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Politics of Identity – Kashmiri Pandits in India

Abstract:
This paper will analyse the issue of Kashmiri Pandits in India. Focussing on their history,
and forced migration from their homes in the Kashmir Valley, the paper will address
contemporary concerns, as well as pass concluding remarks on what the future might
hold for the community.

Introduction
Kashmiri Pandits, who claim ancestry from the Aryans, see themselves as the true
inhabitants of the Kashmir region. The term Kashmiri Pandit, refers to Hindu Brahmins
who originate from the Kashmir Valley in India. The specific name Pandit was thought to
have been applied to the Hindu Brahmin residents of the valley during the 15

centuries, in deference to their higher education and economic status, in comparison to
the Hindu Dogras & Sikhs, who were the other major non-Muslim inhabitants of the state
(Dhar 2007). However, during the 19
th
th
 century, it is thought, that the term Pandit was
used to describe the Hindus (not just Brahmins), who had stayed within the Valley and
not migrated nor converted to Islam.

By the time Kashmir was sold to the Dogra King Golab Singh originally from
Jammu in 1846, by the British, in compensation for his support against the Sikhs, the
Pandits in the Valley had begun their ascension to the top of the social hierarchy of the
state. Under Golab Singh, land was returned to the Pandits, and they were afforded
opportunities to work in the state administration.  By the early half of the 20
 century, a
majority of the Pandit families were either land owners or gazetted officers of the state
th
 and 16
th
(Kilam 2003). Pandits sat on top of the social ladder, as representatives of the Dogra
Rulers. They were feudal land owners, rich money lenders, Brahmin priests and went as
far as working with the Punjabi merchants who controlled Kashmir’s opulent handicrafts
trade. However the Pandit’s had their fair share of difficulties over the centuries, over the
yearsor years the Pandits suffered too, under centuries Islamic rule, and it seems though
that their lives have been characterised by migration from their homeland (Pant 2007).

By the time the wave of Indian nationalism hit Kashmir in the 1920’s and 30’s,
Pandit society had begun to show its reform with the establishment of Kashmiri Pandits
Sabha, which aimed to establish a common platform for the betterment of Hindu lives in
the state (Kaur 1996). As the the Sabha became more reformist, it was evenly split
between those who supported the Dogra monarchy, and those in favour of a more
democratic setup. By the 40’s , both factions were reunited, in their opposition of the
British and the monarchy in the state, finding common ground with Sheikh Abdullah and
his National Conference, with many Pandit leaders coming into prominence in the state
under his tutelage.

Post-Partition though, things changed for the Pandits, under the reforming eyes of by then
Kashmiri Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah, whose initiatives, to transfer land from
owners to the state aggrieved more than a few members of the community. Many Pandits
continued to be employed by the government, while others, moved into trade and
positions of eminence within Kashmiri society. Educated Pandits continued to remain in
the public sphere, as they soon occupied prime postings in the State administration, as in
pre-Partition times while the lower and middle class Pandits were either involved in
agrarian work or were low-level employees of the state.
 
Statistically speaking, Pandits have always been an important religious and
cultural part of the social make-up of the state. The 1941 Jammu and Kashmir
Government Census, which last showed them as a distinctive group, amongst the Hindus
of Jammu & Kashmir, estimated their number to be close to 78000, or 15% of the Valley,
in comparison to the 83% that Muslims comprised (Census of India 1943). More
importantly though, a fact that has generated serious debate, is the lack of a contemporary
exact census figure, since 1941, given the waves of migration, the Pandit population has
seen.

Mass Migration
 
It is estimated that between 1989 and 1990, approximately 160,000 Kashmiri
Pandits, exited the Valley for Jammu and other parts of India
1
. For us to understand the
magnitude of the exodus it is necessary to analyse the main events that characterised the
migration.

On the 4
th
 of January 1990, Aftab a Valley based Urdu news journal, published a
warning, issued allegedly by the Hizbul Mujahideen, calling for all Hindus in the region
to take flight, the warning was re-echoed in Al Safa and the Srinagar Times on the 16
 of
January (Gupta 2005).

