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’s the place from where our forebears originated, 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. It’s somewhat similar to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict over land, without failing to mention Christians and the religious dimension to the constructed ethnic identities involved. We often assume that Palestinians are Muslims and Israelis are Jews; Palestine for Palestinians; Isreal for Israelis. We wrongly deduce that it is these two diametrically opposed identities that define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, what about the other minority communities that are not Muslim or Jewish – the Druze, Bahai, Christians, who also identify as Palestinian or Israeli?
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, the Arab Christians, have been mobilising to be officially identified as ‘Israeli Christians’, 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 was credited with the founding of ‘Pan-Arabism’), the Christians of the holy lands never self-affirmed as Arabs.
If we correctly understand the nature of contested identities in areas of the world where conflicts still rage, we see huge parallels between the contested identities emerging in Kashmir.
The Kashmir conflict involves India and Pakistan, a huge population that dwarfs the native population of the State. This is by no means an incidental point impacting how the indigenous locals 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-Pakistan’s ever-expanding population of nearly 1.5 billion people. On current population estimates, India will have the largest population of any country, Pakistan’s population is set to grow exponentially. These demographic trends should give you an idea of the power-dynamics involved, and how a negligible population in the mountains of the western Himalaya has gripped the Indian-Pakistani imagination, pitying both countries against each other.
Kashmir is a non-uniform place. Ethnically, religiously, socially and politically, the peoples who live within the State have a myriad of overlapping identities. Kashmir has as many internal fault-lines that exist within India and Pakistan as between both countries.
The Free but Occupied Kashmir – Pakistan’s Political Gimmickry
The Kashmir I’m specifically referring to is the one in Pakistan’s backyard, that free and independent State that Islamabad calls ‘Azad’ (free) State of Jammu & Kashmir. This is the official title of the supposedly semi-autonomous ‘Free State’. The full title is abbreviated to Azad Kashmir. I deliberately employ the device ‘Azad’ for Azad to remind my readers that Azad Kashmir is anything but Azad or Free.
Most of us from the territory know it’s not ‘Free’ even if Pakistani officials want to rub salt into our wounds. The international community agrees with us. But, not all Pakistanis are the bad guys for us to direct our anger at them. We really need to stay away from ‘us and them’ type narratives. Ordinary Pakistanis are dispossessed nationals who have no genuine freedom to express dissent within their own ethnic homelands because they are treated with contempt, constantly berated and humiliated by those exercising power in the name of people and Islam – both are false narratives that are extremely effective. Dissident Pakistanis are having a terrible time trying to reform their respective societies whilst challenging the abuse of power. They are not just courageous, but intellectually honest, reporting on the insurgency in Baluchistan, and tensions between ethnic Sindhis and Urdu-speakers; the lawless lands in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan; the non-parity between Provinces and Districts within a Province; huge inequalities between the rich (who are relatively poor compared to the rest of the world) and the poor – I speak of absolute poverty and not relative poverty. They have shined a light on rampant state corruption; the almost complete takeover of the State by interests operating within the Punjab Province, and the pitiable place reserved for the majority of Pakistanis without powerful connections. Occasionally, they expose the real elephant in the room, the Military Industry, thereafter treading carefully because of reprisals.
In exposing Pakistan’s failings without fear of the consequences, 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. These incumbents are non-Kashmiris and usually from the Panjab Province, from particular districts where income-inequalities will eventually become the source of civil unrest in the coming years. Ethnic Punjabis, by virtue of false associations being made in their name, are becoming problematised across Pakistan by the other minorities, and for all the wrong reasons.
The Kashmir Affairs 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 pointing out that Pakistan’s position on Indian ‘Occupied’ Kashmir has no credibility given its exploitation of ‘Azad’ Kashmir. The nature of this exploitation is not a secret. It is happening in broad daylight with little or no compunction on the part of the officials who are despised across Azad Kashmir in increasing numbers.
But, don’t take my word for it, I could be an Indian Agent, a favourite slur of the patriotic and dumbed-down Pakistanis convinced of their country’s moral and selfless rectitude. They are inconsequential Pakistanis, (in Pakistan they would have been treated with impugnity had they lacked western nationalities and the tourist pound to get around Pakistan), who get nothing from the elite that controls Pakistan. How they ritually abuse Pakistan’s “corrupt people” for corruption sitting in the UK is beyond me, incapable of pointing the finger at the Military, waving the Pakistan flag on Eid day. But they feel the need to distance themselves from the activists of 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. If they present as patriotic Pakistanis, flying Pakistani flags then the Indian trolls accuse ‘Azad’ Kashmiris of being false-Kashmiris in the first place, “village Punjabi peasants”, this is the actual language they use. The related and strategic smear is to argue that ‘A’JK isn’t even Kashmir or even Jammu, a ridiculous categorisation not least because the conflict over Kashmir is about territory – 85000 square miles of it. ‘Azad’ Kashmir is very much part of the old Kashmir State. Incidentally, it has never been part of the Punjab Province (a geo-political unit) or the Punjab Plains (a geological unit).
See, ‘Propaganda and Digital Media; the curious case of Authoritarianism and Online Bullshit. Contextualising Disinformation on Kashmir; the Online Media Blitz’
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 -, ironically, a country created by the British – the old colonial power, where Muslim soldiers were encouraged by the Pakistan Movement’s leaders to fight the defeated Ottomons in World War II. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was most likely an atheist. His daughter married a Parsi.
Worse, the trolls are bereft of intellectual integrity even when it comes to Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir. Pakistan’s official position on Kashmir is, only the natives of divided Jammu & Kashmir State can decide their future without the interference of India or Pakistan. In reality, demanding independence for Kashmir State, or merger with India, is a criminal offence in ‘Azad’ Kashmir courtesy of the sham constitution imposed upon Azad Kashmiris by the Pakistan Establishment. But, the Pakistanis, who apparently support independence for all of Kashmir, propagate their lies with deference to Islam. They’ll go as far as repackaging their lies through Qur’anic Verses as the bond that connects Muslims everywhere, having lost one half of Pakistan due to an attempted genocide of Muslim Bengalis in 1971. East Pakistan is today Bangladesh, borne from the ashes of resistence to unjust occupation.
