Return to homeland central to survival of Pandit culture

| Updated: 19 June, 2024 2:24 pm IST

For over three decades, the Kashmiri Pandit community has lived in exile and has been a victim of genocide at the hands of jihadis, a fact that the Indian government has yet to officially recognize. Each generation of the community continues to suffer in exile due to the growing threat to our culture, heritage, and rights to our homeland. However, January 19, 1990, was not the first instance of genocide faced by the Kashmiri Pandits. There is a gruesome history of oppression that spans back to the 14th century. Prof. K. L. Bhan’s book, “Paradise Lost,” aptly describes the seven exoduses of Kashmiri Pandits.

According to the book, it was the entry of Syed Mir Ali Hamdani into Kashmir – along with 700 of his followers – that sparked initial unrest in the Valley in the 14th century. Hamdani spread propaganda among the Kashmiri Muslim minority to sow seeds of hatred, influencing Sultan Qutubuddin to officialize the torture of Kashmiri Hindus and subject those who refused to convert to Islam to persecution. In later years, Sultan Sikander (Butshikan) brought a reign of terror in Kashmir, desecrating temples, breaking idols, and forcing the conversion of Kashmiri Pandits through violence. This led to a mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits to protect their religious faith, marking the First Exodus (1389-1413).

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The Second Exodus occurred between 1506 and 1585 due to the Chaks, part of Shah Mir’s army. They belonged to the Shia sect of Islam and adopted the policy of conversion by coercion, loot, arson, and massacre of Kashmiri Pandits. The Chaks demolished many Hindu places of worship, attempting to remove all traces of idol worship from Kashmir. To save their lives and heritage, Kashmiri Pandits fled the Valley. Those who stayed were forced to convert or face death.

The Mughal period, especially the reigns of Jehangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb, was tumultuous for the community. While Akbar reinstated Kashmiri Pandits through liberal policies, his successors were religiously intolerant. Aurangzeb, in particular, aimed to convert all of India to Islam, especially targeting Kashmiri Hindus. He reimposed Jazia and exterminated all Hindu scholars in Kashmir, believing they slowed down religious conversion. Thus, the Third Exodus (1585-1753) drove out the Kashmiri Pandits to Delhi.

The Fourth Exodus resulted from heinous atrocities during the Afghan rule in Kashmir between 1753 and 1819. Amir Khan Jawansher, a Shia Muslim, assumed the governorship of Kashmir and appointed Mir Fazl Kanth as his Chief Minister. Fazl Kanth beheaded Kailash Dhar in open court and indulged in brutal killing and looting of the Hindus. This incident, along with the harsh brutality and diabolical torture by the Afghans, caused Kashmiri Pandits to flee to Poonch and Kabul for refuge. It was the great Pandit Birbal Dhar whose political maturity paved the way for Maharaja Ranjit Singh to establish a more liberal Sikh rule in Kashmir in 1819.

During the British Raj, young Kashmiri Muslim graduates formed the Muslim Reading Room, growing jealous of Kashmiri Pandits who held positions in state administration. Backed by the British government, anarchists of the Muslim Reading Room Party started looting Hindu properties and killing Kashmiri Hindus in 1931. Sheikh Abdullah led the anti-Hindu movement, protesting against Maharaja Hari Singh, and fueled the mob that committed grave atrocities against Kashmiri Pandits on July 13, 1931. Post-independence, armed tribesmen sent by Pakistan, joined by local Muslim zealots, created mayhem in Kashmir through violence and desecration. Once again, Kashmiri Hindus fled the state, marking the Fifth Exodus (1948).

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The Sixth Exodus came about in 1986 during the tenure of Gul Shah. Kashmir saw the most number of curfew days ever during Gul Shah’s regime. Law and order broke down completely, and anarchy spread across political, social, and economic domains. Corruption was rampant. The people of Jammu protested against these practices, to which Gul Shah responded by instigating Muslims in Srinagar with the idea that Islam was in danger. This prompted them to go on a rampage of loot, arson, molestation, and massacre in South Kashmir. Kashmiri Pandits once again fled the Valley.

