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 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.


Indian genetics, part n of many

I put up close to definitive piece for me in relation to South Asian historical population genetics. At least until new research is published. I did leave out some stuff about my own vague thoughts…but I think the takeover of Hattian and Hurrian cultures by the Nesha (Hittites) and Haryannu (Mitanni) have something to teach us….

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).