An unconventional, fearless and outspoken Kashmiri Pandit who would speak for Kashmir without dividing it into communities and compartments, Sampat Prakash died at 86. Raashid Andrabi writes a fraction of the story from the sharp memory of the trade unionist
Veteran trade union leader Sampat Prakash, who was madly in love with Kashmir, died of a cardiac arrest on July 1, 2023. He was 86. As the family is making preparations to immerse his ashes into the Jhelum, the river of Kashmir, as per his will, the legacy of his career as a trade union and an activist, is in debate in real and virtual Kashmir.
A staunch communist and a chain smoker, Sampat’s sharp memory of happening in Kashmir’s history had made him a repository of Kashmir. His activism is being seen as next to none in terms of contributions to the worker’s movement in Jammu and Kashmir. He has witnessed developments from a close quarter and had used his access to the power corridors to stay very well informed. This made him a key storyteller of Kashmir history. That was precisely why he was a grand hit with formal and informal media at the fag end of his life.
Sampat held influential positions throughout his career, including Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Trade Union Centre, State President of Hind Mazdoor Sabha, and Retired Gazetted/Non-Gazetted Employees. His commitment to improving the lives of workers was unwavering. In 1974, he was elected as the President of the Central Lal Bazaar Cooperative Housing Society, further cementing his dedication to empowering the working class.
Unlike many Muslims and Sikhs, he did not speak for a community. Instead, he spoke for Kashmir. That was precisely the reason, why he was an outcast in his own community. Prakash’s commitment to a multicultural and inclusive Kashmir was apparent at his residence during the days of mourning and the last rites. Visitors would find a turban-wearing Sikh, a bearded Muslim, and a clean-shaven Hindu, representing the essence of unity that Prakash fought for and passionately spoke about.
Sampat’s departure from tradition is being attributed to his refusal to adhere to the prevailing narrative of “victimhood”. Despite being a migrant himself, he rejected the notion that the suffering was community-exclusive. He believed in acknowledging the pain and loss experienced by all communities in the region, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of the conflict.
For Prakash, Kashmiriyat was paramount. He saw himself as a Kashmiri first and a Pandit later. This perspective allowed him to forge connections with individuals across the divisions of faith and politics. His staunch commitment to justice transcended communal boundaries.
Besides, he challenged prevailing narratives surrounding mass migration. While acknowledging the pain and displacement, he advocated for a more nuanced understanding that recognised the suffering endured by the majority population as well. This would routinely land him in controversies.
Ravinder Kundo, Prakash’s engineer son who lives in Jammu and joined his cremation in Srinagar, recalled telling his father how Pandits were being killed in Kashmir. “But he would say that if one Kashmiri Pandit was killed, what about 50 Muslims who too were killed? Who will answer them? ” Kundo said.
Widely Mourned Death
The funeral of Sampat Prakash drew hundreds of mourners, predominantly Muslims, including leaders from different political factions, bridging the ideological divide. Prominent figures in attendance included former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mehbooba Mufti, and Omar Abdullah, along with CPM veteran MY Tarigami and many others. Almost all the trade union leaders of Kashmir were in attendance as Sampat’s mortal remains were consigned to flames at Karan Nagar.
His death was widely mourned. However, the Jammu and Kashmir government and the BJP avoided reacting to his demise. “Since he is no more, it is not good for me to talk about him. I pray for peace but we disagree with what he did,” BJP leader Ashwani Chrungoo was quoted as having said. Talking to the Kolkata newspaper, The Telegraph, Chrungoo brought about a litany of charges as to why he was an “outcast” in his own community. “Prakash never thought about his community” and toed a line appeasing (extremist) Muslims.
“He was not liked by his people,” the Pandit said. “He negated the theory of persecution of Pandits and that they were thrown out, although he was a victim of exodus himself. There was a dichotomy in his life. He never mixed with Pandits, who kept aloof from him. Pandits never took him seriously.”
Born on March 10, 1937, in Srinagar’s Rainawari neighbourhood, Prakash belonged to an established Kashmiri Pandit family. He grew up in a typical secular ecosystem at a time when Kashmir was changing with the partition happening of the subcontinent.
