Communities and Identity Formation:
The post-colonial Kashmiri experience in Britain
Zafar Khan, University of Luton
Central to the question of integration and assimilation of post-war settler
communities in Britain is the increasingly salient issue of identity.
The western world since World War II has become both racially and ethnically
increasingly heterogeneous (Glazer and Young, 1983), which makes the question
of identity all the more relevant. The maintenance and formation of identity
and community mobilisation within the diasporic minorities is a multi-dimensional
process which takes place as a consequence of social, cultural and political
factors both internal and external to diasporic minorities.
This paper discusses Kashmiris in Britain whose political and social mobilisation
provides an important basis for looking at the formation and maintenance
of collective identity. The post-colonial period in particular has raised
a number of questions on identity and ethnicity in relation to the Kashmiris,
because, unlike most other South Asians, Kashmiris in Britain have had
to forcefully assert their identity and communal persona, or, alternatively,
their collective and national identity.
The question of national identity is significant on account of the uncertain
political and constitutional status of their region of origin and its
division between India and Pakistan, who strongly contest the ownership
of the territory. The issue is inextricably bound up in events in both
the colonial and post-colonial periods.
However, the Kashmiri presence in Britain needs to be seen in the broad
context of post-war migration to Britain from her former colonies. For
many centuries Britain has welcomed many religious, cultural and political
groups and individuals who left their native lands on grounds of persecution,
conscience or for economic reasons. Traditionally, the Irish, the Jews
and earlier the Huguenots, formed the main influx of these migrants to
Britain. However, it is only subsequent to World War II that Britain experienced
a large flow of migrants from her former colonies, who subsequently played
a key role in the reconstruction of the peace-time British economy.
A key feature of this migration was that for the first time in the history
of Britain, relatively, a large number of migrants belonged to non-western
religious, cultural and social value systems. Not only were these migrants
visibly different, but they professed and adhered to assertive religious
and cultural systems. Inevitably, therefore, this process of migration
has had major consequences for both the settlers and the indigenous communities
of Britain .
Despite recognition of the religious, social and cultural diversity of
Britains post-colonial society, accommodation of the immigrants
has been achieved largely within the overall dominance of the majority,
the British mainstream. Such a dominance/polarisation and disparity in
power has imposed a homogenous societal mainstream framework which has
an impact on the processes of 'integration', 'assimilation' and indeed
identity. It can be said, therefore, that a majority/ minority dichotomy
essentially becomes a process of conflict and that the process of accommodation
and compromise, and hence integration, takes place within this framework
of competing claims. Thus, it is in this context that the accommodation
of difference becomes material to our discussion. (Parekh, 1998)
As Parekh argues:
|A good society
should aim to ensure equal treatment to all its citizens, including
its cultural minorities. However well-intentioned and generous it
might be, its capacity to do so is limited. first it has a particular
character and cultural identity which it has acquired over the centuries
and which is deeply woven into its way of life. It is therefore necessarily
partial to its way of life and cannot treat all its constituent ways
of life impartially. (Parekh, 1998: 410)
Parekh also recognises the limitations of going beyond a certain
point without losing their coherence and causing widespread disorientation
and resentment. (Parekh, 1998) It would appear that mainstream British
society is willing to accommodate but only on the basis that its own distinct
character can remain intact. The pressures on this distinctiveness, however,
are likely to come from equally assertive minority communities, as indeed
is typified by post-colonial settler minorities in Britain.
Ellis's study of communities and services in the British city of Coventry
provides a useful example of how ethnic and national identity is asserted
by minority communities both in relation to their interactions with the
mainstream dominant society as well as with other minority communities.
(Ellis, 1991: 378) This research has given credence to the view that identity
formation and its maintenance are affected by a number of contributory
factors within majority/minority dichotomy and inter-community contexts.
