Kashmiri Pandits are a minority ethnic group from the Kashmir Valley in northern India. In 1989, the separatist movement to free Kashmir from India culminated in widespread violence against members of all communities, and initially against Kashmiri Pandits in particular. There was a mass exodus of nearly 95% of the Kashmiri Pandit community during the early 1990s. Sixteen years later, there are approximately 7,000 Kashmiri Pandits who permanently reside in Kashmir. These “non-migrants” have remained in Kashmir due to economic constraints, familial circumstances, and/or a deep attachment to the land, to name a few reasons. They face grave problems today, including lack of employment opportunities, government corruption and complacency, and inadequate monetary and moral support from the Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora.
Trisal N. Those Who Remain: The Survival and Continued Struggle of the Kashmiri Pandit ‘Non-Migrants’. The Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies. 2007 Aug;5(3):
Edited for conciseness and clarity by Indo-American Kashmir Forum.
Distributed by Indo-American Kashmir Forum.
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Introduction and Overview of the Kashmiri Pandit Community
Kashmiri Pandits, also known as Kashmiri Hindus, are a minority ethnic community who belong to the Kashmir Valley in northern India. Kashmiri Hindus comprised the majority population in Kashmir until the introduction of Islam to the Kashmir Valley in the fourteenth century. There is some evidence that a caste system once existed in Kashmir made up of Brahmans (Pandits), Kayasthas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. However, by the end of Muslim rule in 1819, Pandits were the only Hindus who had neither migrated from Kashmir nor converted to Islam (Pant, p. 14).
There have been several exoduses of the Kashmiri Hindu community from Kashmir throughout history, precipitated at times by religious persecution at the hands of Muslim rulers and at other times because of lack of economic opportunities within Kashmir (Pant, p. 11). The most recent and largest recorded exodus occurred in 1989-1990, following the start of a violent separatist movement. Estimates vary on the number of KPs who fled in 1989; some scholars put the number at 170,000 whereas Kashmiri Pandit leaders cite a figure close to 350,000 (Evans, pp. 24-26). Due to a lack of or inaccurate census data, neither figure can be fully substantiated.
The Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) who have remained in Kashmir following the mass exodus of the minority community in 1989-1990 are commonly known as ‘non-migrants.’ Their reasons for not leaving Kashmir are varied, ranging from economic constraints to an emotional attachment to the land. Each family has its own unique and compelling story that explains why it stayed in Kashmir despite the exodus of more than 95% of the Pandit community (Evans, p. 19).
Little attention is given to the 1,300 families, or approximately 6,654 KPs, who permanently reside in the Kashmir Valley (Sanjay Tickoo, Past-General Secretary Hindu Welfare Society of Kashmir, HWSK, personal communication, June 10, 2006). The literature and media coverage about Kashmiri Pandits—what little there is in the mainstream media—deals largely with the displaced population living in one-room tenements in Jammu. Even non-camp migrants, many of whom are under similar socio-economic pressure as those living in the Jammu camps, have been largely neglected in media accounts and literature about Kashmir and Kashmiri Pandits.
This paper will begin with an overview of the 1989-1990 exodus of the Kashmiri Pandit community and a breakdown of the non-migrant population living in Kashmir today. After discussing the fieldwork parameters, I will address the general misconceptions about and conditions of the KP community living in Kashmir. Finally, I will consider the potential return of the broader KP community to Kashmir and conclude with action steps aimed specifically at the Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora.
