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What Does It Mean to Be Kashmiri?

25 October 2012 26 Comments

Inshah Malik

Inshah Malik

“We in Kashmir are not Arabs, Iranians, Turks, or Indians. We are Kashmiris, and with the acceptance that we have our own identity and narrative, we can have meaningful exchanges with the world.”


Kashmir: a place that evokes both appreciation for beauty and a horrific fear as South Asia’s most militarized zone, infested with a culture of lawlessness, impunity, and an explicit celebration of militarism. Kashmir is home to a 90% Muslim majority population and is often positioned as ‘concentrated minority,’ as against the ‘dominant majority’ of the Indian mainstream. Kashmir has been politically at war with India for its complete freedom from the dominion of India for the last 60 years, often receiving less attention internationally. As with Kashmir, its women remain hidden in a shroud of mystery and Indian propaganda.

I remember when I first traveled from Kashmir – where understanding freedom or demanding freedom was almost homologous to revolution or extremism (or at least that is the way it was represented in Indian media) – to Bombay, the economic capital of India. The nonexistence of army camps or barbed wires appeared no better to me; instead it posed a threat of ambiguity or a crisis of existentialism.

For the first time I embarked on a Bombay local train that is the heart of the city’s transportation system. I sat on an iron seat fixed to the floor with huge medieval looking nails and my eyes fixed to the fast-moving scenes replicating into new frames each second from the window. My gaze was interrupted by the shrill voice of a woman dressed in traditional Indian dress; she was frail, thin, and her bones worn out of tireless movement trying to sell daily-use articles on a train to make a living. This was when I deeply encountered poverty and abjection in India. In Kashmir, my crises had everything to do with identity and an illegal occupation, but much of the reform from our nationalist leaders had given us a breather from the cruelty of poverty. I gasped a long sigh, as if to show disdain for those responsible for the disregard of life in this desolate sense, but the undercurrent was always my resentment to Indian government for turning the heaven called Kashmir into a living hell.

Kashmiri woman protesting. Photo Credit: Hindustan Times

A middle class Indian woman sitting across to me purchased some stuff from the vendor and unexpectedly smiled at me (because of viewing me an obvious outsider). She began a conversation: “Are you Arab?” I was surprised, and wondered why she would think I was Arab, but soon enough I found the answer. My hijab (headscarf) and fair complexion was the reason. I replied “No,” and she went on guessing. “Are you from Iran?” And I said “No.” Should I have answered “I am from India?” (India claims Kashmir to be its integral part.) I said, after some thinking, “I am from Kashmir.” The word Kashmir evoked surprise on the lady’s face. Kashmir to her sounded akin to saying Afghanistan in the international context. “Kashmir is a paradise on earth!” she exclaimed (probably owing to the way Kashmir is depicted in Indian films). And thereafter she inquired, “Do we need visas to travel to Kashmir?” Her questions were in some way satisfying my own belief about Kashmir, that it is culturally, historically, and politically a separate entity that is under forceful occupation of India.

The conversation had not continued very long, when the lady began to inquire in a fearful tone about the political condition in Kashmir. In her narrative of Kashmir, she imagined it to be full of gun-wielding, bearded monsters out to kill all those who are not Muslim. This labeling of Muslims as terrorists is often thought to be an issue faced only by Muslims in the West, but Kashmiri Muslims also face this demeaning label in India. This false and negative discourse is no longer just a Western import; it has spread far and wide.

Her questions showed me that the rhetoric on Kashmir that India has used internationally has failed to have convincing results in the heartland of its nation. Indians have failed to absorb the narrative of Kashmir as a part of India. In other words, there is an ongoing disconnect between the official narrative of India and Indian people’s knowledge on Kashmir.

We in Kashmir are not Arabs, Iranians, Turks, or Indians. We are Kashmiris, and with the acceptance that we have our own identity and narrative, we can have meaningful exchanges with the world.

Inshah Malik is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Born and raised in the tumultuous years of armed insurgency in Kashmir, Inshah has been actively engaged in highlighting the problems of Kashmiri people, especially issues faced by Kashmiri women. She published research on Kashmiri women in 2011 and also runs a women’s collaborative aimed at highlighting the issues of Kashmiri women.


