Historically Mirpur was a district of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir. It was one district out of fourteen all spread out 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.
The configuration of Mirpur District was geo-administrative which means the ‘Rulers’ of the State divided up their territory and appointed officials to better manage, control and tax it. Like most ‘villages’, ‘towns’, ‘cities’, ‘districts’ or ‘provinces’ in any part of the world, there was no fixed size of the ‘area’ 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 people living in the designated spaces. To tax an ‘area’ comprehensively, you need to be able to see it on a map, and if you control tens of thousands of square miles, the task requires local actors ready to do the ruler’s bidding.
This is Mirpur’s history and the history of Jammu & Kashmir. The ordinary peoples of Jammu & Kashmir and the tribes of Mirpur were never reconciled with the new rulers of the territory and their local ‘clients’.
But, the actual founding of Mirpur and I’m strictly speaking about the original tribal principality from which the name of the later District was derived, predated 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. Whether there is any truth to the account, 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.
There are other locally-sourced anecdotes about the origin of Mirpur that connects the area with Hindu-Muslim conviviality. It was claimed that the word ‘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 and later resettled in Jammu, Indian-administered-Kashmir.
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.
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 actual lands of the State that included Mirpur were described as,
“the hilly or mountainous 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”
No provision was ever made for the welfare of the ordinary people forced into this new territorial union.
For his part, Raja Ghulab Singh had been a client or feudatory of the Sikh Confederacy, the previous rulers of ‘the hilly or mountainous country’ that made up substantial areas of the new ‘Kingdom’. Following the defeat of the Sikh Confederacy during the first Anglo-Sikh war (11 November 1845 – 09 March 1846) aided in large part by Raja Ghulab Singh to the advantage of the East India Company, these lands were subsequently ‘transferred’ and ‘made over’ to him for an agreed price. Maharaja Ghulab Singh became the first ruling monarch of the new State with all the accoutrements of royal titles and gun salutes.
The District of Mirpur (‘Zillah’) came into existence some years later, and was added to the Jammu Province (‘Subah’). It was made up of smaller tribal principalities that included for instance ‘Khari Khariyali’ and ‘Bhimbar’ that had been ruled earlier by the ‘Chibh’ Tribe. The later British designation ‘Chibhan’ based on earlier Mughal configurations of ‘Chibhal’, or ‘Jibhal’ was expanded to include an even wider area. For this reason, Mirpur District’s geographical size, or administrative form as a geo-administrative entity does not tell us anything about the people who were subsumed within it however we imagine the ‘Mirpuri’ label today.
In the centuries that followed, the small principality became a major conurbation from which many British-Paharis now claim their descent. Of the many 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 had their roots in ‘Mirpur’. The neighbouring area of Poonch was also 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.
The smaller principalities that made up Mirpur District were in fact much older than the original tribal principality of Mirpur, and 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. 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.
Whenever we speak of ‘Mirpur’ within the context of ‘Kashmir State’, we are speaking about pre-modern governance models. Mirpur District was significant to the State as 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 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. A lot of these lands were taxed to the hilt by the State’s rulers and their local sinecures. Their owners became prey to unscrupulous money lenders who through the former’s desperation managed to misappropriate parts of these lands by false pretences.
Mirpur within the Context of “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir
A decade or so after the demise of the Princely State, Pakistan’s officials in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir unilaterally decided to build a Dam in Mirpur to help irrigate the Plains of the Panjab whilst producing cheap electricity. The construction of the Mangla Dam between 1961 and 1967 flooded the most fertile lands in the entire polity of ‘Azad’ Kashmir. 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.
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 them and Pakistan Officialdom. The people of Mirpur were never consulted in the construction of the Dam, and numerous international studies have shown that they were inadequately compensated if not compensated at all. 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.
Migration to lands outside the erstwhile Mirpur Division has 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 some semblance of prosperity. In contrast, Pakistan Officialdom has disinvested ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir allocating its tiny resources to the more affluent parts of Pakistan. Had there been no migratory outlets for the people of this area, the situation in Mirpur and the wider area would have been dire.
In appraising this 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.
But, 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 in the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir is akin to speaking of regional communities in England seperate 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. The Kashmir Conflict complicates this undertaking all the more.