Kashmir: The Pandit question

Al Jazeera speaks to author Mridu Rai about how the minority Hindu community fits into the Kashmir dispute.

kashmir: the forgotten conflict - the pandit question
Thousands of Kashmiri Pandits still live in refugee camps in Jammu [Getty]

The story of Kashmiri Pandits is an extraordinarily difficult one to tell. One the one hand, when the insurgency erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989, thousands of Pandits left the valley, suggesting that the community suffered enough intimidation to abandon their homes. On the other hand, the accounts of Kashmiri Pandits who stayed behind in Kashmir contradict claims by Pandits in the diaspora who say that Kashmiri Pandits suffered ‘a genocide’ and were forced ‘into exile’.

Indeed, understanding the experience of the Pandits, caught between Kashmir’s Muslim majority and the ambitions of the Indian state, is an intricate affair.

Even the semantics describing the flight of the Pandits from Kashmir are highly politicised and contentious.

Azad Essa speaks to Mridu Rai, the author of Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights and the History of Kashmir about the Kashmiri Pandit community and how they fit into the dispute.

On migration

Putting the flight of Pandits into perspective: Was it a ‘migration’ or an ‘exodus’?

Given the large numbers involved and the relatively short time frame in which most of the departures of the Kashmiri Pandits happened, the more accurate term would have to be an “exodus”.

Why is language so important here? And why do you conclude that the language used by Pandits, like ‘expulsion’ and ‘exile’ as an indictment of the Indian state?

The language used to describe the departures is important because it involves the question of making claims on the state. The term ‘migration’ suggests voluntariness to their departure, which most Kashmiri Pandits would rightly deny. Many Kashmiri Pandits prefer the term exile or expulsion as being a more accurate description of their situation and descriptions of themselves as ‘refugees’ and ‘refugees in their own country’. Others have even used more extreme terms such as ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or a ‘holocaust’.

The indictment of the Indian state is forcefully expressed in these descriptions and their decrying of both the Indian state’s inability to protect them when in Kashmir and then its failure to rehabilitate them after their forced departure. The expression ‘refugees in their own country’ is, of course, also a statement reminding the Indian state of the Kashmiri Pandits’ nationalism, which entitles them to the protection of the state and also honourable rehabilitation in return for their ‘sacrifices’ for the nation. For some this has earned them special protection in terms of reserved quotas for admission to educational institutions and employment in certain states in India. This special treatment would not be possible to demand or obtain had the departures been entirely voluntary.

This is not to say that most displaced Pandits have been rehabilitated. Many thousands still live in camps in Jammu, Delhi and other parts of India in atrocious conditions of deprivation.

How do we understand this flight then? People who remained behind say that others felt intimidated and left, but there are also suggestions that those who left might have been encouraged to do so.

This is an issue that is mired in a great deal of controversy. It still awaits a careful sifting of evidence.

However, I think it is safe to say that there were probably elements of both circumstances at work in explaining the departure of the Pandits from the valley. A large number of Pandits have testified to the fact that there were threats issued to them both individually and indirectly to the community.

An important element of the background is also the killing of a number of senior Pandit officials in various organisations. The militants claimed that they were only targeting Indian agents but, from the Pandit perspective, the fact that the targets were exclusively Hindu was an indication that the threat was a communal one.

At the same time, several separatist leaders have claimed that it was the Indian state, working through its governor in Jammu and Kashmir at the time, Jagmohan, that engineered the departures of the Hindus so as to leave the government a free hand to deal with Muslim militants. The government, and Jagmohan himself, have denied this.

In any case, the idea that encouragement was the sole trigger that incited the departure of such large numbers is hard to believe.

If this had been the case, it would have required the mobilisation of state resources on such a large scale that it would have left behind concrete evidence, not just traces in the form of rumours.

However, there are many Kashmiri Muslims who have witnessed departing Pandits boarding vehicles organised by the state. Wajahat Habibullah, who was a senior Indian administrator in the state, allows that there may have been some instances of transport being organised for a few groups of Pandits but he denies that this was part of a widespread concerted policy.