And so, to discredit Pakistan’s superfluous noise on Kashmir, you only need to read what international writers say about the insincerity of Islamabad’s position on Kashmir. Since the earliest days, Pakistani officials have been behaving like the colonial Brits, promising the ‘A’JK leadership – native agents I should point out – a stake in the resources being looted, or at least the clients they’ve managed to buy with all manner of goodies, whilst disempowering ordinary Azad Kashmiris. This deliberately exploitative relationship is hardcoded into the sham constitutional arrangements and workings of the ‘A’JK State apparatus courtesy of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs.
Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and ‘Azad’ Kashmir
The Kashmir Affairs Ministry is itself a throw-back to the days of colonialism. The 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 subjected to British Paramountcy. Political Residents, a polite word for colonial overlords, kept a watchful eye on the Native Princes, and had the authority to reign in their free spirit. That’s exactly what 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 its officials for the elected representatives of our people is breathtakingly unconcealed – they’ll go as far as calling them “mountain sheep” (pahari bakreh). The existing ‘A’JK leadership doesn’t seem to be perturbed at all. They’ve grown accustomed to being humiliated and servile because they have an income. Some can placate this lack of self-worth by virtue of the influence they’ve accrued from their Pakistani masters exploiting people.
If we’ve been ignorant all our lives about historical and political realities, it doesn’t mean that the righteous observers rudely waking us up from our slumber are feeding us propaganda. Experts across the world are telling us that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs has more power than ‘A’JK’s legislators. Even the demography these incumbents come from is cleverly controlled by the Government in Islamabad and the Army in Rawalpindi; two sides of the same Occupation. The autonomous region’s status and supposed democratic system is a well-known ‘sham’ if only British Azad Kashmiris bothered reading the copious writings that exist on Pakistan.
Pakistan is one of the most unequal societies on earth. Its HDI is one of the lowest. Ethnic and religious minorities are persecuted in Pakistan. But Pakistanis abroad want to save India’s Kashmiris and the world’s Muslims minus those being oppressed in China. International observers laugh at the idea of the ‘Azad’ (free/liberated) State of Jammu & Kashmir. It’s an insult to geniunely free democratic societies on earth. Let’s deal with some homegrown truths even if it upsets our illusory Pakistani sensibilities. We need to understand the social attitudes behind the political decisions. We cannot divorce social attitudes from political contexts.
Political Power and Ordinary People
The peoples of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir whether in Gilgit Baltistan or ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir are treated with impugnity. The Azad Kashmir diaspora in the UK, Europe and North America, the Free World, has failed this population. Pakistan’s officials treat Azad Kashmiris with contempt, carrying a lot of bitterness for Azad Kashmiris abroad, on account of envy and jealousy, if indeed the writings of western academics are to be believed. British Azad Kashmiris, who are constantly berated by Pakistan’s upwardly mobile elite are much richer than their counterparts, who, if they had the opportunity to flee Pakistan, would flee in droves. This enmity extends to bonafide Pakistanis in the diaspora too, but British Azad Kashmiris have become the focus of the hatred because of city-village paradigms which I discuss in other posts. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the 4.5 million Azad Kashmiris stuck in the territory, most of whom are just trying to get by, or the 1.5 million strong diaspora that has managed to remit billions of pounds to ‘A’JK and Pakistan, but the territory’s weak leadership – the native clients of Pakistan. British Azad Kashmiris donate tens of millions of pounds to Pakistani charities yearly, possibly more than any other group. A lot of this money disappears into the pockets of Pakistan’s corrupt patrons. The people who run the charities are unaccountable, hardly any come from AJK backgrounds. Activists from A’JK believe that the AJK leadership has thus sold out on ordinary Azad Kashmiris and their interests. The diaspora could effect change if only it cared.
Whether this is true, we know that low ranking officials usually from the Punjab Plains (not the Pothohar Uplands or the Saraikhi lands of lower Panjab; areas that are dispossessed, but conveniently subsumed within the notion of a Panjab-wide fraternity that doesn’t exist in practise) have the power to dismiss the elected legislature of ‘A’JK. They have the ultimate say over who can stand for elections and who can’t. They are not scared of any popular backlash or uprising.
“Azad Kashmiris are dumb and weak!” This is what they tell themselves.
In this respect, Azad Kashmiris are a bit like medieval European Jews living in the diaspora. Before Israelis managed to create a homeland that was truly their own in the 20th century, controversial as their political narratives now seem, they were treated with impunity. Today, the entire world sits up and takes Israel seriously. The Arab World is helpless to stop the “occupation” which its leaders constantly ritualise to distract from domestic agitations against them. That’s the nature of power-dynamics. Crucially, it exposes the identities of those who have actual power, those who approximate to power (upwardly mobile groups), and those who do not (the ordinary mass of humanity).
History has a funny knack of repeating itself 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 remain forever. They think that their privileged children will reap the fruits of an unjust social and political order as sinecures for an eternity. The shortsighted parasites run the risk of being caught off guard, and have become sitting-ducks for blowback. History is replete with examples of elites becoming extirpated by the very hands breaking the shackles of bondage, and in some cases it’s thoroughly bloody. Hitler is dead. Mussalini is dead. Qadaffi is dead. Saddam is dead. Adi Amin and the Abideens had to flee. Roman Generals and Emperors have been thrown out of power; Cleopatra was murdered – entire dynasties have come crashing down. The Russians and the French overthrew their absolute monarchies. Even America liberated itself from Imperial Britain, coming to terms with its own crimes against the Native Americans and African Americans. But Pakistanis think their country, or at least what was left of it after 1971 will never implode despite decades of corruption.
For those of us from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, particularly in the diaspora, we need to understand what Kashmir is in all its facets. One particular facet that I will discuss in this post are the origin myths behind territorial claims. Although one aspect of the Kashmir Conflict, it’s a significant one that has allowed Pakistani and Indian ethnonationalists (not ordinary Indians and Pakistanis) to control the narrative from the perspective of skewed agendas. These interests 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 and mobilise together, on a shared platform, demanding their civic rights from both India and Pakistan outside ethnic and religious sensibilities, whilst they are free to pursue regional priorities. Self determination is merely one aspect of this empowerment, but it doesn’t necessarily mean separating from India or Pakistan will yield the best outcomes. The more confusion and disinformation Kashmir State is shrouded in, however, the less the likelihood of there ever being a resolution to the conflict. Pakistan Army benefits from the ensuing chaos (a huge budget to fight India). India’s Army is under the control of elected politicians. The ultimate losers of the Kashmir Conflict are just under 17 million people.
