Kashmiri Pandits: Looking to the Future
Kashmiri Hindus in the 21st Century
By Sreeram Chaulia

(A Review of M.M.Kaw, B.B.Dhar et al (ed.) Kashmiri Pandits: Looking to the Future. A.P.H Publishers, New Delhi, 2001. ISBN: 81-7648-236-6. Price: Rs. 350. 296 Pages)

Shall we not also think of our tomorrow, sometimes? Or must we invariably lose ourselves in our todays? Tomorrow is slightly more important to me than today....
Jawaharlal Nehru

In the fateful winter of 1989, loudspeakers of major mosques and classified pages of popular Urdu newspapers like Al Safa blared ‘leave Kashmir valley’ threats and verbal volleys to 500,000 god-fearing, peace-loving and harmony-seeking Hindus. Their fault lay in being kaffirs who worshipped the “wrong gods”, and mukhbirs who were “fifth columnists” of India against which a jihad had been declared by Pakistan-trained terrorists. Further polluting the air of ethno-religious cleansing were a series of assassinations and hostage-taking of prominent Kashmiri Hindus by JKLF and other budding mujahideen gangs. The en masse forced migration caused by Islamic intolerance left the original inhabitants of Kashmir without a home like never before and plunged Kashmiri Pandits into the depths of a catastrophic, rudderless existence from which they are yet to recover. Recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as India’s largest population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), some 400,000 Kashmiri Hindus languish in subhuman conditions in Jammu and major cities of northern India, forlorn and disenchanted with talk of a tomorrow that never seems to dawn.

With the objectives of invigorating hope and succour in the distraught Kashmiri Pandit community and charting out a common action plan to defend their human rights and respectful return to Kashmir, a day-long seminar was convened in Delhi on March 12, 2000, under the auspices of the Kashmir Education, Science and Culture Society. This eponymous book contains presentations at the seminar by leading Kashmiri Pandit scholars and thinkers on the history, culture, political economy and future of their desolate brethren.

Glorious Heritage Facing Extinction
Traumatised people cherish, most of all, their golden idyllic past before apocalypse cruelly dismembered them. This is especially true of Kashmiri Hindus, who have since ancient times led the avant-garde of Indian literature, arts, science and philosophy. The genius of the Saraswats of Shardapeeth is world-renowned and several speakers at the seminar made lengthy commentaries on the multi-faceted cultural contributions and sophistication their ancestors have given to the greatness of India. M.M.Kaw’s keynote address termed Kashmiri Pandits “God’s chosen people, here to fulfill a mission” derived from the trailblazing path carved out by their sages, saints, monks, poets and kings (p.14) The unique Trika Yoga and Shaivism that advanced non-renunciatory dharma, the sublime logic of Somananda and Abhinavagupta, the mysticism of Lalleshwari, Arnimal, Nund Rishi and Rupa Bhawani, the chronological mastery of Kalhana and Bilhana, and the moralistic politics of Jawaharlal Nehru and Tej Bahadur Sapru are all gifts of Kashmiri Hinduism to humankind. In these times of distress and sadist violence by jihadis, the eternal values of equality, non-violence and syncretism of all humans that Kashmiri Hindu seers propagated are spiritual balms which persecuted Pandits fondly cling to.

Most speakers expressed wariness that this millennia-old culture was under siege as a result of the coerced diaspora of the last 12 years. S.L.Pandit lamented, “our future prospects as an exclusive cultural entity are far from bright.” (p.29) How long and how effectively koshur (Kashmiri language) and its civilisational heritage can be conserved outside its natural habitat and birthplace, the Kashmir valley, is a matter of conjecture. T.N.Dhar considered it essential that the rich traditions, customs, rituals and festivals which give the Pandits a distinct identity be preserved against all odds. S.Bhat urged setting up new centres of education and cultural activity wherever the diaspora has moved in sizable concentrations. D.N.Kaul proffered simple home remedies like conversing with children only in Kashmiri, be it in Faridabad or Florida, for “we have no identity sans our mother tongue.” (p.139) B.L.Kaul proposed that the UN should declare Kashmir a ‘world heritage area’ and UNESCO must take up the task of reconstructing and beautifying temples and Hindu religious places that were desecrated or razed down by fundamentalists. Gita Bamezai exhorted registration of all Kashmiri Pandits as an ethno-religious minority so that their claims as a cultural group could gain more governmental and international attention.

Economic Hardships
Several presenters punctured the myth propagated since Sheikh Abdullah’s time that Kashmiri Hindus were the elites of the valley who cornered all the plush occupations and looked down upon the poorer majority Muslim population. C.L.Gadoo pointed out that Kashmiri Muslims have been the ruling classes since 1947, dominating economic organisations and enjoying communal precedence in employment opportunities and decision-making bodies. More than 90 percent of admissions to professional, technical and educational institutions are reserved for Muslims and an estimated 96 percent of the agricultural and urban land is owned by the majority community in the valley. But for a handful of jagirdars in 1950, “the whole community of Pandits was of a generally lower middle class character.” (p.228) It is important to refute false propaganda that Kashmiri Hindus were instruments of exploitation and begar and instead project the abject poverty and privation they have been undergoing for several decades.