He adds, however, another element to the various explanations on offer for the Pandit migrations.

He recalls groups of Muslims appealing to him to stop the Pandits from leaving, which led him to suggest to Governor Jagmohan that a television broadcast be made advertising the request of hundreds of Muslims to their Pandit compatriots not to leave the valley.

According to Habibullah, Jagmohan did not agree to this suggestion.

Instead he made several announcements that reassured Pandits that if they did decide to leave, refugee settlement camps had been set up for them and also that departing civil servants among the Pandits would continue to be paid their salaries. The political scientist, Sumit Ganguly, adds another important factor – that Jagmohan had also announced that his government would not be able to guarantee their safety, if Pandits decided to remain in the valley.

Although not an indication of a coordinated government policy to engineer the departure of the Pandits, these were signs certainly of a government not making great efforts to prevent the Pandit exodus.

The reality is probably a combination of all these elements. What can be said with as much certainty as it is possible to have in these circumstances is that Kashmiri Pandits must have felt a distinct threat to their safety – whether an immediate threat or a sense that their future, that of their families and their property was no longer secure in the valley.

This sense must have varied from family to family and individual to individual. If they had not felt endangered in this way, it would be extremely difficult to explain how such large numbers would give up and leave the place that had been their homeland for centuries.

On the confusing numbers

And yet there are no precise numbers regarding the migration/exodus of Pandits. Figures from within and figures from the outside are so different. Some say 700,000 left, others say 100,000 left. Why is there such ambiguity over the numbers?

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One of the chief causes of the ambiguity is because the numbers of Pandits in the valley in 1989 can only be adduced from the census of 1941, the last time the Pandits were counted and listed as distinct from the category of Kashmiri Hindus and that census listed a little fewer than 79,000 Pandits in the valley.

It’s from this baseline that demographers have sought to work out the number of Kashmir Pandits in the valley in 1990. Using the rough measure of the average decennial growth rate in the state as a whole, available through the censuses up to 1941 and then the 2001 census, the number of Kashmiri Pandits living in the valley before 1990 that they arrive at is about 160,000 to 170,000.

So the number of 700,000 as representing the number of Kashmiri Pandit departures after 1989-1990 is not credible because that exceeds by many hundreds of thousands the total of the Kashmiri Pandit population at the time.

Another potentially misleading aspect of the counting of Pandit departures is that the total put forward often also includes those Pandits who had left the state voluntarily between 1947 and 1990.

According to the political scientist, Alexander Evans, 95 per cent of the Kashmiri Pandits living in the valley left in 1990, i.e. anything between 150,000 and 160,000. However, a 2010 report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council suggests that 250,000 Pandits have been displaced since 1990. And a CIA report suggests a figure of 300,000 displaced from the whole state.

How do you respond to claims then, that a genocide took place – that 3,000 to 4,000 Pandits were killed? The state says that no more than 219 were killed and the KPSS says the figure will probably touch on 650 (between 1990 and 2010). Are these figures important to flesh out or do they merely detract from the issue?

The question of whether the killing of Kashmiri Pandits after 1990 constitutes genocide is as difficult to answer as it has been difficult to define genocide.

There is still a great deal of disagreement on this among international legal experts and scholars. In some instances, when involving very large numbers such as in the Jewish holocaust or the Rwandan massacres, the term has been less controversially adopted.

However, there is agreement at least that the number has to be a substantial proportion of the total population of the group. And here the numbers of Kashmiri Pandit killings do not technically support the use of the label of genocide. There are [also] several other factors, beyond the question of numbers, according to which the Pandits cannot be considered to be the victims of genocide.

For one, they were not the sole victims of targeted killings in Kashmir since 1990.

Kashmiri Muslims who dissented from the ideologies of various militant groups have also been systematically liquidated in the way in which Pandits had been. This does not conform to the accepted definition of genocide that is waged against a group defined collectively as the ‘other’, since Pandit claims of genocide rests on their being targeted for their religious identity.

