Kashmir: An Imagined Community asserting its Identity through Language and Cricket




This article originally appeared in a leading English daily in Kashmir. You can find the original article here.

When I first read Benedict Anderson’s concept of an imagined community, it blew me away but its sheer simplicity. I had often been at conflict with my nationality. Being a Kashmiri, I belong to a minority that can ideologically choose to pledge its loyalties to one of two nations. The first of these nations is the sovereign, socialist, democratic, Republic of India; my identity on paper. The other-and I’d finally found a rationale for it- an imagined political community based on an ethno-nationalist conception called Kashmir.

“Nationality or nationalism are cultural artifacts of a particular kind. To understand them properly we need to consider carefully how they have come into historical being, in what ways their meanings have changed over time, and why, today , they command such profound emotional legitimacy.”

I write this piece to examine the sentiment behind the feeling of nationalism that is so inherent, in every Kashmiri. I will try to sketch, taking two instances from popular culture, how an ordinary Kashmiri individual asserts his defiance against the state of India.  One must be careful while defining an ordinary Kashmiri and my subset here, is the average Kashmiri Muslim. I have taken the liberty to exclude significant chunks of Sikh, Pandit and Christian population and taken into account only the majority.

The concept of a nation state of Kashmir can be put into context with Anderson’s definition of an imagined community,

“It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

Kashmir has always been a conflicted territory and so I will try to briefly sum up the history of the conflict.  As a princely state with majority Muslim population and geographic accessibility to both India and Pakistan, the Maharaja was to ideally accede to Pakistan. After much delay and an infiltration by guerellias from the NWFP, the Maharaja acceded to India for protection. The accession was accepted with the promise of a plebiscite, which 66 years hence, is much awaited. Today, a half of what we remember sketching out as Jammu and Kashmir on India’s political map is actually occupied by India.

To pacify the conflict, a certain degree of political autonomy under the Indian state was awarded to Jammu and Kashmir. Few know that as a special state, till 1965 Kashmir had its own Prime Minister. Article 370 gives the state not only a separate constitution but also prevents non-Kashmiri’s from buying land in Kashmir. A political identity is thus well defined in the minds of Kashmiri’s. It stems both from a sense of dispute in the ownership of the land and India’s need for pacifying it through a certain degree of exclusivist political autonomy.

A defined political identity, a strong alienation from their perception of the state of India on the basis of ethnicity and a strong resentment that stems from the feeling of being an ‘occupied’ territory gives rise to the sentiment of nationalism. Kashmiri’s have never identified on an ethnic basis with India or Indians. Regular human rights violations and the draconian law of AFSPA have further strengthened the sense of a repressed communion. Kashmiris still think that the rightful claim to the land was that of Pakistan. In light of the practical failure of the state of Pakistan, its gradual descent into anarchy has changed quite a few minds. What will never change is the resentment towards India.  Kashmiris now believe in an ethno-nationalistic conception of a nation and they assert it in tiny, almost subliminal ways.

The state language of Kashmir is Urdu. What people speak in Kashmir, like anywhere else in India, is essentially a mixture of Hindi and Urdu. While Ghalib called it Rekhta, it is now popularly known as Hindustani. The insistence to define it as Urdu and not Hindi like the rest of the country asserts yet another aspect of identity. Kashmir is the only state with Urdu as its official language; the only state with a non native language as its official one.

Urdu has little place in Kashmiri culture outside the religious context. As an ethnicity we ought to speak Kashmiri. Yet under Indian accession this language, is how we state our individuality. Over the years with its slow demise, Urdu has reduced to an identity symbol for Indian Muslims. If you happen to be lucky enough to know it, you would be amongst the few who can actually follow the plot in Dastangoi or a few plays in Delhi.

It is not incidental that Urdu, which happens to be the state language of Pakistan, is yet another medium of identification with the nation state of Pakistan. Kashmiri’s, through their music, television and now the internet, culturally identify more with Pakistan than they do with India. This, again, is a strong assertion of identity.

Kashmiris seek to disconnect linguistically and their assertion is stronger than that of a Manipuri who speaks a different language. An ordinary Kashmiri speaks the same Hindustani any Indian does, but as opposed to them he chooses to call it Urdu over Hindi.

This is not the only form of passive, subconscious defiance. Cricket has always been a passion in the subcontinent; the economy halts when India and Pakistan play. In Kashmir, the streets are deserted, shops shut and the economy stunted temporarily because fates are being decided by Gods chosen representatives running around on a grassy pitch.

For an average, apolitical person, the only way he can display his patriotism is through sports and in India cricket is the national binding religion. Few in Kashmir support the Indian cricket team everyone else in the nation cheers for. In the early 90’s most supported Pakistan; quite a few still do. The majority however, have one simple rule. They will support whoever plays against India. The West Indies team gathers Kashmiri support in a match against India; a country whose islands most of them would not be able to spot given a map. As the frequent local notebooks with Imran Khan plastered over the cover all my childhood reminded me, life was different from the ideals of the national anthem I was taught in school. Kashmiris resent India and they defy it through whatever little symbolic actions they can.

Anderson says,

“Every successful revolution has defined itself in a national terms and in so doing has grounded itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the pre-revolutionary past.”

The revolution that every stone-pelter in Kashmir seeks gets real when you strive towards an ideal; the ideal being a nation state of Kashmir. As Anderson says, ‘people kill and die for these limited imaginations’ and we see it hold true every day. A ‘deep horizontal comradeship’ going beyond limitations of age, class and caste is created and it is the only reason why everyone from little school going boys to PhD. candidates come out and protest.

Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education decides the curriculum of the best, most prestigious schools in the valley post Class 8. When I reached that stage, I was excited that it included curriculum specific to the state. Sadly, the information never went beyond the types of soil or names of districts in Kashmir. There was never a word on history. The history you learn is in your homes or off the streets.

I often joke about the Republic of Kashmir with friends of mine but if I were to seek absolute solidarity with the concept I would know that it is this ideal which the streets seek through their cries; it is in the light of this ideal that the streets still resonate with the ubiquitous, hum kya chahte, aazaadi.


6 thoughts on “Kashmir: An Imagined Community asserting its Identity through Language and Cricket

  1. This is an excellent piece. What is the reaction of Hindus in Jammu and the Pahari belt of J&K feel about the choice of Urdu as sole official language ?

    Also, a small point, J&K is not the only state with a non-native language as its official one. This is true for many states in the North East as well, English in Arunachal, Nagaland and Meghalaya are also examples of the same.

    And if we are really objective, even Hindi anywhere outside Western UP, say Bihar, Rajasthan, Haryana is not really a native language.

    • You know I’m only now seeing this as I update my blog. Agree with most of what you’re saying, all very relevant points but Urdu stands out because if not the native language, its English. Haven’t explored the Pahari/Jammu belt at all.

  2. Sorry, dont want to step on any toes, but this particular paper of Dr. Bhat (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?oi=bibs&cluster=11082186443157069957&btnI=1&hl=en) points out that Urdu’s position as the official language in Kashmir dates back to the time of the British Raj, when the Dogra kings established Urdu as the official language. It seems that this was done under pressure from British authorities.

    If this is indeed the case, the status of Urdu in Kashmir is much like that of Urdu in Pakistani Punjab, and Hindi in Bihar. In all of these places, a non-native language prevented the local language from the typical development during modern state formation, due to external political pressures.

    Interestingly, the only language to successfully overturn this linguistic imposition was Gurmukhi based Punjabi in Indian Punjab.

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