As in my earlier post on Israel and competing myths of exclusive origin, Kashmir serves as a good example of national myths and territorial claims. But unlike Israel, ‘Kashmir’ has a special place for us. It is the place from where our forebears originated well before we became a settled community in the UK. Like Israel it is a contested piece of real estate except there are more parties involved who do not necessarily see eye to eye. This is not like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict without failing to mention the Christians who bring a religious dimension to the constructed ethnic identities involved. How often do we assume that Palestinians are Muslims and Israelis are Jews, and that it is these two diametrically-opposed identities that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What about all the other minority communities that are not Muslim or Jewish, like the Druze?
These minority communities exist on the fringe of both Muslim and Jewish mainstreams, and actively pursue their own priorities. In recent years, ‘Arabic’ speaking Israeli Christians (‘Arab’ Christians) have been mobilising to be officially identified as ‘Israeli Christians’ and not “Arabs”, which should give you an idea that ‘identities’ are fluid; they can and do change over time. Moreover, more than a century ago, prior to Jurji Zaydan’s writings on Arab nationalism, (Zaydan has been credited with the founding of ‘pan-Arabism’), the Christians of the holy lands never once self-affirmed as ‘Arabs’.
If we correctly understand the nature of contested identities in areas of the world where conflicts still rage, we can see huge parallels between the contested identities emerging in Kashmir.
The Kashmir conflict involves India and Pakistan, huge populations that dwarf the indigenous population of the State. This is by no means an incidental point and impacts how the peoples of the State are seen outside its borders. As of 2016, the divided parts of Kashmir have a collective population of 16.4 million people. This is a minuscule spec of India’s and Pakistan’s ever-expanding populations of nearly 1.5 billion people. On current population growth estimations, India will have the largest population of any country, and Pakistan’s population is also set to grow exponentially. These realities should give you an idea of the power-dynamics involved, and how a negligible population in the high mountains of the western Himalayas has gripped the Indian and Pakistani imagination regrettably pitying both countries against each other.
But Kashmir is itself a non-uniform place. Ethnically, religiously, socially and politically, the peoples who live within the State and who have lived here for centuries have a myriad of overlapping identities. Thus ‘Kashmir’ has as many internal fault-lines and cleavages that exist in India and Pakistan as exists between these countries.
The ‘Kashmir’ I’m specifically referring to is the one in Pakistan’s backyard though, that ‘free’ and ‘independent’ State that it calls ‘Azad’ (free) Jammu & Kashmir. This is the formal and official title of our supposedly semi-autonomous ‘State’. Most of us from the territory know it’s not ‘Azad’ even if Pakistani officials want to rub salt into our wounds as the international community tells us otherwise. But not all Pakistanis are the bad guys for us to direct our blame at them. Ordinary Pakistanis are having a terrible time as it is trying to reform their societies whilst challenging the abuse of power. These ‘intellectually honest’ Pakistanis have reported on the insurgency in Baluchistan; tensions between ethnic Sindhis and Urdu-speakers from India; the lawless lands in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan; the non-parity between Provinces and Districts within a Province; huge inequalities between the rich and the poor; rampant state corruption; and the pitiable place reserved for ordinary Pakistanis without powerful connections.
In exposing Pakistan’s failings, they have shined a torch on ‘Azad’ Kashmir’s ‘client-master’ relationship with Islamabad and the subordinated role of ‘A’JK’s elected officials to low-ranking and unelected officers of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs headquartered in Islamabad. Most of these incumbents are non-Kashmiris and usually from the Panjab Province, from particular districts where income-inequalities are drastic, and where they form an elite.
The Kashmir Affair’s Ministry is a low-level agency of the Pakistan executive whose sole function is to control ‘Azad’ Kashmir. I’m not being facetious or deliberately provocative when I say this. I’m merely pointing out that Pakistan’s position on Indian ‘Kashmir’ has no credibility given its exploitation of ‘Azad’ Kashmir. The nature of this exploitation is not ambiguous, it is happening in broad daylight with little or no compunction on the part of the ‘officials’.
But don’t take my word for it, after all I could be an “Indian Agent”, a favourite slur of “patriotic” Pakistanis convinced of their country’s moral and selfless rectitude even as they get nothing from the elite that controls Pakistan. How some Pakistanis can say this as they ritually abuse their politicians for corruption is simply beyond me. And yet they feel the need to rebuke the activists from A’JK for simply stating that ‘Azad’ Kashmir is not autonomous but a sham democracy!
Moreover, the amount of Pakistani and Indian trolls on YouTube videos commenting on videos about ‘Azad’ Kashmir is revealing of deep anxieties to control the ‘Kashmir’ discourse to the exclusion of the actual peoples living within the divided State. ‘Azad’ Kashmiris are courted and vilified at the same time dependent on how far they stray from the official narratives of India and Pakistan. If they present as proud ‘Pakistanis’ then the Indian trolls accuse ‘Azad’ Kashmiris of being ‘false-Kashmiris’ in the first place. A related slur is to argue that ‘A’JK isn’t even Kashmir but ‘Jammu’ or the ‘Panjab’, a ridiculous categorisation not least because the conflict over Kashmir is about territory, nearly 85000 square miles of it, and ‘Azad’ Kashmir is very much part of the old Kashmir State. If on the other hand, ‘Azad’ Kashmiris present as pro-independence ‘Kashmiris’ demanding the reunification of the old State, then the Pakistani trolls accuse them of being agents of India’s security services (‘RAW’), or as traitors to Pakistan. They are completely ignorant of Pakistan’s official position on ‘Kashmir’, that the peoples of Jammu & Kashmir State must decide their future without the interference of India or Pakistan.
And so to discredit all this nonsense, you only need to read what ‘international writers’ totally independent of the Kashmir Conflict say about the insincerity of the Pakistani position. Since the earliest days, Pakistani officials have been behaving like the ‘colonial’ Brits, promising the ‘A’JK leadership a stake in their own country, or at least the ones they’ve managed to buy with all manner of ‘goodies’ all the while denying them ‘agency’ to represent their people’s actual interests. This deliberately exploitative relationship is hardcoded into the constitutional arrangements and workings of the ‘A’JK-State apparatus courtesy of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs.
The Kashmir Affairs Ministry is itself a ‘throw-back’ from the days of British colonialism. The old colonial policy was to entrench the interests of British India over and above the Princely States. Because Kashmir State wasn’t a Province of British India, it had its own succession of Princely Rulers who were nevertheless subjected to British Paramountcy. ‘Political Residents’, a polite word for ‘colonial overlords‘, kept a watchful eye on them and had the authority to reign in their free spirit. And that’s exactly what some Political Residents did, at times controlling the affairs of the State through a colonial council.
This is exactly how the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs operates. The disdain embodied by some of its officials concerning the elected representatives of our people is breathtakingly unconcealed – they’ll go as far as calling them “mountain sheep” (pahari bakreh). The existing leadership doesn’t seem to be perturbed, as they’ve grown accustomed to this level of humiliation and servitude. In fact some can placate this lack of self-worth by virtue of the hush-money they’ve accrued from their Pakistani masters.
If we’ve been ignorant all our lives about these historical and political realities, it doesn’t mean that the observers rudely waking us up from our slumber are feeding us Indian propaganda. It is these observers that are telling us that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs has more power than ‘A’JK’s legislators. The autonomous region’s supposed democracy is therefore a well-known ‘sham’ if only our people bothered reading their copious writings.
So how has this happened?
Let’s deal with some homegrown truths first even if it upsets our ‘Pakistani’ sensibilities in the UK. We need to understand the social attitudes behind the political decisions.
The peoples of ‘Pakistan-administered-Kashmir’ whether in Gilgit-Baltistan or ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir are not important.
That’s exactly how the “Officials” from the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs perceive our people. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the people, most of whom are just trying to get by, or the diaspora that has managed to remit billions of pounds to ‘A’JK, but the country’s weak leadership.
Activists from A’JK believe that this leadership has ‘sold out’! Whether this is true or false, we know that low ranking officials usually from the Punjab Plains (not the Pothohar Uplands or the Saraikhi lands of lower Panjab) have the power to dethrone the elected legislature of ‘A’JK even as they control who can stand for elections and who can’t. They are not scared of any popular backlash in ‘A’JK. They are not scared of the existing leadership, and they view the ordinary locals as ‘simpletons’, little more than cattle and sheep with no agency of their own.
In this respect our people in ‘A’JK are a bit like our medieval Jews living in the diaspora. Before they managed to create a homeland that was truly their own in the 20th century, as controversial as their political narratives now seem, they were treated with impunity. Today, the entire world sits up and takes Israel seriously as the Arab World is helpless to stop the occupation. That’s the nature of power-dynamics, they can and do change, but crucially they expose the identities of those who have power and those who do not.
History has a funny knack of repeating itself even in the unlikeliest of moments. It’s usually shortsighted people with no sense of history who think having entrenched themselves within their society’s power structure, the ensuing inequalities will forever obtain. They think that their ‘privileged’ descendants will go on to reap the fruits of an unjust social and political order as sinecures. These shortsighted parasites run the risk of being caught off guard as they become sittings ducks for the blowback. History is replete with examples of entire elites becoming extirpated by the very peoples throwing off their shackles of bondage, and in some cases it’s thoroughly bloody.
