Mirpur was the name of a historical district in the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir otherwise known as Kashmir State. It comprised one district out of fourteen spread out unevenly across 3 Provinces of unequal size and importance. Erstwhile Mirpur District was much larger than the district that assumes the name today in Pakistan-administered-Kashmir. It was just under 1700 square miles of area. Jammu & Kashmir State was approximately 84 – 86000 square miles; the Frontier Province (Ladakh, Gilgit Baltistan) accounted for the majority of the State’s landmass but a tiny proportion of the State’s population. The State’s borders in the North, merging with the Tibetan Plateau, were never formally assigned to the territorial powers of the day accounting for the ambiguous nature of the Princely State’s actual size and China’s ongoing territorial dispute with India. India claims the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir by way of accession rights and contends China is illegally occupying the State’s border lands that are technically part of the old State.
The configuration of Mirpur District was geo-administrative which means the rulers of the State divided internal principalities, settlements and regions to manage, control and tax them. Like most villages, towns, cities, districts and provinces, there was no fixed size of the areas that inhabitants could claim as their own. This is about governance and control by which the rulers get the most out of their territorial assets; no regard is paid for the welfare of residents living within the designated spaces. To tax an area comprehensively, autocratic Rulers need to be able to delineate its borders on a map, and if they control tens of thousands of square miles of territory, they need local actors ready to do their bidding. The world our forebears inhabited before the rise of liberal thought, human rights and democracy was a precarious one.
This is Mirpur’s history and the history of Jammu & Kashmir before the emergence of modern-political thought. Throughout the centuries, these mountainous tracts had been ruled collectively by foreign powers, a reality that impacted how people traditionally viewed foreign rulers. The indigenous locals of Jammu & Kashmir comprised of ethnically and religiously diverse populations that co-existed peacefully. The one thing that united them above all was their dislike of foreign rule and locally-appointed clients. The legacy of that older history roughly dates to the emergence of the Mughals into the region around the time of Akbar (1580s). It continues to resonate with the nationals of Kashmir in contemporary times, a collective consciousness (‘Kashmiriyat’) that crystallised during the 1930s following agitations against the Rulers of Kashmir State. This identity is now being atomised ethnically and regionally for political reasons.
Mirpur’s Medieval and Ancient History; contextually understanding its documented history
The founding of Mirpur and I’m strictly speaking about a small tribal settlement from which the larger District gets its name, predates the emergence of the Princely State (1846) by hundreds of years. From the anecdotes at our disposal and the historical archive of the Mughals, it would appear that Mirpur was founded in the middle of the 17th century by a Gakhar tribesman posthumously named ‘Mir’ Shah Ghazi. This was the age of honorific titles. The actual coinage of ‘Mirpur‘ refers to the settlement or ‘fortification’ (‘Pur’) of Mir, (Miran, Mira, according to other anecdotes). Whether there is truth to the claims, we know that Mirpur was a small principality inhabited by tribesmen fighting other tribesmen subsumed within a system of patronage who were eventually vanquished. The actual system of patronage was more significant than the emergence or size of individual principalities.
The principality of Mirpur was said to be Ghakkar country because it was dominated by members of this tribe. They had moved into the area from the direction of the Pothohar Plateau, an area they co-inhabated with rival tribes. Although Mirpur’s actual founding is not attested in Mughal archives, Gakkar presence in Mirpur and neighbouring areas is historically attested, but only for a short period of time. This didn’t stop the area from being named after their tribal chief, the name that’s in vogue today, if indeed the anecdotes are true. As a naming practise, it was not linked to notions of shared fraternity, ethnicity, language, or regional geography, but power-dynamics around notions of territoriality within a cascading system of sovereignty vested in the person of the Overlord. Patronage networks are always hierarchal. Lots of tribal polities in the Western Himalaya were tributaries to more powerful Kingdoms outside their tracts. With the advent of the Mughals, that centre of gravity moved to the North Indian Plains. India and Pakistan became successors to the British Indian Empire. It was the British Indian Empire that vanquished Mughal authority in India, to appreciate the trajectory of the history I am narrating and how it impacted distant regions far from the centre of power.
The ruling tribes of the Western Himalaya were nominally independent. They were important cogs in a tribal patronage system that saw them offer mercenary services to overlords because they inhabited an important frontier region between Central Asia and South Asia. Within the internal borders of their own homeland, they would frequently encroach upon the tribal tracts of rivals. The system of patronage that they had relied on for wealth and status also ensured that an unjust status quo permeated their lands to the advantage of outsiders. The overlords were patrons to the tribes and they exacted tribute and loyalty.
The dominant tribes accrued substantial revenues from their landholdings. Although they physically controlled their lands, they were not the absolute owners, this authority was vested in their overlords who had the symbolic authority to disinvest them of their landed possessions. Whenever the tribal leaders fell out of favour with their regal masters, symbolic authority was practically exercised by the latter invading their territories and obliterating tribal power. Rivals from neighbouring tribes would then be empowered, a clever policy of undermining collective resistance to the patrons. Usufruct rights of tribal lands extended to tenant farmers who tilled the land on behalf of the dominant tribes, they weren’t serfs in the European equivalence. They would take a small share in the crops they harvested and overtime would be offered lands for services rendered to the landed groups. British colonial ethnographers subsumed this population within the category of ‘occupational castes’, a lot of what was written about them was influenced by pseudo-race science.
Overtime, tribal lands were parcelled out to an abundance of descendants, who became subsistence farmers on their own ancestral lands, a significant loss in status. Unlike Europe, primogeniture was never the social norm. Certain tribal leaders were empowered through rights of succession that were passed down to their male descendants at the behest of the overlords, but all lands were symbolically owned by the tribe. With the dismemberment of lands and the ability to accrue revenue from them, the old patronage network would become defunct. Sometimes, the rule from the hegemonic centre would implode, and the tribal rulers would become the sovereigns of their lands until more powerful potentates would emerge to extract tribute and the cycle of reciprocating power-relations would continue. Some ambitious tribal leaders managed to create their own Kingdoms, but the vast majority faded into the larger populations they once governed.
There are enormous historical parallels across the world with how Mirpur was named on the basis of this patronage system and how the area was controlled, governed and mapped. There is no region on earth that doesn’t bear the names of ancient and medieval tribes that’ve long perished, or coalesced with the native populations to forget about their distant origin. We take these “identities” for granted today, never fussing about the historical truths behind individual claims, or how they apply to enormously diverse populations. A good analogy would be to cite the etymology of the term “England“, a particular landmass within the British Isles.
Linguists tell us that the word “England” is derived from the phrase “Angla-land”, which means “the land of the Angles”. Historians tell us that the Angles, otherwise spoken of as the Anglo-Saxons (successful group identities evolve to become hybridised), were a Germanic speaking tribe that successfully invaded and settled parts of Britain around the 5th century CE. Old English, the precursor to Middle and Modern English, (where one tries to understand significant developmental stages in a language), derived from a particular dialect the Angles spoke. The ruling members of this particular tribe came from the direction of Germany and were followed by various other populations, most prominent of whom were the Normans. The Normans came from Normandy, northern France; they belonged to a French-speaking Germanic tribe (“Vikings”) that had been gradually moving into Roman Lands from the direction of modern-day Denmark, Norway. The term Norman was derived from the term Nortmanni. It simply meant “Northmen”.
In “Roman Lands” or areas that had traditionally been controlled by Rome, the new rulers adopted Christianity and the evolving dialects of Latin, otherwise known as Vulgar Latin; a term that does not mean what may ostensibly come to the minds of people unacquainted with this history. It referred to the spoken “Latin” of the common people. Classical Latin referred to the literary register of the Roman Empire, which was still taught in European centres of higher learning. When the Roman Empire disintegrated, the various dialects that had been evolving out of Classical Latin, spoken across diverse lands of Europe, emerged into different but independent languages. How this happened is linked to power-dynamics (akin to the tribal patronage network) and not because of some internal-fatalism inherent in the languages themselves.
The French language became an important language of European courtly culture, without the ruling households assuming a French identity on the basis of speaking French. Even the Russian Aristocracy for a time, adopted French in its Court. Ruling households did not project their status through the languages they spoke, or the regions they occupied; a reality they would end up sharing with their “subjects” (commoners). Ancestral pedigree (descent) to ruling tribes was the overriding factor in determining social prestige and continuity of the status quo; many of Europe’s pre-modern monarchies were direct descendants of the same rulers.
