By Dr S Khurshid ul Islam
Valley of Kashmir is a separate geographical, social, culture and political entity. When we consider its language, culture, demography, ethnicity, economy, and religion, we find it somewhat different from its neighbours. Its separate culture reveals that this part of the earth might have grown in isolation. However, people from other places have come to Kashmir, for one or the other reasons, and settled here. But the local culture was so assertive that immigrants became part of it.
Kashmir, a great seat of Buddhism and Hinduism, started its transition to Islam from the beginning of 14th century and the acculturation took almost half of a millennium. Islam did not destroy ancient Kashmiri culture but guided the course of its development in such a manner that it eventually emerged out of the narrow waters of Brahmanism into the broad sea of Islamic humanism.
It was during this transition that was dominated by Sheikh Nuruddin Noorani and LalDedwhose association had a long-term impact. Some people even call these two saints as founders of Kashmir Identity. In the era of subsequent occupiers including Mughals, Sikhs, Afghans, and Dogras, Kashmiris welcomed new creeds but refused getting swept and overwhelmed by them. They always refused to succumb or get absorbed.
Whenever the Kashmiris got a chance, they showed the peculiar characteristics of their identity. From 1931 to 1947, the concept of Kashmiri identity got a political colour and was used by Sheikh Abdullah as a political tool. The politics of Naya Kashmiris rooted in the identity of Kashmir.
But what is Kashmir identity?
The interpretation of this concept has changed from time to time. Different people are attaching different meanings to it. Generally, the social and cultural traits of the Kashmiris have found expression in this concept. The lineage of the Kashmiri people has given them distinctive looks; the fusion and assimilation of varied faiths and cultures have resulted in their peculiar and a specific ethnicity, shaped by the climate and geographical compactness of this land. Common racial, social and cultural traits bound them closer into distinct religion grouping. This school of thought upholds the composite culture of Kashmir as an important aspect of Kashmiri identity.
Given the political split on the ideological basis, Kashmir identity is defined by section of people as per their belief. “Like the river flows from Kashmir to Pakistan as a part of nature’s dispensation, so are the people, of that enchanting river Valley,” one academic has famously written. But the Indian scholars maintain that Kashmiri identity has no independent existence and is a part of Indian culture.
Contested versions apart, the independent scholarship has always based its narrative on certain key parameters in which racial dimension is the key factor. While the discussions rest at the Aryan roots of the Kashmiri stock, there have been increasing references to the “lost” tribe of Israel getting into the maze of Himalaya. Jews and Kashmiris share similarities in their features, doctrines, rituals, activities, mentality, civilization and culture. Sir Walter Lawrence always attempted taking Kashmir’s hooked nose to the Hebrews. Debates apart, the fact remains that the Kashmiris compose a distinctive race with distinctive physical features, which clearly mark them off from the communities surrounding them.
In the last two millennia, the only variable in Kashmir identity has been the faith. It is a place where all major religions have experimented. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam have flourished here. However, in the contemporary identity debate, Islam is the faith of 97 percent population and has changed completely all spheres of human life. The concept of Kashmir nationalism always existed but it weakened during long eras of slavery and exploitation. In the twentieth century, it bounced back to the main narrative.
The location of the place cannot be discounted from the identity debate. It positioning in the region makes it’s distinct that is key to its climate and environment, fundamental for sustaining a race with particular features and habits and culture. Geographyinfacthas played an important role in preserving the distinct identity of Kashmir.
Kashmir’s perpetual struggle to exist in last more than 500 years has given a distinct historic baggage to the identity debate. It has reached a level now that Kashmiri identity is used more for its political content than cultural. At the same time, Kashmir’s unique social and cultural life possesses an individuality and national character. Preachers and invaders failed to change Kashmir’s assertive cultural basics.
Kashmir Identity is debatable with unclear meaning. But the fact remains that it is ethnic, cultural, religious, geographical, political and social in nature. It envisages varied fragments, which are evident in accomplishments in the spheres of philosophy, etiquette, behaviour, arts, crafts, poetry, literature, music, region and society. Kashmir identity is thus a product of territorial homogeneity, folk, cultural specifications, the common heritage of civilization and its linguistic identity, uniformity of the artistic, literacy and aesthetic tradition and similarly in psychological make-up as well as in dress, food habits, and other things. They are based on climatic and geographical conditions and socio-cultural trends evolved so far. Both Hindus and Muslims have restricted themselves from being absorbed in other cultures. They, therefore, build a national character and peculiar individuality of their own which they have been preserving.
(Author is Associate Professor at J&K Institute of Management, Public Administration & Rural Development, Srinagar. Kashmir Identity was the subject matter of his Ph.D. thesis.)