Distant Roots

A few Uyghurs have made Kashmir their home since decades with almost no contact with their families in the places of their origin. Syed Asma reports.

The moment you step into their drawing room in their Srinagar house a different culture meets your eye. Distinct Chinese and Ladakhi designs of crockery and carpets are obvious to even a lay, indifferent eye. They also appear to be different with flatter faces, narrow eyes and raised cheeks. They don’t serve biscuits and chapattis with tea but bowls of almonds and dried apricots.

It is Mohammed Abdullah’s family and he is a Uyghur. Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims and a minority in China.

Abdullah’s father Abdul Karim, a businessman from Kashgar had migrated from China in 1945, before India’s independence.He had come to Ladakh from the western part of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region on a business trip. Karim liked the place and wanted to settle here, says Abdullah, his son. He wanted to get his wife also but she was expecting their first child so was unable to travel through Karokaram range, then the lone way for travelling from China to Ladakh.

Uyghur Muslims have been in conflict with the Buddhist population, as Muslims were not allowed to practice their religion freely.

“There was constant threat of kidnappings and killing in China,” Abdullah said quoting his father. “Karim’s younger brother was kidnapped and his body was sent home later.” Presently, Abduallah says, the condition of Uyghurs in China is far better than what it used to be. “They are now allowed to build mosques which open only for five prayer times a day, for rest of the times it is locked.Loudspeakers are not allowed. You can attend the prayers if you remember the time or you simply miss it. Like we have in Kashmir there is no Azaan (call for prayer) in China,” Abdullah says.

Karim was a religious man and wanted to practice his religion freely, says Abdullah, so he decided to stay in Ladakh. “He couldn’t get his wife and child with him, though he made many attempts,” his son said.

Kakorakam was not an easy journey for a woman or a newborn. Harsh weather and relations between India and China played major roles in distancing Karim from his first wife. He then married a local girl in Ladakh.

Meanwhile, he visited Kashmir and found out that he could relate more to Kashmiris than Ladakhis, Abdullah adds. In 1966, Karim shifted to Kashmir with his new family and built a house at Batamaloo. They later shifted to Rajbagh where they live now.

Karim could never contact his first wife after coming to Kashmir. Abdullah says he did not know until a few years before his death that his first wife had given birth to their son he never met. The son Abdul Rashid Maqsum who lives in China had tried to contact his father, the family believes.But the father and son were not aware of each other’s existence until Karim received a letter from Mumbai.

In 1980’s, Rashid on Haj pilgrimage in Arabia met a Uyghur businessman settled in India. During long conversations, Rashid told him his father’s story of migration and business that he must have learnt from his mother. As Karim was also businessman, the Uyghur from Mumbai identified him from a photograph that Rashid carried.

Rashid wrote a letter for his father and handed it over to the Mumbaikar Uyghur. However, the letter took almost a year and a half to reach Karim. As the Mumbaikar Uyghur did not have Karim’s contact numbers or address, so had to wait for someone from Kashmir to come who can take the letter to Karim.  Rashid had sent his photographs, contact number and his postal address in the letter. Once Karim received the letter, he and Abdullah contacted Rashid who later visited Kashmir but not before his father died in 1985. Afterwards Abdullah also visited his brother once.The two brothers have stayed in touch since through phone and Internet.

Abdullah claims to be the only Uyghur in Kashmir to have ever visited his family in China.He says that Karim owned hotels and shops in Kashgar but the entire property has been taken over by the Chinese government. Rashid Maqsum after many court cases has managed to have a shelter for his family. Abdullah says it was a horse-shed during his father’s times.

There are around eight other Uyghur families in Kashmir who have migrated from China decades back. Of them some live at Rajbagh, some at Karan Nagar and others at Lal Bazar localities of Srinagar.

With just a few families in the valley, Uyghur’s prefer to strike marital chords with Ladakh. “It is not compulsory to marry within an Ughyur family only. Our extended families are in Ladakh, we get a desired match from there as well,” says Abdullah. “If everything goes well we can marry in a Kashmiri Muslim family as well.”

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Syed Asma completed her masters in journalism from the Islamic University, Awantipore, in 2010. After working with Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Times, she joined Kashmir Life in February 2011. She covered politics, society, gender issues and the environment. In 2016, she left journalism to pursue her M Phil from the University of Kashmir. She is presently pursuing PhD.

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