January 19, 1990: An Empty Signifier — by Mohd. Tahir Ganie
March 4, 2020
In this essay, Kashmiri research scholar Mohd. Tahir Ganie approaches the symbolic date of January 19, 1990 from a broader view of recent Kashmiri history. In doing so, Ganie problematizes the manner in which a narrow and oversimplified narrative has been developed around a date that has become "an empty signifier."

With the phenomenal rise of the RSS-led fascist movement in India and the consolidation of political power by the RSS-affiliated BJP, Kashmiri Muslims have been pushed to the corner. Not only are they being politically disenfranchised, but they are also being marked as an enemy that must be controlled or better yet trampled with full force, in a systematic manner.

Kashmiri history is being distorted while the Kashmiri struggle continues to be grossly mischaracterized. And with that, Kashmiri dissent is being criminalized. In this systematic campaign of demonization that leaves unparalleled evidence in the form of TV shows, debates, film representations, literary depictions and other such media constructions, a variety of individuals and groups from India are involved at a foundational level, including the larger section of those who identify themselves as “liberals” – who have no qualms providing platforms to known bigots to voice their mendacious claims while singularly targeting Kashmiri Muslims.

Of late, the mythical event of January 19 has become a useful tool in the hands of Indian nationalists to continue their crusade against Muslims. The centrists have also joined the bandwagon because they willfully want to undermine the Kashmiri self-determination movement. It does not occur to any of them that January 19 is a just a symbolic date, arbitrarily chosen. That January 19 does not represent a single event, but disparate moments in the context of a war. That history does not begin or terminate on January 19, but only takes a turn in a series of twists and turns that has marked modern Kashmiri history. That January 19 is not any pivotal historical rupture, but an empty signifier used to create an illusory urgency hyperbolized by a redundant fixation on one date, one day, one night, to misconstrue a greater tragedy for dramatic effect—and as a result, to portray such an event in a pre-packaged and ‘easy to consume’ ritualistic show of fake empathy that is highlighted once a year, while the numerable massacres in Kashmir only a few days later are shown the backseat of a bus driven by those who mediate and control narratives, discourses and representations.

In all this political chicanery, contrived by an influential and vocal segment of extremist RSS-affiliated Kashmiri Pandits, “What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” phrase has become a stick with which to beat Kashmiri Muslims whenever they raise their voice against human rights violations, injustices and continued oppression by the Indian state. But this question has been emptied of its meaning, primarily because of its misplaced usage. Indian nationalists of all hues have employed the question ad nauseam on irrelevant occasions so much so that it has eventually been turned it into an absurd device. Recently, when a Kashmiri journalist tweeted about internet shutdown in Kashmir and ended his sentence with: “We completed 6 months without proper internet facility. It is injustice with all of us”, an Indian netizen immediately commented, “What abt Kashmiri pandits???????”. To this comment, another Kashmiri internaut responded: “they can also download and use the VPN”. I also witnessed this absurdity on September 16, 2019, during a book launch event at the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi. During the Q&A session, a lady started criticizing the panelists for ignoring Kashmiri Pandits despite the fact that not only did the author David Devadas talk about KPs (also subject of one of the chapters of his book) but also overlooking the fact that one of the panelists was a Kashmiri Pandit. That is why when that lady asked “What about Kashmiri Pandits?”, a ripple of murmuring went around the audience, expressing incredulity over her misplaced and overdone and over-eager question.

The question in of itself is not wrong, but using it as a deliberate rhetorical tool against Kashmiri Muslims is unfair. Using it as a call for justice for Kashmiri Pandits who fled Kashmir is one thing, but it is often deployed to advance a communal, bigoted and genocidal discourse against Kashmiri Muslims. It has become an integral part of the hateful, dangerous and fascist agenda of the Hindutva movement, and many Kashmiri Pandits (such as Sushil Pandit, Ashoke Pandit and the members of the Panun Kashmir outfit) have allowed that to happen, while not stopping short of encouraging its ubiquitous use for all kinds of relevant and irrelevant situations.

All this has resulted in normalizing hate and bigotry. And one of the most abominable cases of such hate was displayed on November 17, 2019, when a retired Indian army officer, SP Sinha, shouted rape-for-rape during a debate on Hindi news channel TV9 Bharatvarsh. Sinha had joined the BJP in 2013, but he was instead presented as a defense panelist at the debate where some Kashmiri Pandits had been invited to share their stories. When Sinha made these abhorrent remarks, the audience members cheered him, echoing his obnoxious war cry: “Maut ke badle maut, balatkar ke badle baltkar [Death for death, rape for rape]”. For the lone Kashmiri Muslim woman panellist in the debate it was a nightmare.

