A Solemn Remembrance of a Night in Infamy – 19 January 1990
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
19 January 2020
A new phase of wanton harassment and violence against Pandits began in February 1986 when a number of Hindu temples and hundreds of Pandit homes were destroyed by arson in the Southern district of Anantnag in Kashmir. The culprits from the majority Muslim community were provoked by local politicians. The violence against Pandits escalated after the first batch of trained Islamic terrorists returned from Pakistan. First targeted killings of Pandits took place in 1987, followed by gruesome incidents of violence involving rapes and murders of community leaders. But if there were any lingering doubts in the fearful minority about their safety and security, all those doubts were laid to rest on the night of January 19, 1990.
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to speak at this solemn event marking the 30 year anniversary of a dastardly night in what was once the beautiful vale of Kashmir. That night, and in the days to follow, Kashmiri Pandits, the aboriginal natives of Kashmir, faced fire, fury and worse from their neighbors forcing the minority Pandit community to flee from their ancestors lands, uprooting their lives and making them refugees in their own country. Their only crime was that they were of Hindu faith and their tormentors saw them as “infidels.” An ancient land that for thousands of years had nurtured Pandits suddenly turned hostile to the very people who gave this land its culture, language and customs.
While the ferocity of the night of 19th January 1990 was unlike anything that Pandits had experienced or faced in the past, the signs of fear, violence, and killings were mounting even before that day. In fact, the turning point came in February 1986, when communal riots were triggered by a political party in the Southern district of Anantnag in Kashmir, resulting in wanton destruction of many Hindu temples. Nearly 300 homes of Pandits were burnt down. The agitating political party got its wish and the State Government fell, yet no one in the Government (neither in Srinagar nor in New Delhi) pursued an investigation of how and why Pandits were targeted as a punching bag for political expediency. In fact, I wrote to the New York Times at that time and received the following response from Steven Wiseman, the NYT Bureau Chief in New Delhi. In a letter dated 15 April 1986, he wrote to me that, “I have a written a couple of stories about Hindu-Moslim problems in Kashmir. As you know, protesting Muslims attacked temples, homes and stores of Kashmiri Pundits.”
By 1986, Kashmir was changing as a whole. As disclosed by one of the founders of a terrorist organization called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the first batch of trained Kashmiri terrorists returned from Pakistan with arms and money in 1986 to pursue Jihad in Kashmir. The killings of Pandits began soon thereafter.
After the tragedy in Anantnag in 1986, the first marked assassinations of Pandits took place in 1987, but it was the assassination of two prominent Pandits in 1989, one a political leader and the other a retired judge that gave the minority community a sense that their homeland was not a safe place any more.
The insurgency in the valley turned up a few notches with the kidnapping of the daughter of a local politician (who was then the serving Union Home Minister in New Delhi) on 8th December 1989. JKLF terrorists demanded the release of five of their imprisoned cohorts and when the government capitulated and released jailed terrorists five days later, Kashmir was ablaze with Islamic fervor and Jihadi slogans.
Suddenly posters started appearing on streets with threatening messages to all Kashmiris. One such poster screamed, “If you have to live in Kashmir, you must abide by the Sharia law” (this is a translation of an actual poster in Urdu). Other posters were even more explicit. These demanded anyone living in Kashmir to harshly follow Islamic rules, which included abidance by the Islamic dress code, men growing beards, a prohibition of alcohol, cinemas, video parlors, and strict restrictions on social interactions involving men and women. Office buildings, shops and various establishments were repainted green as a sign of Islamist rule. JKLF divided Kashmir into geographical zones and “assigned Zonal Commanders” to administer diktats of the insurgents. Kalashnikov wielding terrorists started collecting “jizya” (protection money) from Pandit business families and forced people to reset their wrist watches to Pakistan Standard Time.