For those of us from Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, particularly from the diaspora, it is time we understood what ‘Kashmir’ actually is in all its facets. One particular facet that I hope to discuss in this post are origin-myths behind territorial claims as they relate to ‘Kashmir’. Although this is only one aspect of the conflict, it’s a significant one that has allowed certain interest-groups to control the narrative from the perspective of their own agendas. These groups are actively spreading disinformation about the State with a view of keeping all the stakeholders of the State in their separate ‘ethnic’ enclaves lest they unite on a shared platform and demand their civic rights from both India and Pakistan outside ethnic or religious sensibilities even as they are free to pursue their own regional priorities. The more confusion and disinformation Kashmir State is shrouded in, the less the likelihood of their ever being a resolution to this conflict.
I hope my introductory post on Israel explains the wider background to these anxieties; this post should be read in conjunction with that earlier post. If you haven’t read the post on Israel, I would advise you to read it before you continue to read this post;
Why do some people say “Israelis” are converted “Jews” separate from biblical “Jews”! Myths of origin and competing territorial claims; contested identities
So what exactly is meant by ‘Kashmir’? How does the world perceive ‘Kashmir’?
When the word is deployed, the ‘Kashmir’ of the international imagination is the undivided State of Jammu & Kashmir, some 84 to 86 thousand squares miles of territory. The borders in the north had never been consolidated during colonial times, and so there is no definitive figure for the territory’s actual size giving way to India’s dispute with China. If you look at Pakistani maps of Kashmir, Pakistan has ceded these areas to China despite being a party to a conflict and custodian of a disputed territory it does not own de jure.
Because of the conflict between India and Pakistan, our two legitimate successor states to British India, ‘Kashmir’ is therefore presented as the unfinished business of partition. It has entered the international imagination as contested lands straddling both countries in the immediate north-west of the subcontinent. Whenever outsiders think of Kashmir, including the overwhelming majority of Indians and Pakistanis, they think of the dispute between India and Pakistan. Some may think of ‘Cashmere’ wool procured from mountain sheep that are actually sourced from a much wider area, or the scenic beauty of the Vale of Kashmir which again is not merely restricted to the Vale but includes numerous valleys sandwiched across the wider Himalayan region. But very rarely will these outsiders know anything substantive about the actual peoples who live in this divided State.
‘Azad’ Kashmir is the bit that Pakistan controls and is approximately 5134 square miles or just under 6 percent of the Princely State’s landmass so territorially it’s a tiny slither of the disputed territory. As of 2016, its population of 4.5 million people is approximately 27.4 percent of the disputed State’s population. It is estimated that the diaspora from ‘A’JK is roughly 1.5 million people overwhelmingly in Britain but also in western Europe and the Middle East with much smaller pockets in North America. It may even be more as it is difficult to interrogate the exact numbers given how ‘Azad’ Kashmiris self-affirm on census forms and other official documents.
But whatever the small territorial stake of ‘A’JK, its strategic and material importance to Pakistan is critical to Pakistan’s economy however tiny its population. The loss of ‘A’JK would signal disaster for Pakistan not least because the Mangla Dam, an important source for cheap electricity and irrigation is located in ‘Azad’ Kashmir. The same cannot be said for India. Indian officials and think tanks have little concern for Pakistan-administered-Kashmir because it is fraught with potential losses that would outweigh any benefits. Whatever the strategic advantage geographically of having a territory that connects the Indian Republic with Central Asia, indigenous populations (Muslims) hostile to India within the region reduce massively this incentive.
Although a lot is now changing as a new generation in ‘Azad’ Kashmir is beginning to toy with the idea that India could potentially be a much better alternative to Pakistan given what they have experienced practically of Pakistani-sponsored exploitation. They are no longer waylaid or manipulated by the Army’s ideological instrumentalisation of Islam as a justification for its ongoing control of the State even as ordinary Muslims seem to be the biggest losers in Pakistan. Ordinary Pakistanis have grown poorer. The elite have grown richer. There is a clear understanding in ‘Azad’ Kashmir that ‘Pakistan’ – the State – benefits a particular elite that enjoys a monopoly over power and guarantees prosperity to its own members. Crucial to this observation is the further fact that the ethnic kinsmen of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris in Indian-administered-Kashmir, particularly in the Jammu Province neither want independence, and nor do they want their areas ceded to Pakistan.
However we understand these rumblings, India is more than happy to accept the Line of Control, the Indo-Pak de facto border that splits Kashmir between the two countries except for the incessant demands of Hindu Nationalists who demand the reunification of Kashmir under Indian control at all costs. For decades, Pakistan’s security services have been meddling in the Valley trying to stoke an insurgency in an Machiavellian attempt to create chaos as Pakistan’s army jumps into action to rescue grateful Muslims from Indian (‘code’) ‘Hindu tyranny’. Both countries’ entire populations are held hostage to interests and interest-groups not necessarily predisposed to the welfare of Kashmir’s indigenous population.
When you add the ‘A’JK resident population with its much wealthier diaspora, it has 36.5 percent of the entire State’s population making ‘Azad’ Kashmiris essential stakeholders in the dispute between India and Pakistan. And yet despite these hard facts, the people of A’JK have little or no ‘agency’ in how their polity’s interests are being represented by Pakistani officials.
Pakistan controls another much larger chunk called the ‘Northern Areas’ otherwise known as Gilgit Baltistan. It has a smaller population than ‘A’JK but I’m not concerned with this area as the political activists of this polity, and in many ways a lot shrewder than their ‘A’JK counterparts, have developed their own ethnocentric narratives. They view their struggle against Pakistan as a separate struggle from the people of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir and expend their efforts to realise their own priorities. They have no desire to elicit our support in their struggle. Suffice to say, they won’t be expending their labours to help out the ‘Azad’ Kashmiris anytime soon. So it’s pointless describing the social and political realities of the Northern Areas even though it is an integral part of the Kashmir Conflict.
The rest of the old State, a much larger territorial stake, is presently controlled by India. It is comprised of three Provinces, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh to mirror the old geo-administrative configuration. Unlike ‘Azad’ Kashmir which has become homogenous because of the loss of its religious minorities, Indian-administered-Kashmir remains ethnically and religiously diverse, a reality that has predated our present day Conflict by centuries.
As I’ve already explained in other posts, a lot of the areas that now make up ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir were historically part of the Mughal Province of Kashmir whose historical connections with the Valley of Kashmir predate the emergence of the Mughals by centuries. The Kashmir Province was a geo-administrative entity (“Subah”) that should not be confused as a uniform ethnic space. The population that resides here today has always been indigenous to this part of the world; migrations in and out of the region does not in any way alter this fact. Also, how the area was configured and identified was not unique to this region either. This has happened in almost every country where outside powers come, map their new territories and then take control of their assets through local agents. As we look back into this past, we discover that most territories assigned one or another ascription were ethnically and linguistically diverse, and the peoples that lived within these areas did not self-affirm on the basis of territorial labels but tribal backgrounds. Human migrations in and out of such regions since the dawn of our species have always muddied the simplistic ideological reductionism of identities to ‘territorial’ borders.
The idea of ‘nation-state identities’ connected with territorial entities is very recent in human history. It owes its origin to European colonialism. If we go back before this timeline, people did not view themselves in the way they view themselves today. I can cite the example of Israel again to explain a feature characteristic of most pre-modern societies and later ‘projections’ about origin myths. Israel is particularly salient as an example because of the biblical claims made by political actors who seem to have little or no emotional investiture in the bible; a lot of these actors are atheists.
Before the emergence of the idea of ‘ancient’ Israel, the people that lived in this region were not ethnically or religiously ‘unique’ or ‘seperate’ from the inhabitants of Canaan, a Semitic speaking region within the Levant. The people of the wider area were similarly indigenous to their regions comprised of nomadic and pastoral groups living side by side with sedentary populations. The proto-‘Israelis’ originate from this diverse population, and as they grew more powerful in competition with rival demographies, they began to dominate the southerly regions of the Levant. They also developed a sense of their own ‘identity’ (not to be overstated because of our modern anxieties). This is around the time when the ‘Jewish’ Kingdoms emerge rooted in the idea of ancestral ‘Patriarchs’ having returned to their ‘land’ from exile; the narratives used to bolster this idea are very much tied with the cultural tapestry of the wider area. The Old Testament writings are borne of this process, and a lot of the ‘historical’ accounts presented in the bible post-date the supposed events by many centuries. The biblical writers were projecting backwards mindful of their own priorities as they jostled for influence and power. We tend to think of the old testament as a religious text but this is a very naive way of looking at the events described in the bible.
This version of Israel’s ancient history is one being researched and validated by Jewish archeologists in Israel, and they have produced a whole body of knowledge to that effect. Their work is sponsored by grants procured through the assistance of the Israeli government, so there should be no allusions to what is going on here. Unlike Pakistan’s state-sponsored ‘historians’ – if I am permitted to sully such a respectable vocation, Israel’s intellectual class is not in the business of falsifying its history however its politicians behave in international circles and whatever their exclusive myths of origin.
Nationalists everywhere are not too dissimilar in how they imagine the past. They too project backwards. Because of ahistorical political priorities, they try their utmost best to take ownership of the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ labels of pre-modern peoples. To do this they ‘manufacture’ ownership of the historical inhabitants of the ‘territory’ they now live in as a prerequisite and proof of unbroken continuity to an imagined past. They then argue that the regional communities that lived within the polity, howsoever diverse, somehow shared the same ethnicity ancestrally as the nationalists even if this means projecting backwards some 5000 years! It’s clearly an absurd position easily disproved through modern science and a host of academic disciplines that have uncovered so much of our shared past.
