Process of Nationalism and Identity Transformation in Kashmir and its Implications

The paper discusses the mechanism and processes of nationalism and religion at work in Kashmir and the consequent evolution and assimilation of the Kashmiri identity into the pan-national identities determining the birth of India and Pakistan. This process was not one-sided and was in fact mutually reinforcing. The genesis of the Kashmir imbroglio was in a land conflict which initially was on the lines of class conflict underwent transformation under the matrix of the anti-colonial politics in India into a major ethno-religious conflict. Identity is continuously evolving and often multidimensional, especially at the local level, but the process of colonialism created ‘hard’ categories which were till then rather ‘fluid’ identities. The paper refers to some local customs in this regard as evidence to buttress the argument. Finally it goes on to point the flawed understanding of the Kashmir conflict within the strategic community in India and a possible way of taming the violence and ultra-nationalism and the impediments that it might face in that process.

After the death of Ranjit Singh in 1849 the British Empire having fought two Anglo-Sikh wars was finally able to subdue the Sikhs state. One of the courtiers of the Lahore based kingdom who helped the British in their quest was Gulab Singh, the Dogra ruler of Jammu.  The British rewarded him through the treaty of Amritsar of 1846, which handed over the valley of Kashmir forever to the Maharaja Gulab Singh (Ayesha Jalal, 2004, p. 51). This was done as a matter of convenience and a model that was replicated in other places, the British did not want to directly administer a state far flung in the north which was not much of a revenue generator for them. In the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion  the British had abandoned the policy of outright annexation as the crown took over from the company and princess were incorporated in the imperial framework as collaborators (Rai, 2004, p. 10).
Identity manufactures Conflict: 
The pre –colonial Mughal, Afghan and Sikh empires in Kashmir were hardly interested in consulting the Kashmiris to determine their acquiescence or otherwise to their own rule (Rai, 2004, p. 4). But it was during the Dogra rule that an individual ruler with personalized sovereignty dismantled the earlier traditions of layers of authority sharing at various levels in the Kashmiri society (Rai, 2004, p. 4).The cost-benefit analysis dictated that the administration be handed over to the Dogra king who enjoyed considerable autonomy and had to send in small amount of tribute as evidence of his continuing loyalty to the British. In return he enjoyed the protection of the paramount colonial power and had no need to draw any legitimacy from the majority Kashmiri Muslims. 
Dogra rule had publicly declared its ‘Hindu’ affiliation and this reflected in the autocracy, bureaucracy and military which were clearly dominated by the Hindu minority. There was a small Kashmiri valley Muslim elite that enjoyed the patronage of the Dogra state other than the five per cent Hindu minority of the valley known as the Kashmiri Pandits. Kashmiri Pandits had historically been part of the administration in the Afghan period when they became proficient in Persian and became revenue administrators (Koul, 1924, p. 19). They continued to be office bearers under the Dogra Regime along with the Sayyid and Pir families of Kashmiri Muslims (Zutshi, 2003, p. 62). These three classes received revenue free land grants from the rulers in return for their services (Wingate, n.d., p. 18). Although many Kashmiri Pandits were simply cultivators in the rural areas, they along with Sayyeds and Pirs received considerable concessions in taxes while the Kashmiri Muslim received no such benefit (Zutshi, 2003, p. 62).

The consequence was the transition to the first ‘indirect’ colonial rule in Kashmir. The class conflict emerged in this period between the landed Dogra versus the Muslim peasantry which was the first seed of what would later culminate into a major ethno-religious conflict. The anti-Dogra movement that emerged in the 1930s, was therefore a reaction by the deprived community of Kashmiri Muslims against the injustices by a ‘Hindu’ state but even at this point of time it was still a regional movement and had not identified itself with the idea of a monolithic Indian Muslim community pitted against the Hindu community, in fact it fought for its political and economic rights only in the regional context. 

More importantly even the Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims were not monolithic groups. Kashmiri Muslims were divided into Sheikhs who were descendents of Hindu converts of Islam, Sayyids, Mughals with central Asian origins and Pathans with Afghan origins, while the Kashmiri Pandits were divided into Guru or Brachbhat the astrologer class, and Karkun (Zutshi, 2003, p. 11). There were also some occupational groups like the Doms (village watchmen), Galawans (horse-keepers) and nomadic tribes like Gujjars and Bakarwals who also came under the category of Kashmiri Muslims (Zutshi, 2003, p. 11).

Kashmir society was based on a very secular Sufi tradition of Islam which did not come to Kashmir through conquest as in some other parts of the country rather it merged with the local Kashmiri tradition. GMD Sofi in his work Kashir observes “The cult of Buddha, the teaching of Vadata, the mysticism of Islam have one after another found congenial home in Kashmir”. Therefore even though Kashmir had always been a multi-religious society it always had a distinct regional identity of its own. In fact there were shrines like Chara-i-Sharif which until recently were frequented both by Hindus and Muslims (Das, 2001, p. 29). And some spots like Shah-i-Hamdam mosque, Baha-ud-din shrine and Akhum Shah Mosque which are still being used by both Hindus and Muslims (Tremblay, 1985). Kashmiri surnames like Bhatt and Pandit are common to Hindus and Muslims (Das, 2001, p. 29). This concurrence reflected in their food, drink and dress as well (Das, 2001, p. 29). But the most important link here is the language Kashur which belongs to the Dardic subgroup of the Indo-Aryan family and is spoken by both, the Hindus and the Muslims in the Kashmir. 