I hope my introductory post on Israel explains the wider background to illusory identities; this article should be read in conjunction with that article. If you haven’t read the post on Israel, I would advise you to read it before you continue with this one.
See Article, ‘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’?
When the word is deployed, the Kashmir of the international imagination is the undivided State of Jammu & Kashmir, 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 the conflict and a custodian of a disputed territory it does not own de jure (by legal right; Pakistan is not legally entitled to Kashmir, it occupies a part of Kashmir through military force).
Because of the conflict between India and Pakistan, two legitimate successor states to British Indian Provinces, Kashmir is presented as the unfinished business of partition. It has entered the international imagination as contested lands straddling both countries in the immediate northwest 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 Ladakh, or the scenic beauty of the Vale of Kashmir, which again is not restricted to the Vale but includes numerous Valleys sandwiched across the wider Himalayan region. Very rarely will outsiders know anything substantive about the actual natives of the divided State.
The International Community refers to such natives as Kashmiris. That is the international and historical norm.
‘Azad’ Kashmir is the bit that Pakistan controls, and it is approximately 5134 square miles, or just under 6 percent of the Princely State’s landmass. 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 mostly in Britain but also in Western Europe, the Middle East, North America, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. It may be more. It is difficult to interrogate the exact numbers given how ‘Azad’ Kashmiris are returned on census forms and other official documents, something that benefits Pakistan, but not the peoples of Kashmir, and definitely not India. The ethnic labels, ‘Mirpuri Pakistani’ and ‘Kashmiri Pakistani’ used by British officials, are used in this way to disconnect the largest segment of Azad Kashmiris anywhere in the world from Azad Kashmir.
Whatever the small territorial stake of ‘A’JK, its strategic and material importance to Pakistan is critical to Pakistan’s economy however small the population. The loss of ‘A’JK especially the Mirpur area would signal disaster for Pakistan because the Mangla Dam, an important source for cheap electricity and irrigation for the Punjab Plains is located in ‘Azad’ Kashmir. Also, Pakistan needs AJK’s remittences, which overwhelmingly come from Mirpur Division, mostly from the Mirpur District, but also from the other areas of the Division that include Kotli and Bhimbar. British Azad Kashmiris are a massive asset to Pakistan because they have bestowed on Pakistan, a huge reserve of foreign currency to meet its balance of payments. The Pakistan Rupee is very unstable, the British Pound is the oldest currency on earth and one of the most exchanged. Pakistan has access to this currency through remittences and not trade.
Indian officials and think tanks have little concern for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir because they believe it is fraught with potential losses that would outweigh any genuine benefits. Whatever the strategic advantage, geographically, of having a territory that connects the Indian Republic with Central Asia, Pakistan has convinced the Indians that Azad Kashmiris are hostile to India, massively reducing the incentive of speaking to educated Azad Kashmiris who are aware of how Pakistan emerged on the international scene courtesy of British Colonialism.
Changing Attitudes in ‘A’JK
A lot has since changed since 1947. A new generation in ‘Azad’ Kashmir is beginning to toy with the previously unthinkable idea that India could potentially be a genuine friend. Azad Kashmiris have experienced firsthand Pakistani-state sponsored exploitation (civilian and military). Moreover, there are approximately 150 million to perhaps 200 million Muslims in India and they would never countenance swaping their lives for Pakistani ones. The Azad Kashmiri lived experience is mired in suffering and exploitation because of Pakistan. Ironically, British Azad Kashmiris have been emancipated by Britain and not Pakistan, but Pakistan would like to frame the British lived experience of Azad Kashmiris within the false narrative of racism and discrimination.
Azad Kashmir’s activists are forward-looking and progressive with a secular outlook on life that could be a real asset for all Pakistanis (the Progressive Movement at least) if co-opted to challenge the Pakistan Military’s hold on power. Azad Kashmiris are no longer waylaid or manipulated by the Army’s ideological instrumentalisation of Islam, justifying its ongoing control of the State whilst ordinary Muslims are the biggest losers of the Pakistan Project. The Mullahs that used to support the Pakistan Army are now in retreat, there is profound hatred in all sectors of Pakistani society for the ruling encumbants, the military sits atop this unjust network, and is fearing civil unrest directed at itself courtesy of playing Pakistani ethnic groups against other ethnic groups.
Ordinary Pakistanis in Pakistan have grown poor irrespective of group identities.
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 members. Crucial to this observation is the fact that the ethnic kinsmen of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris in Indian Kashmir particularly in Kupwara, Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu neither want independence and nor do they want their areas ceded to Pakistan. Much poorer than their ‘A’JK counterparts particularly in Mirpur Division, the richest area of the entire State today, possibly one of the richest areas of Pakistan in terms of per capita wealth when the diaspora is included, they do not share the same anxieties about India.
Which is an interesting proposition?
The boom in large cash deposits and enormous villas that dot the Mirpur countryside, amidst a landscape blighted by deliberate government disinvestment captures poignantly the disconnect between Mirpur’s enormous private wealth and Islamabad’s contempt for the region. A lot of Mirpur’s private wealth is sitting in Pakistani banks; large deposits that have been used for investment projects across Pakistan in places like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The sense of grievance is not lost on anyone living in Azad Kashmir. It is only a matter of time, and I suspect New Delhi is watching on the sidelines.
Howsoever we understand grievances, India is 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 stoking an insurgency in the Machiavellian attempt to create chaos so Pakistan’s underpaid and ill-trained soldiers jump into action to rescue grateful Muslims from Indian (‘code’) ‘Hindu tyrants’. It should be pointed out that the Pakistan Army has lost every war with India, all 3 wars it started. That said, entire populations are being held hostage to interests and interest-groups not necessarily predisposed to the welfare of ordinary people.
Changing Power Dynamics & Priorities
When you add the ‘A’JK resident population to its 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. But, despite these hard facts, the people of A’JK have no agency in how their polity is being exploited by Pakistan’s civilian officials and military overlords.
