3 decades of remarkable resilience against odds
The 19th century Afghan governor of Kashmir, Jabbar Khan, it is said, decided to test the faith of the Kashmiri Pandits by declaring that Shivratri, their most important festival, would be held in the summer, rather than towards the end of winter when snow flakes would symbolically herald the union of Shiva and Parvati.
On the appointed day, in a sweltering July, it started snowing heavily as “mother nature” itself seemed to express solidarity with the plight of the persecuted minority. This incident, apocryphal as it may well be, is recounted in most Kashmiri Pandit homes as reflecting their remarkable ability to survive and succeed against apparently insurmountable odds.
Even as we commemorate three decades of the tragic displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits (KPs), from within the Valley, there are, indeed, few communities that have displayed a similar resilience or the ability to adapt in the face of extreme adversity. Even rarer are those who, across centuries, have placed such a premium on education.
So much so that every KP’s major ritual begins with the chant: “Salutations to you Sharda Devi, who lives in Kashmir, we pray to you every day to bestow on us education, knowledge, and wisdom!”
In these last three decades, KPs have demonstrated this spirit of accommodation as well as the emphasis on acquiring knowledge. Not surprisingly, some of the most successful names in the powerful global Indian diaspora are Kashmiri Pandits, who remain intensely engaged with their history and culture as well as the welfare of the community.
The KPs remain a virtually casteless community of a few lakh non-puritanical Brahmins (with only a subtle hierarchy between the priests and those who adopted secular occupations) who are passionately non-vegetarian and have, through the 19th and 20th centuries, succeeded in most professions, including those as intriguing and dangerous as espionage.
Recall that the well known, Mohan Lal Zutshi “Kashmiri” – master spy, diplomat and linguist – helped the British execute their “great game” in Afghanistan. Their strength has always been their liberal flexibility shorn, until recently, of any political absolutism.
This, of course, is not that the first time that KPs have witnessed an exodus; by some accounts, this is the fourth time that the Valley was deprived of this extraordinary community, which has remained a microscopic minority for most of the last millennium.
According to some sources, in the late 14th century reign of Sultan Sikandar, only 11 families remained, until his son Zain-ul-Abidin, the Badshah, sought their wise counsel and they returned. The Banmasis were those who returned while the few who had stayed on were the Malmasis; those who left and stayed on the plains, became the “downstairs” KPs or “butt Punjabis” like the Nehrus, Haksars and Katjus.
Anecdotes about adversity and the spiritual and practical strength of the KPs have been part of the informal education of every child. And the one mantra to conquer all is universally regarded, within the KPs, as education – a source of liberation and empowerment.
With the Kashmiri Muslims, spare the period of persecution, there was remarkable harmony and interdependence: the KPs were the teachers, in schools, colleges and universities that Muslims respected and held dear. The KPs were great teachers not just of the sciences, but taught languages like Arabic and Persian with the same mastery. Not surprisingly, even the Afghan court had Bhawani Das Kachru, a KP, as a poet laureate.
For much of the daily business of everyday living, the KPs depended on the Muslims, including such personal rituals as a haircut, or a wet nurse, and even the upkeep of the cremation grounds.
There were common shrines of Sufis that both communities revered, and the syncretic culture that provided a united bond. Inter-marriage was very rare and inter-dining not commonplace till even the 1950s, but a camaraderie existed that went beyond traditional stereotypes.
But what of the future? Apart from the few thousand who continue to live in the Valley, and those in the still-wretched camps and townships like Jagti near Jammu, will the KPs return to the Valley? Especially now that the gulf between the KMs and KPs has widened and deepened so much that even the most formidable bridge may not offer a safe page to togetherness.
A little over a decade ago, inspired by the “pilgrimage” made by the poet philosopher Ayaz Rasool Nazki to Shardapeeth, the ancient seat of learning now in ruins across the Line of Control in the Neelam valley, I had floated the idea of a intellectual homeland for the KPs in the Valley; a new Shardapeeth University.
While obviously it would help in the physical return of the KPs, and through a profession in which they had traditionally excelled, it would also revive the traditional bonds of interdependence between the Pandits and Muslims and create the basis of reconciliation as they lived and learnt together in a common space.
While this idea may now seem like a utopian dream, I do feel that a true reconciliation (through such a institution) between KPs and KMs can provide the only basis for sustainable peace in the Kashmiri Valley.
Even as they reach the pinnacle of material success, for the Kashmiri Pandits, from Botswana to Brisbane, the call of the Valley remains supreme. Not surprisingly, every KP gathering, the world over, often echoes the words of Lal Ded, the 14th century mystical poetess:
“We’re the ones who were always there, we are the ones who live on;
There was never a time when we were not present
Like Shiva’s creations that dissolve and rise;
Like the sun that rises and sets and rises again.
We shall return to where we belong”