Kashmiri Pandits: Will they ever return to the valley?

With the state under central rule since 2019, it was hoped that things would improve for Pandits
Kashmir Pandits leaving Valley in 1990s when militancy in the region was at its peak. [Representational Image]
Kashmir Pandits leaving Valley in 1990s when militancy in the region was at its peak. [Representational Image] Screengrab [Wildfilmsindia]

Kashmiri Pandits are Brahmins, a part of the Saraswat Brahmin community of India, and belong to the Kashmir Valley.

There numbers started dwindling with the large-scale conversion of the population to Islam around the 13th century.

Kashmiri is the mother tongue of both Hindus and Muslims of the valley. Their eating habits, dress code, and many cultural elements also remain common.

Kota Rani of the Lohara dynasty was the last Hindu ruler of Kashmir. Her rule was followed by the embracement of Islam by the population of the valley; and Shah Mir dynasty ruled from 1339 – 1561.

Kashmir witnessed uncertainty in the next few decades till it became a part of the expanding Mughal Empire under Akbar and his descendants from 1586– 1751. Pandits were in general treated well till the time of Aurangzeb, who became punitive to them, and to Hindus in general. This was followed by the Afghan rule between 1752 to 1819.

This was the darkest period for Kashmiri Pandits who were tortured to death unless they converted to Islam and only 11 families survived the holocaust period living mostly in hiding.

It was at this juncture that 3 Pandits led by Birbal Dhar went to Lahore in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and narrated their woes which prompted the Maharaja to send his forces to annexe Kashmir and came a stint of Sikh rule. This was followed by the British transferring the rule to Dogras under the treaty of Lahore and Maharaja Gulab Singh became the ruler.

The Dogra regime lasted till 1947 when Kashmir became a part of India although a part was captured by Pakistan. Pandits were a favoured section of the population of the valley during their regimen.

During the long years of Islamic rule in Kashmir many Pandits, who were well educated and economically sound, left the valley to different parts of India because of better job opportunities and also to escape the very rigid and un-predictable rulers.

Pandits largely are Shaivites and it was during the 14th century they split into 3 sub castes; the Priest’s (guru), astrologers (Jotishi) and workers (Karkun), mainly employed by the Government.

The need of Priest’s was minimal in a predominantly Muslim society. Majority therefore took to formal education and became teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants and government employees.

After accession of J&K to India in 1947 with a government under Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah the population of Pandits was around 8%. His government brought the Land reforms act with allocation of land to the tiller.

These reforms led to an efflux of a large number of Pandits because many of them were landowners and lost their land. By 1981 their population in the valley had reduced to only 5%.

The exodus of 1990s is well known during the eruption of militancy. The exodus began when targeted killing of Pandits started and an estimated number of 100,000 Pandits left the valley for Jammu, NCR and other parts of the country under very difficult circumstances. With this their population came down to even less than 1%. A large number of them have been living in abject conditions in refugee camps of Jammu. Those who could afford to get rented accommodations in Jammu were not treated well by the Jammu population. Locals felt uncomfortable because of the increasing competition for their children in educational institutions and increase in prices with their migration.

In 2010 as per Govt of J and K figures there were only 808 Pandit families with 3.445 people only living in the valley. Several incentives to attract them to return have not succeeded and only a total of 1800 Hindu youth returned since the announcement of a Rs 1,168- crore package in 2008 by the UPA Government.

The living conditions of the facilities made for them, however, lack basic facilities and amenities and more than 4000 posts are still lying vacant. Efforts to bring them back never were serious.

Politically it is a small population and their votes do not matter to the political parties. On the other hand, their pathetic condition is used to get votes from the Hindi speaking belt of the country regularly.

The recent movie on their exodus of 1990’s which was highly promoted has made life of those Pandits who are still living in the valley more difficult because the majority community feels the movie is blaming all of them as a group for the 1990 exodus.

With the state under central rule since 2019, it was hoped that things would improve for Pandits. However, the last few months has seen more problems for those who have chosen to be there. Targeted killings of innocent people with predominance of Hindus have petrified them. It is so demoralising that the assailants are able to do the dastardly crimes with such impunity at a place of their choice. This sends shivers in the tiny Pandit community which is still there.

Those employed under schemes are agitating to transfer them to Jammu and others are packing up ready to leave the valley at the earliest opportunity. The administrative machinery in the valley is forcibly trying to stop them from migrating. No one is able to catch hold of the killers at the site despite them entering banks, schools and secure offices.

No doubt the forces are neutralizing militants regularly but that does not give confidence to the remaining Pandit population. The halt in the killings in the last few weeks seems to be because of the backdoor diplomacy and international pressure to persuade perpetrators from across the border to stop it.

This has led to some respite and the anxiety in the remaining pandits to press for transfers to Jammu and leaving the valley has slowed down. There have also been demonstrations by the Muslim majority representatives resenting killings and asking every Muslim to protect the minorities.

These all are welcome developments but having seen the un-predictable political situation and the neighbouring countries not interested in normalcy, it is unlikely that a large number of pandits are going to return.

The tourist season this year has been exceptionally good with those involved with this industry doing very well after two bad years. Ironically there has been no attempts to disrupt it. This indicates that the disruptive forces do not want to antagonise the locals.

The change in demography by outsiders buying land and settling down is not going to happen. After abrogation of article 370 very few persons have bought land in the UT and that also confined to Jammu, Reasi and Udhampur districts.

For a Pandit like me who continues to have an intimate and an affectionate relationship with the valley and its people, the changes in the attitude of the majority community, not only for minorities but also amongst themselves, is very visible and disturbing.

It is impossible to convey to the younger generation the caring relationship Pandits and Muslims used to have in the past. Kashmir of 2022 is very different from what it is was in 1980’s and it looks like a dream to get it back.

Author, a Kashmiri Pandit, is a reputable cardiologist and founder director of the Gauri Kaul Foundation. He is a recipient of Padma Shri and Dr B C Roy Award.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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