Pakistan controls a 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 because the political activists here and in many ways shrewder than their ‘A’JK counterparts, have developed 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, sometime doing Pakistan’s bidding to disconnect their areas from Jammu & Kashmir. They have no desire to elicit the support of the AJK activists in their struggle. It seems the AJK activists are making all the overtures to them. Suffice to say, they won’t be expending their efforts to help the ‘Azad’ Kashmiris anytime soon. It’s thus 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 forced expulsion of non-Muslims, India’s Kashmir region remains ethnically and religiously diverse, a reality that has predated our present day conflict by centuries. For the sake of honesty, in 1947 Hindus were forcibly dislocated from Azad Kashmir, whilst Muslims were forcibly dislocated from Eastern Jammu. The Hindus began the ethnic cleansing first in Jammu in retaliation to Sikh and Hindu expulsions from Western Punjab. It is a fact of history that the supporters of Pakistan began the first expulsions of non-Muslims from their homeland. What followed was copycat reprisals. Azad Kashmiris became embroiled in the narrative of partition, and cannot be blamed for what happened afterwards.
I’ve already explained in my detailed post on ‘Appraising Mirpur’s documented history, the story of Kashmir before and after 1846’, areas that make up today’s ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir region were historically part of the Mughal Province of Kashmir. Azad Kashmir’s historical connections with the Valley of Kashmir predate the emergence of the Mughal Province by centuries. The Kashmir Province was a geo-administrative entity (“Subah”) that had never been a uniform ethnic space. The population that resides in Azad Kashmir has always been indigenous to this part of the world. Later migrations in and out of the region do not 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 territories and then take control of the assets through local clients. As we look back into this past, we discover that territories assigned one or another ascription were ethnically and linguistically diverse, and the people that lived within these areas did not self-affirm on the basis of territorial labels but tribal backgrounds. Human migrations in and out of different regions since the dawn of our species undermine nativist pretensions, and a lot of the claims made about Azad Kashmir are completely fictitious.
The idea of ‘nation-state identities’ connected with territorial entities is 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 pre-modern societies and the subsequent ‘projections’ around origin myths. Israel is particularly salient because of the biblical claims made by political actors who seem to have little or no emotional investiture in the Old Testament. A lot of these actors are self-professed atheists, akin, perhaps, to how Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, pushed a false Islam narrative for India’s Muslims despite having zero connections with the faith.
Territorial Units as Distinct from Ethnic Diversity
Before the emergence of the idea of ancient Israel, the people that lived in this region were not ethnically or religiously distinct 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. They grew powerful in competition with rival demographies and then 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 day 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 narrative used to bolster this idea is 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 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’m permitted to sully such a respectable vocation – Israel’s intellectual class is not in the business of falsifying history irrespective of how Israeli politicians behave in international circles with vested interests.
Nationalists, and I’m really speaking about ethnonationalists, are identitical in how they imagine the past. They 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 who never viewed the world through such conceptual contraptions. To do this they manufacture ownership of the historical inhabitants of the territory they claim, 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 claiming 5000, 7000 or even 10000 years of history! It is clearly an absurd position debunkable through modern science and 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, who have no grounding in the silly ideas being espoused in the name of empowerment. It is also a form of confirmation bias for those predisposed to this way of thinking inoculating them from devastating critiques of their outlandish claims. They can only make these claims to unsuspecting audiences, to experts who understand how nation states emerge, and the nature of nationalistic claims, such claims are gibberish. Our ancient forbears did not think of themselves in the way the nationalists are imposing their restrictive identities on them, and neither did they share the same ‘ethnic’ loyalties. Ancient ethnicities should never be conflated with our modern sense of ethnic groups, and so obviously their corresponding but imagined ‘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 small areas and groups and not entire ‘countries’ or ‘nations’, official ‘languages’ or official ‘ethnic’ groups. When we try to connect modern people with ancient people through a shared language, we need to first determine what exactly constitutes a language as separate from related varieties. 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 it’s difficult to determine the relationship of dialects to a supposed mother language, 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 rulers, wherever they came from or whatever lands they settled, were foreigners, and the dialects they employed in their courts were 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 out of Latin, which was historically spoken in Rome. The evolving French dialect was transported into the area of modern-day France by Roman soldiers, (a Romance-speaking group) into what was historically a Celtic speaking area (on account of dialects evolving from a particular branch of the Indo-European language). It was the evolving French dialect that was adopted by the new rulers coming from Northern Europe and their local clients, and in time it became prestigious. Other courts in Europe similarly adopted French including Tsarist Russia for a brief period; historically ambitious potentates tended to emulate their powerful peers.
But, this doesn’t mean that the ordinary folk in France or Russia spoke French. Absolutely not, 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 familial areas. Overtime, populations gradually adopted the language of statecraft given the obvious practicalities that come by speaking the official language, and the older native dialects became endangered and extinct. Ironies are poetic.
Nationalists Reimagining History
It is always nationalists centuries later who attempt to determine the correct linguistic labels for various speech varieties and not linguists, cultural anthropologists and historians. They lump everyone together so long as they neatly fit within their national homelands determined forever by the territorial borders. Suffice to say they are not motivated by discovering past truth, but, rather, furthering a political agenda masked in various truth claims.
We can illustrate this by giving the example of the French language and changing power-dynamics in Europe when the French language had greater prestige than English even in England. This reality had been the norm for hundreds of years. 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 of America, 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 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.
Why the English dialects of the British Isles are afforded greater prestige than the English dialects of America has nothing to do with the inherent superiority of the Queen’s English over the President’s English. It is entirely linked to power dynamics, and the fact that the more powerful Americans defer voluntarily to the English in linguistic matters – European high-brow culture, because of their own sense of origin. The desire to feel connected helps maintain an inequality to the advantage of the British.
Social and linguistic realities never obtain forever.
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 purpose 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 (a bit like the British-American example given above) 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 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 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, and thereafter, ethnic identities. The standardised 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.
