A Tale of Two Ethnic Cleansings in Kashmir

January 19 marks the 25th anniversary of the Azaadi (independence) uprising in the Kashmir Valley, leading to the ethnic cleansing of around 400,000 Kashmir Pandits. For some, this day heralded the rejection of Indian rule by protesting Kashmiris, followed by the bloody suppression of Kashmiri human rights by Indian forces (portrayed in the film ‘Haider’). For the Pandits, it heralded a reign of Muslim terror.

Rahul Pandita has written a heartbreaking first- person account of the Pandit tragedy in ‘Our Moon has Blood Clots’. He shows that ethnic cleansing was not the work of a few Islamic militants, as claimed by optimists. On January 19, Pandita’s Muslim neighbours chanted the Islamic battle cry “Naara-e-taqbeer, Allah-o-Akbar”, made famous as heralding Muslim attacks by the TV film ‘Tamas’. Pandita’s mother swore to kill her daughter and then herself if the house was invaded. The long night passed without an invasion, but many fearful Pandits quickly left.

Soon after, local Muslim boys gathered outside Pandita’s home, and discussed how they would share the houses of departing Pandits and rape their girls. One Muslim boy laughingly said to another, “Go inside and piss: like a dog you need to mark your territory.” Pandita’s terrified father decided to flee.

Official figures say only 219 Pandits were killed in the valley. But the threat of violence was so great, and the chances of curbing it so remote, that lakhs of Pandits fled. Most are now rotting in refugee camps in Jammu.

Recently, an ex-general — also a Pandit — told me the Indian media had underplayed the tragedy of his tribe. I agreed, but added that the media has also ignored the earlier mass expulsion of Muslims from Jammu. This surprised the ex-general: I’ve never heard of that, he declared.

He is not alone. Although our media pride themselves on free and bold speech, they maintain a conspiracy of silence on some issues relating to the supposed “national interest.” This includes the mass killing and expulsion of lakhs of Muslims from Jammu in 1947. That story should be recalled on this sombre anniversary.

Today, Jammu is a Hindu-majority area. But in 1947, it had a Muslim majority. The communal riots of 1947 fell most heavily on Jammu’s Muslims; lakhs fled into what became Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. That turned Jammu’s Muslim majority into a Hindu majority. In sheer scale, this far exceeded the ethnic cleansing of Pandits five decades later.

The jagir of Poonch was a semi-autonomous part of J&K till World War II. Subsequently, the maharaja took direct control and imposed high taxes, with special levies on Muslims. This sparked an anti-tax protest in early 1947, which the maharaja put down with armed force.

Poonch had 50,000 ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army, many of whom still had guns. The maharaja felt threatened by this, and in July ordered all holders of arms to deposit these in police stations. But many arms deposited by Muslim ex-soldiers were then handed out by the maharaja’s police to Hindu and Sikh families, raising communal fears. Muslims responded by purchasing fresh weapons from arms bazaars in neighbouring NWFP province. Sardar Ibrahim Khan, a prominent Poonch politician, organized an armed Muslim force that soon staged a revolt.

The official Indian version holds that the Indo-Pak imbroglio over Kashmir began with the invasion of the valley by Muslim tribesmen in October 1947, obliging the maharaja to accede to India. But many academics, including Christopher Snedden in his book ‘Kashmir: The Unwritten History’, argue that the Poonch revolt was the first step in upending the maharaja’s rule, for purely local reasons unrelated to Indo-Pak claims.

Meanwhile, the bloody partition riots in neighbouring Punjab spilled over into Jammu. Snedden cites estimates of between 70,000 and 237,000 Muslims killed. Historians Arjun Appaduri and Arien Mack in their book ‘India’s World’ give a hair-raising estimate of 200,000 killed and 500,000 displaced in Jammu. Tens of thousands of Hindus were killed and expelled from what became Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but Muslims were by far the biggest victims.

The ethnic cleansing of Pandits from the valley was more one-sided than that of Jammu Muslims in 1947. Yet in sheer numbers and horrors, the Jammu episode was much worse. We have forgotten what happened then because it is politically and morally inconvenient.

The tragedies of J&K constitute a long, horrific tale of death and inhumanity. It has many villains and no heroes. Both sides have been guilty of ethnic cleansing. Both claim to be victims, forgetting they have also been perpetrators. On the 25th anniversary of the Azaadi uprising, the Hindu-Muslim divide is deeper, and ethnic amnesia more selective, than ever before. Some stories do not have happy endings.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute with a special focus on India and Asia.