Kashmiri Pandits: On the road to extinction
The Kashmiri Hindu���s tragic saga continues to this day with neither the state nor the central governments doing enough to relocate those who fled their homeland.
Kashmiri Pandits, the Hindus of Kashmir valley, have been Kashmir’s original inhabitants. Their roots in the valley can be traced back to 5,000 years. Their history dates back to the time when one of their earliest kings, Gonanda I, fought and died in the Mahabharata battle.
The Kashmiri kingdom comprised the present valley, Gilgit, Baltistan, parts of Punjab and even extended, at one time, to Western Tibet and Afghanistan. It witnessed a religious transformation from Buddhism in the 4th and the 3rd centuries BC to Brahmanism — Shaivites and Shakti worshippers — till the 11th century AD when conversion of Hindus to Islam started with the annexation of Punjab by Mahmud Ghazni in 1021 AD.
Beginning of the 14th century saw mass Islamic conversions with the arrival of a trio comprising a Sufi saint, Bulbul Shah, from Turkey, Rinchan, a rebel prince form Tibet and Shamir, a Muslim religious preacher from Swat valley in Persia. The trio joined hands to transform the Hindu kingdom of Kashmir into a Muslim empire — a dream that Arabs had nurtured for more than five centuries.
Mayhem, plunder and subjugation were unleashed in the next 500 years. Savage methods and brutal force was used to make the innocent locals embrace Islam. Except for a brief period of relief under pious rulers Zain-ul-Abdin and Mughal emperor Akbar, Hindus continued to be forcibly converted. Their temples were ransacked and wrecked, scriptures were burnt, and taxes (jazia) were imposed. People had no option but convert, flee or commit suicide. To escape the wrath of the brutal persecution, there was mass exodus from Kashmir. There are records of at least six mass exoduses during this period and Kashmir history records that only 11 Hindu households were left at one time. All other Kashmiri Hindus were either killed, converted to Islam or had migrated to safer places.
Kashmir returned to peaceful times after its annexation by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1819 at the invitation of a Kashmiri, Pandit Birbal Dhar. Peace and order was restored and all punitive laws against Hindus were revoked. This was followed by hundred years of peaceful rule by Dogras of Jammu till the Indian independence in 1947. Sheikh Abdullah, who led the independence movement in Kashmir, was a great votary of secularism and several prominent Kashmiri Pandits were his closest colleagues during the freedom struggle against the Maharaja. Kashmiri Pandits therefore occupied important positions in Jammu & Kashmir as part or the newly born Indian Republic. Estimate of their population then is about 1.50 lakh forming about 9 per cent of the valley’s population.
Post independence, Kashmiri Pandits lived a peaceful life in the valley and enjoyed all rights available to the citizenry. They formed an important part of the composite Kashmiri Hindu-Muslim-Sikh culture, popularly called Kashmiriyat. During the communal flare-ups of the partition, Mahatma Gandhi saw a ray of hope in the state’s religious harmony. Kashmiri Pandits, however, had to make adjustments with the growing aspirations of the Muslims in a free political set up. Their absentee land lordship over agricultural lands got eschewed under the tenancy and land reforms initiated by the people’s government in 1952 and this affected a large number of Pandit families. Being an educated class, Pandits, who were solely dependant on government employment, had also to concede space to fellow Muslims, who, too, were now educated and were claimants to government employment. These and a long agitation in 1967 over the kidnapping of a Pandit girl by a Muslim boy and the government apathy on the issue started a low-key migration of Pandits outside Kashmir. However this wasn’t so large as to draw the state government’s attention, particularly as Kashmir appeared so peaceful in the 1971-87 period after the 1971 Indo-Pak war that separated East Bengal from Pakistan.
The events of 1989 turned the tables on Pandits. As a follow-up of the Pakistan-sponsored militancy that started in 1989-90, almost the entire community of 2.5 lakh Kashmiri Pandits was forced to leave the valley following arson, rape and killing of about a 1,000 members of their community by terrorists. This was their seventh exodus. The state government made makeshift arrangements for these migrants in tented camps around Jammu, Udhampur and Delhi. Many of them stayed voluntarily with friends and relatives in different parts of the country. As of now, there is no change in this situation and these temporary residences of the migrants continue. Although the government provides relief in cash and kind to registered migrants and salaries to those who were in employment, yet the loss of home and snapping of ties with their roots has made a tremendous impact on their physical, social and mental make up. Out of Kashmir’s total population 5.5 million, there are now about 5,000 Kashmiri Pandits left in the valley. They have dared to stay on despite the militancy.
