Wednesday, 26 March 2014

British Kashmiris Identity, Politics and Inclusion, Shams Rehman

British Kashmiris Identity, Politics and Inclusion, Shams Rehman

Publicity Secretary Kashmir National Identity Campaign (KNIC)

On 3rd March 2014, Simon Danczuk , MP for Rochdale asked the for the inclusion of Kashmiri category in national census and other data collection systems to be able to address the issues and challenges facing Kashmiri community in Britain including deprivation, under representation, discrimination and injustices. 

While no significance was given to this adjournment debate in British Media or in any other Asian media, GEO News, a Pakistani channel reported the demand for Kashmiri inclusion as a ‘shosha’. Literally shosha means circumflex but actually connoting in public narrative, especially in Urdu, Punjabi and Pahari-Pothohari languages and communities as something inferior and farcical. The accompanying report by the GEO reporter included two interviews both asking for Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. The Jang Newspaper that also has some lower level reporters of  (azad) Kashmiri background carried out surveys and claimed that majority of Kashmiris want Kashmir to become part of Pakistan rather than independent. One Kashmiri from Luton was reported as claiming that in a recent election in Azad Kashmir one pro-independence Kashmiri party got only few dozen votes and pro-Pakistani parties got the most votes therefore it is evident that Kashmiris want to join Pakistan. Then there were statements by other Kashmiris who claimed that Pakistanis have suppressed Kashmiris in Pakistani occupied Kashmiri and majority will vote for independence in any free and fair referendum. Only Wahid Akbar, a former councillor and mayor of Luton stated that recognition of Kashmiris in Britain will enable relevant departments and services to have more reliable data about Kashmiris and will be beneficial for Kashmiris. His views were included at the end of the report as a lone voice.

What is this demand for recognition of Kashmiris in Britain? Why Kashmiri? Don’t they have Pakistani passports? Did not they come to Britain as compensation to them by Pakistan government for building of Mangla Dam?  Is this not a ploy to divide Muslims in Britain? After all we all are Muslims and must not indulge into ethnicities and divisive identities. So be a British Muslim.

These are some of the questions and instructions I have received from different people at different times during the campaign for Kashmiri recognition in Britain. For me this campaign was started within few months of arriving to Britain in 1988. The venue was Oldham Racial Equality Council where I was invited to a community meeting only to make the meeting quorate.  First item on the agenda was the name of the community centre which was proposed as ‘Pakistani Community Centre’. I objected that majority of those in the meeting were from ‘Azad’ Kashmir hence Kashmiris so centre should be called Kashmiri Community Centre. Of course I did not understand the community and voluntary sectors resource allocation mechanism and the ethnic monitoring system.

Leaving the story of my personal journey aside, I went on to find out more about Racial Equality and Equal Opportunities. Presented below is the background and context in which the campaign for Kashmiri recognition was initiated. As you can see the demand for inclusion of Kashmiris has been raised in the context of ‘celebrating diversity promoting cohesion’ which means that if differences of people on the basis of which they are discriminated against are recognised and appropriate information and support is provided to individuals and communities who are lagging behind then they can be empowered to play a more active, healthy and positive role in the wider society. In this context let’s have a quick look at how the ‘identity landscape’ of Britain gradually became diverse and colourful.

Identification and labelling of immigrants has been through several changes and transformations. Initially they were simply immigrants or migrants. Then they became ‘coloured’ or blacks before asserting Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Muslim umbrella identities to distinguish distinct histories and needs. Constant campaigns by the non-white and excluded white i.e. Irish minorities brought about the laws against racism and discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity long before the inclusion of ethnic question in the national census in 1991. Here different groups of Afro-Caribbean background were recognised under the Black umbrella identity and different groups from South Asia under the umbrella identity of Asian. In the Asian category the choice included to tick Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi as defined groups and ‘Any other Asian’ for those who did not fall in these categories. 
According to the Office of National Statistics:
The census provides information on housing and population that government needs to develop policies, and to plan and run public services such as health and education. The data are also widely used by academics, businesses, voluntary organisations and the public. At the moment, the census is the only method of providing this information.
With the inclusion of ‘ethnic questions’ data about the conditions and achievements of different ethnic minorities also became available. It is this data that is used for buds for resources and services for different communities in different geographic and service areas.

This whole process if studied closely would show that after the initial radical politics against racism and equality in the streets, the identity politics was taken inside the corridors of policy making and development planning at local and national levels of governance by the newly emerging middle classes of ethnic minorities. They became the policy advisors for the relevant departments on implementation of equality agenda following the Racial Equality Laws and Racial Equality and Equal Opportunities infrastructure.

Most of the labour migration from South Asia to Britain occurred mainly from Mirpur (Kashmir), Sylhet (Bangladesh) Gujarat and Jalandhar (India) and Attock and Pothohar (Pakistan). While I have no academic study at hand to consult, it is general observation however, that the Asians who managed to gain access to policy and advisory positions in the local and national government offices  were predominantly from the urban middle class background and not from the rural areas of South Asia which form the majority within British South Asians. Since there is not only a serious lack of interaction between rural and urban regions of South Asia due to acute class disparities and cultural diversity is usually suppressed rather than celebrated which is more so in Pakistan than India, these earlier ‘representatives’ of South Asian communities within British structure made ‘representation’ with in this South Asian context rather than practicing the diversity and equality agenda of changing British society during 1970s and 80s. This ‘nationalist’ approach caused suffering for majorities within British South Asians turning them into invisible minorities.

