What led to the great exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the Valley in 1990? How was a minority driven out of their homes, and left stranded in exile? That’s the question we try to answer in this two-part explainer—sifting through history and the available facts. Part one looks at the political history of the state and the violence leading up to the exodus.
Researched by: Sara Varghese, Prafula Grace Busi & Nivedita Bobal
Editor’s note: This explainer was commissioned by subscriber Maya Sarao. We always encourage our subscribers to write in and ask for Big Stories on subjects of their choice. So be sure to reach out email@example.com.
A long history of bad governance
Since almost the very beginning, Kashmir has been the target of blatant political interference by the Union government—all of it designed to bring the state tightly under its control. The effect, however, has been to fuel Kashmiri rage against the ‘outsiders’—and which eventually turned the Pandits into collateral damage, trapped between political expediency and the rising frenzy for ‘azadi’.
The Nehru years: In 1947, Jammu & Kashmir became part of the Indian state. In 1950, the Indian Constitution came into force, along with Article 370 which gave the state “special status”—exempting it from a number of its provisions. Sheikh Abdullah became the first Prime Minister of J&K—but the honeymoon with PM Nehru did not last very long. In 1953, Abdullah was arrested and his government dismissed. He spent 11 years in jail on the charges of plotting accession to Pakistan and waging war against India.
The Indira years:
- In 1975, Indira Gandhi signed an accord with Abdullah. He gave up the demand for azaadi and in turn was made Chief Minister… of a Congress government!
- State polls were openly rigged by Congress until 1977—which marked the first free and fair election in the state. Abdullah’s National Conference won easily—while the Congress lost its first national election to the Janata Party-led alliance.
- His son Farooq Abdullah took over the NC mantle in 1983—winning a landslide victory a year after the Sheikh’s death.
- Within a year, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi engineered a coup—ousting Farooq by wooing over 12 of his MLAs. Jagmohan was the governor at the time—picked to be Congress’ hitman.
- Gandhi installed Ghulam Mohammad Shah as the CM—who ruled hand-in-glove with then state Congress president Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
- The father of current People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti was once known as “the eyes and ears of New Delhi.”
The Rajiv years:
- Ghulam Mohammad Shah soon fell out of favour with Rajiv Gandhi—even as Mufti’s CM ambitions began to grow.
- The result: the very first incidents of anti-Hindu violence in the Valley—in Mufti’s stronghold Anantnag, where a number of temples were desecrated, and houses of Pandits were attacked.
- Most local experts agree Mufti’s aim was to destabilise Shah by creating an “atmosphere of insecurity” for the Pandits.
- This was at a time when Rajiv at the Centre unlocked Babri Masjid for Hindu prayers—opening a Pandora’s box that would come back to haunt Congress.
- Unfortunately for Mufti, Rajiv had his own Kashmir plan. In 1986, he sacked Shah and installed his buddy Farooq as CM.
- Mufti was moved to New Delhi as Tourism minister—but he continued to tacitly support militancy in the state.
- In 1987, spooked by the performance of a new, independent party Muslim United Front in the state elections, Rajiv rigged the results to keep Farooq secure—and arrested MUF leaders as “anti nationals.”
Key point to note: The cynical and blatant repression of democracy marked a turning point—opening the floodgates of militancy. MUF leader Muhammad Yusuf Shah took the name Sayeed Salahuddin and became the leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen. His election manager from 1987, Yasin Malik, went on to head the terrorist organisation JKLF.
The VP Singh years:
- In 1989, the Bofors scandal took down Rajiv and he was replaced by Singh—who made Mufti Home Minister in the new government.
- But six days after he was sworn in, JKLF militants kidnapped his daughter Rubaiya—and the Centre was forced to release five of its top commanders.
- Their release was met with widespread celebration in the state—which was in the throes of a full-blown secessionist movement: “It was a turning point. It was seen as a victory of people over India, the government and its security forces. It had a tremendous impact.”
- Farooq—unable to rein in the extremists—ceded responsibility entirely to New Delhi. Terrorists soon turned to targeted killings of Pandits—which reached a new peak by 1989 (more on that below)
- On January 19, 1990—frantic at JKLF’s reign of terror—the Singh government brought back Farooq’s nemesis Jagmohan as governor—which in turn gave Abdullah the perfect excuse to quit (egged on by Rajiv).
- What followed was an ugly political brawl pitting Rajiv/Farooq on one side—positioning themselves as defenders of Kashmiris—and Jagmohan on the other—who was cast as an RSS man (a man who previously ousted Farooq on Indira Gandhi’s behalf).
- OTOH, the fact that the VP Singh government had the support of the BJP has since become political fodder.