The state security personnel were nowhere to be seen. The State Government, then led by Dr. Farooq Abdullah, was paralyzed and non-existent. Not only did the menacing posters stay put, but gangs of armed men roamed around Srinagar and other big towns shutting (and in some cases burning) alcohol shops, cinema halls, beauty parlors, and selective shops owned by Hindus. Most of the minority population dreaded going out on to streets and were living a life in fear and shock. Daily reports were pouring in from relatives and friends about growing violence involving plunder, rape, and killings of Pandit men and women. It is estimated that between 1986 and 1989, nearly 300 Kashmiri Pandits perished in the turmoil.
Just when the minorities hoped that they had seen the worse, the situation turned even more grave causing their fear and insecurities to reach alarming proportions. New terrorist organizations were mushrooming overnight with strange names and threatening slogans. One new terrorist outfit named “Allah Tigers” put threatening posters on the doors of Pandit homes asking occupants to leave Kashmir immediately. One such poster stated (literal translation), “All infidels vanish, Jihad is approaching.” As if that was not clear, on 4th January 1990, the Daily Aftab, an Urdu newspaper published from Srinagar, was forced to print the headline proclaiming, “The aim of present struggle is the supremacy of Islam in Kashmir, in all walks of life and nothing else. Anyone who puts hurdle in our way will be annihilated.” It was a press release from a new terror group called Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) that also urged young people to wage a Jihad for secession from India and accession to Pakistan. The press release also ordered Pandits to leave the valley.
Some Kashmiri Pandits did just that and started leaving the valley in ones and twos. Some veterans among the community recalled similar episodes going as far back as 1931 when Pandits became sacrificial lambs between rebellious Muslims and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir in the British India Raj. Recalling such past events, many Pandits initially refused to accept that growing violence was specifically targeting them. They did not want to believe that Kashmiri Muslims would ever turn on their Pandit brethren. These Pandits saw killings of their fellow community members as “collateral damage” between warring Islamic insurgents and Government security forces.
But if there was any room for confusion, all those doubts vanished during the night of January 19, 1990. On the cold, dark, wintry night of that Friday, the worst nightmares of Kashmiri Pandits were realized. Thousands of loudspeakers hoisted on as many mosques through the length and breadth of the valley boomed “Freedom” slogans and war cries in native Kashmiri language, exhorting the faithful to come out of their homes and march to Srinagar to capture power in the valley. They were urged to cleanse the land from infidels.
It was obvious that such a coordinated verbal abuse could not have been done without prior planning. Even to the most progressive Pandit tolerant of diversity and plurality, the message was clear; it was “them versus us.” Overnight friendly neighbors turned hostile denouncing peace loving Pandits as Kafirs and accused them of being hostile to Islam.
But on January 19, 1990 the verbal abuse did not end with loudspeaker blasts only. In the darkness past midnight, Muslims came out on streets in neighborhoods were Pandits lived and threatened their lives by raising incendiary slogans. Two slogans shouted in native Kashmiri language were particularly terrifying:
“What do we want?”: “Pakistan without Pandit men and with Pandit women”
“Either Convert to Islam, or leave the land, or be ready to die”
Even today when I imagine that scene in my mind, I can sense the fright, the anxiety, and the pain that those gentle people must have felt watching from behind their shut doors and drawn curtains. This is a night that will live in infamy forever. After all these mobs were not foreign mercenaries or Punjabi cut-throats from Pakistan. These were local Kashmiri people, some even neighbors, who had lived side by side with Pandits peacefully for generations. The shock and the horror of that night is indelible.
The very next day saw the first wave of Pandits leaving in a rush trying to find any available transportation vehicle to ferry them out of the valley. The exodus had begun. Every bus, truck or car available to Pandits was put to use. Rumors of Pandit massacre gave further impetus to the urgency and desire to leave their homes at the earliest. Some fled with just the clothes on their back. Most left all their possessions behind, be it their valuables, their homes, or their personal possessions.
