The plight of Kashmir – How it all began

The present-day “Kashmir” is starkly different from the intellectual abode that it was just a few hundred years ago. As the centre of critical thinking and activity, Kashmiri people for thousands of years had generated knowledge in various intellectual domains ranging from philosophy, poetics, dance, drama, painting, architecture, sculpture to music.

Many of Kashmir’s valuable contributions are famous but are not associated with the region. These include Patanjali’s Yogasutras, his commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi/grammar as well as Bharata Muni’s Natyashastra – a book on performing arts. People traversed from far and wide to this centre of “Sanskrit” learning. The Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Tantric philosophy along with the Buddhist schools of Sarvastivada, Mahayana, Madhyamika and Yogachara all trace their roots to Kashmir. It was also called Sharadadesha as it was home to Sharada Peeth – a temple university that attracted scholars like Kalhana and Adi Shankara. Sharada script, whose reflections can today be seen in the Tibetan script, was developed here. Sharada Peeth rivalled the greatness of Takshashila and Nalanda in its heyday. Alas, it is now lost to the sands of time and unlike Takshashila and Nalanda, even its memory has been lost.

So, what transpired between now and then? The Kashmir of today is a pale shadow of those glorious days with only painful stories to be told now. In order to get a complete perspective, we need to examine the much less talked about period of the 13th-17th century CE that was the genesis of this torturous and tragic transformation. As the famous historian, Will Durrant, says: “Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years.” This is especially true in the case of Kashmir.

Islamic invaders had been eyeing Kashmir from around the 800 CE because of its beauty, wealth and natural bounty. However, they constantly faced defeat by brave emperors like Lalitaditya and Chandrapida who held them at bay for 400+ years. This successful defence by Hindu kings over many centuries is a forgotten chapter in Indian history. However, that is a story for another day. The Kashmiri rulers were sensitive to the Islamic forces in the neighbouring regions and remained ever vigilant. This included careful scrutiny to admit men with doubtful credentials. To its invaders over many centuries, it was clear that Kashmir could never be won by military power. The change in centuries of successful defence happened when consecutive benevolent rulers lowered their guards in their vigilance. Even then it was not military defeat but minor faults that set off the transformation. It began in the form of entry of “persecuted” people from the neighbouring regionsKing Suhadeva’s (1301 CE -1320 CE) unfortunate benevolence was the initiator. He helped key people find shelter in Kashmir who consequently were responsible for starting this cycle of religious persecution. The main characters who gained entry during this phase were:

  • Shah Mir – a fugitive from Swat fleeing the Durrani Empire.
  • Rinchan– a fugitive from Ladakh who as per Jonaraj of Rajataringini was so brutal that he would rip open the soft bellies of pregnant Ladakhis women who were his sworn enemies. He would have been killed by his own kinsmen if he had continued to live there.
  • Sayyid Sharafu’d-Din, popularly known as Bulbul Shah – a Suhrawardi Sufi from Turkistan was forced out of his birth land.
  • Sayyids – many Kubravi and Suhrawadi Sufis led by Mir Ali Hamdani and Mir Mohammad Hamdani had fled their native land to escape from Taimur’s oppression who was out to kill all Sayyids. Taimur abhorred their political indulgence. Kashmir provided a safe haven for them but their fundamentalist views caused devastation.

Before we recount the consequent events, it’s important to examine the psyche behind this benevolence:

1. Persecution and torture on religious grounds were unknown to Kashmir where the Shaivite, Vaishnavite and Buddhist lines of spiritual thought equally co-existed. The basic humanitarian ethos of acceptance, good-will and compassion weren’t compromised. The debates and discussions were more a battle of the minds that inspired and enriched their thought process. They were never out to kill, loot, massacre or forcibly convert in the name of faith. There was never disrespect or a desire to annihilate each other. They assumed that persecuted members from other cultures too would have a similar worldview.

2. Kashmir at that point had made great strides with consummate knowledge. But, with greater intellectual pursuits, a sense of idealism had set in which was bereft of ground realities. The society seemed to be in a happy place where liberalism, compassion and acceptance were the norms. Hence, they adopted a more accommodative stance for the foreigners sans any curbs, especially to men fleeing from pain and distress.

