Pandits of Kashmir: Saga of a vanishing community

A Kashmiri Pandit at the refugee camp.
A Kashmiri Pandit at the refugee camp.

January 19, 1990 is a black day in the history of Kashmir and of Indian secularism. This day saw the beginning of the genocide of the small harmless and defenceless religious minority of Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits). The exiled community has entered the 33rd year of displacement. This article is dedicated to the memory of those sons and daughters of the soil who sacrificed their lives in defending superior values of Hindu culture. May their souls rest in peace?

Kalhan Pandit’s Rajtarangini
Very few communities of great antiquity like the Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits) have borne persecution and oppression for almost seven centuries for the sin of adhering to their ancestral faith, Hinduism, and struggling against calamitous odds to preserve their pristine and colourful culture and traditions. The Hindus of Kashmir are the indigenous inhabitants of Kashmir Valley and their early history is steeped in colourful mythology. Kalhan Pandit, the celebrated historian and scholar of the 12th century wrote Rajatarangini, the versified history of ancient Kashmir in 1147 A.D. in which he traced the origin of Kashmiri Hindus to nearly six thousand years beginning with Gonanda ruling house in 3450 CE.

Kalhan Pandit authenticated his record by reference to at least six preceding histories including the historical geography, Nilamata Purana. Additionally, he had visited hundreds of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, shrines, viharas and stupas in the vast kingdom to trace Kashmir history in the folklore and decipher the inscriptions of immense epigraphic value. Thanks to the celebrated Hungarian scholar of Sanskrit and Indology, Aural Stein, who translated the chronicle from Sanskrit/Sharada into English and enriched it with annotations of the rarest scholarship highlighting the rulers, the people and the land of Kashmir. 

Beginning of the decline of Kashmir’s Hindu Kingdom
By the beginning of the 12th century A.D. five-thousand-year-old Kashmir Hindu kingdom was faced with decline essentially for two main reasons. Firstly, Kashmir trade and commerce along the fabulous Silk Road was severely hampered by the Turko-Mongol Invaders and plunderers

Secondly, the local warlords and commanders had become too powerful and defiant. And lastly, the creeping mutual rivalry and dissensions among the courtiers and administrative echelons caused great damage to the stability of the Hindu Kingdom. The elitist class became highly self-centred and treated the peasantry almost with disdain. By the beginning of the 14th century, the Kashmir Hindu kingdom had begun to show cracks. Queen Kota Rani, the last ruler of the Kashmir Hindu kingdom was deceitfully besieged and treacherously deposed by one of her commanders named Shah Mir in 1339 A.D.

Kashmir’s first Muslim dynasty
Shah Mir, a fugitive Khashya Muslim chieftain from Panchghavara (present Rajouri-Budhal) region deposed Queen Kota and seized the throne of Kashmir by perfidy. He founded the first Muslim ruling dynasty of Kashmir under the title Sultans Shamsu’d-Din Shahmir in A.D. 1339. For the following seven centuries of the rule of Sultans over Kashmir, one and only one task became their passion or obsession. It was that of decimating the people of indigenous faith and destroying all of their civilizational symbols and icons. Alternately, they zealously undertook the propagation of the new faith of Islam that rose in distant Arab lands and was brought to Kashmir by the zealous Islamic missionaries from Iran and Turkistan. The propagators of faith from Iran and Central Asia, who called themselves Sufis, brought havoc to Kashmir’s ancient civilization next only to what happened to the Zoroastrian faith in Iran after the defeat of the Sasanian empire at the hands of the Arab invaders.