Not every English person said to be indigenous to the British Isles over tens of generations descends from these Germanic populations. Likewise, not every English person descends from the populations that came before the Anglo-Saxons or after the Vikings, or Normans. Ideologues for essentially political reasons conflate the documented history of regions with primordial origin-myths that support a biased but nativist revisionism to justify ownership of territory on the strength of ‘historical facts’ that are seldom historical. When deployed, the agenda behind such ahistorical claims is to exclude and separate particular groups from the larger fold of the established mainstream.
Understandably, the names of regions frequently change with changing power-dynamics. In this respect, the Ghakkars of Mirpur, a relatively unknown tribe within the lands eastwards of the River Jhelum, had encroached upon lands beyond their traditional tribal lands in the Pothohar Plateau. In effect they were encroaching upon lands connected to a different patronage system that traditionally had been under the sovereignty of Kashmir.
The Kashmir of Antiquity; its legacy
The Kashmir Region of Antiquity was an expansive space. Its core regions were located in the middle and outer Himalayan tracts between the Rivers Jhelum and Chenab, on both sides of the Pir Panjaal Mountain Range. It was entirely located within the Western Himalaya and not on the Indo-Gangetic Plains, what later rulers would call “Hindustan” (“Punjab” was subsumed within this expansive space).
In ancient times, when foreign writers would speak of Kashmir, the mountainous tract that neighboured Hindustan, they would speak of a mountainous region called Abisara, named after the prominent tribe(s) that ruled the area, the Darvabhisara. In the Rajatarangini, a mythic chronicle of Kashmir’s ancient Kings (it becomes more historical after a particular timeline), the author of the history, Kalhana (12th century CE) tells us that Abisara, or the lands of the Darvabhisara, were tributaries of Kashmir from which numerous hill mercenaries were recruited into the Armies of Kashmir. This had been the norm in the region for centuries, well before the emergence of the Mughals into the wider region. Buddhist writers centuries earlier, traveling from the direction of China into India made similar comments; how they understood the ‘Indian’ lands they traversed was radically different to how modern nationalists would have us reimagine this history for political reasons.
Greek and Roman writers were aware of a region called Kashmir on account of a legacy they inherited from their Persian rivals, beginning with the Achaemenids (around 550 BCE – 330 BCE). The Achaemenids held a lot of tracts in the mountainous regions of today’s Pakistan that included the areas under discussion. The modern lands of Pakistan straddle the Iranian Plateau and the Indian subcontinent; both areas corresponded to distinct civilisational spaces that had emanated from the same spring millennia earlier. India came to the attention of Europeans through the agency of the Iranians.
Greek writers would speak of a region called Abisaras, without necessarily referring to the lands in the Vale of Kashmir (2000 square miles). The Vale of Kashmir, otherwise described as Kashmir Proper by colonial writers (a colonial innovation), is a separate geological formation corresponding to an ethnic space today, which frequently gets confused with the Kashmir Province, an ethnically diverse space; (8000 square miles) and the much larger Princely State of the same name, a territorial space; (85000 square miles). Whatever the nuances in the term Kashmir, at its core existed a much larger region that included regions beyond its “Vale” borders. It was a region much larger than the Province of Kashmir. Overtime, it had expanded and contracted, but at its core was a particular patronage system connecting Kashmir, (landmass) with ethnically diverse peoples. This is the Kashmir of recorded history and not the Kashmir of the Indian-Pakistani nationalists, who want to undermine this territorial Kashmir for an ethnic space disconnected from a territorial legacy.
To appreciate this history, one can give the example of how modern-day writers speak about the presence of Indo-Greek culture within the region. Indo-Greek and Indo-Bactrian colonies existed in the ancient Gandhara region as it extended into Abisara, an area that merged with another region called Kamboja. There were no Greek colonies in the Vale of Kashmir historically. For instance, Kalhana tells us that Ashoka Raja of the Maurya Empire (322 BCE – 185 BCE) founded the City of Srinagar. Srinagar’s importance was thus rationalised from having been allegedly founded by Ashoka Raja, and not because Kashmir was singularly important in its own right. As an undisputed historical fact, we know that Ashoka was the Governor of Taxila, the capital of Gandhara, an area that had been acquired by the Maurya from previous Greek Rulers. Indo-Greek Kingdoms had flourished in the region for over two centuries; there were a succession of more than 30 Indo-Greek Kings who ruled separate polities after Alexander the Great’s conquests.
Throughout this timeline, Gandhara existed as an important historical region, commercially significant between the 6th century BCE until the 10th century CE long before Kashmir was mentioned in documented history. In fact, Gandhara may have existed a lot earlier to around the 1500 BCE; the area was referenced in the Rigveda and Avesta, the earliest of the Indo-Iranian scriptures. By Indo-Iranian, I am strictly referring to languages (not necessarily people) that have an attested origin outside the subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau, which in the course of time, shaped the history of the corresponding regions. According to historians, Gandhara was a thriving multiethnic region that attracted people from all over the place, demonstrated in the syncretic nature of its art and architecture.
It was Ashoka Raja who introduced Buddhism into the Gandhara region from which it permeated deep into Central Asia, China and the Far East. In Central Asia, the Buddhism that would become deeply ingrained in Gandharan society for more than a thousand years would eventually merge with cultures beyond its borders; Bactrian-Greek culture is one such synthetic culture. Crucially, there are no Ashokan Stupas in the Vale of Kashmir dating back to this particular period in history, although many still exist in the wider region, as far as Afghanistan and India. The Stupas that do exist date back to the Kushan period (30 CE – 375 CE). The Kushans like previous rulers to the region came from Central Asia. They became patrons of Gandhara, operating out of what is today Peshawar extending their presence and influence into North India, and other prominent regions in the subcontinent. Mathura was their ‘Indian’ capital.
When modern writers speak of Alexander’s encounter with Raja Porus in “Kashmir” or “Punjab” (around 326 BCE), the battle took place in the vicinity of the River Jhelum. The actual area in question corresponded with modern-day Mirpur and not the Vale of Kashmir or the Punjab Plains, to appreciate how regions were historically identified outside the reductionism of ethno-nationalists claiming landmass for their ideological claims. Frequently, ideologues will try to change the location of famous battles to bolster the importance of the “regions” they originate from to lay claim to a much older history that had its own centre of gravity. It doesn’t matter to them how far removed their locations are from the historical descriptions of the “peoples” and “regions” they now claim for their ideological projects. In this respect, Gandhara did not extend to the Punjab Plains to understand the implications of claiming this space within a primordial pan-Punjabi space.
Today’s Mirpur sits directly on the ancient Silk Road as it historically meandered through Gandhara and beyond via the Khyber Mountain Pass connecting Central Asia with the Indian Subcontinent. Lots of invaders coming into India for the first time, came through the Khyber Pass and would have necessarily traversed the lands of erstwhile Mirpur District on the way to India. This was the same route taken by Alexander the Great.
Mipur is located within an important frontier between Central Asia and the North Indian Plains. Gandhara grew rich and wealthy because of its strategic location on the Silk Road connecting the Indian Plains, enormously wealthy and populous centres, with trading cities beyond “India’s” land borders. This international fame was a magnet for foreign invaders, potentates, merchants, preachers, scholars, retreating armies and an array of diverse peoples seeking fortunes in “India”. It massively impacted the fortunes of neighbouring regions including Abisara and Kashmir. It was for this reason that ancient Indian writers subsumed Kashmir within a Gandharan orbit of influence.
When we appraise this history for the sake of accuracy, we must acknowledge that Kashmir was part of an Indian civilisational space long before Pakistan emerged as an ideological project (younger than some living people) to lay claim to ancient and medieval lands that were Hindu, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and Muslim. This particular history frequently gets confused with patronage networks which have their own centres of gravity, not to be conflated with religion, language or people. The terms ‘Gandhara’, ‘Darvabhisara’, ‘Abisaras’, ‘Urasa’ (Hazara region) and many other place-names lost currency with the advent of Islam around the 11th century CE; these regions had particular territorial antecedents and legacies. With the advent of the Muslims, new regional labels emerged.
