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Kashmiriyat: Straight Out of the Colonial Playbook

Atal Bihari Vajpayee once said that the guiding principles to solve the Kashmir ‘issue’ should be – Insaniyat, Jamooriyat and Kashmiriyat, which meant humanity, democracy and recognition of the so-called ‘Kashmiri ethos’. These principles seem appealing to the masses but the real question is – how true are these in the context of Kashmir? Does Kashmiriyat even exist (or ever has existed) in the valley or is it just another colonial tactic? Before answering this question, it is vital to understand Kashmir’s history and identity, so that one can argue the relevance of these so-called ‘guiding principles’. 


Before evaluating the colonial and anomalous character of Kashmiriyat, it is crucial to carefully examine the intention behind its creation and popular perception in the Indian imagination. Karan Arakotaram (2019) comments that ‘the idea of Kashmiriyat’ was pushed forward to highlight ‘the unique history of the Kashmiri people, the syncretism of various religious beliefs in the Vale, and the historical peace between different religions and ethnicities in the Vale’. Hence, Kashmiriyat was introduced to give a secular touch to Kashmir but, what is inherently colonial about this move or act of secularising Kashmir? To answer the same, Japanese anthropologist Toru Takahashi (2013) writes that Kashmiriyat was a tactic used by India after the partition of 1947 to fulfill its two main goals – first, to portray itself as a secular independent nation and second, to justify its heavy military deployment in Kashmir. 


In essence, Kashmiriyat was fabricated to use Kashmir as a secular band-aid to the fantasy of the Indian nation, wounded by the violent partition. It is used to legitimize the ‘secular urge’ of the Indian nation to protect ‘good Kashmiris’ from the aggressive neighbouring state of Pakistan and also the ‘bad radicalized Kashmiris’. Good Kashmiris are the ones that fulfill the criteria of India’s secular imagination and bad Kashmiris are simply, the ones who demand the recognition of their right to self-determination. 


Firstly, the idea of ‘self-rule’ has always been central to the political and social foundations of Kashmir. Originally, the concept of political autonomy took shape to resist the foreign or alien forces and such ideas grew in popularity during the anti-imperial and anti-feudal struggle. Prakash Chander (1985) comments that in this era, the Kashmiri nationalism was autonomous because the ‘specific popular consciousness in the minds of the people’ in Kashmir ‘was in many ways different from the dominant form of national consciousness in India, especially in respect of the anti-feudal struggle’. Further, according to Rekha Chowdhary (2012), the evolution of Kashmiri nationalism and its strong relationship with the sentiments of ‘self-rule’ and ‘political dignity’ is vital in understanding the dynamics of ‘Kashmiri response in 1947’. Keeping the essential difference of both the nationalisms, i.e. Kashmiri and Indian nationalism, in mind, the nature of Kashmiri response in 1947 stood upon the pillars of Article 370 (now, revoked) and Asymmetrical Federalism, where the state of Jammu and Kashmir (now, Union Territory) enjoyed more powers or degree of autonomy that other constituent states, at least on paper. 


I have seen people finding the demand for the right to self-determination of Kashmiris quite amusing, because how is such a thing possible in a globalised world like this, where people have moved beyond the concept of decolonization and the desire for independence? How is separatism still a thing when the West does not care about it? Are we not so-called global citizens? As Kashmiris, we are taught that freedom is unachievable by the human rights defenders – we should fight against AFSPA but not the settler colonialism, we should talk about human rights but not the right to self-determination, we should find a way to compromise for the sake of our future, our children’s future and yes, Kashmir’s future. But this claim is unquestionably colonial. And, Kashmiriyat sounds like one of these tactics, picked straight out of the colonial playbook.


Specifically, Kashmiriyat doesn’t fit into the ambit of Kashmiri history. It’s an anomaly, and it creates a disorder. Kashmiri Pandit anthropologist T.N. Madan (as cited in; Chohan and Aamir, 2020) wrote, ‘the first thing to emphasize is that Kashmiriyat is not a Kashmiri word. It may not, therefore, be claimed to be a native category of perception. It is an artificially produced clone of Punjabiyat and a recent coinage of not earlier than the 1980s’. While Kashmiriyat is not even a Kashmiri word, going by the definition, it stresses the elements of ‘peaceful co-existence’ and ‘syncretism’ in Kashmiri culture and society. It doesn’t emphasise the religious composition of Kashmir and doesn’t fit into Kashmir’s society, where the majority’s religion, i.e. Islam, plays an important role in shaping popular public opinion.


Dr. Usman W. Chohan and Omer Aamir (2020) also contend that Kashmiriyat offers a ‘frighteningly reductionist view’ of Kashmir as ‘first, it is a politically engineered term constructed and inserted by an occupation force, akin to the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda by Belgians, but with no such staying power. Second, Kashmiris were keenly attuned to world events such as the dissolution of pan Islamic polities (like the Ottoman Empire) and to the class violence that had religious undertones (a Hindu bourgeoisie over a Muslim proletariat)’. This brings us to the question of why there is a tendency among people to ‘secularize’ Kashmir and Kashmiris. Why are Kashmir’s history and Kashmiri identity tweaked and twisted to become the secular symbol for the Indian nation? Why are Kashmiris beaten, tortured and killed to adhere to this abusive secularism? 


It must be acknowledged that Kashmir is not a secular paradise, fantasy or honeymoon. It is a real place where a power apparatus functions between the majority community and other minorities. Religious orthodoxy, sexism, homophobia, discrimination against minorities are present in Kashmir and so is the state-sanctioned violence and constant abuse. Kashmiriyat doesn’t accept the reality of Kashmir and sells a false idea of Kashmir to the outside world. We can also see the same pattern in popular Indian media and culture, where Bollywood films show their ‘cine-patriotism’ by misrepresenting Kashmir and Kashmiris terribly. They portray Kashmiri bodies in two forms to the outside world – first, typically as a houseboat owner who guides and helps outsiders by giving them a shikhara ride, singing an old Kashmiri song, with a bright smiling face and second, as a Muslim male terrorist, who is radicalized, barbaric in his acts and wants to distort the ‘peaceful co-existence’ of the valley. 


I do believe that this is ‘frighteningly reductionist’. It is frightening because as a Kashmiri if you are one step away from the ideal perception of a Kashmiri being, you are conveniently thrown into the category of Kashmiris to be cleansed for peace and ‘normalcy’. You are stripped off of any control, opinion or rights. And the most frightening reality is that this is the place where most of the Kashmiris lie. Kashmiriyat legitimizes military impunity, sedition laws, custodial killings and military deployment because Kashmiris are not these ‘happy houseboat owners’ and anything apart from that is punishable in Indian imagination and laws. Kashmiriyat – its meaning, philosophy (if any, then colonial), origination etc. is not Kashmiri at all. It is a colonial concept, awkwardly positioned in Kashmiri history, doing nothing but distorting it further. It’s part of the outsider’s imagination and cannot be located anywhere in conjunction with Kashmiri history and identity.

Sabahat Ali Wani

Sabahat Ali Wani is a writer and researcher from Kashmir. Her research interests include politics of war and conflict, gender and sexuality, feminism and conflict analysis. Currently, she studies as a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.

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