The foremost of Iranian missionaries whom Kashmiri Sunni Muslims adore as the founder of Islam and Islamic traditions in Kashmir was Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani (d. A.D. 1389) from Hamadan (Ecbatana of Herodotus) in Iran. In Kashmir, he established his headquarter on the large compound of Kali Mandir, Fateh Kadal, Srinagar, built a huge platform and began delivering sermons on Islam and Sufism of which he had only a smattering for he had never gone through the traditional rigours of Sufi practices. A rabid Islamic propagator, Hamadani aimed at diverting the Kashmiri masses from their long adherence to the Shaivite School of philosophy to the Sufism and Islamic practice. Kashmir Sufism introduced through the instrumentality of proselytized Hindu Rishis is pretence of Iranian Sufism. Hamadani and his followers had to juxtapose their pseudo-Sufi tradition and practice to all-pervasive Shaivite philosophy.

Sikandar ‘butshikan’
Sultan Sikandar (A.D 1389 -1413), the sixth in-line of Shah Mir, has received the label of ‘butshikan’ –- the iconoclast. Under the atrocious influence of an Iranian Islamic zealot Mir Muhammad Hamadani, (the son of Mir Sayyid Ali) Sikandar undertook the wicked task of decimating the traces of Hindus of Kashmir and their civilization.

Sikandar ‘butshikan’ breaking the Hindu Bhagwan murtis in Kashmir.

Describing vividly the atrocities perpetrated on the Kashmir Hindu population, their temples, shrines, traditions, culture, and life under the instructions of this Iranian missionary, Kashmir historians tell us: immediately after his (Sufi Mir Mohammad’s) arrival, Sultan Sikandar submitted to him and proved his loyalty by translating his words into deeds. He eradicated aberrant practices and infidelity. He also put an end to the various forbidden and unlawful practices throughout his kingdom.(Baharistan-i-Shahi, tr. Dr. K.N. Pandit), Pir Ghulam Hasan (A.D. 1891) writes in his Tarikh-i-Kashmir that Sultan Sikandar obliged Sayyid Muhammad Hamadani, the Iranian missionary, “…by destroying many big Hindu temples some of which were Martandesvara near Mattan, three at Parihasapura, Maha Shri, and Tarapitha temples in Iskandarpora, Srinagar.” Details of large-scale forcible conversion of Hindus to the Islamic faith and their massacre in case they refused are vividly told by Hasan in his Tarikh (pp. 178-80). One significant detail is that three kharwars (one kharwar is approximately equal to eighty kilograms) of Hindu ceremonial thread (yagnopavita/zunnar) were burnt under the orders of Sultan Sikandar. The Hindus were asked to cast away the thread at the time of conversion.

The barbaric mission of fanatical Sultans of Kashmir of persecuting the Hindu subjects, destroying Hinduism and decimating all of its civilizational traces in Kashmir at the hands of their commanders and musclemen reached its peak during the authority of Kaji Chak (cir. A.D. 1527) and his contemporary Musa Raina on the behest of the most loathsome Iranian missionary of Nurbakhshiyya order, namely Shamsu’d-Din Araki, A.D. 1574. The author of Baharistan writes: “One of the big tasks completed by him (Kaji Chak) and one of the major commands of Amir Shamsu’d-Din Muhammad Araki carried out by him was the massacre of infidels and polytheists of this land.

It happened as follows: During the government of Malik Musa Raina, all the depraved heretics of this land had been converted to Islam. [But] with the help of some of the chiefs of this land, many had reverted to the customs of the infidels and polytheists. These apostates had resumed idolatry. Amir Shamsu’d-Din Araki summoned Malik Kaji Chak and told him to punish the infidels. 

Araki’s biography Tohfatu’l Ahbab contains one full chapter on the destruction of a large number of temples and viharas besides the hair-raising story of forcible conversions of Kashmiri Hindus village after village. (My English translation of this work was published under the title Tohfatu’l Ahbab: A Muslim Missionary in Medieval Kashmir by Aditya Prakashan of 2/18 Ansari Road, New Delhi).

Kashmiri Pandits under Mughal Rule
Kashmiri Hindus, known as Kashmiri Pandits since the Mughal rule over Kashmir in A.D. 1586, remained marginalized under the oppressive authority of the Mughal and Afghan subedars. Their persecution had no relent during the reign of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb (1707 A.D.) resulting in the flight of many Hindu families to the plains of India.