But their claims remain politically expedient for people invested in such identities. It becomes emotionally fulfilling to make such crass claims to unsuspecting audiences. It is also a form of confirmation bias for those pre-disposed to this way of thinking inoculating them from devastating critiques of their outlandish claims.
Crucially, our ancient ‘forbears’ for their part, did not think of themselves in the way the ‘nationalists’ are imposing such an identity on them and neither did they share the same ‘ethnic’ loyalties. Ancient ethnicities should never be conflated with our very modern sense of ethnic groups, and so obviously their corresponding territories were never the repository of ‘identities’ we imagine in our heads.
Cultural anthropologists and historians tell us that those older ‘identities’ were connected with the idea of kith and kin, and the small villages the extended networks came from. We think of the larger networks as tribes but we shouldn’t get caught up on the exact terms for the larger group formations. Essentially we’re speaking of intimate bonds restricted to limited areas and small groups and not entire ‘countries’ or ‘nations’.
But, even as we try to connect modern people with ancient people through some shared language, we need to first determine what exactly constitutes a language as separate from other languages. The further we go back into the past, these distinctions become massively blurred. To assign historical groups a collective sociolinguistic status is near impossible as we’re really speaking of dialect continuums that were never ‘standardised’ to become shared speech between speakers of diverse dialects. Then and now, dialects vary from village to village or between speech communities and so its difficult to determine the relationship of dialects to their mother languages as distinct from other language branches. In this respect, dialects naturally coalesce into other dialects without us even realising that this is happening.
Without standardising a dialect, there can be no ‘shared language’ between enormously diverse linguistic populations of any territory. It’s only when dialects are standardised for literary purposes, do we start to think of linguistic identities in the way we often take them for granted today. But even in the olden days, dialects chosen for standardisation weren’t necessarily the spoken dialects of the native occupants of a territory but, in almost the majority of cases, the rulers.
A lot of the more powerful rulers, wherever they came from or whatever lands they settled, were usually foreigners, and the dialects they employed in their courts were normally linked to more powerful courts. Think of Norman invaders to Britain from France who were historically from the area around Denmark speaking ‘French’, a spoken dialect that had evolved from Latin which was historically spoken in Rome. The evolving French dialect was transported into the area of modern-day France by Roman soldiers into what was historically a Celtic speaking area. It was this dialect that was adopted by the new rulers coming from Northern Europe and their local clients, and in time it became incredibly prestigious. Other courts in Europe similarly adopted French including Tsarist Russia for a brief period; historically ambitious potentates tended to emulate their more powerful peers. But, this doesn’t mean that the ordinary folk in France or Russia spoke French, rather they spoke their native dialects that varied tremendously from village to village to the point of becoming mutually-unintelligible the further they moved away from their familial areas. Overtime, these broad populations gradually adopted the language of statecraft given the obvious practicalities that come by speaking the ‘official’ language, and the older, more native dialects became endangered and then extinct.
It is always ‘nationalists’ centuries later who attempt to determine the correct linguistic labels for these ‘varieties’ and not linguists, cultural anthropologists and historians. They lump everyone together so long as they neatly fit within their national homelands determined now ‘forever’ by the territorial borders. Suffice to say they are not motivated by discovering some past truth but rather furthering a political agenda masked in various ‘truth claims’.
Sticking with the theme of the French language and changing power-dynamics in Europe, French had great prestige even in England. But with the emergence of European Colonialism in general and British Imperialism in particular, the prestige of the English language eclipsed French as the dominant universal language of international prestige in Europe and beyond. The United States, an ex-British colony, has greatly contributed to the prestige of the English language because of its tremendous hard and soft power. It is this ‘variety’ that is being taught in many non-english speaking countries and not the supposedly quaint English of the British Empire which continues to be imagined as the authentic, pure and uncorrupted English.
You can apply the same logic to ‘Persian’ (‘Parsi’) spoken by Central Asian Turkic groups that settled medieval India and who employed the language for the purposes of statecraft. This dialect was heavily cultivated in Khorosan in areas outside the ‘Iranian’ Province from which the Persian language takes its name (‘Pars’). It is wrongly assumed that this particular standard evolved out of Middle Persian or ‘Pahlavi’ (440 BCE – 650 CE) on account of being associated with the Sassanian Dynasty (224 – 651 CE) that had adopted Pahlavi as its official language. Pahlavi had considerable prestige because it was connected with the dominant power of the wider region that saw itself as the successor of the older ‘Persian’ Empires most notably the Achaemenid. Both literary standards, Middle Persian and Modern Persian (‘Farsi’) bear the same name today but have evolved differently from related dialects spoken in the Iranian Plateau.
In India, ‘Persian’ (more correctly associated with the ‘Dari’ variety of ‘Persian’; note, even these labels are politically loaded when we add ‘Tajik’ to the list) became a prestigious language employed by both Muslim and non-Muslim courts. The Mughals for their part were a lot more affluent than their Persian speaking counterparts in the Iranian Plateau although it would appear they deferred to the Persians on account of that older ‘cultural’ legacy. The Persian literature produced in India was of a very high standard though. ‘Persian’ writers, artists, musicians, noble families from all over western and Central Asia flocked to the Mughal court because of the lucrative patronage that was available. The Mughal Court was a sophisticated court, and was even marvelled by ruling elites in Europe. There is a reason why the Taj Mahal has become iconic of Mughal cultural brilliance even as individual Kings and Princes sought to extirpate their siblings and parents for power, locking them up in palaces and chopping off their heads!
The local inhabitants of ‘India’ did not speak Persian but an assortment of Indic dialects that were standardised by the colonial Brits who came some centuries later. The Brits dislodged the importance of Persian to the existing power-structure and empowered the Indic dialects they helped standardise inadvertently creating new linguistic identities. The new indigenous languages were used in the administration of justice and bureaucracy, and a new class of ‘Indian’ civil-servants emerged whose prosperity was directly linked to the patronage of the British. The status of the Hindi-Urdu language is borne of this process. In fact the earliest writings on Urdu and Hindi grammar, essentially the same language now with different higher lexicons and scripts, were written by European and colonial officers, and a lot of these texts were written in Persian.
To give you an idea of how the ‘labels’ we take for granted as being natural were in fact ‘manufactured’ much earlier, we can cite the emergence of the term ‘Urdu’. Origin myths do not simply apply to territories or nations but include an array of projected ‘identities’ including linguistic ones. The term ‘Urdu’ owes its origin to the phrase “zaban-e-urdu-e mu’allah-e-shahjahanabad” or the language of the exalted court of Shahjahanabad which was located in Delhi. In its original signification, the phrase actually referred to Persian and not ‘Urdu’. Over time the phrase became shorter to “zaban-e-urdu-e mu’allah”, then “zaban-e-urdu” and finally “Urdu”. In its later signification it implied the city of Delhi without any allusions to an Indian language called ‘Urdu’. Sometime later, it implied the locals of Delhi and by locals I mean those with some association with the Persian speaking Mughal Court of Shah Alam II (d.1806 CE). The term was then appropriated much later by colonial officers to describe the history, language and grammar of ‘Urdu’. Those speaking earlier versions of this particular ‘dialect’ never once called it Urdu but Hindvi, Hindi, Dihlavi, Gujri, Dakani and Rekhtah, and pretty much in that order.
Crucially the (emerging) Muslim elite that spoke Hindi-Urdu, urban-based and salaried in usually junior posts, had little or no connections with the Persian-speaking Mughals all the while they imagined themselves as successors to them politically. As a new social-class formation, they were looked down on by the traditional landed-elite (the ‘Zamindar’ class) who saw the former as being totally reliant on colonial-largess. Fictions were subsequently created, not entirely from scratch but from preceding anecdotes that ascribed ‘Urdu’ a more nobler origin thereby imbuing the Hindu-Urdu speakers with ‘respectability’. It was believed that Urdu was the language of the ‘Exalted Camp’ of the Mughals to which Indian elites from every corner of India flocked for patronage. As incumbents of the court spoke different languages and coalesced together, a new hybrid-language evolved which was later called ‘Urdu’ thereby denoting its intimate connections with the Mughal court. It was believed to be a mishmash of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and native Indian tongues. Although this account was eventually rejected by colonial linguists, it was they who helped lay down the foundations for the emergence of the new ‘Indian’ literary standard. Later distinctions between Urdu and Hindi or Hindustani, owe their cleavages to this same colonial legacy as the two newly formed communities now competed with one another for the same jobs. The colonial Brits retained all the best-paying and senior jobs for themselves as they also formed the officer corps of the British Indian Army.
Today, the patrons and the direct beneficiaries of the Pakistan State, an essentially ideological project with a fabricated history, are projecting backwards as the natural successors to India’s ‘Muslim Past’ now embodied in a Urdu-speaking ruling class that shared no historical or linguistic connections with the ‘Nawabs’ and ‘Nizams’ of that epoch. The insightful point being, when ideologues try to own a territory, they need to own its past, and they can only do this by manufacturing ‘labels’ and ‘memories’ that connect them with that past even when there is no shred of truth to their claims.