He said he, his family and all his neighbours were the die-hard followers of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and followed his directions, every time. He took pride in stating that he and Dr Farooq Abdullah were admitted to the Tyndale Biscoe School the same day by his father, who headed the school. The association that started from the classroom benches remained throughout his life, he said.
It was in 1947 that Prakash’s activism took flight. Inspired by his father, Neel Kanth Kundu, a headmaster, and a nationalist, Prakash actively participated in protests against the oppression faced by Kashmiris. Along with his father, he said fearlessly raised his voice against the tribal invaders in 1947, echoing the cry, “Hamlaawar Khabardaar, Hum Kashmiri Hain Tayar” – beware, invaders, we Kashmiris are ready. Witness to the exceptional communal harmony that Kashmir displayed during partition at a time when the communal crisis had engulfed the rest of the subcontinent, Sampat said the phenomenon had surprised all the leaders including Pandit Nehru. Personally, he thought the communal amity that existed in Kashmir has been age-old and existed for last many centuries. He would mention from Tuzk-e-Jehangiri in which the emperor at Pampore met a Kashmiri Pandit family who had three sons – two of whom had converted to Islam – and still lived together.
Sampat said he was personally present in the famous Lal Chowk speech in which Shere-Kashmir welcomed Nehru and the famous Persian couplet Tou Mun Shudam, Mun Tou Shudhi was used to offer an idea about the relationship that the two leaders are going to have.
Much later when he joined the college, he found the student activism missing from the campus. “That was a tragedy,” Sampat said. “Kashmir had a huge activist and trade union moment between 1943 and 1948. Once they ceased power, they made them collapse though, I believe they should have encouraged them to survive.”
Sampat believed that dethroning and subsequent arrest of Sher-e-Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah on August 8, 1953, was the worst tragedy that happened to Kashmir.
The arrest changed the power dynamics drastically overnight. The repercussions were immediate and powerful. The streets were flooded with people protesting against the arrest. All took to the roads, and people cried and shouted while chanting Bab Haa Nyuwuk. Kashmir women extinguished their hearths using water as the news broke of Sheikh’s arrest.
The authorities responded with a curfew, further intensifying the tense situation. “The unrest that followed claimed the lives of approximately 1700 Kashmiris within a month,” Sampat said. “Among the casualties, one name was Mehtab Singh while the rest were 1699 Muslims.”
Why 1953 Happened?
Historians may have a better understanding but Sampat has a different take on the falling apart of Sheikh and Nehru. He saw Nehru as the “Chankaya of his times” and holds him personally responsible for Sheikh’s arrest.
Besides, what is already known, there were three factors that led to August 8, according to the vocal communist leader. One, Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, the then ideologue-intellectual and Registrar of the University of Jammu and Kashmir had told Sheikh: “Secularism in India will last till Nehru and his family is alive.”
The second factor was that when Sheikh went to United Nations for speaking in support of Kashmir’s accession with India, he met various diplomats. “The aide who accompanied Sheikh tipped Nehru that Sheikh was hobnobbing with American imperialism.”
Third was purely a governance issue. Sheikh had requested Nehru that in order to help him reduce joblessness, the government of India should do something. Soon, Nehru ordered the opening of post offices in the length and breadth of Kashmir and every post office was to be manned by four people. It was the mess created in appointing the staffers to the post office that contributed to the crisis.
Once Sheikh flew home, a meeting was organised at what is now the Nehru Guest House which was presided over by Pandit Nehru. In this meeting, Sampat said, Sheikh attacked Nehru saying, “We didn’t join Hindi Hindustan but secular and democratic India. We want employment, educated people are sitting at home.”
In order to explain what has been happening to the key decision Nehru had taken on Kashmir, Sheikh opened the post offices issue. “There were 900 posts in the newly opened post office and only 19 lower jobs were given to Muslims, and all others were Hindus,” Sampat, claiming to have accessed files on this issue, said. “Ideally, Nehru should have placed the top officer in the postal department under suspension but he did not.”
Instead, it led to a new situation. Sampat, a staunch communist said, Nehru used the leftist aides of Sheikh against him using the USSR. “He got the Communist connections in the USSR to pass a direction to the Communist Party in India that Sheikh Abdullah was hobnobbing with the American imperialism and that led the majority of Sheikh’s communist colleagues to distance from him,” Sampat said. “This led to the division of the National Conference into two factions overnight. That was why I say the Mujahid Manzil is actually a Jahil Manzil.”
