The Portmir Heritage Foundation is a voluntary sector organisation based in Britain and founded by British Azad Kashmiris to document and celebrate the cultural heritage of Jammu & Kashmir and neighbouring areas in the Western Himalaya.
So who are British Azad Kashmiris?
British Azad Kashmiris live in the UK, born to parents who were most likely born here. Their grandparents, or great grandparents, came from the Western Himalaya. Ethnically speaking, Azad Kashmiris speak Pahari, which explains the interchangeable ‘Pahari‘ bit added to the term ‘British-Pahari’. It’s just a term, and the Portmir Foundation does not want to get jargonistic, the term Pahari is simply used to make sense of cultural heritage outside the context of hatred and divisive identity politics courtesy of conflict.
If our readers tried to locate Jammu & Kashmir on a map, they’d quickly realise that they’re dealing with a contested political space (the Kashmir Conflict). The simple thing to do would be to point at a globe, and say, “this area is somewhere between India and Pakistan, right up there in the Himalayan mountains of South Asia.”
According to Unesco’s definiton of Asia, British Azad Kashmiris originate from a space located in Central Asia and not South Asia, to appreciate how terms are nuanced within political contexts and not actual geographical, or historical contexts. History, languages and cultures are not the same thing as political identities and discourse. A lot of related claims are propagandistic in nature, which frequently turn out to be factually incorrect.Our readers would be forgiven for thinking that Azad Kashmiris are either liberated Pakistanis or Occupied Indians, and that would be the end of it. They probably wouldn’t know that many ethnic Paharis continue to live in Afghanistan around Kabul, speaking related dialect of Hindko. These communities have their own identity labels today.
No big deal.
Except to say, the history of the Pahari cultural sphere predates the emergence of the modern Republics of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan by centuries, if not by millenia. The fact that there’s conflict over parts of this region, means saying someone is ‘Indian’ or ‘Pakistani’ does not shed light on the culture of the people living between Indian and Pakistani military checkpoints and closed borders. How the people perceive themselves and how their forbears perceived themselves centuries earlier is an altogether different proposition. Worse, the actual territories in dispute involve a third identity, namely that of Kashmir which is not straightforward at all.
Kashmir is 85000 square miles of landmass full of diverse peoples
Our readers have probably heard of the Kashmir Conflict and the fight of ordinary Kashmiris to create an independent country, free from Pakistan and India, but they probably don’t know anything about the huge cultural diversity of the country they call Kashmir. Kashmiris separated between the Indian-Pakistani LOC, (“Line of Control”) or the imposed physical border between India and Pakistan – belong to the Pahari-cultural-sphere. Jammu & Kashmir comprises 5 cultural spheres, the Pahari cultural sphere is one very rich sphere that extends beyond the borders of the State. Ethnic Paharis like Britons (English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish) have multiple identities.
And the politics of Pakistan and India, two countries fighting over a third people’s land – namely Jammu & Kashmir, makes discussing culture, language, history, migrations etc, toxic.
The Portmir Foundation does not do divisive politics, but it cannot escape its deadly clutches. It is thus an unapologetic platform for pro-independence Kashmiris, and those seeking reunification of the old Jammu & Kashmir State. Its contributers are subject to harrasment and intimidation, thousands of miles away from the lands of their forebears simply because they choose to align themselves with the truth. They are not “pro” or “anti” India, Pakistan, Hinduism, Islam, pro/anti Kashmiri independence anything.
They are pro-truth. They are opposed to post-truths. Kashmir is enormous suffering, inequality and injustice. Azad Kashmiris want to write about their lived experiences in the UK being honest about their ancestral homeland that does not belong to foreigners but natives. They want to write about culture as honestly as possible, with a huge focus on their lives in the UK, where they’ve learnt the principles of human rights and democracy.
Portmir Foundation is a platform to have difficult conversations
We are not Yes Men. We try to be people of conscience even if this offends Occupiers. We recognise that Indians and Pakistanis dominate the South Asian narrative courtesy of the BBC and other mainstream publications. South Asians have thus become gatekeepers to the British Azad Kashmiri community, in effect denying Azad Kashmiris to speak for themselves.
Inevitably, politics and culture get muddled up. We wouldn’t be talking about culture had it not been for lingering political decisions that have made discussing culture a bad thing. We can’t decouple Jammu & Kashmir’s subservient status to Indo-Pak politics because the region is controlled by armies and enormous populations who want to own Kashmir for their respective nations, with little respect for what the natives of Jammu & Kashmir want – the majority want independence, especially in Azad Kashmir.
Our contributers try their best to steer clear of the polarising aspects of this unfortunate status quo without shying away from stating the truth.
British Azad Kashmiris have the luxury of not being directly affected by the abuse of political power in India and Pakistan because they live in the UK. In Azad Kashmir, the bit of territory that Pakistan controls unjustly, Azad Kashmiris advocating independence are treated with impunity. Pro-independence activists are harrased daily, locked up on trumped up charges. People of conscience across the world, including pro-democracy Pakistanis, have exposed this reality and their writings exist for all to read.
Lots of democratically minded Pakistanis have stood up for the truth in Azad Kashmir. They are staunch opponents of the Pakistan Military Complex.
British Azad Kashmiri culture is based on British Values
We therefore recognise how privileged we are as genuine British citizens to be able to transcend the legal and political hurdles of Azad Kashmir’s neo-patrimonial system of corruption and bribery. The corresponding hate, dehumanisation and imposed fault-lines have created a horrible situation for lots of ordinary people.
When we speak about culture in the UK, we are not speaking about something that is fixed or ossified in the past hundreds of years ago. Cultures are not fossils, they’re like living organisms. They are fluid, evolve and change for the better. British Azad Kashmiri culture is intertwined with British culture and Azad Kashmiris have merged into the British mainstream. Lots of British Kashmiris are of mixed heritage and would like to celebrate both aspects of their British Azad Kashmiri identity.
Naturally, all cultural norms have good aspects to them, as they have bad aspects. British Azad Kashmiri cultural norms have been influenced by a shared heritage, young Britons of this cultural background do not necessarily understand this, and often times confuse the negative aspects of culture with negative aspects of religious extremism, divisive politics and classism.
The Portmir Foundation hopes to shed light on the rich and complex lived experiences of British Azad Kashmiris, celebrating the life-stories of their British and Azad Kashmiri forbears, and ultimately making sense of their roots in Britain. British Azad Kashmiris are unapologetically British and loyal to British values, with a profound respect for the cultures of the Indian subcontinent, a civilisation justly proud of its human accomplishments.
British Azad Kashmiris rejoice in life and abjure the politics of hatred and division, whilst not being scared to speak truth to unjust and unaccountable power.