Settled in the tapered lanes of Gotli Bagh village in the Ganderbal district of Jammu and Kashmir, grey-bearded Haji Mohammed Sharif, head of the Jammu & Kashmir Pashtun community, is fixing his Pathani headgear as he recalls his ancestral migration to the Valley. “Our forefathers resided in the mountains. As Kashmiri Muslims seized the plain regions, our ancestors who came from Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan) established their homes in the leftover mountainous regions.”
The Union Territory’s minority Pashtun community, which migrated prior to India’s partition, has found abode in the quaint patches of the Ganderbal and Anantnag districts of Jammu & Kashmir. Even as the community’s cultural assimilation within the majority Kashmiri population can be seen in the adoption of the Pheran (a Kashmiri garment) and the acceptance of intermarriages, the Pashtun community continues to retain distinctive features native to its tradition, essentially through language, food and hospitality.
'Need Political Support to Preserve Our Traditions'
The lineal passage of spoken Pashtu and the sustained practice of jirga, a tribal council of elders, which takes decisions by consensus under the Pashtun social code, also remains a testament to this cultural preservation. Concurrently, the internet has enabled the diaspora to stay rooted in their ancestral homelands. “We love watching Pakistani television shows. Most of us consume Pakistani content here. Unlike Indian dramas, they run for limited episodes. We also listen to Pashtun music on YouTube,” say teenage girls of a family as they play artist Ghezaal Enayat’s music in the background.
Dressed in a traditional pathani outfit, Master Bashir (70), a resident of Anantnag’s Wantraag village, says, “In today’s system, we are more integrated into the Kashmiri society as opposed to the Afghan culture, unlike our ancestors. The Pheran culture eventually reached our doorstep. To safeguard our traditions we need political support.”
'All Govts Have Treated Us Like Step-Children'
Sentiments of political alienation and social exclusion are prevalent among the community, as evidenced by the senior male members’ overt condemnation of the previous governments of the erstwhile state. Sharif says:
“People in India are unaware of the Pashtun community. Not just today’s government, but the National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and the Indian National Congress (INC) have treated us like step-children. We have anger towards the state government, why have they not done anything for us?”
While they are unwilling to speak of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central administration, Bashir adds, “The past governments have decorated their homes, they’re responsible for the situation in Kashmir. They haven’t cared for the region or for its people, and they’re paying for it now.”
A Dying Culture?
The community’s hesitancy to intermingle with the host population remains similar to global diaspora patterns. But things are changing now for J&K's Pashtun community, says Sharif. “My kids speak Kashmiri now and our Kashmiri neighbours have also picked up on Pashtu. We look very similar, and over the years, our accents have also diluted. Our dialect is not the same as in Kabul, as we speak Kashmiri, Urdu, and English.” Sharif further notes how Pashtuns have become more accepting of marrying into Kashmiri families, in contrast to the endogamous nature of the community.
However, he fails to conceal his slight wariness: “Eventually, there will be a time when our community will fully integrate into Kashmiris because they are a majority. They are a majority, so they will rule.”
Fear of Being Punished for Familial Ties Across the Border
Over the years, such strong affiliations to the broader Pashtun identity have survived despite the absence of familial ties to the larger community based in tribal Pakistan and Afghan regions. While residents of the village spoke of letter exchanges across borders in the early years of settlement, they promptly denied knowledge of any potential relatives residing in Pakistan. “[Pakistan or Afghanistan] is not our country. We never tried to stay in touch with them.”
As the women of the family sat around the Afghan tandoor, or clay oven, to prepare soft flatbreads for the family iftar on a cloudy afternoon, a person says, on the condition of anonymity, “There is a lot of fear among people, if someone makes a phone call [to Pakistan], they’ll be picked up the next day. Even if people have relatives [in Pakistan], they will not try to communicate anymore, they feel it’s better not to have any contact.”
“After my grandfather passed away, all ties were broken. The changing situation did not allow us to keep in touch, because life is precious to everybody. [We would] be questioned if we kept any contact,” says Bashir. However, he adds, “Unlike a few Kashmiri Muslims who probably are more inclined towards Pakistan, we believe that India is better for us. Comparing the atmosphere in both countries, I’d say we’re safer in India.”
On Taliban's Anti-Women Policies
While the small community seems largely apolitical, the residents of both the Ganderbal and Anantnag districts expressed disapproval of the Pashtun-dominated Afghan Taliban’s anti-women policies in Afghanistan, and say that they don’t identify with the group’s socio-cultural practices. This can be likened to the Kashmir-based Pashtun community’s evolving views toward women’s rights, especially towards education, which was impermissible until a generation ago.
Sharif mentions, “We had more purdah (seclusion of women from public activities and face veil) before, but everybody has become ‘European’ now. Earlier, they couldn’t see women’s faces, but now, girls get educated.”
(Aishwaria Sonavane is a geopolitical intel analyst with a focus on Asia.)