The historical Chibhal region corresponded with the ancient Abisara region. How this region acquired its subsequent ‘tribal’ name is again similar to the precepts being discussed. It was located east of the River Jhelum in the hills and mountains of erstwhile Mirpur District. It extended across Khari Khariali, Bhimbar and Rajouri until it reached the River Chenab and Pir Panjal Mountain Range; at its core lay the Bhimbar and Khari Khariali region. These were separate tribal tracts to those in the Pothohar Plateau, which expanded westwards from the River Jhelum to the River Indus, not merely in geological terms or geographical terms but politically. The territorial histories of the two regions, eastwards and westwards of the River Jhelum, (rivers formed important boundaries historically), had already diverged centuries earlier, well before the emergence of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir in 1846. Mughal writers would speak of Ghakkar country without necessarily applying the term to the hilly and mountainous tracts traditionally under the sovereignty of Kashmir, whatever the brief-lived incursions of the former into the latter space. Ghakkar incursions into Kashmir are being conflated with the actual history of Kashmir, to thereby disconnect the frontier lands of Kashmir, and place them within a pan-Punjabi space that didn’t exist in history.
The Mughals viewed Kashmir in geographical and typographical terms. Their insights impacted how the British viewed the region and neighbouring regions. It was the British who began the practise of describing the Pothwar as the Pothohar Plateau, an Upland Plain separate and distinct to neighbouring hills-mountains eastwards and northwards. The Pothohar Plateau’s highest elevations are in a north-easterly direction, those mountainous regions still subsumed within its borders, actually belonged to Kashmir.
The Kashmir of antiquity was hills and mountains; this was how the geography of a territorial, geography-based Kashmir was imagined by outsiders, the Vale of Kashmir sat at its core. Incidentally, there are no distinctions between hills and mountains in geology; whatever the various elevations, we are speaking about landmass, not how high or low those elevations are. Traditionally, in the Anglo-sphere, lands above 1000 ft. above sea level were considered mountains, anything less were considered hills, but these were arbitrary distinctions. Hills and mountains should not be conflated with plateaus, upland flat lands; the two landmasses are distinct, not merely in geological terms but in actual physical appearance.
Before the administrative reforms of the Mughal Emperor Akbar (d. 1605 CE), Kashmir formed part of the Kabul Province – a mountainous region. The Chibhal region had been included in the Kabul Province on account of the history I’ve already mentioned. Akbar’s administrative reforms of reconfiguring his territories changed all this. It also impacted how the Pothohar Plateau was configured; the changing nature of internal boundaries was to maximise revenue collection, governance and tribal patronage.
The Mughals had a very keen sense of déjà vu, they had entered the subcontinent via this frontier. The territorial powers they defeated had also entered “India” via these routes, the Delhi Sultanate; 1206 – 1526 CE being the prime example. To hit home the point about Mirpur’s connections to a Kashmir space pre-dating the emergence of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir; Kashmir and its tributaries were not controlled by any of the five dynasties traditionally associated with the Delhi Sultanate, this included the tribal tracts that traversed Mirpur.
The British were a seafaring nation, but unlike the invaders who came before them, they entered the subcontinent through India’s eastern ports initially for trade. This trade mission started out in the 1600s when the Mughals were at the height of their power. As the British morphed from a trade mission to a territorial power, they became quickly aware of the mountainous tracts that bordered North-West India and the dangers this frontier posed for their rule. To mitigate these dangers, they created artificial buffer zones to protect their most prized colony from possible Russian or Ottoman land incursions. A lot of modern countries that exist today had their origin in the fabricated spaces the British created to protect India, this holds true for Afghanistan, the Gulf Monarchies, Oman, Burma (to protect India from Chinese/Japanese incursions) to name just a few. These countries had no genuine centre of gravity like some other pre-modern countries; they were the product of colonial geopolitics and their borders bear that imprint.
Likewise, the evolving boundaries of Mughal provinces (the number, size and shape would constantly change) did not correspond to primordial notions of shared fraternity, group identity or loyalty. Lots of areas not traditionally connected with the Punjab Plains were added to the Lahore Province following Akbar’s reforms. The Mughal’s Lahore Province frequently gets confused with Britain’s Punjab Province, an essentially colonial innovation of later centuries. The Pothohar Plateau was merged into the British Province of Punjab for geopolitical reasons on account of this much older legacy, and not because of ethnic or linguistic commonalities between “Punjabis”. This consolidation of power was not an exact science, and the architects behind it, weren’t in the business of creating “group identities”.
Nonsensical discussions on Punjab; conflating ‘Azad’ Kashmir with Punjab for political reasons
There is enormous confusion and disinformation about what constitutes “Punjab”. The popular anecdotes one frequently encounters on social media are deliberately misleading. They are radically different to the attested facts one reads in the works of historians and archeologists not motivated by nativism, or contested politics over Kashmir State. Even treatment of the Punjabi language is not spared this disinformation, an ambiguous linguistic term that was originally used for different groups of dialects labelled “Punjabi” because of colonial power-dynamics.
Fortunately, there is a huge body of knowledge that takes us back to the earliest linguistic incursions into the Punjab penumbra which would help us understand how the term ‘Punjabi’ was being used historically. This is important because those earlier writers were not influenced by the priorities of contested politics, whatever they said about the Punjab or Kashmir, had no underlying agendas.
The earliest authorities on Indo-Aryan (North Indian) dialects, and by this I mean the very first people to document and study “Indic” dialects, were the British. It was the British who inadvertently made Hindi-Urdu (an Indian Plains’ language) the dominant language of India and Pakistan. Outside this intervention, Persian would have remained the language of statecraft connecting millions of Indians with millions of Iranians and other populations in Central Asia. It was colonial officers who popularised the myth that the Turkish word “Urdu” “Camp”; (the English word for ‘horde’ derives from this Turkish word), referred to a composite dialect in North India that evolved out of Indian dialects, Persian, Arabic and Turkish. They then rejected this myth because they had initially misunderstood how the word was being deployed by Indian writers. The term “Urdu” actually referred to the Persian language spoken in the environs of Delhi (‘shahjahanabad’) not the Hindustani being paraded as Urdu; the word “Urdu” was part of a longer phrase. Having studied the internal mechanics of Hindi and Urdu, they had no allusions about the actual origin of Urdu.
In purely linguistic terms, Urdu is Hindi or Hindustani. It has no separate existence to Hindustani in the way this history is being imagined by political ideologues. To argue otherwise is to propagate origin-myths that have been conclusively debunked. The only difference between Urdu and Hindi are their higher lexicons; the one draws its vocabulary from Persian whilst the other draws its vocabulary from Sanskrit. Before the language wars between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab Province, Hindi was naturally evolving, taking a substantial part of its vocabulary from Persian. To make Hindi sound more “Indian”, Hindu language ideologues expunged Hindi of its “Muslim” vocabulary, replacing Persian, Arabic, Turkish words with Sanskrit ones. Muslim ideologues did the complete opposite and started to introduce even more Persian and Arabic words into Urdu. This is a form of blatant revisionism, where historical developments naturally occurring are stopped in their tracks to pursue political priorities.
Colonial linguists considered the spoken dialects of the Pothohar Plateau to be distinct and separate from the ‘Punjabi’ of the ‘Punjab Plains’. George Grierson (1851 CE – 1941 CE) spearheading the Linguistic Survey of India, a pioneering effort in its own right, coined the term ‘Northern Lahnda’ to distinguish related dialects of the Pothohar Uplands, the Hazara Hills and Jammu & Kashmir. He believed that the Lahnda dialects had a shared origin with the Dardic dialects from which the Kashmiri language emerged. The term ‘Dardic’ was being used linguistically not ethnically or racially for a group of dialects spoken in a particular area, which had been massively reduced because of subsequent developments. He distinguished North Lahndi (f.) dialects from Punjabi. In his mind, Punjabi formed the original basis of Hindi-Urdu, but he wasn’t including Lahnda dialects in that observation.
Strictly speaking, North Lahnda comprised of a dialect-continuum that was merging with Punjabi. Its dialects were gradually spreading into the Plains of India, and this would have continued today, had we not had partition and the sudden intrusion of Punjabi speakers into a North Lahnda space. When dialects merge into other dialects, this does not mean they stop having their own distinct origin and history. North Lahnda is not the same language as Punjabi. The earliest authorities on these dialects were not influenced by politics or ideologies of competing nation states to stumble into political debates about people’s territorial identities decades later.
