Pandit oligarchy and Occupation: A historical perspective
The Kashmiri Brahmins (also known as Pandits) are known to have enjoyed favours and patronage of every ruler in Kashmir, native or foreign. The Pandit oligarchy was considered sharp witted, clever and quick learners, encouraging education among their co-religionists, at the same time making sure that non-Brahman communities suffered educationally and economically. Due to their habits of flattery and deceit the oligarchy managed to procure wealth, land and positions of power right from the time of early Hindu rulers like Lalitaditya, Harsha and Simadeva.
Even after the mass conversions and establishment of Sultanate in Kashmir, the Brahmans didn’t have any loss, and the administration continued to be in their hands. Except during the brief rule of Sikander, when their own converted blood, Suhabatta (Malik Aasif), was at the helm of affairs and settled his personal scores with them, the Brahmans held higher positions and came to prominence. During the period of Zain-ul-Abideen, some of them like Shri Bhatta, would be in constant attendance of the king, the admins was totally in their hands, they were incharge of land settlements and agriculture and would use their flattery of the King to benefit their own community. Gopala Koul, Ganesha Koul and Madho Koul, as the chiefs of land settlements and agriculture, appointed men of their own creed as their subordinates like patwaris. The court of Zain-ul-Abideen was bloomed by them and many others were given strictly confidential diplomatic missions to execute. Zainul-Abideen was so much influenced by Bhattas that he forbade the killing of fish in certain tanks and meat eating on some days.
During Chak rule the Brahmans continued receiving land grants and serve in the administration. There were Mathas built and villages endowed in their favour. The Chak kings participated in Hindu festivals and invited Brahmans to his court. All of this proximity with the ruling class came at the cost of sustenances of the majority Muslim peasantry, which was marred by exploitations at the hands of Brahmans.
The flattery of the rulers and deceit of the masses at the hands of Brahmans, however, was worst after the occupation of Kashmir by Mughals. The occupation that started in 16th century was resisted by the Muslims who were setback by the loss of freedom. Akbar tried his best to subdue the people but could not earn their love and goodwill. He then resorted to the use of collaborators within them, and as a tradition he succeeded in enlisting the support of Brahmans who received his special attention and patronage. These Brahmans identified themselves with the occupier when the Mughals annexed Kashmir. After one of his visits to Kashmir, Akbar left along with a number of Pandits like flies stick to sweet. Some of the Pandits were bestowed highest titles such as itmad-ul-saltanat (trust of the empire), mushir-ul-mulk (advisor of the state) and gam khar (sympathiser). Akbar distributed rent free lands to them, and bestowed power and control on them. The Muslims on the other hand were forced to live a life of complete political disempowerment. Their properties were usurped and they were ousted from state administration. Akbar forbade the entry of the Kashmiri Musalmans isn’t army so as to crush their martial spirit, while Brahmans continued to hold critical positions in army like the defence of the borders. In order to kill the spark of resistance, Akbar utilised the Brahmans as informants and spies on local Muslim youth. Even during the time of Aurangzeb the occupied a very high place in country. The trade and commerce of Muslims was snatched and given to the Pandits. The influence of Pandits of the Mughal rulers was so immense that on their recommendation Abu Barkat Khan was appointed as the subedar of Kashmir five times.