Secondly, genocide is preceded and accompanied by the dehumanisation of its victims. There is no evidence of such denial of humanity of the Pandits having taken place among the Kashmiri Muslims accused of perpetrating their mass destruction.

And finally genocides are extremely well-organised acts involving the training of armed groups, indoctrinated fully into an ideological inflexibility so severe that it can override wider social opinion and consensus.

There is no evidence of this having been the case in the valley.

The question of whether or not this was genocide is important for the Pandits to determine. It is crucially linked to the question of their protection, and in turn, on this question of safety rests the possibility of their return to the state.

It affects also their demands for compensation and rehabilitation not just in Jammu and Kashmir but also in the rest of India. But the definition has serious implications for Kashmiri Muslims, too. Among these is the unstated but still real assumption that Kashmiri Muslims, guilty of such a heinous crime, can expect no sympathy for their demands for self-determination or independence.

Furthermore, portraying Kashmiri Muslims as genocidal killers also puts them beyond the pale of the law and serves indirectly to justify the use of draconian laws against ordinary civilians as well as the heavy militarisation of the valley with the army acting with unchecked impunity against them.

On Muslim silence

It has been suggested that Kashmiri Muslims were complicit through their silence when Pandits were intimidated. Is this accurate or unfair?

Once again, the complicity – active or passively through silence in the face of the threats issued by Islamist groups – of Kashmiri Muslims is an allegation that is enmeshed in controversy.

There are Muslims themselves who have expressed guilt for not having intervened more decisively to prevent the departures of their Pandit neighbours and friends.

But this guilt is mostly retrospectively expressed; even if some people are inclined to take this self-implication as evidence of complicity, it must be remembered that in the early months of 1990, when the largest numbers of Pandit departures took place, the situation was a highly unstable and confusing one for all those living in the valley, including the Muslims.

Muslims were also the subjects of intimidation at the hands of extremist groups and many of them the victims of extortion and retributive violence if they refused to comply either with the ideologies of militant or extremist groups or with demands for money or other forms of support.

As was also true in the context of the partition of 1947, neither Muslims nor Hindus were certain of their own futures, so it is hard to imagine that most Muslims could have been in a position to guarantee with any confidence the safety of their Pandit neighbours.

However, despite this, as Habibullah’s account mentioned earlier has it, there were still large numbers of Muslims who did try actively to dissuade the Pandits from leaving.

There is another reason why it is hard to believe that the valley’s Muslims, as a whole, would have wanted the Pandits to leave and that is the fear prevalent among large numbers of them – spread through widely circulated rumours – that the evacuation of the Pandits was preliminary to a government plan to then hit at all Muslims to stem militancy without the risk of collateral damage to the Hindus.

So it is hard to imagine that they would have wanted to force the departure of the Hindus.

On Kashmiri identity

Whatever the numbers might be, being uprooted from ones life – to live in camps in an alien environment, reliant upon food rations – must have been traumatising. How has this impacted the Pandit community, their sense of identity and, crucially, their idea of ‘home’?

Yes, indeed, the uprooting from their homeland has been a traumatic experience for most Kashmiri Pandits.

Accounts from Pandits living in miserable conditions of deprivation in camps suggest a variety of tolls taken on them as a community that range from the decline in their birth-rates, since the accommodation in these camps allow so little privacy, to large numbers suffering from mental illnesses, such as depression and paranoia.

The mental toll has also taken the form of extreme insecurity. For many of them the experience of living in exile has been a humiliating one of being reduced to the status of refugees, a term that has connotations of mendicancy and social dishonour.

This sense of humiliation is often fed by surrounding communities who do not welcome them as exiles amidst them; they see them as threatening their jobs (given the Pandit records of literacy) and as competitors for the political, social and economic resources of the state.

Even for those who have managed to recover from the economic losses of migration, there is the intangible but not less real sense of loss that comes from their separation from their homeland; it has meant severing them from access to the places that were associated with their ancestors, their cultural legacies, their personal and familial memories and their own sense of pride in belonging to a land so widely celebrated for its beauty, its traditions of learning and its spiritual and religious sanctity.