As a result, King Suhadeva entrusted a newly entered refugee, Shah Mir, who eventually rose to prominence in the administrative units with unrestricted access. The other refugee, Rinchan, was appointed as a minister and granted a jagir by the then Prime Minister and Commander in Chief, Ramachandra. Bulbul Shah was given the freedom to preach and propagate his faith by the king.

Game of Deceit (CE 1301 – 1339)

It was during that time that Dulucha, a Tartar king chief from Central Asia, invaded Kashmir with 60,000 strong horsemen. According to Baharistan–i-Shahi,

Dulucha and his soldiers killed everyone they could find. People who had fled to the hills and forests were pursued and captured. Men were killed, women and children were reduced to slavery and sold to the merchants of Khita (Turkistan), whom the invaders had brought with them.”

King Suhadeva fled to Kishtwar leaving his kinsmen at the mercy of the cruel aggressors. Prime Minister Ramachandra took control of the kingdom after the devastation caused by Dulucha. He appointed Rinchan as the Army Chief, being oblivious to his crafty and feuding mindset. At an opportune time, Rinchan eliminated his benefactor and occupied the throne of Kashmir.

Rinchan was insecure as he found himself amongst people who had provided him refuge and whom he had betrayed in return. In order to defuse the anger, he married Kota Rani, daughter of Ramachandra, who probably obliged keeping the welfare and protection of the state in mind. He also admitted Ravanachandra, son of Ramachandra, into the state management. Driven by political ambitions, Rinchan thought a formal admission into Hinduism would bolster his respect. He approached Devaswami, a Shaivite saint and scholar. Devaswami denied formal baptism citing his past actions of treachery in this decision. This was a crucial turning point in the history of Kashmir

Shah Mir tapped into the emotions of anger in Rinchan and convinced him to adopt Islam with the help of Bulbul Shah. It was not any spiritual aspiration or yearning that drew Rinchan as is popularly narrated, rather, it was political. Rinchan became Sultan Sadruddin Shah. Ravanachandra too consequently converted along with 10,000 other followers. Their conversion was guided by an understanding that projected Rinchan as the head of a uniform faith of warring sects and creeds. This was hailed as a great victory for Bulbul Shah, who had been unable to attract Hindus to the fold earlier, despite his relentless efforts in preaching Islamic tenets. A Muslim ruling class, thus, came into being in Kashmir.

Rinchan soon met his end as a result of injuries inflicted while fighting Suhadeva’s brother, Udhayanadeva and his trusted men. Kota Rani, Rinchan’s widow, recorded as a great diplomat and politician, married Udhyanadeva, brother of Suhadeva. She was holding the reigns of the government, one who responded to situations with an intuitive understanding. When Persian Tatar Sardar, Achala, invaded Kashmir, she intelligently defeated him. She was even praised by Muslim historian, Mohd. Din Fak, for her courage and administrative qualities

Shah Mir, who had initially supported her during Achala and Dulacha invasions, started drafting plans to uproot Kota Rani. He initially tried to incite Udhyanadeva against her which she tactfully handled by giving up her rights to her son, Hyder – begot by Rinchan. Shah Mir then eliminated her trusted minister, Bhikshan Bhat, through deceit by feigning illness. Kota Rani wanted to eliminate him then but stopped on the grounds that her actions would be seen as a moral disregard towards a refugee. In spite of Kota Rani’s forgiveness, Shah Mir continued with his devious plans of overthrowing her. He organised an uprising against her that was successful. She succumbed and stabbed herself to death. Dr. Raghunath Singh, in his commentary on Rajtarangani, had described the state of the people of Kashmir at the time of this unique self-sacrifice. They were uprooted and with her death, their ancient Kashmir was destroyed. Shah Mir dynasty was thus established in 1339. Islam became the state religion in Kashmir as a result of this game of deceit.

