Written by Anisa Bhutia.
In the wake of the political resurgence in the Kashmir Valley, this article discusses a community settled in Srinagar, whose identity became the subject of Indian and Chinese geopolitics. The demands made by this community for social and political legitimacy in Kashmir reveal the tension and underlying faults of the Indian democratic processes. This piece will look at how government documents consider this community and thereby enunciate the irony of citizenship and belonging.
The ambiguity of this group of people made it easier for the state to shift their identity in a manner that served the state’s larger geopolitical purpose.
Sixty-year-old Fareeda Sheikh (name changed) stays in the Eidgah Colony in Srinagar. Her sense of identity is distinct from other Tibetans. Fareeda believes her ancestors were Muslim traders from Kashmir, who settled around Lhasa and raised families there. She has a sense of pride in having returned to one’s own homeland: unlike the Tibetans (Buddhists) who fled into India.
‘Who are you?’ is often followed by the question ‘where are you from?’ For individuals or groups who keep shifting their home, this question brings its own set of politics. Such is the case with the Kashmiri Muslims in Lhasa who are now referred to as Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir. Through constant relocation and dislocation, the sense of belonging of this group has come to be shaped today by diplomatic documents, specifically the ‘White Paper’ and Kashmiri ‘State Subject’.
The White Paper I and II refers to the Notes, Memoranda and Letters Exchanged and Agreements signed between the Governments of India and China from September to November 1959. The first time the Indian government officially talked about this group was on 13th May, 1959. It was in a letter sent from the Consul-General of India in Lhasa to the Foreign Bureau in Tibet discussing the Ladakhi Lamas, Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir origin, and Indian Muslim nationals of Kashmir Origin. They were considered traders and the letter talked about registering and treating them as Indian nationals.
The Government of India supported its argument of them being Indian through claims such as “[t]hese Kashmiri Muslims never declared themselves as Tibetan or deliberately renounced their Indian Nationality.” Further, they argued that “there (was) no declaration or requirement made by the local authorities about the Indian Nationals to obtain registration or trading certificates if they were not actually traveling across the borders.”
The People’s Republic of China refuted these claims by stating all the people who had gone to India for trade or to Mecca for pilgrimage were issued transit visa by the Indian Consular General in Lhasa. Ultimately on 24th September 1959, the Note given by the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi to the Embassy of China in India, was sent. This document states that the Kashmiri Muslims who settled in Tibet were always considered foreigners as they were exempt from the poll-tax. Further, during the 1912 Sino-Tibetan conflict they were provided with white flags to indicate their foreigner status and many of their children studied in Indian Institutions (notably Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh). For Fareeda Sheikh and others, the claims made by the White Paper and the ultimate return to their ancestral homeland of Kashmir would secure for them a sense of belonging and validate their claim of being a Kashmiri. “The White Paper is the evidence of our claim of Kashmiri Ancestry” she says.
Prior to 1959, there was no requirement of choosing a nationality and the idea of citizenship had not developed in Tibet. If trade and travel were undisturbed, one could be a Tibetan, Kashmiri, Nepali or any other foreign national. For Kashmiri Muslims, on one hand, India claimed them as Kashmiri and China claimed them as Tibetan nationals. The ambiguity of this group of people made it easier for the state to shift their identity in a manner that served the state’s larger geopolitical purpose.
This group of people finally arrived in Kashmir in 1961, after a brief stopover at a town called Kalimpong, in the eastern part of West-Bengal. Kashmir was their home and they had finally arrived in their ancestral land but it was a contested one. The first of the political movements in the state of Jammu and Kashmir regarded the arbitrary rules and employment for its subjects. This resulted in the creation of what is now known as individuals being State Subjects – a political identity for the State’s people. It essentially means that only people who have this document can gain employment and possess land in Jammu and Kashmir state. This document became to be evidence of one being a Kashmiri. For the older generation, the documents would merely be a piece of paper and nothing more, it did not determine who they were. But as time passed, the absence of this document has hindered the betterment of community members.
For them, the documents they possess or lack has shaped their sense of belonging. The White Paper legitimizes their claim of being a Kashmiri whereas not having the papers that say they are a State Subject problematizes it. A careful analysis of the letters exchanged between the two governments in 1959, shows the politics at play through the terminology ‘Kashmiri Muslims’. It is important here to note the language of the letters and how this community has been addressed in the exchanges. The Indian Government added to the confusion of this group of people by categorizing them as Kashmiri Muslims and by default Indian, but by then housing them at a Tibetan Refugee Colony. On the other hand, the Chinese government claimed them as Kachi whose forefathers were Kashmiris but in the 17th Century they had become Chinese nationals (by becoming naturalized Tibetan citizens).
Today, though they claim to be back in their ‘ancestral land’, ambiguity still pervades their everyday life. In the midst of so much confusion the only two things that have remained stable for them is their description in the White Paper and their religion. This is irrespective of them having documents such as a Voter’s ID card and a Ration Card. Amidst all this frustration of in-between belonging, one of my respondents’ replies perfectly sums up the situation for me, “Regardless of you calling yourself Kashmiri a thousand times, if you don’t have the documents (state subject) no one is going to believe you.”
Anisa Bhutia is a Visiting Researcher at King’s College London. A PhD Scholar from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai she is an anthropologist who works on Border Studies, Migration, Memory and Belonging. Photo Credit: CC by Kashmir/Flickr