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26 Comments to “What Does It Mean to Be Kashmiri?”
  1. nuzhat says:

    All the best for ur courageous work Inshallah u will get success in ur work.n hope u will continue ur work.

  2. Muhammad says:

    Behtareen. Well written.

  3. Dr Mushtaq Gilani says:

    Very nice artlcle. U have to be a representative/ambassador to show in India that the Kashmir is a definite Entity different from India in its culture, politics,history & geography. It has never been a part of India.

  4. Zahoor says:

    My best wishes to Inshah Malik for calling spade a spade and Right a Right.

  5. Shilpa says:

    I pity that the woman could find you more akin to an Arab/Iranian/Middle Eastern but not ‘Kashmiri’. Reason being that you have left your Kashmiri identity, culture and tradition and have been aping Middle Eastern sense of attire in terms of head-cover(hijab). Even I have been to Bombay and traveled across length and breadth of India and I am pretty sure that there are women who are far more fairer than you are and at times fairer than the fair Kashmiri women. Nevertheless, it is solely your attire not your color which prompted that woman to ask if you are an Arab or Iranian instead of identifying you with your true identity. Had you been wearing a Kashmiri firan and the Kashmiri ‘daejj’ (the cloth covering the head) everybody would have taken you as a Kashmiri. Or even if you would have dressed up like the way Kashmiri women nowadays dress themselves-in Shalwar-Kurta along with Dupatta as a simple headcover not hijab style- people would have recognized you are Kashmiri. Many Indian women I know, at times, wear Shalwar Kurta in Kashmiri style and people call them Kashmiri. It is surprising that you are killing your own Kashmiri identity. And FYI, all women in India are not called Indian by Indians. They are called Bihari, Bengali, Keralite, Kannada, Gujarati, Punjaban, Haryanvi-Jaatni, Assami…and the list ends with 28 Indian states and 7 Union Territories. However, if you still feel the need to tell people you are not from India but from Kashmir start using ‘that’ identity, instead of ‘only’ professing it…

    • Manoj says:

      That was a fitting reply to people who threw out their own kashmiri brothers & sisters from their homes because of religious intolerance.

  6. javed says:

    inshah i m very glad to read abt ur work in afghanisthan, and very very sad to read abt assault of women by army and militants. i want to join you on ur work. will u send me a frnd req on facebook @ plz

  7. Augustine says:

    I see no difference whether u are kashmiri within or outside india.y can’t we fight 4 ur kashmiri rights like any other indian citizens, issues like whether u r indian or pakistan matters little,coz best things are things dat give life…if we undrstand human beings as persons,(life is a stupendous whole whose nature is but God d soul)if we dip deep into our past ancestors,we ‘ll find a single man n woman,there is nothing like caste or community.i dnt think we can make better d already damage society without understanding d purpose of life.all what seems to b gud n strong may not b a sweat struggle.once i also thought nagas r not indians.anwy i emjoy reading d article@

  8. Rehan says:

    Invoking identity is a very slippery terrain, and I agree with the author that her narrative is about discrimination and repression. Shilpa, I have to assume, is a Kashmiri pandit and just wanted to ask if salwar kammez is not a Panjabi culture and saree that they have embraced is any Kashmiri identity either? Also hijab is not an arab dress, it complies with the muslim dress, more over Kashmiri daej is a variant of hijab, even to this day used in tajakistan as traditional dressing, So her comment is totally misplaced. All 28-1 (Kashmir) = 27 states of indian are variations of a dominant Hindu culture.

  9. Muhammad saem says:

    Assalamoalaikum,Gud….one thing i wanna say that when that lady in mumbai asked u about that are u arab becoz of hizab u should to reply i’m a muslim…may be a better answer…. Keep try 4 ur dream! In sha allah got it.

  10. Shilpa says:

    @Rehan: I am sure you did not understand my comment properly. I am not a Kashmiri Pandit. However, I would still like to answer your question in points:

    1.) Shalwar Kameez is also worn in many places, not only in Punjab, even in Southern India. But the shape and style does vary. Shalwar worn in Kashmir is stitched in a peculiar manner, which you do not find in any other state in India. Shalwar from Punjab province of India and Pakistan, respectively, are totally different from each other. Hence, you must take special care in noticing the Kashmiri styled shalwar kameez, while using the term of this dress.