The situation has now reached a stage where facts don’t matter. A deadly potion of rumours, exaggerations, fiction, and historical grievances has deadened the nerves of empathy in some. But we cannot afford to let the extremists and fascists run amok with half-truths and threaten the security of Kashmiri families and their kids, who are being attacked in different Indian universities by Hindutva forces, especially considering that their political business thrives on schadenfreude. We must counter them, and counter them with facts. And a fact-check on some of their unsubstantial claims is in order:

By 1990, there were estimated 150,000-170,000 Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir, and while most of them fled Kashmir, some stayed back (numbering around 650 families). So, the claim of 400,000 fleeing their homes is incorrect.

The number of Kashmiri Pandits killed since 1989 is estimated to be 219 (official figures) or 650 (Kashmiri Pandit Sangarish Samiti figures).

Four incidents of qatl-e-aam (massacres) happen in 1990 and most of them in Srinagar, but the victims were Kashmiri Muslims. The first massacre occurred on January 21, 1990 at the Gaw Kadal bridge in which 28 (official sources) to 52 (independent sources) Kashmiri Muslim demonstrators were gunned down by the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) personnel. The second massacre happened in Handwara (Kupwara District) on January 25, 1990 in which at least 9 civilians were killed (some accounts say over 21 civilians were gunned down by the CRPF men). The Zakoora-Tengpora (Srinagar district) massacre occurred on March 1, in which 33 people were killed by paramilitary soldiers. The Hawal (Srinagar) massacre of May 21, 1990, happened when the funeral procession of the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Maulvi Farooq, was fired upon by paramilitary troops, killing over 45 mourners.

No massacre of Kashmiri Pandits happened in 1990.

The first massacre of Kashmiri Pandits happened in 1997 in Sangrampora (Budgam district) in which seven Kashmiri Pandits were killed (police identified two Pakistani militants for the killings). The second massacre happened in Wandhama (Ganderbal district) in 1998 in which 23 Pandits were killed (the killers remain untraced). And, the third massacre happened in Nadimarg (Shopian district) in 2003 in which 24 Kashmiri Pandits were gunned down (the killers remain unidentified).

A report by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights has documented rape cases that occurred since 1990 in Kashmir. One the earliest cases is the mass rape in Chanapora Srinagar committed by Indian security forces in March. On 14 April 1990, armed insurgents abducted a Kashmiri Pandit nurse, Sarla Bhat, from Soura Srinagar. She was raped and killed a few days later, for allegedly tipping off the security forces about the wounded militants in the SKIMS Soura hospital. A bride Mubina Gani and her aunt were raped in the intervening night of  May 17/18 by the Border Security Force (BSF) patrolling party near Badasgam village in Anantnag district. The bus (no. 1373/f) in which they were travelling along with 25 other persons was fired upon, causing death of one person and grievous injuries to the bridegroom as these were traveling back home from the marriage ceremony of the bride (Mubina Gani). On 26 June, a 24-year-old woman, Hasina, was raped by the BSF men in Jamir Qadeem (Sopore). The Asia Watch report also mentions a Canadian tourist who was raped in October by two Indian soldiers, who were later convicted for the crime. The report states that Indian soldiers committed rapes frequently after January 1990, so rapes were used as a weapon of war, but, disproportionately, most of them targeted Kashmiri Muslim women.

Most Kashmiri Pandits were present in Kashmir until April 1990. They celebrated Hehrath (Shivratri) on February 23, and fleed Kashmir en masse between April and May, 1990. According to such figures, in January only a fraction of the minority had migrated. Sanjay Tickoo, the President of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangrash Samithi (KPSS), also acknowledges that the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits started only after February 23, 1990. As such, compacting the different instances of violence against the Kashmiri Pandit community down to a narrow date of January 19th, 1990, is mere construction that is far from the documented events that tell a larger and more factual history.

January 19: A Political Context

In most media accounts of January 19, 1990, the political context is either omitted or simplified. There seems to be no desire to know what happened before and after January 19. There is only one voice amplified by the Indian media and civil society to represent January 19, the one which reinforces the half-truth, conjecture, and myths. Anyone who tries to speak against the erroneous reading of history and unsubstantiated claims are immediately shut down. There is only one victim worthy of full space and undivided attention, while others, if ever mentioned, are reduced to mere footnotes. That the insurgent groups assassinated many more Muslims (who they perceived as pro-state) than non-Muslims is never mentioned. In a black-and-white portrayal, popular armed rebellion is communalised by emptying it of its historical and political context. Some more facts are in the order:

The National Conference’s (NC) Muhammad Yusuf Halwai was one of the first political activists to be assassinated by the pro-independence insurgents of the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front). He was killed on August 21, 1989 (in the Fateh Kadal area of Srinagar) for his alleged involvement in the rigging of the 1987 elections and in the mass jailing and torturing of hundreds of young men who had supported the Muslim United front against the coalition of Congress and NC during the elections. Former legislator, Mir Mustafa, was killed on March 21, 1990, and shortly after that on April 6, 1990, the Vice-chancellor of the Kashmir University, Professor Mushir-ul-Haq, was killed along with his personal secretary Abdul Gani Zargar after the demands of their abductors, who asked for release of their jailed colleagues, were denied by the state. By the end of the year, senior NC leader Maulana Mohammad Sayeed Masoodi—who was once heckled by young men inside the Hazratbal shrine for betraying the cause of Plebiscite in the 1960s—was assassinated on December 23, 1990.

