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Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora and Social Reforms

by Dr. B. N. Sharga

History tells us that the migration of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley is not a new phenomenon.  It has been going on for the last so many centuries uninterrupted for one reason or the other.  The large scale migration of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley to the other parts of the country was mainly due to religious persecution, but at times economic factors also played a major role in coaxing the ambitious Kashmiri Pandits with a sense of adventure to migrate from the Valley, their original birth place, to elsewhere for better future economic prospects just to earn a big fortune for them so that their family members could lead a princely life with all the available comforts at their command.

In 1322 A.D. Zulkadr Khan of Turkistan invaded Kashmir with full fury perhaps with the intention to finish its pristine glory forever and in the process he killed thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of that place.  He also converted a very large number of them at the point of sword to his faith.  Not satisfied with his atrocities and other brutalities it is said that while returning back to his country even took about fifty thousand Kashmiri Pandits as slaves just to extract very hard labour from them in Turkistan.  It is altogether a different story that all of them perished in a snow storm on the way while crossing the difficult Himalayan terrain at Bata Ganjan.

Then we also know full well that at one point of time during the rule of Sikander Butshikan in Kashmir between 1389 and 1413 A.D. Only eleven families of the Kashmiri Pandits remained in the Valley when his Prime Minister Malik Saif-ud-Din who was himself a convert (Suha Bhatt) unleashed a reign of terror on the innocent Kashmiri Pandits, but even then he was not able to wipe out this community completely from the mother planet although he succeeded in dividing the community for the first time into two distinct groups known as Malmasi and Bhanmasi.

It is also historical fact that a very large number of Kashmiri Pandits migrated from the Kashmir Valley during the Afghan rule (1753-1819 A.D.) especially in the period of Lal Khan Kattak, Faqir Ullah and Jabbar Khan to avoid religious persecution and other barbaric acts against them.  We should also keep in mind that prior to this a big migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley also took place during the rule of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707) when Iftikhar Khan (1671-1675 AD) who was appointed as a Subedar of Kashmir by the Mughal emperor started mass killings of the Kashmiri Pandits and their forceful conversion on a very large scale.  Here we should also not forget that the conditions prevailing at that time were much worse than what they are now as both the means of transport and communications were not developed at all in the difficult terrain of Himalayas at that time and the migrants used to walk on foot under the cover of darkness through thick forests at night to escape detection and to avoid the wrath of the barbaric fundamentalist forces.

These Kashmiri Pandit migrants who came out from the Valley in 18th and 19th centuries under most difficult conditions with no support from any quarter had a vision.  They assessed their position in the new dispensation thoroughly and to keep their flock together evolved a system of living together in a group as a community just to maintain close links between them to strengthen their community bonds and to keep their distinct identity intact.  As they were mainly service class people they preferred to live in big cities of Northern India where naturally the chances of getting a good job were definitely more than in small towns.  They also gave top priority to the education of their children so that their bright future could be ensured.  That is how Kashmiri Mohallas in different names came into existence in cities like Lahore, Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Agra, Kanpur, Faizabad, Allahabad and Lucknow with a considerable population of Kashmiri Pandit migrants.

Kashmiri Mohalla of Lucknow came into existence between 1775 and 1780 A.D., when Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula shifted his seat of government from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775 A.D. The generosity of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula and affluence during his rule attracted many Kashmiri Pandits from different parts of the country and even from Kashmir itself to come to Lucknow and they settled down in Kashmiri Mohalla for better future prospects.  It used to have a population of about 500 Kashmiri Pandit families due to which it soon became a very strong nerve centre for the social, cultural, educational and political activities of Kashmiri Pandit migrants.

T'hey very well visualised the hardships and other difficulties which they had to face in the completely new surroundings and environment.  So to overcome that and at the same time to preserve their rich cultural heritage and their customs, traditions and rituals they devised ways and means to maintain their separate distinct ethnic identity far away from the land of their birth instead of being lost in the vast sea of humanity.  They achieved this by observing strict discipline, but at the same time moving with the times by adopting certain modifications in their way of life.