    2.) I am very much sure Hijab did not originate in Kashmir or in any South Asian country. What is Muslim dress kindly specify, because Islam itself did not originate in Kashmir or whole of South Asia. And any kind of head gear can be termed as a variant of “Hijab” like you mentioned in your comment. I would not take the risk of calling Kashmiri ‘Daejj’ the same.

    3.) I would like to advise you to kindly link your arguments in logical fashion. The percentage of Muslim population in India is only around 14-15 and counting, therefore 27 states have more Hindus. But terming the Hindu culture as dominant is fallacious statement, because Hindus do not make Muslims follow Hindu culture. Every religion and state or caste or tribe or region or country or sect follow their own culture. At times, some cultures are similar to the other. But yes, there is problem in identifying and acknowledging the ‘other’ culture if people are not enlightened and informed. For example, even in Kashmir many people found it hard to understand why am I a vegetarian. Many women did not understand and accept Namaste. But all were not like this. Therefore, it would be foolish of me to say that there was dominant Muslim culture in Kashmir, and people are discriminating and anti-hindu. Although,I can mold such specific instances to prove discrimination, repression or domination, if I would like to present a wrong picture of Kashmir or any other state.

    4.) Finally I would like to say that I was talking about specific Kashmiri Muslim woman’s identity. Saree or any other dress worn by Pandit women in Kashmir is not in question here. However, the same argument can be explained by different example. Suppose a Pandit woman from Kashmir is travelling in the same bus in Mumbai. She is wearing an off white color saaree with golden border with long open hair. What will the woman sitting next to her, call her. A Keralite woman for sure? But you cannot blame that woman if she did not identify the Pandit woman as Kashmiri Pandit and confused her to Keralite woman because many women in Kerela are very fair and wear specifically that kind of saree. even pandit women wear saaree but it has different color, style, texture, fabric, even embroidery. I hope this example can be applied in the case of Inshah Malik. And I am sure I have explained myself in a very logical manner. I would also like to advise you to kindly broaden your horizon about India, read and travel and observe India or any other country if you intend to discuss about it in an authoritative and assured manner.

  11. Rehan says:

    Shilpa: Let me adhere to your logical pattern here and clarify a few points.
    1 Invoking Diversity as a basic fabric of Indian nation is a misnomer, please do not assume I have not read on India, I must have done more than necessary due to the reality of occupation over the head of kashmiris. India is politically a hindu country and as I said much of its culture is a variant of that dominant political culture.

    1′ Salwar kameez is worn in Afghanistan too, point is if you invoke the cultural identity of kashmir it has to do with ‘pheran’ which was a cultural identity or dress also fashioned by the moghals, because ‘daej’ was compiling with the ‘requirements’ of Hijab, I suggest read something on kashmir’s history.

    2 So you mean to say Kashmiri people are not enlightened. Let me tell you KASHMIR is not INDIA, India has illegally occupied it. So If in Kashmir you did not find them understanding ‘your’ identity, their is no underlying claim of calling u ‘integral’ part. Stop being naive here.
    3. Again, Hijab is not a foreign culture in Kashmir, women ever since Islam entered valley, women have worn hijab and someone calling a Kashmiri woman. an Arab is not a problem of Kashmiri woman’s wearing hijab, it raises the real question of integration?? There is no unified India, if people dont recognize each other. If they know what kerala dress is like, they must know 70% kashmiri women wear Hijab, even in their educational institute. Unfortunate, that people can still defend india in kashmir after they killed a 100,000 in kashmir

  12. Shilpa says:

    @Rehan: You neither adhered to the logical pattern nor could you understand a word i wrote…its very much clear from your response. Eg. Where have I written Kashmiris are not enlightened?? Kindly read again. And yes, every Head Gear is a variant of the other. Hijab is also variant of different kind of Head gear. Maybe you are not aware, Christianity and Judaism precede Islam, and you must be aware women used to cover before Islam came. But Islam has come from foreign land to the Indian subcontinent. Maybe you need to read more. And whether Daejj is variant of Hija or not, it does not look like conventional hijab. Its very different. Educational institutions ask women to wear Hijab. I am surprised to see that only in recent years women have started donning conventional hijab …but in olden days they wore duppatta over head, along with salwar kameez. And even today they do it. Pheran is worn by old women, and young girls wear pheran only during winters, if they choose to. its surprising u are not aware of that?? maybe you should meet some octogenarian lot in Kashmir. Maybe u were born in 80s.