A lot of writings on Kashmir suffer from these unstated but underlying priorities. One can detect enormous bias in the writings of western writers influenced by Indian and Pakistani narratives on Kashmir; they constantly speak of “Kashmir – the State”, and “Kashmir Proper – the Vale” in their introductory pages. They have no grasp of how they are writing entire peoples out of their regions, simply because political ideologues with power, rubbing shoulders with them, have elected to take ownership of identity labels. The same writers, when speaking of the real Kashmir never seem to speak of the ‘real Punjab’, ‘the Punjab Proper’, of the Punjab Plains and not the Punjab Province. If my readers understand the logic, Kashmir is contested between India and Pakistan territorially, Punjab isn’t, so there is no rationale for them to speak of real Punjabis and false Punjabis, all the while they speak of ethnic Punjabis living in Kashmir! The Kashmir Conflict is a territorial dispute (landmass), not an ethnic or linguistic dispute about people. These skewed observations are then used to bolster political claims of the nationalistic ideologues opposing Kashmiri independence; they are not necessarily concerned with the actual insights they “weaponise”, but the practical implications of separating Kashmiris into separate enclaves. This is the very definition of ‘dirty politics’.
Suffice to say, before the British came to the subcontinent, there was no province-wide Punjabi ethno-linguistic identity for “Azad” Kashmiris post-1947 to be added to a primordial Pothwari identity, regionally and geographically, to be then identified as Punjabis because of the illusory Pothwari connections to the Punjab Plains.
When I say this, I am making a statement of fact.
It was colonial officers who began the trend of speaking of Punjabi people. But for the fact that related-dialects were spoken in “Western Punjab” (a geo-administrative space), they were indirectly identified Punjabi on account of where they were spoken in the Province and not because they shared fraternal connections with Central/Eastern Punjabi. The Patwari and Hindko dialects of the ‘Salt Range Tract’ (to borrow another colonial phrase) have not evolved from the variety we call Majhi Punjabi (Plains Punjabi; Lahore-Amritsor belt). They are not daughter dialects of this standardised language to confer automatic mutual-intelligibility between speakers because of an imagined shared past.
Lots of native Punjabi speakers have difficulties conversing with Patwari and Hindko speakers who continue to speak the dialects of their great grandparents. I am speaking about dialects that have not changed much irrespective of diglossia or Indian-Pakistani Media; lots of Patwari and Hindko speakers change how they speak to make themselves intelligible to “Punjabi” speakers. There are, of course, other post-partition reasons to this shift in language-use.
Muslim “Punjabi” partition refugees were resettled in Rawalpindi and Jhelum after 1947. The Pothwari being spoken in the urban areas of Rawalpindi has become a highly Punjabified version that would not have been familiar to the linguistic forebears of Pothwari, Hindko and Pahari speakers. According to linguists who have written on Pothwari, it is an endangered dialect that will eventually become extinct. It is dying in the homeland of its birth because its speakers have no emotional or intellectual investiture in speaking or preserving it. Intellectual honesty demands we state these realities for what they are. Pothwaris, and by this term I mean the people of the Pothohar Plateau, are being made to feel ashamed of their backgrounds for no good reason. They prefer to speak Urdu, a more “polite”, “cultured” and “status-affirming” language in their minds. This is the next step from preferring to speak Punjabi and not Pothwari. They have wilfully disconnected themselves from the Pothwar of their forebears, such are the unjust power-dynamics of the Pakistan Project.
Intellectually honest Pothwari and Punjabi speakers are aware of these anxieties; even on the Punjab Plains, native-Punjabi speakers are encouraged not to speak Punjabi but Urdu. An entire generation, whose parents were born in the homeland of Punjabi (outside colonial categorisations) have been cut off from the actual language and culture of their forebears so that an artificial identity rooted in Pakistaniyat and Urdu can prevail. Not even native Urdu speakers from the Muhajjir communities benefit from this status quo for us to blame native Urdu speakers naively. They complain of unfair Punjabi dominance (irrespective of Punjabis adopting Urdu natively). They are not entirely wrong in their observations except to say lots of Punjabis are as dispossessed as “Muhajjirs”, a pejorative term used for people who fled India and left everything familiar behind. Today, native Urdu speakers are being made to feel like outsiders in the lands they sought shelter in. Partition is a recurring tragedy, it is not merely one isolated event in history, it is a series of dehumanising acts.
We shouldn’t lose sight of what is happening in Pakistan. No other ethnic group in Pakistan has completely forsaken its ancestral language like Punjabis. The same self-flaggelating Punjabis then invent “Muslim” ancestries linking themselves with Central or West Asian personalities, or rulers. This trajectory is rooted in not knowing one’s actual past outside the political ideologies of nationalists spreading myths about “Pakistan”, a landmass ripped violently from India because of British colonialism. The same colonial officers used to speak disparagingly about the Punjabi language (“rude”, “aggressive”, “not fit for complex thought” etc), and these attitudes have permeated the Punjab to create an unjust revulsion against the language and people. Punjabi is a beautiful language like the other languages of India, it should take its rightful place, standing tall amongst the world’s languages. Again, I am making a statement of fact about a terrible situation that needs to be remedied immediately in Pakistan, without offering political solutions on the Indo-Pak conflict over Kashmir, another tragedy.
“Pothohar Plateau”, “Salt Range Tract”, “Rawalpindi Division”; “Punjab Hill States”; understanding the terms
In strictly geo-administrative terms, colonial officers would refer to the region where Patwari and Hindko was spoken natively as the Rawalpindi Division or the Salt Range Tract. Surveying the region, they would observe how different the Salt Range Tract was from the Punjab Plains and the rest of India. Why they would make this observation in the first place is clear to me; the Pothwar had been subsumed within the Punjab, a landmass that had traditionally been celebrated for its flat and highly fertile lands, the breadbasket of India! They would remark that the Pothohar Plateau only belonged to India because it happened to be located eastwards of the River Indus (from which ‘India’ gets its historically-attested name). Typographically, it was said that the terrain was rugged in its physical appearance sharing features typical of the Iranian Plateau.
The natives of this particular landmass were accorded an ambiguous status because it was felt that they belonged to a hotchpotch of people from Central Asia who had merged with “Indians” over the centuries. It was argued that West Punjabis had merely aggregated their caste-backgrounds; unlike counterparts in Eastern Punjab, they weren’t really Jat, Rajput or Mughal; groups with attested lineages and histories. A lot of these views were influenced by deeply flawed race science that is dated, but crucially had itself been influenced by older prejudices. The wider Punjab region, historically was seen as an ambiguous frontier to North India, where Buddhists lived, with little to no regard for brahmanical norms of the twice born. Brahmans writing about the Punjab region (on account of how this identity is imagined today), would speak of ‘Mlecchadesh’, the land of the foreigners and barbarians. This was an outlier to the respectable spaces of North India, where temporal rulers deferred to brahmanical norms of the caste-system. In Mlecchadesh, the non-caste people ate meat, fraternised freely with one another, and married whoever they wanted. They were seen as a hotchpotch of ambiguous people, who had little regard for norms of ritual-purity and caste-behaviour. These views greatly influenced how the colonialists would describe ‘Punjabis’, ‘the Punjab’ and the ‘Punjabi language’.
But unlike the colonialists, who were speaking disparagingly about an entire population because of how they misunderstood the “biological” concept of race, our modern narrators feel empowered by the colonial descriptions. It means they are not really Indians, they have come to their ancestral locations from somewhere else. They are in the words of the colonialists, occupying a land originally overrun by “hordes of invaders“, Greeks, Iranians, Arabs, Afghans, Turks etc, “…given to blood feuds and bitter enmities,” murdering people, poisoning cattle, predisposed to theft and treachery because of their impure races. The clear bias and degradation in such descriptions doesn’t seem to bother the narrators who end up recycling colonial mantras selectively.
In the Pothohar Plateau today, even members of indigenous tribes frequently make recourse to “Arab” backgrounds unaware of how deeply flawed colonial descriptions were. Others claim “Pathan” or “Kashmiri” backgrounds, unaware of how the Pashtun and Kashmiri identities emerged. Pakistani online forums are a depository to these claims and I entreat my readers to familiarise themselves with the comments to understand the scale of the problem. Whatever these musings, the term “Rawalpindi” follows similar naming patterns, it is said to be derived from the “Rawal” tribe that presumably held this tract centuries earlier. For obvious reasons, not everyone indigenous to Rawalpindi descends from the ‘Rawal’ tribe.
