Shedding Kashmiriness

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In my recent visit to the US, I came across a Gujarati family who have been NRIs for five generations now. In the 1890s, their ancestor left India for Zanzibar, an island off  Tanganyika (modern Tanzania) in East Africa; later they migrated to Uganda and through their hard work and perseverance, established their business in various cities. In August  1972, President Idi Amin uprooted all citizens of Indian origin from Uganda – most of whom were of Gujarati descent. They were stripped of their livelihood, belongings, families, and in many cases their lives; given just three months to pack up and leave in a hostile socio-political environment, a situation that was somewhat similar to the one KP families faced in  Kashmir in the 1990s. These families were British Passport holders from colonial times and were settled in the UK. Most of these families clawed their way up through grit and determination, often working multiple shifts and double jobs. Today they are well settled in different parts of the world, living with dignity in the UK, USA, Canada, and even India, contributing their mite to the host country. My friend, Mr. BVG was born in Uganda, educated in the UK, and has never lived in India; his wife to comes from a Gujarati expatriate family from East  Africa. When I visited their home in Wayne, New Jersey recently, I felt as if I was entering a  typical Indian Gujarati household – having lived in Gujarat for the last 20 years, I should be able to tell! From the décor of the house to the vegetarian food we partook in, to the language used in the house (including by his US-born daughters) - I never felt that I was in an NRI household! Mr. BVG and his entire extended clan have retained their Indianness and Hindu ethos, whether living in Africa or the UK or now in the US. He addresses India as Bharat only and has kept his Bhartiya cultural moorings alive all these years, as fresh as ever, with love and patriotic fervor. They have been standing with and contributing to the causes and aspirations of Kashmiri Pandits, in their ways, for over 25 years. The best part is, that he is not alone in doing so! I met over half a dozen families of Gujarati descent in The USA and realized that even though they are thousands of miles away from the land of their origin, have been living away for decades and yet they have stood true to their roots, particularly language, food, culture, religion, and traditions. Ditto for the Malayali, the Tamil, the Punjabi, the Bengali, and some Kashmiri families I met in the US and Canada.

This set me thinking about my own community’s response to the forced mass migration from Kashmir. The process started in 1389 and has seen 6 waves till 1990. The seventh wave in 1990 was a ferocious tsunami; its impact was devastating as it shook our roots, rendering us almost rootless. The financial impact was felt immediately by those affected – most people became paupers overnight. The social and psychological impact is manifesting gradually, both in the old and in younger generations, in different ways. Yet, we have survived against some very cruel odds – bruised, battered, hurt – yes but the spirit was never broken! The generation born after Exodus (or there around), have only heard about Kashmir and mostly, struggled with their parents to keep a sane head on their shoulders! Our social behavior has been affected in so many diverse ways. The most visible change has been that Kashmiri as a household language has lost out to the local dialects or Hindi/English. Our younger generations appear averse to speaking in Kashmiri even within the four walls of our homes! Some of today’s youngsters might be able to understand Kashmiri (especially, if they have Kashmiri-speaking grandparents) but very few can speak the language, even in families living in Jammu post Exodus! Recently, a young girl born after migration and having led her entire life in Jammu joined my extended family as a young bride. I was surprised to find her struggling in understanding even spoken Kashmiri, leave alone speaking Kashmiri fluently; unfortunately, she appears to be proud of her handicap!

When a community loses its language, it loses its link to the cultural moorings in the long run! My wife who grew up in Kashmir, often says that the tendency to switch over to Hindi in our households had started in the 1980s itself (if not earlier) and young parents would encourage children to converse more in Hindi rather than in Kashmiri. Kashmiri speaking was kind of looked down upon! The common expression for explaining this phenomenon was,” Kashur gav bhool’! So, the germs of shedding our Kashmiriness at the earliest convenience exist in our blood, waiting only for the appropriate environment! A relative of mine has been living in Bangalore for the last +25 years. Her son was born in Bangalore and grew up in a society with mostly South Indian families around. As the kid started mingling with other kids, they found English the most convenient link language! Slowly, the child started speaking in English only, even with his parents! A reflection on how strong the cultural base of the family was! Parents were hardly using Kashmiri in their day-to-day intra-family communication.

KPs who migrated from Kashmir in the 1947-70 period, to my mind, were the ones who started the trend of shedding certain aspects of Kashmiriness! One of my relatives, who settled in Delhi in the 1950s told me that he preferred to integrate with the local populace rather than retain his Kashmiri identity. In Jammu during the 1950s, KPs faced derisive comments from the local populace for the peculiarities of language, accent, food habits, etc. We used to be called ’loley’ by the Dogra populace (Kashmiri Muslim laborers were called ‘haato’). I faced those biases in mid-1960s as a young student in Jammu but not in Punjab! I know of several KPs who preferred to mingle and get assimilated into the bigger gene pool of India! It was as if they were eager to shed their Kashmiri roots! A doctor friend, living in Mumbai, has given up everything in Kashmiri except his surname!

