Is there a J&K Identity? 7 February 2014


Is there a J&K Identity?     7 February 2014

A big South Asian issue is people’s national identity. Individuals, states, or disgruntled citizens aspiring to acquire statehood, all have some factor that encourages, causes or forces them to cohere. This factor may be shared history, geography, religion, culture or language—actual or perceived. Sometimes, however, people’s identities, and their associated aspirations, are contested, unrequited or suppressed by the state. Some subcontinental instances include Sikhs in India, Pakistani Muslims, and J&K-ites in militarily- and politically-divided Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Historically, as the British departed the subcontinent in August 1947, they imposed new identities on subcontinentals, all of whom previously had been ‘Indians’. Local politicians, chiefly in the Congress Party and the Muslim League, agreed to this imposition. One significant group that lost out in 1947 was Sikhs, with large numbers (along with Hindus) moving from western Punjab, which became part of Pakistan, to join brethren located in northern India. The Sikhs’ move occurred partly because, unlike Hindus and Muslims, they failed to obtain a separate homeland in 1947. Given their stark choice of staying in ‘Islamic’ Pakistan or joining ‘Hindu’ India, Sikhs in western (Pakistani) Punjab chose India. They felt more compatibility with Hindus than with Muslims, partly because many Indians considered the Sikh ‘religion’ to be a sub-set of Hinduism, even though Sikhs had sought to assert themselves otherwise from the 1900s. Some Sikhs thereafter displayed disgruntlement with New Delhi a number of times. In 1966, the Indian Government placated this identifiable, and militarily- and economically-important religious minority by dividing greater (Indian) Punjab into a smaller Sikh-dominated state of Punjab, and the neighbouring states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. In the 1980s, motivated by religion and feeling alienated, some Sikhs sought an independent Sikh nation of Khalistan, or the Land of the Pure, a slight to Hindus’ desire to practice ritual purity and to the Urdu meaning of the word ‘Pakistan’. In 1984, New Delhi militarily defeated these Sikhs by storming the Golden Temple and, thereafter, by utilizing effective, but often brutal, police actions. Placated, Sikhs currently appear to be content being Indian citizens.

Sometimes a group’s identity may be contested. This is currently happening with considerable violence in Pakistan. For many years after 1947, Pakistanis debated whether Pakistan should be a state for Muslims or an Islamic state. During General Zia’s rule of Pakistan (1997-1988), Pakistanis increasingly appeared to want Pakistan to be an Islamic state. In recent years, the debate has been to determine the version of Islam that Pakistanis and their nation should follow. Concurrently, Pakistani Muslims of various persuasions and intensities have been seeking to impose their interpretation of Islam on the nation and its people, 95 per cent of whom profess to be Muslims. Some groups, such as Sufis or moderate Muslims, have engaged in a non-violent struggle. Other groups comprising Sunnis, such as the Taliban or the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba (the Army of the Prophet’s Companion), motivated by ‘fundamentalist’ interpretations of Islam such as Deobandi, Salafi, Wahabi, Ahl-e-Hadith or even Barelvi (which supposedly is more tolerant), have been seeking to impose their will by violent means. Increasingly, these hardline Islamic elements have brutalised Pakistanis. Particular targets have been Shias, who comprise some 20 per cent of Pakistanis, and Ahmadiyyas, both of which groups are considered to be apostates by hardline Sunnis. Sometimes Christians and Hindus have been targetted, including by invoking Pakistan’s (pro-Islam) Blasphemy Law. In some areas, Islamic hardliners also have targetted liberal or moderate Pakistanis engaging in activities deemed to be unacceptable. This includes ‘shrine worship’, dancing or movie-going. Similarly, deadly terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, collaterally have killed or harmed innocent Sunni Pakistanis. The Taliban’s violent anti-social campaign has been so successful that its representatives are now engaging in peace talks with the Pakistan Government.

Although the issue of how ‘Islamic’ the Islamic Republic of Pakistan should be is far from resolved, the Pakistan Government-Taliban talks legitimize and empower the Taliban. Conversely, they make moderate Pakistanis—who comprise the bulk of Pakistan’s citizens—nervous. The serious issue of Taliban-type violence could claim further ‘victims’, physically and politically, in Pakistan. Caution is required. As disgruntled East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis showed in 1971, Islam is not a monolith. Similarly, disgruntled Muslim Balochis, some of whom, despite their religion, want independence from ‘Islamic’ Pakistan, could further split this nation. The Balochis’ cause would be enhanced if ever the Pakistan Army has to fight its various opponents—Taliban; Balochis; Indians; anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan; even hardline Islamic elements in Punjab—concurrently on numerous fronts. Time will tell.

Sometimes a group’s identity may be foisted upon it. Consider India’s Untouchables or Dalits and Pakistan’s Mohajirs (refugees from India and their descendants). A third ‘group’ is J&K-ites whose circumstances since October 1947 have compelled them to regard themselves as Indians or Pakistanis. Recently, when talking in Islamabad with some J&K-ites from both sides of the Line of Control (LOC), I (surprisingly) discovered that they have a sense of a distinct J&K identity. This arises because their forebears were subjects in the unified princely state of J&K that existed from 1846 to 1947. (Interestingly, J&K’s total ‘age’ of 101 years makes it a third older than post-partition India and Pakistan.) Over time, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s pursuit of independence for all of the former princely state has helped to rekindle a J&K identity. J&K-ites have been coalesced by India and Pakistan’s inability to resolve the Kashmir dispute—to J&K-ites’ detriment. A final, and important, factor has been the India-Pakistan agreement to open crossing points in J&K to allow J&K-ites to travel to, and trade with, the other ‘side’. This has enabled J&K-ites to get know one another again.

Any development of a post-1947 J&K identity has ramifications for India and Pakistan, particularly should this identity become widely entrenched among J&K-ites. Both nations may find themselves having to deal with an increasingly ‘together’, in more ways than one, group of J&K-ites. This, vicariously, could weaken their respective positions in relation to obtaining control of this bitterly contested region.

Christopher Snedden
7 February 2014


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