“What about the Kashmiri Pandits?”

On Uncertain Ground: Displaced Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu Camps by Ankur Datta. 2017

“What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” For well over a quarter century every public conversation on Kashmir has been dogged by that question. As a tiny Hindu minority in predominantly Muslim Kashmir (they constituted less than 5% in the 1990s) Pandits have had an extraordinary valence in the often-heated discourse around the conflict, and their “migration” from Kashmir in the early 1990s continues to cast a baleful shadow on the present.

The question about the Pandits has also usually been posed as an accusation directed at the Kashmiri Muslim, and the weight of moral blame, and the charge of “ethnic cleansing” a minority has been a heavy one. And as the narrative of the Pandit “exodus” became inextricably folded into the rise of Hindutva politics in the India of the 1990s, every small fact about it was bogged down in a minefield of rhetoric. There is little clarity then even about the basics: when did the displacement take place; what triggered it; or where did the departing migrants go. Something as apparently straightforward as the numbers involved remains entirely imprecise.

On Uncertain Ground comes as a long-overdue corrective, a book-length study of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits that provides a welcome map of what has been a frustratingly undifferentiated zone. Ankur Datta’s chosen remit is narrowly defined: Purkhu, one of the several ‘migrant camps’ in the Jammu region to which the Pandits made their way in the 1990s. A broad interest in displacement and dislocation, and in the politics of victimhood, brought Datta to this settlement of a few thousand people, as part of the fieldwork for a PhD thesis. The questions of what, when, where, and how of the displacement are not central to the work here, though these may well be the most important questions in the mind of a more general reader.

His ethnography began in 2005, fifteen years after the migrants first began arriving in Jammu and many of the early camps had already been shut down. Time had transformed the rest from “places of exception into ordinary sites of everyday life and settlement”. Still, the early struggle to find shelter, the unfamiliar heat and dust of the north Indian plains, the encounters with scorpions and snakes, the trauma of scarcity, none of this had been overcome by the residents of Purkhu, only endured. Datta speaks with those in Purkhu, but also with other more well off Pandits who live outside of these camps in other parts of Jammu city, as well as with local political organisations and communities.

The early 1990s in Kashmir, when the displacement of Pandits first began, was a time when long-simmering anti-India feelings amongst the majority Muslim community in the valley had erupted into a popular armed insurrection. Although it is often represented as if this came about suddenly, out of nowhere as it were, there was a history to the ‘pro-freedom’ sentiment that could easily be traced to the moment of decolonization in 1947. If you were to add a century of Dogra rule that preceded it, the sentiment has an even longer history amongst the Muslims of the Kashmir valley. In contrast, through this entire period the loyalties of the Pandits, with only a few outstanding exceptions, were perceived to be different, first with the Dogra Maharaja, a Hindu, and then with India. Although a fragile social balance existed, with Kashmir’s Pandits (and Sikhs) occupying well-defined corners, it began to come loose with the armed upsurge of the early 1990s.

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This was a period initially marked by explosive street protests, then followed by a long drawn out and corrosive armed insurgency. The emergent climate of fear predisposed Pandits to flight, Datta points out, and his ethnography amidst the residents of the camps leads him to conclude that for the Pandits it was “the overall deterioration in law and order, alongside selective assassinations and the content of demonstrations” that made them feel unwanted in Kashmir. The departures continued all through the ‘90s, and by the end of that decade, the Pandits were all but gone. (Kashmir’s Sikhs remained, and do so till today. But that is another story).

Purkhu Camp Road

In sharp contrast to the way the “exodus” of January 1990 has often been depicted, Datta notes that “the actual process of the flight nevertheless remained an individual or familial affair…” and became apparent only when large numbers of Pandits began arriving in Jammu. In constructing a possible narrative for those years, Datta scours the newspapers and journals of the time, including those coming out of Jammu. He finds that while the arrival of the Pandits in Jammu and Delhi was noted, contemporary newspapers in general carried few references to the Pandits and that “the circumstances that resulted in flight remain inadequately covered”. This inexplicable gap is best illustrated by Datta through one of the recurrent Pandit accounts of what triggered the migration. It centers on January 19, 1990, when massive crowds of pro-freedom protestors are said to have poured onto the streets of Srinagar, raising provocative pro-Islam and anti-Pandit slogans. One particularly sexualized threat reappears with unerring consistency in almost all contemporary Pandit narratives, Datta notes, and we know this to be accorded an almost sacred centrality in memories of the early months of 1990. “Batav bagair, batnev saan” – for a beleaguered minority this most hurtful of slogans suggested that the crowd wanted Azadi for Kashmir, ‘without Pandit men, [but] with their women’. Looking into the newspaper archive Datta sees that the earliest reports of this hateful slogan emerge only years later: “The slogans the Pandits remember have never been reported officially at the time and suggest a gap between what was recorded and what Pandits describe”. The newspapers of the period do of course focus on ‘mob violence’, casualties due to police action, as well as large-scale arrests.