 This following the atmosphere of fear that had been created in the
previous years, by the Islamic secessionist movements especially the Jammu & Kashmir
Liberation Force (JKLF) which had raised its call for arms as early as 1988, aided and
supported by rhetoric from the Pakistani leadership which spewed venom against the
non-Muslims in the Valley.

While initially the JKLF and the other militant outfits had been selective initially
in their targeting of several non-Pandit Government officials and those in the Public
sphere in the past years, the Kashmiri Pandit world was rocked by the by the killings of
high-profile Pandit leader Tikkalal Taploo and High Court Judge Nilkanth Ganjoo in
September and November 1989. The threats in the newspapers, only further fuelled the
Pandit apprehension and by January 1990, the exit had begun (Evans 2002).

  “The night of January 19, 1990 will remain the most unforgettable one in the
memory of every Kashmiri Pandit child who had attained age of consciousness of
                                              
1
 Due, to the fact that no exact figures are available; a range has been drawn using Government of India
estimates and that of Human Rights Watch and other Interest Groups and NGO’s.
th
surroundings, and grownup men and women. That night stands singled out as the
harbinger of the terrible catastrophe which before long engulfed the panic-stricken
unfortunate community” (Bhan 2005), writes Prof KL Bhan as he recollects in shock the
memories of  how scores of Kashmiri Muslims took to the streets, demanding freedom
from India and  the eviction of Kashmiri Pandits, from the region. The situation
seemingly deteriorated, as the months passed, killings continued, Lassa Koul the head of
Doordarshan Srinagar or Indian National Television was shot outside his house (Dhar
2002), as more and more Pandits continued to move towards Jammu.

 The state administration too seemed to be reconciled to the exodus; the Executive
had stopped functioning, as Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference government gave
way to President’s rule under Governor Jagmohan, who was faced with an
insurmountable task of dealing with open revolt, Pandit refugees, militant outfits and
political chaos. His decision to continue to support Pandits on the state’s pay roll that had
fled and pay their salaries while in absentia, further contributed to the outflow.

 The fleeing Pandits, moved southwards towards Jammu, where transit and relief
camps had been setup to deal with the huge inflow. Some moved to Delhi. By April
1990, it is estimated that close to 20,000 Pandits had fled the Valley in the wake of an
ultimatum issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen published in the Alsafa on the 14
 of April
1990 calling for all Pandits to leave the valley in two days (Evans 2002), for other parts
of India. The outward migrations continued through the year, with a few brave families
daring to stay on, in the face of socio-economic compulsions and a mistaken belief that
things would return to normal in a short period.

How many fled and where did they go? Right-wing Kashmiri Pandit sources tend
to be biased and their estimate of 300,000 (Panun Kashmir 2008) exiles seem to be on the
higher side. As I have mentioned above, the range that seems to be more accurate lies
between 150,000 and 160,000, as conceived by Alexander Evans who arrived at this
figure, using old Census data from 1910, that split up the population ethnically –
extrapolating the figures using the estimated population growth rates, Government of
th
India data and that of NGOs and other related groups.  He further estimates that before
the migration there were close to 170,000 Pandits in the valley, in the period leading up
to the exodus (Evans 2002). Later estimates from 2004 show the number of Pandits, who
continue to remain in the valley, number approximately 6500 (Trisal 2007), tallying with
Evans figure for the Pandit population and those who left, keeping in mind further
displacement in the 90’s. Most Pandit families fled south, towards Jammu, the Hindu
dominated part of the state, where the state initially accommodated them in transit relief
camps. Another camp was opened by the Central Government in New Delhi as the
numbers kept increasing.

Reasons

What led to this mass migration?  A few views have emerged. The hard line
Hindu and aggrieved Pandit view, is that they were forced out, what took place, was an
ethnic cleansing of the population, in order to ensure that Kashmir remained an entirely
Muslim state, supported by Pakistan and its anti-Hindu rhetoric (Dhar 1997). Another
view that many Muslim leaders, including those of the All Party Hurriyet Conference
(Hurriyet) and the Farooq Abdullah the Chief Minister prior to the exodus and seem to
adopt, is that the State administration at the behest of the Central government in Delhi
(Singh 2005), encouraged and supported the movement of Pandits, in order to have the
space and freedom to deal with Muslims in Kashmir the way they wished too. It is
difficult though to find credibility in both the above views, though they do reflect some
truth, they seem to display more bias.