One erroneous impression from Indian historians and commentators needs to be clarified. It is not correct to call Babur and his ruling house the Mughals. The word ‘Mughal’ is not known to Iranian historians and they have tried to hide their ignorance about its origin behind the term ‘Maghulan-e Gorkan’. Gorkan is a Chaghatai word meaning son-in-law. Originally it was Mangolan-e-Gorkani meaning the son-in-law of the Mongols. But after some resentment from the original Mongols, the word was corrupted into Mughool or Mughal.

Babur was not a Mongol. Ethnically he was from the clan of the people of East Turkestan or what we today call Uighur (now in Chinese Xinjiang province). The language they spoke was Chaghatai or Uighur. Babur wrote his memoirs (Tuzak-e Baburi) in Chaghatai/Uighuri and neither in Mongol nor Farsi. Four generations of Babur spoke Uighur. Hence they were Uighurs and not Mughals. Of course, the Uighurs are descendants of a mixed-race of Mongols, Turks and other races we find in the Great Steppes.

It was only during one century of the Dogra rule, (1846-1947 A.D.) that the Pandits found some respite from long persecution. On 28 October 1947, a former community member of theirs whose family had migrated to Allahabad (now Prayagraj) during the oppressive reign of Shahjahan, and who had risen to the exalted position of the first Prime Minister of free India, snatched away Kashmir from the hands of the descendants of a ruling house that had shaped and structured the State of Jammu and Kashmir with sweat and blood and handed it over to a wily autocrat with absolute powers who reduced our historic minority community to a non-entity. He re-invented the sordid saga of discriminating against and marginalizing the Pandits under the mask of secular democracy. In a letter to Kashyapa Bandhu, a Hindu member of the NC Executive Committee, the Sheikh said that he was “first a Muslim and then a nationalist”. (See Kashmir Sentinal

Sheikh Abdullah’s prejudice towards Kashmiri Pandits
The impact of the partition and independence of India on Kashmiri Pandits was that overnight they were reduced to the status of second-rate citizens, the dhimmis. The Muslim leadership of Kashmir unjustly considered them an unfriendly lot. In his biography Aatish-e Chinar, the Sheikh calls them Indian spies. What an irony! Three generations of the Sheikh ruled over Kashmir with the patronage of New Delhi and yet the miserable Pandits are labelled as Indian spies. Who is the Indian (precisely Congress) spy?

Sheikh Abdullah, founder of the political outfit National Conference that has a presence in certain pockets of the Kashmir Valley. (File Photo)
Sheikh Abdullah, founder of the political outfit National Conference that has a presence in certain pockets of the Kashmir Valley. (File Photo)

The populist constitution of J&K State did not recognize any group as a minority thereby depriving the Pandits of the privileges which the national minorities, including the Muslims of Kashmir, enjoy under the law. Sheikh Abdullah quietly accepted and enforced in the state all privileges accruing to the Muslims as the national minority but denied minority status to all minorities including the Pandits in the state. The Muslim landlords managed to shift the title of their holdings to orchards and saved these from being taken away under the Land Reform Act. They could do so because the revenue officers were Muslims with a soft corner for their co-religionists. He expelled the people from Srinagar who had supported his freedom movement but had opposed his dictatorial style of functioning. He discontinued grant-in-aid facilities to private educational institutions mostly run by the Hindu societies/trusts. They were forced to close the institutions owing to financial stringency.

The inclusion of Article 370 and Article 35A in the Indian Constitution on the Sheikh’s insistence left J&K mostly out of the administrative reach of New Delhi except for frugal but unaccountable funding. The Pandits argued that they also needed protection against the highhandedness of the majority community. The Sheikh’s dictatorial proclivity can be gleaned from the plethora of letters exchanged between Maharaja Hari Singh and Sardar Patel (Home Minister) during the period when the Sheikh functioned as the Chief Administrator and then the PM of the State. Handing over power and authority to the Sheikh by the end of October 1947 was tantamount to signing the death warrant of the religious minority of the Pandits of Kashmir.