- In the midst of political jousting and extremist violence, the Pandits were left stranded—and tens of thousands of them were forced to leave the state the same year.
Key point to note: It is Mufti who implemented the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the state on July 5, 1990—giving sweeping powers to the security forces and opening the door to years of repression in the Valley.
A timeline of violence
The rise of the JKLF: During the late 80s, the extremist group was at the zenith of its power. Here’s a brief history:
- The organisation was founded by Amanullah Khan and Mohammad Maqbool Bhat in 1977—with azadi as its aim. But it remained mostly inconsequential through the 1980s.
- Bhat was hanged by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985 for the kidnapping and killing of UK assistant high commissioner Ravindra Mhatre.
- The turning point for JKLF was the theft of the 1987 elections—when MUF was cheated of its seats and Yasin Malik among others were arrested.
- Soon after his release, Malik became one of the first young Kashmiris to cross the border to receive arms training in Pakistan.
- When he returned, Malik joined the JKLF and became part of its core group. And he was the ringleader of its most audacious attacks—including the kidnapping of Mufti’s daughter.
- JKLF’s first prominent victim in the lead-up to the Pandit killings was Mohammed Yusuf Halwai, a National Conference leader.
A postscript: Most of the JKLF leaders were either arrested like Malik or killed in the crackdown on extremism under Jagmohan. In the 1990s, the organisation would lose ground to groups like Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba—which advocate the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan. Malik was released from prison in 1994—when he embraced a non-violent struggle for freedom. But the BJP government arrested Malik again and banned JKLF as a terrorist group in 2019.
The killings: To understand why the Pandit community fled the state in 1990, it is important to understand the shocking escalation of violence that preceded it:
- The first prominent Kashmiri Pandit to be killed was BJP state leader Tika Lal Taploo—who was shot dead by extremists on 14 September 1989.
- A local Pandit, Sheela Tikoo, was gunned down on November 1.
- Next on the list was Neel Kanth Ganjoo—the Srinagar District Sessions Judge who sentenced JKLF leader Maqbool Bhat to death—who was killed on November 4.
- Advocate Prem Nath Bhat was gunned down in Anantnag on December 27.
- Four members of the Indian Air Force were gunned down by JKLF terrorists in January—and Yasin Malik later took responsibility for the killings.
- The number of assassinations reached a crescendo by early 1990. In January and February, four Intelligence Bureau officers were killed.
- Also killed in February: a social worker and the director of the Srinagar division of Doordarshan.
- In March, noted leftist poet 73-year-old Abdul Sattar Ranjoor was gunned down.
- In April, veteran Kashmiri poet Sarwanand Kaul Premi was taken from his home—and found dead two days later, with his eyes gouged out (along with his son).
- In June, Girija Tickoo, a teacher, was raped and her body was cut in two with a band-saw.
- The killings would continue into the 1990s, but the greater part of the Pandit community had left by the end of the year.
Point to note: The killings occurred in the midst of a bloody clampdown supervised by Governor Jagmohan. On the same day that the air force men were killed in January, the CRPF opened fire and killed 50 peaceful Muslim protesters. Residents of the state were surrounded by blood and mayhem on all sides.
The exact number: of Kashmiri Pandits killed by extremists is uncertain. In 2011, the Home Ministry—replying to a query in Parliament—put the total at 219 since 1989. The same year, the Kashmir Pandit Sangharsh Samiti released numbers based on surveys of the community. Its total is at least 399—but the more likely number is 650 in the last 20 years. But here’s the number to note: 302 were killed in 1990 alone! KPSS also made it clear that it does not “agree with the propaganda from outside that 3000 to 4000 Pandits were killed in Kashmir”—which is the estimate offered up by Agnihotri’s film. The rightwing organisation Panun Kashmir’s total is lower at 1,341.
The bottomline: The latest Abdullah scion Omar would have you remember that the BJP-backed VP Singh government was in charge when Kashmiri Pandits fled the state—not his father Farooq. But he conveniently fails to mention the stolen election—rigged by Congress with the knowledge of the NC—that laid the foundation for the rise of the JKLF. As they say so often in Indian politics, ‘hamam mein sab nange hain’ (everyone is naked in the bath)—and it holds most true of Kashmir. Looking ahead: In part two, we will look at the exodus and its fallout.
Caravan’s profile of Mufti Sayeed has the best details on the political history of the exodus—but it's paywalled. Or you can read The Print’s profile instead. The Quint offers a good overview of the leadup to the exodus. Times of India has all the numbers and charts. Scroll rebuts five ‘factual’ claims made by Vivek Agnihotri’s movie. The Wire has more on the JKLF—and its evolution.