The Emergence of Urdu-Hindi speaking ethnonationalists reimagining India’s Past
To give you an idea of how the labels we take for granted as being natural were, in fact, manufactured 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. 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 an Indo-Aryan variety called Urdu. Those speaking earlier versions of this particular dialect never 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 junior posts to their British superiors, had no connections with the Persian-speaking Mughals and their non-Muslim feudatories, 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. The vanquished nobility had no insecurities in terms of the native languages they spoke, becauses of their ancestral pedigree.
Fictions were subsequently created, not entirely from scratch but from preceding anecdotes that ascribed ‘Urdu’ a 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. Incumbents of the court spoke different languages and coalesced together, and so, a new hybrid-language evolved which was later called ‘Urdu’ 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 the same colonial legacy as the two newly formed communities now competed with one another for the same jobs.
Having created a cleavage between an emerging Hindi-Urdu speaking group, the colonial Brits, for their part, retained all the best-paying and senior jobs for themselves, forming the officer corps of the British Indian Army. Rajputs, Jats and others from the older groups formed the bulk of the British Indian Regiments, they viewed themselves to be of nobler birth than the emerging Urdu speaking elites. To this group you can add the genuine Ashraf groups, which in the older Mughal definition included Rajput and Jat Rulers and administrators, essentially interests historically associated with the older courts, who viewed themselves as originating from the Zamindar nobility class. They collectively looked down on the emerging Hindi-Urdu speaking class, and having to share the same urban spaces, riled by upwardly-mobile people aggregating the nobility titles of India’s vanquished rulers, anecdotes are still being told about how the “market-gardeners”, “fish-mongers”, “water-carriars” etc., of yesterday on aquiring wealth and western education, are now lecturing downwardly mobile groups about their ancestral memories.
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 Rulers, embodying a citified Urdu identity with no shared historical or linguistic connections with the Nawabs and Nizams of actual history. 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 self-affirming claims.
So you see, it’s a lot more complicated than hearing simplistic claims that a particular speech community or ethnic group own a particular ‘country’, ‘thousands of square miles of it’, as if we’re dealing with title deeds to real estate, because one’s exclusive ancestors through myths of pure bloodlines had always lived in the ‘homeland‘ and spoke the homeland’s native tongue. These claims are not historical or even remotely ethnolinguistic. To be frank, they’re cringeworthy. It’s difficult to project back to the last couple of hundred of years – 8 generations, but to project 1000s of years back just shows how desperate some ethnonationalists 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 earlier languages as you trace their diffusion in different parts of the world. If we trace the evolution of separate languages today, hundreds of years earlier, two completely distinct languages, mutually unintelligible by their speakers were closely related, and mutually intelligible to the speakers (not ethnic or national groups) sharing the same natural habitat. They may have 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. Having probed and scrutinised my own DNA story, I am actutely aware of this fact, and the attempts of ideologues to erase natives from their homelands in the name of ethnonationalism and other false narratives. Put simply and bluntly, if you weren’t alive when actual historical 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 interest group. All that you’re doing is peddling fairytales for political gain. Historians, mythologists, geneticists, political scientists and others know your talking out of your behind even if journalists and news reporters, entertain such claims. There has been so much research on the flimsy nature of nationalistic claims that it beggars beliefs that some ethnocentric nationalists are still posturing through 19th century origin myths. The fact that some unsuspecting commentators buy into these claims is all the more troubling.
The Movers and Shakers of the Old World Polities
Returning to our region and ‘Kashmir’.
I have tried to give some sort of background to the fluid nature of power-dynamics in general, and so it behooves us to start thinking afresh through understanding our region’s actual historical importance, and now changing fortunes. 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 the ruling tribal clans here, 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 particularly those in the Valley of Kashmir. 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 situated in 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 the subcontinent), 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 Hindu caste-system as Rajputs; others believed that the Gujjar and Jat tribal networks were remnants of these foreign hordes also. India and Pakistan’s ethnonationalists greatly undermine this history, choosing to empower identities that closely approximate to their upwardly-mobile story.
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. I would like to briefly add here that it is quite sad that many North Indians overlook the cultural brilliance of the South Indians, who greatly enriched the cultures of the North. In fact, the North-South distinction between ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’ is an illusory distinction, owing its origin to colonial race myths. Before the arrival of the British, no one in India spoke of the Aryans in the North and the Dravidians in the South.
Howsoever we appreciate these caveats, the ruling confederacies in North India having coalesced with the indigenous population nonetheless had distant roots in the north west of the subcontinent and beyond. This 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), the actual forerunners to the various Indo-Aryan languages 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 linguistic labels and not some ‘higher truth’) all morph into the same language, a thousand years earlier or so. If we trace this diffusion even a couple of hundred years earlier, there is no mention of Panjabi, Kashmiri or “Rajasthani” languages comparable to the corresponding ethno-linguistic identities we now take for granted.
‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, the Indian Plains and the Indian Frontier
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 which includes Pakistan’s Panjab Plains. The desire of Pakistan’s propagandists to force Mirpur into a Punjab ecology, claiming its climate is more akin to Lahore than say, Islamabad, is frankly lame and desperate, given both Lahore and Islamabad are in Pakistan, whilst Jammu, Srinagar and Mirpur are in divided Jammu & Kashmir. The illogicality of trying to separate Kashmir State’s divided regions on the basis that “they are so unalike”, hoping this means that naive and impressionable people cannot unite on a shared platform for shared rights reeks with hypocrisy, because not one region of India, or Pakistan is alike. Yet both countries want to remain intact, despite Karachi and Peshawar sharing a different ecology and climate; this would hold true for India. It’s therefore important we get the facts out about Azad Kashmir’s population, amidst all the lies being spread about Azad Kashmir’s supposed Punjabi past – a completely fictitious proposition that has become an irrelevant talking point for political propagandists who oddly have a fondness for Hindi-Urdu, and not their own mother tongues.