Overview of 1989-1990 Exodus
A number of factors contributed to the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits in 1989-1990. On a broader level, a growing sense of alienation and even fear had been spreading in the Kashmiri Pandit community over the last several decades, as a result of the state government’s socio-economic policies that seemed to favor the Muslim majority. Bhat (2003) outlines these policies: the institutionalization of land reforms that took land from Pandits and gave it to Muslims without compensation, the formation of a delimitation commission whose gerrymandering led to a significant diminishing in the Pandits’ political power, and the establishment of an informal system of reservations that favored the majority community (pp. 13-14):
“The point must be made…that the measures taken were not implemented to specifically target the Pandit community but rather to address the plight of the people of the state. But, given the seething socio-economic scenario, each of these steps resulted in changes that added to the feeling of alienation amongst the Kashmiri Pandits.” (Bhat, p. 10)
In July 1988, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) officially began its armed struggle for independence from India. This mobilization raised concerns across the Pandit community, but still did not trigger the exodus. It was the selective killings which followed in late 1989 and early 1990, conducted by the JKLF and other militant organizations—who were varied in their goal of independence, accession to Pakistan, or Islamization of society—and the heightened sense of fear and paranoia that resulted, which caused the Pandits to leave en masse.
Although the murders, attacks, and kidnappings seemed to mainly target politicians, government employees, and other high-profile Kashmiri Pandits, the majority of community members felt that it was only a matter of time till they too would be affected. Threats against KPs—in local newspapers as well as from taped messages played on loudspeakers of mosques throughout Kashmir—added to the already palpable sense of fear and prompted the exodus.
The latest data collected by the state and local government in 2004, and supported by the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir (HWSK), indicates that 6,654 Kashmiri Pandits continue to live in 258 locations throughout Kashmir. In terms of the concentration of KP populations according to district, the order from highest to lowest is as follows: Pulwama, Anantnag, Srinagar, Budgam, Baramulla and Kupwara, with the last two districts having only 12 villages in which Pandits reside. Sanjay Tickoo, former General Secretary of the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir, believes that the population of KPs in the Valley must now be even less than the 6,654 figure recorded in 2004, as migrations continue to occur due to lack of economic opportunity (personal communication, June 10, 2006).
My fieldwork consisted of conducting interviews with a representative sample of non-migrants in various settings, ranging from personal residences to educational institutions to places of worship. I also attended a variety of gatherings at which non-migrants were present and thus had first-hand experience with the lifestyles and conditions of these individuals. Although restricted mainly to Srinagar district, I was able to visit a number of homes in Anantnag and Budgam districts as well.
The majority of information I obtained regarding the KPs living in the Valley was through personal interaction with the community as well as through the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir, the only social and political forum for non-migrant KPs. Since its creation in 1998, the HWSK has been fighting for the welfare of the non-migrants on a grassroots level. Leaders of the HWSK have visited nearly every location in Kashmir in which Kashmiri Pandits still live in order to record their conditions and provide relief when necessary. The organization has also made significant inroads with the central and state government on behalf of the non-migrant KPs.
Why the Non-Migrants Stayed in Kashmir
Sanjay Tickoo argues that of those who stayed back, generally speaking, 20% did so primarily because of economic constraints, 30% primarily because of love for and attachment to the land, and the remaining 50% assumed that conditions would improve within a few months (personal communication, June 10, 2006). I found that a combination of all these factors in addition to a host of others led to individuals staying back, with certain socio-economic classes identifying more with some factors than others.
A number of upper class Pandit families have remained in Kashmir, mainly in Srinagar. These include relatively well-known individuals such as politicians, businessmen, doctors, and high-level government employees, among others. These individuals’ professions require them to engage with the majority community and therefore they cannot afford to alienate themselves from this population. These KPs remained in the Valley because their occupations were tied to Kashmir, they felt a strong attachment to the land and their homes, and most of their children had already migrated from the Valley or left immediately following the beginning of the insurgency. A number of individuals from this profile spend winter months outside of Kashmir, visiting their children and relatives. Some also have personal security officers, although this has not always ensured safety (Khemlata Wakhlu, Congress Party member, personal communication, June 8, 2006).
It was the upper class Pandits who in fact the militants first targeted. Many of these individuals have been victims of kidnappings and multiple attacks. When asked why they stayed in Kashmir despite the numerous attempts on their lives, their first response is a defiant one: ‘why should I leave my own home?’ They talk matter-of-factly about the inevitability of death and destiny. Leaving Kashmir would have been a kind of death in and of itself, and so they chose to remain and face the consequences. Dr. Vimla Dhar explained to me that while staying back in Kashmir has not been easy, she could not bear living anywhere else.