Roger Ballard, in reference to the South Asian diaspora, also observes
that: Britain is now a visibly multiracial society, in the sense
[that] its citizens now include 2.7 million people who are either wholly
or partly of non-European ancestry'. (Ballard, 1994: 1) Also, secondly
and just as importantly, it has become a much more overtly poly-ethnic
society. Commenting on South Asians in particular he points out
that, inspired as they are by cultural, religious and linguistic
traditions whose roots lie far beyond the boundaries of Europe, the new
minorities have significantly expanded range of diversities covered by
local British lifestyles.
Ballards analysis, however, like other traditional approaches to
post-colonial studies, does suffer from a blanket approach focussing
on generalities and large collectives which ignores particularly
the politically oriented diversity of South Asian settlers. His approach
and analysis uses broad nation-state categories of India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh for ethnic and national definitions despite the fact that such
categorisation is not appropriate in the case of Kashmiris. (Ali, Ellis
and Khan, 1996: 232-3) He does, however, refer to communities of South
Asians within this framework and notes that as many as two thirds
[of Pakistani Punjabis] originate from Azad Kashmir and the Potohar region
[of Pakistan] (Ballard, 1994: 20), quite wrongly ascribing Punjabi
identity to the Azad Kashmiri settlers.
[Editorial note: The word Azad or free
is used by the Government of Pakistan to describe the region of Kashmir
it administers. Offering a different interpretation of events at the time
of partition of British India, the Government of India describes the region
as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir or POK].
Ballard notes, however, that contrary to the expectations of most
of Britain's white natives, settling down has not taken the form of a
comprehensive process of assimilation, or even an approximation to it.
(Ballard, 1994: 5) He argues that both the older generation of settlers
and their British born offspring are continuing to find substantial inspiration
in the resources of their particular cultural, religious and linguistic
inheritance, which they are actively reinterpreting in order to rebuild
their lives on their own terms.
The Kashmiris in Britain
Ballard's broad analysis on South Asian presence in Britain nevertheless
has relevance to the Kashmiri diaspora. Thus, before aspects of Kashmiri
identity are addressed, it is appropriate to briefly outline the position
of Kashmir and the Kashmiris in Britain. An overwhelming number of Kashmiris
in Britain are from Azad Kashmir, which is part of the former state of
Jammu and Kashmir (Full Name) under Pakistani control. As Ballard notes,
the Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir make up something like two thirds of the
'Pakistani' migrants in Britain. Thus any analysis of Kashmiri activism
or identity in Britain is bound to centre around the Azad Kashmiris. On
the whole very few people from the Indian held part of Kashmir have migrated
at all. Those who have are either professionals or skilled personnel sitiuated
in the Gulf.
Dr Majid Siraj, a leading surgeon from Indian controlled Kashmir now based
in Leeds, notes that: it was very difficult for working class people
to obtain passports in Indian held Kashmir. The whole process could take
up to two years with numerous visits by the police to check on the applicants.
(1) He believes that, unlike the Pakistan Government, the Indian Government
actively discouraged people from the Indian controlled part of Kashmir
to migrate. He suggests that there were only around 150 families of Kashmiris,
including around 20 families of the Pandits (Hindus), from Indian held
[Editorial note: The majority of the people in the region are Muslim
while Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs form significant minorities].
According to Majid Siraj, there are an estimated one thousand families
from Indian-held Kashmir in the USA. Even in the Middle East, unlike Azad
Kashmiris, fewer people have left the territory under Indian control.
Siraj believes that because of the disputed nature of Kashmir and political
instability, India has not encouraged ordinary people to migrate.
For the past fifty years a de facto division of Kashmir between
India and Pakistan has existed. They have fought two of the three wars
against each other since their independence from Britain in 1947 over
The history of post-colonial Kashmir is the history of two territories
with different patterns of development but with the populations of both
areas [Indian and Pakistani controlled respectively] continuing to dispute
the division. (Ellis and Khan, 1999c: 270) A United Nations sponsored
armistice as well as mutual agreements between India and Pakistan have
kept an uneasy peace with periodic military flare ups across the cease-fire
line. Needless to say, the social, cultural, political, economic and geographic
dislocation of Kashmiris continues as a result of this conflict.
