Revisiting the Question of the Kashmiri Pandits: The Battle of the Narratives

By: Dr. Sadaf Munshi

Every year the people of the Kashmiri Pandit (KP) and Kashmiri Muslim (KM) communities commemorate the month of January 1990 for the beginning of an era of two structurally different but extremely bitter and painful experiences: the “exodus” of the former facilitated by an atmosphere of immense fear and terror and the beginning of the brutal atrocities of the latter at the hands of the Indian state. It was a time period that marked the beginning of an era of dissatisfaction on both sides, a sense of deceit, distrust and disbelief.

There has been an abysmal silence on part of each of the two communities failing to acknowledge the painful experiences of the other and a continued resentment; this often leads to poisonous confrontations and virulent debates on public forums as well as in private gatherings. Two parallel narratives developed independently over the course of time on each side leaving a dismal gap between the two communities, which has yet to be filled over twenty-three years later. What is truly unfortunate and utterly disappointing about all this enterprise is the unfathomable urge among the members of the two communities, time and time again, to indulge in comparing and weighing their own pain and sufferings against the other and thus, directly or indirectly denying, falsifying and even ridiculing the other’s pain against their own.

The Problem

Numerous conflicts motivated, influenced, promoted or characterized by communal or ethnic tension are a testimony to the fact that during such politically charged times when governing bodies have literally collapsed, the last thing the common people tend to do is to think and act rationally. A majority of the leading voices on the Kashmir conflict and KP/KM debate fail to recognize the importance of the degree of influence that various key events and situations had on the emotional psychology of the people from each of these communities. This eventually reflected itself as a contention based on competing narratives, which seem to omit, under-emphasize, deny, or cherry-pick incidents that are potentially sensitive for one or the other side without assessing the repercussions of such behavior. In any tragic account like this, the account of the victims should be given the greatest sanctity.

The members of the KP and the KM community or their supporters advocating their respective causes or aspirations have consistently maintained two extreme positions on the question of the Pandit “exodus”. One voice consistently maintains that the KP’s left as part of the governor Jagmohan’s “conspiracy to clear ground” for a large-scale operation in an attempt to eradicate “militancy” (and, involving “massacring” of the Muslims) and the other suggests that the KPs were “driven” or “hounded” out by the majority community as part of a well-organized, systematic, sort of scripted agenda “to get rid of them”, with an aim of “ethnic cleansing”. Similar to these are the following arguments: one is the constant blaming by the majority of the minority that they were complicit with the state’s “nefarious designs” against the Muslims and, therefore, deserved to be ousted, and two, is the claim by some people that the Kashmiri Muslims were responsible for the atrocities incurred on them at the hands of the Indian security forces, making statements such as: they invited it, and, therefore, they deserved it (Some extremist Pandit groups even use the term “holocaust” to refer to the mass migration). While the minority community largely holds the majority responsible for their plight, the majority community kept accusing them for leaving their homeland “for greener pastures”. Both of the two positions are dangerously biased and inaccurate and contribute to strengthen and intensify the bitterness, animosity and mistrust between the two communities.

There is no doubt that the migration of the Kashmiri Pandits was the strongest blow to the Kashmiri ethos of Hindu-Muslim communal harmony and the much-harped notion of Kashmiriyat (or ‘Kashmiriness’). A stringent bitterness and suspicion developed between the two communities, which continued and crystallized over the last two decades or so post 1990. However, a fair degree of mistrust and disbelief had already been existing, and simmering underneath an apparently harmonious society before 1990.

Recall that at the outset of the armed struggle for “freedom” in Kashmir, a significant number of Kashmiri Pandits were targeted — killed, abducted or simply threatened by armed militants or mobs based on suspicion, communal animosity, sometimes for purely personal reasons, or merely to “set an example” for those who might have connived with the Indian state against the militants or the “movement”. It is also important to note that a certain degree of tension, which often reflected political or ideological differences, also existed within the Kashmiri Muslim community itself, viz., on the sectarian lines. Thus, attacks and threats, though on a fairly smaller scale, were also made against people belonging to other minorities, such as the Shi’a Muslim community, with the warning of “joining the movement or facing the consequences”; it is such threats that motivated many of the members of the Shi’a Muslim minority to join hands with the “movement”. Note that attacks were made on everybody who was seen as a “threat” to the “freedom” struggle. These included politicians, government officials as well as people representing or supporting mainstream political parties, especially National Conference. Given these facts, it is naïve to suggest that majority of the Kashmiri Muslims were responsible for or involved in efforts to enforce religious homogeneity, or that ethnic cleansing was the primary goal in this connection.

While the majority of the KP community was living in extreme circumstances as refugees in their own country, back home in Kashmir the majority community was busy wailing over their losses over the many years to come — the atrocities by the security forces, rapes and assault of many of their women, enforced disappearances, scores of fake encounters, deaths/killings of civilians during protests and demonstrations, and numerous other human rights violations. A strong void developed between the two separated communities, which seemed to be widening over the course of time. There was an increasing need of a sense of acknowledgement of the pain and suffering from each side but neither seemed to take that first step — a furiousness and frustration set forth at the silence of the other at their pain. 

Major Challenge in the Process of Reconciliation

In the process of truth telling, peace making and reconciliation, there is no room for “but what about…” or the pehle aap (‘first you’) attitude. It is high time that, without any prejudice or hesitations and without getting entangled in the pointless debates on theories and conspiracies on who or what was responsible for the KP exodus, we admit that both the government and the majority community failed to prevent them from leaving Kashmir or facilitate their return. While the state government consistently failed to fulfill its promises to “rehabilitate Pandits in their homes”, most attempts of return were foiled by unidentified elements, often involving violence. The least the state or the central government could have done in this regard was to save or secure their houses, their places of worship, and their other immovable property, which lay abandoned, dilapidated, unprotected, abused, and in several cases, burnt down or gobbled up by vested interests.

It seems to me that there perhaps will be no formal or large-scale acknowledgement of the shameful truth regarding the exodus of the Pandit minority by the majority Muslim community without a simultaneous acknowledgement on part of the government of India and the security forces of the atrocities incurred on them over all these years. The reason for that being that although the Pandits are not responsible for the atrocities on Kashmiri Muslims, they are, albeit only symbolically, perceived as associated with the national machinery that caused these atrocities. They did not really contest the “movement for freedom”, but they also did not participate in it.

There is a need for the process of reconciliation to begin at two levels and this must happen simultaneously — one is the KP-KM reconciliation and the other is the Kashmir-India reconciliation. The major challenge in this process, however, is that until there is a formal political settlement to the Kashmir issue –whatever that is, there will be no Kashmir-India reconciliation. Although it is possible that the KP-KM reconciliation could proceed on its own, it may not be effective enough to ensure the return of the Pandits to Kashmir unless some kind of a formal political solution or settlement is sought and achieved. It is a double-edged sword and a bitter reality for all of us to understand without losing our tempers.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Technical Communication at the University of North Texas. She can be reached at

Originally published in Economic and Political Weekly (Aug 31, 2013):

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