Mirpur was a district of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. It was one district out of fourteen all spread out unevenly across 3 Provinces of unequal size and importance. In size, Mirpur District was approximately under 1700 square miles. Jammu & Kashmir State was approximately 84 – 86000 square miles; the Frontier Province accounted for the majority of the State’s landmass but a tiny proportion of the State’s population. The State’s borders in the North as they merged with Tibetan Plateau were never formally ‘assigned’ to the territorial powers of the day which accounts for the ambiguous nature of the Princely State’s actual size and China’s ongoing territorial dispute with India. India claims the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir by way of accession rights and contends China is illegally occupying the State’s border lands that are technically part of the old State.
The configuration of Mirpur District was geo-administrative which means the ‘Rulers’ of the State divided up their internal principalities and appointed officials to better manage, control and tax them. Like most ‘villages’, ‘towns’, ‘cities’, ‘districts’ or ‘provinces’ in any part of the world, there was no fixed size of the ‘areas’ that the ‘inhabitants’ could claim as their own. This is about governance and ‘control’ by which the rulers get the most out of their territorial assets; no regard is paid for the welfare of residents living within the designated spaces. To tax an ‘area’ comprehensively, you need to be able to delineate its borders on a map, and if you control tens of thousands of square mileage, the task requires innovative cartography and local actors ready to do the ruler’s bidding.
This is Mirpur’s history and the history of Jammu & Kashmir. Throughout the centuries, these hill/mountain tracts had collectively been occupied by foreign powers irrespective of how individual “regions” were demarcated by the foreign rulers. The indigenous locals of Jammu & Kashmir including the tribes of Mirpur were never reconciled with the foreign rulers and their locally-sourced ‘clients’. The legacy of that much older history continues to resonate with us in our contemporary times.
The actual founding of Mirpur and I’m strictly speaking about the small tribal principality from which the name of the later District was derived, predates the emergence of the Princely State by many hundreds of years. From the anecdotes at our disposal, and the historical archive of the Mughals who ruled these mountainous (‘Pahari’) lands beyond the lowland Plains of India, it would appear that Mirpur was founded in the middle of the 17th century by a Gakhar tribesman by the name of ‘Mir’ Shah Ghazi. The actual coinage of ‘Mirpur‘ refers to the settlement or ‘fortification’ (‘Pur’) of Mir, (or Miran according to other accounts). Whether there is truth to such claims, we know that Mirpur was a small principality inhabited by tribesman fighting other tribesman subsumed within a shared system of patronage, who were eventually vanquished. The actual system of patronage was thus more significant than the emergence or size of individual tribal-principalities. The wider area, as it merged with Chibhal was said to be Ghakkar country, even as Chibhal encroached well beyond its original boundaries to include tribal principalities that had traditionally been under the sovereignty of Kashmir. This is an important point that is overlooked by modern-day narrators of Kashmir’s history, who like to reduce the Kashmir Conflict to separate regions and peoples, unaware of a much older history that saw numerous regions subsumed with a broad space called “Kashmir”. The Kashmir of antiquity included diverse regions and peoples, and it was this Kashmir that writers described.
There are, however, other locally-sourced anecdotes about the origin of Mirpur that connects the area with Hindu-Muslim conviviality rather than simply being the product of a tribal settlement. It was claimed that the coinage ‘Mir’-‘Pur’ derived from the names of two saints, the one Muslim and the other Hindu. Before the partition of the subcontinent, Mirpur had a thriving Hindu community of affluent merchants and money-lenders, who were forced from their homes because of ‘Pakistani’ tribal incursions from the North West Frontier Province, who later resettled in Jammu, in what became “Indian-administered-Kashmir”. Before the partition of the subcontinent, Muslims and non-Muslims had co-existed peacefully within the region and this had been the social norm for centuries.
Of course, there are many cities, towns and villages all over South and Western Asia named ‘Mirpur’. ‘Mir‘ is a popular name in the subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau and these various towns and cities named Mirpur have no relation with the ‘Mirpur’ of Jammu & Kashmir. A lot of online searches, images and content relate to these areas and not the ‘Mirpur’ of this post. These online searches are frequently confused with the Mirpur of Kashmir State, sometimes deliberately for the purpose of misinformation.
Mirpur within the Context of Jammu & Kashmir State
The Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir was founded by an Act of Treaty between the ‘East India Company’ and ‘Raja Ghulab Singh’ signed on 16 of March 1846.
