The Dynamics of Power in Kashmir
June 22, 2018
Towards his last days, while reflecting on his life and experiences, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah1 described Kashmiri Pandits as ‘The Fifth Columnists’ and ‘The Instruments of Tyranny’.2 The sweeping portrayal of a community by a person accused of having handed over Kashmir to India on a platter to answer the wishes of this minuscule minority looks incredible. Was the Kashmir’s ‘tallest leader’ being unsavoury during his last days towards a community that had earlier bestowed upon him the title of Vishnu incarnate?3 To find an answer, a journey through the history of Kashmir with focus on this generally perceived wise community, that formed a merely 4 per cent of Kashmir’s population but “exerted influence out of all proportion to its numbers,”4 is a prerequisite.
The Kashmiri Pandits are Shaivite Hindus who consider themselves as ‘the twice born’ and a special race above the rest. In a caste-driven Hindu society, they form the uppermost caste of Brahmans even as the other three castes of Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras are non-existent in Kashmir.
The Kashmiri Pandits insist on being called as such instead of Kashmiri Hindus. The community maintains that it was to distinguish them from other upper caste Hindus of India known as the Brahmans. Within Kashmir, since the community belonged to the same Brahman category of Hindus, the designation ‘Kashmiri Pandit’ was irrelevant and they were, as are till date, known as Batta(s). They are mutton-eating Brahmans. Also, against other non-vegetarian Hindus who consume jhatka meat, they eat halaal. Rama and Krishna, the prominent Hindu gods, were not worshipped by them. There were no temples consecrated to them in Kashmir. It was only during the Dogra Hindu rule (1846–1947) that such temples were constructed in Kashmir and in deference to their rulers, the Pandits started celebrating Janmashtami and Diwali and visiting Ram and Hanuman temples. In fact, their Janmashtami is different from that observed by other Hindus. They call it Zaram Sattam and celebrate it a day before Hindus do in India. The practice of suttee once widespread among the Hindus in India was unknown to Kashmiri Pandits although Kalhana’s account establishes the custom being practised by royal ladies in ancient Kashmir.5
A Pandit would not eat or drink from the hands of a Muslim although from his birth to death Muslims played vital roles in his life. While the ‘twice born’ openly practised apartheid against his Muslim compatriots, he had no qualms about his children being born at the hands of a Muslim midwife6 or his dead cremated by a Muslim kawji.7 He was also comfortable at a Muslim holding an umbrella over the head of his bridegroom son.8 He would not touch poultry or eggs, but would eat wild fowls and eggs of the lake birds and insist these were slaughtered in a Muslim fashion. Since the Kashmiri Pandits consider themselves as a superior race, they do not follow trades that are low in status. Hence, from a foster mother of his children,9 a cobbler, a potter, a person who fries corns, a porter, a boatman, a carpenter, a mason or a fruit seller,10 a Kashmiri Brahman was dependent on a Muslim but would not allow him entry into his kitchen even if he was a friend or a domestic help.
A Pandit can be persistent when it comes to pursuing his case and will find newer and intelligent ways of persuasion if the previous failed. Lawrence recalls an interesting anecdote:
A Pandit whose petition had been three times rejected, appeared a fourth time, and I told him if he presented another petition I should have to report him to the local official. The next day the Pandit appeared with a paper in his hand; he was at once ordered to be removed, but explained that it was not a petition but a poem which he wished to present. The poem recited his grievances.11
A study of Kashmir’s history shows that the Pandit community has wielded enormous influence on the affairs of the state, and its members always held power and clout, irrespective of who ruled Kashmir. One of the reasons for this is the importance they accorded to education. They were quick to learn the languages of the rulers. Some within the community itself, though, admit that “where what is required is flattery, who can beat the Pandit.”12 Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s one time close associate, Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi, however, has his own explanation of a Pandit being indispensable for a ruler. In his words:
Suppose you are driving a bus which is filled with passengers and there is no space left even for a blade of grass to accommodate. All of a sudden you see a Pandit on the road signalling you to stop and let him board the lorry. There is zero possibility of taking him in but if you have to reach your destination you will have to make room for him even if it means carrying him on your shoulder. Otherwise, he will lie in the middle of the road and not let you move an inch.13
The journey of the Kashmir’s minority community from Kashmiri Hindus to Kashmiri Pandits is related to the Mughal rule when members of the community started trickling out of the confines of the Valley into a wider arena of India. There, the sense of pride and belonging to a special creed, which they possessed, received a jolt. They felt like being drowned in an ocean of Hindu society that had its own Brahmans and upper caste elite. The members of the community through their quality of adaptability and serving the powers had won hearts of the occupying Mughal nobility in Kashmir. They were looked upon by the ruling class as trustworthy people in comparison to the Muslim majority that resisted the Mughal occupation of Kashmir. This trust earned the immigrant Kashmiri Hindus some important positions in the corridors of power in Delhi, Agra and Lucknow. One such person who endeared himself to one of the last remnants of the Mughal Empire, King Mohammad Shah, was Jai Ram Bhan who was his courtier. Bhan persuaded Mohammad Shah to issue a royal decree designating Kashmiri Brahmans as Kashmiri Pandits,14 thus drawing a line of distinction between the Brahmans of Kashmir and those of India. In the medieval period, when Kashmiris en masse converted to Islam, there remained just a small section of Brahmans who did not convert and represented Hinduism in the country.
1. In 1931, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah emerged as the leader of Kashmiri Muslims against the Dogra occupation of Kashmir. Along with others, he formed the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference and became its President. Subsequently in 1939, he converted it into the National Conference, a secular and pro-India political party. After the termination of the Dogra rule in 1947, Abdullah was first made emergency administrator of Jammu and Kashmir and, later, prime minister. In 1953, his close friendship with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was strained due to which he was unceremoniously sacked on 9 August 1953 and imprisoned for 11 years. In 1964, he was released only to be externed for four and a half year in two spells. Finally, he mended fences with Nehru’s daughter and the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, following which he was returned to power in 1975 which he held till his death on 8 September 1982. His autobiography, Aatash-e-Chinar, was released in 1986, four years after his demise.
2. Abdullah, Aatash-e-Chinar, 637–53.
3. Ibid., 649; Vishnu is known as Parmeshwar, the supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hindus.
4. Rai, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, 9.
5. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Book VI, verses 107, 195; Book VII, verses 103, 461, 1380. Sultan Sikandar had banned suttee in Kashmir. However, his son, Zainul Aabideen is said to have lifted the ban.
6. Lawrence, The Valley of Kashmir, 258.
7. Ibid., 262.
8. Ibid., 261.
9. Ibid., 300.
10. Ibid., 303.
11. Ibid., 276.
12. Shamim, Shiv Narain Raina. Safir-i-Kashmir, March 1892.
13. In 1986, the present author with his friend, Javed Azar, had a long interview with Masoodi at the latter’s Ganderbal residence in north Kashmir. The interview was held for a newly launched Urdu weekly, Ishaet, but the senior politician agreed only to speak off the record. He dwelt for hours on various matters including on Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s then recently published autobiography, Aatash-e-Chinar, in which Masoodi is painted in black. The interview, as mutually agreed, was not published. The weekly disappeared after few months of regular publication.
14. Rai, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, 639; Kilam, A History of Kashmiri Pandits, 100.
This is an excerpt from the chapter "Power" in the book 'Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative' by Khalid Bashir Ahmad, former civil servant, Kashmir Administrative Services 2017 / 412 pages / Paperback: Rs 595 (9789386062802)/ SAGE India.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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