Many Pandits have also expressed the very real fear of losing their specific cultural identity through assimilation in the wider Indian environment; the loss of their language, of their regionally specific religious traditions and indeed even of their numbers through their younger members marrying outside the community.

Kashmiris hold their identity close to their chests. Would you say that that they are equating ‘heritage’ with ‘national identity’ and why do Kashmiris feel so threatened by assimilation and entitled to their own, distinct, separate national identity?

I don’t think Kashmiris are peculiar in doing this. Most South Asians are equally wedded to their regionally specific identities, whether based on linguistic difference, historical separateness or religiously informed cultural uniqueness.

In the case of Kashmir, this sense of regional otherness was also enforced by its separate history of integration with India. The accession to the Indian union was brought about, first of all, not by a representative government but at the hands of an unrepresentative monarch whose legitimacy as a ruler had been denied and inveighed against until 1947 even by the premier political party of India, the Indian National Congress.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many Kashmiris question the same party’s easy acceptance of the same illegitimate ruler’s decision of merger with India. Of course, this was true of the situation in the other 600 odd princely states, too.

However, the specific location of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and its demographic configuration of a Muslim majority meant that its merger with the Indian union was not a self-evident outcome. The Indian leadership was clearly aware of this when Jawaharlal Nehru promised that the Maharaja’s signing the instrument of accession that brought the state within the boundaries of independent India, and not of Pakistan, would have to be followed by a plebiscite to ascertain that the accession had the consent of the Kashmiri people. That plebiscite, as is well known, has never been held.

And what is seen as a broken promise made specifically to Kashmiris has also sharpened the awareness of Kashmiris as a people specially betrayed. These are some of the reasons why Kashmiris are justified in believing that their place in the Indian union is not only far from being a settled fact but that its inclusion did take place in circumstances unique to their state.

Pandits who left the valley appear to have become very radical in their views of the valley. What has influenced this? Hardship on the outside? Hindutva? The fear of ‘militant Islam’?

Part of their radicalisation, of course, stems from their experiences of 1990 and after, which has led many of the Pandits in exile to see Kashmiri Muslims as a whole as either rabid Islamists themselves or as passive followers of such elements.

They see the valley also as being in the grips of Islamic terror sponsored by Pakistan.

However, Hindu supremacist groups from mainland India preying upon their insecurities have also fortified these impressions in no small measure.

Ironically, these right-wing groups who have found easy targets among Pandits living in miserable conditions in camps but have demonstrated no interest in actually helping them out of those camps.

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Kashmiri Pandits have seen themselves for some time as Indian nationalists so it is no surprise that they perceive the situation in the valley in the same terms as the Indian state does – as a region driven by Pakistan-sponsored Islamic terrorism, denying that the insurgency demanding azadi (freedom) is a popularly backed one and the reflection of genuine political and economic grievances that have nothing to do with religious radicalism.

Both in line with recent Indian government policy and as with the Hindu chauvinist groups in India, common cause is made with a wider global conservative alliance against the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Pandits complain that while the state is trying to bring Pandits back and offering relief packages they have done little to help Pandits who remained behind. Why would the Indian state not try to empower those who remained behind?

I am not entirely sure of the precise reasons for the Indian state’s neglect of the Pandits who remained in the valley. However, I suspect that this is for the same reason that it has done nothing to move the Pandits out of camps even 20 years after it first set them up – that it has a greater stake in keeping them in a state of permanent insecurity. The existence of an endangered minority provides additional justification for the disproportionate deployment of military power in the valley. It allows the Indian state’s security agencies to act with excessive force against a largely unarmed and defenceless civilian population; it does so in the name of protecting a minority in jeopardy from Islamic terrorism.

What does it mean to be Kashmiri today, particularly for the youth who have grown up under the smog of the past two decades?

A whole generation of young Kashmiris has grown up since the 20 years of militancy not knowing their Kashmiri Pandit compatriots as significant members of their society. That has certainly affected their understanding of what it means to be Kashmiri. However, contrary to impressions created by the more rabidly anti-Muslim constituencies in mainland India, this has not turned these young Kashmiris into Muslim fanatics intolerant of religious others.