In description, the entire landmass of the State that included Mirpur was described as,
“the hilly or mountainous (“Pahari”) country with its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus and the westward of the River Ravi including Chamba and excluding Lahol, being part of the territories ceded to the British Government by the Lahore State according to the provisions of Article IV of the Treaty of Lahore, dated 9 March 1846″
The Original Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir had also included the Hazara Hills of the old North West Frontier Province (NWFP), areas that had also traditionally been dependencies of the much older Kashmir polity. The Hill Tribes of this region refused to submit to the new rulers, and eventually the British colonialists agreed to substitute these western tracts for areas east of Jammu. The Hazara regions was thus subsumed within the newly created colonial Province of NWFP, and was also, for a time, merged with the British Province of Punjab. Whatever the eventual shape or size of the new Princely State, no provision was ever made for the welfare of the ordinary people forced into this territorial union.
For his part, Kashmir State’s Ruler, formerly Raja Ghulab Singh, had been a client or feudatory of the Sikh Confederacy, which the British called the Lahore State. The Lahore State were the previous rulers of ‘the hilly or mountainous country’ that now made up Ghulab Singh’s Kingdom’. Following the defeat of the Sikh Confederacy during the first Anglo-Sikh war (11 November 1845 – 09 March 1846), these hilly/mountainous lands were subsequently ‘transferred’ and ‘made over’ to him by the East India Company for an agreed price. In effect, Ghulab Singh was rewarded for not aiding the Lahore State, to whom he was duty-bound per the arrangements of the patronage system; he held fiefs in lieu of offering mercenary service to his overlords. He consciously decided to withhold his troops to the advantage of the British. Thenceforth, he was promoted Maharaja Ghulab Singh of Kashmir State, he became the first ruling Monarch of the new Princely State with all the accoutrements of royal titles and gun salutes. His meteoric rise has been a source of great debate and friction between supporters and opponents, such is the legacy of this contested history.
The District of Mirpur (‘Zillah’) was configured some decades later and was a work in progress like other Districts, Sub-Districts. It was added to the Jammu Province (‘Subah’) without any allusions to the ethno-linguistic character of the people living within the greatly expanded Jammu Province. Mirpur’s final form was arranged around 3 sub-districts (Tehsils), Mirpur, Kotli and Bhimbar (pre-1946). Thus the 17th century settlement of Mirpur had been enlarged to such a degree that it included neighbouring principalities to the north and north east of the original ‘Mirpur’.
Before Mirpur assumed district “status”, a geo-administrative unit for the sole purpose of taxation and governance, it had actually formed part of the outlying areas of the historical Bhimbar region – an older region than Mirpur. In the formative years of the Princely State, Mirpur’s configuration reflected this history, it was a “sub-district” of Bhimbar District which included the sub-districts of Kotli and Rajouri. These areas had traditionally been included in the region of Chibhal, named after the principle tribe that ruled this area, not to be confused with the ordinary locals who lived on the land. The British designation ‘Chibhan’ was based on earlier Mughal configurations of ‘Chibhal’, or ‘Jibhal’; the Chibhal Region was further expanded to include an even wider area. The various tribal principalities that made up Mirpur District, for reasons explained, predated the origin of Mirpur by centuries. These areas can be referenced in the documents of the Mughals. For instance, ‘Andarhal’ and ‘Kotli’ are mentioned in the ‘Ain-e-Akbar’ of the ‘Akbarnama’ of the Great Mogul King Akbar, (1556 – 1605). This Persian text was compiled during the 1590s and it covers Akbar’s reforms of his Empire. It is said of Bhimbar and Khari Khariyali according to the Tawarikh-e-Rajgan, Zilla Kangra, a history of Kangra’s ruling tribes, another Himalayan region eastwards that both principalities were founded some time during the 1400s.
It should now be abundantly clear that Mirpur District’s geographical size, or administrative form as a geo-administrative entity, like the various expansions and contractions of Punjab Province, and other geo-political devices, do not not tell us anything “substantive” about the indigenous population now identified as “Mirpuris”. Put simply, Mirpur was ‘a unit of territory’, a small part of a larger geo-political space, and not the locus of a primordial identity, wrongly imagined by laypeople offering ahistorical commentaries on the history of Mirpur. A lot of these observers have no appreciation of this complex history and are merely recycling anecdotes. To this effect, Mirpur has never been part of the British Punjab Province (a geo-political unit), a colonial designation and configuration wrongly conflated with the Punjab Plains (a geographical/typographical unit), a separate space from the older Mughal Province of Lahore (a geo-administrative unit). Mirpur has never been part of the Pothohar Uplands, a geological unit that is distinct from hills and mountains; English colonial cartographers were fully aware of the geological implications of demarcating the River Jhelum as the Pothohar Plateau’s easterly boundary, separating it from the hills and mountains of Mirpur, Jammu & Kashmir. The terms “Punjab Province”, “Jammu & Kashmir”, “Rawalpindi Division”, are primarily geo-administrative and geo-political. The original architects behind the configuration of these taxable resources were not creating ethnic or linguistic identities when they subsumed peoples within various “units and sub-units of territory”. When ethnologists and linguists speak of a Punjabi ethnic or linguistic identity, they are not conflating these identities with the history of geo-administrative units, that now form the basis of some very ignorant remarks about the Kashmir Conflict, a territorial conflict over landmass and not ethnic peoples.