  13. Adam says:

    I am a Muslim from Hyderabad who was born and bred in the states. One great thing about my childhood was the lack of understanding of Indian regionalism. All I knew was people were India. Or they weren’t. I thought all Indians like their food khatta which is what I found out later we hyderabadis are known for. I agree with you about all of the points that u made, especially about the hijab being specifically identifiable with middle Easter woman. I also wish to ad to your points that until the British came and started classifying people in India, Indians did not view themselves as Indian. For example, hyderabadis were hyderabadi and Mughals were Mughals.
    Punjabis were punjabis and sindhis were sindhi. All that teallattered was your tribe and religion unless you lived in a cosmopolitan area like Delhi or Hyderabad. Only outsiders viewed
    Us as hindustanis because we were people
    East of the hindukush mountains. The Kashmiris as
    Well as the Pathans fall Into this category of people
    East of hindukush mountains. Even the gods everyone worshipped in so called India were varied and different.
    The point I’m trying to make is that kashmiris don’t feel Indian becUse they were never ruled by the British so thy were an I dependent kingdom just hyderbad. Many hyderabadis from the nawab era never acknowledged
    Becoming India. Which I find stupid but that is the truth. India is a manufactured hodgepodge of nations similar to europe as a continent. Where Europe was never able to Combine as one,
    India did. So
    Kashmiris may not feel Indian, but the rest of the world thinks of them as hindustanis. If a Kashmiri does t like it, you can continue to pretend that your roots are in Europe or whatever other things you wish to believe, but the rest of the world thinks of you as of the Indian subcontinent, hence Hindustani and in the 21st century that means Indian.

  14. Shilpa says:

    I completely agree with you. The first response which I posted for the write-up was invoking the identity issue simply because the author was discussing about the identity of Kashmiris. Every state in India has its own distinctive identity, and how India became India in 1947 is known to everyone, and I do not think it needs to be discussed. But people still hold on to the identity of their respective land or region. And we cannot deny that right to the people. Kashmiris also fall in the same category. Unlike rest of the Indian states which accept being Indian along with the distinctive identity which separates them from the rest of India, Kashmiris do not accept being called Indians. But the author simply discusses the identity issue, I think she must be aware of the fact that not even simple districts in India share language/culture/identity with each other, let alone states. And Kashmir falls in the same category. However, Kashmiris choose to move away from the idea called India, while others come together in a group and concoct a state called India. And here the question is not about who is Indian because everyone in India is different from Indians, but here Kashmiris must understand what is India and whom do they choose to differ from? The question of identity– the author herself abandoned the true Kashmiri identity and imbibed something which is definitely Muslim, but completely unlike Kashmiri. The identity she supposes is Kashmiri, is simply what Kashmiri women, for the past few years, seem to have adopted. Simply just like girls in Delhi or any place wear Western outfit. They can wear whatever they want, but any western outfit does not fit well with the Identity of the place they belong to. A Bengali if wears Kashmiri ‘Pheran’ and ‘Daejj’ wont be called a Bengali for sure. For that she must wear one white and one red thin bangle, then anybody would make an undoubted guess tht she is Bengali, even if she looks like White american woman.

  15. Syed says:

    Congratulation dear sister for writing such a good article on our Land. I’m shaher e khaas srinagar
    boy. I too have witnessed all that you have.

    Keep up the good work.

    Freedom , Peace , Dignity.

  16. Rehan says:

    Kashmiri Muslims are Kashmiri people who are Muslims, currently living in Kashmir or those originally with Kashmiri kinship and descent living in Pakistan. Kashmiris are ethnically and culturally closer to Central Asian culture than Indian culture with significant influence of the Persian culture. Kashmiris belong to the dardic group and their language Koshur is the only dardic language which has ancient script and is widely spoken

    Shalwar kameez was the first attempt at indianizing us, introduced by Nehru and his compatriots in Kashmi under the false banner of progress.