“My life is not the same as it was before 1990. I cannot say that, ‘oh…it has not affected my life at all.’ It has affected my life, it has affected my lifestyle, it has affected my day-to-day life. It has affected everyone’s life. But I would prefer to live it this way [in Kashmir] than anywhere else. Because that [leaving Kashmir], I could not stand. I could not stand it.”
As for the KP non-migrant families of middle and lower socio-economic status, their main reasons for staying back were economic constraints or an ill/aging family member. Many of these families only had one income-earner in the family, and traditionally that individual had a government job or another occupation that required him or her to remain in Kashmir. Those who lived in the villages depended on agriculture and their orchards for their livelihoods and so were tied to their land and homes. A number of families were comprised of elderly individuals who could not bear to leave Kashmir or were physically unable to, and thus the whole family stayed back.
Nearly every Kashmiri Pandit I spoke with attributed their staying back partly to the direct and indirect support of their mohallas (neighborhoods)—which were comprised mainly of the majority community—as well as other Muslim friends and co-workers. The instances of being provided protection and help are plenty. Mr. R.K. Mattoo and his wife Mrs. Neerja Mattoo conveyed one such story to me. In 1991 an attempt was made to kidnap Mr. Mattoo near their home. If not for the help of his driver, who was a Muslim, Mr. Mattoo would have most likely been kidnapped that day. He remembers hiding at the home of one of his Sikh neighbors while the driver spoke to the kidnappers and eventually convinced them to leave. Mr. Mattoo telephoned his other neighbors from the Sikh family’s home, and within minutes a procession of nearly 15 men from the neighborhood, most of them Muslims, led Mr. Mattoo back to his home. In the weeks that followed the Mattoos received an incredible outpouring of support and solidarity. When asked why they stayed back despite the attempted kidnapping and numerous other attacks made on their lives, Mr. Mattoo says that it would have been simply wrong to leave the neighbors and friends who had without hesitation supported he and his wife.
A Kashmiri Pandit woman who is involved in the education field conveyed another similar anecdote to me. She considers her supervisor—who is a Muslim—to be her godmother. The supervisor is one of the main reasons why this woman remained in Kashmir, because it was she who helped secure alternate accommodations for the Pandit woman and her family after the 1998 Wandhama massacre near Ganderbal, the town in which the Pandit woman lived.
Many KPs who stayed in Kashmir after 1990 did so because they thought the situation would improve within a few months, and that the KPs who left for Jammu, Delhi and other parts of India would return once the violence subsided. At the same time, news of the terrible conditions of Jammu migrants living in tents reached those who were still in the Valley, further deterring this population from migrating. Although migrations continued happening throughout the 1990s, and still continue to do so, the majority of this population had more time to plan their accommodations in Jammu, Delhi, or the respective location to which they planned to migrate. These later migrations were starkly different from the chaotic and fatal exodus and resettlement of 1990.
Many of the non-migrants believe it was part of their destiny or fate to remain in Kashmir. Others, such as Mr. Kumar Wanchoo, who has stayed in the Valley along with his family, believe that a small percentage of a community remaining in the homeland is characteristic of most exoduses. He argues that the choice to leave or stay in Kashmir reflects more upon the circumstances of the family rather than the courage or will of its members (K. Wanchoo, personal communication, June 19, 2006).
For a number of individuals it was a matter of chance that they stayed back. Some of these individuals had even packed their bags and were ready to leave, but for one reason or another the plan to leave did not materialize. One Kashmiri Pandit I spoke with said that he and his neighbor decided to leave for Jammu with their families at the beginning of the insurgency, and so after discussing the necessary details, both went back to their respective homes to prepare for leaving. A day or two later, when this man and his family went to their neighbor’s home with their packed bags, they found that the neighbor and his family had already left without giving any notice. The man told me that his family had been so mentally prepared to leave, and so devastated when they were literally left behind, that it took them two years to gradually unpack their belongings and realize that they were staying behind for good. There are numerous similar unfortunate stories throughout Kashmir.
