How, 31 Yrs Ago, Kashmiri Pandits Became Refugees in Their Country

In 1990, Kashmiri Pandits were given three choices — convert to Islam, leave Kashmir or get killed.
Aliza Noor
19 January 1990 is a reminder of the exodus by Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir, the memories of which are clear even today. | (Photo: Kamran Akhter/The Quint)

(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the anniversary of Kashmiri Pandit exodus. It was first published on 19 January 2020.)

It was the cold, bitter and terrifying night of 19 January 1990 when the life of Kashmiri Pandits spiralled into one of the worst nightmares in the Valley. In the midst of political rivalries, radical Islamisation and militant insurgency, the Kashmiri Pandits — the Hindu minority community in the Valley — were driven out in one of the most unprecedented exoduses in India’s history.

Their plight is an intricate and difficult one to tell. One that is rife with murders, gangrapes, grenade blasts, encounters, arrests, disappearances, myriad slogans in favour of freedom from India, for Pakistan, in favour of extremists and against Pandits’ brethren.

30 years later, the events from 1980’s-90’s are still debated, with their experience being brought up every now and then to fight political battles. The film industry is venturing into depicting their exodus on-screen with Shikara in 2020.

But what triggered the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and what transpired thereafter? Here’s what happened.

Gathering of the Storm

The manner in which the state and the key players systematically worked in the direction of the exodus is crucial to understand.

The 1975 Accord between Kashmiri politician Sheikh Abdullah and the then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi pushed him to pursue measures for the integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India. This laid the groundwork for future insurgency. Pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami and pro-Independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) were opposed to Abdullah's plans.

In 1980, Abdullah himself began the Islamisation of Kashmir. His government changed the names of about 2,500 villages from their original names to new Islamic names. Moreover, in his autobiography Atish-e-Chinar, he referred to Kashmiri Pandits as “mukhbir” meaning “informers of the Indian government”.

An atmosphere of fear developed in Kashmir after the alleged rigging of the 1987 state assembly elections which gave birth to Muslim United Front (MUF), the frontline activists of Jamaat-e-Islami. They propagated their idea of the Islamic resistance movement while Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) became actively involved. The latter went on to sponsor a parallel terrorist group named Hizbul-Mujahideen (HM).

JKLF initiated armed insurgency with the outright support of ISI. They used Kalashnikov and carried out a huge disinformation and indoctrination campaign among the Kashmiri Muslim population.

With their training camps, they spread anti-Hindu sentiments, convincing many of the need to cleanse the Valley of its Hindu population, no matter how tiny or insignificant.


The brutal murder of lawyer and BJP leader Tika Lal Tapoo right outside his residence on 14 September instilled fears in the Pandit minority community. Barely three weeks later, retired Judge Nikalanth Ganjoo was killed in broad daylight. Coincidentally or not, Justice Ganjoo had ruled the death sentence to Maqbool Bhat, one of the founding leaders of JKLF.


On 8 December 1989, Rubaiya Sayeed, daughter of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the then Home Minister in the then VP Singh government was kidnapped by members of JKLF. She was released after the Abdullah-led government in the Valley freed 13 of their jailed members.

Meanwhile, newspapers, posters, and mosques issued declarations giving Kashmiri Pandits three options —“Ralive, Tsaliv ya Galive” (Convert to Islam, leave Kashmir or get killed). A local urdu daily, Aftab also carried messages threatening Hindus to leave.

Former Director-General of Jammu and Kashmir police MM Khajooria said, “The mischief of the summer of 1989 started with serving notice to the prominent members of the minority community to quit Kashmir.” The note ended with a warning, “If you do not obey, we will start with your children. Kashmir Liberation, Zindabad.”

The Night of 19 January & After

From the end of the 1980’s through to the next decade, militancy in Kashmir was at its peak. January 1990 witnessed gruesome happenings, the likes of which had not been seen by the Pandits since the Afghan rule. The National Conference-Congress government lost the plot. President’s rule was imposed and Jagmohan arrived on 19 January to take charge as the erstwhile state’s Governor.

Around 9 pm on the night of 19 January 1990, the Valley was reverberating with war-cries of extremists and pro-Pakistan slogans raised by a huge crowd relayed through loudspeakers.

Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims, including young, old, children and women poured into the streets, shouting “death to India” and “death to kafirs.” The slogans continued till morning, making it clear to the Pandits that they were in the line of fire.

Law and order crumbled as the police deserted their posts and the Pandits were left to defend themselves. “For the first time after the independence of India from the British rule, Kashmiri Pandits found themselves abandoned to their fate, stranded in their own homes, encircled by rampaging mobs,” Khajooria said.

On 21 January, two days after Jagmohan took charge as the Governor, the Gawkadal massacre took place wherein, the Indian security forces fired at protesters which killed at least 50 people. Reports of violence against Hindus who had survived the night emerged which forced many to flee the Valley.

In the face of militancy and lack of political will from the Indian government to intervene, many Kashmiri Hindu women were kidnapped, raped and murdered throughout the time of the exodus. A young social-worker Satish Tikkoo was killed near his house in February.