On further analysis, the major events of the exodus show, how a volatile socio-
political environment, turned into one of great danger to the Pandits forcing them to leave
in fear. The Secessionist War and Insurgency that had gripped Kashmir, towards the end
of the 1980s, was the key. An explosive combination of empowered, emancipated
Kashmiri youth, Indian Government inadequacy and bungling; a Pakistan supported
insurgency and deep dissatisfaction with state bureaucracy laid the perfect ground, for the
state to erupt. Kashmiri Pandits, initially not the intended victims of this fury, soon
suffered.

 A politically frustrated, JKLF called for protests and violence, against Delhi and
later began an armed struggle for Kashmiri independence, towards the end of 1988. It
was soon joined by radical and more hard-line groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen,
reducing its freedom movement, to little more than callow terrorism. Their anti-India
rhetoric, and openly pro-Pakistan stance, alienated a fair proportion of the heterogeneous
population of the state. As further violence led to increasing skirmishes with the
establishment, most non-Muslim residents of the state especially in the Valley, felt
growing unease with the situation. (Sandilya 2007) Within the Pandit community, a sense
of alienation and trepidation had set in. It seemed like the state was against them land
reforms, political reform, and discrimination of majority over minority had reached their
crescendo, over forty years (Bhat 2005).

Things came to a boil when the Valley began to divide communally. Centuries of
co-habitation, ended overnight as Hindu and Muslim relations came under strain.
Pandits, many who of whom served in the state administration, became easy targets for
militants trying to prove a point. Central rule was established, as Delhi tried to control
things through a governor, and the Indian armed forces were beginning to move in, as
aearly as January 1989. A few months later, Kashmiri Pandits started moving out.
Initially they moved to Jammu, awaiting an abatement of the violence. Yet with no
solution in sight, the numbers increased, as more and more Pandit families, packed their
lives into suitcases, and escaped what they thought was now danger to them. The state
and administration did little to assuage the fears of the Pandits, as what began as a
temporary movement turned into a permanent exodus.

After a thorough analysis of different views the following reasons, perhaps provide the
most plausible reason for the mass migrations
• Over the years, state policy had changed to one that sought to appease the
majority. After a century of being on top, Kashmiri Pandits were beginning to feel
the effect of reform and change that in most cases was directed against them.
• A variety of political reasons, led to the formation of Islamic secessionist
movements within Kashmir, which viewed Hindu Pandits with suspicion and as
manifestations of Indian rule in the state.
• This in turn led to an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, where Pandits felt unsafe in
their homeland. Once the secessionist movement turned violent, and targeted
Hindus, the Pandits thought it most prudent to flee in order to secure their own
lives.
• The complete collapse of the Executive and the tacit understanding of the exodus,
by the State administration, which continued to pay salaries in absentia and tried
to ensure safe passage of Pandits to Jammu, only ensured a further addition to
refugee numbers.
• Most Pandit families thought the movement as temporary, something they would
be able to reverse, once the situation calmed down, as they were mostly in
Jammu, within the same state, still close enough to return.

Those Who Stayed

 It is necessary at this stage to divide and address the concerns of those Kashmiri
Pandits who stayed in the Valley, and those who migrated separately. While they may
share the outlying objective of the return of Pandits to their homeland, the current reality
and the lives they have led since the exodus began have been very different. For the
fraction that stayed in the Valley, reports from the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir
(HWSK) (Pandit 2007) indicate that they are mainly concentrated in districts around
major cities and towns like Srinagar, Anantnag and Pulwama. In her analysis, of the
exodus of 1990, Nishita Trisal, finds that 20% of those who stayed did so out of financial
compulsions, a similar figure stayed out of a sense of attachement to their home and
surroundings and surprisingly the remainder of Non-Migrants stayed, for very much the
same reason that a majority of the others left – that things would return to normal, in a
few months (Trisal 2007).