Today, we have ideologues speaking about “Lahore Province”, “Punjab Province”, “Punjab”, “Kashmir”, “Kashmir State”, “Mirpur District”, “Jammu”, “Vale of Kashmir”, “Punjab Hill States”, “Punjab Alpine” in perennial terms, sometimes even in racial terms, as if they are dealing with primordial biological identities that are static and fixed! They frequently conflate regions in Jammu & Kashmir with the British Punjab Province, a colonial construct to deny Jammu & Kashmir its separate identity, whilst oddly prioritising a colonially-induced Punjabi identity. As I have already pointed out with western writers, they don’t appreciate the incoherence of forcing a Punjabi identity onto Kashmiris, because apparently “Kashmir State was created by the British and Punjabis living in Kashmir can’t be Kashmiris”, even though the Punjab Province is itself a British creation and the corresponding Punjabi identity is a product of colonial engineering!
The actual ‘Persian’ term “Punjab” had no historical antecedents in the region before the advent of the Mughals. The term emerged as a metaphor for a river system that ran through an artificially-conceived Province, the Lahore Province. By mapping their territories, the Mughals were not ascribing ethnic identities to regional peoples who ended up inheriting those labels centuries later. The Mughals would speak of five rivers (“Panj ab”), but the rulers who came thousands of years earlier spoke of seven rivers (“sapta sindhu”). Technically, there are six rivers in the Punjab and not five. For obvious reasons the exact boundaries of this ambiguous space, whether as seven, six or five rivers, had never been delineated. Whenever the Mughals used the term “Punjab”, they used it interchangeably with Lahore Province but not exclusively. Lots of writers adopted the usage of the term, without necessarily explaining what they meant by it. No one thought to define the exact contours of the “Punjab” when using the term because it had always been used metaphorically for ambiguous landmass not people or language.
In the majority of cases, “Punjab” implied the rich, fertile and flat lands of Central/Eastern Punjab, but not the lands south of the Punjab Plains or northwards beyond the Salt Range Tract. For instance, the Sikh Emperor, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839 CE), didn’t apply the term ‘Panjab’ to the Pothohar Plateau. When he came to power, gradually expanding the borders of his nascent State, he would speak of himself as the Ruler of Punjab and “Attock”, “Multan”, “Peshawar”, etc (these areas were subsumed within a pan-Punjabi identity much later). Crucially, he would speak of himself as the “Master of the Punjab”, having moved his capital from Gujranwala to Lahore; he conquered Lahore in 1799 and began to use the epithet in 1801. Tribal polities in the Pothohar Plateau and Jammu were conquered decades later by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s forces. Rawalpindi (areas comprised of nominally independent tribes defending their fiefs) finally fell to Sikh Forces between 1815 and 1820, without discounting Sikh incursions into the area decades earlier!
These important points are overlooked by modern-day narrators of the Kashmir Conflict, who want to conflate “Kashmiri” regions outside the Vale of Kashmir to a Punjab penumbra to disconnect ethnic Kashmiris from ethnic Paharis (forever subsumed within a pan-Punjab identity conveniently) and other ethnic communities to counteract the independence movement in the region. They deliberately ignore the region’s attested history that saw numerous regions subsumed with a broad space called “Kashmir”. The territorial shorthand “Kashmir” for Jammu & Kashmir has an attested historical pedigree that predates the creation of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir, otherwise known as Kashmir State by centuries. The Kashmir of Antiquity had never been an ethnic, linguistic or religious space either. It included diverse regions and peoples, and it was this “Kashmir” that ancient and medieval writers described in their writings. During pre-modern history, the areas that span Mirpur were part of this historical space. Mirpur has never been part of the Punjab Plains or the Pothohar Plateau of the pan-Punjabi imagination to disconnect it from Kashmir State.
Democracy and human rights; the politics of a people-centric identity
Only the inhabitants of the region can decide their future and determine their exact identity label mindful of the territorial history I narrate here (Jammu & Kashmir). All identities are fluid and changing. To this effect, there are locally-sourced anecdotes about the origin of the word “Mirpur” that connects the area with Hindu-Muslim conviviality rather than simply being the product of a tribal settlement. It was claimed that the coinage ‘Mir’-‘Pur’ derived from the names of two saints, the one Muslim and the other Hindu, Gosain Bodhpuri. In this account, the alleged Ghakkar founder of Mirpur was a saint and not a tribal chief. It seems, an increasing number of Mirpuris, whether Muslim or Hindu, prefer this legend to accommodate the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of the society that once existed before partition, a human tragedy of enormous magnitude. 17 million people were displaced and 1 million people, mostly women, children and the elderly lost their lives because of Britain’s hurried attempts to create new borders.
Before partition, Mirpur had a thriving Hindu community of affluent merchants and money-lenders, who were forced from their homes because of Pakistani-sponsored tribal incursions from the North West Frontier Province. Non-Muslims were forcibly and cruelly expelled from Mirpur. Untold horrors were committed against them, the men and young boys were murdered and the women were abducted, a pattern that was repeated in Hindu areas where Muslims were systematically “cleansed” from the areas. The non-Muslims of Mirpur which also included Hindus and Sikhs from Poonch and Muzaffarabad were later resettled in Jammu as ‘internally displaced people’, in what became “Indian-administered-Kashmir”. Before the partition of the subcontinent, Muslims and non-Muslims had co-existed peacefully within the wider “Kashmir” region and this had been the social norm for centuries before the creation of Pakistan in 1947. There is no reason, whatsoever, on the part of Mirpur’s Muslim elders who narrate this history to overstate the peaceful character of the peoples who used to live in the old homeland. Hindu Mirpuris in Jammu also narrate the same history, keen to point out that the murderous campaign against them started when the tribals entered Kashmir to “liberate” Muslims for Pakistan. The same tribals according to Pakistani sources committed crimes against the locals in Uri, Kashmir Province, raped and abducted women, murdered people and stole property. Lots of these women never returned to their families and no one knows what happened to them. Just imagine their daily ordeals amongst their captors?
There are many cities, towns and villages all over South and Western Asia named ‘Mirpur’. ‘Mir‘ is a popular name in the subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau and these various towns and cities named Mirpur have no relation with the ‘Mirpur’ of Jammu & Kashmir. A lot of online searches, images and content relate to these areas and not the ‘Mirpur’ of this post. These online searches are frequently confused with the Mirpur of Kashmir State, sometimes deliberately for the purpose of disinformation.
Mirpur within the Context of Jammu & Kashmir State (1846 – 1947)
The Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir was founded by an Act of Treaty between the East India Company and Raja Ghulab Singh signed on 16 of March 1846.
In description, the entire landmass of the State that included Mirpur was described as,
“the hilly or mountainous (“Pahari”) country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus and the westward of the River Ravi including Chamba and excluding Lahol, being part of the territories ceded to the British Government by the Lahore State according to the provisions of Article IV of the Treaty of Lahore, dated 9 March 1846″
The original Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir had included the Hazara Hills of the old North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Parts of these tracts (Murree) were reconfigured administratively and placed within the Rawalpindi Division, but had been awarded to Raja Ghulab Singh by Ranjit Singh as fiefs during the early 1830s. Centuries earlier, before Mughal administrative reforms, these areas had traditionally been dependencies of Kashmir. In Mughal terminology, the Hazara Hill region roughly equated to “Pakli”. Ancient Indian writers would speak of the Hazara Hills as Urasa. Mindful of how the patronage system worked, the dominant tribes of Hazara refused to submit to the overlordship of the Dogra Raj, who now owned the entire Kashmir region through treaty rights.