Noted physician Jitendra Singh has documented evidence showing that IDPs ossifying in camps of Jammu not only face bleak employment and livelihood prospects, but also “the threat of biological extinction” through the ravages of diabetes, snake-bite, sun-stroke, asthma etc.  The few orchards and fruit groves owned by Pandits in rural Kashmir have been gutted or confiscated by their Muslim neighbours after 1989, and K.L.Warikoo made a strong case for setting up an independent task force by the National Human Rights Commission to calculate the economic damage incurred by the IDPs and to award compensation and suitable relief to them. Farooq Abdullah’s trickery on this issue is notorious and it is therefore a matter that must be taken up by non-partisan forces like the NHRC or the Indian government. Last but not least, Neha Kachroo’s research on the Muthi refugee camps of Jammu has poignantly revealed that the worshippers of Saraswati are today in such a pitiable plight that children are being sent to local factories for wage labour instead of school. Denial of employment on communal grounds has also crushed the aspirations and earning capacities of nearly 53% of qualified Hindu graduates. While appealing for world aid, S.Bhat urged the All India Kashmiri Samaj to evolve more self-help initiatives that would channelise the creative energies of the discriminated camp youth into productive and technology-savvy activities.

Political Deficiencies
K.L.Chowdhury of Panun Kashmir bemoaned the indifference of Pandits to politics and their dependence on karmic reasoning to explain their present travails. Politics is a tool for survival in the conflict ridden world of today and “even in exile, it is only politicking for our rights that has made it possible for us to survive and sustain these 10 years with dignity.” (p.177) A.K.Kaul hypothesised that the cocoon erected by Pandits to worldly politics arises from psyche. “Members of our community are intrinsically lone hunters, occasionally in packs but never as a group…we are highly individualised persons.” (p.241) Community or group action has historically taken a bow before self-centred pursuits of family and person. In 1986, for instance, after separatists torched and looted Pandit property and religious shrines in Anantnag district, the Kashmiri Samiti of Delhi found that Hindus outside the district were “hardly concerned” and all they said was that they too had vaguely heard of some such happening. Unlike Sikh minorities after the Chattisinghpora massacre, for instance, Pandits did not even carry out a protest march. Sangathan and deep concern for other members of the community are qualities that need to be immediately adopted if Pandits are to remain a force to be reckoned with in the future politics of J&K. More and more selfless activists should devote time to social causes and spread awareness of their community’s victimisation by the Jihad enterprise.

R.N.Kaul and others broached another major political hindrance in the cacophony of ‘multiple voices’ on all questions starting from the genuineness of kashmiriyat to the right to return to the valley. Pandit opinions are so disparate and centrifugal that right from Sheikh Abdullah’s time, they have been taken for a ride by the National Conference. Absolute unity and unselfish leadership are two pressing imperatives stressed by many participants at the seminar. A single window for addressing migrant problems needs to be developed under the authority of a consensually appointed ‘review group’ of eminent persons. A united front to the challenges facing the community has to be forged, especially using the auspices of overseas Kashmiri associations and information networks. To use Lal Ded’s immortal vaakh, “how should I deal with these fives and tens? If all eleven could come together, we would not have lost the cow.” (p.264)

Faith in Future Resurrection
Like Lazarus from the dead and Phoenix from the ashes, the faith-driven voices that resonated at the seminar conveyed a determination to return to Kashmir valley one day, although none were certain of affixing a timeline or a modality for repatriation. The status-quoist argument that Pandits can assimilate into Maharashtra or Delhi and remain content outside Kashmir negates the very identity and special status that Kashmiri Hindus have been bequeathed over generations. “We have to regain our home, the lost paradise that still haunts us in our dreams”, said A.N.Dhar, summarising the nostalgic and emotional mood of the gathering (p.271). Kaw prophesied, “Pakistan is sitting on a volcano. It will be destroyed by its own misdeeds, its drug traffic, its terrorism, its proxy wars, its petty Jihads, its politics of hate. Negative things carry in themselves the seeds of their destruction. So, no one can prevent us from going back.” (p.17)

It takes deep fortitude and endurance for such heroic optimism in the face of unrelenting cross-border Islamic barbarism. The seminar indicated that for achieving practical results, Kashmiri Pandits must not only take recourse to philosophical and moral courage but also reinvigorate themselves politically as a community with a harmonised soul and a dogged determination to regain lost rights. The example of the venerable Shree Bhat, who miraculously sustained the seed of Hinduism when only 11 Pandit families escaped the murderous sword of Sikandar ‘Butshikan’ (the iconoclast) in the 14th century, offers encouragement and inspiration to struggle and achieve justice.

Kashmiri Pandits: Looking to the Future, is a highly informative anthology of papers, impressing the reader’s mind with the extraordinary merit and proud ancestry of a forgotten people. Non-Kashmiri Indian readers will find in it a wealth of knowledge about the pioneering achievements of Kashmiri Hindus in all historical spheres of excellence and also be brought face-to-face with their daily humiliations and miseries caused by Pakistan-based terrorists in the last 12 years. As Susheela Bhan puts it, “the loss of the identity of the Kashmiri Pandit would be the loss of India’s identity.” (p.213) The people of India simply cannot afford to bypass the calamities that have afflicted Kashmiri Hindus.

[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]