The Forgotten Exodus- Conflict of Kashmir Valley and Kashmiri Pandits

Kashmiri Hindu Pandit
Three Hindu pandits writing religious texts in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s. (via Wikimedia Commons / Public domain)

It has been 30 years, and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, from the Kashmir Valley remains a silent subject. A subject which has been in the darker side of the penumbra from mainstream journalism until recently, after Article 370 was revoked and Jammu and Kashmir was incorporated inside the Indian Union in 2019. With popular right wing parties like the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) promising to rehabilitate the Pandits, it is important to revisit the history of their exodus. Jan. 19 is marked as the “Holocaust day” by Kashmiri Pandits all over the world, with memories of violence and trauma.

Since 1989, Kashmir Valley, which is a part of Jammu and Kashmir, has been living inside the conflict zone with political organisations and insurgencies wanting independence from the Indian State. The diversity of Jammu and Kashmir has created different historical interpretation of the region, with states like India and Pakistan have their own nationalistic perspectives over the land.

To pinpoint an event which started the onset of violence in the Valley is not possible. 1988-1989 is the time period where riots and strikes were witnessed. But it was only after the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayid, the daughter of the Indian Home Minister, by separatist factions, that the presence of militarization of the Kashmir Valley started becoming a reality. Five militants were released from the Indian prison, which was looked as the “failure of the Indian State.” This was a huge victory for the separatist military factions, and erupted into mass protests all across the Kashmir Valley from January 1990. In order to stabilize the situation Jagmohan was appointed as the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir during that time. 1990 became the initiation of military suppression of the protesting crowds, and began the cycle of security forces detaining ordinary citizens and reports of human rights violations. Militants also resorted to similar activities with victims being ordinary Kashmiri people.

The conflict of Kashmir had its roots in the end of colonialism and the birth of two nations. Though a Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir had a Hindu ruler, the last being Maharaja Hari Singh. With the end of colonialism, the princely states were given a choice of integrating with either the Islamic Pakistan or the secular India. Hari Singh experienced massive dissent in the 1930s with “Quit Kashmir Movement” entering its infancy stages.

Local tribesman from the North Western Frontier Province with the support of Pakistani Army helped Muslim subjects of Hari Singh to orchestrate a rebellion. Eventually Hari Singh acceded to India with the signing of the Instrument of Accession 1947, and the war between India and Pakistan broke in 1948. Scholars have deduced this conflict to be the trickledown effect of the “Two-Nation Theory” of religiously dividing the country, with its seeds being planted in the Kashmiri soil to erupt later.

It will be incorrect to state that before the 1990s, Kashmir Valley never saw conflict between communities. There were demonstrations as early as 1930s against dominance of Dogras and Punjabis in state bureaucracy, with discrimination of Muslims by Hindu rulers. There were protests for reservations for Muslim seats as well. It can be said that problematic relationship was there between the Pandits and the Muslims even before the exodus. There are examples of demonstrations of communal tensions in the 1960s with Pandits organizations having protests in Srinagar on an alleged elopement of a Pandit woman with a Muslim man. Kashmiri Pandits were generally an influential group of Brahmins, with reaches to as far as to state level bureaucracy. Their migration had started from the 18th -19th century itself in order to seek employment in areas of Delhi, where a neighbourhood emerged in the 19th century. But the aspect of forced migration of this magnitude, with close to four hundred thousand Kashmir Pandits fleeing from the Valley was a dark event which was never witnessed in the history of independent India.

The event which can possibly be regarded as the inception point of a series of conflict in the valley was the state election of 1987. National Conference and Indian National Congress defeated the opposition party which was spearheaded by the Muslim United Front. Later, it was alleged that the entire election was rigged, and insurgency started off as a movement to reclaim Kashmir. Yasin Malik of Muslim United Front was one of the founders of the first militant outfits in Kashmir, namely Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. 

Tensions started setting off with the assassination of key figures of bureaucracy and Indian state in the valley. In 1989 the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) Leader Jia Lal Taploo and retired judge Neekanth Ganjoo was assassinated. The irony being that Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) was a secular insurgent faction, but the killings of Pandits in the valley created a state of paranoia. Mosques started giving “Anti-Pandit” slogans from microphones, and rallies were organized with hit list being circulated of names of Kashmiri Pandit families to leave the valley and “go back to India.” Some scholars have noted this exodus as a new chapter of victimhood for the minority Pandits, with their past of persecution and violence.

Hindu Pandits were considered as supporters of Indian State, and post-1987 the nature of persecution, the nature of violence, had been to reclaim Kashmir and the complete dominance of insurgent groups in the valley. With thousands of women and children homeless in one night, starting from January 1990, surprisingly no concrete action was taken to give these families some solace. Their life was converted to refugee camps for years, in areas of Punjab, Delhi. Some fled to other states. Later the tents became small rooms. But no substantial reclamation was done for their lives. 

That was a time of “30 second” news reports, where it seemed such an exodus had never occurred, with the entire nation unaware of the plight of the Kashmiri Pandits. Though in recent years, the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits have been coloured in various political rallies and election agendas, but the public memory remains blurred. Their example has been constructed as means to justify various violations inside the Kashmir Valley in the contemporary times. But their lives remain untouched. It is evident that their existence has been reduced to mere political gimmicks.

Even though there are records of displaced families, but apart from some newspaper articles in the 1990s, nothing concrete has been written or discussed. Their experience of violence has been silenced for years. Kashmir conflict has been a very important and highly controversial topic in the academic field of South Asia, but the largest exodus based on religious persecution remains under the blankets of ignorance. Many attempts have been made by some civil society groups and academics to chart down their experiences and interpret their history.

The violence that took place in 1990 is being lived everyday by their families even now. Their return to Kashmir remains a distant vision; some do not even want to go through that process. What they need is recognition, what they need is a pair of ears and a heart to witness their story.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Upamanyu Basu is a postgraduate in Political Science from Presidency University, Kolkata, India. He has worked as a Research Assistant with Essex University, United Kingdom. His research interests lie in the field of South Asian History, Migration, and Gender.