Having said that, KPs living in almost every Indian city established community organizations for celebrating socio-religious events as the number of KPs increased in these cities. Oldest amongst these Sabhas would be those in Amritsar (1908), Delhi (1951), Kolkata (1956), Jammu, Mumbai (1968), Lucknow, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Ludhiana, Baroda, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Bhopal, etc. As a teenager, I remember visiting Kashmiri Sabha at Ambphalla, Jammu in the 1970s regularly since my father was an active member. Overseas, we have the Kashmiri Overseas Association (KOA) in North America (US and Canada Chapters) and the UK-based ‘Kashmiri Pandit Association of Europe (KPAE), both set up in the 1970s. In recent years, several new organizations have come up, including Global Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora (GKPD), Indo-American Kashmir Forum (IAKF), Kashmiri Pandit Cultural Society (KPCS, UK), Satisar Foundation, Indo-Canadian Kashmir Forum, Indo-European Kashmiri Forum UK, Kashmiri Pandit Overseas Association - EU, Iqwat, etc. Australia and New Zealand to have KP sabhas in different cities.

Post-1990 Exodus, several of these organizations played a vital role in organizing help for needy community members and in highlighting the plight of KP ‘migrants’. My US-based sister financed the education of 2 girls living in Muthi Camp as part of the KOA outreach. Likewise, hundreds came forth to help our brethren in distress, at different levels. Under the leadership of Pt CL Gadoo, KSD did yeoman’s service in moving the rusty bureaucratic wheels of Delhi Govt & Govt of India and in highlighting the miseries of our community before a blind, biased and insensitive media. Whatever official help has come our way is thanks to the untiring efforts of these valiant men and women! His team was responsible for convincing Bala Saheb Thakre and CMs of 4-5 states to facilitate admission of Migrant KP children in Technical and Management courses, a move that gave shape to careers of 25- 30,000 KP children over the last 27 years. Kashyap Bhavan, Mumbai has been helping migrant KP students with admissions to various technical institutions in Maharashtra for almost 3 decades now! Local level organizations in various other cities – Bangalore, Bhopal, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Kurukshetra, etc too have been performing this sacred community duty. Several of the KP Sabhas bring out their periodicals, highlighting community affairs. Prominent amongst those, of course, would be the Koshur Samachar from Delhi, Vitasta from Kolkata, Milchar from Mumbai, etc. Post-migration, there has been a spurt in the number of KP organizations as well as journals, particularly those set up with the sacred objective of ‘migrant welfare’ or ‘Ghar Wapsi’! It is very unfortunate, though, that we have no central or umbrella body to coordinate the activities of these diverse organizations. In this respect, KPs have been true to their ‘highly individualistic’ character! To quote MJ Akbar, “This community has a remarkable capacity of endless splitting,”!

It is interesting to note that the early migrants – particularly those who moved out in the 18th or 19thcentury, tried to maintain some semblance of connection with Kashmiri culture and traditions. Their language became Hindustani but they retained their caste names (Nehru, Katju, Sharga, Daphtari, Tankha, Sapru, Kaul, Haksar, Mushran, Mulla, etc) and followed Kashmiri rituals, customs, and traditions. Nehru’s mother Swarup Rani wore the traditional Kashmiri symbol of marriage, the Dejhoru, all her life as did his wife, Kamla, at least at the time of her betrothal. Lucknow boasted of a Kashmiri Mohalla; other cities including Kanpur, Agra, Gwalior (Mrs. Rajkumari Kaul, associated with Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was from Gwalior), Allahabad, etc also had the presence of old Kashmiri Pandit families. Delhi had a higher concentration of early KP migrants - Old Delhi still has remnants of Havelis of Kashmiri Pandits. Most marriages would be performed within the closed circuit of the community. As Vinati Sukhdev, London-based scion of an ‘old Kashmiri’ family wrote in the South Asia Monitor recently,” Genetic purity has largely been maintained with little or no marriages outside the close group of KP families! We would never refer to ourselves as Punjabis or Rajasthanis or say that we hailed from Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh, despite having lived in these states for hundreds of years. It was always ‘Kashmiri Pandit’ in my family and I am sure in others too. My parents' strictures were clear - contact with non-Kashmiris was on a need-to basis. They were friends, never relatives. We met them at work or in educational institutions. And we never (God forbid) married them. Right up to my generation, both my sister and I married Purana Kashmiris; people like us”.

Post-1990 exodus, we have seen an increased incidence of marriages with the local communities, be it in Jammu or in other cities where our community members found refuge or employment. This of course was bound to happen, given the high exposure to ‘other’ communities that KP children received in educational institutions or at work. KP children are choosing life partners of their choice, irrespective of language, caste, color, and, occasionally even religion! The advent of Social Media Platforms like FaceBook, Instagram, etc has facilitated this trend in recent years! In this respect, our people have shown a healthy willingness to welcome non-KP boys and girls into our families. How much of Kashmiri culture and traditions the kids shall be able to carry along in a mixed environment shall depend entirely on how strong a base our children have received from their parents! I have seen several KP girls maintain their Kashmiri traditions even after marrying boys from other communities. A relative girl, married to a white American boy is wearing her ‘dejhoru’ in New York even today! I have also seen girls from other states or communities quite open to adapting KP traditions if the significance is explained properly.