By living together in Kashmiri Mohalla they had the advantage of organising caste activities and other social congregations regularly that strengthened the caste solidarity among them which helped them to a considerable extent in maintaining caste exclusiveness among the Diasporas by firstly facilitating adherence to established caste practices like endogamy within the community and second by immediately bringing to light any violation of customary caste usages.

For example the displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmiri Mohalla, Lucknow until the late 19th century used to celebrate an annual caste festival with great devotion and fervour known as.Rishi Pir Ka Jag to honour a Kashmiri Pandit Saint of the 17th century in Bhola Nath Ki Baghia.  Then regular community gatherings used to take place in Ganju Walon Ka Shadikhana to deliberate on crucial matters pertaining to the community welfare.  In such meetings the elders used to guide the youth of the Biradari on all aspects of life to become responsible citizens of the society and to make the community a strong well knit unit.

Kashmiri Mohalla also used to have quite a good number of Kashmiri Gurus, who used to perform all the religious ceremonies as per Kashmiri traditions.  Raj Guru Pandit Raj Nath Ruggu was the last of this clan.  He used to bring out a Kashmiri Panchang every year on 'Navreh' for the community.  But now their descendants have left their ancestral profession and joined other jobs.  They do not like to be addressed like that at all any more as they consider themselves to be well reformed moving with the times.  Now the community depends on local Pandits to perform the religious ceremonies.

What Kashyap Bandhu did in Kashmir to bring about radical reforms in the community in 20th
century was done by leading Diasporants in Kashmiri Mohalla in Lucknow in 19th century itself.  Firstly to suit the local environment they changed their dress code.  Instead of wearing the traditional 'phiren', the Kashmiri Pandit men started wearing Achkan, Chooridar Pyjama and a black pump shoe with a cap on their head.  The Kashmiri Pandit ladies started wearing Sarees but in a different style than what the local women folk used to do to keep their distinct identity intact.  As Purdah system was in vogue so they also used to keep a shawl over their shoulders to cover their body.  The Diasporants completely discarded the social evils like dowry prevalent in the community at that time and took other steps to bring reforms in the Biradari to meet new challenges in life.

All along the Nawabi period, emphasis was given on leaming Urdu and Persian languages to secure good jobs in the court.  Kashmiri Pandits like Laxmi Narain Kaul Sharga, Data Ram, Kimma Kaul Bakshi, Prem Nath Muttoo, Daya Shanker Kaul 'Naseem', Raja Dilaram Kaul, ancestors of Dr. Uday Shanker Kochak, Lalta Prasad Batpori, Harihar Nath Mubai etc. occupied important positions in the Oudh court.  Then Urdu poets like Ratan Nath Dar 'Sarshar' and Brij Narain Chakbast made outstanding contributions in the field of Urdu literature.

Pandit Sheo Narain Bahar took the lead in bringing about social reforms in the community.  He started Mursala-e-Kashmir a caste journal from Kashmiri Mohalla to guide Kashmiri Pandit boys of the locality to become good citizens by his thought provoking articles.  He was ably assisted in his work by Tribhuwan Nath Sapru 'Hijr' and Brij Narain Chakbast.

When a Kashmiri Pandit aged 40 years married a K.P. girl of the locality half his age 'Hijr' wrote sarcastically in his typical style disapproving such an alliance in the following lines to educate others:

Madan lab lab ne
'Jo sutti pe daya ki
Zara harkat to dekho, is behaya ki
Baras chalees ka tha nausha,
Umr barah thi us be khata ki'

When La Martiniere School was established in Lucknow in 1845 the Kashmiri Pandit boys felt the importance of European education for better future prospects and about 6 boys residing in Kashmiri Mohalla joined this institution.  Their zeal for western education can be imagined by the fact that they used to cover a distance of about 10 kilometres daily on foot in quest for knowledge.

