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Challenges for KP Cultural Survival and How We Can Respond

Year 2023 marks the 34th year of our community’s Seventh Exodus from the land of our forefathers. Our first exile started in 1389 when Sultan Sikander Shahmiri (1353-1413), notorious as Butshikan (the breaker of idols) ascended the throne of Kashmir and let loose a reign of terror on Kashmir’s indigenous Hindus and Buddhists, breaking our religious icons, our temples, burning our scriptures and murdering people who refused to convert to Islam. The Seventh Exodus (1990) was induced by gun totting foot soldiers of a Jihadi Islam who again gave us the same options – Convert or get ready to die! In between, our community saw 5 more exoduses and, each strike left in its wake a definite collateral damage. Yet, the first six Exoduses failed to break our determination to adhere to our cultural practices and, our faith! Each time, our people went back to the land of our forefathers, to our ‘Maej Kashir’ (Mother Kashmir)!

Over the last 5000 years, a unique civilization evolved in Kashmir valley. It became a centre of knowledge and learning, of art, logic, music, theology, religious philosophy, and spiritual evolution. Adi Shankar created his Saundarya Lahiri in Kashmir in the 8th century. The Sharada University of the Krishna Valley was the fountainhead of many a schools of thought and languages. Even Adi Shankar had to prove his scholarship and erudition at Sharada before he could open the Dakshin Dwar at Sharada. Herein developed the Trik Shaivism and the cult of Shakti worship. Thousands of masters, from Acharya Vasugupt to Acharya Abhinavgupta, to Lal Dyed and Roop Bhawani, to Swami Ram lived and taught here! Swami Vivekanand had unique spiritual experiences at Amarnath and Tul-Mul in Kashmir. In shade of such intellectual and spiritual giants, a very peculiar culture evolved. It was severely impacted by the tyranny of Muslim rule for five centuries. Amidst demonic dictates and firmans, our community clung to its core beliefs and practices! It is that culture that is under threat today!

As we are in the fourth decade of our current Exodus, the end of the tunnel is nowhere in sight. We have migrated en-mass into an ocean called India and spread all over the country, even abroad! Loss of moorings and habitat has impacted our lifestyles. Some of us have started losing touch with our typical socio-religious cum cultural practices. Distances and circumstances have impacted relationships. Gone are the days we used to spend carefree days at our Matamal or when half a dozen cousins would play together, even sleep in one room. The impact is being felt, primarily, on:

  • Our Language: Kashmiri is no longer the language of the house! Most of the households nowadays prefer Hindi, if not the local or regional language. This is happening even in KP community centres including Jammu, NCR, Bangalore, Pune etc. Loss of our indigenous language is a tell-tale symptom.
     
  • The way we celebrate our cultural and socio-religious events: Next to the loss of language is the impact we are seeing on our cultural cum socio religious events. Celebrating Vohorvod (birthday as per Lunar Tithi) is currently out of focus with the Gregorian Calendar having taken precedence. Very few youngsters today know how to decipher a Kashmiri Panchang (Netchepater). Our community, for generations, would observe fasts on Ashtami(aathem), Ekadashi (Kah), Poornima (Punim), Amavasya (Mavas), Sankranti (Saenkrath). Most of the families are finding it difficult to celebrate the most basic of Samskaras like Kah-Nether, Zar-Kasey, Naam-Karan, Kan-tchombun etc. How many of us are aware that KPs have been following the Logakshi Paddhati for our Samskaras? Currently, Mekhala (Upnayan) is one of the few rituals still in vogue in our community and, is performed with several shortcuts often one day prior to the Vivah. In a recent Mekhala, I saw the Pandit ji perform several Samskaras, from Garbha Dan to Kah Nethur to Zar kasay to Vidya Aarambh etc during the Mekhala Samskar – he was not certain if all the Samskaras had been performed on the Mekhyele-Maharaza in his childhood. Gaad Batte, Kytche Maavas, Hurry Aathem, Thaal Bharun – so many of these traditions and festivals have fallen victim to our current issues of ‘location’, ‘busy schedule’ and ‘hectic lifestyle’. To a certain extent, my generation (currently 66) and the generation prior to us failed to inculcate in our children, values of language and traditions associated with our culture. Our generation is guilty of providing poor training about religion and culture to our younger generations. Most of us adults take pride in being ‘secular’, ‘not very ritualistic’ if not showing exactly apathy towards our rituals. Home is where our kids learn. Kids, by and large, emulate their elders.
     