Migrations from Mirpur, Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir
In the decades that followed, the District of Mirpur became a major conurbation from which many British-Paharis and other diaspora Paharis in Europe, North America, the Middle East and the Far East now claim their regional descent within the context of Jammu & Kashmir. This history predates the creation of the Mangla Dam by decades (1961 – 1967), a timeline that is wrongly presented by some writers as the beginning of ‘Mirpuri migration’ to the UK. These writers have a superficial understanding of Mirpur’s actual history and this can be seen in the flawed accounts they produce, recycling passages from poorly researched books on Mirpur’s history.
Of the many ‘Kashmiri’ stokers working on British merchant ships docked in Bombay during the latter half of the 1800s and the ‘Kashmiri‘ soldiers who fought in both World Wars, these individuals came from the erstwhile ‘Mirpur District’ pre-1947. The neighbouring area of Poonch had also been an important recruitment area for the British Indian Army once restrictions were lifted from recruiting outside British India. It does not come as a surprise to learn that the valley communities of Mirpur and Poonch have always had a shared history that stretches back many hundreds of years. These pioneers left Jammu & Kashmir in search of work. They were followed by ordinary locals who similarly left Jammu & Kashmir in pursuit of economic emancipation. Some of these “migrants” settled outside Jammu & Kashmir because of their army-connections, in British India and further afield in both the Old and New Worlds, decades before post-World War II immigration to the UK. They settled in their new homelands, got married, had children and never returned home. Others fell on hard times, and were repatriated thanks to the help of Christian charities.
Whenever we speak of migrations from ‘Mirpur’ within the context of ‘Kashmir State’, we are strictly speaking about a district that was configured for the purpose of administration. Mirpur District, (1 district out of 14), was particularly significant to the State because it generated considerable agricultural taxes in addition to being an important recruitment ground for the British Indian Army. Kashmir State had limited cultivable lands, and many of these areas were situated in the southern portions of the new district. These lands were some of the most fertile in the entire State producing harvests that could be taxed lucratively. Landowning subsistence farmers were taxed to the hilt by the State’s rulers and their local sinecures. They became prey to unscrupulous money lenders, who through the former’s desperation, misappropriated parts of their lands by false pretences. Various historical accounts of Kashmir State throughout the colonial timeline, describe the injustice of such policies, and the desperation of the people. They also describe the emergence of a state-wide consciousness (“Kashmirriyat”) to challenge the abuses of the State especially during the 1930s; it included the various peoples of the State and Mirpur was heavily mired in the ensuing struggles.
Mirpur within the Context of “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir; (Pakistan’s “Kashmir”)
A decade after the demise of the Princely State in 1947, Pakistan’s Rulers in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir unilaterally decided to build a Dam in Mirpur to help irrigate the Plains of the Panjab whilst producing cheap electricity for the cities of Pakistan. The construction of the Mangla Dam between 1961 and 1967 flooded the most fertile lands in the entire polity of ‘Azad’ Kashmir, a tiny slither of land with enormous poverty. More than a 110 thousand people were uprooted and nearly 300 villages were destroyed. The local infrastructure of Mirpur and the surrounding countryside was decimated, a reality that has not changed much with the area’s terrible road surfaces.
Some decades later in 2007, another 40 thousand people were displaced to make way for the “expansion” of the Dam. Its mismanagement and the enormous cost borne by ordinary people in Mirpur has been a source of constant friction between the people of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan Officialdom. There has been no account of where billions of pounds worth of dam-royalties have gone to date; it may be the case these lucrative funds have been embezzled by Pakistan Officialdom. The residents of Mirpur were never consulted in the construction of the Dam, and numerous international studies have shown that they were inadequately compensated. It is generally accepted by those observing the Kashmir Conflict that the political leadership of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is treated contemptibly by their Pakistani overlords. Pakistan Officialdom has shown little concern for the welfare of ordinary inhabitants, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by international journalists and writers. Mirpuris in particular and other ‘Azad’ Kashmiris in general, i.e., state subjects of Pakistan’s controlled Jammu & Kashmir State, are held in contempt by many Pakistanis.