Planting the seeds of persecution

Herein begins the advent of Islam that progressively transformed into a saga of unimaginable persecution unleashed on native Kashmiris who were trapped in the religious clutches of Sufis and Sayyids.

When Shah Mir ascended the throne, he worked on curbing the Hindu resistance and increasing the support base of Muslims. Being a clever politician, he first focused on creating stability through proper enforcement of law and order and focused on improvements in agriculture and peasantry. He ensured that the administration continued in the hands of the traditional class-Brahmins. Pandits didn’t feel threatened and welcomed Shah Mir’s decision to provide refuge to hordes of Muslim preachers and scholars who were fleeing their native lands for fear of persecution. Muslim scholars were allowed to freely carry out their religious preaching. However, state-sponsored Islamic conversion policies continued. Favourable administrative positions were offered on conversion. Another strategic ploy was the encouragement of inter-faith marriages between Hindus and Muslims. He set an example by marrying his own son and daughter to Hindus.

The Sayyids received aid from the Muslim rulers in establishing centres and facilities known as Khanqahs which provided free food, medicines, clothes, etc. Revenues from specific villages were assigned to their upkeep. These activities were initially aimed at peasants in the hope of getting them into the Islamic fold. They achieved some success in conversion, but it was also seen that in spite of conversion, people remained tied to their land – dress, language, local customs and traditions continued; a cause of concern for the Sayyids.

Shah Mir’s grandson, Shibab-ud-Din, continued providing aid for proselytisation and subsequent benefits of conversion. He built a Khanqah for Sayyid Tajuddin in Shahabuddin Pora in Srinagar and provided state funds for its maintenance. Resentment arose in some Brahmins on account of these activities and a mild uprising was seen. The king, in turn, crushed this resentment by destroying temples under the justification of they being places of consolidation and planning by Hindus to uproot Muslim rulers. A Kashmiri historian pens that many temples in Srinagar including the famous Vijiveshwara at Bijbehara were damaged. This was the beginning of the iconoclastic zeal.

Shibab-ud-Din was succeeded by his younger brother, Qutub-ud-Din. During his rule, Mir Ali Hamdani a prominent Sayyid, came to Kashmir with 700 of his followers. He is the author of the iconoclastic chapter of Kashmir history known as Zakhirat-ul Maluk. A rule book of twenty humiliating conditions for the non-Muslim subjects of Kashmir was established. It intended to create an environment that would impair their livelihood and intimidate them to accept Islam. Hindus were clearly marked as second class citizens much like Jews in Nazi Germany. The rule book had the following contents:

  • The Muslim ruler shall not allow fresh constructions of Hindu temples and shrines
  • No repairs to the existing Hindu temples and shrines shall be allowed
  • They shall not ride a harnessed horse
  • They shall not move about with arms
  • They shall not wear rings with diamonds
  • They shall not deal in or eat bacon
  • They shall not exhibit idolatrous images
  • They shall not build houses in neighbourhoods of Muslims
  • They shall not dispose of their dead near Muslim graveyards, nor weep nor wail over their dead
  • They shall not deal in or buy Muslim slaves
  • No Muslim traveller shall be refused lodging in the Hindu temples and shrines where he shall be treated as a guest for three days by non-Muslims
  • No non-Muslim shall act as a spy in the Muslim state
  • No problem shall be created for those non-Muslims who, on their own will, show their readiness for Islam
  • Hindus shall not use Muslim names
  • Non-Muslims shall honour Muslims and shall leave their assembly whenever the Muslims enter the premises
  • The dress of non-Muslims shall be different from that of Muslims to distinguish themselves

It further advised that if the non-Muslims violated any of the above conditions, they could rightfully be killed and their property seized as they were Kafirs (idolaters) at war – an open licence to kill!

Sultan Qutub-ud-Din didn’t implement these rules keeping in mind that most of his officials were Hindus and it could hamper the cordial atmosphere, possibly resulting in a revolt. He understood that the successful propagation of Islam could only be possible by being in power. He, however, obliged Mir Ali in other ways. At his behest, he stopped participating in Hindu festivals, started wearing an Arabic dress, regimented himself to religious duties and forced the neo-converts to dress similarly as other Muslims. A separate identity was thus established – an essential component of uprooting the native Kashmiris’ connect from their ancestral land. In today’s language, the relevant term would be “othering”. 