Sampat said all of Sheikh’s aides – comprising almost 60 per cent of leadership – took the party directions very seriously. This division paved the way for toppling the Sheikh.
The Communist party later was instrumental in not sacking the government of Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq despite the fact that a majority of lawmakers in the Kashmir assembly were not supportive of him and had met Indira Gandhi with the request of removing him.
Activist Takes Off
Regardless of the factors that led to the 1953, the watershed event led Sampat to launch as an activist. He organised a student protest at Srinagar’s Sri Partap College. This marked his entry into the limelight as he became the president of the newly formed Kashmir Students Union, a platform that would become instrumental in shaping his future endeavours.
Prakash’s determination to fight for justice did not go unnoticed by the authorities. In 1968, he was arrested and booked under the Preventive and Detention Act for launching a mass agitation against the government due to low wages. This arrest marked the beginning of a series of arrests and imprisonments for Prakash, who spent over eight years behind bars, both within and outside Jammu and Kashmir.
However, during his time in jail, he delved deeper into political ideologies and found inspiration in Marxism, igniting a fierce struggle against the forces seeking to stifle dissent in the region.
Recognising the need for a safer environment to continue his advocacy, Prakash’s father sent him to Jammu to pursue law studies. There, his ideological leanings evolved further, aligning with the leftist Communist Party of India (CPI). Instead of completing his legal education, Prakash joined the government services and established Jammu and Kashmir’s first trade union body, empowering workers and amplifying their voices.
In 1967, Prakash sponsored a historic employees’ strike in Kashmir, bringing the administration to a standstill and forcing them to accede to the workers’ demands. This remarkable achievement further solidified his standing as a dedicated guardian of the aspirations of the people of Kashmir.
Sampat’s Red Movement had begun to make waves in Kashmir. He was threatened with suspension and imprisonment as he called for a two-day walkout to protest the Central Daily Allowance, the establishment of the Pay Commission, and other working-class complaints.
However, in March 1968, while briefly returning home, Prakash was arrested and subjected to harsh treatment. Determined to seek justice, he wrote a letter to the Supreme Court of India, which eventually ordered his appearance.
It is worth mentioning here that Sampat was pushed into trade union activism by his mentor Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq. “He told me that as government I will arrest you but the trade union movement has to be revived,” Sampat said.
The influential leader’s unwavering voice did not fade after his retirement. He continued to speak out on behalf of workers and was well-known for his vocal interviews, which ignited both attention and controversy in the region. Prakash staunchly opposed the reading down of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. He was vocal against the instruments that divide people. These included Bollywood films like The Kashmir Files.
Nandita Haksar, who has observed “outspoken and fearless” Prakash closely and even described him in her book, The Many Faces of Kashmir Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day provides an intriguing glimpse into his character. She describes him as a person who shouts into the phone, believing it to be his duty to ensure that his voice reaches the listener on the other end. Haksar paints a picture of a man who speaks with fervour, passion, and an overwhelming sense of emotion, challenging common perceptions of what it means to be a Kashmiri Pandit.
“I got to know Prakash when he agreed to be an expert witness in the 2001 Parliament attack case. It was largely his testimony that led to the acquittal of SAR Geelani, the Delhi University lecturer framed in the case,” Nandita Haksar recently wrote. “Prakash knew Geelani and his family were affiliated to the Jammat-e-Islami, an ideology and organisation he bitterly opposed and had fought against. But that did not stop him from standing witness to save a fellow Kashmiri who had been framed and would certainly been given a death penalty.”
Sampat would always talk about the only regret he has. “Kashmir is still a tribe and not a Qoum,” he said in the interview. “They live for the subsidy, a kilogram of rice for 40 paise.” He regrets that while Dogra rulers would earn Rs 7000 of tax from a shawl that would go to Europe, the people are doing nothing to help their crafts become their identity. “We are reduced to mulba, kouda karkat because we have tribal base and behaviour.”
(The report has frequent references to a detailed interview that Yawar Hussain did with Sampat Prakash in 2022 summer.)