At the time of British withdrawal and the independence of India and Pakistan,
British rule extended to only fourteen provinces of united India. Apart
from these provinces there were some 565 princely states of varying sizes
which enjoyed a direct relationship with the British Crown under the doctrine
of British 'paramountcy'. The Nawwabs and the Maharajas (rulers) of these
states exercised more or less full sovereignty, although the scope of
this was considerably undermined by unfavourable direct treaty arrangements
with the British Government. Thus, with the end of British rule in the
sub-continent and the emergence of two successor states, India and Pakistan,
the rulers of the princely states were advised to either join India or
Pakistan, with reference to the wishes and interests of their ' subjects'.
As the British paramouncy lapsed over the princely states, at least in
legal and constitutional terms, this meant that if the rulers wished to
remain independent they were entitled to do so.
In reality, however, most states and their rulers acceded to either India
or Pakistan without difficulty. Problems arose only in the case of a few
states, which included the state of Jammu Kashmir. Alistair Lamb offers
some useful insights on this period in the history of the sub-continent
by arguing that: Jammu Kashmir differed in one important respect
from other princely states, [in] that it was rather better situated geographically
to exercise a more than purely hypothetical choice as to its future.
(Lamb,1994: 7) Lamb's reference here is to the geographical links with
the outside world of Kashmir. Unlike other princely states, Jammu Kashmir's
geography greatly added to its attraction to the Maharaja whilst remaining
independent of both India and Pakistan.
In other words, this situation could have led to the emergence of a third
sovereign dominion in the post-colonial British India. However, it is
not relevant to dwell on this point at length here; suffice it to say
that post-colonial Indian and Pakistani states were not likely to let
the Maharaja Hari Singh exercise his choice. The Indo-Pakistan dimension
and its influences in Kashmir created a climate of uncertainty and the
ruler became indecisive which resulted in an uprising against his rule.
[Editorial note: India has maintained the view that outside forces,
especially those of Pakistan, were responsible for these events].
The Maharaja asked for help from India which insisted on his accession
to the Indian Union which he did, thus bringing about an open conflict
between India and Pakistan. The ensuing open warfare resulted in the de-facto
division of Kashmir and its people. (Lamb, 1994)
The process of migration
As noted, most Kashmiris in Britain are from Azad Kashmir, and form an
estimated two-thirds of those who are officially considered as Pakistanis.
Since Islam is almost the only religion in Azad Kashmir, overwhelmingly
the Kashmiris in Britain are Muslims. The process of Kashmiri migration
to Britain took place in phases. The most important phase was from mid
1950s to 1960s. Migration took place from selected areas of Azad Kashmir,
in particular from the districts of Mirpur and Kotli.
There are a number of economic, social and political factors by which
the process of migration can be explained. Kashmiris as economic migrants
like other South Asian and Commonwealth immigrants were affected by the
push pull effect as well as other factors which subsequently
developed into chain migration. (Anwar, 1979 ) As economic migrants, Kashmiri
men left their homeland with the intention of working in Britain for a
short period and returning with savings which would be used to improve
their standard of living. Kashmiri migrants first settled in the industrial
heartland of Britain, mainly in towns and cities such as Bradford, Birmingham,
Manchester, Leeds and Luton on account of the availability of unskilled
work. At this stage Kashmiri migrants considered their presence in Britain
as transient rather than permanent, thus obviating any necessity for assimilation
Historically, the two exporting areas of Kashmiri migration had a tradition
of sending at least one member of each family into other parts of the
sub-continent for work to supplement the income of the extended family.
From the district of Mirpur (of which Kotli was a sub district until the
early 1970s) men joined the British merchant fleet operating from Mumbai
( Bombay) as stokers and other arduous roles. Particularly during both
the World Wars Kashmiris from Mirpur became an important source of recruitment
for the British.
