Militants have struck in the Kashmir Valley once again. On Tuesday, they gunned down a Kashmiri Pandit and injured another member of the community. It seems that as soon as things appear to be improving for the few Pandits remaining in the Valley, things take a turn for the worse.
The numbers of Kashmiri Pandits started dwindling with the large-scale conversion of the population to Islam around the 13th century. Kashmiri is the mother tongue of both Hindus and Muslims from the Valley. The two communities have much in common in terms of eating habits, dress code and cultural heritage.
The survival of the community after these conversions depended on the whims of the rulers – the Mughals (1580-1750) and Afghans (1752-1819). The community appealed to Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur in 1675 and Maharaja Ranjit Singh in the early 19th century to save them from becoming extinct in the Valley. The Dogra regime (1846 to 1947) is seen as a good period for the community when its members used education to improve their status vis-a-vis the Muslims. Many left the Valley for better opportunities and a large section of those who stayed back became professionals and got government jobs.
In 1948, the community comprised 8 per cent of the state’s population. After the Land Reforms Act was initiated by the Sheikh Abdullah government, Pandit landowners lost their land and migrated. By 1981, their population in the Valley had come down to only 5 per cent.
The exodus in the 1990s was a result of the targeted killings of Pandits. An estimated 1,00,000 Pandits left the Valley under very difficult circumstances. However, Kashmiri Pandits were not the only community to be targeted by militants. According to information accessed by an RTI activist (IE, December 15, 2021), 89 Pandits have been killed by militants while 1,635 persons of other faiths have also lost their lives since 1990. These figures could be disputed but the fact is that both Muslims and Pandits suffered at the hands of militants. However, the killing of Kashmiri Pandits got greater media coverage. Of course, the fear is much greater among the minorities. This led to mass migration, bringing down their population to less than 1 per cent in the Valley.
In 2010, as per government figures, there were only 808 Pandit families – 3,445 people in all — in the Valley. Several initiatives to attract Pandit families back to the Valley did not succeed. A Rs 1,168- crore package in 2008 by the UPA government couldn’t draw even 2,000 youths from the community to return to the Valley. The recently-released film, Kashmir Files, seems to have made the life of the Pandits living in the Valley even more difficult. There seems to be a feeling amongst Muslims that they are blamed for what happened in 1990 when everybody suffered.
With the state under Central rule since August 5, 2019, it was hoped that things would improve for the Pandits. However, in the last few months, the problems seem to have increased for those who have chosen to be there. The killings of innocent people have petrified the community and there is a sense of demoralisation amongst them, especially because the militants who commit dastardly crimes manage to escape.
The empathy of Muslim neighbours is, no doubt, heartwarming. But the volatile political situation and the sporadic but continuous killings of Hindus since 2019 — including Bihari labourers — have increased the insecurity of Kashmiri Pandits.
The tourist season this year has been exceptionally good with those involved in the industry doing well. There has been no attempt to disrupt it, indicating that the separatists do not want to antagonise the locals. Only a handful of persons have bought land in the UT after the abrogation of Article 370, and that’s confined mainly to areas closer to Jammu province.
For a Kashmiri Pandit like me who continues to have an intimate and affectionate relationship with the Valley and its people — this includes Gauri Kaul Foundation’s healthcare initiatives — these killings are worrying. The local population’s encouragement, along with my strong Kashmiri roots, gives our group the confidence to quietly continue our mission to provide good healthcare. But we realise that these contributions are no solution to the vexed problem of the Pandits. Normal life remains a distant dream for them.
The writer is a cardiologist and founder director of the Gauri Kaul Foundation