In 1990, a total of 1177 people were killed, including 862 civilians, 132 security forces personnel and 183 insurgents. Most victims were Kashmiri Muslims. In a series of assassinations carried out by the insurgents, 75% victims were Muslims and the rest were Hindus, while the Indian security forces killed 539 unarmed civilians (Bose 2013, p. 278). It was not only Kashmiri Pandits who fled Kashmir, members of the Muslim and Sikh communities also migrated out of Kashmir in 1990, a fact that is not highlighted nor mentioned in popular platforms consistently fixating on January 19th.

Among the important figures from the Kashmiri Pandit community, Bharatiya Jan Sangh leader Tika Lal Taploo was the first to be assassinated, on September 14, 1989 – though according to a Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) report, Prabhavati from Nawagari Chadoora in Budgam District was the first Kashmiri Pandit to be killed by “unknown gunmen” at Hari Singh High Street on March 14, 1989. Following Taploo, the former judge, Neel Kanth Ganjoo, who in August 1968 had sentenced the JKLF founder to death, was assassinated by the insurgents on November 4, 1989. Lassa Kaul, Director of Doordarshan Kendra (Srinagar) was killed by the insurgents on February 13, 1990. Two Kashmiri Pandits from the Intelligence Bureau, ML Bhan and Tej Krishan Razadan, were also assassinated in the early 1990s.

According to a JKP report, 109 Kashmiri Pandits were killed in 1990, and between 1989-2008 a total of 209 were killed. Charge-sheets were filed in 24 cases but the killers in 115 cases remain unidentified or untraced. According to such documentation, some Pandits were killed on allegations of being “informers”. Most killings of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990, however, happened between June and October and not in January.

January 1990: An Event of Multiple Moments   

In the intervening night of January 19 and January 20, 1990, the Central Reserve Police Force had committed excesses during house-to-house searches in the Chotta Bazaar and Guru Bazaar area of Downtown Srinagar. When the news of these humiliating searches and molestation of women reached the city next day, this led to resentment and anger among the people, who took to the streets. In response, Indian Paramilitary troops used live ammunition to quell the protest. On the next day of January 21, they carried out a massacre at the Gaw Kadal Bridge in Srinagar, killing at least 52 civilians. The headline on Al Safa on that day read “Chotta Bazar Aur Guru Bazar Mein Changezi Dour Ki Yadein Taza” (Wounds of Barbaric Attack Remain Fresh in Chotta Bazar and Guru Bazar). 

As such, when MJ Akbar writes in his book Kashmir: Behind the Vale that “January 19 [1990] became the catalyst which propelled into a mass upsurge”, he is referring to these same events. The Gaw Kadal massacre swelled the ranks of the insurgent groups, as more and more young men took to arms after the bloodshed and in direct response to the growing human rights violations by the Indian security forces, who had been deployed to Kashmir in larger and more incremental numbers. Kashmiri Pandits were obviously terrified by these turns of events, while the aggressive sloganeering against the state’s abuses on the streets compounded their fear.

Although the insurgents issued first ultimatum to Kashmiri Pandits through the Aftab newspaper in January 1990, that had not created much of an impact. As author Siddharta Gigoo writes, “At that time, Pandits had persisted and lingered”. It was the second poster published in the Urdu newspaper Al Safa in April of 1990 that worried them even more. The state administration in the meantime encouraged them to move to Jammu where temporary “accommodation” was set up for them. Transport was also provided for what was supposed to be a temporary migration.

Looking at the afore-listed facts, it should be clear that the assassinations carried out by the insurgents were politically motivated since they did not differentiate on the lines of community or religious background, but purely in terms of political allegiance. That there were some kind of organised mobs attacking Kashmiri Pandits is part of the myth-machinery amplified by Hindutva ideologues for political ends. Even some centrist and liberal segments have uncritically accepted this self-serving misconstruction that makes it more justifiable to alienate and marginalize Kashmiri Muslims and the grotesque treatment that they have had to endure throughout. Posters and ultimatums were issued against all sorts of individuals and groups, both Muslims and Hindus. Ultimately, not one single event or factor alone forced Kashmiri Pandits to leave the Valley. As Ankur Datta says, rather it was “due to a combination of militant activity, selective assassinations, the breakdown of law and order, and the implementation of a policy of violent counter insurgency” that finally pushed the community to wit’s end (2017, p.8)