Kashmiris also joined the armed forces of British India and like thousands
of other servicemen from the sub-continent, served in the war with Allied
forces in many parts of the world, both as part of the Kashmiri contingent
and directly serving in the British Indian army. At the end of both World
Wars some of those working on ships settled in Britain. These early Kashmiri
migrants (generally referred to as Mirpuris in the literature on migration)
became known as the 'pioneers'. (Anwar, 1979) The pioneers became an important
factor in chain migration subsequently from Azad Kashmir in the 1950s.
Arguably, the central determinant of this phase of migration is considered
to be the the construction of the Mangla dam, on the confluence of the
river Jhelum and its tributary the Poonch. The share of water from the
intricate and unified irrigation system which the British had built during
the nineteenth century for the Punjab became a source of dispute between
India and Pakistan after de-colonisation in 1947. Thus under the auspices
of the World Bank and Sindh Waters Treaty, alternative water sources were
harnessed for newly created Pakistan. The construction of the dam at Mangla
provided much needed power for industry and control of irrigation in the
adjacent Pakistani province of Punjab. Construction of the dam at Mangla
(completed in 1968) however, meant that some of the most fertile land
in Mirpur including the old town of Mirpur itself was submerged under
a hundred feet of water.
The construction of the dam resulted in the displacement of at least twenty
thousand families. The displacement of population, and the tradition of
moving away from the region in search of work, contributed towards migration
to Britain. The little compensation that the affected families received
was put to use either for a passage to Britain for a member of the family
or to acquire a piece of land in Pakistan. The process of migration which
could be described as chain migration thus came into operation. In other
words, Azad Kashmir had a large surplus, able and willing labour force
which Britain needed in the 1950s and 1960s. (Ellis and Khan,1999 a: 123)
Furthermore, British immigration controls in the 1960s contributed to
the nature of settlement, particularly the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration
Act. This Act, while placing restrictions on new economic migrants, nevertheless
created legal opportunities for those already in Britain to bring in families
and dependants. With the arrival of wives and children the 'transient'
nature of single male migrants became steadily settled and permanent,
thus bringing about new dimensions and imperatives for migrant settlers
in social, cultural and religious domains.
Articulation of identity
Identity is a product of varied factors. Kashmiri identity formation and
identity consciousness is a product of a number of influences internal
to the social organisation of Kashmiri society. These include the system
of biraderi (brotherhood), religion, and the sense
of being a Kashmiri. The unresolved nature of Kashmir's future status
however, has impacted more than any other as a factor in this context
in recent years. Thus this appears to be a distinctive marker of identity
articulation within the Kashmiri diaspora.
Minorities by definition face issues and experiences in dominant societal
structures which challenge their strongly held beliefs and values, thus
determining, on the one hand, the nature and level of individual and collective
integration, and on the other, influencing social and cultural forces
which impact on identity formation. Broad majority/ minority dichotomies
may also fuel insularity. In turn, this situation can lead to greater
group cohesion in a minority, thus providing the impetus to resist social
and cultural hegemony of the majority. Such a reactive process may well
become a major contributory factor in the maintenance of values, beliefs
and, of course, identity.
Mucha argues that identities can be ( and at least partly often
are) constructed by social actors. Social relations are very often extremely
complex and groups that dominate in one dimension can have a minority
status in an other. ( Mucha, 1999: 14) This analysis can explain
to some extent why settler communities in dominant social and cultural
mainstreams, like the Kashmiris and other South Asians in Britain, maintain
strong links with societies of origin for social and cultural moorings
and as a basis for collective cohesion and community identity. For the
influences and determinants of identity articulation within the Kashmiri
diaspora, the nature of social relations at family and community level
is therefore a contributory factor.
Like other South Asian communities, the Kashmiri social structure is based
on the extended family. However, for Kashmiris particularly, the wider
kinship network of biraderi and how it impacts on relations and mobilisation
is equally important. The extended family is of fundamental importance
as a unit of decision making and with respect to the relations of its
members with wider society. Unlike the western extended family, a typical
Kashmiri extended family may encompass dozens or even several hundred
members, with defined responsibilities and obligations to each other.
