March 2004 News

Kashmir`s Identity Crisis

02 March 2004
The News International
Dr Moonis Ahmar

Islamabad: What is the issue of Kashmiri identity? Do the people living in the Indian and Pakistan controlled Jammu and Kashmir belong to the ethnic group of Kashmiris or they belong to diverse groups living in Ladakh, Jammu, Gilgit and Baltistan? Is the Kashmir conflict an outcome of ethnic, religious and territorial contradictions or is it simply a bone of contention between India and Pakistan? These are the questions, which are usually asked in the context of the Kashmir conflict. Kashmir`s identity crisis is considered as the single most important reason that is responsible for the decades of instability, violence and bloodshed in that part of the world. The argument that Kashmir is different than India and Pakistan and has an identity of its own is the sole cause of promoting Kashmiri nationalism. Professor Robert G Wirsing, a renowned American Political Scientist in his recent book `Kashmir in the shadow of war: regional rivalries in a nuclear age` argues that `the multiple and conflicting religious identities of Indians, Pakistanis, and Kashmiris are deeply and unavoidably implicated in the Kashmir dispute.` If one takes the population living in the Valley of Kashmir, it is primarily homogeneous, despite the religious divide between Muslims and Hindus. The people of the Valley, despite the religious contradiction, share common culture, language, customs and history, which is no doubt the basis of `Kashmiriyat.` The people living in Jammu are mostly Sikhs and Hindus and ethnically different from those living in the Valley in terms of language and culture. The Muslims living in Jammu, who are in a minority, share their religious identity with the Muslims of the Valley but are culturally different than them to some extent. The people living in Ladakh are primarily Bhuddist and although there is a Muslim minority there, it belongs to the Shia sect. The people living in the Pakistan part of Kashmir, called Azad Kashmir, share common religion with their counterparts along the line of control, but are not culturally similar to the people living in the Valley. And those living in the Northern Areas of Pakistan (Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan) theoretically a part of Jammu and Kashmir are not Kashmiris per se and do not share much, except in religion with the Muslims of Kashmir Valley, Jammu and Azad Kashmir. They are culturally and ethnically different. With such an enormous variation in the ethnic, cultural and territorial complexion of Jammu and Kashmir, both under the Indian and the Pakistani control, how can one talk about the Kashmir issue in terms of identity crisis. The question of `Kashmiriyat` is only relevant in case of those who are ethnically, culturally, linguistically and historically of similar background, whereas those living in Jammu, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas of Pakistan are different and do not share the feelings of identity crisis as perceived by Srinagar. The debate on the `identity crisis` of Jammu and Kashmir must take into account at least three important factors because the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute must view the potential areas of instability and chaos which are present in the shape of not only religious but ethnic contradictions of J&K. First, although Muslims constitute a majority in the entire Jammu and Kashmir as compared to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, it doesn`t mean that they can be categorised as one compact group of people. The Muslims of Ladakh do not share much with the Muslims living in Jammu or Azad Kashmir. Similarly, the Muslim living in the Valley of Kashmir does not share much with the Muslim living in Gilgit or Baltistan. Furthermore, the Hindu or Sikh living in Jammu does not share much with the Pundits of the Valley of Kashmir. With such a heterogeneous and complicated shape of J&K, the question of autonomy and independence must be carefully examined. The princely state of J&K during the British era was ruled by the Dogra Maharaja and the territory was sold to him by the British in 1846. But, J&K of 2004 is certainly different than 1846 because people living both in the Indian and in Pakistani controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir are conscious about their ethnic, cultural and religious identities. Second, the fragility of Jammu and Kashmir as a single unit is obvious because religion or ethnicity cannot be the only binding force in a future state of Kashmir. Any arrangement reached by India, Pakistan and the Kashmiri leaders must not exclude those representing divergent communities living in Jammu, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan. The All-Parties` Hurriyat Conference (APHC) with both moderate and hard line factions only represents the Muslims of the Valley of Indian controlled Kashmir and not the entire J&K. It is true that the Valley of Kashmir and two districts of Jammu are the epicentre of uprising and resistance against the Indian occupation, but it doesn`t mean that other regions of J&K which are not directly involved in post-1989 struggle for self-determination, are to be excluded from the process of negotiations for the future of J&K. Therefore, the question of the identity of Kashmir is quite complicated as the divisive and complex nature of ethnic and religious groups inhibiting the Valley, Jammu, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit, Hunza and Baltistan tend to sharpen the contradictions in J&K. Finally, there is the question of the leadership based in Srinagar representing the entire Jammu or Kashmir or the regional leadership deciding about the task of the final settlement of J&K. Already, there are strong groups who want to divide J&K on ethnic and religious lines. Some elements also proposed the creation of a Pundit state to be carved out of the Valley and others talked about merging Jammu and Ladakh with India. In the Pakistan controlled Northern Areas, secessionist forces are gaining ground because neither they see their future with Srinagar nor with Islamabad. For them, a separate status is the only way by which they can protect their identity. Such concerns may appear to be naive to some people, but in reality, if things are not handled with care and wisdom, the non-Kashmiri elements in Jammu and Kashmir can become a major destabilising factor not only in J&K but also for India and Pakistan in the not too distant future. Is it not the possibility, say in couple of years time that the issue of Kashmiri identity is overshadowed by similar voices in Jammu, Ladakh and the Northern Areas of Pakistan? If that happens then New Delhi and Islamabad must be ready for a big crisis because the centre of violence which is now in the Valley and in two districts of Jammu will spread to other parts of J&K who are not Kashmiris in the real sense but on account of historical reasons were compelled to be on some other side with whom they don`t share much. Paradoxically, both India and Pakistan since 1947 have tried to formulate policies which eroded the identity of Jammu and Kashmir. In 1950, article 370 was inducted in the Indian constitution which guaranteed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir but after 1953, New Delhi did every thing to marginalise the Kashmiri identity and Indianise the territory through acts of manipulation, fraud elections and the brutal use of force. As far as Pakistan is concerned, Islamabad ruled Muzaffarabad and Gilgit through the Federal Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas, denying local leadership its right to run the affairs of government on their own. On the one hand, Islamabad called for the self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir and on the other hand it prevented candidates contesting for elections in Azad Kashmir Assembly if they refused to pledge their commitment to Pakistan. The erosion of Kashmiri identity has taken place as a result of a process unleashed by New Delhi and Islamabad to dilute the feelings and sentiments of Kashmiri nationalism. India tried to achieve the objective of seeking control over the land, if not the people, by the use of force and Pakistan followed the policy of preventing any force, which could be a threat to its interests. Had this not been the case, dozens of people wouldn`t have been killed by the Pakistan Army when the activists of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) tried to cross the Line of Control in February 1992 as a mark to assert the identity of Kashmiris living along both sides of LoC. All in all, the issue of Kashmiri identity has become a victim of a historical process in which not only India and Pakistan but also the international community have played a role. The best possible way to address the issue of Kashmiri identity is to encourage dialogue between Srinagar and Jammu, Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, Srinagar and Leh and Srinagar and Gilgit. In the absence of such a dialogue, the result will be the assertion of multiple identities in Jammu, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. Srinagar only cannot claim to represent the entire J&K and it will have to take other regions in the process of evolving `greater Kashmiriyat.` Such a scenario becomes relevant when New Delhi and Islamabad, as a result of an agreement will follow the process of `gradual disengagement` from J&K. The vacuum left by India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir must be filled by protecting other identities, along with the dominant identity of Kashmiris represented by Srinagar and by granting justice and freedom to the non-Kashmiris living in J&K.


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