Afghan rule in Kashmir is considered as one of the worst periods in history of occupied Kashmir. They were brutalities galore, innocent were burnt and drowned, children, women and elderly all alike. In the perpetuation of their crimes, the Kashmiri Pandits were instruments of Afghan. During the rule a number of Kashmiri Pandits manoeuvred themselves to prominent positions in the country’s administration and some of them were employed even in the offices in Kabul. Pandit Nand Ram Tiku became the prime minister of Kabul and his name would appear on coins and official documents. Pandit families like Dhars, Kouls and Tikkus and Saprus openly displayed loyalty to the brutal Afghan regime while hundreds of innocents were massacred. Some names became talk of every Kashmiri household as a part of the brutal Afghan regime. These included the likes of Mahanand Pandit Dhar who was advisor to governor Nooruddin Khan and later became the prime minister for Sukh Jeevan (An Afghan Hindu ruler). At the incitement of Dhar, governor banned Azaan and issued ban on cow slaughter as well. Dila Ram Quli, a Kashmiri pandit advisor to the most dreaded Governor Azad Khan assisted him in his merciless policies against the Muslims of the state. He was also the instigator of Shia-Sunni riots in 1786. Anybody trying to rebel against the afghan rule was labelled as a traitor by the Pandits. The influence on the Ahmad Shah Abdali was so immense that many governors, like Nooruddin Khan and Mohammad Khan were removed at the behest of the Pandits.
Afghan rule starting falling apart, and Pandits in order to secure their positions started conspiring for the Sikhs to annex Kashmir into another era of slavery. An influential pandit Birbal Dhar and his son Raja Kai Dhar, invited Ranjit Singh to attack Kashmir, the ruler was hesitant initially but was skilfully persuaded by Dhar. The sick army along with Dhar and his valiant Pandits attacked and claimed control over Srinagar city. The 27 years of Sikh rule in Kashmir were marked by mayhem and catastrophe. There was a physical, religious and economic repression of the local Muslims. The mosques were closed down and turned into stables or granaries, Azam was banned, Jama Masjid was closed for 23 years. On petition of the Pandits cow slaughter was banned and was punished with death. Three prominent businessmen of Kawoosa family were hanged and their bodies dragged in streets on false charges of cow slaughter, 12 people from Hawal and 17 from Chhatabal and 19 members of a boatmen living on Doodganga stream were burnt alive on similar charges. Even marriages and divorces were taxed. Every shawl was taxed at 26 percent upon estimated value. The condition of Muslims was so bad that only food of at least 30000 persons for five months was water nuts. Muslims were worse than the cattle and animals while their collaborating countrymen, the Pandits enjoyed the power and patronage of the Lahore Sikh Darbar. The Sikh ruler was so happy with them that he made Birbal Dhar principal advisor and chief revenue collector.
The power in Kashmir after the Sikhs was taken over by the notorious Dogras under the leadership of Gulab Singh.
In the case of the Kashmir valley, the office holders were drawn from Pandits and few prominent Kashmiri Muslims i.e Sayyids and Pir families. The revenue administration from patwari to naib tehsildar to tehsildar to wazir-e-wazarat to hakim-e-ala was an all Pandit affair. These three social classes i.e Pandits, Sayyids and Pirs (referred to as ‘Naqshbandis’ by Mridu Rai in her book ‘Hindu rulers Muslim subjects’) were exempted from the regular revenue assessment and other taxes that the state levied on the cultivators and the poor peasants. Further they received revenue-free land grants from the rulers in return for the services rendered to the state. The early Dogra regime under Gulab Singh and Ranbir Singh was too eager to cultivate the loyalty of these classes to ensure Kashmir’s smooth transition to a Dogra kingdom. During this period the state took half of the cultivated autumn crops (kharif crops, mainly rice) and four ‘traks’ for ‘kharwar’ in addition of that, similarly the half of the spring crops were taken by the state and three traks for every kharwar. In addition to it there were numerous other taxes and cesses to the state like nazranas (paid four times a year), tambols (paid at the time of marriage in the family of ruler).
John. B Ireland, an American who visited Kashmir in 1850s, exclaimed in wonder that, “on the birth of every lamb the owner must pay a tax of one anna, the birth of calf is four annas. For a marriage one rupee. A fishing boat four annas per day. Walnut trees ten annas a year for the oil, and if the crop fails, must be made up with ghee”.
Kashmir Pandits on the other had were waived off from such taxes. They were expected to pay only 1 trak for a kharwar wherever they cultivated the land. The muslim cultivator, hence, had to feed not only the Dogra Durbar but the whole contingent of the middlemen between himself and the state, most of whom happened to be Pandits.
