Kashmir is the Way It Is Today Because of Years of Disregard

The Indian government in Kashmir is represented by increased militarisation rather than attempts at succour or conciliation.

Srinagar. Credit: Jesse Rapczak/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Srinagar. Credit: Jesse Rapczak/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Like most people considering the ‘Kashmir problem’, I too have a theory about it. Here it is.

Kashmir is a problem today thanks to years of rigged elections, interference, hubris, disconnect and a lack of cultural understanding by the Indian government. Of course there are other factors, like a mischievous neighbour (Pakistan), who has equal disregard for the people of the Valley but whispers sweet nothings in its ear. Then there is the growth of international terrorism. It is my belief that the last two have succeeded because of the first.

At any given time in Kashmir, like the dormant volcano in the heart of its capital Srinagar, atop which sits the Shankaracharya Temple, things are calm, but only until the next eruption. While the volcano has been quiet in memory, the same cannot be said about the good people who live around it. The history of the sublime Valley is regularly punctuated by floods, famines, fires and foreign oppression. Ruled by Sufism and sages, Kashmiris have put up with everything, until the last few decades.

We have come a long way from the time I was a little girl, when the world to us consisted of Kashmir and “the Punjab”, a worldview presumably from the time of the Sikh Empire that ruled us ruthlessly after 1819. So merciless were the Sikhs that natives began to yearn for their barbaric Afghan predecessors, who in their turn were famous for routinely flaying unfortunates under their subjugation. Even today the term kurra waalun is part of colloquial Kashmiri idiom and used metaphorically by all Kashmiris, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim.

However, the wound left by our Sikh masters was fresher and defined us existentially. Anything non-Kashmiri was Punjabi, including visiting Soviets Khrushchev and Bulganin in 1955; all it meant was they were not Kashmiri. This is how insular our life was. Even mirror carp, unlike the mahseer, introduced by the department of pisciculture, was a Punjabi fish and though plentiful and cheap, not quite the thing. We felt that only Kashmiri things were right for us, but this “Texas” complex was curious seeing as how we had been serfs through most of our history, down most recently to the Afghans, then the Punjabis and until 1947 to the Dogras. Whatever the religion of our rulers, our lot was wretched, whatever our religion.

The divide was only between us and the world at large. We Hindus, called Pandits (as we, through some unexplained quirk of history were all Brahmins), were amazingly safe and secure even though a minority of less than 5% of the Valley’s population. Supposedly, the Brahmins were spared for their learning while all other castes were forcibly converted to Islam. While murderous mass conversions under Muslim conquerors are on record, that cannot be the whole story. The cut off at Brahmin is too clean. Whatever it was, we lived in harmony at all levels of society. I often walked to the Seventh Bridge to our ancestral home for weddings, returning at midnight, accompanied by our old Muslim retainer. All we were scared of was the plague of street dogs, which incidentally still persists today. Must be all those lamb bones thrown out of windows by the ferocious carnivores that we Kashmiris are, Muslim and Hindu; the geography demands it. Defenestration of quotidian objects in a Valley of multistoried homes noted by Xuanzang in the 7th century, is an old habit; starch from boiling rice, bones, water. We like to throw things out of the window; when walking the narrow lanes of the old city we always expected something unwelcome might come down from above and stayed alert.


Srinagar. Credit: roman korzh/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Srinagar. Credit: roman korzh/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Who can believe that symbiotic world today? Devastatingly, that life where Muslims shielded their Pandit compatriots from marauding Pakistan tribals has gone by the wayside, mourned today by Pandits and Muslims alike. The former for having been forced out of home and hearth by their Muslim cohorts, and the latter for the mayhem they have suffered at the hands of “India.” The same Kashmiris who refused to join Pakistan are today full of hatred and anger against India and have caused Pandits to flee for their lives.

How did India achieve this dubious distinction, this odd behaviour, in such a short amount of time?

Kashmiris have for centuries had the reputation of being submissive and non-combative, they have been called meek and mild, or cowardly, through the years of our serial subjugation by fierce invaders. The conquerors were mainly Muslim, but this won their Kashmiri co-religionists no favours.

