Pandits of Kashmir: The saga of lost glory
Pandits believe that unlike previous governments at the Centre, the Modi government is much better informed about their plight
Very few communities of great antiquity like the Kashmiri Hindus (Pandits), have borne persecution and oppression for almost seven centuries for their sin of adhering to their ancestral faith, Hinduism, and struggling against calamitous odds to preserve their rich and colourful culture and traditions. The Hindus of Kashmir are the indigenous inhabitants of Kashmir Valley.
Kalhan Pandit, an outstanding intellectual of the 12th century wrote Rajatarangini, the celebrated history of ancient Kashmir in A.D. 1147 in which he traced the origin of Kashmir Hindus to nearly six thousand years beginning with Gonanda ruling house in 3450 BCE.
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’s history in the folklore and decipher the inscriptions of immense epigraphic value. Celebrated Hungarian Indologist Aural Stein translated the chronicle from Sanskrit/Sharada into English and embellished it with annotations highlighting the rulers, the people and the land of Kashmir.
By the beginning of the 12th century A.D., the 5000-year-old Kashmir Hindu kingdom was faced with decline essentially for two reasons. Firstly, Kashmir’s trade and commerce along the fabulous Silk Road was severely hampered by Turko-Mongol predators. Secondly, the local warlords and commanders had become too powerful and defiant. The creeping mutual acrimony and dissensions among the courtiers and administrative echelons also caused great harm to the stability of the Hindu state. The elitist class became highly self-centered and treated the peasantry almost as a non-entity. By the beginning of the 14th century, Kashmir Hindu kingdom had begun to show cracks. Queen Kota Rani, the last ruler of Kashmir Hindu kingdom was treacherously besieged and deposed by one of her commanders named Shah Mir in 1339 A.D.
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 their civilizational symbols and icons. Alternately, they zealously undertook the propagation of the new faith of Islam that rose in distant Arabistan and was brought to Kashmir by the zealous Islamic missionaries from Iran and Turkistan. 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 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 knowledge as he had never gone through the traditional rigorous Sufi practices). A rabid Islamic propagator, Hamadani aimed at diverting the Kashmiri masses from their long adherence to the Shaivite School of philosophy to Islamic practices.
Sultan Sikandar (A.D 1389 -1413), the sixth in-line of Shah Mir, 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 despicable task of decimating the traces of Hindus of Kashmir and their civilization. Kashmir historians describe vividly the atrocities perpetrated on Kashmir’s Hindu population, their temples, shrines, traditions, culture, and life under the instructions of this Iranian missionary.
(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 Matan, 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 when they refused is 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.
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. The English translation of this work was published under the title ‘Tohfatul Ahbab: A Muslim Missionary in Medieval Kashmir’.
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 (d, A.D. 1707) resulting in the departure of many Hindu families to the plains of India.
It was only during one century of the Dogra rule, (A.D. 1846-1947) that the Pandits found some respite from long persecution. However, in October 1947, their fortunes started changing again.
POST INDEPENDENCE TRAUMA
The post-independence leadership of Kashmir, beginning with Sheikh Abudllah, re-invented the sordid saga of discriminating and marginalizing the Pandits under the mask of secular democracy. 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 of the state. The Muslim leadership of Kashmir unjustly considered them an unfriendly lot. In his biography Atash-e Chinar, Sheikh Abdullah calls them ‘Indian spies’.
The populist constitution of J&K State did not recognize any group as a minority thereby depriving the Pandits of the privileges that national minorities enjoyed under law. Ironically, though Jammu and Kashmir has been a Muslim majority state, yet it’s the Muslims of the state who have enjoyed the benefits of minority status. 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 state minorities including the Pandits. 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. He ordered stopping of grant-in-aid facilities to private educational institutions most of them run by the Hindu societies/trusts which forced their closure.
The inclusion of Article 370 in the Indian Constitution on the Sheikh’s insistence left J&K mostly out of the reach of the Centre except for frugal funding. The Pandits argued that they also needed protection against the highhandedness of majoritarianism. The Sheikh’s dictatorial proclivity can be gleaned from the plethora of letters exchanged between Maharaja Hari Singh and Sardar Patel during the period when the Sheikh functioned as the Chief Administrator and then the PM of the State.
Apprehending grave uncertainty of their future in hostile environs of Kashmir under the authoritarian regime, many Pandit youth were forced to leave the valley and seek livelihood elsewhere. In this way, the exodus of the religious minority of Kashmiri Pandits became a regular feature.
In 1986, attacks on dozens of Hindu temples by Jamat-i-Islami cadre shocked the Hindus in South Kashmir and the threat of destruction forced many of them to leave the valley. The inaction of the police and state authorities was disheartening.
President Zia’s Topac project aimed at avenging the 1971 Bangladesh defeat of Pakistan army by initiating a proxy war in Kashmir. Jihadists trained and indoctrinated in training camps in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) and Pakistan initiated guerrilla attacks after infiltrating into Kashmir in the late 1980s. The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front with headquarters in Birmingham/Luton in UK and Rawalpindi was the engine to raise insurgency.
On the night of 19 January 1990, hundreds of thousands of local Muslims assembled on Kashmir’s roads raising anti-India and anti-Hindu slogans. Jamat-i Islami firebrands poured venom against Hindus through loudspeakers. The Pandits huddled up in one room out of fear expecting the sword to fall any moment. Administration seemed to have collapsed.
Next morning, the Pandits found to their consternation that the entire vernacular press had become hostile to them. 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-second year of their exile.
Stories of barbaric killing of many Pandits came to the community. A Pandit girl teacher gone to collect her salary was waylaid by the terrorists, raped and then cut with 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. By the middle of summer 1990, almost 99 percent Kashmiri Pandits had been forced to leave their homeland. The jihadists regaled at the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir.
The unfortunate Pandits had braved seven centuries of persecution under the autocratic rule of the Sultans in Kashmir but in secular democracy of India, they were forced to leave their six thousand years old birthplace and live as refugees in their own 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 stipulation. The displaced Hindus were given 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 Kashmir 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.
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. But it depends on the restoration of the normal social environment in the valley.
Various Pandit organizations have unanimously stuck to the resolution of the UN Human Rights Working Group on Minorities on return and restitution of Internally Displaced Persons in their homeland. 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 refoulment (d) they are politically empowered to voice their difficulties aspirations and expectations, and (f) they are part of the decisions 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. 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 conditionality will de-freeze the three-decade-old narrative.
(The writer is a historian and expert on Kashmir)