On further analysis, of the above data it is apparent that the majority of those who
stayed, the lower and middle classes, did so out of financial necessity for which flight
was not an option. These consisted of largely, poor orchard farmers, low level
Government employees – whose jobs could not be guaranteed in absentia, and families
with a single breadwinner, who simply had to stay.  While this meant that they suffered
the brunt of having to stay back, their lower socio-economic status, kept them largely off
the radar of militant and secessionists. However the Upper class Pandits, who stayed,
were constantly in the crosshairs of militants. Many of these Pandits, were people of
prominence politicians, businessman, top bureaucrats, who stayed out of a sense of
necessity due to their position. Most upper class Pandit families have suffered from
kidnappings, public humiliation and even killings of family members at the hands of
militants.

 Presently the Pandit community in Kashmir is in disarray.  With a large number
of Pandit families inadequately rehabilitated and a majority of whose members
unemployed, there are consequently close to 125 Pandit families who live below the
poverty line (Pandit 2007). After successive relocations, for their safety, many families
are yet to receive their promised government aid packages and adequate support for
rehabilitation. An example of a Housing estate built in the Bugdam district of the Valley
for Pandits, shows how skewed governmental policy has been, when dealing with the
Pandits who stayed behind.  The state government offered these flats to those who had
fled, to tempt them to return, and as they lie unoccupied, many Pandit families in the
Valley do not have permanent homes.

 Sociological and religious problems too have dogged the Pandit community in the
Valley in the past decade. With inadequate platforms for social and religious intercourse
within the community, the younger generations are starting to question their identities.
With a lack of priests, temples have fallen into disarray and marriages and other
ceremonies are difficult to organize. Politically the Pandits are too small and dispersed
within the Valley, to have much clout at the lower levels, in order to protect their
interests.

Displaced Kashmiri Pandits

 While the Pandits who stayed have had the consolation of being in their homes,
the ones who fled have had to bear the brunt of the exodus. For many life in the years that
followed their flight, has proven far worse, than the exodus itself. “A majority of the
Pandit refugees live in squalid camps with spiralling health and economic problems.
Approximately 2,17,000 Pandits still live in abysmal conditions in Jammu with families of
five to six people often huddled into a small room. Social workers and psychologists
working among them testify that living as refugees in such conditions has taken a severe
toll on their physical and mental health” (Gill 2008).

 A large majority of the displaced Pandits, moved to Jammu and later to Delhi,
where they were temporarily located in Relief camps, across the region. A breakup of the
movement is given as follows. From the total 53,538 registered family units, 31,490
families live in Jammu; 19,338 in Delhi; and 2710 in the rest of the country (Ministry of
Home Affairs, Government of India 2002). Many families remain unregistered and live
outside relief camps. For those in the camps, conditions continue to remain dismal, with
disease and poverty widespread. Essentials like running water and electricity are missing,
even in the best of the camps. Families of up to 6 or 8 people live in one room. There are
inadequate healthcare facilities and little or no educational facilities in any of the camps.
A report issued in 2005 entitled ‘The Impact of Migration on the Socio-Economic
Conditions of Kashmiri Displaced People; by the Jammu and Kashmir Centre for
Minority Studies, came up with some shocking conclusions about the physical and
mental state of those in camps. Among others it finds that “An alarming 79% of migrants
suffer from depression, while 76% suffer from anxiety disorders such as phobias and
panic attacks. 8% even suffer from delusional disorders and psychosis.” Additionally it
states “More than 36 per cent of women become infertile by the time they reach 40 years
of age.”(Jammu and Kashmir Centre for Minority Studies

2005)

 While the state and Central governments, have made some effort to help in the
rehabilitation of displaced Pandits, not enough has been done. Pandit families in these
camps are entitled to meagre monthly cash payments for each member of the family, and
receive a certain quantity of government food rations. However the monthly allowance
and the rations are barely enough for a family of six or eight.

 Further, the Government of India has constantly refused to recognize the exiled
Kashmiri Pandits as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s). The Pandits have twice
unuccesfully petitioned the National Human Rights Comission (NHRC), for the
recognition, while the NHRC insists that the word ‘migrant’ is better suited to them even
though Kashmiri Pandits fulfill the criteria to be recognized as IDP’s according to the
United Nation’s guiding principles that state “Internally displaced persons are persons or
groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or
places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of
armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural
or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State
border”(Deng 1998).