So you see, it’s a lot more complicated than hearing simplistic claims that a particular speech community or ethnic group owns a particular ‘country, thousands of square miles of it, as if we’re dealing with title deeds to real-estate, because their exclusive ‘ancestors’ through myths of ‘pure bloodlines’ had always lived in the ‘homeland‘ and spoke the homeland’s ‘native’ language. These claims are not historical or even remotely ethnolinguistic. It’s difficult to project back to the last couple of hundred of years, but to project back even further just shows how desperate some nationalists are. There’s no way of conclusively determining ‘who’ spoke ‘what’ and ‘where’ given how fluid the historical situation was. Different branches of the same language morph into an earlier language as you trace its diffusion in different parts of the world centuries earlier.
If we trace the evolution of separate languages today, hundreds of years earlier, two completely distinct languages, mutually unintelligible by their speakers were in fact closely related, and mutually intelligible to the ‘tribes’ (not ethnic or national groups) sharing the same natural habitat, even as they fought one another over material resources and territories. Borders of ‘countries’, more correctly, ‘territories’ constantly change and we know that the world of our ancient and medieval forebears was culturally diverse. Peoples are constantly migrating, warring, mating outside their breeding populations, and modern research in our shared human DNA conclusively proves this defining characteristic of the human species.
Put simply and bluntly, if you weren’t alive when these events were being played out, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, 3000 years ago, 5000 years ago, you don’t know what you’re talking about when you claim an entire ‘landmass’ for your particular ‘people’. All that you’re doing is peddling fairytales for self-interest and political gain.
Historians, mythologists, geneticists and others know your talking out of your behind even if political scientists and news reporters entertain your claims to make sense of your ‘predicaments’. There has been so much research on the flimsy nature of national claims that it beggars beliefs that some ethnocentric nationalists are still posturing through origin myths. The fact that some unsuspecting commentators buy into these claims is all the more troubling.
Understanding ‘Power-Dynamics’; the “Movers and Shakers” of the Old World Polities
Returning to our region and ‘Kashmir’.
When we look at the historical power dynamics that characterised territorial polities in our region in the western Himalayas in the north westerly region of the subcontinent, we discover that they controlled a frontier region on the edge of the Indo-Gangetic Plains.
Again, there’s no nice way of saying this for those of us who want to reimagine our region’s spectacular ‘importance’. The ruling tribes in our hills were less powerful and less affluent than the larger confederacies on the ‘Indian’ Plains. ‘Kashmir’, a designated area within this broad frontier area, was less significant than the more powerful Kingdoms of the Indian Plains.
This had been the norm for thousands of years, and this is what the British encountered when they assumed control of this frontier region.
Circumstances were however different for polities existing during the Iron Age. For instance, Gandhara (1200 BCE – 7th century CE) was famed internationally for its material culture. It sat directly on the Silk Road and became an important trading centre. Its affluence attracted many invaders including the Achaemenids, Scythians, ancient Greeks, Mauryans (indigenous to India), Parthians, Kushans, Sassanians and Hephthalites. Some of these groups extended their presence into the wider north westerly regions of the subcontinent where new polities emerged in the Gujarat-Rajasthan areas of modern-day India. As foreign incursions into the area, they later coalesced with the existing populations gradually forgetting all trace of their earlier origins; some historians believe that their descendants were admitted into the caste-system as ‘Rajputs’; others believed that our existing Gujjar and Jat tribal networks were remnants of these foreign hordes.
Some time later, there was a shift to the North Indian Plains, and it is this area that becomes the epicentre of north ‘Indian’ civilisation without discounting the great civilisations of South India and their maritime trade with Europe. The ruling confederacies in the north having coalesced with the indigenous population nonetheless had distant roots in the north west of the subcontinent and beyond. This much older heritage had always been a shared one going back to the days of Vedic India. The languages of North India are thus connected with languages beyond the north west in very profound ways. Sanskrit, the ancient standardised dialect of Brahman priests and the regional ‘Prakrits’ (regional dialects of the locals), and the forerunners to the various Indo-Aryan languages of North India are connected intimately and share common descent. Our current ‘Indian’ languages such as Panjabi, Hindi, Bengali including Kashmiri and to which I add ‘Pahari’ (colonial linguists called it northern Lahnda; note it is well-placed ‘individuals’ who determine the labels and not some ‘higher truth’) all morph into the same language a thousand years earlier. If we trace this diffusion even a couple of hundred years earlier, there is no Panjabi or Kashmiri or ‘Rajasthani’ languages comparable to the linguistic identities we take for granted today.
Climatically and geographically, the polity we take for granted as ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is in the foothills of the western Himalaya. Ecologically, it is a separate space to that of the Indian Plains that include Pakistan’s Panjab Plains. As part of that older heritage and later shifts in power, our wider region including ‘Kashmir’ had remained on the fringe of India’s beating pulse. Unbeknown to many of our self-affirming landowning tribes (‘Zamindar’), they continue to claim a Plain’s origin on account of their ‘clan’ backgrounds. Many of these older groups had been vanquished on the Plains from around the 11th century onwards by the emergent Muslims and sought sanctuary in the Himalayan Hills where they merged with the evolving tribal networks. Some became Muslims as others became Sikhs at the most opportune times and offered their mercenary services to the new rulers. Others reverted back to Hinduism when it suited their needs. All of which demonstrates that identities including religious ones are fluid, malleable and ‘negotiable’.
The popular idea that a lot of these Rajput or ‘Jat’ tribes became Muslim at the hands of wandering Sufis is similarly a myth, as the power-dynamics that characterised life for such tribes were radically different from groups supposedly escaping ‘Brahman’ caste tyranny. There has never been a fixed element to these kinds of ‘identities’ even as we fight to preserve them some centuries later, or make crass caricatures about the distant origin of people and their eternal social status.
So what about the myths about the rightful owners of our ‘polity’, the wider ‘polity’ and its corresponding identity?
We now confront the nuances cohering in the term ‘Kashmir’. Because of the huge ambiguities in the term and the types of dynamics described above, all sorts of ridiculous statements are being parroted about the real and false ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Kashmiris’. Myths of origin are being deployed to buttress these ideas and the internet and social media are awash with these absurd ideas.
So let’s clear this up, once and for all.
The ‘Kashmir’ of antiquity is not the Kashmir of the modern-day conflict. It is a small geo-cultural area within the much larger Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. This ‘Vale of Kashmir’ as a designated geographical place is approximately 84 miles long and 20 to 40 miles wide. It is approximately 2000/2500 square miles in size, no more than 3 percent of the State’s entire landmass. The indigenous population of the Valley today call their region Kashur or Kashir. The word ‘Kashmir’ is the Persian rendition of the native term which again should explain the power-dynamics behind the label.
The actual ‘Kashmiri’ ethnic sphere extends beyond the Valley into neighbouring areas, and on this account Kashmiris occupy a much larger proportion of the State. Kashmiris have been trickling south easterly into the areas of Kishtwar which is a district of the Jammu Province. They have also been trickling into the neighbouring areas of the Pahari-cultural-sphere where they have coalesced with the ethnic peoples there. By saying that they have trickled into Jammu or what is today ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, I am not saying that they are not indigenous to these areas or that Jammu belongs to ‘Dogras’ and that ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir belongs to ‘Paharis’.
I hope to have dispelled such myths and territorial claims!
Pre-1947, there was the Kashmir Province (‘Subah-e-Kashmir’), a separate geo-administrative space from the the Vale of Kashmir (‘Vadi-e-Kashmir’; a geographical area), and the much larger Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir (Riyasat Jammu aur Kashmir), abbreviated to its shorthand ‘Kashmir’ and which implied ‘territory’. Prior to partition, the Kashmir Province was approximately 8558 square miles or 9 percent of the State’s entire landmass. It was similarly ethnically diverse. Of the three districts Muzaffarabad, Kashmir North and Kashmir South (Anantnag), two comprised of Kashmiri-speaking areas whilst the north westerly District of Muzaffarabad was a Pahari-speaking area. But even in the Vale of Kashmir, Paharis had considerable contingencies where they had lived for centuries coalescing with the ethnic Kashmiris. They are as indigenous to this part of the world as are the ethnic ‘Kashmiris’ morphing and coalescing into the evolving cultural spheres.
This is how cultural spheres evolve and it is a very organic process.
But as I have already explained linguistic realities cannot be artificially boxed off into neat maps with corresponding categories. This is not how dialects or geographical designations emerge unlike the enterprises of ideologically-minded nationalists who seek to assign labels which they can ‘monopolise’ when the time is right.
If you look at this area linguistically, you can see how various dialects have impacted other dialects which presupposes that diverse linguistic groups had been living together for centuries. Colonial linguists were the first writers to systematically observe and study the languages of this area and they observed this phenomenon. Modern linguists can reconstruct the older sounds from our present dialects, trace which features were borrowed by other dialects and even go back to an earlier but shared source. It was said that the Dardic branch of the Indo-Aryan dialects of this area, if indeed we accept the Dardic distinction (a geographical-cum-linguistic term that is greatly misunderstood), impacted the Northern Lahndi dialects of the Himalayan Hills as separate from the Panjabi dialects of the Indo-Gangetic Plains. At the time, Lahndi was being identified as a separate language from Panjabi; the northern Lahndi dialects spread across an area that was conterminous with the south westerly portions of Kashmir State. The influences between the Dardic languages and northern Lahndi could not have occurred if indeed the hill communities were isolated from Dardic-speaking communities for ‘thousands of years‘ in their separate valley ‘homelands’.