The author's childhood home, her grandmother standing on the verandah. Source: Sudha Koul

The author’s childhood home, her grandmother standing on the verandah. Source: Sudha Koul

The Muslims might have suffered double jeopardy under Hindu rulers, but the attitude of Punjabis towards Kashmiris en masse left a lot to be desired as well, starting with fact that they called us all “hatho”, a rough equivalent of the British derogatory term wallah used for all minions until very recently. As a Kashmiri Hindu, you would think I had nothing to worry about in this state of affairs, but you would be wrong, to our overlords we were subspecies. Non-Kashmiri speaking Kashmiris who had settled well generations ago abroad in North India, like the Nehrus, were even worse, and made no secret of their hilarity at our having a thick Kashmiri accent when we spoke Urdu or Hindi. Our somewhat simple financial and living conditions, and the general lack of courtly etiquette that they had mastered under their Indian employers, mainly princelings and such like, garnered us no respect. Even when I got into the Indian Administrative Service, the first Kashmiri woman to do so, I was met with incredulity that I could walk and talk as well as them without an aristocratic background or a relative in high places to show cause for it. We, for our part, looked down on this group, their clinging to wisps of archaic customs and phrases of their lost culture, and the fact that they were neither fish nor fowl, neither Punjabi nor Kashmiris. We called them Batta-Punjabi.

It is my opinion that the superciliousness resulting from these inherited, customary and fossilised attitudes with which India has treated Kashmiri elections and governments and people, and continues to do so, are mainly to be blamed for the mess in Kashmir. Kashmir changed but the rest of India did not see that.


At independence the plight of Kashmiris was pathetic, particularly the Muslim majority who had hardly anything except servitude. Proactive Sheikh Abdullah returned land to the tiller, declared Muslims to be a ‘backward community’, set up free education and reserved admission to professional schools and jobs. In short order, by the 70s, these areas began to reflect their numbers, Muslims were a quantum leap ahead, though Pandits still held disproportionate percentages of job and opportunities. Sadly, the emasculation of Kashmir began almost immediately with the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah for holding discomforting independent ideas and referring to the plebiscite promised by Nehru at the time of the state’s accession to the Republic of India. This was followed by a swinging door policy towards succeeding governments culled from rigged elections. For the most part, though, discontent was an unexploded device that lay in the dust and debris of the manipulation of Kashmir politics. But life was good, the land was beautiful and it was easy to forget that there was a problem in Kashmir.

When sporadic disturbances blew up in the Valley, no one in Delhi lost sleep. Instead, the occasional restlessness of the natives was answered by pumping more money into the Valley, officially for public works and industry, and unofficially for the greasing of willing hands. Give the dog a bone, you might say to continue the local metaphor, was the official policy line. And the dog took the bone. Kashmiri leaders became rich beyond their wildest dreams and corrupt beyond belief, as did the entire bureaucracy that worked under them. Of one leader it was proudly stated by his cohorts, “He eats, but feeds others as well.”

A school teacher who wanted to be posted closer to her children was posted halfway there because she had brought the university official half a kilo of mutton as opposed to the full kilo he demanded. On the macro level, no public works came into view, strategic bridges literally had feet of clay and could not hold up when required by army trucks. Private homes of politicians rose, looking like high schools, but the common man plodded on in straightened circumstances only marginally better than those under the Dogras, under whom the word begaer, working for nothing, gained currency and is current in conversation.

Sad to say, Kashmiris were now let down by other Kashmiris.


All this was good for the haves while it lasted, but a couple of generations later, Muslim youth could not move ahead as rapidly as their elders had done, and the “rising level of expectations” hit a road block. What was a privilege began to be perceived as a right, this led to frustration and anger; both were completely unaddressed. When, fed by revived calls for plebiscite and propaganda, they fermented into seething discontent and exploded with increasing frequency. New Delhi responded with imperious derision and armed forces that brutalised anyone suspected of militancy. The populace was literally shell shocked at the horrors they experienced, nothing this vicious had happened ever in living memory.

Into this fertile growing divide stepped Pakistan, still bristling after a seriously failed attempts to get their hands on the majority-Muslim Valley. Pakistani guerilla camps offered humiliated, beaten and rebellious Kashmiri youth guts and glory. Handfuls of boys initially and then, to their parents horror, increasing numbers went like lemmings, slipping over the very porous border into Pakistan. They returned armed and brainwashed thoroughly with violent anti-Indian propaganda, ready for jihad. Most of all they thought they saw a way out of the ignominy and despair into which they had fallen.

An Indian policeman stands guard near shops painted with graffiti during curfew in Srinagar, August 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

An Indian policeman stands guard near shops painted with graffiti during curfew in Srinagar, August 5, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Most Kashmiri Muslims, while not militant, now dreamt openly of Pakistan. By the time I was in university, a deafening flight of Sabre Jets of the Pakistan Air Force over the Valley in 1965 brought Kashmiris to their knees in prayers of gratitude. Everyone looked skywards, half expecting parachuting liberating airmen to come flowing down, but just as suddenly as they came, the posse from Pakistan was gone. On the ground, life went on as usual. Later, as we enjoyed Eid lunch together, childhood friends and their parents openly prayed that they would celebrate the next Eid as Pakistanis. Children burnt effigies of Nehru. If they had a clue about this rising secessionist fever, New Delhi seemed not to care a fig, surely those Kashmiris could not really get up to much. There was no question of dignifying Kashmiris by sitting down to talk with the real representatives of the Valley.

