Languages of Belonging:

Islam, Regional Identity and the Making of Kashmir

Book Review by Yoginder Sikand of Chitralekha Zutshi (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003),

359 pages, Rs. 695. ISBN: 81-7824-060-2

Yoginder Sikand

Standard Indian journalistic and even purportedly ‘scholarly’ accounts of the emergence of the mass uprising in Kashmir tend to portray it as an externally inspired ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ movement against the supposedly secular Indian state. This represents a complete misreading of a very complex phenomenon. While the religious aspect obviously cannot be ignored, the Kashmiri Muslim resentment against Indian rule cannot be said to be simply a result of any inherent antagonism between Islam and Hinduism or between Muslims and Hindus as such. For one thing, the very notion of the Indian state, against which the Kashmiri movement for self-determination defines itself, as secular is itself seriously questionable. Furthermore, the argument that the Kashmiri movement is in essence an ‘Islamic’ or a Muslim ‘communal’ one ignores the fact that long before the Islamists entered the scene, the movement was led largely by secular elements, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, who, while advocating independence for Kashmir, were opposed to the notion of an ‘Islamic’ state, at least of the sort proposed by Islamists active in Kashmir today, such as the Lashkar-i Tayyeba and the Jama‘at-i Islami.

Understanding the roots of the Kashmiri movement requires one to take a historical perspective, examining the changing contours of Kashmiri identity over time. This is precisely what Zutshi sets out to do in this admirably well-researched book.  Zutshi questions the notion of Kashmiriyat as a unified cohesive vision of Kashmir’s past that ignores, perhaps deliberately, crucial internal differences and contradictions of religion, sect, caste, class, region, language and ethnicity. Her particular focus is on how the notion of Kashmiriyat came to be developed over time in response to wider social, cultural, economic and political developments in Kashmir. In the process, she examines how key Kashmiri leaders sought to balance their commitment to Islam, on the one hand, and to the notion of a Kashmiri nation, on the other.

The notion of a well-defined Kashmiri identity, Zutshi argues, was not the original product of Kashmiri nationalist minds, but, instead, owed much to colonial discourses on Kashmir pre-dating the rise of Kashmiri nationalism. From the seventeenth century, European travelers wrote about the ‘happy vale’ of Kashmir, where, as they saw it, Muslims and Hindus alike were rather lax in their religious commitments, and where, unlike in other parts of the subcontinent, the two communities lived amicably together. Zutshi claims that this romanticized picture, while true to some extent, ignored crucial internal differences that seriously challenge the notion of Kashmiri religious syncretism and the argument that communitarian differences were relatively marginal in Kashmir.

Closely examining pre-colonial, colonial and Dogra records, and the writings of Kashmiri Pundit and Muslim spokesmen, Zutshi traces the complex process of the construction of a distinct Kashmiri Muslim identity. She argues that Sikh rule in Kashmir, under which the Muslim peasantry suffered considerable hardship, naturally led to a growing stress on the Muslim aspect of the identity of the Kashmiri Muslim majority, which, in turn, functioned as a means to articulate dissent and protest. This was carried further under the Dogra regime, which increasingly relied on orthodox Brahminical Hinduism to claim sanction for itself. As Zutshi aptly puts it, the growing salience of the specifically ‘Muslim’ aspect of the identity of the Kashmiri Muslims was ‘a direct result of the overtly Hindu nature of the Dogras’ apparatus of legitimacy’ (p.13). Under the Dogras, the Kashmiri Muslims, as a whole, suffered heavy privations. Top government posts and large estates were almost entirely monopolized by Dogras, Punjabis and Kashmiri Pundits. As a consequence, Islam and Islamic consciousness served as a crucial vehicle for the Kashmiri Muslims to express protest against their marginalisation and oppression. In this sense, as Zutshi says, the emerging Kashmiri Muslim identity cannot be said to have been ‘communal’ in the narrow sense of the term. 

From the late nineteenth century onwards, in the context of Dogra rule, remarkable changes began to emerge in the ways that Kashmiris, Muslims and Pundits, defined themselves, their religious identities, their relations with each other and their understanding of Kashmir. The Kashmiri Pundits, who, although a relatively tiny minority, were heavily over-represented in the government services, leaned heavily on the Dogra regime, and, some notable exceptions apart, were hostile to the movement for democracy and the end of Dogra rule that was gradually emerging among the Kashmiri Muslims. Faced with growing resentment among the Muslims against the oppressive ‘Hindu’ Dogra regime, many Pundits moved in their direction of a more distinctly ‘orthodox’ Hinduism or to the Arya Samaj, a characteristic feature of which was its fierce hostility towards Islam and Muslims. For their part, the Muslims witnessed the emergence of new Islamic reformist stirrings emanating from outside Kashmir, which were then articulated by the new, albeit miniscule, small Muslim middle-class. The Kashmiri Muslim reformists were influenced by a range of new voices, including the Aligarh movement, the madrasa at Deoband, various Punjabi Muslim organizations, and the heterodox Ahmadi community. Many of them were in the forefront of advocating modern as well as Islamic education among the Muslims of the state, and played the role of leaders in demanding Muslim rights and in opposing the Dogra regime. Through their writings, speeches and organizational efforts they developed a discourse of rights of the Kashmiri Muslims based on an Islamic vision of a just society.

The growing salience of Islam as the defining element of Kashmiri Muslim identity did not mean, however, that internal differences were somehow solved. In fact, in some respects, they were only further exacerbated, with the emergence of new intra-Muslim religious differences. Zutshi describes how Muslim reformists bitterly critiqued the custodians of the Sufi shrines for making a living off the credulous, for various un-Islamic beliefs and practices that they upheld, for ignoring the real-world plight of the common Muslims and, in the case of some, for collaborating with the Dogra regime. In turn, many custodians of the shrines attacked the reformists as ‘anti-Islamic’ or ‘Wahhabi’, appealing to the authorities to ban their activities. In addition to ‘sectarian’ differences were personality clashes, such as between the Mirwaiz of the Jami‘a Masjid in Srinagar and the Mirwaiz of the Shah-i Hamadan shrine, both of whom sought to present themselves as the true representatives of the Muslims of the state.

The movement for self-determination of the Kashmiris entered a new stage in the 1930s, with the setting up of the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, and then the National Conference. Zutshi critically examines the politics of these two groups, and the differing agendas that they proposed, looking particularly at their different understandings of Islam and Kashmiri identity. She then draws her study to a conclusion by examining the dilemmas facing the Kashmiris and their relationship to Islam and national identity in the aftermath of the Partition. Distancing herself from any particular ‘nationalist’ position, she urges for the pressing necessity to ‘resolve the uneasy historical relationship between religion, region, nation and […] nation-states’ in the case of Kashmir. The Kashmiris, she says, ‘became citizens of India and Pakistan without acquiring the concomitant social, economic and political rights on either side of the border’. This being the case, she rightly argues, a lasting solution to the Kashmir question requires policymakers and scholars in Pakistan, India and elsewhere to ‘deconstruct Indian and Pakistani nationalist narratives and agendas in relation to Kashmir’ (p.15) and to examine the question afresh from the viewpoint of the Kashmiris themselves.