The officials additionally benefitted from the sale of of peasant labour to the state and the foreign visitors. This system of forced labour, in which the peasant could be drafted any time, without any promise of being paid came to be known as ‘Begar’. The Begar usually consisted of carrying supplies for the armies (during Gilgit campaign each cultivator had to carry 8 traks per head containing ration for the soldiers), the loads and luggages of foreign visitors around the valley or of the royal processions from one part of the state to another. The poor Muslim peasants were reduced to animals of burden without any hope for wages for such a labour. Needless to mention that Pandits, even those who cultivated the land were exempted from begar. The peasants were no more than coolies, cultivating at subsistence allowance the state property. The urban artisans were also exploited as well. A large proportion of Pandits through their contacts with influential individuals, were able to buy rice at a price of Rs.1.25 per kharwar while the poor artisans were left at the mercy of those who made huge profits off them at the time of scarcity. Most of the officials in the administration were Pandits, who made huge personal gains from the taxes collected from poor peasants. A lot of state land was granted to the Pandits under Jagirdari and Chakdari systems which was a source of grains and money.
Apart from the economic oppression their was and open and blatant religious oppression of the Muslims. Their places of worship were confiscated and converted to state stores and godowns. Under the rule of Pratap Singh the Kashmiri Pandits were so emboldened that they attacked and desecrated Khanqa-i-maula and broke its door and windows. openly preaching islam was banned, pronouncing Azaan was banned, and burial in certain areas like Sonawar were banned by the Dogras, executed through Pandits. Tyndale biscoe gives an idea of exploitation of the muslims at the hans of the pandits. He writes:
“Those Brahman bundles in the mission schools were sons and grandsons of of those officials who had bullied and squeezed the Mohammedan peasants for years past, and their large houses in the city, with all their wealth, were a standing witness to their looting powers, for the solar they received from state was quite insignificant. Now their parents had sent them to school, so that they might get state employment and follow in the footsteps of their forefathers and by aid of their English education they might even go one better than their progenitors. Now how can one combat this? By teaching them to hate wrong and love right, to hate oppression and love to protect the weak, in fact, to be the exact opposite to their fathers”
The Pandits acted as the grinding slabs for the Dogras. The subjugation was so pronounced that word pandit became synonymous with ‘Maharaj’ (Mahra).
Inspite of being endowed with all the favours, the Pandits would often scheme against their Hindu rulers with the British to be in their good books. The Pandits were induced in the departments that were headed by the Britishers. They would very conveniently shift their loyalties to the imperial British whenever it favoured their cause.
With the advent of a new political uprising in 1900’s led largely by Abdullah, Yusuf Shah, Ghulam Abbass etc, the Pandits became apprehensive. They often schemed and plotted against the mass movement and would often urge the Maharaja to clamp it down, for the fear of their land and jobs. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah towards the end of his life called the Pandits as ‘The fifth columnists’ and ‘Instruments of tyranny’..
Pandit oligarchy has been a close ally of the Indian state.The Kashmir policy of Indian state has largely been influenced and centred around the Kashmiri Brahmans/Pandits.Various lobbies have colluded with the machineries aimed at corroding the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is continued anti-Kashmir saffronisation by the right wing lobbies of KPs and Dogras.
After the Pulwama attack on CRPF personnel numerous incidents of violence against the Kashmiri Muslims were reported all over India. The incidents seemed like an execution of the hate filled speeches only a few weeks before the incident, by some Pandit lobbyists under the banner of ‘conclave of JK trifurcation where they called for creating fear among Kashmiris, especially making Kashmiri youth studying or working in “other parts of country” unsafe to live, so that ‘their families in the Valley can realize.
The article is compiled from the works of Khalid Bashir Ahmad, Mridu Rai and Chitralekha Zutshi.
Writer is a published author and a doctor by profession and can be reached out at https://twitter.com/khawar_achakzai