A Possible Return

The question of a possible return arises next. Will the Pandits ever return to
Kashmir? With the current atmosphere and chaotic political situation, it seems unlikely
that the Pandits will venture back. In fact for a majority of those who remain in the valley
economic realities, dictate that it seems they will have to move out, as unemployment
rises and poverty levels rise. Upper class Pandits in the valley too are buying property
and investing in Jammu and outside the state.

 There seems to be a lack of political willpower too, in order to secure the return of
the Pandits to the valley. Both popular elected governments and centrally appointed
Governors, seem to have failed to do that this far. Apart from the periodical rhetoric that
calls for the return of Pandits few concrete steps have been taken. An effective system or
body to redress the problems of the Pandits has still to be created within the state, to deal
with major problems like rehabilitation and unemployment. It still seems though that a
scattered Pandit community is not a political force that matters enough in the politics of
the Valley.

 Militants too have played their role and continue to instill fear in the minds of
those Pandits who remain in the valley. In the decade that followed the exodus, there are
over a dozen instances of attacks on Pandits and Hindus by militants, the worst amongst
them being the massacre of 23 Hindus in Nadimarg in March 2003 (Indian Express
1998). Other minorities too have not been safe, the killings of 40 Sikhs in Chattisingpura
in March 2000 (Rediffnews 2000) testifying to this. A change perhaps in the tactics of
militants as it was the first time the Sikh community was targeted, since the insurgency
began. Additionally the lack of political willpower combined with the widespread
militancy has meant that there has been no effort made to curb the sail of formerly Pandit
own lands, this despite, the Assembly passing laws forbidding this (Mayilivagnam),
hardly enough reasons to tempt the Pandits to return.

The community too needs to think about the feasibility of a return. After close to
two decades away, what does the Valley still mean to them? An entire generation has
now been born or spent most of their lives away from the Valley. Do they still feel that
connection to the region and the attachment their parents did? This disconnect between
the younger generation, many of whom live abroad and the ‘promised land’ too might
make a return more difficult.

Conclusions

 Eighteen years after their expulsion from their homeland, the plight of Kashmiri
Pandits continues to be miserable. Forced out of their homes by rising violence and
genuine threats to their lives and a state administration and polity that seemed content to
let them go
2
, a majority of the Pandit community has spent the better part of the last two
decades suffering in squalid relief camps, under dismal conditions, while in their
homeland their homes continue to be occupied and lands sold. For the minority that
stayed behind, life has been no kinder, as they suffer economic hardship, unemployment
and constant millitant threat to their lives.

 As for the migrants and the subject of recognition of their human rights and a
betterment of their condition, the Indian government’s refusal to treat them as IDP’s is
unfair. While the government has taken this step in order to ensure the issue is not
internationalized and it avoids international scrutiny over its treatment of Pandits and
therefore Kashmir, it does mean that the Pandits continue to remain illegible for
international humanitarian aid and support. While it may not serve India’s short-term
interests, the Pandits are certainly entitled to this aid, and all efforts should be made to
ensure this.

For the Pandits to return to the valley, the situation would have to get better. The
State and the Center both responsible for their plight, need to make concerted effort in
order to ensure comprehensive rehabilitation packages, guaranteed employment as well
as adequate compensation for what has been lost. Additionally the warring factions of the
anarchic political system in the region would need to take due cognizance of the Pandit
minority and their opinions. The onus would fall on the Executive to ensure that the
Pandits felt safe and be willing to participate in the political process. Violence against the
Pandits would have to stop entirely and much of their lost land would have to be returned
to them.Further, the overlying problem of a solution to the Kashmir dispute that involves
both India and Pakistan,will have no concrete solution, until the Pandits are made party to
any discussion, and their basic rights and dignity are restored.
                                              
2
 Ashok Pandit, Islamic Terrorism in Kashmir (Mumbai, Video Documentary)
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=842219646390515565&q=kashmir+pandit

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