Here it would be very pertinent to recall the history of another community that was uprooted from the land of its origin, got scattered all over the globe, and yet, despite severe persecution and biases, was able to retain its distinct identity for almost 2000 years! The Hebrews of Palestine have a painful history of being bullied and persecuted! For 400 years they lived in Egypt as slaves. Later, when they built their Temple in Jerusalem, it was destroyed, first in 597 BCE and the second time by the Romans in 70 CE, leading to their dispersal all over the then-known parts of the globe! The first Hebrews are said to have reached India 1600-1800 years back. Stories of their persecution across Europe and other parts of the world (India is the honorable exception) are well documented, in history and literature! Their language Hebrew became dysfunctional and they started speaking the language of the land they were living in! Thus, Jews were speaking Russian, German, English, Polish, Yiddish, French, Arabic, Aramaic, and even Chinese languages; the Yemenite or Moroccan Jews spoke and dressed like the local populace. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, in their book O Jerusalem, documented the condition of Jews as they were in the process of reclaiming their homeland (1895-1948). David Ben-Gurion, the famous Israeli Prime Minister was born as David Grun in Poland but while reviving the usage of the Hebrew language, he changed his name to David Ben-Gurion (son of a lion in Hebrew)!

During their exile period, even while scattered in different countries, Jewish communities were able to retain their culture, traditions, and religious practices. They made their younger generations remember the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem through numerous symbolisms. A square cubit of the wall of every Jewish house was kept unpainted in memory of the fallen Temple of Jerusalem. On his wedding day, every groom would put ash on his head in memory of the fallen Temple. The Bride and Groom would crush a glass of wine under their feet as an expression of their grief for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Likewise, on important religious occasions like Passover and Yom Kippur, prayers would end with a Hebrew expression L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim, meaning Next Year in Jerusalem! The traditional toast for wishing health and happiness remained L’chaim-To Life, whether in Hebrew or Yiddish; in the context of their tragic history of persecution culminating in the holocaust, it certainly is very meaningful!

So, I guess, it all boils down to keeping the memories and symbols of our Exodus alive in the minds of our children and developing their affinity for our culture and traditions. A friend in Canada recently told me that after watching The Kashmir Files in a theatre, his daughter, a trained lawyer, came to him in tears, asking,” Why did you not tell us all this?”. Keeping Kashmiri culture and traditions alive is as important as keeping the story of the KP Genocide alive. It is essential to have proper documentation, verbal, textual, and photographic of every horror story, of our burnt and looted homes, our dilapidated houses, of names of people who lost their lives, of our rich 5000-year-old history, and how we fell victim to tyranny and religious intolerance. The KOA(USA) has done a remarkable job of systematic documentation of our history, culture, religious practices, etc. They have created programs for engaging Kashmiri youth and children, introducing them to Kashmir’s Hindu history, our icons, the sages, savants, etc. An example is the 2022 Global SharadaPeeth Video Contest about Lal Ded (https://tinyurl.com/sharadapeeth2022). Such programs have been running for the past several years.

Kashmiri Pandits are an endangered species today because numerically we are minuscule (globally <1 million). Any dilution in our gene pool can make us extinct. We are also scattered all over India and 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, at least for the next two generations, given the current sociopolitical 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 move beyond performing occasional ‘havans’ and start engaging future generations in serious information dissemination about our rich socioreligious heritage. How many societies can boast of a +5000-year-old history, heritage, and culture? How many societies have the legacy of Rishi Kashyap, Abhinavgupta, Kalhan, Panini, Maharishi Charak, Acharya Vasugupt, Acharya Kshemraj, and Emperor Lalitaditya? Efforts to revive Sharada Language have already started – free coaching, including ‘online’ coaching is available! Hope springs in me when I see a young Shivani Bhan Dhar bring out a brilliant Newsletter ‘Kashmir As It Is’ singlehandedly from Singapore, when I see young ladies like Dr. Archana Kokroo heading the KOA in the US, Ms. Suman Raina editing Vitasta Magazine in Kolkata. That we survived seven exoduses gives me hope!

 

Comments

    • Suniel Kumar Dhar
      Suniel Kumar Dhar

      A very interesting blog written by Mr Sanjeev Munshi showcasing the present socio cultural scenario of Kashmiri Pandit Community ! The author has rightly shown his concern regarding preserving and maintaining our old and rich cultural traditions, and has optimistically elaborated on some ways to make our community a vibrant one. I think the wayout is to begin a fresh and start our endeavour by roping in our numerous social, religious and cultural organizations in one net, and work on this mission selflessly!

      • Mithlesh Dhar
        Mithlesh Dhar

        Really insightful ... Thanks for sharing 🙏

        • IK Pandit
          IK Pandit

          Munshi jee, very well written. May god bless you and keep up this good work.

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