Afghans have historically settled in Kashmir since the fall of Mughal Empire and even before. Umer Sofi visited a small Pashtun village that is using classroom and the Masjid to retain its traditional culture and stay connected with its roots through the internet
With Afghan hills on its back, Pakhtoon Alps on the right and the Khyber Pass on the left, the Sheikh ul Alam block of this state-run school at Wantrag in Anantnag echoes with Pashtun prayers. Giving names to the hillocks surrounding them is just an idea for the little children to remember their roots.
“These hills are not named so just because they look like them but because we originally belong to Afghanistan,” Bakhityaar, a seventh-grader Pashtun said. “Naming them after Afghan peaks is nothing but just a small effort of ours to relive our past.” Bakhityaar spares time from his off-school time to teach the kids at local Darasgah.
Wantrag is a dusky village, around 16 km from Anantnag (Islamabad). Located in a hilly belt with minimal transport connectivity, this more than 300 household village lacks any relevance to typical Kashmiri culture. It is a Pashtun village, a little Afghanistan.
With Pashtun forming the main language of the village, a Kashmiri finds it difficult to converse with most of the residents. Their living, food, habits and even the attire still reflects Afghan culture, even many decades after the village was founded by an Afghan immigrant. Pakhtoon youth are seen walking around, wearing a colourful Kurta Pyjamas, more notably groomed golden dyed hair and sometimes black eyes wearing predominant Surma.
“In 19the 20s, there was no India and Pakistan. I still remember, around 60 years back, we as children would sit together around our old grandfather every evening. He would narrate us long stories of partition,” said Baseer Ahmad Pakhtoon, 68, a local resident, who heads the Jammu and Kashmir, Pakhtoon Jirgah community. “Having visited Kashmir, the third time in the 1940s for trade, he would tell us that when partition took place, most of us, who were in Kashmir, had our dues pending with some Kashmiri traders. As the wait prolonged, fences came up and we were left here.”
Some Afghan traders, who were stuck in Kashmir, settled in Ganderbal and few travelled back to Anantnag, then a major trade centre. “Some people with whom we were trading, gave us a shelter, but not indefinitely,” Baseer said. “Then, we took to a higher plain of Wantrag and settled here”.
The community still follows the Jirgah system. It is an elected body that settles internal differences and disputes of Pakhtoons by mutual consultation. Hardly any case goes to courts. The Crime rate is almost zero. The community lives a modest life with most of them working as daily labourers. Despite being ‘reluctant’ state subjects, the government has not done anything for them.
“Even after living in Kashmir for more than 70 years, the government and even the Kashmiri society has in identifying with us,” Basheer sobs. “This is Salooki Muat-a-Dar, a stepmother’s treatment.”
“Over a lakh Pakhtoons living in Jammu and Kashmir, without any nationality, became Indian subjects on July 17,” the Indian Express reported on its front page on July 24, 1954. “Batches of them received certificates to this effect from the Kashmir Prime Minister, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed.”
Since then, the community population increased a lot. But the official intervention has not gone beyond. None of the 300 Pakhtoon families in this village has a member serving in the government, barring one gazetted officer. Most of the adult population has not studied beyond the primary level. However, the new generation is unwilling to live the life of illiterates. School apart, most of the young adults are enrolled in colleges.
But what has not happened and is unlikely to happen is the cultural assimilation. Pashtuns live within the confines of their traditional culture across Kashmir, wherever they live.
“We have tried our level best to keep our ethnicity intact,” Alamzeb Pakhtoon, 25, said. He runs a mobile phone repairing shop. “There is a bit of cultural assimilation with regard to our attire with that of urban dwellers of Kashmir. However, with regard to our social rituals and caste mixing, Pashtuns shall remain Pashtuns, though our outlook might not appear so.
“I have marked my shop on the Google maps. Once anyone’s relative comes from the other side, he gets to meet me first,” Aamzeb said. “I have managed to import this Pathani Sandal from a neighbour’s relative.” He then gets up and shows the crease of his Salwar with his Pathani Sandal.
These families live separate from their tribe for more than seven decades. But the property share of some of them still remains intact in Afghanistan. They are getting relatives but it is less frequent. Visa issues are the main obstacle, they say, alleging the government in Delhi is reluctant to provide the visa to their relatives from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Unlike past, the technology shift has helped this small community to stay tuned to their culture. Young Pakhtoons are seen holding their smart-phones, watching videos of Pashtun Songs on YouTube. “We watch and hear every new Pashtun song. Even Alamzeb, the mobile shop owner, used to sell Pashtun movies, Rs 100 rupees a CD,” Adil Pathan, 19, a student of Higher Secondary School, Mattan, said. “Thanks to the internet. We don’t rely on Alamzeb anymore. Now, we have most of our Facebook friends from Afghanistan. The internet has connected us to our roots.”
Before the cheap internet entered the smart-phones, one of the key re-connector with their culture was a set of TV channels that were free to air. Now they are connected globally.
Pakhtoons have a unique style of greeting their guests. No Kashmiri handshake or Arabian hugs. They just place both of their hands over their heart amid slight nodding. “We love each other, for we are a confined community,” Adil said. “Even our marriages are endogamous.”
Marriages are mostly taking place within the clan, especially within the caste sub-section. Marriage among cousins, particularly the first cousins are highly preferred. The most common practice in place is that of an “exchange marriage” between close paternal kin in which a sister or daughter is given and one simultaneously is taken. Marrying at a young age is still in vogue. This, however, is the key factor for keeping most of the young females away from higher education.
“We here do not marry out of our clan and our marriage is arranged solely by parents,” said Gulbaaz Khan, 21, who is married to Shahnaza. “The boy and the girl take part in any of the negotiations mostly.”
The family literally frowns upon the one, who expresses his choice for any particular partner, according to Shahnaza. Her first husband had died in a road accident. She later married Gulbaz, her dead husband’s younger brother. “The marriages with widowed sisters-in-law are common among us though there is no force involved. After all, it is a moral obligation of a brother to marry the widow of his deceased brother”, Gulbaaz boasts.
But the time is taking a toll on them. Their ethnicity is intact but their culture is losing its originality. Though most of the dishes in marriage functions are Afghani, Wazwaan has also made its modest entry. Now, inter-community marriages are also taking place.
“We are losing it now,” Bilawal Ahmad, a local school teacher, said. “Earlier, our marriages were totally endogamous, but today, some of our girls are getting married into Kashmiri homes. Neither can we nor can our Jirga community do anything to resist this. Our traditional practices are useless in front of the local laws. Earlier the case was different. The Kashmiri girls would be mostly married in our homes and would acquire the Pakhtunwali tradition. They would learn to speak Pashtun and even acquire our attire which is totally not the case now. It is only a matter of time that when the Pashtun dialect will be confined only to the Friday sermons at our mosque.”
But the small community has not given up completely. Later this month, according to Bilawal, they are launching a Pashtu newspaper that the Pakhtoon students of the village will write.
“There is an Afghan parable about a forest that caught fire, and a crow fetched some water in his beak to extinguish it. When told that this water was too meagre to even hold its flames, the crow answered: ‘when I will be asked tomorrow for what did I do to save my fellow birds, at least, I can say that ‘I tried’,” Bilawal said. “So we all are the same crows.”