The attention I have paid here to what might appear to be a minor detail in Datta’s book does not imply that the particular slogan was never raised. But that it may have not have been as widespread as it was later claimed to be. And that this damaging slogan developed a corporeality across decades of recounting by the migrants, as part of the shared description of the conditions that led to departure, and that it played a crucial role in the production of what Datta elsewhere references as a “single ritualized account” of Pandit victimhood. (A book that lucidly unravels the manner in which the memory of trauma can often transcend facts of geography, and even of the occurrence of events, is Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond, Picador 2015)

Given the political sensitivities around the migration, access to Government data about the arriving migrants was (and continues to be) zealously guarded. From the fragments available, Datta points out that of the 36,000 families registered with the Government of Jammu & Kashmir (a total of around 135,000 people) the camps at Jammu, Kathua and Udhampur accounted for only about 6000 families. That meant that 80% of those registered were outside the camps, and not even eligible for ‘relief’ from the state. Many of these were Government employees who continued to receive their salaries, although they were not really expected to show up at work. This concession granted by the state government did not win the recently arrived Pandit migrants many friends amongst their new neighbours in Jammu. (And led to considerable heartburn in the Kashmir they had left behind too.) Yet it was the relatively small number of the “camp migrants” who became symbolic of the displacement, a marker for the indigent and helpless, and the figure, Datta notes, “employed to speak for all Pandit migrants”.

In its attentiveness to such detail On Uncertain Ground constructs a valuable context for the situation of the Pandits in the camps, and ends up shining a light on what is otherwise a thicket of confusion. Datta work is rich with small but pointed observations that consistently suggest a wider set of political and historical interconnections than might emerge from a more narrow ethnography of one camp. It is evinced, for instance, in his alertness to a question of terminology and of the official use of the word ‘migrant’, as against the more appropriate ‘internally displaced person’, IDP. (Could it be that migrant–suggesting some volition–was meant to insulate the state from any responsibility in the displacement?)

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The tented migrant camps that were first established in 1990 eventually became a part of a larger programme of relief and rehabilitation established by the Indian state, which included financial and food aid, and the security of pensions and salaries to state government employees. Although Datta does not dwell on this, one of the most critical advantages of the wider support system made available to those with migrant status was the reservations made in engineering colleges and other institutions of professional education. (Initially under the Shiv Sena led government in Maharashtra, and later followed by several other states, including Delhi). To leave the camps and give up the status of migrant would therefore lead to a loss of this substantial privilege, and this without doubt had a major effect on the ability of migrants in the Jammu camps to move away. They were denied a sense of closure therefore, and the thought “of having to ‘leave’ or ‘migrate’ again at any moment, as opposed to being settled, persists”.

By the time Datta wound up research in 2011, Purkhu and many of the camps had folded up, and residents of the infamously cramped One Room Tenements (ORT) had been moved into small apartments in the more developed Jagti Township nearby. But the ordeal that began for the migrant twenty years before lives on, and that is the “uncertain ground” that Datta’s scholarship does much to interrogate. For whether they were living in the camps, or in rented rooms across the city, little in Jammu could ever make it home for the Pandit migrants. In an observation that is central to his ethnography of camp life, and which he teases out with considerable effort, Datta points out that “the ability to feel an attachment is mediated by memories of the past and hopes for the future”. Every memory of Kashmir – its balmy summers, the cool waters of its rivers, the abundance of its fruits and vegetables – worked to devalue home here in the heat and dust of the camp. Place, as he points out, is “a generative context for the social world of the displaced”.

At one point Datta notes a telling historical fact about the land that the camp that he is studying came up on. For Purkhu was a Muslim dominated village until 1947, when its residents became unwittingly drawn into the blood soaked Partition of British India. Overnight Jammu was transformed into a killing field, with the survivors of this bloodletting fleeing to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, what was later known as Azad Kashmir. In Purkhu that painful history seemed to have been consigned to the same silence as the other killings witnessed by the city of Jammu over a few months of 1947, when anywhere between 20,000 and 200,000 people were butchered on its streets. Datta does not delve into this history, although it may have helped to understand the character of Jammu city, and its history of communal tensions, which ended up playing a somewhat reluctant host to the Pandit migration.