Thirty years have passed and Kashmiri Pandits seek some kind of a closure. However, that is possible when justice is provided by conducting a fair investigation into all the killings that occurred since 1989. Pure logic and reason notwithstanding, the Supreme Court of India on July 24, 2017, rejected the petition filed by a Kashmiri Pandit outfit that wanted such an investigation. It is pertinent to ask why the Supreme Court of India would deny such an essential investigation, when even much older cases have been investigated since. Is the Supreme Court of India hesitant to re-open the cases of the killings of Kashmiri Pandits between 1989 and 1990, because then same cannot be denied to other cases, including the massacres and mass rapes (Kunan Poshpora) that happened in the 1990s? This fundamental denial of justice and the procedures that help establish closure and proximity between two communities pitted against each other is at the center of various questions that remain unanswered. Perhaps this denial has to do with the consistent and continued emphasis on January 19th as a date that cannot find resolution nor closure primarily because that process would entail looking into facts, beyond mere self-serving trivializations of recent Kashmiri history that verge more on the side of conjecture than on proof and certainty.



“Datasheet Jammu and Kashmir”, South Asian Terrorism Portal https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/india-jammukashmir/J-and-K-Fatalities-1988-2000.

“Rape in Kashmir: A Crime of War”, A Report by Asia Watch and Physicians for Human Rights, Vol 5 (9), May 1, 1993

Ankur Datta, “Uncertain Journeys: Return migration, home, and uncertainty for a displaced Kashmiri community”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol 51 (4): 1099-1125.

Anmol Tikoo, “What about the Kashmiri Pandits? – Thirty Years Later, Make the Question Count”, The Wire, 22 Jan 2020

Deepti Misri and Mona Bhan, “Kashmiri Pandits must reimagine the idea of return to Kashmir”, Al Jazeera, 10 August 2019

Faheem Aslam, “Zakura, Tengpora carnages haunt survivors”, Greater Kashmir, 14 March 2015

Muzamil Jaleel, “209 Kashmiri Pandits killed since 1989, say J-K cops in first report”, The Indian Express, 4 May 2008

Nishta Trishal, “India Must stop weaponising the pain of Kashmiri Pandits”, The Washington Post, 22 Aug 2019

Priyanka Mattoo, “We Never Moved Back to Kashmir, Because We Couldn’t”, The New York Times, 12 Sep 2019

Shahid Rafiq, “Handwara Massacre| Jan 25, 1990: When 21 people fell to BSF bullets”, Greater Kashmir, 25 January 2016, https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/kashmir/handwara-massacre-jan-25-1990-when-21-people-fell-to-bsf-bullets/.

Siddhartha Gigoo, “To Die While Dreaming of Return”, The Wire, 17 January 2016, https://thewire.in/culture/to-die-while-dreaming-of-return.

Shah Abbas, “Gawkadal: A Massacre, A Case”, Kashmir Life, 21 January 2013, https://kashmirlife.net/gawkadal-a-massacre-a-case-17813/

Sumantra Bose, “Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy”, Harvard University Press, 2013, p. 278. 

William Dalrymple, “Kashmir: The Scarred and the Beautiful”, The New York Review of Books, 1 May 2008, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2008/05/01/kashmir-the-scarred-and-the-beautiful/.

Zahir-ud-Din, “Probe the exodus”, Kashmir Ink, 1 April 2016, www.kashmirink.in/news/coverstory/probe-the-exodus/133.html.

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About the Contributor

<a href="https://www.inversejournal.com/author/tahirfiraz/" target="_self">Mohd. Tahir Ganie</a>

Mohd. Tahir Ganie

Dr. Mohd. Tahir Ganie is a writer and academic affiliated with the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland. His research interests include youth politics, political communication, and social movements. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the post-2008 narratives of the Kashmiri youth, exploring the discursive strategies employed by young Kashmiri authors to frame the Kashmir conflict, articulate their political grievances, affirm their distinct political identity, and counter the assimilationist discourses of the state. Before joining DCU in 2014 and completing his MA in International Peace Studies from the International University of Japan (Niigata), he also worked as a correspondent and feature writer for Kashmir’s largest English daily Greater Kashmir. Tahir has written on Kashmir for different international publications, including Armed Conflict Survey, RTE, LSE Blogs, Asia Dialogue, and Café Dissensus. His piece "Kashmir: State, Youth, and The Clash of Narratives" was among the top 10 most read articles of 2019 on LSE Blogs. His articles, essays, columns and poems have also appeared in The Japan Times, Kindle Magazine, The Wire, Caravan Magazine, Express Tribune, Reading Hour, Kashmir Lit, and in different newspapers and magazines in Indian-administered Kashmir.