Following arbitration with the Dogra Ruler, the British being the Paramount Power in the subcontinent agreed to substitute insurrectionist lands in Hazara for tracts east of Jammu, traditionally inhabited by Dogras reconciled with Jammu’s overlordship. The dominant tribes of Hazara thus became clients of the British and many were happily recruited into the British Indian Army. A decade later, the East India Company deployed them to fight against the Mutineers of the infamous mutiny of 1857, which Indian nationalists have labelled India’s first war of independence. This ‘mutiny’ against British rule, initially involved high-caste Muslim and Hindu soldiers (Brahman, Rajput) protesting ill-treatment at the hands of a “white” Officer Corps. It then spread to various populations. Reluctantly, the titular head of the movement became the already powerless Mughal Ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar II (d. 1862). He was the last of the Dynastic Mughal line, deposed and exiled to Burma, where he died in pennury. Today, there are Mughal-descended Indians living in India, reconciled with India, who very rarely make a point of their heritage intimately aware of how the Mughal Empire was brutally crushed over centuries of losses. In Pakistan, the number of people claiming to be of Mughal descent, unaware of how Mughal power was so violently dissipated, proves how removed they are from the actual descendants of the old nobility.
I mention the mutiny in passing to point out how patronage worked historically, and how events in history are retold/reimagined according to different priorities. The Princely States were high-level clients of the British Indian Empire and they too fought on behalf of the British, knowing exactly which side their bread was buttered. Ultimately, most British historians would agree that the mutiny was not Britain’s finest hour in the subcontinent given the barbaric nature of the reprisals and the wholesale murder of Gujjar, Rajput, Mughal, Brahman villages in Delhi.
The Hazara Region, (variably described as Subah Sarhad), was then added to the Province of NWFP. For a time, it was merged with the Province of Punjab, to give my readers an idea of how provincial identities emerge arbitrarily linked with power dynamics. Whatever the eventual shape or size of the new Princely State and neighbouring Provinces, no provision was ever made for the welfare of ordinary people forced into the new unions and this was particularly true for Kashmir State. The tribes (Muslim and Hindu) that became clients of the new regime were intensely disliked by ordinary people, landed or landless. It was from the client-groups that tax collectors and village heads were recruited. The Dogra Raj did attempt to mitigate some of the exploitative situations being generated by their subaltern officials who were acting with impunity to be fair to the Dogra Rulers, who were not all bereft of humanity. But such is the nature of unjust power dynamics, it is the dominant status quo which is the problem, not the many individual humiliations and injustices arising out of it.
Kashmir State’s first Monarch, formerly Raja Ghulab Singh of Jammu (1792 – 1857 CE) had been a client or feudatory of the Sikh Confederacy, a confederation of Sikh-led tribes that emerged out of the vortex of Mughal implosion after the demise of Aurangzeb (1618 – 1707 CE), the last of the great Mughal Emperors. The East India Company would refer to the vast Sikh territorial holdings as the “Lahore State”. The Sikh Darbar (a Persian speaking Court) was situated in Lahore, which was also the capital of the Mughal’s Lahore Province. This would help us understand the reasoning behind the colonial process of naming regions/territories according to their own precepts. The Sikhs did not call their Kingdom, the ‘Lahore State’, a terminology that was foreign to them. Similarly, the Rulers of Kashmir State would refer to their own Kingdom as the ‘Dogra Raj’, otherwise known in English as the ‘Jammu Kingdom’. The small tribal principality of Jammu that had expanded vastly beyond its ancient borders was said to have been founded by “Raja Jambu Lochan”. The name Jammu derived from the name of a Dogra Rajput ancestor.
‘The hilly or mountainous country’ now making up Ghulab Singh’s Kingdom were dependencies of the Lahore State. Following the defeat of the Sikh Confederacy during the first Anglo-Sikh war (11 November 1845 – 09 March 1846), these tracts of land were ‘transferred for perpetuity’ to Ghulab Singh by the East India Company for an agreed price. In effect, Ghulab Singh was given the option of defraying the expense the Company incurred in fighting the Lahore State. He was duty-bound to act on behalf of his Sikh Masters per the norms I have explained. The fiefs he held were awarded to him personally by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was very fond him. Ranjit Singh considered him a trusted and able feudatory. His fondness extended to empowering Ghulab Singh’s family. Ghulab’s brothers were important people at Ranjit Singh’s court and they too were awarded their own fiefs. By deciding to withhold his troops, Ghulab Singh ensured the defeat of the Sikh forces. There was a lot of infighting and intrigue at the Lahore Court after the demise of Ranjit Singh and various power-brokers jostled for power. It is simply the case that Ghulab Singh sought to pursue an independent future for himself given the changing power dynamics around him. Had he not pursued his own interests, he probably would have been sucked up in the vortex of chaos.
As an independent Monarch of a vast territory, he was duly promoted to the more regal title of Maharaja Ghulab Singh of Kashmir State. He became the first ruling Monarch of the Dogra Rajput Dynasty with all the accoutrements of royal titles and gun salutes. His meteoric rise is a source of great debate and controversy between supporters and opponents, such is the bitter legacy of this contested history. Some of what has been written about the Dogra Rajputs is malicious to present the dynasty in an unfavourable light. The fabricated accounts owe their real impulse to the Indo-Pak conflict over Kashmir; the Pakistanis love presenting the Dogras as Hindu Fanatics despite them being patrons of numerous Sufi shrines and incorporating the services of Muslim tribes within their system of patronage. This was the order of the day.
The District of Mirpur (‘Zillah’) was configured properly decades after the emergence of the State and was a work in progress like other Districts and sub-Districts. It was added to the Jammu Province (‘Subah’) without any allusions to the ethno-linguistic character of the people living within the greatly expanded Jammu Province. Mirpur’s district borders were arranged around 3 sub-districts (Tehsils), Mirpur, Kotli and Bhimbar (pre-1946). Thus the 17th century settlement of Mirpur had been enlarged to such a degree that it included neighbouring principalities to the north, north east and south east of the original tribal settlement.
Before Mirpur assumed full district status, and mindful of how tribal lands were subsumed within patronage networks, it formed part of the outlying areas of Bhimbar. Mirpur was a “sub-district” of Bhimbar District which included the other sub-districts of Kotli and Rajouri. The various tribal principalities that eventually made up the erstwhile Mirpur District, predated the original settlement of Mirpur by centuries. For instance, ‘Andarhal’ and ‘Kotli’ are mentioned in the ‘Ain-e-Akbar but “Mirpur” isn’t. It was said of Bhimbar and Khari Khariali that they were founded some time during the 1400s. These anecdotes come by way of the Tawarikh-e-Rajgan, Zilla Kangra, a history of Kangra’s ruling tribes, another Himalayan region closely associated with Dogras.
Debunking Pseudo Knowledge on Mirpur: (the Wikipedia Brigade)
It should be abundantly clear that Mirpur District’s geographical size, or administrative form as a geo-administrative entity, like the various expansions and contractions of the Punjab Province, do not tell us anything substantive about the people identified as Mirpuris. Put simply, Mirpur is ‘a unit of territory’, a small part of a larger geo-political space. Mirpur is not the locus of a primordial identity, wrongly imagined by laypeople offering ahistorical commentaries on the history of Mirpur. Mirpur is the name of a place and not the name of a self-sustaining group identity being written out of the Kashmir Conflict because of dirty politics.
A lot of people speaking about Mirpuris have no appreciation of Mirpur’s actual history and are merely regurgitating anecdotes. It is these bandwagons who are repeating superficial and false claims that Mirpur used to be part of the British Punjab Province, wrongly conflated with the Punjab Plains. To reiterate, Mirpur is not geologically situated in the Pothohar Plateau. English colonial cartographers were fully aware of the geological implications of demarcating the River Jhelum as the Pothohar Plateau’s easterly boundary, separating it from the hills and mountains of Jammu & Kashmir. It was the British who introduced the discipline of geology to the subcontinent and their original insights are still invaluable in understanding how they arrived at their conclusions when mapping various regions.
The terms ‘Punjab Province’, ‘Jammu & Kashmir’, ‘Rawalpindi Division’, are primarily geo-administrative and geo-political constructs. The original architects behind the configuration of these taxable resources were not creating ethnic or linguistic identities when they subsumed peoples within units and sub-units of different territories. When ethnologists, linguists and sociolinguists speak of a Punjabi ethnic or linguistic identity, they are not conflating these identities with the history of geo-administrative units, which now form the basis of some ignorant remarks about the Kashmir Conflict, a territorial conflict over landmass and not ethnic or linguistic identities.
