Kashmiri Pandits - Old and New: And how a film created a broad tent of a pan-Hindu identity

Why did the influential Purana Kashmiris not think of the 1990s Kashmir Pandit exodus as a personal issue and raise their voice? Why did they take part in the conspiracy of silence that seems to have cloaked the issue for 30 odd years?

Vinati Sukhdev Mar 28, 2022
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The Kashmir File

The exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley that Vivek Agnihotri’s recent film The Kashmir Files depicts so graphically, did not start in the 1990s. It has been going on for over 300 years! I come from a Kashmiri Pandit family in which the migration happened so long ago that the exact year, even decade, has long been forgotten. I remember hearing my grandmother say,  "Kashmiri Pandits have been coming down to the plains since Aurangzeb’s time". What the compelling circumstances were, or whether it was economic migration in search of a better life has never been clear.

What is clear though, is that there is a large group of Kashmiri Pandits like my family who have lived in the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab for hundreds of years. While the old or 'Purana Kashmiris'  - as opposed to the new or 'Taaza Kashmiris' who came in the 90s -  have adapted and immersed themselves in local life and traditions, they have maintained a very separate identity from the people of the ‘plains’. Genetic purity has largely been maintained with little or no marriage with ‘Gher-Quom’  - the Urdu phrase that tingles with superior in-breeding. 

Having grown up in a Kashmiri Pandit family and marrying into another, I can testify to the superiority that the Kashmiri Pandits felt with regard to the other ‘backward’ communities in the plains. I remember an old aunt telling the story of her early days of marriage into a Kashmiri family settled in Rajasthan. "We were so different from the local Rajasthani families," she said, "I used to sit and play chess with my father-in-law, while other Rajasthani women scurried about, hiding their faces under 'ghunghat' (veils).

The Purana Kashmiris were indeed distinctive for the status awarded to women in the family. The women controlled the finances and had a voice in important decisions. Family legends are rife with men faithfully handing over their monthly earnings to their wives – while the dominating wives gave them an ‘allowance’ to spend on themselves.

Education was another important differentiator. I guess the economic advantage of education must have been very clear to a migrant community that did not own land or have an entrepreneurial tradition. The early immigrants amongst Purana Kashmiris learnt the language of the local maharajahs and took up jobs in the courts. Notable amongst them were Sir Sukhdeo Prasad Kak, who was the Prime Minister of Jodhpur, Raja Amarnath Atal, who was Prime Minister to the Maharajah of Jaipur, and Sir K N Haksar, who was a Minister in Gwalior state.

Their education, sage counsel and fluency in link languages such as Persian and English were highly valued and they quickly accrued the benefits: large tracts of land, titles, plush residences, and ornate jewellery. The privileges continued to accumulate, and in time, the next generation of these Purana Kashmiris went abroad to study. The Harrow and Cambridge-educated Jawaharlal Nehru went on to become the first Prime Minister of independent India. He was part of a larger, well-educated Kashmiri Pandit elite. The judiciary and Indian Civil Service were full of Kashmiri surnames, far in excess of any proportionality, given their extremely small numbers. 

Purana Kashmiri identity

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, though married to a Parsi, was still a Purana Kashmiri by birth in Allahabad and her son Rajiv Gandhi, who also went on to be Prime Minister, would also qualify as 50 per cent Kashmiri Pandit. Other notable names amongst Purana Kashmiris were Justice K N Wanchoo, Chief Justice of India, his brother N N Wanchoo ( also ICS) who served as Governor of Kerala and West Bengal, Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru who was a lawyer, freedom fighter and politician. Sir Tej’s descendants went on to lead one of India’s flagship companies, India Tobacco Company or ITC. 

Without labouring the point ( and offending all the relatives I might have missed out!), I hope it is clear that Purana Kashmiris did very well for themselves in the new India that was being created in the plains. They held every possible prestigious post and wielded a lot of influence. So my point is simple: why did they sit by and watch the exodus happen? Why was there no sense of affinity with their brothers and sisters who were clearly driven out of their homes in Kashmir?

We are not debating the historical accuracy of the film here or whether the narrative plays out to suit the political agenda of the current Indian government. I am not talking about the numbers controversy and whether it can be defined as genocide or not. My submission is much simpler and more narrow - why did the influential Purana Kashmiris not think of the 1990s Kashmir Pandit exodus as a personal issue and raise their voice? Why did they take part in the conspiracy of silence that seems to have cloaked the issue for 30 odd years? As a Purana Kashmiri myself, I raise my hand as guilty. The film has forced me to relook at my Kashmiri Pandit identity and try and find the reasons behind the silence, the lack of action, the apathy even, that seemed to afflict my community.