Apprehending grave uncertainty of their future in hostile environs of Kashmir under the authoritarian regime many Pandit families were forced to leave the valley and seek a livelihood elsewhere. In this way, another exodus of the religious minority of Kashmiri, the Pandits became a regular feature.

Mufti Muhammad Saeed’s stratagems
Mufti Saeed, the State Congress President in the mid-1980s, nursed rivalry against Mir Qasim, the then Chief Minister of J&K. To dislodge him, the Mufti hatched the conspiracy of an attack on Pandit temples in A.D 1986 in South Kashmir through Jamat-i-Islami goons of his patronization. Attacks on dozens of Hindu temples shocked the Hindus in South Kashmir and the threat of destruction forced many of them to leave the valley. Congress’s government did not move its finger. The inaction of the police and state authorities was discouraging. Pandits like Kurds had no friends.

President Zia’s Topac project aimed at avenging the A.D. 1971 Bangladesh defeat of the Pakistan Army by initiating a proxy war in Kashmir. Jihadists trained and indoctrinated in training camps in PoK and Pakistan initiated guerrilla attacks after infiltrating back into Kashmir in the late 1980s. Kashmir Liberation Front with headquarters in Birmingham/Luton in UK, and Rawalpindi was the engine to generate insurgency. J&K Police, border forces, some security forces and many in the bureaucracy were bribed to let Kashmiri youth ex-filtrate or infiltrate across the border.

January 19, 1990
On the night of 19 January 1990, the entire Muslim population of Srinagar rose in revolt against the authority of India. Hundreds of thousands assembled on roads, squares and streets raising anti-India and anti-Hindu slogans, yelling and rejoicing that India had been thrown out. Jama’at-i-Islami firebrands poured venom against the Hindus through loudspeakers. The Pandits huddled up in one room out of fear expecting the sword to fall at any moment. Administration collapsed. The police disappeared from the city and not a single soldier moved out of the Badami Bagh Cantonment to protect the civilians. How could they since the Home Minister, Mufti Saeed sat stoically.

The next morning, the Pandits found to their consternation that the entire vernacular press had become hostile to India and them also. Al Safa, the Urdu spokesman of the jihadists warned the Pandits to leave but without their womenfolk. The traumatized community had no option but to leave their ancestral homes en masse and go into exile to unknown places, people and environs. This is the thirty-year of their exile.

After resigning as coalition chief minister Dr. Farooq fled to London to play golf. Ex-ministers ran away to Jammu-occupied government bungalows and deployed the local police to guard their families. The threatened Pandits were left to become the prey of wild wolves pacing the streets of Srinagar.

The horrendous stories of the barbaric killing of many Pandits served a rude shock to the entire community of Hindus. Panun Kashmir, the frontline organization of displaced Pandits in Jammu, listed 1341 killings in a compilation submitted to the NHRC. A Pandit girl teacher gone to collect her salary was waylaid by the terrorists, raped and then cut under a machine saw. Nails were drawn into the forehead of another Pandit victim. One of them was tied to a jeep and dragged along the cobbled road till his bones got crushed and he bled to death. Horrendous stories of barbarism sent a shock down the spine of the Pandits. Destiny drove them to unknown places, people and environs. By the middle of summer 1990, almost 99 percent of Kashmiri Pandits had been forced to leave their homeland. The jihadists regaled at the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir. Islam had emerged victorious but over whom — the Kashmiri Pandits who did not even have a knife to cut the vegetables, not to speak of Kalashnikov.