On 13 February, Lassa Kaul, the Station Director of Doordarshan Srinagar was shot dead.

The wife of a BSF personnel, MN Paul, was kidnapped, raped and murdered, allegedly because she was the wife of a government official. One particular case of Sarwanand Koul Premi, a veteran Kashmiri poet, butchered communal harmony in the Valley. Premi, who translated the Bhagwat Gita into Kashmiri, was killed near his house along with his son.

Fear-stricken, the hapless Pandits had no option but to leave their old homeland, properties, jobs, farms, and temples.

They engaged in whatever means of transport they could manage and fled the Valley, ending up in refugee camps in Jammu, National Capital Region surrounding Delhi and other neighbouring states.

Kashmiri journalist Gowar Geelani said that on the request of some Kashmiri Muslims, Wajahat Habibullah, a senior Indian administrator appealed to Jagmohan to dissuade the Pandits from leaving the Valley.

Instead, Jagmohan said that if the Pandits decided to leave, refugee camps had been set up for them and the departing civil servants would be continued to be paid their salaries. He announced that if they chose to stay back, he would not be able to guarantee their safety.

To the radical forces, it was perceived as the fruition of the Valley's ethnic cleansing. The sentiment was that Pandits had now been banished from their birthplace – not just for the future few decades, but for all times to come.

A Question of Numbers & Definitions

A report by the Jammu and Kashmir government states that 219 members of the Pandit community, out of the 1,400 Hindus, were killed in the region between 1989 and 2004 – but none thereafter.

Contradicting the government’s claims, Panun Kashmir, a political group representing the Pandits, published a list that stated 1,341 Pandits were killed since 1990.

According to political scientist Alexander Evans, 95 percent of the Kashmiri Pandits living in the Valley left in 1990 — between 1,50,000 and 1,60,000. On the other hand, a 2010 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of Norwegian Refugee Council suggested that over 2,50,000 Pandits have been displaced since 1990.

Meanwhile, a CIA report states a figure of 3,00,000 displaced from the whole state. These figures continue to be debated even today.


Considering the large numbers involved, and the relatively short time frame in which most of the departures of the Kashmiri Pandits took place, the more accurate term would be “exodus,” cited author and historian Mridu Rai.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, she said, “Many Kashmiri Pandits prefer the term exile or expulsion as being a more accurate description of their situation and descriptions of themselves as ‘refugees’ and ‘refugees in their own country’. Others have even used more extreme terms such as ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘holocaust.’”

The indictment of the Indian government, their failure to protect them, and proper rehabilitation after the forced departure is expressed through these terminologies.

Geelani stated there is truth to the claims of calling it an “exodus” and “migration” as scores of families left the Valley because of fear psychosis. “The pandit families suffered direct, indirect or perceived intimidation to abandon their homes,” he said.

However, Rai states that the term “migration” suggests voluntariness to their departure, which most Kashmiri Pandits would rightly deny.

In Between Refugee Camps and Rehabilitation Policies

As cruel and inhuman as the exodus was, being a refugee is a complicated matter, with separate township or colonies for the Pandits still remaining a contentious issue.

Thousands of Kashmiri Pandit refugees settled into small rooms and abject conditions in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi provided to them by the state government. Many of them hoped to return to their ancestral land but failed to do so.

In both, Jammu and Delhi, a number of refugees were moved into proper houses. Most of it took place under Congress regimes. Flats at Jagti camp in Jammu are said to house over 4,000 refugees.

In 2008, the Congress at the Centre announced a package for the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri pandits, offering maximum assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh to each family for construction of houses.

But the National Conference's Omar Abdullah demanded the package be enhanced to Rs 20 lakh per family; thereafter, it was stalled.

In 2017, Union Minister Rajnath Singh announced in Srinagar the government's decision to construct 6,000 transit accommodations for the Pandits – but this plan too did not see the light of day.


In the span of five months from August 2019 to January 2020, Kashmiri Pandits had different reactions to two major moves by the BJP-led government at the Centre.

When Article 370 of the Indian Constitution giving special status to Jammu and Kashmir was revoked on 5 August, 64 citizens comprising Kashmiri Pandits “unequivocally condemned it,” stating that it was done without consulting the people of the erstwhile state.

Between December 2019 and January 2020, when protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) and the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) ravaged the nation, Panun Kashmir came out in its support.

However, several Pandits feel it is yet another tool using their plight for political gains, pandering to the majoritarian forces in the country.

Their trauma is often used to engage in whataboutery, even as efforts to create effective political discourse and debate around their rehabilitation policies are nowhere in sight. Kashmiri Pandits may have been able to physically relocate, but they cannot go back in time.

(With inputs from India Today, India Defence Review, European Foundation for South Asian Studies, Hindustan Times, BBC, Economic Times, Al Jazeera, University of Kashmir, Decan Herald)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Published: 19 Jan 2020,12:21 PM IST