On July 28, 1967, Parmeshwari Handoo, a sales representative at the government-run Apna Bazar in Srinagar, married her Muslim co-worker Ghulam Rasool Kanth. Eight days earlier, the Kashmiri Pandit woman had converted to Islam and taken a new name, Parveen Akhtar. The love marriage set off a storm in the state.
Unlike in the recent Hadiya case, where the High Court annulled the marriage of a Hindu woman from Kerala who converted to Islam and later got married to a Muslim man, the tale of Handoo and Kanth had a happier ending. The case against the couple didn’t go anywhere.
But half a century later, the Akhtar-Kanth case makes for an interesting study. Startlingly, it bears many markings of the politics that currently inform the Sangh Parivar’s bogey of love jihad – the term used by Hindutva groups to accuse Muslim men of entrapping Hindu women on the pretext of love in order to eventually convert them to Islam.
Eight days after the Akhtar-Kanth wedding in 1967, her mother registered a complaint with the police that her minor daughter was missing and had probably been abducted by a colleague for “immoral purposes”. A case was registered against Kanth. A day later, Akhtar appeared at Srinagar’s Jama Masjid to announce her conversion and appealed to the congregation for support.
The police eventually detained the couple at a police station, where Akhtar’s mother, maternal uncle and a few Kashmiri Pandit elders attempted to talk her out of the marriage. Akhtar’s father had died some time before.
Akhtar was then separated from Kanth and taken to another police station where a group of Kashmiri Pandits led by Triloki Nath Dhar – who was then the president of the Kashmir branch of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (the future Bharatiya Janata Party) – was allowed to meet her twice. Akhtar’s mother and uncle were allowed to stay with her at the police station.
The police released the couple a few days later after establishing that she was an adult and after Akhtar insisted that she had got married of her own free will.
The Pandit community reacted sharply and wanted the police to present the couple before a court of law. The Jan Sangh’s Jammu and Kashmir president Girdhari Lal Dogra issued a statement condemning the police. But the police clarified that Akhtar had not been presented before a court at the request of her mother and others.
The police statement said that these persons had been given ample time to persuade the girl to return to her mother, but when their efforts failed, she was set free.
Before the Akhtar-Kanth marriage, two high-profile marriages involving Kashmiri Muslim men and Kashmiri Pandit women had merely set tongues wagging. Communal tensions had not been not stoked either when a Muslim woman from an elite, conservative Naqshbandi family married a Sikh in the late 1940s, or when a Muslim woman married a Kashmiri Pandit lawyer.
But now, Pandits started taking out processions under the banner of the Kashmir Hindu Action Committee. At one such public meeting presided over by local Jan Sangh chief Dhar, an employee of the Government Press in Srinagar, Hira Lal Khazanchi, said: “Islam wanted Hindus to be converted as Muslims but even if only one lakh Hindus remain here nobody could end Hinduism.”
Shiv Narain Fotedar, who was then the chairman of the upper house of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, warned his government against the “danger that the situation might deteriorate and have repercussions in India”.
The agitation intensified. Pandit employees boycotted work. Pandit students boycotted colleges and held demonstrations. Hindu Mahasabha leaders from outside the state arrived in the Valley during the unrest.
Chief Minister GM Sadiq, who was widely regarded as a stooge of New Delhi for his collusion in destroying Kashmir’s autonomous character, told the state Assembly that his government had “unearthed a deep conspiracy to start communal riots in Kashmir”. He also said that documents, diaries and a huge quantity of arms related to the conspiracy had been recovered.
At one sit-in protest, the police caught a man who was searched at the police station. The search yielded a dagger on him, and an identity card that identified him as “Jaswant of Uttar Pradesh police”.
By then, Dogra dissociated the Jan Sangh from the issue and called Akhtar’s conversion and marriage her individual choice. But communal passions had already been let loose. And when his boss, Bharatiya Jan Sangh president Balraj Madhok, arrived on the scene, all hell broke loose.
Fanning the flames
In the late sixties, the situation in the Valley was similar to present-day Kashmir, minus the militancy. A popular movement to hold a plebiscite to determine the wishes of the Kashmiri people regarding whether they wanted to be with India or Pakistan had been underway for years. Although the Akhtar-Kanth affair had nothing to do with politics, Madhok made a provocative speech on August 22, which is now invoked frequently by Hindutva groups.
Madhok said that Kashmir had been an integral part of India since ages. He said that Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947 was final, and a plebiscite was an impossibility. But what angered the Muslims, who constituted more than 93% of the Valley’s population, was when Madhok asked them to vacate Kashmir and go to Pakistan if they insisted on a plebiscite.
Big processions by Muslims became routine. They burned Madhok’s effigies and called for his eviction from Kashmir. The agitation escalated, leading to its first casualty – a Kashmiri Pandit man – on August 24, 1967. The Kashmir Hindu Action Committee attributed his death to police interrogation following a teargas injury to his head and a beating by Muslim protesters. Two more Kashmiri Pandits, one of them a teenager, died three days later in police action.
The teenager’s body was wrapped in the Indian tricolour and taken in a funeral procession of about 10,000 to 12,000 people.
The agitation spilled over to Jammu region, where three Muslim girls were abducted. A procession led by a Jammu Jan Sangh leader shouted slogans such as “return the minor girl” and “do not make Kashmir into a second Pakistan”. Muslims and their properties were attacked in the city.
Distinguished Kashmiri Pandit journalist, author and politician Prem Nath Bazaz mentioned in his book, Kashmir Pandit Agitation and Its Aftermath, that Pandit journalists influenced by the unrest sent “elaborate reports out of all proportion to the importance of the agitation”.
It took the personal intervention of Union Home Minister YB Chavan at the beginning of September for the Pandits to call off their agitation. The prosecution decided against pursuing the case and it petered out. But the arc of the controversy has strong contemporary resonances.
The details in this story are a summary of a chapter titled Agitation in Kashmiri author Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s acclaimed recent book, Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative. Police records, books, newspaper reports and interviews with witnesses and journalists are the source of this chapter.