The region we call Azad Kashmir, including the Vale of Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh and Gilgit Baltistan, have remained on the fringe of India’s beating pulse for centuries. Unbeknown to some of the landowning tribes (the ‘Zamindar’), they continue to claim a Plain’s origin on account of their clan backgrounds, which has got nothing to do with prejudicing territorial claims under international law for stateless people. The right to self determination for Kashmir State is a legal right under International Law, it has nothing to do with ethnicity or language, or even the fictitious history of migrations of Punjabis into Azad Kashmir, but a defined territory’s right to decide its own future whatever its ethnic or linguistic diversity. Be that as it is, some of the older identities linked with today’s Azad Kashmiris had been vanquished on the Plains from around the 11th century, and onwards by the emergent Muslims. In defeat, they sought sanctuary in the Himalayan Hills where they merged with the evolving tribal networks, coalescing into the general population. Some became Muslim, others became Sikh century later, and at the most opportune times, offering 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 the Rajput and Jat became Muslim at the hands of wandering Sufis is a myth, as the power-dynamics engendering norms of interactions between this population were radically different from groups supposedly escaping Brahman caste tyranny on the Plains of India. The idea that the Jat and Rajput descend from the same ancestors is similarly a myth. There has never been a fixed element to these kinds of ‘identities’ even as we fight to preserve them in our own lifetimes, making crass caricatures about the distant origin of people and their permanent social status. Prior to becoming Muslim, the faith of what is today Azad Kashmir was not Hinduism, but Buddhism. The North Westerly regions of the subcontinent have had a sustained historical link to Buddhism long before Islam entered the region.
So what about the myths about the rightful owners of Azad Kashmir, the wider polity of Jammu & Kashmir 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 absurd and irrelevant talking points.
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. It is one valley adjacent to other valleys, given pride of place due to adventitious events, courtesy of the Mughals who viewed the region akin to how modern people fly off to luxury holiday resorts. The indigenous population of the ‘Vadi-e-Kashmir’ today call their region Kashur. The word Kashmir, it is assumed is the Persian rendition of the native term which again should explain the power-dynamics behind the label; but there’s no evidence that the word Kashmir evolved out of the word Kashur, although we know both terms refer to the same place, roughly.
The actual Kashur ethnic sphere extends beyond the Valley into neighbouring areas, and on this account ethnic Kashur speaking Kashmiris occupy a larger proportion of the State. They have been trickling south easterly into the areas of Kishtwar which is a district of the Jammu Province. They have 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’ however the impulse to construct ‘identities’, or reimagine this past. There were no Dogras, Paharis or Kashur speakers around when the idea of Kashmir first emerged, documented in different literary traditions.
I hope to have dispelled myths of origin and their corresponding 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 majority Kashur-speaking areas whilst the north westerly District of Muzaffarabad was a majority Pahari-speaking area. But even in the Vale of Kashmir, Pahari speakers had considerable contingencies where they had lived for centuries coalescing with ethnic Kashur speakers. 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. People have been constantly moving in and out of regions, perhaps not on the scale of modern migration patterns, but it is characteristic human behaviour we are all familiar with. No people are truly indigenous to their lands, having descended from their ancestors in an unbroken chain, having lived in the same place for thousands of years, speaking the same unchanging language for thousand of years. Languages don’t evolve like that, and neither do migrations.
As I have already explained linguistic realities cannot be artificially boxed off into neat maps with corresponding categories and fixed timelines. This is not how language varieties or geographical designations emerge unlike the enterprises of ideologically-minded nationalists who seek to assign timeless labels to realities they can monopolise when the time is right.
The Diverse Linguistic Terrain; Cultures Vs. Politics
If you look at the area that comprises modern-day Kashmir, 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 by those championing the label as an exclusive racial identity), 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 (as it still is today for the most part); 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, as a small territorial polity, was mostly restricted to its neighbouring hill tracts; its influence over this wider area sometimes increased and sometime waned.
It is this collective ‘Kashmir’ that 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 now projecting backwards as the exclusive inheritor of this space. The later geographical extrapolation, greatly celebrated on account of its scenic beauty, does not presuppose a primordial Kashur geo-cultural identity at odds with neighbouring hill tracts 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 Kashur speakers’ 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 ‘Gandhara’ and neighbouring tracts. This norm extended into the medieval epoch.
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 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 the ‘Indian Plains’ (‘Hindustan’). 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. Not one Ottoman Caliph visited Mecca or Medina once in his lifetime. Of course, some Caliphs were incredibly devout and expended huge funds for the preservation and aggrandisement of the Sunni faith, but they were equally committed to their temporal realms. The Sultans managed to travel to many parts of their Empire, expanding the borders and accruing new fortunes.
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 the interior of Arabia, 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 created by the British for this 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. These particular Arabs have much more clout internationally than their poorer equals who do not belong to a universal ‘Arab fraternity’ in the same way Muslims do not belong to a universal Ummah fraternity. If they did, they wouldn’t be maltreating one another on account of power-dynamics naive and impressionable people do not understand, making ridiculous comments about the individual identities and worth of their sum-parts.
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 the Vale of 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’, but the other regions of the ancient Kashmir region (Abisara). 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 the Vale of Kashmir is somehow removed from its South Asian orbit.
The great Ashoka Raja of the Mauryan Kingdom, who it is said founded Srinagar, 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! Again this is power-dynamics at play; Srinagar is important, not because of ancient Kashmir’s historical prominence, but rather because Ashoka Raja founded it, the great Mauryan who expanding his vast Empire in all directions. Ashoka’s identity had been a mystery for many centuries, and had this continued to have been the case today, I wonder how Srinagar’s historical importance would have been conveyed.
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 Kashmir’s 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. This has always been an important natural border between the mountains of this region, and the Plains of North India.
In later centuries Kashmir reverted back to its peripheral position.
The emergence of the Kashmiri-Pandit – the real Kashmiris
Kashmir and the birth of Kashmir’s Aborigines
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 that never existed in history. They are otherwise known as the Hindu-Pandits. The fact that we have the new 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 group 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.
I’ve explained Kashmir is territorial shorthand for the entire state.
That’s just an absolute given.
India and Pakistan are fighting over territory; a particular landmass that has now been split because of conflict. They are not fighting to redeem any one particular people, whether one people project itself as the primordial and original Kashmiris of all time. 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 unequivocally belongs to them and oddly Brahmans sitting in South India!
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 70 thousand 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 thousand people. Whatever their small numbers contrasted by the much larger numbers of natives that straddle the Indo-Pak border, they have sought to hijack an essentially territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over an ethnically diverse region because of origin myths, which India and Pakistan then instrumentalise to stir more division amongst Independence Kashmiris.