  17. Shilpa says:

    @Rehan : You really need to read about history of Kashmir. How would know what was the culture of Kashmir or which region did Kashmir resemble with?? were u present at the time of your great grand father?? Dont be simply a media product!! Media is extremely biased and anybody writes anything. And you need to specify when since are you locating the history of Kashmir?? from 15th century when Islam entered valley through Mogals and thus came a change in the culture of kashmir….or from Nagas and worshipers of Lord Shiva from the time of Lal Ded or Lalleshwari or Lalla?? From the time when Cameras did not exist but paintings did which gave a description of Kashmir and its culture or from the time when Gulmarg was called Gaurimarg, the meadow of Guari wife of Lord Shiva…or from the time of Panini who developed Sanskrit in Kashmir? From the time when Kashmiri was completely written in “Sharda” script which resembles Hindi or Devanagri script or from the time when Kashmiri script was entirely changed to Perso-arabic script when mogals came?? Whenever any new power structure entered Kashmir, the culture of Kashmir has witnessed change and tarnformation. From dominant Hinduism to Buddhism, to again Hinduism to Islam…these days Wahabism has entered Kashmir and since this ideology is affecting the people in great way, in the valley, Muslim women are adopting the attire of Hijab and ‘Abaya’…and leaving daejj and pheran.

  18. Adam says:

    At one point in India, Persian was The state language. India has always been a hisge podge of cultures, of which Kashmir is one of. The reason I say Kashmir is one of, prior to Islam many of the gods of the Hindu pantheon were worshipped in Kashmir and vice versa. The religion of ancient India is really the only thing that tied these diverse nations that we call India today. To say that Kashmiris are
    Different because they speak a dardik language is irrelevant because Telugu is not related
    To hindi.

  19. Junyyd says:

    One sentence to describe my land kashmir will be “Kashmiri a bleeding paradise “. . Go Endia Go Back

  20. kumi kumail says:

    @everyone commenting here, what is this chit chat bout shalwaar kameez and indian states, Kashmir is a disputed territory ( documented by UN)…. but India again and again calls Kashmir as it’s ‘Attoot Ang’ (integral part), and off course India has been able to do so for the last 60 years through the might of nearly 900000 armed personnel, involved in harrasing, humiliating, raping, torture and innocent killings of Kashmiris.

  21. Shilpa says:

    Shalwar Kamiz chit chat originates from the arguments made in the article by its author…kindly try to read them and then comment.Try to find out the source of information/discussion,instead of teaching others history/politics/international relations. And take pains in reading an article thoroughly before giving half TB of your brain to the comments posted in response to the article. Maybe you will get the hang of “CHIT CHAT”

  22. jawaad says:

    Looks like shilpa cant seem to put it at rest that kashmiri muslims are fairer than average Indians. Be assured, fair doesnt mean pretty, it just mean fair. Maybe if you read kashmir’s post islamization period, people from Turkey, Iran and Central Asia have come and settled in Kashmir bringing with them trends and cultures from their places thus making Kashmir an amalgam of all these cultures.Though I like it, kashmir has got such wide variety in its culture, it does little to make me proud. I am proud though, but of the muslim past of Kashmir. And I am happy it got Islamized. And people here, hijab,niqab with all their varients are a symbol of pride for us. And yes, not for their cultural values but for the Islamic ones. People like shilpa tend to show open hatred for Islam, that shouldnt make us hide what we are. Muslims before kashmiri or indian or persian.

  23. denis says:

    India is diverse in all forms.if u consider any two states of india u could find at least a hundred differences. So even if kashmir is different it can be a part of india.indians love kashmir and her people. In my personal opinion I wouldn’t mind if kashmir becomes independent .but I, we, indian gvt are much concerned about the future of kashmir.
    Kashmir was asscended to india only because of the attack from pretty sure pak will invade kashmir valley if kashmir is indepeindependentindependent.we all know about pok azad kashmir n the situation there.
    I Appreciate ur views with all my heart but really wish kashmir to be with india and we all live together in fraternity.

  24. Rohit Bhat says:

    Respected Mam ,
    Its true that the current scenario of Kashmir is anti Indian but kashmir was made hope by the mystics and saints of saraswati river which was in India,Kashmir was the place from where Bhudhism native religion of India dominion was spread to china,korea and tibet.So the actual truth is that the current inhabitants donot want to live under the government of Indian Union but if in your efforts to get freedom you totally deny Kashmir of its Indian connection than my friend your cause is wasted as it will only create confusion and a sense of insecurity among the monority \

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