No political party, much less the ruling Janta Dal or Congress, came to their help. Of course, the RSS and BJP combine did make some effort to provide a blanket or a bucket to the lost tribe after it arrived in Jammu and got their details documented. The unfortunate Pandits had braved seven centuries of persecution and oppression under the autocratic rule of the Sultans in Kashmir but in the secular democracy of India (Congress, to be precise), they were forced to leave their six thousand years old birthplace and live as refugees in their own country. Genocide and ethnic cleansing were the gifts which the independence of India brought to them.

Refugees in their own country
Hindsight tells us that throwing the Pandits out of their ancient homeland was a calculated policy of the Jamaat-i-Islami and Congress. No political party could form a government in J&K unless it enjoyed the support of one of the two or both. The Pandits had failed to understand that Congress was the soft face of Muslim League. The partition had helped in the purge of more aggressive and explosive elements of the Muslim League. What remained behind would carry forward the Islamic agenda under Congress banner. No wonder, therefore, if today we have the Shaheen Bagh and JNU agitations being run under the national flag. One can shed tears on the naivety of the Kashmiri Pandits who thought that freedom had brought a true national government and went about eulogizing Nehru and Gandhi as the Father and the Uncle of the Indian nation.

Kashmiri Pandits protesting for their rights. (Representative image)
Kashmiri Pandits protesting for their rights. (Representative image)

National media considered it a sin to trace and publicize the sordid saga of the Pandits. Some of the stalwarts of national media brought all the blame to the doorsteps of the Pandits as some of them continue to do so even today. It pays to be on the side of the oppressor in this country. The National Human Rights Commission pontificated that what was done to the Kashmiri Pandits was “akin to genocide but not genocide”. It declined to categorize them as “internally displaced persons” for which the Pandits had supplicated following the definition of the UN Human Rights Working Group’s stipulation. The State and the Union government both stuck to the nomenclature of “Migrants” as if the Pandits had migrated or would return out of their free will. Thirty-two years of exile still make no promise of their return and restitution. The rhetoric of Kashmir Valley leadership that Pandits are an inseparable part of Kashmirian society is the peculiar sadism that rubs salt into their wounds. They know that. Kashmir is now radicalized to the hilt and the new generation cannot think outside the Wahhabi Islamic frame. The Congress gave them the legitimacy of running a theocratic state within a secular union.

Notwithstanding all these atrocities, the Pandits, one and all, want to go back to Kashmir, the homeland where the ashes of their ancestors remain embedded. Nobody can predict whether conditions will change to suit their return. So far, no government has shown any interest in their return. Nobody can say whether the conversion of the state into two union territories will bring any relief to the displaced Pandits or change in their lives. BJP leaders often speak of their suffering and destitution but they do not spell out if, when and how the Pandits can return to Kashmir. Perhaps they understand the complexity of the issue. And for the Congress party, theocratic Kashmir as its vote bank is preferable to secular Kashmir.

All Pandit organizations have unanimously demanded that their return and rehabilitation in Kashmir should be along the resolutions of the UN Human Rights Working Group on IDPs. The stipulated pre-requisites are that the IDPs will (a) return and resettle in whatever way and wherever they want to, (b) they are provided crutches to stand on their feet and become economically independent, (c) they are compensated for the losses they have suffered, (d) they are provided adequate and dependable security to eschew their re-foulment, (d) they are politically empowered to voice their difficulties aspirations and expectations, and (f) they are part of the decision making apparatus in matters concerning their interest and welfare.

Pandits believe that unlike previous governments at the Centre, the Modi government is much better informed about their plight under the local governments. Therefore, it is better equipped to resolve the issue without further delay. One bold public declaration by the Prime Minister that Kashmiri Pandits will return to the valley in whatever way and whatever form they want without any conditions will de-freeze the three-decade-old narrative.