  • Increased frequency of Intercommunity marriages: As our kids are exposed to non-Kashmiri classmates or colleagues, some interaction is bound to happen. Our children today are open to matrimonial alliance with colleagues from all over India – the barriers of caste (Brahmin), language, region and in very selected cases, even religion have been demolished. Our community has shown remarkable openness in accepting boys and girls from other communities or regions as part of the family. This leads to dilution of the bloodline, to use a cliché. In a recent ‘Herath’ related get-together in Edmonton, Canada, I got to meet 12 KP boys n girls with non-KP partners. In such mixed marriages, much depends on how culturally strong our own children are, how much exposure they have to our rituals and cultural practices. If the base is weak and not well rooted, chances of that boy/girl ignoring our customs, traditions and rituals are bright.

What options do KPs have?

We need to take a realistic look at options available to KPs in the present political scenario. As I see it, our community has very limited options for immediate future. Primarily, our community has two options:

1) Accepting Status Quo
2) Return to Kashmir
 

  1. Accepting Status Quo Ante: As a well-educated, miniscule minority, we are today finding entire India as our playground. Our children do not face any discrimination nor do we experience/ generate any local resentment (yet). Like the Parsi community, we, too, can mingle with mainstream India even while maintaining our distinctiveness! We can live like normal citizens in any Indian state of our choice (including Jammu region of J&K). This can prove to be the path of least resistance and quite acceptable to most of our community members. In the last 30 odd years, many of us have created little cocoons of comfort, built property, businesses, found jobs. Leaving this for the Promised Land could prove to be chasing a chimera! I spoke to half a dozen relatives who had lived in Kashmir till 1990 – not one is willing to go back permanently. Luckily, over last 3 decades, KP Migrant children have been getting the benefit of reservations in technical educational institutions in several states – a facility that has seen over 40,000 KP boys and girls receive admission in technical (mostly engineering) courses. This has obviously led to financial uplift of these families. People do not want to rock the boat!
     
  2. Return to the Valley: This is the ultimate dream - the Utopia, the ideal romantic vision. Natural justice too demands that the land of our ancestors be restored to us. This, however looks a pipe dream today, given the socio-political realities of the country. Not many KP organizations, unfortunately, have given a serious thought to the nuts and bolts of this emotion-laden slogan. Return to the valley shall mean getting uprooted once again, and moving to the valley, lock, stock, and barrel – half measures will not do! It shall demand immense sacrifices from the Community and every individual. We cannot expect Government to handover things on a platter or to do all the dirty work for us. It shall mean a ‘return to the ditches’ approach as demonstrated by the Jews in reclaiming land in Palestine.

Reality Check: This path (Ghar Wapsi), obviously, is not easy. We need to realize that:
 

  • The era of living in Kashmir valley in semi-harmony with Muslims (as in 1960s or even 1970s) is dead and buried, whether we like it or not. Population used to be mixed in our Mohallas/ localities/ villages -2 or 3 KP families per 100 Muslim families. Now, returning to that kind of scenario – of mixed population living peacefully (by and large, without major frictions), is not feasible any more. That culture of peaceful coexistence is gone, as are the people who knew that culture and lived by those norms, on both sides of the religious divide. The new generations in the valley do not want to share the cake!
     
  • Following Exodus, KP properties in Kashmir were mostly sold in distress, at throwaway prices; houses, land and orchards were usurped by the ‘friendly’ neighbours or the local toughs. Turning the clock back to restore ownership is likely to create numerous problems. Local populace has assimilated those properties. The house where I was born has been demolished and a new structure has come up in place! Any attempt to undo that, in whichever form, shall generate further ill will and venom. We have seen the reaction of Muslim political, social, and religious leadership to the recent decisions by Govt of J&K to list out ‘distress sale properties’ in the valley or even, to the issuance of Migration Certificates to KPs.
     
  • Creating ‘dedicated townships for KPs’ is akin to creating ghettos – easy targets for merchants of Islamic Terror. Besides, do the proponents of ‘dedicated and exclusive KP townships’ expect people to work in isolation or families to live in seclusion? It is futile to expect any Govt to provide security to every single KP living in Kashmir. The concept of dedicated townships or security bubbles for returning KPs is excellent in theory but not practical now. You cannot keep people in safety bubbles for ever. People cannot live in the shadow of security personnel for ever.
     

  • Two, if not three, generations of Muslim youth in Kashmir have grown up without a trace of Pandits. They shall find the returnees as good/ bad as aliens or ghosts from a shadowy past. They shall also find the returnees as intruders, who can eat into their share of the cake – be it in the form of jobs or educational opportunities. Not a welcome thought at all. Recently, my cousin went to Kashmir after 33 years and found the atmosphere totally alien. His observation: KPs are welcome – but only as tourists!
     