While the equality agenda was for the inclusion of excluded and marginalised minorities in the British society, the inclusion of ethnic question in 1991 census within the context of ‘nation-state’ made it impossible for marginalised South Asians to gain access to appropriate resources, services and opportunities required for their empowerment and participation. Within these excluded and marginalised communities, the community that suffered relatively more and still suffering is the British Kashmiri community.

British Kashmiris are currently estimated around one million. Apart from about three hundred families of Kashmiris from the Valley of Kashmir in the Indian administered Kashmir, the rest of British Kashmiris originate from the Pakistani administered Kashmir. They speak Pahari language (also known as Mirpuri in Britain) and are over represented in the inner city areas across Britain with over 100,000 in Birmingham, about 70,000 in Bradford, 30,000 in Leeds, 20,000 in Luton and largest or significant minority in dozens of other British towns including, Manchester, Rochdale, Oldham, Halifax, Kirklees, Keighley, Burnley, Preston, Blackburn, Bolton, Derby, Sheffield, Nottingham and several other towns.

 The traces of Kashmiri labour migration to Britain go back to the mid-19th century when some workers left Merchant Navy ships where they worked in the coal rooms with above 60 temperature and found work as vendors and peddlers in different coastal towns of Britain.  Through these early connections many more came after the First and Second World Wars which they fought in British colonial armies and lot more came to meet the post war labour shortage in Britain. By the end of 1960s when the ancient city of Mirpur was submerged in Mangla Dam Lake the Kashmiri migration to Britain was developed into a ‘Chain Process’. 1970s was the decade of the arrival of families and from 1980s onwards of the spouses and grandparents.  Today fourth and fifth generations of Kashmiris are growing up in Britain.

Despite being one of the largest linguistic and cultural communities within South Asians, the specific linguistic and cultural aspects of British Kashmiris remained least recognised hence unaddressed. Especially in terms of language, Pahari (also described as Mirpuri) was not recognised as one if the languages of interpreting till recently. Information about the achievements and barriers in different departments remain unavailable and Kashmiris are not included in the equality impact assessment at different levels and spheres of the British society.
It was in this context that some Kashmiris who after gaining access to white collar jobs and having some understanding of the equality and diversity issues discussed this issue initially in Kashmiri Workers Association (KWA) and later formed the Kashmir National Identity Campaign (KNIC) in 1999. Representatives of different Kashmiri political and community groups were invited along with some academics and local government officers and politicians.

The campaign clearly spelled out although lack of Kashmiri recognition in Britain is a direct result of Kashmir being not an independent country otherwise Kashmiri category would have been included without any campaign as Bangladeshi was done, the purpose of the campaign remains recognition and inclusion of Kashmiris for enhancing their status and capacity as community in Britain and not to make it an issue of the self-determination in Kashmir.  That issue is being raised and projected by scores of Kashmiri organisation across Britain and KNIC is not part of that political campaign. For KNIC Kashmiris who support the ideas of Kashmir’s accession to India or Pakistan are as much Kashmiris as those who strive for independent Kashmir.

However one Pakistani newspaper ran counter campaign against the inclusion of Kashmiris in British system and we learnt from reliable sources that staff of this Pakistani newspaper was told not to publish advertisements of the KNIC regarding 2001 census on the grounds that if Kashmiris get recognised in Britain, the Pakistanis will reduce to a tiny minority. In our view it is this suppressive behaviour that spreads negativity and incite some Pakistanis against the Kashmiri recognition.

While the national census did not recognise Kashmiris fully in 2001 census the campaign has managed to achieve recognition in nearly two dozen local authorities. However, the local Kashmiris in these councils failed to use recognition for their benefits in terms of equality, inclusion and representation. No research is available but it is general understanding that Kashmiris who have managed to gain access to higher positions in British political parties depend on Pakistani embassy and consulates and always try to tow the Pakistani line on Kashmir and Kashmiris to be accepted and respected. 

What is the campaign for?
The latest adjournment debate in House of Commons by Simon Danzczuk , MP for Rochdale has certainly brought the issue of Kashmiri inclusion back on equality agenda in Britain. However, once again a private Pakistani Channel associated with the same paper which ran a campaign against  the recognition  and inclusion of Kashmiris has described the demand by Simon for inclusion of Kashmiris in national census as ‘Shosha’. Field reporters of the channel and associated paper many of whom are of Kashmiri origin are accused of distorting the demand only to please their bosses. However, it is very likely that they genuinely have not understood the purpose of this campaign and wrongly linked it with the issue of Kashmiri self-determination.

This campaign is for rights of Kashmiris in Britain as British citizens and has no direct link with the determination of political future of Kashmir. It is about equality and inclusion and not about self-determination. As per self-determination, Kashmiris in and outside of Kashmiri can vote whichever option they like. However, there is a complimentary link between the Identity Campaign and Self Determination Campaign that if Kashmiris or recognised as Kashmiris in Britain and counted in the ethnic monitoring data it will be easy for them to vote in the future of Kashmir when and IF an opportunity was provided.

With regards to being divisive for Muslim community two pints are important to be aware of. Firstly, there is a separate question in the census form on religion where religions are listed including Islam so there is no clash between ethnic and religious identities. Secondly, there were two new categories were included in 2011, one was Gypsy travellers and other was Arab.
In conclusion, the whole purpose of Kashmiri recognition campaign is for British Kashmiris to get what they are entitled to as British citizens like all other diaspora communities do and is not against Indian or Pakistani communities. It is entirely up to those British Kashmiris who are inside the British governance system to work closely with parliamentarians, councillors, officers  as well as with the Indian and Pakistani community representatives to gain greater recognition for Kashmiri community to enhance the equality and inclusion of British Kashmiri community.

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