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We need to retain Kashmiriness

14 Jun 2022

We need to retain Kashmiriness
—Sanjeev Munshi
In my recent visit to the US, I came across a Gujarati family which have been NRI members for five generationsnow. In 1890s, their ancestor had 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 the Gujarati descent. They were stripped off 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 was somewhat similar to the one KP families faced in Kashmir in 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 UK, USA, Canada and even India, contributing their mite to the host country
My friend, Sh. BVG was born in Uganda, educated in the UK and has never lived in India; his wife too 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, to the language used in the house (including by his US-born daughters) - I never felt that I was in an NRI household! Sh. BVG and his entire extended clan have retained their Indianness and Hindu ethos, whether living in Africa or in the UK or now in the US. He addresses India as Bharat only and has kept his Bharatiya cultural moorings alive all these years, as fresh as ever, with love and patriotic fervour. 
They have been standing with and contributing towards the causes and aspirations of Kashmiri Pandits, in their own ways, for over 25 years. The best part is, he is not alone in doing so! I met over half a dozen families of the Gujarati descent in 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 in 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 the exodus (or there around), they have only heard about Kashmir and mostly, struggled with their parents to keep a sane head on their shoulders! Our social behaviour 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 surprized 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 switchover to Hindi in our households had started in 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 earliest convenient exist in our blood, waiting only for the appropriate environment!  A relative of mine has been living in Bangalore for 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, obviously 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, settled in Delhi since 1950s, told me that he preferred to integrate with the local populace rather than retain his Kashmiri identity. In Jammu during 1950’s, 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 labourers were called ‘hato’). I have faced those biases in mid-1960’s as a young student in Jammu but not in Punjab! I know of several KPs who preferred to mingle and get assimilated in 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 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 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 upin 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 too 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 the 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 the Delhi Govt & Govt of India and in highlighting 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 in 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 own 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 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 18thor 19thcentury, tried to maintain some semblance of connect 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 (Smt. Rajkumari Kaul, associated with Sh. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was from Gwalior), Allahabad etc also had 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 of the marriages would be performed within the closed circuit of the 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 ever 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, colour and, occasionally even religion! Advent of Social Media Platforms like the Face Book, Instagram etc have 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 own parents! I have seen several KP girls maintaining 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, in spite of severe persecution and biases, was able to retain their 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 second time by the Romans in 70 CE, leading to their dispersal all over the then known parts of 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 honourable exception) are well documented, in history and in literature! Their language Hebrew became dysfunctional and they started speaking the language of the land they were living in! Thus, there were Jews 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 Jerusalemhave 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 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 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 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 in Yiddish; in 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 in them 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 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 and savants etc. An example is the 2022 Global SharadaPeeth Video Contest about Lal Ded ( Such programs have been running for past several years.
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 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 next two generations, given the current 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 move beyond performing occasional ‘havans’ and start engaging future generations in serious information dissemination about our rich socio-religious heritage. How many societies can boast of a +5000-year-old history, heritage, culture? How many societies have the legacy of Rishi Kashyap, of Abhinavgupta, of Kalhan, of Panini, Maharishi Charak, Acharya Vasugupt, Acharya Kshemraj, Emperor Lalitaditya? Efforts to revive Sharada Language have already started – free coaching, including ‘on-line’ 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! n 9099188501 (WhatsApp)