Migrations from Mirpur, Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir (1870s); the attested chronology
In the decades that followed the creation of the Princely State, the District of Mirpur became a major conurbation from which many British-Paharis and other diaspora Paharis in Europe, North America, the Middle East and the Far East now claim their regional descent within the context of Jammu & Kashmir. This history predates the creation of the Mangla Dam by decades (1961 – 1967), a timeline that is wrongly presented by Pakistani writers as the beginning of ‘Mirpuri migration’ to the UK. Again, these claims are politically motivated to disconnect migrations from Mirpur within a Jammu & Kashmir lived experienced for a later Pakistani lived experience. The revisionist accounts presented of this migration are skewed and can be seen in attempts to connect Mirpuris exclusively with unskilled labourers, forced from their lands because of the Mangla Dam and the “grateful” “compensation” received to facilitate the move to the UK post-Mangla. The narrators of this skewed history become contemptuous of the soldiers who fought in the British Indian Army, who returned home with stories about their experiences outside Kashmir State. It was these pioneers who started the trend of Mirpuris leaving in large numbers, a reality that did not go unnoticed in the Kashmir State censuses of 1901 and 1941.
Of the many Kashmiri stokers working on British merchant ships docked in Bombay during the latter half of the 1800s and the ‘Kashmiri‘ soldiers who fought in both World Wars, these individuals came from a particular district which included at the time Mirpur, Bhimbar, Kotli and Rajouri. The neighbouring area of Poonch had been an important recruitment area for the British Indian Army once restrictions were lifted. It does not come as a surprise to learn that the valley communities of Mirpur and Poonch have a shared history that stretches back thousands of years. In the ancient writings of Poonch (parnotsa), lots of areas we take for granted as Mirpur were in fact part of Poonch. Often times, Poonchi residents insist that the Pahari being spoken in Mirpur Division (Kotli, Dadyal) especially in the countryside north of Bhimbar and Mirpur is actually Poonchi and not Mirpuri, alluding to Poonch’s much older documented history.
Be that as it is, the original pioneers of Mirpur left the homeland in search of work. They were followed by others who similarly left Jammu & Kashmir in pursuit of economic emancipation. Some of these migrants settled outside Kashmir because of their army-connections initially in British India, but then further afield in the Old and New Worlds, decades before post-World War II immigration to the UK began. They settled, got married, had children and never returned home. Others fell on hard times, and were repatriated thanks to the help of Christian charities. Of the returning Mirpuris, they would speak positively of their experiences praising the humanity of the well-wishers they encountered. They were not ideologues of nationalistic causes, flying Pakistani flags and shouting slogans; they were acutely aware of their heritage and the inhumanity they personally experienced by autocratic rulers and their local clients.
Mirpur District was particularly significant to the State because it generated considerable agricultural taxes in addition to being an important recruitment ground for the British Indian Army. Kashmir State had limited cultivable lands, and many of these areas were situated in the southern portions of the District and the Vale of Kashmir – another area that was heavily exploited. These lands were some of the most fertile in the entire State producing harvests that could be taxed lucratively. Landowning subsistence farmers were taxed to the hilt by the State’s rulers and their local sinecures. They became prey to unscrupulous money lenders, who through the former’s desperation, misappropriated parts of their lands by false pretences.
Various historical accounts of Kashmir State throughout the colonial timeline, describe the injustices of such practises and the desperation of the people. They describe the emergence of a state-wide consciousness (“Kashmirriyat”) that challenged the abuses of the State especially during the 1930s; it included the various peoples of the State and Mirpur’s activists were heavily mired in the ensuing struggles. Lots of prominent Kashmiri Pandits, Dogra Hindus, Sikhs, Communists and Muslims were involved in agitations against the abuses of State Power, to fully appreciate the non-communal nature of this inspiring activism. They all elected to be identified as “Kashmiris” in asserting their rights from the State fully aware of their ethnic and religious diversity. The Dogra State in its later years became receptive to this movement and enacted protections for the welfare of Kashmir State’s “nationals” around the idea that only Kashmiris can decide Kashmir State’s future. Had the State not been violently bifurcated, the Dogra Rulers would have probably become constitutional monarchs like the British Royal Family, and ordinary citizens would have acquired substantial rights.
Mirpur within the Context of “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir; 1948 (Pakistan’s forgotten “Kashmir”)
A decade after the demise of the Princely State in 1947, Pakistan’s undemocratic Rulers in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir created a dysfunctional State that was neither sovereign, nor a Province of Pakistan to further geopolitical aims that’ve indirectly undermined democracy and prosperity for the nationals of ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Again, I am making a statement of fact that is accepted by objective observers who have written extensively about the Kashmir Conflict, including NGOs and people from “neutral” countries.
Worse, without consulting the people, Pakistan unilaterally decided to build a Dam in Mirpur to help irrigate the Plains of the Panjab whilst producing cheap electricity for the cities of Pakistan. The construction of the Mangla Dam between 1961 and 1967 was a catastrophic blow to the residents of Mirpur. It flooded the most fertile lands in the entire polity of ‘Azad’ Kashmir, a tiny slither of land with enormous poverty. More than a 110 thousand people were uprooted and nearly 300 villages were destroyed. The local infrastructure of Mirpur and the surrounding countryside was decimated, a reality that has not changed much with the area’s terrible road surfaces. Periodically, the authorities of ‘A’JK (with limited funds at their disposal) fix the road surfaces with substandard materials to give the semblance of ‘repairs’; within a matter of months and years, the roads return to their poor conditions.
Around 2007, another 40 thousand people were displaced to make way for the expansion of the Dam. Its mismanagement and the enormous cost borne by ordinary people in Mirpur (a grievance shared across ‘Azad’ Kashmir) has been a source of constant friction between the people of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan Officialdom, an undemocratic status quo enforced by the Military. Military Officers have enormous powers in ‘Azad’ Kashmir, more than the democratically elected Parliamentarians of Pakistan. They treat the area like a colony of Pakistan, spying on human rights and democracy activists, arresting and torturing pro-independence actors who refuse to toe the Pakistani line. Like the patronage system, they empower tribes and individuals loyal to them; from this pool they recruit the leaders of so-called Azad Kashmir. There has been no account of where billions of pounds worth of dam-royalties have gone to date; it may be the case these lucrative funds have been embezzled by the sinecures of the Pakistani State. No one in ‘A’JK wants to ask these pertinent questions because they are scared of the Military except for the activists who routinely expose the antics of the “foreign rulers”.
The residents of Mirpur were never consulted in the construction of the Dam. Numerous international studies have shown that they were inadequately compensated. It is generally accepted by those observing the Kashmir Conflict that the political leadership of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is treated contemptibly by their Pakistani overlords. Supporters of Pakistan and those reconciled with Pakistan, who originate from the territory, are the only voices tolerated by the Pakistani authorities; it is their voices that outsiders encounter and not the voices of the independence activists. Often times, British ‘Azad’ Kashmiris are paraded on Pakistani News Channels speaking about the atrocities committed in India’s Kashmir to give the impression that everything is rosey in Pakistan’s Kashmir; they are basically agents of disinformation disempowering the activists who otherwise have little support from their own diaspora.
British Media in particular has been predisposed to the Pakistan narrative on Kashmir for a very long time because of the stranglehold Pakistanis have on the AJK-based community, more than 70 percent of the overall British-Pakistani demography. This policy mirrors that of Pakistan Officialdom, which continues to show little concern for the welfare of the ordinary inhabitants of AJK, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by international journalists and Pakistani writers of conscience. Liberals in Pakistan have not shied away from exposing the two tiered system that operates in Pakistan; they are not cowed into silence unlike their ‘A’JK counterparts living in the West, some of whom have entered British politics – an irony lost on them. Mirpuris in particular and other ‘Azad’ Kashmiris in general are held in contempt by many British-Pakistanis; some Pakistani writers account for the “success” of Mirpuris entering UK politics to “biraadrism (tribal/clan loyalties) thereby reducing the individual stories of the people they demean. Lots of Mirpuris are simply unaware of how they are described by their Pakistani counterparts, who have no qualms maligning the reputation of ordinary ‘Azad’ Kashmiris whilst laying claim to a group fraternity that does not exist in practise.