Conflict manufactures Identity:
The fact is that the Muslim in Kashmir was actually very different from the Muslim in Bengal or from the Muslim in Hyderabad. But by the 1940s it was the process of colonialism that had first solidified the many fluid identities into one creating a new structure of the society and then went on to create from what had till then only been a social category, a political category of Muslims in the sub-continent and this process was further expedited by the way nationalism was defined by an upper class Hindu elite which excluded the other communities and minorities. This was conspicuous in the way Tilak used Ganesh Puja and the Shivaji festival to propagate nationalism and how many writers in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and some other languages including the well known Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in their writings portrayed the Muslims as foreigners in their novels and stories while identifying nationalism only with the Hindus (Bipin Chandra, 1988, p. 410).

This in a way was the genesis of the two-nation theory, the subsequent partition and the Kashmir conflict as we see it today.  The two-nation theory sought to define the primary identity of Muslims in the country based on their religion rather than language or region. However, apart from the process of colonialism, identity was also evolving and influenced by the evolving idea of India, as the two nation theory was open to interpretation in the sense that it was not clear whether it meant that Muslims and Hindus were separate nations or that it meant Hindus and Muslims being autonomous groups could live in the same nation with divided sovereignty and constitutional safeguards. With hindsight we know that the turn of the events led the former interpretation to dominate the political discourse. Even in 1941 the idea of Pakistan that Muslim league had conceived was one that would be part of Indian confederation provided the Muslim and the Hindu element stood on equal terms (Ayesha Jalal, 2004, p. 147), which considered a unitary center an artifact of colonialism. But the forces of nationalism that were unleashed could not be controlled to arrive at a calculated deal. The partition therefore was a foregone conclusion at this time but the question of Kashmir got entangled in a web of competing nationalisms and interests.

As the politico-economic struggle of the Kashmiri Muslims against the Dogra state took shape in 1930s it got enmeshed in the anti-colonial politics of India, with the leadership of the Kashmiri Muslims giving their grievances a religious color (Zutshi, 2003, p. 215). Though according to some scholars the economic demand couched in religious terms was perhaps the only means of re-engineering socio-economic conditions of Kashmir at that time (Ayesha Jalal, 2004, p. 217). As the Kashmiri Muslims made their demands of the government of the state, Kashmiri Pandits felt their privileged position threatened and both communities accused each other of being ‘communal’. By 1940s the pan-Muslim identity had become a political category and this was the time when in Kashmir the identity of being a Muslim started dominating the identity of being Kashmiri.

The Kashmir Imbroglio:
Even after accession of Kashmir to India the Kashmiri Muslims continued to define themselves as a natural community. The problems we see today in Kashmir are a result of how this accession was seen as an acceptance of the Hindu nationalism that sought to assimilate the Kashmiri identity within the pan-Indian identity but could not understand the underlying currents of Kashmiri nationalism taking shape. This was first evident in the Devnagari-Persian script controversy when against the recommendations of the educational reorganization committee the government of the state in 1940 ordered that there should be one common language Urdu but for reading and writing both Devnagari and Persian script could be used. This was resented by the Kashmiri Muslims for whom introduction of Devnagari script translated into an attempt by the Dogra state to “Hinduize” Kashmir (Zutshi, 2003, p. 270) .  It was not only an attempt to acculturate Muslims but to further cause a linguistic split in Kashmir.

Post partition land-reform policies were introduced in 1950s but only small number of Kashmiri Muslims benefitted, most of landlords in Kashmir still remained Hindus while Muslims were mostly smallholders (Das, 2001, p. 35). In a way the inequalities of the past carried through and despite elections being conducted because of corruption, rigging and nepotism there were few changes in the economic landscape. The language of ‘constitutional rule ‘ even if honored more in breach than in observance, certainly created more political awareness among the Muslims of the state (Rai, 2004, p. 290). In the early 1950s an elite driven process  began to rally support within the Kashmiri Muslims to draw legitimacy for the accession but it was unintentionally and ironically scuttled by the same ultra-nationalist Hindu organizations who wanted ‘full integration’ of Jammu and Kashmir like other acceding states (Das, 2001, p. 36). From this point onwards constitutionalism as a solution to the Kashmir problem ceased to exist as a strong centralization tendency in India with an urge to install puppet governments in the state started eroding the confidence of the Kashmiri Muslims in the post independence Indian state.  By the late 1970s India and Pakistan had fought multiple wars and this further lead to a rise in the hegemonic control of the state by the center. By 1983 as a result of the polarization in the state the ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ votes had consolidated into separate blocks, the electoral politics at this time by the ruling party at the center led to a further institutionalization of communal politics in Kashmir (Das, 2001, p. 41).  During this time the Kashmiri Muslim had decidedly started alienating itself from the state of India but this alienation contained aspirations for both an independent state of Jammu and Kashmir and one that wanted to merge with the Muslim state of Pakistan. From 1989 onwards the insurgency and armed resistance in Kashmir had begun which was accompanied by rapid growth of Madrasas financed by Gulf money bringing in the Wahabi form of Islam to Kashmir (Das, 2001, p. 48). This change could also be seen in the changing shape of mosques. Unlike the older mosques, most of the new mosques in the Valley are dome-shaped, reflecting increasing Middle-Eastern/Saudi influence (Anant, 2009, p. 768).