The night of 19 January 1990 is the one that no Kashmiri Pandit survivor who lived through the ordeal wishes to recall because of haunting bad memories. And this is a day that no Kashmiri Pandit expatriate living wherever they do will ever forget. High crimes were committed against a peaceful community and there are many guilty parties, though none have been charged so far. The blame lies squarely on the nation of Pakistan for diverting battle-hardened Mujahideen from the Afghan war to Kashmir, and for supplying arms and materiel to Kashmiri terrorists. But Pakistan is not the only guilty party. The Muslim majority community in Kashmir must also be faulted for turning a blind eye towards the harsh treatment of minorities thereby becoming enablers of jihad in Kashmir. And finally the local government of the State must be called out for abusing minorities by denying them even the basic human rights including security and justice that is enshrined in the Constitution of India.
The flood gates that opened after January 19, 1990, swept away most but not all Kashmiri Pandits from the valley. Those remaining hoped that the worst may be over. Unfortunately, the government’s inability to exercise law, order and security only further encouraged terrorists. On January 25, 1990 terrorists belonging to JKLF tried to gun down a large group of Air Force personnel in Srinagar, killing 4 and injuring 40. These killings further encouraged terrorists who now turned their wrath on the remaining Pandits still living in the valley. Terrorists used the Urdu daily Alsafa as its mouthpiece, and the headline on April 14, 1990 in the newspaper stated that “Kashmiri Pandits responsible for duress against Muslims should leave the valley within two days.” A fresh wave of exodus followed that announcement which included my aging retired parents as well.
The population of Pandits living in the valley began to thin out, but for many the worst was still to come. Isolated killings of Pandits continued. There were mass assassinations as well. A massacre of Pandits occurred on 21 March 1997, when 7 local Pandits were taken by terrorists from Sangrampora village in Budgam district and gunned down in a nearby field. On 25 January 1998 all but one Pandit living in the hamlet of Wandhama in Ganderbal district, 23 in all, were killed. The lone survivor was a 14-year old boy. On 23 March 2003, 24 Pandits from ages of 65 to 2 years old which included 11 men, 11 women, and 2 children, fell to bullets fired by terrorists wearing army uniforms, in the village of Nadimarg in Pulwama district.
The killings of Pandits in Kashmir have not stopped. The list of victims appears endless, and to be honest, is too painful for me to recall. We have recorded details of nearly 750 victims, though the actual number of Pandits killed exceeds 1,000 and possibly close to 1,500. This is a large number of victims when you compare it to the peak total population of Pandits in the valley of under 400,000.
Repeated efforts by Pandits to return to their homeland have been thwarted by ruling local political parties until now. Terrorists are equally firm in their opposition. I recall a published statement by Hizbul Mujahideen in 1992 in which the organization warned Pandits that they will not be allowed back as “they have received arms training “which was obviously a blatant lie. Following the recent reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir State into a union territory, there are high hopes that Pandits may be able to return to their homeland in not too distant future.
Ladies and gentleman, this solemn remembrance is for Kashmiri Pandits who were not only ethnically cleansed from the valley but also subject to Genocide. Indeed, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India ruled in 1999 that conditions faced by Kashmiri Pandits during the turmoil were “akin to Genocide”. Yet this tragedy is hardly known in the Western world. It is an untold story that we have pledged to highlight over and over again. Let me repeat – Pandits will never forget what happened to them in Kashmir while the world remained silent. The story of what happened to Kashmiri Pandits is a lesson for all peace loving and tolerant people around the globe. It is a fragile world and there are evil people who see a hand of friendship or an abiding faith in pluralism and tolerance as a sign of weakness. Eventually, such people will torment you and drive you out. Kashmiri Pandits trusted their neighbors who unfortunately proved unworthy of that trust.
Thirty years have gone by since that fateful night of 19 January 1990. Two generations have passed by. While those painful memories will not die, we hope that Pandits will eventually return some day to their beloved homeland with security, dignity and honor.
To view the exchange with the New York Times in 1986, please click here
To view threats to Kashmiri Pandits through posters and by newspaper headlines in 1990, please click here
To view the FIRST INTERNATIONAL REPORT ON TERRORISM IN KASHMIR, dated 21 May 1994, please click here
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.