It has to be remembered that besides the small number of Pandits who have remained in the valley, there is also a significant segment of a Sikh population that has lived in Kashmir largely unscathed. It is only on March 20, 2000 that, for the first time, the 40,000 strong Sikh constituency of the valley was targeted for violence when 35 Sikh villagers were massacred at Chattisinghpora, a village near Anantnag in southern Kashmir.

However, even in this instance there is strong evidence to suggest that these killings were engineered either by state-sponsored forces or by isolated groups of extremists to make a political point – that all was not well in Kashmir – at a time that coincided with the visit of the US president, Bill Clinton, to India.

What was more telling of how the Indian state agencies have sought to push forward a cynical policy of further prising open social and religious divisions among Kashmiris was proven by what followed in the aftermath of the Chattisinghpora massacre.

Five days later, in nearby Pathribal, Indian military forces killed five men of the village, claiming they were the ‘foreign militants’ responsible for the deaths at Chattisinghpora, leaving behind nothing but their charred bodies so that identification would be impossible. These bodies were then buried. It is only after protests by the local population – in one of which some 9 or 10 people were killed and another 12 or so injured – and then a lot of foot-dragging by the authorities that the government finally ordered, on April 5, that the five bodies be exhumed and tests conducted to establish their proper identities.

There were more obfuscation and attempted cover-ups to follow when, nearly two years later, the DNA samples taken from the victims of the fake “encounter killing” in Pathribal were declared to have been interfered with; the samples sent to the laboratories were those of women whereas the five killed had been men.

It was only after fresh samples were collected and tested that DNA evidence proved conclusively that the bodies were indeed those of innocent locals and not of any foreign militants.

What is a worrying development in terms of the safety of religious minorities, their position vis a vis the majority, and perceptions of them in terms of their ties to the Indian state, – over the last decade – the Kashmiri Sikhs have begun slipping into the roles formerly performed by the Kashmiri Pandits and are now heavily preponderant in intelligence-gathering agencies, or employed as policemen and in other strategic sectors.

Still, despite such coldly manipulative efforts by state agencies to pit socio-religious groups against each other, and beyond the Chattisinghpora killings, the Sikhs have not felt themselves to be in any particular danger in the valley.

In a few instances when certain militant groups have issued threats to the community in more recent years, Kashmiri Muslims have been vocal in condemning such aggressive language.

Also, in terms of the dramatic transformation of Kashmiri society since 1990 what cannot be denied is something that many Kashmiri Muslim elders themselves say in that they feel the education of their young has been impaired by being deprived of a cosmopolitanism that Kashmiri Pandit teachers and students leant to their schools.

But the more immediate circumstance bearing down upon the younger generation of Kashmiris and their sense of their identity is the aggression of the Indian state’s occupation that is visited upon them. If the exodus of the Pandits has altered Kashmiri society in radical ways on the one hand, equally dramatic has been the loss of a whole generation of mostly Muslim youth to violence at the hands both of extremists but even more at the hands of the Indian state’s military and paramilitary organisations. Besides the thousands of dead, there are thousands of the ‘disappeared’ that have created a yawning gap in Kashmiri society.

The hundreds of martyrs’ graveyards in the various towns and villages of the valley are a constant reminder of the precariousness of Kashmiri life.  Last year in the infamous bloody summer of 2010 there were also over 100 victims of disproportionate retaliation by Indian armed forces against protestors armed only with stones if at all, most of whom were teenagers and younger. Not all of these victims were in fact even part of the demonstrations that were fired upon.

And for most Kashmiris, of all ages, the experience of Indian occupation is one of daily humiliation. There is also the ignominy of all Kashmiris being forced to carry at all times identification cards to prove their right to be in their own land, a requirement, even more egregiously, from which Indian visitors from the mainland are exempt. All of this has inevitably produced a keen sense of how fragile their existence as Kashmiris really is.  And it has undoubtedly made young Kashmiris aware that their right to survive as Kashmiris with honour and in security will have to be struggled for and cannot be taken for granted.

Source: Al Jazeera