If you look at historical accounts of this region, even those produced by native writers from the Vale writing in Sanskrit or Persian that predate our accounts of the Princely State by many hundreds of years, you can see how closely connected the hill tracts were with one another. Some of these writers speak of ‘hillmen’ being recruited into the armies of ‘Kashmir’, royal marriages across tribal regions and internecine warfare between hill tribes. The extent of Kashmir’s influence was mostly restricted to its neighbouring hill tracts; its influence over this wider area sometimes increased and sometime waned.
It is this ‘Kashmir’ that collectively enters the Indian imagination with the Mughals, and not the ‘Kashmir’ that’s 84 miles in length and 20 to 40 miles in width with its ‘fixed’ ‘ethnic’ population. The later geographical extrapolation, greatly celebrated on account of its scenic beauty, does not presuppose a primordial Kashmiri geo-cultural identity though.
Before the Mughal annexation of Kashmir to its territories, Kashmir had no ‘special’ significance for the vastly richer and more powerful Kingdoms of North India. Howsoever some ethnic Kashmiris want to imagine the geographical remoteness of the Vale or the difficulties traversing its mountain passes (a contradiction in terms), its location did not hamper foreign invaders from conquering it as they sought to conquer neighbouring tracts. The simple truth is ancient and medieval invaders weren’t as much interested in this projected ‘Kashmir’ as they were in the more westerly polities of ‘Gandhara’ and neighbouring tracts.
The Mughals (1526 – 1857 CE) for their part were prolific builders of gardens, and Kashmir immediately presented itself as a natural terrain for such an undertaking. The excessive praise lavished on Kashmir’s scenic beauty by the Mughals did not quite extend to her people. In fact the Mughals were firmly located on the Plains of India in capitals far superior to anything in the Valley. The Vale of Kashmir presented itself as a welcome break from the stifling heat of ‘India’. Successors to the Mughals similarly heaped praise on Kashmir as the region had firmly entered the Indian imagination, but like the Mughals these rulers had no intention of locating their capitals to the area. Take the example of the Sikh Emperor, Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839 CE) who it is recorded spoke fondly of his desire to visit Kashmir, but he never got the opportunity despite having visited numerous other ‘strategic’ areas of his Empire.
This is akin to the importance placed on Mecca by Ottoman Caliphs (1299 – 1923 CE), dynastic Kings who viewed themselves as the defenders of Islam in the traditions of Sunni Orthodoxy. No Ottoman ‘Caliph’ visited Mecca or Medina even once in their lifetimes. Of course, some Caliphs were incredibly devout and expended huge funds for the preservation and aggrandisement of the Sunni faith, but they were also committed to their temporal realms. These ‘Sultans’ managed to travel to the other parts of their Empire as they expanded the borders and accrued new fortunes; the operative word here being ‘fortune’. Islam’s holy lands had symbolic importance for the Ottomans with little strategic or material significance which might explain why they were never interested in the desert interior of the Arabian Peninsula (Najd and surrounding areas). Not one celebrated ancient or medieval ‘Emperor’, ‘King’, or potentate ever sought to conquer this area, despite being fully aware of its location. With the advent of European Colonialism, this area was once more overlooked, except as a potential buffer to protect British India from Ottoman incursions. The Gulf Principalities we now take for granted as independent monarchies were in fact created by the British for this very reason. With the discovery of oil and gas, the Arabian peninsular has now became an important geo-political region for the entire world, and is no longer solely important for Muslims as the cradle of their faith.
As I have said, the geo-political significance of regions can and do change. The Monarchy of Saudi Arabia is now an important international player as the Gulf States have become important regional economies with huge international ambitions. Only a century ago, the forbears of our Gulf Emirs were pearl-divers to give some perspective to their meterioic rise to power thanks to British Colonialism.
In this same vein, the Vale of Kashmir was never that important in the way later Kashmiri writers imagine this earlier history. Of course memoirs exist of travels in this region, particularly after the region was annexed by Mughal Emperor Akbar, but similar travel memoirs exist of other regions. There is nothing to distinguish Kashmir’s special importance from those other writings.
If we go back into the annals of time, we similarly learn that Kashmir had no special significance for the ancient Persians, Greeks, Kushans and others. Of the various polities associated with these foreign powers, they are not spatially located or conterminous with the ‘Vale of Kashmir’. Their respective capitals were located in the area around present day Peshawar, conterminous with the celebrated Gandhara region. Kashmiri writers for their part have sought to appropriate Gandhara’s history and civilisation when recounting the Vale’s ancient history. Ironically, they do this even as they claim that Kashmir is somewhat removed from its South Asian orbit.
Even of the great Ashoka Raja of the Mauryan Kingdom who it is said founded Srinagar, he lived and conducted his affairs in the hills around modern-day Taxila which was the ancient capital of Gandhara and today a UNESCO heritage site. Of Kashmir’s famed Buddhist heritage, its roots lie in Gandhara from which direction Buddhism was exported to Central Asia and further afield to China. It was from this same direction that Islam enters Kashmir centuries later. The Hinduism of the Brahman priests, not to be confused with Vedic Aryanism, similarly had its roots on the Plains of India, as did the Sanskrit that many Kashmiri Brahmans claim as their exclusive purview with which the Kashmiri language has no direct descent. If indeed Ashoka founded Srinagar, and we are relying on ancient anecdotes recorded for posterity by Kashmiri writers, there seems to be no archaeological evidence to support the claim despite stupas from the Ashokan era surviving in many parts of the subcontinent, in Gandhara and elsewhere. This merely shows that ‘Kashmiri’ writers were aggregating the importance of their Valley home by connecting it with the celebrated Mauryan Emperor.
From this perspective, the Vale of Kashmir had to be important if indeed the great Ashoka Raja founded it!
But, as is the case with most timelines, Kashmir had its heyday during the 7th and 8th centuries CE when it expanded massively outside its traditional borders. During the Karkota Dynasty (625 – 885 CE), Muslims from the Arabian Peninsular were expanding their own power base in what is today south Pakistan, as Central Asian Turkic nomads were moving into the sedentary lands of the Iranian Plateau. Some of these nomads or ‘Turushkas’ as they were described by ‘Indian’ writers were recruited into the armies of Kashmiri Rulers. When ‘Muslim’ writers speak of Kashmir during this timeline, they are speaking of areas that comprised the furthest extent of Kashmir in the North West of the subcontinent. This area in what is today Pakistan extended as far as the Pothohar Uplands. In later centuries Kashmir reverted back to its peripheral position.
Kashmir and myths of origin; the emergence of the Kashmiri-Pandit
It is here the imagined historical importance of Kashmir coincides with premodern origin myths and contemporary territorial claims for a segment of the population. These myths, and there are many versions of the same myths, are being increasingly peddled to influence how the conflict is understood outside the territorial borders of the divided State. This is a form of deliberate disinformation and we learn nothing revelatory about the Kashmir Conflict and its legitimate and indigenous stakeholders. The individuals peddling these myths can be easily identified, and some of them have left a huge trail on the internet.
I am speaking about the protagonists of a Kashmiri-Pandit ‘identity’ that is wedded to a Kashmiri primordiality. They are otherwise known as the Hindu-Pandits. The fact that we have the juxtaposition in the first place should highlight the priorities of identifying with such labels as separate to the majority ‘Muslim’ demography all the while connected to a much larger ‘Hindu’ demography in ‘India’. Their claims are very insightful of how the Hindu-Pandits inject themselves into ‘narratives’ that affirm their own priorities. This then allows them to take ‘ownership’ of the word ‘Kashmir’ and what it would imply politically and culturally even as their claims fly in the face of the actual reality of the Jammu & Kashmir State. As I’ve explained ‘Kashmir’ is territorial shorthand for the entire state. That’s just an absolute given. It is not the peoples of the State (historically dispossessed) who have decided this ‘fait accompli’ but historical power-dynamics that predate ‘Kashmiris’ and the Hindu-Pandits by centuries. Our modern-day Hindu Pandits did not influence these events, neither did their ethnic countrymen in the Valley or peoples of the wider State.
If however you listen to the Kashmiri-Pandits, ‘Kashmir’ positively and unequivocally belongs to them. As absurd as this position is, it constantly creeps up in the discussions about the legitimate stakeholders of the State, some 84 thousand square miles of it and some 17 million people. With no reliable figures for their numbers, they are by all counts a tiny population of perhaps 60 to 70000 families with approximately 2 to 3 thousand ‘Pandits’ remaining in the Vale if we rely on Indian government figures. Some Hindu Pandit organisations feel the correct number is somewhere close to 700.000. Whatever their small numbers, and the much larger numbers of indigenous populations that straddle the Indo-Pak border, they have sought to hijack an essentially territorial dispute because of their own origin myths. Like all origin myths and legends, the Kashmiri myth of origin is similarly fantastical and fanciful.
