The lost tribe of India looks back in despair to its Kashmir home
By Peter Popham in Delhi
The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, decided to raise “specialised battalions” of the paramilitary forces for “waging counter-terrorist operations” to defeat the “proxy war” in the state.
Commentators chastised the lack of imagination. “Kashmir policy: old wine in new bottle,” said the Times of India. The Hindu said that it showed “the total exclusion of political solutions and political ideas”.
And this week the community whose sufferings are the starkest emblem of Kashmir’s running sore solemnly marked 18years in exile with a silent demonstration in Delhi.
The Kashmiri Pandits are one of India’s most extraordinary communities. Claiming to be the aboriginals of Kashmir, with a calendar dating back 5,075 years, they also claim 100 per cent literacy: the word “pundit” – in Hindi either spelling is acceptable – entered English in recognition of their phenomenal learning.
“The Kashmir Pundits,” wrote Sir Francis Younghusband, the British Resident in Kashmir, in 1908, “are well known over India for their acuteness and subtlety of mind, their intelligence and quick-wittedness.
“They prefer priestly, literacy and clerical occupation, but … many have had to take up agriculture, and become cooks, bakers, confectioners, and tailors, and indeed to follow any trade except … cobbler, potter, corn-frier, porter, boatman, carpenter, mason, or fruit-seller.”
They reinforced their reputation for brains by providing India with its only political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhis, three of whom, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, served as Prime Minister.
But for centuries, since an Afghan invasion in the 14th century, the Pandits have been intensely exposed as the only Hindus among an overwhelming majority of Muslims.
All Kashmir’s Hindus, except for the brahminical Pandits, were converted to Islam, mostly, it is said, by force. As a result, the Pandits were several times forced to flee the Kashmir Valley.
Each time, a benign ruler coaxed this avowedly pacifist community to return. But the events of January 1990 have left deep scars. As insurgency in the valley took hold, with militants fighting for Kashmir’s removal from the Indian state, the Pandits became an obvious target.
Already steps had been taken to erase signs of the Pandits’ existence. The Hindu names of hundreds of villages were changed to Islamic names. Intellectuals, poets and writers of the community were killed or frightened into silence.
Mahesh Manvati, a refugee who has lived near Delhi since April 1990, said: “The process culminated on 19 January when the clear call came that we should all leave.”
One refugee who did not want to be named said: “Srinagar in January 1990 was a nightmare for the Pandits.Audio-cassettes were roaring about Islamic jihad in the mosques, calling for the liberation of the valley. The local press published warnings to the Pandits, asking them to leave the valley or face the consequences, posters were stuck up on poles and walls all over town with the same message.”
A Kashmiri Pandit housewife said: “Day after day, the posters pasted on the walls in the city warned Kashmiri Pandits to leave. One morning we discovered that some of our close friends and relatives had fled without even whispering to anyone about it. At last our turn arrived. I left Srinagar by air and my husband followed by road.”
Nobody knows for sure how many fled Kashmir on 19 January and in subsequent weeks, but one exile group believes that 350,000 Pandits are living outside their homeland: 200,000 in cramped plastic shelters in camps around the city of Jammu, and another 100,000 dotted around Delhi.
One Delhi-based Pandit journalist, Omkar Razdan, estimates that there are now only 7,000 of his community left in the valley. One exile organisation, Panun Kashmir, claims that 5,000 Pandits have been killed in sectarian massacres in the past 18years. Drowned out by the louder, more immediate horrors of Kashmir, the Pandits risk being forgotten by history. Yet they were an essential element in the traditional society of the Kashmir Valley, where Kashmiri identity outweighed any other factor or religion or caste. In 1947, when Hindus and Muslims were murdering each other in huge numbers after Partition, the Kashmir Valley remained peaceful.
But for the Kashmiri Pandits in exile, that is all ancient history. One Pandit in Delhi said: “Islamic fundamentalism has turned Kashmiri society fanatical, a society which will not accept coexistence.” Communal harmony of the old sort, exiled Pandits believe, is no longer possible.
A group called Panun Kashmir – Kashmir Homeland – is campaigning for a part of the valley to be designated their homeland, with special protection and status.
It is the sort of cause that you might expect to be dear to the heart of a government dominated by Hindu nationalists. But although Prime Minister Vajpayee received a delegation from the organisation on Wednesday, Panun Kashmir looks as if it is the lost tribe’s lost cause. “We are too few,” lamented one of the demonstrators. “We don’t make a vote bank for any party. No parties are interested in us.”