Thus began not only a pogrom of violence against Kashmiri Pandits as they started moving out of the valley but also the development of an external dimension to the Kashmiri identity. For centuries the Kashmiri script was Perso-Arabic but following the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley a new trend emerged when Kashmiri Pandits started promoting the Devanagri script and as a consequence the new generation of Kashmiri Pandits did not seem to understand the Perso-Arabic script (Rashid, 2009). Identity here was in evolution and a permanent wedge was being driven between the Kashmiri Pandits and the Kashmiri Muslims. While at the same time nationalism based on religion sought to connect ethnically different Muslims from different countries into forming the grand Muslim community ‘the Muslim Ummah’. In Kashmir this could be seen in how the Kashmiri Muslims empathize with the cause of the Palestinian nation. Identity is a function of nationalistic or sub-nationalistic aspirations of the community. National liberation aspirations in Kashmir that transformed into a call for ‘Islam in danger’ and ‘Jihad’ and also created some internal security problems for India is a ramification of this identity transformation which was a consequence of the change of ethnic nationalism into a state-subverting ethnic nationalism. Both these factors make the resolution of the Kashmir imbroglio very difficult.

Post partition there is a tendency to see the Kashmir conflict primarily as a ‘territorial’ dispute or a ‘resource conflict’ and is made a case of strategic imperatives by connecting it with the Siachen issue and control over water resources when actually the Kashmir conflict has gotten enmeshed into conflict of the ‘Muslim nationalism’ of Pakistan versus the ‘civic nationalism’ of India both nationalism seeking to unite their communities by defining the other nationalism as a disruptive opposing force.                                        

It is therefore false to assume that any resolution to the Kashmir issue will come by resolving the Siachen issue or the sharing of water resources because at its heart the Kashmir issue is hostage to conflicting nationalities. While there are still socio-economic problems in Kashmir, India cannot solve the Kashmir issue by giving an economic pill either, as is evident in the case of Tibet, where the Chinese strategy of economic development has failed to satiate the yearning for a Tibetan homeland. A whole new generation of Tibetans born outside Tibet, and who have never even seen their native land still feel associated with the idea of a Tibetan nation.

The strategy of resolving the Kashmir problem in India should therefore be to either resurrect the original Kashmiri identity or to wait for many generations to alter the nationalist spirit in Kashmir, using ‘print capitalism’ to re-engineer a new kind of identity which ceases to define itself on the basis of ethnicity or religion and defines itself more on class terms. But this will have to contend with the ‘Muslim nationalism’ in Pakistan which will seek to draw in the Kashmiri into the ‘Muslim’ identity. Interestingly Pakistan itself has started veering towards civic nationalism as it started discovering how its Muslim nationalism transitioned into Sunni Islamic nationalism which started alienating its Shia, Hazara and Baloch minorities. A Nation has a longer lifetime than the people who assume its nationality and even though the Kashmiri nation has not come into existence the Kashmiri nationalism has, and therefore taming this nationalism in Kashmir is going to be long drawn out process.


  1. Anant, A., 2009. Identity and Conflict: Perspectives from the Kashmir Valley. Strategic Analyses, pp. 760-773.
  2. Ayesha Jalal, S. B., 2004. Modern South Asia: History, Culture and Political Economy. s.l.:Psychology Press.
  3. Bipin Chandra, M. M. A. M. S. M. K., 1988. India’s Struggle For Independence. s.l.:Penguin Books.
  4. Das, S., 2001. Kashmir and Sindh: Nation Building, Ethnicity and Regional Politics in South Asia. s.l.:Anthem Press.
  5. Koul, A., 1924. The Kashmiri Pandit. s.l.:Utpal Publication.
  6. Rai, M., 2004. Islam,Rights,and The History of Kashmir: Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects. s.l.:Princeton University Press.
  7. Rashid, T., 2009. [Online] 
  8. Available at:
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  10. Tremblay, R. C., 1985. Kashmir: the Valley’s Political Dynamics’. Contemporary South Asia, pp. 79-101.
  11. Wingate, n.d. s.l.: s.n.
  12. Zutshi, C., 2003. Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and Making of Kashmir. s.l.:Permanent Black.
(Joy Mitra is a Master of Arts in Diplomacy, Law and Business Program at Jindal School of International Affairs Email:

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