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Once diverse, Kashmir is now valley of Muslims

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2002


Javed's parents always talk about what Kashmir used to be – a land where Hindus and Muslims were friends, celebrated holidays and weddings together, ate each other's food.

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But Javed, a high school student here, says his parents might as well be describing life on the moon. He was 3 when a violent insurgency against Indian control tore apart the state, causing Hindus to flee by the hundreds of thousands. He has never had a Hindu teacher or friend, never tasted Hindu food.

"The terrorist activities have destroyed our culture," says Javed, who prefers not to give his last name. "When the Hindu Pandits left the valley, we lost a part of ourselves."

Yesterday, India announced that it will begin pulling back troops from the Pakistan border in eight to 10 days. But while politicians and diplomats search for ways to end the 13-year insurgency – considering everything from state autonomy to joint control by India and Pakistan – Kashmiris themselves are in the midst of a profound social change. The migration of most of the state's Hindus has turned a once-cosmopolitan society of Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, into an Islamic monoculture.

Now, experts worry that an entire generation will grow up never having experienced Kashmiriyat – the thousands- year-old concept of cultural unity through diversity – and in a fundamental way, India will have already lost Kashmir.

"Kashmiriyat as a collective presence is either dead or dying, and to revive this sense of togetherness is the biggest challenge, a bigger challenge than fighting terrorism," says Amitabh Mattoo, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Altered classrooms

The Hindu vacuum is felt most profoundly in the state's public and private schools, where children of Kashmir's many cultures once mingled. Before 1989, Kashmir's small but influential community of Pandits – a caste of Hindus whose name means teacher – occupied 20 percent of white-collar jobs. They had an especially large presence in education – 60 percent of all the region's teachers were Hindus.

But when the insurgency broke out in 1989, sparked by a rigged election that kept Muslim separatists out of office, posters appeared in Pandit neighborhoods accusing Hindus of collaboration with the Indian government and threatening their lives if they didn't leave the state. Pandits fled by the hundreds of thousands, some to the southern Jammu region and others to Delhi and beyond.

Today, qualified Muslim teachers have replaced Pandits in public schools. But a few hundred private religious schools, some of them owned by promilitant groups such as Jamaat-e Islami, have also sprung up. Out of 900,000 students statewide, perhaps 200,000 students attend Islamic private schools full time.

Even some separatist leaders say they have noticed a dramatic change in the mind-set of Kashmir's young people – not necessarily because of the influence of religious schools, but because of the absence of diversity both in the classroom and outside it.