The Gaw Kadal Massacre and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits

By Bilal Bhat

While going back to the Gaw Kadal massacre in 1999 in the heart of Srinagar, one remembers the Jallianwala Bagh killings. It was indeed one of the darkest days in the history of Kashmir.

Images of some victims of the Gau Kadal massacre

The mass exodus of Kashmir Pandiths had started only a few days before this ghastly incident which shaped the future policy of the government in the Valley, sharpening these divides and leaving behind bitter memories that have become difficult to reconcile even after two and half decades.

The Gaw kadal massacre is named after the Gaw Kadal Bridge in Srinagar, where, on 20 January, 1990, soldiers of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) opened fire on a group of Kashmiri protesters in which more than 50 protesters were brutally killed according to the official figures but, according to survivors, the actual death toll might have been as high as 280. This gruesome incident has been described by some authors as “the worst massacre in Kashmir history”. Similar was the Bijbehara Massacre of October 1993 in which 51 people, who were protesting against the Hazratbal siege, were killed by Border Security Force soldiers.

The blame for the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits has always been a question in a society which lived together for centuries.

Every year, while the Pandit community mourns 19 January as the darkest day of history, the Kashmir Muslims remember the Gau Kadal massacre of 20 January as the day of mass murder which led to more massacres in the years to come.

Eye-witnesses of that day, while recalling the incident say that the gory incident of Gau Kadal still gives them sleepless nights. The blood spilled all around, dead bodies lay on the ground, the blood was oozing from the wounded and the cries of the people for help still haunt those who survived the massacre.

“It was like doomsday,” recalls Shafiqa of Gau Kadal while speaking to the Milli Gazette. “The injured were asking for help and those who were trying to save the wounded too were showered to bullets. The whole scene was terrifying, gunshots forced the people to stay indoors and helplessly watch the horrific act…The wounded were begging for life but this was of no avail before the brute army. They spared none; people who were trying to come out of homes were also shot. Some of the wounded jumped into the Jehlum to save their lives”, she said adding, “I tried to move out of my house to look for my husband Shabir Ahmad Dar, who was part of the protest march. For three days the whole area was under strict curfew.  I was trying hard to know about the whereabouts of my husband. After three days I came to know that he was dead,”

These varied events, the exodus and the massacres, were taking place simultaneously but this was not a matter of coincidence. Neither the roots of the Kashmir conflict nor that of the mutual suspicions between Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, not even the threat perception suffered by the minorities after youth from the majority community picked up guns and raised the slogans of ‘azadi’, lie at the heart of the events that happened in that short span of a week.

Eighty-year-old Jalaluddin of Srinagar believes it were external factors which led to the schism between the two communities. “After the mass rigging of the elections, the separatist movement became strong. Instead of joining this movement, some of the Pandits started working for government agencies. Muslims became very sceptical about the intentions of the Pandits. They were occupying higher positions in government sector at the time,” he told the Milli Gazette. “Pandits became a prey for people who wanted to demonise the Kashmir movement and divide the community. They were also the targets of the non-state actors”, he said.   

To counter the rebellion, government needed people who would support them to counter the insurgency. They found none but the Pandits who were a microscopic community which was psychologically marginalised and felt threatened by the unfolding events.

Says Raj Kumar Tikoo, a Pandit migrant who nowlives in Jammu city,  “Very few Kashmiri Pandits came forward to support the armed rebellion. This was actually a reaction to the action which was initiated by the Muslim separatists who were influenced by the Islamist propaganda unleashed by non-state actors. People of our community occupied the larger section of government jobs and high administrative posts. Obviously, our presence in the so-called freedom struggle was missing and many other factors became the reason why Muslims became sceptical about us. The major reason of the conflict was of course external.”   

Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was very active in early 1990s, has always denied its hand in the communal killings in Kashmir and exodus of the Pandits as a result. JKLF  blames the Government of India for hatching the conspiracy to portray the freedom movement as communal and this was responsible for the mass exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley.

There have been different narratives into the killings of Pandits.  While Muslims and the separatist organisations have been blaming the then governor, Jagmohan, for the killings and exodus of Pandits, the organisations of Pandits, like Panun Kashmir, blames Kashmiri militants for killing 2000 Pandits which is an exaggerated  figure contradicted by Kahmir-based Pandit organisation like Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS) which comprises of people who never fled Kashmir.

Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the KPSS, has been quoted in Aljazeera on 2 August, 2011 as saying that “Over the past 20 years, we estimate that 650 Pandits were killed in the valley.” He adds that “The figures of 3,000 to 4,000 killings as suggested by some Pandit organisations is propaganda, which we reject.”

Tickoo’s organisation says that 399 Pandits were killed between 1999 and 2008, and 650 in total. This pales in comparison with the high estimates of some Pandit organizations but exceeds the state’s official figures which say that 219 Pandits were killed between 1990 and 2008.

Motilal Bhat, the president of the Pandit Hindu Welfare Society, while speaking to Aljazeera, rejected the figures presented by the KPSS and said, “I think the government’s figure of 219 is correct.” Bhat says, “I reject this figure of 650 and even the figure of 399.

The mass exodus of Pandits and the Gaw Kadal massacre happened just a day after the Government of India appointed Jagmohan as the Governor for a second time in a bid to curb the separatist movements in Kashmir. Due to the ongoing unrest, violence erupted in the Valley in November 1989. The anger among people had been simmering in the state just since the 1987 elections which people believed were heavily rigged by the central government and the then ruling National Conference to ensure the defeat of a coalition of political parties which were pro-independence and pro-autonomy.

In a bid to arrest the Separatist movements and militant activities which increased in September and December 1989, New Delhi rushed extra reinforcements of armed forces and troops to the Valley.  The government machinery had totally collapsed by end of December 1989. Jagmohan tried to bring the situation control. He began his tenure by placing the Valley under unprecedented strict curfew for days on end. In the intervening night of 19-20 January, amid strict curfew, buses of the government-controlled State Road Transport Corporation started ferrying thousands of Pandits from Kashmir to Jammu. On 20 January, house-to-house searches, raids, cordons, random arrests coupled with atrocities started in many areas of Srinagar. Defying the curfew, people took to the streets in the morning on 21 January. In retaliation they were fired upon by CRPF leaving many dead and hundreds injured, many of whom later succumbed to their injuries. This was followed by the massacres in Alamgari Bazaar on January 22, and in Handwara on January 25. This was the situation under which the Pandits fled the Valley.