The Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir

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The Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir

A mostly forgotten population has been living as refugees in the Kashmir Valley for 60 years.

The Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir

A Tibetan exile woman carries her child wrapped in woolen blankets on a cold day in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, Jan. 10, 2012.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR — 63-year-old Tibetan Muslim Amanullah Kharmohra has preserved his travel permit like a holy relic. Laminated crisply inside a sheet of transparent polyethylene, the dog-eared permit carries photos of 6-year-old Kharmohra, his parents, and two siblings. It was this document that ensured the safe entry of Kharmohra and his family into India following a failed uprising against Chinese rule by Tibetans in 1959.

In March 1959, an uprising led by the region’s overwhelmingly Buddhist population invited a brutal crackdown from the Chinese government. The crackdown also led to the exile of the most prominent Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, to India. Fearing persecution by the Chinese authorities, thousands of Buddhists followed their spiritual leader’s footsteps and settled in India.

“But we chose [to settle in] Kashmir, because that’s where from our forefathers are,” Amanullah Kharmohra told The Diplomat from his government-allotted two-room quarter in Srinagar, the summer capital city of Indian-administered Kashmir.

Kharmohra’s family was among the 129 Tibetan Muslim families allowed by the Chinese government in Tibet to return to India. The permission came following tense deliberations between the Indian consulate in Tibet and the Chinese government.

A note given by the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, to the Embassy of China in India on September 24, 1959 reads:

…persons whose permanent domicile remained in the State of Jammu & Kashmir and who visited India from time to time and whose parents or one of whose grandparents were born in undivided India, are potential citizens of India. It is this group of persons, who have stated repeatedly to the Chinese authorities that they were Indian citizens. They have apparently submitted applications in writing for registration as Indian citizens and are entitled to claim the benefits of Indian nationality in accordance with the provisions laid down under the Constitution and the Citizenship Act.

Once they were allowed entry to India, the families spent some time in Kalimpong district of West Bengal, following which they made their way to Kashmir Valley.

“We were initially settled under makeshifts tents inside Eidgah ground in Srinagar. However, once the winter set in, we were shifted to a government accommodation by the authorities,” Kharmohra recalled.

Kashmiris in Tibet

Experts argue that Tibetan Muslims, who formed a minority in Tibet, trace their origins to four main regions surrounding Tibet: Kashmir, Ladakh, China, and Nepal.

“Before 1959, there were approximately 3,000 Tibetan Muslims living in Central Tibet. They were the descendants of Muslim merchants who came to Tibet from Kashmir, Ladakh, Nepal and China, mostly between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, married Tibetan women, and settled there. They spoke Tibetan and followed most Tibetan customs,” writes Dr. Alexander Berzin, a Buddhist teacher and translator, in an article on the history of Tibetan Muslims.

According to Kharmohra, Kashmiri-origin Muslims in Tibet were known as Kachee Yul by local Tibetans. In native Tibetan language, Kachee means Kashmiri and Yul means country. Another distinctive character of Tibetan Muslims was their Kashmiri caste names like Lone, Mir, Ganaie, and Butt.

A Slice of Tibet in Kashmir

Today, Kashmir Valley is home to more than 1,500 Tibetan Muslims. Living in government-allotted quarters and houses constructed on leased land, these families are particularly concentrated in Srinagar’s old city.

Even though the Tibetan Muslim community in Kashmir has been asserting their Kashmiri roots, it has not translated into permanent citizenship of the state of Jammu and Kashmir for them. This effectively disqualifies the community from applying for government jobs and owning immovable property. Under the Indian constitution, only the Jammu and Kashmir state legislature has the power to define “permanent residents” of the state and confer on them special rights like government jobs, acquisition of property, and scholarships.

That’s the primary reason, community leaders assert, that the state has prevented the economic uplift of the Tibetan Muslim community. “None of us have a government job nor can we buy property. Most of us work in low-paying private jobs or start our own businesses,” said Hafeez Ahmad, a community member in Srinagar.

In such a situation, the traditional cuisine of Tibetans and cloth work has come handy. Even though their population is not so significant, the impact of Tibetan culture and cuisine is visible across the valley. For example, restaurants selling Tibetan food are a common sight. Similarly, Tibetan embroidery, locally known as Bota Tilla, is an essential part of Kashmiri fashion and a must have for newlywed brides.

“During the first three years, I struggled a lot. There’s no concept of Tibetan food in Kashmir. But slowly, it picked up,” said 42-year-old Hamid Butt, owner of one of the oldest and most popular Tibetan restaurants in Srinagar.

It was in 2005 when Butt decided to give up on embroidery work and try something new. “My parents knew the cooking of Tibetan traditional food, so we gave it a try. Today, three Tibetan families derive their livelihood from this venture,” Butt explained.

Born in Srinagar, Butt has picked up almost every aspect of local Kashmiri culture. He speaks fluent Kashmiri and sits with his customers and asks about their well-being in local style. Like most of the Tibetan families, Butt even prefers local Kashmiri cuisine at home. “I am Tibetan only by my appearance. Otherwise, I am pure Kashmiri… We eat rice like Kashmiris do and also have nun-chai (salt tea),” he said.

