The Ethnic Cleansing of the Pandits of Kashmir
In Vivek Agnihotri’s recent film, The Kashmir Files, frenzied crowds of Muslims chant Raliv, galiv, chaliv! (Convert, leave, or die!) as Hindu Pandit families cower in their homes. Bands of Islamic militants gun down security personnel and walk into Pandit homes to loot, rape, and murder. Wearing Indian army uniforms, they walk into Pandit villages and refugee camps, trick the residents by saying they must move to a safer location, then line them up and shoot them.
The film is set in Kashmir in the early 1990s. By then, the Pandits had long been reduced to a minority—about 140,000, or three percent of the population—in the beautiful Kashmir valley, their homeland since at least the fourth century BCE. Since the late 1980s, Islamic militancy, in the guise of a freedom (Azadi), movement gained momentum. As Pakistan-backed militants unleashed a campaign of mass murder, rape, and gory atrocities such as sawing a woman alive, nearly 100,000 Pandits were forced to flee. Agnihotri composes some of the shocking events of that exodus into a unified story that has left audiences in India gasping—and angry that a compromised media never gave this ethnic cleansing due coverage.
In fact, the Raliv, galiv, chaliv! formula harks to the 14th century when Islam first arrived in Kashmir. Like the media, leftist historians in India have whitewashed the systematic decimation of Pandits over 600 years. By exposing the 1990 cover-up, the film has made viewers eager to know the Pandits’ story.
The Kashmir valley is part of the northernmost region of the Indian subcontinent. It comprises the Indian-administered territories of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Besides, there are two Pakistan-administered regions (which Indians refer to as Pakistan-occupied)—Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan—and two regions (Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Tract) that China holds.
Historically, the whole region has been strongly Hindu-Buddhist. Kashmir valley had Hindu rulers since the fourth century BCE. In later centuries, it was the cradle and nursery of Kashmir Shaivism, which Kashmiri Pandits (pandit means priestly Brahmin) have kept alive. During the many centuries of Hindu rule, the Hindu majority lived in harmony with those who professed other faiths (chiefly Buddhism) under an ethos of equality and coexistence.
This changed when Muslims arrived. Taking advantage of the inhabitants’ hospitality, they built pockets of influence and started seizing power. The overshadowing of Hinduism and the spreading of Islam began with the arrival of a Turkic-Tartar marauder, Zul Qadir Khan, probably in 1313. Over eight months, he plundered and massacred the populace, razed the crops, and returning, took with him 50,000 Kashmiri Pandits as slaves. All of them perished en route.
Persecution and forced conversion were institutionalized in Kashmir during the reign of the Shah Mir dynasty (1339-1561). During the rule of the fifth Shah Mir dynast Qutbuddin, a Persian called Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani came to Kashmir with his followers. He incited conflict between the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority population and called for the latter’s conversion or exile. Hamadani convinced Qutbuddin to make the persecution of Hindus a state policy and forced the conversion of 37,000 Kashmiri Pandits to Islam. Under the Sayyids’ continued influence, Qutbuddin’s successor Sikandar took pride in destroying temples. In fact, he is known as Butshikhan or iconoclast.
In 1561 the Chaks, who belonged to a Shia sect, usurped the throne. They proved no less ruthless. Hindu shrines were destroyed and replaced with mosques. Repression and the fear of the fire or sword resulted in the conversion of 24,000 Pandit families to Islam. The converts were circumcised and force-fed beef, taboo to Hindus. Every week, a thousand cows were slaughtered and as many as 900 Pandits would be burnt alive or beheaded. Many converted or fled to save their lives.
The only respite the Pandits got was when the benevolent Akbar the Great of the Mughal dynasty, ruling from Delhi, took over Kashmir in 1585. The Pandits were allowed to practice their faith, freed from paying the jizyah, and given jobs as administrators. But Akbar’s successors, especially the fanatical Aurangzeb, reversed that policy. Determined to eradicate Hinduism, Aurangzeb ordered the liquidation of Hindu scholars and the destruction of temples in Kashmir. Again, the Pandits found themselves seeking refuge in other parts of India.
The Mughal empire withered after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 and, once again, raiders from Persia and Afghanistan made plundering forays into India. After the 1752 invasion of Ahmed Shah Abdali, the founder of Afghanistan, the Afghans ruled Kashmir for 70 years. Ahmed Shah looted Kashmir, imposed punitive taxes, and destroyed Kashmir’s rich culture. Forever in fear of the molestation of their women, the Pandits were again forced to flee.
Non-Muslim rule returned to Kashmir when it came under the Sikh empire from 1820-46, followed by the Dogra regime, which ruled till accession to India in 1947. During this entire period, the rulers employed many Kashmiri Pandits, who had focused on education to become modern professionals. Resentment grew among Muslims, who never wanted the Pandits there, let alone in positions of authority. The pro-Islamic false narrative of Pandits as exploiters that leftists peddle draws on this period.
The British, who knew they would have to leave soon, stoked that ill-feeling. Intent on creating trouble for the last Dogra ruler, Hari Singh, they incited Muslim malcontents to protest. During one such demonstration in July 1931, a mob attacked a prison to free a Muslim. Some protestors were killed when the police opened fire. After that, Muslim mobs killed many Pandits and set their homes and businesses on fire.
When the British left in 1947, the local Muslim leadership channeled the protest against the Hindu regime into a cry for independence as part of the pan-Islamic ummah. As Hari Singh equivocated about joining the Indian Union, Pakistan sent tribespeople from the NWFP to raid Kashmir. Local Muslims mobilized against the Pandits. The stories of loot, rape, torture, arson, and forced conversions from the time are heart-rending. In A Mission in Kashmir, Andrew Whitehead writes that even British nuns weren’t spared. Finally, Hari Singh joined the Indian Union and the Indian army drove away the intruders.
Pakistan, seeking revenge for its defeat in the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh, deployed the policy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts. Its agencies influenced political leaders, the media, academicians, and social groups, building the narrative of the Indian state oppressing a peaceful freedom struggle. Its moles in the police and administration fomented anti-India feelings. All along, it helped terrorist groups with funds, weapons, and training.
By 1989-90, these groups were establishing interrogation centers and courts. Pandits were being denounced as traitors and agents of India in posters and announcements from mosques. It was undiluted jihad: kafirs (infidels) must go. During this period, over 25,000 houses were burned, and 99 percent of the remaining Hindus left the valley.
The Kashmir Files’ focus on this last exodus has made many Indians demand research giving true accounts of the Pandits’ suffering. The left-liberal brigade, naturally, is calling the film divisive, majoritarian, and bad art, and is opposing a call for a genocide memorial museum. A Muslim cleric, Maulvi Farooq, has issued threats and sought a ban on the film. But the cries of Raliv, galiv, chaliv! from the film ring loud. They drown out the deniers.
Image: Poster for The Kashmir Files. Fair use.