The evidence of Sanskrit ever being used outside modern-day Indo-Pak geographical boundary is absolutely zilch!


  • What about Vedic literature’s cultural/geographical moorings? The actual content of Sanskrit compositions shows no cultural dislocation unlike, say, Turkish or Persian compositions by speakers of those languages who immigrated to India or by the bards of Old-Saxon in what’s now England. Old English epics like Beowulf are culturally and geographically located in Northern Germany and regions of Scandinavia further North. On the other hand, even the oldest compositions in Sanskrit can’t get enough of the Indus and its tributaries or of the Himalayas or the flora and fauna of Northern India. Sanskrit shows a very strong Dravidian substrate, which includes a entire series of consonants called retroflexes (or murdhanya in Sanskrit) which clearly are correlated with the Dravidian language family. Sanskrit speakers not only got the retroflex substrate but innovated on it – leading to aspirated retoflexes /Th/ and /Dh/ (where aspiration is a purely IE feature). This again is further evidence that the Sanskrit language could not have existed outside India. Further, Sanskrit also includes tonality characteristic of Austro-asiatic (of which Munda or Burmese are modern day forms). Latter-day North-Eastern IA Prakrits have Tibetan and Tai-Kadai substrate too (cf. Nepalese or Axomiya). Nonetheless, existence of substrates is not a weird or exotic feature of Sanskrit but a general natural condition of all languages. E.g. around 20-30% of all Germanic vocabulary is attributable to a substrate non-IE langauge that no longer exists.


  • Finally, I contend that the old use of the term Arya in the Indian context has primarily been a marker of culture and language use rather than racial classification. It is akin to the Classical use of the word Roman, which signified citizenship of the Roman state (senatus populus que romanus) and knowledge of (and fluency in) Latin literature and language. I do not know of a single unambiguous citation from the earliest of the Vedic scripture (which predates the oldest Avestan Gathas by half a millennium, give or take a century) that uses the term Arya for family or tribe – e.g. like the Rg Veda talks about the Bharatas, Pakhtas, Bhalanas etc. The term Arya is squarely used to define a linguistic culture and knowledge of or adherence to a specific canonical tradition, not as a tribal ethnonym. So one speaks and behaves like an Arya, if one’s educated in Sanskrit speech (vAk) and adheres to the orthodox Vedic ritual (vrata). The people who could not speak proper Sanskrit and had little/no knowledge of the Vedas were variously termed anarya, barbara (lit. stammerer, cf. Hindi verb baRbaRana to utter meaningless noise, Gk. barbaros uncivilized) or mlecchha. Going by that definition, even the Persians and Greeks were non-Aryans for the Indians – and the Mahabharata epic (probably composed originally, as Jaya, sometime around 900 BCE, with later additions up to 3rd century BCE) says so very explicitly. It terms the pArasikAH (Persians), yavanAH (Ionians/Greeks), chInAH (Chinese) etc as barbarians irrespective of their skin-tone or “racial” classification. E.g. Mahabharata Book 6 (bhISmaH parvaH), Chapter 10:

Among the tribes of the north are the Mlecchas, .. O best of the Bharatas: the Yavanas, the Chinas, the Kambojas, the Darunas, and many Mleccha tribes; the Sukritvahas, the Kulatthas, the Hunas, and the Parasikas; the Ramanas, and the Dasamalikas.

We should be very careful in reading our modern-day biases into ancient history generally, and both the far-Left and Right in India have been quite guilty of it. Of course, they all have their own pet periods of Indian history to read their views into but the ramifications are similar. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have no skin in this hot Aryan-invasion controversy because they’re Arabs and Turks after all 🙂

I don’t really think the (more recent) question of genetics of the Indian subcontinent is very germane to the socio-politics of the subcontinent. Evidence that the composers of the Vedas had patrilineal descent – separated by roughly 20 to 40 generations – from people of (what is now) Eastern Europe can be an interesting factoid and quite possibly correlated with the spread of IE languages in this part of the world, but it really adds little to the study of the Indian language or culture from the Vedic period onwards (which both the Left and Right have strong opinions on). E.g. it cannot be used in any meaningful sense to dent claims of cultural nativism made by the Hindu Right. There are other effective ways to counter such pernicious chauvinism, but that’s a topic for another day.



[*] in which I include the Iranian Pahlaviyan Shahdom along with the Third Reich, who changed the name of the country to Iran in the 1930s (from Old Persian Airiyanam-khshathra lit. dominion of the Aryans).