Many non-migrants I spoke with said that although there may have been an economic or other practical reason which explains why they stayed in Kashmir, they do not know how they have remained while so many of their brethren have left. It certainly was not that they were spared of the violence and terror. To the contrary, it was they who were in the midst of the conflict during the 1990s following the migration of most of the KPs. Yet somehow the months have turned into years, and sixteen years later they are still living in Kashmir.
The Condition of the Non-Migrants
The primary problems the KPs in the Valley face today are that of unemployment and inadequate rehabilitation. Approximately 125 Pandit families in Kashmir live below the poverty line. According to a survey taken by the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir in 2003, there were more than 500 educated youth who were unemployed, and over 200 of these individuals were no longer eligible for government jobs due to their age, circumstances which left them no choice but to migrate from Kashmir in search of better opportunities (S. Tickoo, personal communication, June 14, 2006).
Lack of rehabilitation is also a problem faced by many non-migrants. In 1998, following the massacre of seven KPs in Sangrama (Budgam district), the government relocated 23 KP families from far-flung villages around Budgam district into Budgam town. I visited several of these families who had been persuaded by the government to abandon their large homes and farms to live in cramped conditions in the dilapidated houses of migrant KPs. Seventeen of these families have been granted migrant status, which means they receive relief similar to the KP migrants scattered throughout India. Many of these individuals shared with me that although they have received migrant status, nobody from the government has visited them or followed-up with their conditions. They have been relocated but they have certainly not been rehabilitated. A female youth named Poonam shared her thoughts with me regarding her family’s situation:
“In 1997, they told us that it wasn’t safe for us in our villages. They said to us that they would make a nice arrangement for us in Budgam town and settle us well. But nobody even comes here to see. Nobody has come here since we were resettled. There are no facilities here. We were fine in our homes; we shouldn’t have been uprooted.”
Another female youth, whose family is living below the poverty line and at risk of being evicted from the home that the government relocated them to, shared with me her thoughts about leaving Kashmir and being relocated:
“I’m not going to leave Kashmir. Kashmir is ours, why should we leave it?.…We were in our homes. Why were we taken out? Now that we’ve been taken out, we should be taken care of.”
In addition to the families in Budgam, there are 64 other families in Kashmir (10 in Mattan and 54 in other districts) who have been relocated without rehabilitation. In fact, these families have yet to receive the migrant relief they were promised by the government upon relocation. What makes matters worse is that while these individuals are fighting for their livelihoods and are living in makeshift homes, the government has built a ‘migrant colony’ in Sheikhpora in Budgam District comprised of 378 flats (S. Tickoo, personal communication, June 10, 2006). None of the migrants who expressed interest in moving back to Kashmir and into these flats have done so yet. Demands made by the KP families in Kashmir who have yet to be rehabilitated to each receive a flat in the Sheikhpora colony on a priority basis have not been answered.
Socio-cultural problems are also abundant for the KPs who have stayed back. Every KP adult I met in the Valley spoke at length about the difficulty of maintaining culture and identity after the mass exodus. Marriages in particular have become difficult to arrange with the scattering of the community, and most are not held in Kashmir because guests and family members do not feel safe traveling to the region. Many individuals also shared with me feelings of loneliness as a result of the migration of family and friends.
Future of the Non-Migrants
Despite the multitude of problems that Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley face today, most families I spoke with are trying their level best to remain in their homes and in Kashmir. They are raising their children in Kashmir and sending them to schools that have at the very most four or five other Kashmiri Pandit children enrolled. In spite of these valiant efforts, the threat of extinction of the KP community in Kashmir looms.
Although the non-migrants’ daily security concerns have substantially decreased, especially compared to the early and mid-1990s, sporadic attacks on Pandit and other minority communities living particularly in isolated villages cause not only a degree of apprehension but also result in migrations.