Like all origin myths and legends, the Kashmir myth of origin is fantastical and fanciful.
Origin Legends & Political Propaganda – the Birth of Kashyap Rishi
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 thousands of years where they excelled in the brahmanical norms writing masterpieces in Sanskrit, 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, civilising the native Pishacha, flesh-eating demons, possibly more aboriginal than the Brahmans, if indeed there is any logic to legends and origin myths.
But such were the effects of Kashmiri civilisation.
All good things must come to an end though.
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 including Alexander the Great, and if you believe some Muslims, one of the lost tribes of Israel. Eventually the foreign rulers subdued the peaceful but formerly powerful Brahmans and defiled their land, culture and heritage. Some of these foreigners (‘Mleccha’) 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 more sway. 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’, having all 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 the Panjab Plains, 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 Kashmiri-Pandit population, much removed from the Muslims on account of their ‘superior intelligence‘, ‘education‘ and ‘highbrow culture‘, and without sounding sarcastic, “fair skin and chiselled Aryan-like features”. I am not being facetious when I use such descriptions. I find what I am saying deeply cringeworthy, but this is how some Kashmiris speak about themselves even those with little to no connection to Kashmir State except adopted caste surnames. The residue of colonial race theories has seriously skewed their attitudes, not least because they are selectively quoting colonial texts that were far more affirming of the neighbouring Punjabis of the landed groups. Whatever these eccentricities, and being mindful of their unique status, the Kashmiri-Pandits remained fastidious to their Hindu traditions. They were also fastidious to the Muslim 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 Subah (province) of Kashmir (Bhimbar used to be part of this area historically before later Mughal configurations), and not the Valley of Kashmir or the Princely State of Kashmir, 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 the ‘hilly and mountainous tracts (of Kashmir State)’ 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 1846, 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, as below, does not neatly reflect that timeline either. The individual districts and provinces assumed were a work in progress, and their geo-administrative borders did not equate to cultural spaces either.
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 Kashur speaker but a ‘Dogri’ speaker of a ‘Rajput’ tribe hailing from a particular cultural-sphere that colonial ethnologists and linguists described as ‘Panjabi’. But the same colonial writers made a distinction for what is today Azad Kashmir, claiming its Chibhal dialect belonged to a different language called Northern Lahnda. For rulers like Ghulab Singh their clan backgrounds were more important than any ethnic or linguistic commonalities deemed by the new colonial officers. Some colonial writers were keen to point out that Ghulab Singh hailed from a less prestigious Rajput tribe with allusions to a Plains’ 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.
The Rajputs of the western Himalaya 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; others gave their daughters (princesses) to the Mughals and became family and feaudatories. The Mughals were closely related to the Rajput, not least becasue numerous Mughal Emperors had Rajput mothers. These groups should not be confused with the older and indigenous tribal groupings that have lived in this part of the world for centuries and similarly maintain a ‘Zamindar’ (Rajah) background but with no connections to Rajasthan or the Mughals. The term Rajput can thus be misleading if one does not understand the history I espouse here. It should not be conflated with surnames and titles of upwardly mobile groups – for Rajputs like the Mughal, downward mobility has been the social norm, and not the other way round.
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, the Dogra insist that their language is quite distinct from ‘Panjabi’ but closely related to the ‘Pahari’ (mountain) dialects spoken in the hills and mountains around the old Jammu town. Dogri, alongside Punjabi and Kashmiri, is one of the official languages of the Indian Republic. Unlike Punjabi, Dogri is native to Kashmir State like Kashur and Pahari.
To give my readers an idea of subtle nuances in projected ‘identities’ which may not necessarily be understood by outsiders gleaning the internet for insights; 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 Pahari speakers do not think of themselves as ‘Paharis’ given the ambiguous connotations associated with the label. Long before the partition of India, the term Kashmiri implied a Muslim of Jammu & Kashmir, and not Hindus or Dogra, who otherwise had their own labels, Kashmiri Pandit being one such example. The Hindus had to add Pandit to Kashmiri to distinguish themselves from Muslim Kashmiris; the Kashmiri identity was associated with Muslims, and not ethnicity, or occupational castes.
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 stigma seem to have a lot in common with colonial notions of ‘country bumpkins’ (unsophisticated people from rural areas).
Colonial officers 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 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 people always try to approximate to power.
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’d 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 to no concern for the inhabitants. In this respect the scenic beauty of Kashmir seemed more important than her indigenous peoples, a sad reality that did not go unnoticed by 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 tribes loyal to the new political order, Muslim and Hindu. 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 Dogra directly empowered the Kashmiri Pandits, with whom they had an uneasy relationship. The 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.
The Modern Conflict; “Kashmir” Post-Partition
Exactly 101 years from the date of its founding, the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir was fought over by British India’s Successor States. 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 resigned 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 have forgotten 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 dominate 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 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 AJK-wide 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.
The Disenfranchised Pandits & The Kashmir Independence Movement
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.
Kashmiri Hindus now live as refugees in Jammu as ‘internally displaced people’. Others have settled in India with little prospect of them returning. 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 status 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 because they are aggregating for themselves an exclusive identity that has no historical antecedents. This is a form of 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. As I have repeatedly said, 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. The rulers 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’ or South Asian counterparts. It is therefore a curious move on the part of Hindu 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-Indian ‘Panjabis’ whilst Hindu-Pandits become 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 such claims 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 Kashur is a low-variety whatever its official recognition in the Indian State. 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 Kashmiris extolling a confused form of ‘cultural exclusivism’, perhaps they had a more glorious past when they were more culturally ‘authentic’? Perhaps? Let’s test this proposition.
One frequently reads about the special status of Kashmir as an isolated region which has allowed Kashmiris to develop a unique cultural tradition. Again, 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 of 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, unfamiliar with how their own Valley-centric writers exaggerate the importance of 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”, “Brahmans” in general, “Khatris”, upper-caste “Panjabis” and “Rajasthanis” given how they connected ‘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 vanquished ‘aborigines’.
Today, biologists and cultural anthropologists have universally and categorically rejected racial ideas as outdated, wrong and dangerous. But they still seem to have currency in the works of writers unaware of how perverse racial ideas actually are and the backgrounds of the people behind such poison. Internet forums and online chat rooms, moderated by Pakistanis, Indians, even Afghans and Iranians etc, are awash with claims about real Aryans.