What kind of a language is Kashmiri?

I want to begin a series of posts on Brown Pundits on culture, history, language and politics of the Kashmir valley – a bit of an insider’s account. When writing about Kashmir it is unfortunately very easy to get drawn into, rather inextricable, India-Pakistan political tangles that the Valley has suffered from. I will try to describe the modern Kashmiri politics too (against the larger Indo-Pak backdrop) and its evolution since the early medieval period in one of my posts. However, for the rest I’ll try my best to steer clear of such political discussions when discussing the local culture and people.

Please note that when I speak of Kashmir, I speak only of the Valley of Kashmir – for that is what Kashmir really is. It is not Jammu, it is not “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir, it is not Gilgit-Baltistan and it is not Ladakh.

So, with that little introduction, let me begin by discussing a topic that is after my heart – my mother tongue, Kashmiri, or as we call it in Kashmiri: Koshur

Kashmiri language is primarily spoken in the Valley of Kashmir and by Kashmiri ethnic diaspora communities in other parts of India or abroad. It is one of official languages recognized by the Indian state and typically written in three scripts: Sharada (the original and oldest-known script used for the language), Devanagari (used today mainly by Kashmiri Pandits with some vowel modifications) and Nastaliq (used by both Pandits & Muslims). Due to its Constitutional status, one can find Kashmiri written (in Nastaliq) on any Indian banknote along with a dozen other languages. The use of Nastaliq for Kashmiri differs markedly from its use for, say, Urdu or Persian, in that the modified-Nastaliq used for Kashmiri always marks vowels and diphthongs.

Kashmiri is not similar to Hindi/Urdu (or to Punjabi, Pahari or other north Indian languages) at all. Needless to add that it isn’t mutually intelligible with any of them. Kashmiri is a member of the wider Indo-Aryan family of languages – but the kinship almost ends there. In terms of its development from early Vedic dialects, Kashmiri (and Dardic branch in general) split off very early compared to the Sauraseni Prakrit – which gave rise to modern-day Punjabi/Pahari/Hindi/Urdu/Gujarati etc.

Kashmiri preserves many archaic features of Sanskrit speech – lost in a majority of languages of the plains. Kashmiri is semi-inflected, more like Sanskrit, and unlike Hindi.


Skt. “drakshaH khadam” > K. “dachh khyeim”

Compare with “Mainey angoor khaye” in Hindi. Note that Kashmiri, like Sanskrit, inflects the verb “khyon” (to eat) and there is no need of the pronoun equivalent of Hindi “mainey”.

Skt. “tatra ma gatchha, tatra aast siMhaH” > K. “tot ma gatshh, tatyi aos suh”

Compare with Hindi “wahan nahin jao, wahan sher tha”. Again Kashmiri uses the verb “gatshh” (to go) in imperative tense just like in Sanskrit.

Kashmiri has a very different and much more extensive vowel system and uses the schwa and diphthongs (i.e. combinations of vowels) a lot compared to Hindi/Punjabi, which makes it sound very different (some say like Russian/Slavic languages).

E.g. no word in this ordinary Kashmiri sentence has a simple vowel – they are all long vowels or diphthongs:

“tsooraa, daeris dyoo shyenah-shyenah tsyal, makaana-maelyikh ha bozyee”

“O thief, to-window give slowly push, (or else) house-owner may-hear”

Note how the non-native Arabic loanword “malik” (lord/owner) has been changed in Kashmiri – by changing /a/ to the diphthong /ae/ and /i/ to /yi/.

Kashmiri also changes all word-final /k/, /t/ and /p/ to aspirates /kh/, /th/ and /ph/. Hence the final -k in “malik” changes to /kh/.

Skt. “taapa” (heat) > K. “taaph”,
Skt. “ropya” (silver) > K. “roph”
Skt. “taraka” (star) > K. “taarukh”
Skt. “prati” (every) > K. “prath”
Skt. “shata” (hundred) > K. “hath”
Skt. “pata” (fallen, behind) > K. “path” (behind, trailing, remote)

Also, notice the addition of the schwa, i.e, the (semi-vowel) -a ending, as in “makaan” > “makaana”. This is another feature that Kashmiri preserves from Sanskrit. Hindi, on the other hand, tends to delete the schwa endings in Sanskrit, e.g. Skt. “yoga” > Hindi “yog”.

And K. “shyenah-shyenah” is also from Skt. “shanaiHi-shanaiHi”, which translates to “slowly-slowly”.