Migration to lands outside the erstwhile Mirpur District was a lifeline for the communities of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir. The remittences “Azad” Kashmiris have channelled back to their extended families and the money invested particularly in countrysides outside the urban areas has given lots of areas in ‘A’JK an illusory sense of normality and prosperity. We are speaking of billions of pounds worth of building projects that have produced no corresponding value in investment terms; properties remain empty, or tenanted for free! The building materials are sourced from Pakistan. Investments in areas increase the value of properties and land, but the price of properties in so-called ‘Azad’ Kashmir remain stagnant because the only inward investment in ‘A’JK is from locals and the diaspora. The Pakistan government does not want ‘A’JK to become prosperous; it prefers Mirpuris and other ‘Azad’ Kashmiris spending their money in Pakistan Proper, to borrow colonial nomenclature.
Mirpuris have impacted entire service economies across the Jhelum River in Pakistan. They have become patrons of Pakistan without any of the benefits that come by way of patronage systems. Very little appreciation is accorded to Mirpuris on account of this “largess”. Pakistan’s banking sector has received a boon from the expatriate ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir community; the deposits benefit Pakistan and not Azad Jammu & Kashmir, a fact noted by international observers. During the 1980s Pakistan was completely reliant on remittences from the ‘A’JK community to help with its limited foreign reserves; before and afterwards, remittences from AJK community have been a lifeline for Pakistan. Very rarely do Pakistani writers mention these realities. The ‘A’JK diaspora has benefited the Pakistani State well beyond its small population. These sinister and inhumane policies have not benefited Pakistan, and I am strictly referring to ordinary people who have voluntarily elected to belong to a Pakistani national fraternity. Millions of Pakistanis are being oppressed in the name of ‘State Power.’
Pakistan Officialdom is actively disinvesting ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, allocating Pakistan’s tiny resources to the more affluent parts of Pakistan, particularly in urbanised areas where Pakistan’s “more-equal” middle-class citizens live, whose spending power outside the borders of Pakistan is greatly diminished. It is being squeezed, opportunities are being denied to it. The applications of its members for travel and work visas are being increasingly rejected; we learn from Pakistan’s media that the country has one of the worst passports of any country, such are Pakistan’s contemporary woes. Be that as it is, it is the small urban areas where Pakistan’s middle class live that receive state-sourced funds for their upkeep. Mirpur and the rest of ‘Azad’ Kashmir have been excluded from this unjust entente cordial. This holds true for Baluchistan, Sindh, FATA, Gilgit. When I say this, I am not trying to pick a fight with “privileged” Pakistanis from these areas. I’m pointing out that Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad – tiny areas divorced from surrounding townships where poor people continue to live – are a drain on Pakistan’s limited government resources which should be equitably distributed to eradicate poverty. Pakistan is a country of millions of people living outside urban areas within sprawling shantytowns. Their welfare is never a consideration.
Mirpur has been entirely reliant on its Diaspora. Without access to remittences, Mirpuris unable to leave ‘Azad’ Kashmir would have been reduced to destitution. Furthermore, the buying and selling of properties and land in Azad Kashmir and the settlement of land disputes are deliberately cumbersome. Land disputes enrich the patrons of a corrupt legal system to the disadvantage of actual litigants. ‘A’JK’s legal system has been created to frustrate litigants to give up on their ancestral lands, many simply move to Islamabad. The only people to benefit are the corrupt lawyers, and a status quo that profits from widespread inaction. Bribes are frequently sought and middle men who are politically-connected are the only ones who can deliver actual outcomes. Had there been no migratory outlets for the people of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, the situation in Mirpur and the wider area would have been dire. I believe there would have been enormous disquiet and a violent insurgency, which could potentially still erupt if the situation in ‘A’JK is not remedied in the near future.
The False Identity Label; attempts to stigmatise the community
In appraising this troubling history, there is nothing especially remarkable or unique about the settlement of Mirpur, whether as a small tribal polity or a political sub-division of a larger territory to warrant its ‘locals‘ or ‘emigrants‘ a special status, good or bad in comparison with neighbouring hill principalities and hill communities. Today, the majority of individuals with roots to erstwhile Mirpur Division actually live in the Diaspora. Britain has the largest Mirpuri community anywhere in the world, and there is a sizeable Mirpuri community in Indian ‘Jammu’ originally comprised of Hindu and Sikh refugees. The Mirpuri Mahajan community of Jammu is a particularly affluent community that has contributed massively to all sectors of society; Mirpuris comprise an important professional tier in Jammu which includes prominent Judges and politicians. Indian Administered Kashmir has treated Mirpuris exponentially better than their counterparts living in the so-called ‘Azad’ State of Jammu & Kashmir. One merely needs to speak to individuals from both parts of divided Jammu to ascertain the truth of this comparison.
Expectedly, there is no such thing as a ‘Mirpuri’ ‘people’ or a ‘Mirpuri’ ‘language’ and/or dialect sui generis. To use a modern analogy, to speak of Mirpuris in these terms by virtue of their origin to a “District” in the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir is akin to speaking of regional communities in England separate to or exclusive of the wider English people that live beyond the city of London.
It is absurd to categorise or think of the inhabitants of Mirpur as an ethnic community, social group or fringe people as distinct from related-ethnic communities in a broad area that includes the Pothohar Uplands, the Hazara Hills and Indian-administered-Kashmir. The people of Mirpur are however indigenous to Jammu & Kashmir and not Pakistan, thus the Kashmir Conflict. Granted that the Mirpuri label is recent in origin it is value-laden and used pejoratively by British Pakistanis. Mirpur is merely a unit of territory that belongs to divided Jammu & Kashmir State and not Pakistan. Its future is intertwined with the State and it is for this reason, international commentators refer to Mirpuris as Kashmiris which irritates Pakistanis who would like Mirpuris to ignore their ‘Kashmiri’ past and become stakeholders of a Pakistani identity from which they are ironically but actively removed.
British-Mirpuris, born and raised in the UK, fully reconciled with their British identity, are becoming conscious of the ‘Mirpuri’ label. Irrespective of its pejorative connotations courtesy of unjust Pakistani social relations in the UK, they are using it as a badge of self-affirmation to connect them with the actual ethnic, linguistic and political heritage of their forebears. In this respect, the label is essentially ‘positive’ because it empowers British-born Mirpuris, three and four generations removed from the original pioneer generation, to demand official recognition for their community and “Azad” Kashmir in the interest of ordinary people.
For all the wrong reasons, the term has become popular in British-Pakistani circles as a designation for “Azad” Kashmiris. The district of Mirpur by virtue of its connection with ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir and the wider Kashmir conflict has a chequered past, creating dynamics that have pitied Pahari-Mirpuris against Pakistan Officialdom.
For reasons already explained, Mirpuris are ethnic Paharis with indigenous roots in Jammu & Kashmir. The language they speak is called Pahari and not Pothwari or Punjabi. These two terms are the regional labels of neighbouring communities, with whom Mirpuris share commonalities but also differences; the group identities in question are attributive of geography, geology, region and politics that are not applicable to Mirpur. How these labels are being used cynically, returns us back to the troubling days of British colonialism.
To apply the Pothwari or Punjabi labels onto Mirpuris and other ‘A’JK based communities is to deliberately disconnect them from Jammu & Kashmir and the history of the wider region. It is for this reason, international observers, equality and human rights campaigners, writers, democrats and well-wishers reaching out to the peoples of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, should not refer to Mirpuris as Pothwaris or Punjabis. They would be imposing false group identity labels on people who have their own memories and lived experiences, whilst pushing a Pakistan-centric narrative on “Azad” Kashmir.
Mirpur is a small part of a much larger region we call the Pahari-cultural-sphere otherwise known natively as the Pahari ‘Ilaqah’ (region) of Jammu & Kashmir. Outside the context of Kashmir, beyond its borders, we call this expansive space, the Pahari-Pothwari Ilaqah – the Pothwar extends from the River Jhelum westwards and not eastwards. One cannot understand the culture and history of Mirpur without understanding the history of the wider area, and also the much older history of Kashmir and Jammu & Kashmir (region not ethnicity). The Kashmir Conflict complicates this understanding because of Indian and Pakistani claims to the entire region. On this count, Mirpuris, as nationals (state subjects) of Kashmir State, are either Occupied Pakistanis or Occupied Indians. Depending on how they self-identify, not withstanding demands for independence, they are celebrated or demonised. They are thus being written out of the Kashmir Conflict. Commentators on Kashmir should be mindful of the actual impulses, which are entirely territorial and never ethnic.