Shimla’s Kashmir Link

Born out of adversity Shimla became second home for Kashmiris fleeing Maharaja’s Begaar system, the very notorious forced labour. Even though Hari Singh fled Kashmir and marked the collapse of autocracy, the tradition of migration survived. Shams Irfan spends a day in Zamalgham village to understand how the Khans became Himachal’s identity.  

People kill time at Zamalgham market during winters.
People kill time at Zamalgham market during winters.

Nobody in Zamalgham, a small sleepy village some 30 kilometers north of Islamabad district on Kokarnag road, knew who among their ancestors first went to Shimla in Himachal Pardesh as labourer and when?

All they know is that this is something their forefathers have been doing since ages. For most of the year Zamalgham, where around twelve hundred souls live, wears a deserted look as 80 per cent of the village folk, who could do manual labour, are in Shimla.

People in Zamalgham, and those living in villages adjacent to it earn their livelihood by doing hard labour in Shimla.

One has to travel through a newly constructed road that runs thought vast paddy fields to reach the village. Once there a resounding ere silence welcomes you. Only sound that one can hear during day is of crickets harping in the woods. There are just a few shops, six of them in all, in Zamalgham, which cater to around 300 households. One of the shops, which sell almost everything from rubber slippers to poultry birds belong to Ghulam Mohammad Padday. Padday, who is in his late fifties, is seated comfortably on small sackcloth behind a wooden counter where colorful candy jars are kept for display. “This is not what I do for a living,” says Padday quickly. Since last 26 years, one year before militancy broke out in Kashmir, Padday left Kashmir and started working as a tailor with a Shimla based shopkeeper. “I take care of this shop when I am home for vacations,” says Padday. Like most of the villagers Padday has no idea who first went to Shimla to work as a potter.

Shimla has around 10 thousand Kashmiris working there in various sectors including tourism, hospitality, and as skilled and unskilled labourer etc.

Ghulam Hassan Mir, who is in his late seventies, wears a flowing salt and pepper beard. He spends his days shifting between these six shops that make Zamalgham market.

“I went to Shimla to work as a potter in 1965. I accompanied my father, elder brother and uncle,” recalls Mir.

Ghulam Nabi Ganie
Ghulam Nabi Ganie

Apart from seasonal migration to Shimla people in Zamalgham are dependent on their small agricultural landholdings for livelihood. But the main boost to local economy is from money that villagers save earn in Shimla during their eight month long stay there. “Our village is surrounded by mostly barren land. Agriculture is just a way to keep ourselves busy. It is not sufficient even for our consumption,” says Mir.

Mir being one of the eldest surviving villagers who has worked in Shimla till early 90’s says that he has heard stories from his father and grandfather about Shimla. “I remember my grandfather telling me that they used to sneak out of valley to save themselves from Maharaja’s forced labour (begari),” recalls Mir.  “He used to say that working in Shimla was better than working for Maharaja for free.”

Maharajas are gone but the practice survived. Mir recalls his days in Shimla as the golden days of his life despite hard work and distance. “People are really simple there. They trust Kashmiris a lot,” says Mir.

Till early 90’s when Mir was in Shimla working as potter, watchman, labourer etc, a great number Kashmiris had already migrated there. But the events that followed the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 made many Kashmiris run for their lives. There were just ten Kashmiris in Shimla at that time including the local shopkeeper Padday. Most of the mosques which were run and maintained by Kashmiris were abandoned and later occupied and turned into stables by locals.

Bilal Ahmad Parray
Bilal Ahmad Parray

“That was just a bad phase. Otherwise there was no threat to us or our religion as far as I remember,” feels Mir. Eight people, including Mir’s uncle who accompanied him on his first trip, from Zamalgham are buried in a small cemetery in Shimal. “During old times it was difficult to bring your dead home. So we collected money among ourselves and purchased a piece of land for cemetery,” says Mir.

But things have changed since Mir last visited Shimla. It is obligatory for every Kashmiri in Shimla get registered with the local police station before taking up any job. With very little Muslim population of its own Shimla sees the surge of Kashmiri Muslims with caution. On special days like 26th of January and 15th August, Kashmirs are supposed to attend a roll call in police stations.

Thirty-four-year-old Ghulam Nabi Ganie, who is working as a night receptionist at a hotel in Shimla besides doing day jobs like working as a potter, and tourist guide, says it’s the night life that attracted him to the place. “You can roam around the city without anybody asking you your identity,” says Ganie. The reason he preferred tourism sector in Shimla over Kashmir is the sense of security that he enjoys there. And off course he makes good money too. “I earn somewhere between 18 and 20 thousand in a month in Shimla, which is not possible here,” says Ganie.

Ghulam Mohammad Padday
Ghulam Mohammad Padday

Interestingly, Kashmiris even vote in local elections in Shimla. “We have proper voter cards. Because of this Kashmiris are pampered by almost all major parties,” says Ganie who voted for CPIM in last elections. “They (CPIM) are always there for Kashmiris. Be it monetary issue, accident, illness, police related problem, they are always there to help,” says Ganie.

There are a number of Kashmiris who have settled in Shimla permanently. “There are even Kashmiris from adjoining villages who work in police,” says Ganie.

It has become a thumb rule in Zamalgham to go to Shimla at least once for work. The money that people save during their long stays in Shimla has helped the villagers maintain a slightly better lifestyle than non-migrant villages. “I can now afford to send my kids to good schools. I now know the importance of education,” says Ganie who had abandoned his studies after passing 10th standard. “I had to support my family that is why I left my home.”   But it is the family tradition of working in Shimla that actually forced him out. Ganie’s grandfather Wali Ganie, was among the first villagers from Zalamgham who was buried in Shimla in 1955.

Despite more and more employment avenues available locally youngsters from Zamalgham still dream about working in Shimla.  Zamalgham is buzzing with life when most of these migratory birds are back during winters. With their bellies full for the year, they kill their time sitting around shops telling stories about how they roam around like free men in Shimla. How they are no more afraid of men in fatigues. These stories fill youngsters like Bilal Ahamd Parray with hope. Parray, who is in his late twenties, works as a tourist guide in Shimla. “I got really curious when I heard stories from my elders,” says Parray. It took him minutes to decide his future when he dropped out of school in 8th standard. “I wanted to earn good money like others who were working in Shimla,” says Parray.

It has become an unsaid rule in Zamalgham among youngsters who wish to marry girl of their choice to spend some years in Shimla and come back rich! “I am saving money for my marriage. I will work there for few more years before I ask for her hand,” says Parray with a smile on his face.

Ghulam Hassan Mir
Ghulam Hassan Mir

The presence of large number of Kashmiris in Shimla has evolved a sense of community among them. There were number of mosques in Shimla which were left unattended after 1947 (partition) and 1992 (Babri Masjid demolition) that were restored by Kashmiris.

Despite working hard to earn for their families Kashmiris managed to raise Rupees 16 lakh which they paid to get two mosques back from local Hindus. “Mosque at Kasumpti was turned into a stable for horses while another mosque at Jutogh in cantonment areas was used as warehouse. Now regular prayers take place at both mosques,” says Parray proudly.

As the sun starts to set behind the hillock that guards Zamalgham from west, the crowd around Padday’s shop starts to thin too.


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