Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Identity for Kashmiris

Identity for Kashmiris
Dr Shabir Choudhry 31 May 2007

No matter what my neighbours think of this but my identity and culture are important to me, even if they think it is against their ‘national interest’ to recognise my identity and respect my culture. As a human being we all need identity, recognition and sense of belonging is very important. Society is made of different social, cultural and ethnic groups. All groups have some distinct identities and cultural and historical traditions, and these differences should be recognised and respected.

Depending on how one deal with these differences, this could be a source of strength and richness to society. In every society there are problems, and in a multi cultural society problems could be of different nature. But one thing is sure that problems do not go away by ignoring them. We need to formulate appropriate policies to deal with these differences.

Culture could be of two kinds: Material Culture and Symbolic Culture. Material Culture includes arts, architecture, utensils, dress, crafts, sports etc. The Symbolic Culture is about views and feelings, for example, beliefs, values, language, religion etc. These cultural values are generally associated with regions rather than religion. We as human beings associate and identify ourselves with different cultural, historical and ethnic values, and identity in that context is very crucial.

When people from former princely State of Jammu and Kashmir arrived in Britain in 1960s they used Pakistani passport as a travelling document. Many Pakistani brothers erroneously believe that this act of travelling on a Pakistani passport makes them Pakistanis. They forget that it is a travelling document, and Palestinians, like Kashmiris have no country, and they travel on Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and many other passports, and that does not take away their Palestinian identity from them.

These Pakistani brothers also conveniently forget that it is an international obligation that people of disputed areas are given travelling documents, and that does not change their national identity and there are many examples of this. Once they are countered here then they take refuge in the Two Nations Theory, and when they are told that it did not apply to Princely States and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan also agreed with this. When they are cornered here they start talking of Muslim Umma, and that we should not talk of divisions. Unity in Muslim Umma, if this Muslim Umma exists anywhere, is a separate topic and it won’t be appropriate to discuss it here.

Majority of first generation of Kashmiris who came to Britain were not educated and came here for economic reasons. Intention was not to stay here, but to earn and save some money - general thinking was to save a few lakh rupees and go back home. They were not too much concerned with issues related to identity and cultural heritage. They also accepted, without too much resentment, dominance of their Pakistani counterparts who were relatively better educated and provided some kind of leadership in the community.

This thinking however changed after mid 1970s. People decided to make Britain their new home. And second generation of Kashmiris, unlike their parents and other elders, started asserting their role and looked for their place in the society. They also developed consciousness of being Kashmiris with rich culture and history of their own, which was distinctly separate from that of Pakistan.

By and large the Pakistani community in Britain looked down at the Kashmiris as being illiterate and ‘uncivilised’. This attitude was resented and opposed by the Kashmiris, especially second generation of Kashmiris which resulted in rift within the wider ‘Pakistani community’. Differences of opinion grew sharper with time, especially when their dominance was also challenged.

It was at that time the Pakistani community leaders used their most lethal weapon, which their leaders in Pakistan have been using successfully, and continue to do so: declare that these people are ‘anti Pakistan’ and ‘Indian agents’. To most Kashmiris at that time this label was a ‘death warrant’, and still quite annoying and troublesome. This labelling meant that this person is a ‘traitor’, unreliable and must be opposed in all aspects of social, political and cultural life.

It was in 1972 when I first labelled as being ‘anti Pakistan’ and an ‘ Indian agent’; and my crime was that as an energetic and rebellious teenager I wrote some articles promoting Kashmiri nationalism and helped to establish Kashmir Youth Movement, which championed the cause of united and independent Kashmir. Apart from me there were others who were decorated with these labels, some in Britain and more of them in Azad Kashmir.

Since that day, apart from being labelled as ‘Indian agent’, I have been labelled as ‘Pakistani agent’, ‘British agent’, ‘American agent’ and ‘Israeli agent’. How many times I have been called this I don’t know; and honestly speaking I don’t care. I know what I am, and my prime responsibility is to promote the cause of people of Jammu and Kashmir, and in doing so if I am accused, abused and intimidated it is a price for being a true nationalist Kashmiri who refuses to see things through lenses provided by Islamabad and New Delhi. I must add that I am not alone who has been targeted this way, but I was among the first few who were decorated with these labels in Britain for being pro people and for speaking for rights of the Kashmiri people.

Baroness Emma Nicholson has done us Kashmiris a great favour by painstakingly producing very comprehensive, pro people and pro democracy report and getting it approved from the EU Parliament. She has now agreed to promote cause of the Kashmiris in Britain as well. She has kindly put forward two motions for debate in the House of Lords.
Baroness has requested the British Government to discuss the position and future of Kashmiris living in different parts of the forcibly divided state of Jammu and Kashmir; and whether these Kashmiris have got their basic rights and facilities and in what condition they are living.
The second motion is related to the ethnic identity of Kashmiris living in Britain. Baroness Emma Nicholson has suggested that the government should determine the ethnic identity of Kashmiris in UK. Baroness Emma Nicholson thinks that in rapidly changing situation, especially in the 21st century the rights of Kashmiris can’t be ignored.

In Britain we have Kashmiri members in Parliament (House of Lords and House of Commons), many Councillors and Mayors, and many Kashmiris wonder why they have not taken ‘trouble’ to promote cause of the Kashmiris in UK, especially supporting ethnic identity of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps they didn’t get a green signal from Islamabad and High Commission London to do so. It is generally believed that these people don’t want to annoy Pakistani establishment for two reasons: fear of being labelled and fear of losing protocol which they enjoy here and as well as when they go to Azad Kashmir and Pakistan.

The state system in Britain, as noted above, does not recognise Kashmiris as a separate ethnic group, and because of this they do not qualify for any grants or help which is generally available to ethnic groups who lack behind in education or have other problems in society. In view of Adalat Ali, Coordinator of Kashmir National Identity Campaign, not only Kashmiri people suffer because of this but it also creates problems for the British society as well.

In Adalat Ali’s view because of lack of clear sense of belonging, lack of funds and help and support available to Kashmiri youngsters, they increasingly find themselves out of jobs and are influenced by crime and delinquency. Apart from that these unemployed Kashmiri youngsters are ‘used’ by Pakistani leaders to promote their political or religious agendas. Also these ‘unrecognised’ youngsters who have little sense of belonging and clearly lack identity, are easy prey for extremist groups to recruit them and give them an Islamic identity in place of their national identity.

KNIC and Association of British Kashmiris have done a considerable work on the issue of Kashmiri identity, and with help of local people have successfully persuaded a number of Councils to recognise Kashmiris as a separate ethnic group. But this is not enough, a lot more need to be done, and I believe that Baroness Emma Nicholson’s initiative will give this campaign boost and moral support.

Writer is Chairman Diplomatic Committee of JKLF, Director Institute of Kashmir Affairs and author of many books on Kashmir. He could be reached at: drshabirchoudhry@googlemail.com

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