Bishan Narain Dar was the first Kashmiri Pandit youth of Kashmiri Mohalla who went to England in 1884 breaking caste barriers.

After his return from England to Kashmiri Mohalla around 1888 he started giving fiery speeches and took a plunge into the freedom movement of the country and became very close to the national leaders of that time.  Subsequently he became the President of Indian National Congress in 1911 in its 27th Plenary session held in Calcutta.

Prior to this Shambhu Nath Pandit became the first Indian judge of the Calcutta High Court in 1863 and inspired many diasporants towards modern education.

Suraj Narain Bahadur who was a sub-judge felt the importance of girls education and in 1904 he started a girls school at his residence in Kashmiri Mohalla exclusively for Kashmiri Pandit girls.  He employed European Lady teachers to teach these girls.  Now this school has become a full fledged intermediate college and imparts education to about two thousand girls belonging to all the communities.

Brij Narain Chakbast in the beginning of the 20th century established a library and formed Kashmiri Youngmen Association to guide the Kashmiri Pandit youth and to channelise their energies in a constructive manner in order to reform the community. This Association was inaugurated in 1906 by Dr. (Sir) Tej Bahadur Sapru who also felt a need for such reforms in the community to face the new challenges of life.  Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru extended full support to him in his noble mission.  Chakbast used to invite leading luminaries like Gopal Krishan Gokhale, Swami Daya Nand Saraswati to deliver lectures on topics of social relevance.  Motilal Nehru also used to come regularly to debate over community affairs.  He used to stay at the residence of Janki Nath Chak who was very close to him.  Chakbast also used to write forceful articles on reforms in the community in Kashmir Darpan regularly.

Brij Kishan Gurtu who was an advocate by profession and a staunch follower of Arya Samaj did a lot of work to simplify the marriage ceremonies and other rituals by curtailing vulgar display of kvealth.  Jagat Narain Mulla did a lot of work to make (liasporants refined so that they may be able to perform their social obligations and commitments in a better way with broader outlook.  His towering personality was a source of inspiration for many.  Prithvi Nath Chak brought educational reforms and founded P.P.N. College in Kanpur around 1908.

Then Kashmiri Pandit ladies like Mrs. Uma Nehru, Mrs. Rameshwari Nehru, Mrs. Ladle Prasad Kitchlu and Mrs. T. N. Raina launched a movement to bring about reforms in the cumbersome marriage ceremonies and other rituals by cutting short the expenditure on them under the banner of Hindu Marriage League.

Pran Nath Pandit who did his M.A. from Sanskrit College Calcutta in 1874 and subsequently B. L. from the Calcutta University and wrote a number of books on Hindu Law, performed the marriage of a widow himself acting as a Purohit as he had a command over Sanskrit language, and also had a deep knowledge about performing religious ceremonies.  There is a road in Calcutta after him known as Pran Nath street.

But inspite of all this advancement upto the first quarter of the 20th century, the Kashmiri Pandits used to take meals prepared by Kashmiri Pandit cooks only.  Even the Kashmiri Pandit boys studying in the universities and staying in hostels used to cook their meals themselves.  The free entry of other caste groups into a Kashmiri Pandit household was also not allowed.

In modem context whether the approach adopted by Diasporants for their survival was right or wrong is a debatable point.  But one thing is clear that somehow they succeeded in maintaining their separate distinct ethnic identity for over 200 years inspite of heavy odds against them.  Can we take a lesson from our past history?  Future leads the willing and drags the unwilling.  The society will always be in danger when those who have never learned to obey have been given the right to command.  Moreover, tolerance beyond the point of absurdity is not a virtue but cowardice.

I conclude with the following Urdu couplet of Allama lqbal who was himself a descendant of a Kashmiri Pandit.

"Kuchh baat hai ki hasti mittee nahin hamari
Sadivon raha hai dushman, daur-e-zamana hamara"

Kashmiri Writers B.N. Sharga
 

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