  • Islamic Radicalization has created more hot heads with narrower minds, globally. Education has not been able to make the radicalized youth look at facts. In fact, the number of educated (technically/ professionally) young men from well to do families becoming radicalized has come as a shock to our ‘social theory’ apologists who would cite poverty, lack of educational avenues, job opportunities, police oppression etc as the ‘reason’ for radicalization. Therefore, a return to the valley for living amidst such radical elements shall be an open invitation for disaster.

While Ghar Wapsi must be our ultimate objective, what we need is a proper plan with short term objectives as well as long term targets:
In the short term, we can look at:

  • Keeping Kashmir Alive in our Younger Generation: Our children and some of today’s adults have very little comprehension about Kashmir. We must keep Kashmir alive in every child of ours. Let our kids not forget that we are the original inhabitants of Kashmir valley and have every right to return to Kashmir. We must share our family pictures, our stories, our religious places and our customs. Every KP child must know about the Amarnath Yatra, about Tulmul and other spots of religious importance. Every child must know about our socio-religious practices, including festivals. These lessons can only be taught at home, by parents. Our kids are perceptive and can imbibe when they see their parents observing Ashtami vrat or Jyeth aathem, Zarme Satam, Thaal Bharun and the like. This responsibility must be borne by EVERY SINGLE KP. We must give our kids an early introduction to our religion and what constitutes our culture.

At the larger, societal (Sabhas n Samaj level) level, we need to look at

  • Securing our Religious Roots: the Low Hanging Fruits: Our temples/ places associated with our religion/ culture are our outposts. We first need to secure those, clear the encroachments, and digitalize their revenue records. For example, the location of eight Bhairav Temples in/ around Srinagar (originally these form the shape of an Octagon, when the locational dots are connected), are almost lost. A separate Kashmiri Pandit Teerth Authority, on the line of Mata Vaishno Devi Trust, can be established for control, maintenance, and governance of all KP Religious & Cultural properties. This becomes more important in view of various unsavoury incidents of internecine squabbles (Chakrishwar episode is a sad reminder). To a certain extent, work for restoring several temples in the valley has started; rebuilding of Sharada Mata Temple at Teethwal is a major milestone.
     
  • Re-establishing Connect with Kashmir: Three decades of exodus have diluted our connect with the Valley! We need to revive our connect by VISITING KASHMIR REGULARLY, even as visitors to begin with! I believe at Jeethyaer (Srinagar), excellent facilities have been established to facilitate visitors to this teerath. Similar facilities can be created at Sharada Peeth at Teetwal, Durga Nag, Hari Parbath, Pokhribal, Tul Mul, Devibal Asthapan (Baramulla), Mattan, Jwala Ji, Tikkar (Kupwara) and other important landmarks. Wherever necessary, additional land can be purchased for important centres like the Tul Mul to encourage visits/ stay by younger generation - a kind of Religious Tourism. Periodic visit to our religious sites alone can keep Kashmir alive in the hearts & minds of our children.
     
  • Activating our Cultural Centres (Sabhas): KPs have been migrating since 1389 but those who migrated 200-300 yrs back, felt the need for creating some space for social gatherings. We had Kashmiri Mohallas in Lucknow, Gwalior, Allahabad etc and Kashmiri Sabhas in one form or the other in Lahore, and Amritsar (1908) etc. Post independence saw proliferation of KP Sabhas in important cities as the KP diaspora spread. Today, we have KP Sabhas in most of the important cities. Currently, their cultural activities are limited to an occasional ‘havan’. These Sabhas can become the nidus for our cultural renaissance. Our Sabhas shall need to be more active socially to help conserve our cultural identity.
     

  • Keeping Alive our Traditions & Language: Some work on this front has started. Several organizations are providing free coaching in written/ spoken Sharada and Kashmiri. Attempts are also being made to tabulate details about our rituals and samskaras, explaining those in the language that our GenNext can understand.
     

  • Digitalizing our spiritual and Cultural Heritage: Though much has been lost, much remains that needs to be preserved, much knowledge that is to be given shape. There is so much still available that needs to be recorded and digitalized. Unlike the Jews, we were living in Kashmir all through our history.

The short-term goals and objectives are achievable with a bit of effort. Luckily, the current political dispensation has certain positives to its credit – those fall well below our expectations yet, these are steps in the right direction. Without ruffling political feathers, our community can nudge the administration to help achieve the low hanging fruits.

