The True Meaning of Kashmiriyat
Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.
6 February 2009
Numerous articles, essays and stories have been written over decades, and perhaps centuries, about Kashmir’s unique attributes in dealing with its syncretistic culture and a way of life that not only dwelled on humanism and tolerance found abundantly among its people, but also provided a character that was the essence of its identity among the people of South Asia
Even today, when the concept of Kashmiriyat evokes emotions ranging from wistful memories of an era gone by to outright ridicule by others, there are events and incidents happening which reaffirm that while Kashmiriyat may be down, it is not out. Events such as Pandits from the Muthi camp in Jammu performing last rites/burial of their deceased fellow camp dweller, Mohi-ud-Din Magray from Kupwara who died on January 20, 2009, and similar rituals/cremations performed by Kashmiri Muslims of dying Pandits in the valley, reinforce the belief that “core values” that are cherished by Kashmiris may have been forgotten, but are not totally lost.
Implicit in my concern is that core values imbibed in Kashmiriyat are under attack today and Kashmiris have a lot to lose if there is a total decline in harmony and cohesive identity among various Kashmiri communities. There is a “blame game” going around where fingers are being pointed at one other, but all communities have equally contributed to the current situation.
But what is Kashmiriyat? I believe it is a unique characterization of the Kashmiri society shaped by two Muslim Kings who ruled Kashmir a hundred years apart, many centuries ago.
Sultan Ghayas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin (fondly called Badshah, the great king) ruled Kashmir from 1423 to 1474 A.D. A little over a hundred years preceding his ascent to the throne, Kashmir was predominantly populated by Kashmiri Brahmins (now called Pandits), and ruled by Pandit Maharajas. About a hundred years later, and especially during the reign of Sultan Sikander (6th Sultan), Kashmiri Pandit population in the valley had shrunk to a paltry few families living as minorities under a strict Islamic code, while other Hindus had either converted to Islam or fled from the valley.
It is against this backdrop that Badshah made royal pronouncements that had far reaching impact on the minority Pandit community and reshaped the outlook of the majority Muslim community. It is possible that Badshah’s enlightenment may have come from the leading saint of the day, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din, popularly known in Kashmir as Nund Reshi, a Sufi saint who was equally comfortable in quoting verses from the Holy Quran as he was from the Bhagwat Gita. I will not go into details of what Badshah did (since history books are filled with his accomplishments), but his decisions had a profound effect on restoring the sense of full citizenship in Pandits and in instilling pride among Kashmiri Muslims that cultural identity based on human values, diversity and tolerance are not inconsistent with their own faith and religious beliefs.
Jalal-ud-Din Mohammed Akbar (popularly known as Akbar the great) ascended on the throne of the Mughal kingdom in India in 1556 at the age of 13. As he grew up in age and wisdom, he realized the dichotomy of his rule where a band of Muslim interlopers from Central Asia had subjugated a vast Hindu population that lacked martial strength and political smarts, but was rich and vibrant in culture, philosophy, music and general quality of life. Twenty six years later, in 1582, he founded a new religion, “Din-i-Illahi” (Divine Religion) aimed to synthesize the best in Hinduism and Islam. In reality, Akbar’s discourse turned out to be an ethical system of personal conduct that stressed virtues of piety, prudence and kindness that attracted few converts as most of his courtiers and subjects felt that such characteristics were already inherent in their existing faith. But there is no denying that as the political and military leader of a vast empire, Akbar set a new standard for human values, religious tolerance, pluralism and personal ethics.
Akbar brought those values to the valley during his visit to Kashmir in 1589, two years after defeating Ghazi Shah “Chak”, who had been Kashmir’s ruler since 1561. By the time Akbar visited the valley, all cultural, economic and political liberties provided to Pandits by Badshah over a hundred years earlier, had eroded to the point that Pandits were again fleeing the valley in large numbers. Akbar restored human rights of the Kashmiri minority, and for the first time since the advent of Islam in Kashmir in the 14th century, Kashmiri Hindus were allowed to celebrate their religious festivals without payment of special taxes or tributes.
Akbar died in 1605, but by then Kashmiriyat had emerged as the identity of choice in Kashmir. In its infancy, it was defined by three distinct characteristics: a benevolent and wise ruler who had a grand vision, a majority community that willingly accommodated pluralism as socially enriching and kindness towards minorities as a worthy virtue, and a minority community that lived a life of dignity unknown in many parts of the world in the 16th century and even later.
Over the years, Kashmiriyat acquired some additional characteristics as other minority religions like Buddhism (ancient religion) and Sikhism (post Akbar) were acknowledged as being inclusive of the Kashmiri identity. Kashmiriyat came to be characterized and expressed by religious, cultural and social harmony in a land blessed by Gods as a paradise and where a confluence of Sufism, Shaivism, Buddhism and Sikhism in magnificent and naturally beautiful surroundings provided an ideal sense of brotherhood, resilience and inter-dependency to fight physical isolation as the region used to be cut off from the rest of the world for nearly 6 months a year. That sense of fraternity and isolation has led to both pride and patriotism among Kashmiris and it has become fashionable to use Kashmiriyat both as societal and political expressions.
But the crux of the “true Kashmiriyat” is physical, philosophical and psychological changes which two great rulers of the past – Badshah and Akbar – brought in the Kashmiri society. Today, with a dwindling quality of leadership, a political landscape that exploits religious sentiments among the majority and minority communities, and a civil society that is pliant to politicians and incapable of resisting pressures from an increasing hegemonic society, Kashmiriyat is undergoing a serious decline. The erosion of moral and ethical values has led to collateral damage like the shrinking of fresh water lakes, delogging of pristine forests, and shrinking of parklands, some as old as the Mughal Empire. Unfortunately, the same societal changes contributing to political exploitation, corruption, and greed in Kashmir are also responsible for destroying the harmony between the land and its people which is the hallmark of Kashmiriyat. Today many Kashmiris, torn apart, look at each other with suspicion and mistrust.
I hope that true Kashmiriyat will return some day so that Kashmir can return to its pristine glory and again come alive with color and diversity of its wonderful people from all faiths.
To view the Table of Contents of the book, “Kashmiriyat through the ages”, by Prof. Fida Hassanain (2011), please click here.
Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.