January 19, 1990, our Seventh Exodus, is forever etched in the minds of every Kashmiri Pandit man, woman, and child, even generations later. It is a gruesome epilogue to the atrocities committed against a peaceful community known to have descended from Rishi Kashyap, giving rise to several eminent saints, scholars, and poets. The effects of the Seventh Exodus have been psychological, social, cultural, and economic, particularly for the Kashmiri Pandit youth population. The brutal religious persecution, burning of homes, massacres, and threat to the lives and identity of our community, as well as the grief of being forcefully displaced from our homeland, had serious effects on the mental and physical health of those who directly experienced it. Hundreds of families faced adverse conditions upon moving into refugee camps in Jammu – crammed into tents, suffering from starvation, heat strokes, snake bites, and witnessing the deaths of children and senior citizens. This increased the burden of trauma and difficulty in coping for many years. Moreover, several Kashmiri Pandits who had stable jobs in administrative and private sectors in Kashmir were left without security, as the government turned their backs on them and employers refused to help. Young graduates who returned to Kashmir for job opportunities were left unemployed, destitute, and struggling to provide for their families. The youth felt a great disconnect from their culture and grief of losing their homeland.

This grief turned to anger and a resolution was undertaken to reclaim our Homeland, ensuring the Seventh Exodus would be our last. Thus, in 1991, Panun Kashmir was formed – meaning “Our Kashmir.” It is a people’s movement born of the desire of the Kashmiri Pandit community to return to our Homeland on our terms, to preserve our cultural roots tied to the soil of Kashmir, and to assert our sociopolitical rights as the aboriginal community of the Valley. The pledge of Panun Kashmir remains to stay united as a community and to remain steadfast in our demand for our own, separate Homeland within the Valley. This demand stems from the Margdarshan Resolution, adopted by Panun Kashmir on December 28, 1991. It is considered a roadmap for addressing the displacement of Kashmiri Hindus and for the path undertaken by Panun Kashmir over the past 30 years. The demand under the Margdarshan Resolution is that a separate Homeland for Kashmiri Hindus must be established in the Kashmir Valley, comprising the regions to the East and North of the river Jhelum. This Homeland must function under the Constitution of India and be given UT status, ensuring the Right to Life, Liberty, Freedom of expression, faith, equality, and rule of law for its residents. Since its inception, Panun Kashmir and its youth wing, Youth 4 Panun Kashmir (Y4PK), have upheld the essence of the Margdarshan Resolution in their endeavour to rehabilitate our community to our Homeland.

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Panun Kashmir plays a significant role in activism and in bringing together scattered Kashmiri Hindu individuals into one community. It creates an opportunity for the youth to connect with their cultural roots and heritage, bringing their aspirations to fruition, and providing those born into exile with a sense of cultural stability through involvement with its uniting cause. Kashmiri Pandit youth today exist at an unusual and challenging intersection, enduring the difficulties of exiled life while also bearing the burden of their ancestors’ experiences. The places we had to leave behind, such as ancestral homes, temples, and community spaces, are central to cultural practice and create a sense of belonging. Without them, the youth may struggle to connect with the tangible aspects of their heritage. Our native language, Kashmiri, faces erosion due to younger generations being exposed to the language of their new locations. Panun Kashmir and Y4PK work tirelessly to mitigate these concerns by integrating our youth with the organization to preserve our culture and keep the pain of genocide alive. This pain, along with the desire to return on our terms, fuels the community towards the reclamation of our Homeland, keeping our ancestral knowledge and heritage alive, and documenting our cultural practices, rituals, art, scripture, and language for present and future generations.

The aspirations of the Kashmiri Pandit youth today are largely centred on returning to the Homeland, contingent on reclamation on our terms, keeping our safety, economic and social security, and freedom of religious expression intact. Young activists demand not just our Homeland back, but also cultural preservation, retention of the spoken Kashmiri language, infrastructural and financial security, and the unity of our community towards the cause. All efforts of youth activists at Y4PK are geared towards making this aspiration a reality.

The author is pursuing her Masters in Clinical Psychology and is Joint Secretary of Youth 4 Panun Kashmir.

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