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 the wider region. This is how we inherit physical traits without discounting the effects of our environment and nutrition. Genes linked to physical appearance 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 the ‘primordial’ Kashmiris of the internet demonstrates how some interests are trying to control the narrative on the ‘Kashmir’ Conflict.
Let us for one moment entertain the dubious notion that Kashmiris are different, separate and perhaps ‘unique’ from the 1.5 billion or so Indians and Pakistans who live in a vast space that is more diverse than Kashmir ethnically and linguistically, what of this primordial space’s ancient and medieval isolation in chornological terms?
It is tied intimately with events in India!
The rulers who ruled the north west of the subcontinent in the distant past also ruled Kashmir. Rulers like the Kushans were located in the Himalayas but crucially their capitals were not in Kashmir Valley but in the area around Peshawar (an ancient Indian civilisational space) conterminous with the ancient polity of Gandhara. It is here ironies become poetict because the heritage of a neighbouring region is being usurped.
Hindu Pandit writers credit themselves with the cultivation of Sanskrit writings. Kashmir was 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. They did not originate from the Kashmir Vale. The areas described in the Vedas give some indication of this location; the Peshawar Basin and the Swat Valley come to mind, eventually settling 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.
The colonial linguist Grierson went as far as saying that Hindu Pandits were immigrants to Kashmir from ‘India’ proper. In his mind, the original inhabitants of Kashmir were primitive (Pishacha – flesh eating demons) to have founded a culture that produced 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. Modern linguists agree that Kashmiri is in fact an Indo-Aryan language like Panjabi or Hindi-Urdu. It is obviously more closely related to neigbouring dialects which include the Pahari of Azad Kashmir. 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. Today’s ethnic Kashmiri writers seem to revel in Dardic connections. They seem to be unaware of this history and the actual mechanics behind the linguistic term Dardic. You’ll hear some Kashmiris insisting their language has nothing in common with the languages of India or Pakistan, whilst speaking Urdu ambivalent about speaking the native Kashur language because of how it is percieved – a lessor language. It is a type of self-hatred that has parallels across the world of fringe groups trying to escape stigma and persecution.
The conflict over Kashmir has not helped because 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 real Kashmiris who historically have always been a dispossessed people as long as we can remember that history – the demand for independence is one way of addressing centuries of oppression. How any of us can dare to re-write history unaware of how our forbears were actually treated by outside powers and their local clients is the height of intellectual dishonesty.
In my mind it is the ugliest kind of hubris.
‘Azad’ Kashmiris must reevaluate their stake in the Kashmir Conflict. They must critique the claims of those who want to actively write them out of their actual lived experiences, which in my mind is the Pakistan Occupier. They must come to terms with the fact that Pakistan is duplicitous in its apparent concern for Azad Kashmiris. It behooves diaspora Kashmiris with all their wealth, skills and connections to start vocalising the grievances of Azad Kashmiris, exposing the disinvestment of ‘A’JK rather than crying about Palestine – such rituals of belonging only prove that they are striving for an identity courtesy of false identity narratives. In doing so, they must steer clear of the politics of hate and division based on ethnonationalism, but join a much wider coalition in Pakistan, India and abroad against the abuse of political power. If independence is what Kashmiris want, then so be it – this is a right borne of international law for stateless people. Pakistanis and Indians have no right to dictate terms to a people, who are demanding control over their own native resources for the betterment of all people who happen to live within the borders of their Occupied State.
Origin myths to a mythic past do not solve conflicts though. They 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 clear, the mainstream takes its social and political realities for granted without the need to prove the obvious; Muslim Kashmiris are unperturbed about their identity, they live in the Vale. Hindu Pandits feel insecure given their fate and small numbers, thus the need to remind the world and Hindu India that they are, if not more so, the real descendants of the primordial ‘Kashmiris’ who, oddly, came from India.
Muslim Kashmiris are reconciled with the Muslims of the wider State in the mistaken belief that Muslims are a receptive constituency to the pro-independence narrative. This scares Hindus Pandits who are increasingly turning to Hindu Nationalists. Other minority Muslims from Indian-administered-Kashmir are less accommodating of Muslim fraternal love, 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 some Muslim Kashmiris have fallen for this ploy, making cringeworthy comments about their cultural superiority whilst shouting independence slogans! This benefits Pakistan to create a wedge between Azad Kashmiris and Valley Kashmiris demanding independence for both divided parts of Kashmir.
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, whilst the past they claim is more complex than the sloganeering. Just because a segment of a population claims to have lived in its part of the world for centuries, does not give it automatic rights to the land, culture and labels of millions of other natives. If we take such myths seriously, then the ‘Dravidians’ of South India can similarly demand the return of North India from the supposed Aryans who “invaded” India 1750 years before Christ. Of course, Dravidians are an heterogenous group of people, no less diverse than speakers of Indo-Aryan languages. It is this kind of straw man argument that is employed in Israel and the occupied territories to deny Palestinians historical claims to a place called Palestine that would otherwise trump Israeli claims to an Israel comprised of Palestinian Territories. Howsoever absurd such a proposition, this is exactly what nationalists argue when they turn to origin myths to validate territorial claims.
It is perverse that almost 17 million people of a divided piece of territory called Kashmir are being reprimanded for self-affirming as Kashmiris. We’re being told that only certain people have the right to deploy the term even as the entire world, India and Pakistan – the two interests that caused the problem in the first place, call Kashmir, 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. It’s a ploy to stop them from uniting.
The fact that disinformation on Kashmir has directly benefited Pakistan for nearly 70 years to the disadvantage of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris should not be lost on Azad Kashmiris, as the Pakistan establishment cries crocodile tears for Valley Kashmiris, whilst exploiting ‘Azad’ Kashmir, caring less for ordinary Pakistanis. Worse, some British Azad Kashmiris, who can barely locate Azad Kashmir on a map have a tendency of waving Pakistani flags on Pakistan’s Independence Day. The African-American Civil Rights Activists, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali could potentially offer them insights about the dangers of embodying a false consciousness in the name of groups that seldom offer reciprocity.
This tragedy could seldom be more tragic.