Kashmiri Pandits’ civilizational pinnacle receded, perhaps, a thousand years ago, by the end of Utpala Dynasty (855 – 1003). Their glory has been in steady decline since the advent of Sultanate in 1339. As they became a minority after volitional and forced conversion to Islam, their life became one long road of survival, even though they were still prized for their intellectual prowess. This psychology of survival became a permanent feature of their personality. They became individuals first and community members later.
Some Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) were shocked in 2014 by the withdrawal of the Modi government’s project of creating three composite cities in Kashmir to rehabilitate them. But here is the irony: even if the Modi plan had been implemented how many KPs would have been its takers? Very few. Yet, why are they crest-fallen about the project’s death? It is because they still fantasize about returning to their ancestral land of 5,000 years and living their myths and mythologies. Once the inner-music stops the world looks meaningless.
One would assume that the dramatic revocation of the much-maligned Article 370 by Prime Minister Modi on August 5, 2019 would open the flood-gates for KP’s to return to their ancestral land. But that is not going to happen, as KP’s having been burnt before want to see strong security before they return to their spiritual land. There is no guarantee that the government can provide such security. Therefore, while some elderly and some younger KPs from Jammu may return to the Valley, the vast majority will not, in spite of the opportunities resulting from the revocation of Article 370.
The exodus of KPs was already under way in form of younger generations wanting to work outside Kashmir. But that process was natural and did not cut the umbilical cord with it. The young KPs have been drifting away from Kashmir because of the economic and political conditions there. They wanted to work in modern companies that paid a decent salary, and live in a friendly environment, which was unavailable at home.
Now that KPs are not the inhabitants of Kashmir, will they survive? Of course, they will survive. Human history is replete with migrations, both planned and forced ones. How should they live as a community now? While the economic compulsions have scattered them round the world, India continues to be their bastion. To keep their ethos alive is their greatest challenge. Efforts are under way in India and different parts of the world in that direction. Gaining political power is essential to their community survival.
Over years, KPs did not cultivate a political network in New Delhi. Politics requires consolidation of a group’s assets and willingness to strike mutually advantageous compromises with other groups. But KPs are not good at it. They have always wanted to live in their own cocoon. Equipped as they are with intelligence and intellect, they could have amassed political influence since the advent of Islamic rule in Kashmir in 1339. But their political apathy cost them dearly.
In different parts of the world efforts are being made to keep alive the KP ethos, but every year it has become harder to do that. This is because KPs are single-harnessed horses, and do not move in tandem. They are essentially not community-minded people but a concatenation of individuals. They are sharp people but not revolutionaries and dreamers. Whatever success that has been achieved so far in keeping the KP ethos alive is due to the work of some highly motivated people, and not with the help of the community at large.
An emigrated people have to learn to live with the people, culture, and the place they migrate to. That is what some 700,000 KPs (their estimated world-wide population) are presently doing. It will take generations before they will get absorbed in their new world. And in the process they will inevitably lose their KP-soul and create a new one. This is the price you pay for forced migration. There is nothing you can do about it.
Take the case of young people who were born outside Kashmir, who neither know Kashmiri or have visited Kashmir or know the KP ethos. How can we call them Kashmiris? But, they will nevertheless call themselves so, because there is a psychological need in human beings to have a connection with their roots.
Some people have suggested that KPs should change their name to Kashmiri Hindus. I believe that would be a mistake. While the name change would accrue the benefit of being part of a larger community, thereby diluting their image of aloofness and cursedness, but the loss of their special identity would detract something invaluable from their soul.
According to Henny Sender, as described in his book The Kashmiri Pandit: A Study of Cultural Choice in North India, a Kashmiri Bhatta (as Kashmiri Hindus were called until then), Jialal Bhan, proposed to Mogul emperor Farrkhsiyar (1713 – 1719), that bhattas in his court be called Pandits because of their distinct identity. The emperor accepted his suggestion and thenceforth they were called Pandits.
KPs have been dealt with a bad hand by destiny but they are doing the best they can do with it. But in a few decades from now, the KP community will be very different from the one we have known. Civilizations have changed with time and we cannot fight time. But on the bright side younger KPs are excelling in their vocations and with their ingrained resilience their future is sanguine.
As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Srinagar-born Maharaj Kaul is a retired electrical engineer living in Suffern, N.Y. He is a published poet and author who has written extensively on Jammu and Kashmir.