Mir Ali’s deputies had established Khanqahs at a number of places at(earlier) great Hindu centres, such as Pompur, Avantipura and Vijabror. These centres actively carried out preaching and proselytisation. Temple-breaking as a policy gained legitimacy under Mir Ali when the famous temple of Kalishree in Srinagar was demolished and a mosque constructed on its ruins. This mosque marked the beginning of overt Islamic tyranny that hurt Hindu sentiments and created fissures between Hindus and Muslims. But, Mir Ali’s ambitious zeal wasn’t content with this. He wanted to use the political machinery for aggressive and forceful propagation of religion and eliminate non-Muslims. The word co-existence did not exist in his doctrine. Hence the implementation of Zakhiratul-Muluk was of paramount importance to Islamize Kashmir. These were the diktats of Sharia as per Mir Ali who was dissatisfied by Qutub-ud-din’s refusal to enforce the same. Faith’s interference in politics led to horrific  consequences. 

Mir Ali departed, but his son, Mir Mohammad Hamadani, settled in Kashmir along with 300 of his followers in 1393. Qutub-ud-din’s son, Sikander, had occupied the throne of Kashmir by then. Mohammad Hamdani had a full hold over Sikander who considered him a guiding light. As per Jonaraj of Rajtaringini

“The king waited on him daily as humble as a servant, and like a student, he took his lessons from him. He placed Mahammada before him and was attentive to him like a slave.”

Another key character was Suha Bhatt, the Prime Minister of Sikander, who converted to Islam under Mir Mohammad’s direction and became Malik Saifuddin. The relationship strengthened when Suha’s daughter married Mohammad Hamdani after the demise of the latter’s wife. Mohammad Hamdani wanted to complete the unfinished task of his father which was to weed out Hinduism and its various signs and symbols from Kashmir. Sikandar and Saifuddin became the primary drivers of this mission. Sharia was rigorously implemented in Kashmir and Zakhiratul-Muluk became a reality. A massive hate-campaign against the non-Muslim subjects was initiated. 

Mayhem unleashed

Unprecedented levels of persecution and torture ensued. The creative and aesthetic activities of Hindus,were banned, which included music, dance, drama, sculpting and painting. Hindus were barred from going to temples and performing their religious festivals and practices. They couldn’t put Tilak on their heads and could be killed for doing so. A Hindu mother giving birth to twins was subjected to Jazia. Neo-converts were equally punished for clinging to their old habits. Things worsened as “convert, die or flee” became the rule of the game and to achieve this end Saifuddin, the chief of the army, utilised his forces. Hindus were forcibly converted and on their refusal were brutally massacred. As for the statements of Muslim historian Hassan and British traveller W.R.Lawrence, six mounds (I mound = 37 kilos) of sacred threads of converts and seven mounds of murdered Pandits were burnt after such heinous acts. Further, there were accounts of hundreds of Hindus being tied back to back and thrown in the Dal Lake to drown. The Bhatta Mazaar (Pandit graveyard) in Srinagar is a gory reminder of those atrocities. Many fled for their lives via the Bhatawath (path of Pandits). Sikander was in power from 1389 CE-1413 CE.  This period marked the first mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus.

The bigoted gaze was next directed towards the sacred centres of Hindus. Mir Mohammad Hamdani advised Sikander that the temples were the source of inspiration and a reminder to Hindus of their roots. They could inspire neo-converts to give up Islam in the future. Hence demolition of these centres was necessary for delinking fresh converts from their ancestral heritages. Many temples, including 300 temples at Bijbehara and the gem of Indian architecture, Martanda temple by Ramdev, were destroyed. The Martanda temple, a feat of amazing architecture, took one year to destroy – it was finally demolished by deploying gunpowder in its foundations. The ruins of Martanda temple till today leaves one awestruck. He also set ablaze Sanskrit books and libraries that burned for months. Sikander had no remorse for his actions which he believed were both a “state duty” and “God’s order”. He took pride in calling himself “Butshikan” or “the iconoclast”!

