Finding the Pandits
The mass exodus of Kashmir’s Hindu Pandit community was one of the most significant movements of people to take place in Southasia during the 1990s, though one that has received surprisingly little rounded analysis. The documents that have been painstakingly gathered and presented in this new work, by the former head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Kashmir, now throw new light onto this exodus, as well as onto the major political developments that took place during that decade. Bashir Ahmad Dabla does not hesitate to address sensitive and politically volatile issues, and analyses the complex political situation against a background of rich historical material. In the process, crucial contextualisation is offered on the fleeing of roughly 165,000 Kashmiri Pandits.
The Pandit out-migration is widely understood to have begun during the early 1990s, following the dramatic increase in militant violence in Kashmir. In fact, however, this process was far from monolithic, and Dabla shows interesting differences between those fleeing from urban versus rural communities. In the early stages of the insurgency in Kashmir, it was the urban-based Pandits who migrated to Jammu, as well as Udhampur, Kathua, Chandigarh, Shimla, New Delhi and elsewhere in India. It was only later that rural Pandits migrated, after having lost their homes and possessions. The author has much to say about the economically downtrodden in these communities, though his discussion on the Pandit elite is curiously limited.
Dabla focuses his energies on the plight of Pandits in the migrant camps in Jammu, presenting a wealth of empirical data. He finds these migrants, especially those from lower-middle-class families, in the throes of depression, living in camps that are no different from inner-city slums. Various health-related problems are documented, including the astounding finding that some 70 to 80 percent of the Pandits studied have developed psychological disorders over the past decade and a half.
While highlighting the demographic implications of migration, Dabla also touches on sensitive issues of cultural fusion and assimilation. During the latter phases of migration, the Pandits began to sell their property – houses, lands and orchards. By now, according to an unofficial estimate, some 36 percent of these communities’ total assets have been disposed of since the migration began. Yet such figures are very difficult to come by in general. For its part, the state government attempted to block the selling of properties in the Valley in legislation that was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court of India. Furthermore, under the 2001 census the Pandits could not be registered in Kashmir because they were living outside of the state. Indeed, this brings up one of the most crucial developments on the issue: the fact that the Pandits have been excluded from census records as a separate, distinct community both in and out of Jammu & Kashmir.
Dabla gives significant prominence to the issue of upholding Kashmiri identity by the Pandits in exile. He notes that Pandit families have found it extremely difficult – if not outright impossible – to maintain their traditional Kashmiri culture, with entire clans having lost their distinctive religious, linguistic and ethnic character. On the issues of assimilation, Dabla touches on one particularly raw nerve: the relationship that has evolved between Kashmiri Pandits and local Muslims. Initially, this was a relationship characterised by mistrust and animosity; it was only later that the Pandits, as a community, have generally acknowledged that Kashmiri Muslims were not responsible for their mass migration from Kashmir.
In the first place, Kashmiri Muslims were faced with an even worse type of state oppression, the massacres carried out by then-Governor Jagmohan Malhotra. Second, following in the footsteps of the Kashmiri Pandits, due to the increased militancy some Kashmiri Muslim families were likewise compelled to migrate from Kashmir. Third, Jammu Dogras, after initially welcoming the Pandit community, started to resent the latter’s presence when it began to have an adverse effect on their own lives. Militant organisations, meanwhile, argue that their struggle is exclusively against the government of India. They assert that that any killing of Kashmiri Pandits was not due to the fact that they were Pandits, nor to their religion, but rather to their alleged support of and collaboration with these ‘occupation forces’.
Though the Pandits are apolitical in general, some have taken on political roles in the post-migration period. A majority seems to have opted for rightwing organisations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This short-sighted political decision, says Dabla, eventually turned out to be very harmful to the community.
The overarching loss of human security, reinforced by the massive presence of armed forces in J & K, has resulted in the perpetration of gross human-rights violations against the Muslim community. Dabla contends that no formal or informal efforts were made by the government to stop the mass migration. In addition, however, he also demolishes myths that have long been perpetuated by the government, to the effect that (as noted above) the spike in militant violence in Kashmir led to mass exodus solely of the Pandit community. Using a spectrum of interviews and secondary literature, Dabla counters, “In reality, thousands of Kashmiri Muslims and Sikhs were also compelled to migrate to different parts of India and abroad in the wake of the political turmoil.” This migration began when Kashmiri Muslim families became targets of militant violence, groups that generally belonged to pro-India political parties such as the National Conference and others. Again, neither transport nor accommodation was provided to them by the government.
Finally, the author offers hope in reporting on what he says is growing support for the return of the Pandits to Kashmir. Neither the mainstream political parties nor the separatists are apparently opposed to such a return. The author says that a fairly clear consensus has emerged on the issue – though not including the Pandits themselves. Even while the J & K government has offered rehabilitation programmes, these have regularly been rejected by the Pandit community, which is clearly unable to put behind the trauma that is members have suffered. Several political parties and other organisations have related the issue of rehabilitation with those of foolproof security and the creation of a separate homeland in the Kashmir Valley.
Government efforts in this direction certainly look set to continue apace, however. In late December, recently elected J & K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said, “I have a huge responsibility towards Kashmiri Pandits, and I would seek to create an atmosphere in which the displaced Pandits can come back to the Valley. The [National Conference] will be nominating Kashmiri Pandits in the Upper House. [The National Conference and the Congress party] will get them in the cabinet. This is a large community and requires representation.” The following day, Aditya Raj Kaul, the founder of a prominent Pandit organisation named Roots in Kashmir, hailed Abdullah’s election victory. “We welcome and support any steps that Omar takes to bring peace, prosperity, reconciliation and development to our troubled state,” Kaul said. “We hope that the new government will work for the benefit of Kashmiri Pandits and allow Pandits to control and manage their shrines in Kashmir. We would also be happy if a Kashmiri Pandit is inducted in the new cabinet.”
Although Dabla writes in a fairly academic style, his narrative is not tedious. In this work, he has laudably succeeded in developing a space for future debates on the sensitive issue of the exile of Kashmiri Pandits. His is an impartial and courageous attempt at analysing the Pandit out-migration from J & K.