Approximately 5000 thousand years ago, a Hindu sage of the Brahman caste, named Kashyap Rishi discovered or founded the Valley of Kashmir. At the time, the valley was a vast lake, Kashyap Rishi drained the lake and then settled it with his descendants. He then bestowed his name to the Valley, an etymological unlikelihood if you understand how sounds and words evolve. His descendants then lived in this idyllic paradise unmolested for many thousands of years where they excelled in the brahmanical norms writing masterpieces in ‘Sanskrit’, ironically a language associated with Vedic India and with deep roots in the north westerly regions of the subcontinent. For a time, they even became powerful, creating a Kingdom of their own that conquered neighbouring regions and civilised the simple-folk there. Such were the effects of ‘Kashmiri’ civilisation.
But all good things must come to an end.
Because the region was so beautiful and significant, and people from all over the world wanted to flock there, it became ripe for invasions. Rulers from all over the world headed towards Kashmir, fought the peaceful but formerly powerful Brahmans and defiled their land, culture and heritage. Some of these ‘foreigners’ were benign rulers, others were positively evil, but Kashmir became a name on everyone’s lips. And then from around the 15th century CE, the ‘Muslims’ emerged whether as ‘foreign’ rulers, merchants, skilled craftsmen, or as local ‘converts’, and gradually the Brahmans lost sway as they were killed or forcibly converted to Islam. Others headed for the Indo-Gangetic Plains where they settled and became renowned for their illustrious backgrounds – Pandit Nehru being one such genius. There were of course countless other extraordinary ‘Indians’ all having descended from the illustrious Hindu Pandits of the Kashmir Vale. For Pakistanis, the great poet Allama Iqbal comes to mind, originally from a humble family of occupational tailors that had settled in the Panjab, he too was promoted to a Brahman ‘Kashmiri’ ‘Pandit’ background. In both Nehru and Iqbal’s case, it was western education that allowed them to excel and not their imaginary backgrounds.
Overtime, Kashmir became a Muslim majority area with a tiny Hindu-Pandit population, much removed from the Muslims on account of their ‘superior intelligence‘, ‘education‘ and ‘highbrow culture‘. The residue of colonial race theories on India’s Brahman castes have heavily influenced these ideas. Mindful of their unique status, they remained fastidious to their original ‘Kashmiri’ traditions. They were also important to the foreign rulers given they were conversant in Persian, the ‘foreign’ language of the ‘ruling’ court.
Around the middle of the 19th century, the colonial British wrestled the Panjab from the Sikh Confederacy, the last bastion of independent indigenous ‘Indian’ rulers in India, and took control of their possessions. Kashmir, and by this I have to remind my readers again, we are speaking of the much larger ‘Mughal’ province of Kashmir, not the Valley or the much larger Princely State, became a Sikh possession for a very brief period of time. By way of reward to the ‘Hindu’ Raja of Jammu who sided with the British, a feudatory of the Sikh Confederacy, and who was from an area bordering the old Mughal Province of Kashmir, the British East India company ceded him these ‘hilly and mountainous tracts’ for a price. These tracts were all lumped together and sold together which should give you an idea of that much older timeline. The fact that the British ceded Kashmir to an ‘up-starter’ and not retained it for British India in light of its ancient and historical importance shouldn’t be lost on any of us.
In 1847, the new Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir emerged. Some years later, the Jammu Rulers expanded the borders of the State again and incorporated the new areas within the Frontier Territories. As the name amply suggests, these areas including Gilgit Baltistan traditionally were not part of that much older timeline that connected Kashmir with its Hill Tracts. The eventual configuration of the two Jammu and Kashmir Provinces as shown in many maps does not neatly reflect that timeline either. The shape and size individual districts and provinces assumed was a work in progress, and their geo-administrative borders did not equate to cultural spaces.
It is at this point ethnic identities become important, and for all the wrong reasons.
The ‘Raja’ of Jammu, having been promoted to ‘Maharaja’ Ghulab Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State with the accoutrements of colonial gun salutes and Indian regal titles was not an ethnic ‘Kashmiri’ but a Hindu ‘Dogra’ of a ‘Rajput’ tribe hailing from a particular cultural-sphere that colonial ethnologists and linguists described as ‘Panjabi’. For rulers like Ghulab Singh their clan backgrounds were more important than any ethnic commonalities deemed by the new colonial race scientists. Some colonial writers were keen to point out that Ghulab Singh hailed from a less prestigious Rajput tribe with allusions to a Plain’s background. But Gulab Singh self-affirmed as a ‘Jamwal’ Rajput and maintained his own origin story of roots to the vanquished ‘Hindu’ nobility of old Delhi.
This still holds true today as many Rajputs in the western Himalayas similarly affirm an Indian Plains origin on account of their Rajput-Plains origin. A lot of these clans dispersed from the areas around Delhi with the emergence of the Muslims. These groups should not be confused with the older and indigenous tribal groupings the have lived in this part of the world for centuries and similarly maintain a Rajput background but with no connections to the Plains.
The Rajput Dogras, for their part, did not view themselves as Panjabis whatever the mutual intelligibility of Dogri and Panjabi; the categorisation and assigning of such constructed identities was an essentially colonial venture. Today, many Dogras insist that their language is quite distinct from ‘Panjabi’ but more closely related to the ‘Pahari’ (mountain) dialects spoken in the hills and mountains around the old Jammu town. Dogri, alongside Panjabi and Kashmiri, is one of the official languages of the Indian Republic.
But just to give you an idea of subtle nuances in projected ‘identities’ which may not necessarily be understood by outsiders; Dogras are usually imagined as ‘Hindus’ whilst ‘Paharis’ in this particular part of the western Himalayas are imagined as Muslims. If you’re not from the region, and someone is described as a Dogra or a Pahari, you might come away with a different understanding not least because many Paharis themselves do not think of themselves as ‘Paharis’ given the ambiguous connotations associated with the label.
The term ‘Pahari’ can also be used pejoratively to distinguish the ‘city-dwellers’ of the Plains from the neighbouring but ‘unsophisticated’ hill tribes. Even those identified as Paharis by outsiders often use the term as a slur against other ‘Paharis’. The term is used like the North American term ‘hillbilly’. I would like to remind my readers again, it was colonial officers who took a fluid social situation and fixed it with erroneous categorisations that were heavily influenced by how they viewed languages, dialects, ethnicities and social class. The emergence of a city identity as something distinct from a rural one is very recent indeed in the subcontinent, and a lot of the corresponding slurs and stigmas seem to have a lot in common with colonial notions of ‘country bumpkins’ (unsophisticated people from rural areas).
Colonial officers also loved using territorial shorthands which brings me back to the argument that Kashmir is much more than the Vale of Kashmir. It was their habit of abbreviating the formal title of the State to simply ‘Kashmir’ and this convention became the norm within the State and outside it particularly in English speaking circles. This is how power-dynamics work, people adopt the labels flowing out of the power-structure not because there is something special about a particular people or region, but because it is the rulers who map the regions and assign the people with labels.
During the late 1800s some colonial writers pointed out that the term ‘Kashmir’ was being used erroneously for the vast territories of the Dogra Princes but the convention had become too widespread. The Dogra rulers as the patrons of the new State never once self-affirmed as Kashmiris which should give you an idea of the actual power-dynamics within the State, but rather called their territories the Dogra Raj. Some colonial administrators would refer to ‘Kashmir State’ as the Jammu Kingdom. This is not an incidental point though, if indeed the Valley Kashmiris (as a designated people) were important to Kashmir, why then did the patrons of the State self-affirm with their own labels?
If you’ve taken the time of reading this history and you understand India’s huge cultural contributions to the world, the terrible Pakistan cleavage and the nature of its ideological position, you realise Kashmir has never been important to Indian polities, Muslim, Hindu or otherwise. Foreign invaders didn’t waste their time with the hills of the Himalaya, they knew exactly were India’s wealth lay. As I’ve said ‘Kashmir’ enters the Indian imagination with the Mughals but even they had little or no concern for the inhabitants. In this respect the scenic beauty of Kashmir is much more important than her indigenous peoples, a sad reality that did not go unnoticed by many foreign travellers observing the plight of the ordinary inhabitants, many of whom fled to the Plains just to survive.
The ‘Dogras’ were ruthless rulers with little or no concern for the welfare of their subjects including those from their own ethnic sphere. They treated their territories and subjects as personal chattel. They exploited the people irrespective of background whilst enriching some tribes loyal to the new political order, Muslim, Hindu or otherwise. This was about power and not religious persecution; our sense of right and wrong today is relative to our very modern values. In pre-modern times human beings were dispensable as assets and possessions. We should never re-imagine this history because of our modern day anxieties and illusory identities. The Dogras directly empowered the Hindu Pandits, with whom they had an uneasy relationship. The Hindu Pandits were entirely reliant on the patronage of their Jammu overlords, and occasionally mobilised their small community to ensure that their interests were preserved and protected by their Dogra patrons. How they did this is again insightful of the actual power dynamics.
We now return full circle to the Kashmir of the modern conflict.
Exactly 101 years from the date of its founding, the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir was fought over by two new powers. The British vacated their Indian colony and hurriedly partitioned the areas they directly administered between the dominions of India and Pakistan. This decision and the way it was carried out caused immense bloodshed as the ‘religious’ communities, now on the wrong side of the artificial border were butchered to death. Kashmir State bordered these areas, it was similarly heterogeneous with a Muslim majority population but also a large non-Muslim minority clustered in certain parts of the State. Inevitably it was mired by the ensuing communal violence. The then ruler, Hari Singh wanted to retain his territory as an independent State but fast paced events and military infiltration from Pakistan forced his hand, and he was compelled to sign over his State to India, which he did to save his own life. He was airlifted to safety in India where he retired on a government pension.