The days of misery were not over with 24 years of Sikander Butshikan’s rule. In fact, it reached its zenith with his son, Ali Shah, who revelled in tormenting, killing and converting Hindus to Islam. Saifuddin, the neo-convert, continued to be the Prime Minister. Functions and ceremonies were banned for Hindus on new moon days, heavy taxes were imposed, traditional allowances were curtailed; they were reduced to destitution just for their choice to continue to follow their ancestral path. Saifuddin was possessed with so much bigotry and jealousy that he stationed his army men at check posts to disallow the Hindus from fleeing as they wanted to preserve their heritage in foreign lands. Many Hindus committed suicide during this period – some took poison, some hung themselves, some drowned themselves and some jumped into the fire. There were reports of mass migration through by-roads but many perished en route as a result of heat, scanty food, snakes, etc. There were reportedly only 11 Hindu families left in Kashmir at the end of Ali Shah’s six-year rule 

At this point, lets pause, reflect and examine this period where Islam penetrated and entrenched itself:

– Ignoring the telltale signs: Islam made headway in Kashmir in a gradual manner as described above. What initially seemed a simple establishment of Islamic rule, slowly and steadily progressed to woeful persecution, erosion and destruction of indigenous ethos. It was never about live and let live. Each ruler came and increased the knob one level up. The writing was there on the wall, but tangible, cohesive and collective actions on the ground by Hindus were absent. It seemed the obvious signs were just ignored.

– Circumstantial and state-sponsored conversion: The indigenous knowledge and art produced from this land in the pre-Islamic period are living evidence of the high level of intellectual engagement, traces of which have dwindled in today’s Kashmir. There didn’t seem to be any cultural vacuum nor were there traces of a primitive mindset incapable of evolving its world-views before this century. This is in stark contrast to the current narrative of willing conversions due to a spiritual vacuum. In fact, Sanatana Dharma in Kashmir had evolved and conceived multiple dimensions of human spiritual development. The native cultural ethos was based on the assimilation of various ideas or belief systems rather than outright rejection. Debates, discussions and intellectual discourse were the modes of understanding and projecting one’s thought process which was absent in this period. The works of Mir Ali, a key proselytiser, hadn’t garnered much recognition in the Muslim world as Abdul Qaiyum Rafiqi in his book had observed

“Devoid of originality as they were, his works did not receive the widespread recognition which those of sufi scholars such as Qushairi, Ghazali, Shaikh Shihab-ud-Din Suhrawardi and Ibn’-Arabi obtained.”

So, his thoughts inspiring and impacting this formidable seat of learning and spirituality is highly doubtful. A pertinent question then is “were the conversions to Islam a result of spiritual understanding or a consequence of the circumstances created?”

– The intention of Sayyids: Many Kubrawiya order Sayyid-Sufis poured into Kashmir in the 13th/14th century to escape the tyranny of Taimur led by Mir Ali Hamdani. Notable historians have documented that Taimur despised their interference in local political affairs and hence was antagonistic. With the establishment of Shah Mir dynasty, Kashmir provided a conducive environment for these refugees. While Taimur had opposed their involvement in statecraft, Muslim rulers of Kashmir were open to their guidance in daily state activities. The Sayyids used the state power and resources to drive their objective of conversions e.g., free distribution of food, giving favourable positions in administrations, building mosques and schools for the propagation of Islam etc. They further advised the rulers that the indigenous religions had to be dismantled and uprooted for Islam to have a firm foothold in Kashmir. Hence the violence, commotion, death and destruction that ensued had the endorsement of “divine sanctions” for the Muslim rulers. All of these tactics were a symbol of insecurity of the Sayyids who were always worried about Hindus regrouping and toppling the newly established Muslim political leadership. Having a political orientation, they had also found a niche for themselves in the courts. As per author Abdul Qaiyum Rafiqi,

“Besides occupying positions such as that of Qazi and Shaik’ul Islam, some of them (Sufis) held high positions in administration, including that of wazir and they also served as ambassadors. They visited the royal courts, established matrimonial alliances with leading nobles and ruling houses. They dabbled in politics and on many occasions were exiled from the country.”