India might not have had the time or the inclination to treat Kashmir in a constructive or mutually respectful way, but Pakistan never gave up and continued to woo Kashmiri Muslims, albeit for their own ends. If the Kashmiris realised this hidden agenda in their hearts, they did not care, it was preferable to the daily disgrace they were now suffering at the hands of the Indian authorities.


By the 80s, the insurgents, now called mujahideen, were ready to die for their religion and their dignity. This was all the more tragic and unnecessary, because we were already living in a state where all Islamic precepts were honoured and followed, and flourished, as did both Shias and Sunnis. No one had ever complained that Islam was in any danger. But countless brutal acts against Kashmiri Muslim men, women and children treated as guilty enemy aliens instead of the citizens of India that they were, provided fuel to the jihad fire.

The Indian government was represented not by any succour, hope or conciliation in Kashmir, but by soldiery acting as soldiers are trained to do. The majority of the population against them, they behaved like an occupying army, which they were technically not. Still, no one in New Delhi thought it fit to come up with a game plan for a resolution for Kashmir, the benighted solution continued to be dismissive, to stamp out dissent. There was a proliferation of graveyards all over the Valley, a multiplication of rapes, of missing youth; the only thing shrinking was lack of redress and due process of law. Unsurprisingly, overcome by revulsion and fury, Kashmiri parents and older generations also joined the protests and street marches against India.

At the height of the insurgency, when the entire Valley had turned against India, one ultra-patriotic Indian said to me, “The tail cannot wag the dog.”

Police clashing with protestors in Srinagar. Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

Police clashing with protestors in Srinagar. Credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters

Pakistan was no true lover of the Kashmiris either. One of my friends married a lovely Pakistani fellow in Delhi but his jokes about Kashmiri Muslims and cowardice, and the use of the alliterative Kashmiri kaddu (pumpkin), made one cringe. One joke was about 1965, when infiltrators were sent into Kashmir by Pakistan, but were swiftly handed over to the authorities by Kashmiri Muslims, much like the tribals in 1948. Once again Pakistan had miscalculated that just being Muslim was enough, but for Kashmiris, their liberators may have been Muslim, but fatally they did not speak Kashmiri. The Pakistanis, obviously miffed by the outcome, said that when an infiltrator prodded a moving bush in the Valley and asked, “Oye! Are you a Kashmiri or a pumpkin?’ the shaky answer came, “Pumpkin.”

Stony silence from us. Back in Kashmir, it did not strike anyone that in the unlikely event of Pakistan “getting” Kashmir, the first casualty would be article 370 and the Valley would be under the Punjabi hegemony that controls Pakistan and holds other communities there as second class citizens.


Be that as it may, where just a few decades ago my Pandit husband had as a boy been sent to a village to accompany his Muslim milkmaid as a chaperon to pick up an adopted baby and bring mother and child safely to Srinagar, now cemented bunkers and nervous patrolling soldiers ruled the roost. Eventually, fed on the propaganda that they were Muslims under siege in a Hindu Raj, the mujahideen turned on their Pandits. Orchestrated mobs clamouring for Nizam-e-Mustafa, or Islamic rule, ran through the streets of Srinagar and perpetrated unheard of atrocities against their erstwhile friends and neighbours. Pandit doors were marked for attack and in a Valley where murder was unheard of and thieves were the object of wedding party humour, this literally put the fear of God into the microscopic minority that we Hindus were. Now death and rape and arson was everywhere, wandering from bloodstained torture chambers to streets and Pandit and Muslim homes.

Vastly outnumbered, a fact that seemed to have eluded us all our charmed existence, something we took for granted, Pandits now fled, in many cases encouraged, aided and helped by Muslim well-wishers and mohalla wallahs who said they could not offer protection against maddened rowdies who were not even listening to their own parents. Many Pandits left their homes and keys with Muslim neighbours, fully expecting to return once the madness had died down. They had no idea of what they were going to do or where they were going to go, they had never had any cause to plan a getaway, but the Indian government had no cogent plans for the fleeing Pandits either. Those who could not find even begrudging friends and relatives or afford anything else found themselves in despicable refugee camps in Jammu, a place as different climatically for a Kashmiri as the rest of India. Historically, the Dogras (though Hindu) and Pandits have held mutually uncomplimentary views of each other, so when the Pandits landed up in Jammu, derision is a euphemism for what they encountered. Some reports said that Dogras circled the camps like hyenas at night, trolling for the possibility of a marriage with a Kashmiri girl.