India to this day maintains that the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir belongs to it because Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession legalising the State’s transfer to India. If you look at maps of India published in India, the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir, usually abbreviated to Kashmir but not always is shown as being part of the Indian Republic. Any divergence from this convention to show the State’s actual dismemberment between India, Pakistan and China creates protest and backlash. Indian officials and politicians make it a habit to say consistently that Pakistan is illegally occupying parts of the old Princely State by force. They seem to be predisposed to the status quo, although are reluctant to express such an opinion in public for fear of angering the Hindu Nationalists.
Pakistan tends to be more realistic in its maps and shows the State’s dismemberment clearly not least because it recognises it has no automatic legal right to the State. Instead, it argues that Kashmir belongs to Pakistan in accordance with the rationale of partition. Because the majority ‘Kashmiri’ population is Muslim (and by this they mean all the Muslims of the State), the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir therefore belongs to Pakistan. It argues further that these are the genuine aspirations of the Muslims. It seems to forget about Bangladesh’s cessation in 1971 whilst demonstrating little to no concern for the non-Muslims of the State and the Muslim minorities outside the Vale of Kashmir who have no appetite for a merger with Pakistan. Ironically for Pakistan, most Valley Kashmiri Muslims want independence. The remainder including the Muslim Gujjar & Bakkarwal communities and the Muslims of Indian Jammu want to remain with India. These Muslim communities exist on the periphery of the power structure and demand greater rights for their own constituencies from the Valley Kashmiris who dominant the Indian State because of their numerical majority.
Hardly anyone in ‘Azad’ Kashmir wants the territory to merge with India (although I suspect this is going to change in the coming decades), and the numbers that want to remain with Pakistan are fast dwindling even amongst groups traditionally sympathetic to Pakistan Officialdom such as civil servants, police officers and lawyers. India disagrees with the Pakistani position, and has its own claims that do not neatly reflect the actual realities in its administered Jammu & Kashmir. Both countries vociferously contest each other’s position, have developed their own official narratives to justify their claims to ‘Kashmir’ and have occasionally fought wars over the State.
Pakistan has been on the losing side of these ‘wars’, although in Pakistan the military establishment presents these defeats as victories to a largely unsuspecting population. Where Pakistan has succeeded is in prosecuting a high-intensity, low-cost insurgency in the Valley with negative repercussions for the locals who become collateral damage for Indian paramilitary reprisals. The cycle of violence seems never ending as the young Kashmiris hit the streets shouting “Azadi”, “Azadi” (independence). Livelihoods are destroyed as innocent lives are ended through the barrel of Indian and Pakistani-sponsored-militant guns. It seems India tries to placate this violence by spending large sums of money in Kashmir which critics argue increases the government’s per capita spending on the State unfairly.
Pakistan has done the complete opposite by actively disinvesting its administered parts with contempt for the legitimate concerns of the people. There are no government-sponsored infrastructure projects, commercial or industrial sectors. Pakistan Officialdom exploits the region’s natural and human resources to the disadvantage of the polity itself whilst producing direct dividends for the people of Pakistan. These actions have not gone unnoticed in ‘A’JK and one can now see the shoots of an emerging national consciousness. Whatever little semblance of prosperity there is in ‘A’JK, it is on account of remittences from the diaspora which do not impact the State equally. By far the richest area of A’JK is the Mirpur area on account of its large diaspora in the UK. When these remittences dry up, the situation will become dire. The ensuing disquiet if mobilised properly might just signal the beginning of the end of Pakistani control in ‘Azad’ Kashmir.
The Kashmir Conflict is thus the oldest conflict in the world, more than 70 years old. There seems to be no solution to this intractable problem as the actual inhabitants of the State are maltreated, intimidated and harassed depending on how far they stray from the officially-sanctioned narrative.
I now return to the subject of the Kashmiri Pandits with a view of concluding this post.
As a direct consequence of a popular insurgency in the Valley of Kashmir against Indian rule during the late 1980s, Hindu Pandits were forcibly evicted from their homes by members of their own ethnic community. The instigators of this violence were the Muslim Kashmiris. India likes to blame ‘infiltrators’ from the direction of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, the non-Kashmiri ‘foreigners’ if you like, funded and trained by Pakistan’s security agencies, but it is absolutely the case that there has been no increase of love between Muslim Kashmiris and the Hindu-Pandits. Independence pro-Kashmiris view the Indian State disdainfully and religion is becoming a factor in how they demonise the supposedly ‘Hindu’ State. India is of course a secular State with its fair share of extremists, but Hindu-Pandits have become casualties of these attitudes.
They now live as refugees in Jammu as ‘internally displaced people’ or have settled in India. Unlike the Israelis who ensured the demographic majority of their Jewish State, the Hindu Pandits have always been a a tiny minority in Kashmir as far as we can recollect this history. Their minority status is not because of religious persecution that saw their society largely convert to Islam forcibly. This is wrongly alleged by some Hindu Pandits in light of their modern anxieties. Privileged elites that identify as elites have always been a minority in their societies. To even contemplate the idea of caste-conscious Brahmins, an upper-class tier in a caste-conscious Kashmiri society, being the only social group in the Vale during an extensive golden period in some mythic past is counter-intuitive to say the least. This is exactly how Kashmir’s past is presented before the dawn of Islam. But, how do we make sense of a group’s elevated status if everyone in the society is supposedly of the same social marker? These ideas smack of a crude romanticism with all the hallmarks of a constructed claim.
We know from observing social groups everywhere that lower groups can and do morph into higher groups when they become more affluent. New family names are employed and nobler backgrounds are imagined. Many writers have observed this phenomenon during their own lifetimes. The reverse can happen in the opposite direction as formerly powerful families and networks fall from grace. This equally holds true for Kashmir as we have access to colonial writings of the 19th century when the phenomenon of upward mobility was being lucidly described. Social change happens in either direction, affluent groups do not simply lose their older statuses but they adopt new ones. But, the inference is clear, Hindu Pandits have never been culturally significant to a primordial Kashmiri identity in the way they imagine this exclusive ‘status’. The exceptionalism with which they present themselves and the larger Kashmiri population as an extension of themselves is, to be candid, perverse not least became they are aggregating for themselves an exclusive identity that has no historical antecedents. This is a form of Kashmiri exceptionalism that can be easily detected in their publications and writings, as they present themselves in glowing terms all the while they differentiate themselves from their neighbours. Colonial sensibilities have massively warped this ‘self-image’.
For instance, we know of ‘Kashmiri’ Muslim rulers adopting the cultural practises of Central Asian Muslims thinking such practises to be more superior to the indigenous practises of the Valley. They similarly introduced new crafts into the Valley, and encouraged skilled craftsman to settle in the Valley. Kashmir has been a recipient of these changes as opposed to innovating them. When you read modern day accounts of Kashmir by Valley Kashmiris, one is instantly struck by a tendency to somehow connect Kashmir with Central Asia as opposed to the Indian subcontinent. One will very rarely come across Central Asian Uzbeks or Turkic groups claiming historical ties with ‘Kashmir’.
From a political perspective in light of the conflict, the anxieties are clear. It is about distancing the ‘Muslim’ ‘Central Asian’ ‘Kashmiris’ from their Hindu, i.e., ‘Indian’ counterparts. It is therefore a curious move on the part of some Kashmiri-Pandits to revel in this ‘Dardic’ connection as they are keen to point out that Kashmiris have nothing in common with Indians and Pakistanis. From this rather curious perspective, ‘Azad Kashmiris’ become ‘Panjabis’ with commonalities that connect them with Pakistani and Indian ‘Panjabis’ whilst Hindu-Pandits are the real ‘Kashmiris’ connected with their ‘Muslim’ Central Asian ‘Kashmiris’ even as they turn to Hindu India for support. As I have consistently stated in this post, the fact that the dispute is a territorial one, makes these claims utterly perverse.
But, as we evaluate the influence of regions on regions, or cultures on cultures, it becomes crystal clear that Kashmir is a net-recipient of cultural influences like the wider region, particularly from the direction of the Indian Plains. For instance, the Kashmiri language has little or no status in its own homeland as people prefer to speak Urdu. For all intents and purposes spoken Kashmiri is a low-variety whatever its official recognition in the Indian State. But prior to the introduction of Urdu as the language of statecraft for the Dogra Raj, the language of statecraft was Persian. Urdu-Hindi has its origins on the Plains of India, and so Kashmiris have elected to speak a more prestigious language from the direction of India. The implication is clear, Kashmiris are speaking a ‘Plains’ Indian language, Indians do not speak Kashmiri, the underlying power-dynamics are clear.
If this is the present predicament of modern Kashmiris extolling a confused form of ‘cultural exclusivism’, perhaps they had a more glorious past when they were more culturally ‘authentic’?