Still, this doesn’t mean Butt has no love for Tibet. His restaurant is adorned with the landscape portraits of Lhasa and iconic Potala palace. “We also hold Dalai Lama in huge respect as he’s the King of Tibet. It was Dalai Lama who had given Kashmiri Muslims land in Tibet to settle there centuries ago,” he said.

Cultural Assimilation

Decades of sharing their home in Kashmir has seen Tibetan Muslims drifting closer to the culture of local Kashmiri society. During Kashmiri weddings, a multi-course meal, locally known as Waazwan, is served to guests. Tibetan Muslims have also taken up the meal to celebrate weddings – although with a caveat.

“While around 8-10 dishes are prepared in local Kashmiri weddings, we have strictly established a code of not preparing more than four dishes,” said 73-year-old Abdul Rehman Lone, a community elder.

When it comes to dress, there’s hardly any difference between the locals and Tibetan Muslims. The Tibetan community’s traditional dress, the chuba, an ankle-length robe, is worn only during the weddings.

The Tibetan government in exile in Dharmsala, India, has also shown some interest in the issues concerning the Tibetan Muslim community in Kashmir. For example, the Dalai Lama himself lent financial help to build the infrastructure of the Tibetan public school in Srinagar. A community health center in Srinagar is also aided by the department of health of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA).

“Around 680 children are enrolled in the school but more than 85 percent of them are local Kashmiris. Even though the Dalai Lama helped us a lot, the school is being run by the Tibetan Muslim Youth Federation, a nongovernment organization run by local Tibetan Muslim youth,” explained Masood Butt, the administrator in charge of the school.

According to sociologist Dr. Adfer Rashid Shah at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, the community has culturally assimilated in the Kashmiri society but not “psychologically.”

“Kashmiris have accepted them and in the last six decades they have lived here, there has been no friction between local Kashmiris and them. They have mixed with the local community but there’s still a gap. They think they are distinct; that’s why they are distinct. Otherwise, total cultural assimilation is possible in such a time,” Shah, who has studied the community closely, told The Diplomat.

One indication of that gap finally being bridged is the increasing trend of cross marriages between local Kashmiris and Tibetan Muslims. According to the community members, more than half a dozen such marriages have taken place in recent years.

No Scope for Growth

With no prospects of getting a government job and the lack of private sector in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, the community is witnessing increased migration by educated youth to mainland Indian cities like Delhi as well as Gulf countries. More often than not, they end up taking grueling call-center jobs to support themselves and take up further studies.

Every year, 26-year-old Moin Ahmad Sheikh spends five months in India’s capital city of New Delhi to sell jackets. During the rest of the year, Sheikh works at his father’s embroidery shop in the Eidgah area of Srinagar. After passing his Class 10 examinations, Sheikh quit his studies to support his family.

“I am the only son of my parents and my father was not able to handle the shop like before. Initially, I took up a job as a salesman but eventually I learned embroidery work. Life wouldn’t have been different even if I studied further because I am not eligible to get a job here,” Sheikh explained.

This realization is not lost on the parents of the Tibetan Muslim youngsters. 40-year-old Salma is anxious about her son’s future. Working as a cook at a local Tibetan restaurant, Salma and her husband eked out enough to sustain themselves and their only child, Ehtisham.

“Now, he’s in his 12th class. We are planning to send him to Delhi to take up some private job and continue his studies,” Salma rued, adding she has “no other option.”

Shah believes the conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir has overshadowed the problems faced by Tibetan Muslims in Kashmir and prevented solutions. “Kashmir is a war-zone where uncertainty about everything looms large. In a scenario where the majority population of the region is treated as second- or third-class citizens, the expectation that someone will speak about the plight of Tibetan Muslims is laughable,” according to Shah.

“The main issue in Kashmir is conflict and all the other issues are automatically sidelined,” he said, adding “their issues will remain unaddressed.”

But while the political uncertainty in the region forms the larger discourse in the valley, Shah argues that there’s also an “academic apathy and scholarly disinterest” about the community within Kashmir.

Broken Families

73-year-old Aisha was just 13 when her family left Tibet for India. Her father, Haji Abdul Qadir Jami, was one of the several Tibetan Muslim leaders who had risen up against the Chinese government to demand their rights. At the time of their migration, the Chinese government kept Jami in detention along with four other Muslim leaders.

“Chinese authorities told us to leave and assured us that my father will join us near the Tibet border. I along with my mother and four sisters waited for a week but our father didn’t turn up. Once we reached Kalimpong in West Bengal, we waited there as well. That wait stretched to seven years. Finally, we moved to Kashmir. My father never came and we didn’t know what happened to him,” Aisha recalled.

Aisha’s not an isolated story. Almost every other family of the community has some relatives still living in Tibet. The members have little avenues to hear about their family members’ condition or even to know if they are still alive. Over the years, strict censorship and tedious travel permit processes have meant little or no connection between the divided families.

“My deceased elder brother’s two sons came to see us in the mid-80s but since then, there has been no contact with them. Even though I know I have my brother’s family and relatives there, [it’s as though] they simply don’t exist,” said 73-year-old Abullah Jami, a community elder in Hawal Srinagar.

Safwat Zargar is a journalist from Srinagar whose work has appeared in Scroll.in, The Indian Express, and ScoopWhoop.