Eventually Pandits settled down wherever they could. Muslims who could sent their children to other parts of India for education and safe keeping, and gradually the insurgency lost its momentum.

There were several reasons for this, the chief one, in my view, being that violence is not natural to Kashmiris. Equally important is perhaps the fact that Pakistan, after its own implosion, had evaporated as an alternative or refuge from India. Add to that the internet, the fiasco in Afghanistan shown in gory detail on CNN, especially the shooting in the head of a burkha clad Afghan woman in a football stadium with the bleachers stacked with male spectators, and the explosion of the myth that only Hindus kill Muslims, the wind seemed to go out of the sails of the insurgency. As far as the eye could see.

That was then.


Today, although everyone talks of negotiating, historically neither Pakistan nor India have any plans of letting go of Kashmir and Kashmiris in a hurry. While people in Kashmir were clamouring in the streets that Pakistan only wanted to ensure Kashmiri independence, Benazir Bhutto announced in Princeton University that, I am paraphrasing her now: There is no question of an independent Kashmir. This was in the mid 90s. Last week, 20 years later, the same thought was expressed by Nawaz Sharif after his party swept the elections in “Azad Kashmir”. Thanks to Facebook, he has been slapped in the face for that thought by Kashmiris who say, thanks but no thanks. Pakistan, that ‘Golden Citadel’ has evaporated in grime, the shine has gone off it for some in Kashmir, but not all.

On my recent and long overdue visit home to Kashmir, life there seemed to carry on pretty much as I remembered it, except of course that Kashmiri Pandits were conspicuous by their absence and beef carcasses now hung openly in butcher shops, a sight I had never seen back in the day as both Hindus and Muslims went to the same butcher. A few of us Pandits have stayed on, holding on by tooth and nail, and the goodwill of Muslim friends and neighbours. My friends were as loving and welcoming as before. Even with strangers there was a total absence of malice and the same old warmth one had known and taken for granted. Yet, as always, the iceberg phenomenon was alive and well – mostly below the surface, unspoken truths and charades were in full force.

Whilst enjoying the affection and hospitality of my dear childhood friends, I was very conscious of a subterranean muffled hum. It did not bother me, things seemed to be going rather well economically, which was curious since there was no new industry or anything that would warrant that kind of cash flow. I let it go when a friend told me, “We have money coming in from the left and the right and we have to give money to the top.” I assumed she meant left and right geographically, i.e., India and Pakistan; corruption vertically. New houses with state of the art red roofs and a general sense of prosperity and hustle and bustle gave the impression that things were on the up and up, whatever the source of the prosperity. The vegetable vendor on the boulevard around Dal lake, the tea things we picked up from Ahdoos, while being easily sartorially identifiable as Pandit, no one blinked an eyelid. Were it not for the massive encroachment on the prestigious Residency Road, I could have gone back 50 years. As I expected, everything tasted better, I felt relaxed and at home, these were my streets after all, my mountains, my trees, my people.

What could go wrong?


But a metastable condition cannot last forever. This month, bitter unspoken truths about the Valley have risen to the surface again after the killing of Burhan Wani by security forces. More than 50 people have been killed and over a hundred, many of whom were juveniles, attacked by pellet guns, causing grievous injuries to eyes and bodies. The Valley came to a grinding halt, curfews were imposed and hospitals were full. These events have shown how flimsy the relationship is between Kashmir and stability.

Once again, no one in Delhi seemed to be interested in dignifying the suffering of the parents of the children who were killed or maimed. Now Kashmiris openly ask for azaadi, independence from “both parties” as they call them.

Indian security personnel stand guard along a deserted street during restrictions in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

Indian security personnel stand guard along a deserted street during restrictions in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail/Files

In the unlikely event that freedom does come to Kashmir, whatever that will entail, it is hard to imagine a smooth transition into that blissful state. The myth perpetuated by Pakistan that all they want is independent Kashmir was blown sky high last week by Nawaz Sharif.

If India is replaced, who will take her place? Pakistan may have to wait its turn. Last week there was also reportage of ISIS flags being flown in the Valley, along with de rigueur Pakistani flags.


Sudha Koul is the author of The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir

  • Tathagata Ghosh

    Well written and very informative article. It throws light on Kashmir Issue from an anthropological perspective as well. Thank you Ms. Koul for such a nice article.