One frequently reads about the special status of Kashmir as an isolated region which has allowed Kashmiris to develop a unique cultural tradition. In some writings, the authors seem to revel in a racial exclusivity that is patently absurd in an age of mass communication. The Kashmiris do not look remarkably different from the rest of the wider region, and there is nothing racially distinct about ‘Kashmiris’ from ‘Panjabis’ or ‘Indians’ or ‘Pakistanis’. ‘Kashmiris’ do not have an exclusive claim to ‘fair skinned’ people, a rather bizarre trope that pops up in all manner of conversations, as other ‘Indian’ communities are imagined to have an exclusive monopoly on dark-skinned people. This clearly demonstrates the lingering residues of colonial race theories, facilitated through the publication of outdated books on India’s ‘races’ courtesy of Indian publishing houses. In general, colonial race myths continue to impact how a lot of people view themselves in the subcontinent. I should not be remiss to add that these attitudes pervade the subcontinent and so Kashmiris can be forgiven for ‘romanticising’ their appearances even as they unfamiliar with how their own Valley-centric writers exaggerated the importance of these race claims.
This myth-making was not merely reserved for the upper-caste ‘Kashmiris’ on account of being ‘Brahmans’, who were supposedly connected to the priests of the original ‘Aryans’. Colonial ethnologists made similar remarks about the “Jats”, “Rajputs”, “Indian Brahmans” in general, “Khatris”, upper-caste Panjabis and Rajasthanis given how they connected certain ‘races’ (social groups or ruling tribes) with designated ‘regions’. Apparently, the Panjab and outlying areas that move into Rajasthan were the cradle of the Indo-Aryan race as the chariot-wielding conquerers spread into the rest of North India to encounter the ‘Dravidians’, wrongly deemed, India’s original ‘aborigines’.
Today, biologists and cultural anthropologists have universally and categorically rejected these racial ideas as outdated, wrong and dangerous. But they still seem to have currency in the works of writers unaware of how perverse such racial ideas were and the backgrounds of the people behind such ‘poison’. Internet forums and online chat rooms, moderated by Pakistanis, Indians, Afghans, Iranians etc, are awash with such claims.
Aside from pointing out the obvious fact that ‘race’ is a biological fiction, a realisation that American biologists came to as early as the 1940s, Kashmiris, like other ethnic populations, belong to specific breeding populations and so will look like the people of their wider region. This is how we inherit certain physical traits without discounting the effects of our environment and nutrition. These genes do not create imaginary racial populations wedded to ‘fixed’ territorial borders. The fact that some online commentators make ridiculous comments to discredit claims that the false Kashmiris from “Azad” Kashmir or elsewhere don’t quite look like our ‘primordial’ Kashmiris demonstrates the actual anxieties to control the discourse on the ‘Kashmir’ Conflict.
But even if we were to entertain the dubious notion that Kashmiris are in fact different, separate and perhaps ‘unique’ from the 1.5 billion or so Indians and Pakistans who live in a vast space that is much more diverse than Kashmir ethnically and linguistically, what of this primordial ‘Kashmir’s’ ancient and medieval ‘isolation’ in chornological terms?
Again, it seems to be tied intimately with events in India!
The rulers who ruled the north west of the subcontinent in the distant past also ruled Kashmir. Some like the Kushans were located in the Himalayas but crucially their capitals were not in Kashmir Valley but in the area around Peshawar conterminous with the ancient polity of Gandhara. It is here ironies become poetic not least because the heritage of a separate region is being claimed.
Hindu Pandit writers credit themselves with the cultivation of Sanskrit writings. Kashmir was justly famed for Sanskrit literature. But, again, the original speakers of Sanskrit, or at least those accorded the status of orally composing the Vedas, and later Sanskrit texts, originated from areas in the North West of the subcontinent. The areas described in the Vedas give some indication of this location; the Peshawar Basin and the Swat Valley come to mind as does the Panjab. The Valley of Kashmir, with its supposed 5000 year old history and connected Hindu-Pandit bloodline seems again to be a recipient of these cultural influences.
In fact, the colonial linguist Grierson went as far as saying that the Hindu Pandits were in fact immigrants to Kashmir from ‘India’ proper. In his mind, the original inhabitants of Kashmir were too primitive to have founded a culture that produced so much Sanskrit literature. To that effect, he argued that the Kashmiri language was not an Indo-Aryan language but ‘Dardic’ having descended from a different branch of the Indo-European language. Sanskrit and her daughter-languages descended from Indo-Aryan and in Grierson’s mind, this was the language of the original Aryan invaders to India. Most modern linguists agree that Kashmiri is in fact an Indo-Aryan language like Panjabi or Hindi-Urdu. The term Dardic as applied to Kashmiri merely locates the area from where a number of Dardic dialects emerged from the wider Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-Iranian language.
Writers from Kashmir contemporaneous to Grierson disagreed with him anxious to maintain an Indo-Aryan descent-claim to the original Sanskrit speaking ‘Aryans’. But it would appear that more recent ethnic ‘Kashmiri’ writers seem to revel in this ‘Dardic’ connection. They seem to be unaware of this history and the actual mechanics behind the linguistic term Dardic. Today you will hear many Kashmiris point out that their language has absolutely nothing in common with the languages of India or Pakistan, even as they speak Urdu fluently which in many ways becomes a bridge between the various dialects related to Urdu. It is a disingenuous argument at best borne of an incredibly warped view of history negatively impacted by conflict and the Indian-Pakistani imagination of that far-away place called ‘Kashmir’.
The conflict over Kashmir has not helped at all because both India and Pakistan make exaggerated claims about their love for ‘Kashmir’, Pakistan’s jugular vein and India’s integral part. This has inadvertently exaggerated the importance of the Kashmiris who historically have always been a dispossessed people as long as we can remember that history.
How any of us can re-write our history unaware of how our forbears were actually treated by outside powers and their local agents is the height of intellectual dishonesty.
In my mind it is the ugliest kind of hubris.
For those of us from ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir it is time we reevaluated our place in the Conflict as we critique the claims of those who want to actively write us out of the Kashmir discourse. We should also re-evaluate our attachment to this divided territory we call ‘Kashmir’ mindful of how national claims are manufactured, all the while we prioritise our stake in our supposedly semi-autonomous ‘A’JK polity. We must also come to terms with the fact that Pakistan is duplicitous in its apparent concern for our welfare. It behooves diaspora ‘Kashmiris’ with all their wealth, skills and connections to start vocalising their grievances about the disinvestment of ‘A’JK rather than crying about it in private. In doing so, we must steer clear of the politics of hate and division based on ethno-nationalism, but join a much wider coalition in Pakistan, India and abroad against the abuse of power.
Origin myths do not solve conflicts. They merely entrench the position of interest groups whose historical claims to contested territories are flimsy. Otherwise, there would be no need to travel back thousands of years into murky waters to manufacture ‘national claims’. The status quo is also clear, the mainstream just takes its social and political realities for granted without the need to prove the obvious; Muslim Kashmiris are unperturbed about their ‘identity’ as they physically occupy the Vale. Hindu Pandits feel quite insecure given their fate and small numbers, thus the need to remind the world and Hindu India that they are also, if not more so, the actual descendants of the first primordial ‘Kashmiris’.
Muslim Kashmiris are generally reconciled with the Muslims of the wider State in the mistaken belief that Muslims elsewhere are a receptive constituency to the pro-independence narrative. This has pitied them against the Hindus-Pandits who are increasingly turning to Hindu Nationalists. Other minority Muslims from Indian-administered-Kashmir are less accommodating of this fraternal love as they see the Valley Kashmiris dominating the Indian-administered State. It is therefore in the interest of ideologically-minded Hindu-Pandits and their supporters from India to create a cleavage between the Muslims of the State on the basis that they belong to different ‘ethnic’ groups. It would seem that many Muslim Kashmiris have fallen for this ploy as they then go on to make comments about their own origin myths and cultural superiority as they shout for ‘independence’ – ‘azaadi‘!. The heritage they rely on to prove their unique status as separate from India and Pakistan is all but imagined.
I hope to have shown in both these posts that ‘origin myths’ are used by nationalists to entrench their stake in territories that are not necessarily exclusively theirs even as the past they claim is a lot more complex than their simplistic slogans. Just because a segment of a population has supposedly lived in its part of the world for centuries, does not give it automatic rights to the land, culture and labels now associated with the contested landmass. If we take these myths seriously, than the ‘Dravidians’ of South India can similarly demand the return of North India from the supposed Aryans who “invaded” their indigenous lands 1750 years before the birth of Christ. Of course Dravidian speakers are an heterogenous group of people, no less diverse than the Indo-Aryan speakers to the north. It is this kind of straw man argument that is employed in Israel and the occupied territories to deny Palestinians any historical claims to ‘Palestine’ that would otherwise trump Israeli claims to an Israel comprised of Palestinian Territories. However absurd such a proposition, this is exactly what nationalists argue when they turn to origin myths to validate their territorial claims.
In relation to Kashmir it is perverse that almost 17 million people of a divided piece of territory are being reprimanded for self-affirming as ‘Kashmiris’ given the territorial connotations of the term internationally. We’re being told that only certain people have the right to deploy the term even as the entire world, India and Pakistan call this contested landmass ‘Kashmir’. To say someone is or isn’t Kashmiri within the territorial context of the Conflict between India and Pakistan becomes a red hearing for the indigenous population.
If this isn’t deliberate disinformation, I don’t know what is.
The fact that this disinformation has directly benefited Pakistan for nearly 70 years to the disadvantage of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris – a people not worthy of victimhood like their brethren in the Valley – should not be lost on any of us, as the Pakistan establishment cries crocodile tears for Valley Kashmiris all the while it exploits ‘Azad’ Kashmir’, and cares little for ordinary Pakistanis.
This tragedy could seldom be more tragic.