The family is linked into the wider kinship network of the biraderi system.
The institution of biraderi which means brotherhood in a relatively
loose sense provides a useful collective framework for promoting
mutual well-being. This is achieved through help and co-operation in social,
economic and political spheres and it reinforces a sense of belonging
and collective self-assurance. Thereby it could be argued that the effectiveness
of biraderi as an institution of mutual support within Kashmiri society
is not just practical but also emotional.
In biraderi members trace a common ancestor and patrilineage. Therefore,
biraderi as a group within wider Kashmiri society provides its members
with a feeling of security and self assurance. Since there are a number
of biraderis operating within the Azad Kashmiri community in Britain,
the level of their influence can effect the internal and external relationships
of the community as a whole. Biraderi networks in Britain are a reflection
of the social organisiation of Azad Kashmir.
Ellis and Khan, in their work on the Kashmiri diaspora in Britain point
out that the biraderi networks have the effect of clustering Azad
Kashmiris. (Ellis and Khan,1999a: 124) They argue that this took
place because the new migrants were often sponsored by a member
of the biraderi to move to Britain [and] this means [ that] the already
settled migrant would then provide board and lodging, initial financial
support, advice and help in obtaining employment. In turn the new migrant
when settled would help another member of the biraderi from Azad Kashmir'.
The institution of biraderi, therefore, influences the internal group
cohesion of Kashmiris in Britain as it does in Azad Kashmir. The social
effects of biraderi and indeed the imperatives of extended family do not
necessarily create an environment for assimilation with mainstream British
society especially in a social and cultural context.
The interaction and integration with the communities outside biraderi(s)
may well be determined by what the community and its members consider
as being necessary and convenient to maintain their group identity; and
the integration would, ideally, take place at a level which poses little
threat to group identity. The institution of biraderi and its power in
traditional societies like the Kashmiri diaspora in Britain, therefore,
cannot be underestimated. Biraderi reinforces many internal group practices
and values, and acts as an effective instrument of social control and
cohesion in the community. The power it wields is next only to that of
religion effectively Islam.
Kashmiris, like other Muslims, assert their values through religious expression.
Religion, therefore, forms an important strand in Kashmiri identity.
(Ellis and Khan, 1999,b: 106) Kashmiri religious sentiments influence
the way Islam is perceived by British mainstream society. Ellis and Khan
believe that a negative attitude towards Islam is perceived within
British society. Also, in spite of an official espousal of multiculturalism
it is seen that Islam is not accepted on par with Christianity at official
levels. They also point out that the blasphemy law in the United
Kingdom covers only Christianity, and there appears to be no plans to
change this even though there is a large and growing population of Muslims
in the country. (Ellis and Khan, 1999b: 106 ) The manifestation of religious
identity is both local and global, since this dimension of Kashmiri identity
fits in with the notion of Ummah, the world wide community of Muslims.
The most salient feature of Kashmiri identity manifestation in recent
years has been their territorial affiliation with the homeland. This dimension
of Kashmiri identity has given a distinctive character to the communitys
political and social mobilisation and it involves a high level of preoccupation
with events in Kashmir. For example, in the May 2000 local government
elections five candidates from the Justice for Kashmir (JFK) group were
elected to serve on the Birmingham City Council. The JFK mobilised electoral
support by highlighting issues that had more to do with the Government's
policy on Kashmir than Birminghams local problems. Although this
appears to be a new phenomenon in ethnic political activism, it represents
a continuity of the Kashmiri diasporas interest in the events in
Rex states that a diaspora is said to exist when an ethnie or a
nation suffers from some kind of traumatic event which leads to the dispersal
of its members, who nevertheless continue to aspire to return to the homeland,
and explains that the diaspora phenomenon is exemplified by the Jews seeking
to return to Zion, black Americans seeking to return to Africa and the
Armenians seeking to return to Armenia. (Guibernau and Rex,1997) Though
Kashmiris are also dispersed across western Europe and to some extent
the Far East and North America, their historical experiences are not similar
to those cited by Rex. Strictly speaking, they would not, therefore, be
considered as a diaspora in the same sense as the Jews, the Afro Americans
or the Armenians. Nevertheless the term diaspora, as Rex reminds us, has
also been used loosely to refer to national and ethnic groups dispersed
across several countries and continents, as indeed the Kashmiris and other
South Asians are dispersed.