In fact, till today their descendants occupy a significant 35% of government and prominent private sector positions in Kashmir. Thus, the Sayyids never gave up their political ambitions and manipulation even in the land that provided them refuge.

– From a progressive to a divisive society: The society slipped into a state of turmoil under this sweeping tide of conversion. Animosity started developing between the neo-converts and the resilient who stuck to their old faith, with the latter feeling betrayed by the former. Many a time the neo-converts fled, unable to face the public wrath, at other times they stuck to their old customs and traditions and practised their native religion in private. Aware of the ethnic and cultural affinities of the neo-converts and the natives, the Sayyids taught lessons of believers and non-believers with the non-believers being termed as ‘kafirs’ (infidels) and idolatrous. ‘Sharia’ was used as an instrument to polarise and divide society. Some neo-converts like Suha Bhatt expressed this hostility in a venomous way as evidenced earlier. But, it was the future generations of neo-converts whose thoughts would have been shaped the most by these teachings as a quest for finding their identity. For instance, Mohd. Iqbal’s father was a Kashmiri Pandit, who converted when caught embezzling money. But Mohd. Iqbal’s world view was predominantly affected by Islam than his Kashmiri heritage. Thus, the minds that were earlier intellectually, creatively and artistically engaged were trapped in the religious clutches of Muslim Sufi saints and Sayyids and Kashmir became a jungle of interplay of emotions between the erstwhile co-religionists.

– Post conversion efforts to preserve past spiritual traditions – Indigenous Rishi movement:  An indigenous rishi movement led by Sheikh Noor ud-Din Noorani, popularly known as Nund Rishi, emerged in Kashmir during this time. Their spiritual goals mirrored many aspects of the native religious traditions like asceticism and disinterest in mundane affairs. They preached love for the divine. The foreign Sayyids rejected their form of spirituality and denounced the path as un-Islamic. Nund Rishi too, disapproved their policy of creating a divide in society that had led to the subsequent genocide of non-Muslims. He was deeply inspired by his contemporary Lal Ded, a renowned mystic of Kashmiri Shaivism philosophy. Many peasants were believed to have adopted this path post-conversion. If there wasn’t a spiritual vacuum created post-conversion, would such an indigenous movement have been there?

Kashmir was burning at the end of Ali Shah’s rule. There was some light in the dark with Zainulab-ud-Din’s rule of 50 years. It is said that when he was cured of a poisonous boil by a Vaidraj Pandit Shri Bhat, there was a transformation in his outlook towards life as an obligation towards Shri Bhat. Historian Abul Fazal, in his book “Aain-e-Akbar”, also highlighted that Zainulab-ud-Din too would have followed the tainted path of his ancestors had not Shri Bhat come in contact with him. This period marked the return and resettlement of many Kashmiri Hindu families in the valley.

Kashmir’s painful saga did not end here. The atrocities on Hindus continued under subsequent rulers including Shams-ud-Din Iraqi of the Shia sect, Mughals, Afghans and the latest being the separatist mindset of our hostile neighbour. This led to seven painful migrations of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland. The foreigners attracted by the beauty of Kashmir came time and again and created havoc in the lives of the indigenous people of Kashmir by terrorising them. This land was a paradise for them because of its bountiful mountains, valleys and streams whereas the natives had made it a land of paradise on account of humanitarian values like religious equality, co-existence and nurturing an environment where excellence in all fields could be achieved. From a wonder house where it was producing knowledge across many dimensions, its identity has now been reduced to just producing Cashmere.

This essay is an attempt to understand the origins of the devastation in Kashmir. Hindu Kashmir became a victim of the state’s adherence to an all-encompassing world view and deep-set values of ethical behaviour. The rulers at that point in time had failed to remain vigilant. Kashmir, even in its time of destruction has lessons for mankind. We just have to open our eyes wide to see it.

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