Another overwhelming characteristic of Kashmiri is its frequent use of the voiced sibilant /z/ in native words (i.e. words it has not borrowed from any other language). Hindi-Urdu also uses /z/, but only in non-native (borrowed) words.

So, the verb “bozun” (to hear or see, to perceive) used in the above sentence is just the Kashmiri form of Skt. ‘bud/bod’ – 1st conj. parasmaipada (transitive) verb. cf. Skt. ‘bodam’ (I perceived) > K. ‘boozum’
Similarly, we have many other examples of Skt. /d/ or /j/ (and sometimes /s/) changing to /z/ in Kashmiri:

‘adya’ (today, now) > ‘az’ (today)
‘dvi’ (two) > ‘za’
‘raja’ (king) > ‘raza’
‘bhaja’ (cook) > ‘vaza’
‘vajra-mala’ (lightning) > ‘vuzmal’
‘puja’ (worship) > ‘pooza’
‘jivha’ (tongue) > ‘zyav’
‘jnana’ (knowledge) > ‘zaan’
‘jana’ (to generate, give birth) > ‘zyon’
‘jeeva’ (life) > ‘zoo’, ‘zuv’ [Cf. Greek ‘zoo’ which also means life and is a cognate]
‘dhyana’ (consciousness) > ‘zoan’ [Interestingly that the same Skt. word gives rise to Japanese ‘zen’]
‘jala’ (water) > ‘zal’ (urine)
‘maMsa’ (meat) > ‘maaz’

Finally, Kashmiri has no voiced aspirates /bh/, /dh/ or /gh/ – all of which change to /b/, /d/, /g/.

E.g. Skt. “bhavami” (I am) > K. “ba” (I)
Skt. “bhrhaspativara” (Thursday) > K. ‘brasvar’
Skt. “bhruma” (brow, eyebrow) > K. ‘buma’
Skt. “dhuma” (smoke) > K. ‘duh’ [Note Hindi “dhuaN” preserves /dh/]
Skt. “ghana” (viscous, thick) > K. ‘gon’ [Again Hindi “ghanaa” preserves /gh/]
Skt. “gharma” (warmth, sunshine) > K. ‘garm’ [Note Hindi “garmi” is via Farsi, not Skt.]

While there are many other aspects and complexities of the Kashmiri language which I have not mentioned here, the above details are enough to give most people a flavour of the language: how it sounds and why it sounds so different from Hindi or Urdu. I would urge people to visit the following extensive resource on the Kashmiri language for more details:
An Introduction to Spoken Kashmir

There are some differences in the usage of Kashmiri depending on whether the person speaking it is a Kashmiri Pandit or Muslim. Nonetheless, this division is not nearly as material as say that between (Sanskritized) Hindi and (Perso-Arabized) Urdu. The dialectical categorization of Kashmiri is more based on region (e.g. Anantnag vs. Srinagar) or economic/social status (as spoken in cities vs. as spoken in villages) rather than religion.

Of course, there are specific words in the language that specify religious concepts – and they are bound to be different for Pandits and Muslims. But for non-religious concepts the words used by Pandits or Muslims are essentially the same.

As an example of what spoken Kashmiri sounds like, I will end with a fantastic rendition of classic Kashmiri love poetry, sung by the inimitable Shameem Dev Azad – considered to be one of the best singers Kashmir has ever produced. She is married to ex-CM of J&K State, ex-Cabinet Minister and senior leader in the Indian Congress party, Ghulam Nabi Azad (whence Azad), though she was unmarried at the time this programme was produced.

This particular clip is from an episode of a series called Anhaar that was produced by Doordarshan Srinagar and ran from 1978-1980. The conductor (also the producer of this series) is Padma Shri Pandit Bhajan Sopori, a santoor maestro of the sufiyana mousiqi gharana of Sopore, Kashmir.

The song itself is a poem composed by the 19th century Kashmiri poet Rasul Mir. It expresses a sentiment very common in Kashmiri love poetry, about the woman pining for her beloved (K. madano < Skt. madana lit. beloved, god of love). In that respect, Kashmiri literature clearly continues the Sanskrit tradition of love-poetry (ghatakarparaH*, vikrama-urvashiyam etc) where it is always the woman singing about lost love, as opposed to, say, Persian poetry (of Khayyam or Sa’adi) which is typically from the male’s POV.


[*] A correction to meghadutam, which, as Pramathanath Sastry points out below, is from the male’s POV.