Changing World Scenario:
Our world is in a state of flux politically and the next decade can see major restructuring of world, including a war involving several countries. Both China & Pakistan may not exist in their current shapes by 2035. The Oil Economy shall lose its steam, leading to decline in economic clout of the Middle East Oil countries. Islamic Jihadist movement in Kashmir was funded by petro-dollar inflow from Middle East and Pakistan. As the sources run dry, this movement shall lose its steam.

Long Term Objectives for KP Community:
These are objectives that may take 2-3 generations to show results. These include:
 

  • Back to Roots movement: Buying back of land in selected pockets can be the nidus for future. Only when we are connected to the land in Kashmir by way of agriculture/ horticulture etc can we re-establish our presence. Already, there is a growing sentiment in our community, not to sell whatever property/ land is still with us. This project shall take minimum 2 generations of KPs because we do not have a strong political backing. This task requires sacrifice as well as a vision. Time and necessity shall bring a Theodor Herzl for our community too who can bring all ‘individualistic’ Battas on to a single platform.

Need of the hour: Understanding the context
KPs have suffered religious persecution and cultural terrorism since 14th century. Some of our negative traits like being highly individualistic, very selfish, prone to ’intra- community jealousy’, are being attributed to the inhuman persecution by the Pathans and by Muslim rulers. Our people developed an ‘individual survival instinct’ as against a ‘group survival’ instinct that we see in the Sikhs and Muslims. We have refused to learn from our miseries and our chequered history. A visit to the Migrant Relief Offices in Jammu, manned mostly by KP employees, including 1990 Exodus victims themselves, is very enlightening about lack of our ‘community spirit’! This, plus our inability to accept anything/ anyone as a leader, marks us out. Dr Chaim Weizmann, former leader of the World Zionist Organization has said about Jews,” If you have two Jews in a room, you are bound to get three opinions!” To quote MJ Akbar, “This community (KPs) has a remarkable capacity of endless splitting,”!

Kashmiri Pandits are an endangered species today because numerically we are miniscule (globally <1 million). Any dilution in our gene-pool can make us extinct. We are also scattered all over India and across the globe. Post 1990 exodus, we stand deprived of our homeland, our sacred religious symbols that held us together for over 5000 years. Return to Kashmir is not a viable option today or even, for next two generations at least, given the socio-political conditions in India today! Unfortunately, we do not have a centralized authority like the World Zionist Organization that could bring cohesiveness amongst various organizations working at diverse locations. It is, therefore, imperative for us to stay connected, keeping alive our culture, our heritage, and religious practices. Every KP man and woman shall need to contribute by giving their progeny a thorough socio-cultural base; home is where religion, culture and language take root in a child. Our socio-cultural and religious organizations shall need to start engaging future generations in serious information dissemination about our rich socio-religious heritage.

I wish to end my article with a story about a friend living in Wayne, New Jersey (USA) – Mr Bhupendra Gadhavi, a NRI for 5 generations now. Starting 1880, one of his ancestors left Bhavnagar, Gujarat for Zanzibar, off the coast of east Africa, gradually moved to Kenya and Uganda. My friend was born in Uganda. His entire clan got uprooted in 1973 by Idi Amin; like KPs, they were forced to migrate to UK as refugees where they had to start from zero. Over the last 50 yrs, they have blossomed further, spreading to US and several other countries. I visited Mr Gadhavi’s home in March 2022 and felt I was entering a typical Indian Gujarati household – from the décor to food and language spoken. Interestingly, Mr Gadhavi and his wife HAVE NEVER VISITED INDIA yet they retain their Gujarati culture down to the last comma! The impact of migration has been zero! This goes on to show that damage due to uprooting can be minimized – if there is a will to do so!

Comments

    • Suniel Kumar Dhar

      This write up by Mr. Sanjeev Munshi has very aptly analysed the present social and cultural scenario of our community and also given a wake up call to our so called leaders to reassimilate their energies for building a cohesive platform for our Socio-cultural renaissance in our uprooted community.We should all try to revive the idea of KP SABHA'S  and work for building these Sabha's in every town or city were our community members have any presence and these Sabha's should be governed by a Central Authority.Mr.Munshi's article is an eye opener for our leaders and they can take a que, by shunning their individualistic approach and work unitedly in establishing a Central Command for our brave future generation Turks.

      • Dr. Suhul Dhar

        This is a really nice article that helps us understand why we must take cultural preservation seriously. 

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