Kashmiri Pandit community is therefore at the cross roads of history today. This diaspora of around 7 lakh people is scattered all over the globe. They live practically in every corner of the world — from the migrant camps in the outskirts of Jammu city, to medium towns and metropolises in India, Europe, North America and Africa. They are stateless Indian citizens, who have no vote, no constituency and no representation in Parliament or the Assembly of their home state. They have become refugees in their own country. Their employment in the state has dropped from 14,000 to just 1,000 and there are no new recruitments happening. Admissions to professional colleges in the state stopped the day they left the state. Had the state governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka not reserved one seat in each engineering institute of the state for the migrant community, Kashmiri Pandit youth would have been on the roadside and turned into bad elements. Their exodus from Kashmir has not only deprived them of their homeland, but also their properties, culture, language, history, rituals and the social milieu they inherited and conserved for thousands of years. They are finding themselves at the cross roads of history where the only road visible is the one leading to their extinction.
Kashmiri Pandits have been a highly accomplished community. It has produced several luminaries in history. Kashmir has been a seat of Buddhist philosophy, Shaivism, Sanskrit learning, and a messenger of Vedic civilization to India. Between the 9th and the 14th centuries, Kashmir produced a galaxy of intellectuals like Kalhana, the great historian of the world. Kalhana’s Rajtarangani, a chronicle of the kings of Kashmir, Patanjali’s Mahabasya commentary on Panini’s works on Sanskrit grammar, Abhinavgupta, the Shaivist philosopher and Saint Suyya, the great engineer who rid Kashmir of incessant floods and built the town of Sopore in northern Kashmir stand a testimony to the intellectual heritage of the Pandits. They are many other Pandit luminaries, including Pingala and his monumental work Pingalasutra on metrics and prosody, Lal Ded, the great mystic poetess and philosopher, Kshemendra the Sanskrit poet and playwright, known as “Vedvyasa of Kashmir” on account of his commentaries on Ramayana. They made priceless contribution in the fields of music, dance, astronomy, mathematics, philosophy and literature. Kalidasa the Sanskrit poet and Caraka, the great physician and author of the famous book on medicine Charaksamhita are also believed to be from Kashmir.
In the last century, Kashmir gave India its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Swami Lakshman Ji spiritualist and guru on Shaivist philosophy and Tantraloka, Pandit Gopi Krishna, the master and researcher in Kundalini techniques, Anupam Kher the Bollywood actor, R N Kao, the author and first chief of RAW, Suresh Raina, the emerging young cricketer, several administrators, judges, journalists, military personnel, engineers and doctors.
Kashmiri Pandits have won laurels in every field, be it business, computer software or research, in India and abroad. Their ingenuity, analytical mind and sublime nature have been appreciated all over.
A disintegrated community, not unsurprisingly, has so many community organizations to take care of the local needs, interaction with the mainstream communities, and above all to keep their age-old culture protected. Almost every Kashmiri enclave in any town has an organization, which arranges community meets on prominent festival days, yagyas, interactive parties, etc to foster a cultural bonding. The younger generation that has hardly seen its roots is fast merging with the local conditions and societies, hardly speak Kashmiri language, and marry outside their community without any taboo.
Despite occasional outbursts and pleas for their honorable return to the valley, they draw a blank from the government, Kashmiri Muslims and general public. Nobody seems to care to save this illustrious community from becoming extinct.
Kashmiri Pandits are politically irrelevant too. Being an uprooted lot, they do not constitute a vote bank, are not a slogan-shouting crowd and are too self-oriented to be of relevance to the politicians. They do not have an apex political body to represent themselves, which probably is their greatest failure and the reason to be so extraneous to the people, media and the government. The first time they were given a political platform in the last 16 years of their exile was at the first roundtable on Kashmir held in Delhi in February this year. Their demand of a carving out a separate homeland for them in the Kashmir valley – a state or a union territory – was turned down by both the state and the central governments. And, the issue of their return to Kashmir has been relegated to the background and has been tagged with the return of other refugees from across the LOC.
Kashmiri Pandit community is at a precipice. The state and central governments need to appreciate the community’s predicament. More importantly, the Kashmiri Muslims need to welcome the community back to their homes for preservation of Kashmir’s ancestry and the mosaic of cultural synthesis the valley is known for.
Integration of the community and its development as a separate social sect is possible only if it returns back to its homeland roots. It is important for this to delink the issue of the return of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir problem. All separatist and national parties in J&K and migrant Kashmiri pandits need to sit together and chalk out a detailed coordinated plan of action for an unconditional and honorable return of the displaced persons. Return of Pandits is possible through a social initiative. The government role should start only after the community returns to its home.
Other steps that can inject confidence in this community could be the reservation of one seat through nomination in Parliament under Article 331 of the Constitution on the lines of the Anglo-Indian community and similar reservation of two seats in the state assembly. These measures would reassure the community of their safety. Also, certain laws need to be introduced in the state constitution that guarantee quick redressal of the community grievances, reservation in state employment and admissions in professional colleges and creation of a full-fledged Ministry for Return and Rehabilitation of Migrants (MRRM) to liaise with the migrants and redress their problems.
Happily the conditions in the valley are fast changing for the better. Dark clouds of fear and mistrust are giving way to those of hope and goodwill. Service in the spirit of a self-preservation of their heritage by all Kashmiris irrespective of religion, can save the Kashmiri Pandit community from their current hardship and extinction.