Most recently, after the March 23, 2003 massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits in Nadimarg, the town’s surviving inhabitants packed their bags and moved to Jammu. This migration happened in spite of pleas from the government to the group to remain in Nadimarg and requests of the HWSK for the Nadimarg survivors to be moved to safer areas in Srinagar. In an interview with a man whose father and sister were killed in the Nadimarg massacre, I learned that the inhabitants of Nadimarg had no desire to stay in Nadimarg following the attack, and were even put off by the idea of moving to Srinagar. He explained to me that leaving had always seemed inevitable for those who had stayed back after 1990:
“Leaving was in everybody’s heart. Whether it was in 5 years, 10 years. There was insecurity in Nadimarg because it was farther away—there wasn’t as much security. We did get more disturbed when we heard about selective killings in small towns. But then in these towns [like Nadimarg] were individuals with less exposure, who were restricted to their villages, not as ready to leave their homes. They kept delaying their departure. They kept saying they’d leave the day after tomorrow…after saying ‘day after tomorrow, day after tomorrow,’ eventually this happened. We thought before 2003 too that we should have left as well. But we just happened to have stayed back.”
In addition to the Nadimarg survivors, a handful of families from throughout Kashmir migrated to Jammu following the Nadimarg incident. A man I interviewed from Magam (Budgam district), who now lives in Jammu, had the following to say about his reasons for leaving after the Nadimarg massacre:
“We had stayed in Magam during the exodus. Our locality was very good. Because of our neighbors, we stayed. But after Wandhama, Sangrama, and then Nadimarg…we had to stop and think that this could happen to us too. It was when they [the neighbors] came to us [after Nadimarg] and said that ‘we don’t know if we ourselves are safe and can in turn keep you safe,’ that we decided that it was time to leave.”
This man also shared with me that many KPs he knows who continue to live in the Valley have purchased property in Jammu or other locations, indicative of their desire to move away eventually.
Even if conditions do improve in Kashmir, will the KPs come back? Most of the KPs I spoke with in the Valley were not so optimistic. While there was understanding and empathy expressed toward those who left, non-migrants I spoke with said that it was unlikely for those who had left in 1990 to return to Kashmir. In their opinion, most of the population that left is now too settled in their own lives. They did however mention that those who live in the camps and other untenable conditions would be the first to return to Kashmir if it was made possible.
Many Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley with whom I spoke made the point that if their own grievances with the government were not being adequately addressed—regarding unemployment and rehabilitation, for example—then what guarantee would the returning KPs have that they would be adequately rehabilitated? Most KPs in the Valley cannot help but see the return of the KPs as more of a political ploy than anything else. As Sanjay Tickoo so aptly put it, “Everybody wants to be the hero who brought the Kashmiri Pandits back.”
One could look at the situation more optimistically—that when the conditions are more conducive, KPs will certainly return, if not permanently but at least for five or six months at a time. But will the younger generation feel so compelled? Kashmiri Pandit youth spread out across the world have made commendable efforts to stay connected to their Kashmiri roots with the help of their parents and family. But most youth cannot speak Kashmiri and have only a superficial understanding of Kashmiri customs and traditions. More importantly, they have not spent significant amounts of time in Kashmir, or sadly enough, have never been there. It is this disconnection with the Kashmir Valley that threatens the regeneration of the community.
If the Kashmiri Pandits are to regenerate as a community, it is the KPs in the Valley, the non-migrant community, that will have to form the building blocks of any resurgent Pandit population. Vijay Sazawal (2000), two-time president of the Indo-American Kashmir Forum, articulated this sentiment in the Kashmiri periodical, Koshur Samachar:
“Like the endless cycle of life and rebirth ordained for the mortals, Kashmiri Pandits too are cursed by the fate to evolve from the valley only to find security and prosperity anywhere but in the valley. This cycle of birth and flight has become a paradigm. (p. 3)”
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Evans, A. (2002, March 1). A Departure from History: Kashmiri Pandits, 1990-2001. Contemporary South Asia, 11(1), 19-37.
Pant, K. (1987). The Kashmiri Pandit: Story of a Community in Exile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Delhi: Allied.
Said, E. (1995). The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Self-Determination, 1969-1994. London: Vintage.
Sazawal, V. (2000, April). A New Focus, a New Vision. Koshur Samachar, 3.