I find the silence on an identity issue surprising, given that we Purana Kashmiris have zealously guarded our Kashmiri Pandit identity for over 300 years. We would never ever refer to ourselves as Punjabis or Rajasthanis or say that we hailed from Uttar Pradsh or Madhya Pradesh, despite having lived in these states for hundreds of years. It was always ‘ Kashmiri Pandit’ in my family and I am sure in others too. In fact, growing up, my universe consisted of only two kinds of people in the world: Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri. The Kashmiris were Pundits like us whom we were related to and identified with. The non-Kashmiris were everyone else in the world, Indian and non-Indian – a large amorphous mass which was considered ‘the other’. In sociological terms the difference was stark: the sacred vs the profane. 

My parents' strictures were clear- contact with non-Kashmiris was on a need-to basis. They were friends, never relatives. We met them at work or in educational institutions. And we never ( God forbid) married them. Right up to my generation, both my sister and I married Purana Kashmiris; people like us. People who had preserved their light skins through careful breeding, those who ate the same kind of food and spoke the same language. Never mind that the language was Hindustani and not Kashmiri!

No affinity with Valley's Pandits

We prided ourselves on our unique customs and traditions, many of which were watered-down versions of the original ones practiced by Taaza Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir. I remember the importance of Shivaratri in my family – the only day in the year when we fasted and went vegetarian. This was a nod to Kashmiri Shaivism I suppose and lingered in our rule book even after Diwali and Holi filtered in from living in the plains. Then there was Nauroze and Sonth which were ‘Kashmiri’ festivals – not celebrated by people in the plains, though Nauroze or new year was celebrated on the same day as Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra and Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh. 

But there was never any feeling of pan-Hinduism or unity with anybody else in India either. We were just Kashmiri Pandits and if interrogated further, we were the Kashmiri Pandits of the plains, and very proud of it. Ask any Purana Kashmiri and they will wax eloquent about how different they are from everyone else in India and how superior. The reasons range from the more rational better education to the completely irrational: more good-looking and better cuisine! The cuisine - largely non-vegetarian and cooked without onions or garlic- is a big differentiator. Our meat actually tastes of meat and not onions and garlic!

And yet, when it came to the crux, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1990, we behaved exactly like all the other communities. We were guilty of complete silence. And because this film has led me to examine my identity more closely, it is my contention that the very sense of superiority we Purana Kashmiris had with regard to other Indian communities, also infiltrated our thinking about the Taaza Kashmiris. They were backward, not as well off, certainly not elite in a pan-Indian sense, ate strange food like haak ka saag and gushtaba, and (hush!) they believed in dowry! Such is the lack of knowledge amongst Purana Kashmiris about their cousins who lived in the Valley that I do not even know whether this dowry story is a fact. In fact, I have been to Kashmir only once - as a two-year-old.

It is easy then to pin the apathy about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits amongst plains Kashmiris to the distance created by time (hundreds of years) and the fact that ties were not strong because we even lost the language. Kashmiri did not have a script and hence did not travel well, they used to say in my family. But that would be the easy way out.

My contention is more serious: the very superiority that made us distinctive from the other communities in the plains, also made us feel different from and superior to Taaza Kashmiris. Even the descriptor Taaza is pejorative I feel, like fresh off the boat. We were just too superior, too elite and too wrapped up in ourselves to bother about anyone else. And that is the sad truth. 

Pan-Hindu identity

We were in positions of power, from where we could have influenced thinking. As senior bureaucrats, as journalists, as ministers in the government – we could have taken issue with what happened in 1990. Or at the very least, helped rehabilitate the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. The help was sporadic and limited to those who felt they were part of a pan-Hindu identity, such as the Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra which gave medical college seats to the displaced Pandits. This was referred to in the film. What the Modi government has done with The Kashmir Files is to create a wider pan-Hindu identity. And that is the secret of the film’s commercial success, not the entertainment tax relief. 

The feeling of a broader Hindu identity and the affinity this creates with the Kashmiri Pandits. For too long Hindus have thought of themselves along narrow regional and caste lines and let politicians and fundamentalists divide them. I see the divide between the Purana and Taaza Kashmiris as a sad example of this. In the earlier paradigm, everyone just cared for their little micro subset; now with the pan-Hindu identity there is a broader tent, but still not the tent that the architects of India envisioned and which reflects the mosaic that is India.

And nothing can sum up that vision more aptly than Rabindranath Tagore’s immortal lines: "Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls… into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake".

(The author is a London-based journalist, columnist and the author of 'East or West: An NRI mother’s Manual on how to bring up Desi Children Overseas'. Views are personal. She can be reached at vinati_sukhdev@hotmail.com)

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