Migration to lands outside the erstwhile Mirpur Division has thus been a lifeline for the communities of ‘Azad Jammu & Kashmir. The remittences they have channelled back to their extended families and the money invested particularly in Mirpur has given the area an illusory sense of normality and prosperity; we are speaking of billions of pounds worth of building projects that have produced no corresponding value in investment terms. These building materials are sourced from Pakistan. Mirpuris have impacted entire service economies not just in Mirpur but across the wider region in Pakistan; very little appreciation is accorded to Mirpuris on account of this “largess”. Pakistan’s banking sector has received a boon from the expatriate Azad Jammu & Kashmir community; these deposits benefit Pakistan and not Azad Jammu & Kashmir, a fact noted by many international observers.
In contrast, Pakistan Officialdom is actively disinvesting ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir, allocating Pakistan’s tiny resources to the more affluent parts of Pakistan, particularly in the urbanised areas of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi where Pakistan’s elite lives. These areas receive state-sanctioned funds for their upkeep, Mirpur and the rest of Azad Kashmir do not. Mirpur is almost entirely reliant on its Diaspora, without these funds, Mirpuris, unable to leave Azad Kashmir, would have been reduced to destitution. Furthermore, the buying and selling of properties and land in Azad Kashmir; the settlement of land disputes, is deliberately cumbersome, enriching the patrons of a corrupt legal system to the disadvantage of actual litigants. Had there been no migratory outlets for the people of Azad Jammu & Kashmir, the situation in Mirpur and the wider area would have been dire.
In appraising this troubling history, there is nothing especially remarkable or unique about the settlement of Mirpur, whether as a small tribal polity or a political sub-division of a larger territory to warrant its people as ‘locals‘ or ‘emigrants‘ a special status, good or bad in comparison with neighbouring hill principalities and hill communities. Today, the majority of individuals with roots to erstwhile Mirpur Division actually live in the Diaspora. Britain has the largest Mirpuri community anywhere in the world, and there is also a sizeable Mirpuri community in Indian ‘Jammu’ originally comprised mostly of Hindu and Sikh refugees. The Mirpuri Mahajan community of Jammu is a particularly affluent community that has contributed massively to all sectors of society; Mirpuris comprise an important professional tier in Jammu which includes prominent Judges and politicians.
False Identity Label
Expectedly, there is no such thing as a ‘Mirpuri’ ‘people’ or a ‘Mirpuri’ ‘language’ and/or dialect sui generis. To use a modern analogy, to speak of Mirpuris in these terms by virtue of their origin to a “District” in the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir is akin to speaking of regional communities in England separate to or exclusive of the wider English people that live beyond the city of Bristol.
It is absurd to categorise or think of the inhabitants of Mirpur as an ethnic community, social group or fringe people as distinct from related-ethnic communities in a broad area that includes the Pothohar Uplands and the Hazara Hills. Granted that the Mirpuri label is very recent in origin it is also misleading and value-laden.
Many British-Mirpuris are however becoming conscious of the label and are using it as a badge of self-affirmation to connect them with the heritage of their forebears. In this respect, the label is essentially ‘positive’ as it empowers a mostly British-born community to demand recognition on the basis of its community’s emerging ‘identity’ in the UK.
For all the wrong reasons, the term has become popular in British-Pakistani circles as a designation for British-Paharis. The district of Mirpur by virtue of its connection with ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir and the wider Kashmir conflict has a chequered past, creating dynamics that have pitied Pahari-Mirpuris against Pakistan officialdom.
Mirpuris are Paharis and the language they speak is called Pahari. Mirpur is a small part of a much vaster region we call the Pahari-cultural-sphere otherwise known natively as the ‘Pahari-Patwari Ilaqa’. One cannot understand the culture and history of Mirpur without understanding the history of the wider area and the history of the Jammu & Kashmir. The Kashmir Conflict complicates this understanding even more because of Indian and Pakistani claims to the entire region. On this count, Mirpuris, as nationals (state subjects) of Kashmir State are either Occupied Pakistanis or Occupied Indians. Depending on how they self-identify, not withstanding demands for independence, they are either celebrated or demonised.