We all agree that the return and restitution of the Pandits in Kashmir is a very complicated issue. The complicacy arises from two situations. First is that the locals have grabbed the moveable and unmoveable properties of the Pandits and its return to the owners means a social and economic blow to the illegal occupants whom the state government wants to protect. The second is the outright radicalization of Kashmir Muslim society and linking it to the tenets of Islam. The third thing is unrelenting indoctrination by Pakistan through spreading anti-Hindu and anti-India venom.

Pakistan has managed to influence the opinion of the world community that India is a state inimical towards Muslims. No Muslim country counter-argues that India has the second-largest Muslim population after Indonesia. The Muslim population in India has increased three-fold and even more since independence. But yet the Indian Muslim leaders and intellectuals go about trumpeting the canard that Muslims are being oppressed in India.

In these circumstances, the return of the Pandits seems to be no less than an uphill task. Economic stability, security, minority right, representation, freedom of enjoying the culture, restoration of religious symbols and icons etc. are vital components of rehabilitation. Above all, the goodwill of the majority and the government both at the state and central level is of crucial importance. Goodwill at both levels is dismally missing. In December last (2021) Home Minister Amit Shah was on a four-day tour to Jammu. He visited border areas of Rajouri, Poonch and Kathua. He met with the Gujars, Bakarwals, and the Paharis. But out of four days, he had not even four minutes at his disposal to talk to the waiting Kashmiri Pandit delegation, leave aside giving it a few minutes of a formal meeting.

After much noise, the Delimitation Commission appointed by the Home Ministry has submitted its report. It has recommended increase of six more seats for Jammu region and one seat for Kashmir region. While it has recommended reservation of six seats for OBCs, it has not recommended any reserved seat for the internally displaced Kashmiri Pandits nor has it agreed to give the refugees from PoK their quota from 24 reserved seats

Farooq Abdullah speaks in every public meeting that Kashmiri Pandits are integral to Kashmir society and that Kashmir society is incomplete without the Kashmiri Pandits. These are sweet words. But Farooq has been in power from 1996 until 2019 in one way or the other. We would like to ask him what practical steps he had taken as Chief Minister of the State to show that he considers the Pandits as integral to Kashmir society. This rhetoric is repeated by all political stalwarts of the valley including the BJP. But in practice, there is nothing to show that they mean it. No government even demanded constituting of a Commission of Inquiry into the rise of insurgency and genocide of the Pandits in Kashmir.

Like Kurds, the Pandits have no friends. The worst is that they have no land even. This is a vanishing community. A few hundred Kashmiri Pandit families have immigrated to the foreign countries particularly the US. That Diaspora may maintain the cultural and linguistic continuity of the community for some time.

This is not a pessimistic view; we must try to understand the ground situation. The simple formula is that no minority can feel safe and comfortable unless it enjoys the goodwill of the majority community. The majority community of Kashmir being the Muslims are enjoined by their faith to decimate the non-Muslims especially the kafirs and the idol worshipers. Therefore there is no rationale in thinking that the two can live a harmonious life. The Pandits are a people without a country or land.

However, some years back, when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, a group of Kashmiri Pandit intellectuals with social standing had proposed a Twin City of Srinagar as the formula for rehabilitating the displaced Pandits in the valley. A new township was suggested in an area of about one lakh kanals of land somewhere in the vicinity of the present airport in Srinagar. The new township would accommodate 47 thousand Kashmiri Pandit families plus a few thousand families of local Muslims and Sikhs also to give it an inclusive outlook. With time, the people would develop friendly relations and perhaps a smooth life could be led. This would take about fifty years to complete but this is the right solution. The Padgaonkar Committee constituted by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, too, had very strongly recommended the idea of the twin city of Srinagar.

This is perhaps the best solution. The other solutions like the satellite townships, clusters, homes for government servants or transit camps as these are called, are all flawed and unviable.

With all said and done the Pandits have had to live in fortitude. They are getting dissolved in the vast Indian milieu. They may remain in the pages of history for some time. This is the saga of the vanishing community of Kashmiri Pandits.

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