Rex, however, makes some important observations in respect of these loosely
referred diasporas in that, though they are destined to remain in their
countries of settlement, there is nevertheless a notion of some
kind of myth of return, which influences their mobilisation and
indeed their articulation of identity. Dwelling extensively on the Sikhs
from the Indian state of the Punjab, Rex points out how religion for the
Sikhs remains a central point of reference despite their internal complexities,
and what may also be called contradictions of caste for the Sikhs and
biraderi for the Kashmiris. (Guibernau and Rex, 1997: 274-278) The Sikhs
rise above caste and other differences and continue to maintain their
Sikhness. Rex also refers to other South Asian minorities including the
Kashmiris in the diaspora, who reproduce their social, cultural, religious
and indeed political structures (for example, in the Birmingham City Council
As Ellis and Khan point out:
activity [in Britain] provides an important and perhaps unique insight
into the complexity of ethnic politics in Britain today. The Kashmiris
have incorporated political aspirations for their land of origin into
their involvement with British politics, and have succeeded in changing
'foreign affairs' into 'home affairs for British parliamentarians.
British politicians have had an involvement with the affairs of Kashmir
since the early days of the British Empire. However, the nature and
reasons for this interaction have changed over this period. (Ellis
and Khan, 1998: 471)
identity has been asserted and mobilised effectively in Britain. The manifestation
of political activism and mobilisation in the above manner reflects the
notion and concept of Kashmiriyyat which literally means Kashmiriness.
In conclusion, for Kashmiris in Britain, as long as their homeland remains
divided, their activism will feed into identity maintenance and identity
articulation not only as an ethnic minority but also as a national minority
1. Information given to the author on the number of Kashmiris in the United
Kingdom from the Indian controlled part of Kashmir during an interview
for this paper in March 2000. Also, see Siraj Majids book Kashmir:
Desolation or Peace.
Ali, Ellis and Khan (1996) The 1990s: A Time to separate British
Punjabi and British Kashmiri Identity in Gurharpal Singh & Ian
Talbot (ed.) Punjabi Identity, Continuity And Change, Manohar:
Anwar, M (1979 ). Myth of Return: Pakistanis in Britain. Heinemann:
Ballard, R (ed.) (1994) Desh Pardesh: The South Asian Presence in Britain,
Ellis, J ( 1991) Local Government and community needs: a case study
of Muslims in Coventry, New Community, 17 (3), 378.
Ellis, P and Khan, Z (1998) Diasporic mobilisation and the Kashmir
issue in British politics, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies,
Vol.24, No. 3 (July).
Ellis, P and Khan, Z (1999a) Political Allegiances and Integration:
The British Kashmiris in Weil, S (ed.) Roots And Routes, Ethnicity
and Migration In Global Perspective, Magnes Press, The Hebrew University:
Ellis, P and Khan, Z (1999b) Hopes and Expectations : Kashmiri Settlement
in the United Kingdom in Mucha, J (ed.). Dominant Culture as
a Foreign Culture: Dominant Groups in the Eyes of Minorities, East
European Monographs, Columbia University Press: New York.
Ellis, P and Khan, Z ( 1999c) Partition and Kashmir: Implications
for the Region and the Diaspora in Talbot, I and Singh, G (ed.)
Region & Partition: Bengal, Punjab and the Partition of the Subcontinent,
Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Glazer, N and Young, K (1983) Ethnic Pluralism and Public Policy: Achieving
Equality in the USA and Britain, Gower: London.
Siraj, Majid (1997) Kashmir: Desolation or Peace, Minerva: London.