Pandits of Kashmir – the saga of a vanishing people

By K.N. Pandita

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, the 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 and their early history is steeped in colourful mythology.

Kalhan Pandit, the 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 the 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 Indologist Aural Stein, who translated the chronicle from Sanskrit/Sharada into English and embellished it with annotations of the rarest scholarship highlighting the rulers, the people and the land of Kashmir.

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 Turko-Mongol predators. Secondly, the local warlords and commanders had become too powerful and defiant. And lastly, the creeping mutual acrimony and dissensions among the courtiers and administrative echelons caused great harm to the stability of the Hindu state. The elitist class became highly self- cantered 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 A.D. 1339.

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 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 for 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 the Sufism and Islamic practices. Kashmir Sufism introduced through the instrumentality of proselytized Hindu Rishis is the only pretence of Iranian Sufism.

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 despicable task of decimating the traces of Hindus of Kashmir and their civilization. Describing vividly the atrocities perpetrated on 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. Panditsee by scrolling down on this page)., 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 in case 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. 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. The English translation of this work was published under the title Tohfatul Ahbab: A Muslim Missionary in Medieval Kashmir by Aditya Prakashan of 2/18 Ansari Road, New Delhi.

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. On 28 October 1947, a former community member of theirs whose family had migrated to Allahabad during the oppressive reign of Shahjahan and who had risen to the exalted position of the first Prime Minister of free India, snatched them and Kashmir away from the hands of an unconstitutional ruler and handed them over to a wily dictator who reduced this historic minority community to on-entity. He re-invented the sordid saga of discriminating and marginalizing the Pandits under the mask of secular democracy. In a letter to Kashyapa Bandhu, a Hindu member of NC Executive Committee, theSheikh said that he was “first a Muslim and then a nationalist”.(Kashmir Sentinal) 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 Muslim leadership of Kashmir unjustly considered them an unfriendly lot. In his biography Atash-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 spices. Who is the Indian (precisely Congress) spy?

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 Muslims of Kashmir enjoyed under 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. 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 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 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 administrative reach of the Centre except for frugal funding. The Pandits argued that they also needed protection against the highhandedness of majority community. 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 families were forced to leave the valley and seek a livelihood elsewhere. In this way, the exodus of the religious minority of Kashmiri Pandits became a regular feature.

Mufti Saeed, the State Congress President in 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 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 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 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.

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. Jamati 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 stoic.

Next morning, the Pandits found to their consternation that the entire vernacular press had become hostile to India and to 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-second year of their exile.

After resigning as coalition chief minister Dr Farooq fled to England 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 ofwild wolves pacing the streets of Srinagar.

The horrendous stories of barbaric killing of many Pandits came to the community. 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 per cent Kashmiri Pandits had been forced to leave their homeland. The jihadists regaled at the ethnic cleansing of Kashmir.

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 console the lost tribe in Jammu and got their details documented. The unfortunate Pandits had braved seven centuries of persecution under the autocratic rule of the Sultans in Kashmir but in 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.

National media considered it a sin to trace and publicise their sordid saga. 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. 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 State and the Union government 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 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-political environment in the valley. So far no government showed any real interest in their return. Owing to their negligible numerical strength they are no party’s vote bank. Abrogation of Article 370, and conversion of the state into two union territories may bring many advantages to the people at large but there appears little chance of these measures making any significant impact on the condition of the exiled community. BJP leaders do often speak of their suffering and destitution but they do not spell out if, when and how the Pandits can return to Kashmir. 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 in accordance with the resolution 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 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 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 conditionality will de-freeze the three-decade-old narrative.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, Srinagar).

Further find on the blog History – Past and Present:
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 1;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 2;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 3;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 4;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 5;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 6;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 7;
Baharistan-i-Shahi – Chapter 8.

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