With the arrival of the migrants rents in Jammu had skyrocketed, and the hostility of the host population – now ironically Hindu, not Muslim – partly stemmed from the fact that the migrants were unfairly thought of as pampered by the state through its “relief” machinery. While this may have been mitigated to an extent for those who moved onto Delhi, Pune and even Bangalore, for the “camp” migrant the indignity of having to live in crowded tents, and later in the 9 foot x 14 foot ORTs, was something that they had to swallow. Complicating things further were the Pandit migrant’s sense of self, and status, which often prevented them from moving on. Eventually it is through this kind of lightly structured assemblage that the book suggests that the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits requires a complex, multi-disciplinary reading, where historical facts must inflect the more sociologically weighted notions that Datta is focused on – the status of Pandits in Kashmiri society; or the typology of the ‘ideal Pandit’. In On Uncertain Ground Datta foregrounds that for the Pandits “much of the trauma of displacement is related to reconciling the loss of prior status with the discontent of the present”. (At Purkhu camp, Datta once asked if the assistants to the local baker – who supplied it’s residents the breads that Kashmiris are accustomed to – were Pandits. His informant was indignant: “They are not. We do not do such work, we are Brahmins after all”.) Datta quotes the fascinating contra instance of migrants from the Doda region, who had also set up a camp in the mid 1990s along the banks of the Tawi River that cuts through Jammu city, but without the state support made available to the Pandits. Its dwellers – both Hindus and Muslims from Doda – soon developed the land they occupied, setting up small agricultural plots. Such labour would have been unthinkable for the Pandits, who were rooted in their perception of their status as Brahmins who had been displaced.

In their appeals to the Indian government, Pandits usually portrayed themselves as having made sacrifices for the nation, as martyrs, and not as victims alone. (These claims were not unlike those made by Hindu refugees who came to India from East Bengal, Datta points out, or by the Mohajirs who made similar claims on Pakistan.) By stating their support for Indian nationalism, the Pandits ended up locating themselves outside Kashmiri nationalist formations, and very much within the Indian nation state. And yet, in their claim making, their location in the camps meant that they have not received the recognition due to them from the very same Indian state. “This simultaneous duality”, as Datta refers to it, “results in a tension that defines Pandit victimhood”.

This victimhood may have been critical to the experiences of the Kashmiri Pandits, and was a feeling that preceded the 1990s, Datta says, invoking earlier work on Kashmiri Pandits by Henny Sender, and the more recent work of Haley Duschinski amongst migrant Pandits in New Delhi (where they see themselves as Hindus, and embodying the Indian nation state and the idea of India, and victimized for that.) Pandits have tended to see the decline in their fortunes in an unbroken line, Datta suggests, “from the Tartar invasion of 1320 to the conquest of the valley by the Sikhs in the early part of the 19th century. And everything in between is then seen as a single period of unbroken Muslim rule in Kashmir”.

There is also of course the tension caused by the fact that in contrast to the history of victimization, Pandits have also been closely “associated with institutions such as the state and holding positions of power and influence”. Here Datta is not referring only to the proud assertion by his respondents about Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi being Pandits, but goes back much further, with Pandits having played important roles in the courts of the Mughals and the Afghans (even as the community were also persecuted under Mughal and Afghan rule). Indeed it was Mughal rule that made it possible for the Pandits, or at least some elements amongst them, to gain extraordinary mobility and secure employment in the territories under that empire, in the Sikh kingdom of Punjab, the Nawabdom of Awadh, and so on, “due to their knowledge of the courtly and business languages of Persian, and later Urdu”. In making these connections Datta provides an excellent opening for a discussion on the effect of the loss of political prominence that the Pandits once held in the past.

Perhaps the most tragic long-term impact of the displacement comes in the differences that Datta notes between the generations that have now passed through Purkhu. “Older migrants recall living in harmony and trust with their Muslim neighbours and friends”, Datta notes, “without resorting to claims of Kashmiriyat”. While this latter term has ended up thoroughly discredited, especially in the valley, Kashmiriyat still signals an aspiration, a moment “where society in Kashmir was defined by a regional, syncretistic, and accepting ‘culture’ able to overwrite religious identities”. The younger generation may well “speak of Kashmir as an idealised territory imagined with the help of their parents and elders, (but) harmonious relations with Muslims do not figure in the narrative…” Datta notes.

On Uncertain Ground is a book written with empathy and understanding, and always accompanied by a sharp-eye for the many layers that must be read simultaneously. Given the vexed position of the migration of Kashmiri Pandits in the discourse around Kashmir, where their absence has only made their presence grow ever larger, it is possible that the book may not please many of its constituents. This must be seen as an act of courage though, and scholarly responsibility, and this is precisely what makes it an important book. It is a first step in teasing out the story, but an important, well-developed and stable first step.

A shorter version of this book review first appeared in Contributions to Indian Sociology 58:2 June 2018


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Sanjay Kak Written by:

Sanjay Kak is an independent documentary film-maker, whose recent films include Jashn-e-Azadi (How we celebrate freedom) and Red Ant Dream. He is also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthologies Until My Freedom Has Come - The New Intifada in Kashmir, and the photobook Witness - Kashmir 1986-2016, 9 photographers.

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