Once diverse, Kashmir is now valley of Muslims

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Javed's parents always talk about what Kashmir used to be – a land where Hindus and Muslims were friends, celebrated holidays and weddings together, ate each other's food.

But Javed, a high school student here, says his parents might as well be describing life on the moon. He was 3 when a violent insurgency against Indian control tore apart the state, causing Hindus to flee by the hundreds of thousands. He has never had a Hindu teacher or friend, never tasted Hindu food.

"The terrorist activities have destroyed our culture," says Javed, who prefers not to give his last name. "When the Hindu Pandits left the valley, we lost a part of ourselves."

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Yesterday, India announced that it will begin pulling back troops from the Pakistan border in eight to 10 days. But while politicians and diplomats search for ways to end the 13-year insurgency – considering everything from state autonomy to joint control by India and Pakistan – Kashmiris themselves are in the midst of a profound social change. The migration of most of the state's Hindus has turned a once-cosmopolitan society of Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, into an Islamic monoculture.

Now, experts worry that an entire generation will grow up never having experienced Kashmiriyat – the thousands- year-old concept of cultural unity through diversity – and in a fundamental way, India will have already lost Kashmir.

"Kashmiriyat as a collective presence is either dead or dying, and to revive this sense of togetherness is the biggest challenge, a bigger challenge than fighting terrorism," says Amitabh Mattoo, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Altered classrooms

The Hindu vacuum is felt most profoundly in the state's public and private schools, where children of Kashmir's many cultures once mingled. Before 1989, Kashmir's small but influential community of Pandits – a caste of Hindus whose name means teacher – occupied 20 percent of white-collar jobs. They had an especially large presence in education – 60 percent of all the region's teachers were Hindus.

But when the insurgency broke out in 1989, sparked by a rigged election that kept Muslim separatists out of office, posters appeared in Pandit neighborhoods accusing Hindus of collaboration with the Indian government and threatening their lives if they didn't leave the state. Pandits fled by the hundreds of thousands, some to the southern Jammu region and others to Delhi and beyond.

Today, qualified Muslim teachers have replaced Pandits in public schools. But a few hundred private religious schools, some of them owned by promilitant groups such as Jamaat-e Islami, have also sprung up. Out of 900,000 students statewide, perhaps 200,000 students attend Islamic private schools full time.

Even some separatist leaders say they have noticed a dramatic change in the mind-set of Kashmir's young people – not necessarily because of the influence of religious schools, but because of the absence of diversity both in the classroom and outside it.

"Kashmiris are religious, but they are not communal [communally exclusive], and every Muslim believes that we want the Pandits to return," says Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chief cleric of Kashmir's largest mosque and a separatist leader. "But all that is changing," he adds. "A certain sector of Kashmiri youth has gone to religion in a hard-line way."

Preserving tolerance

Some Kashmiris believe that tolerance starts at home, where parents can reinforce values rooted in the three liberal religions that dominate the valley, Sufi Islam, Shivaite Hinduism, and Mahayana Buddhism.

"Honest to God, I feel very unfortunate that my children don't know what it is to have a Hindu teacher or a Hindu friend," says Mukhtar Ahmed, a father who spent 16 years as a photographer for the royal family in Saudi Arabia before returning to Kashmir last year. "It reminds me of Saudi Arabia. Children grow up never knowing what a Hindu is, what a Christian is, what a Sikh is. But in Kashmir, we don't believe those values as in Saudi Arabia, and the home is the first cradle of values, so we teach humanitarian values."

In fact, on the streets of Srinagar and even in the villages, it's clear that Kashmir is still one of the more modern, liberal Islamic societies in Central and South Asia. Short skirts have been replaced by the loose traditional outfit called the salwar kameez, but it is still rare to see women wearing a full face-covering veil. Social mores are more liberal too. Couples cuddle up for a shikara boat ride across the expansive Dal Lake, or take long walks in the lush public gardens.

Even the hundreds of religious private schools that have sprung up across the state over the past decade have relatively liberal curricula. Islamic schools in Kashmir teach the Koran in Kashmiri and English, and require students to study math, science, literature, history, and economics.

Mohammad Shafi-Uri, a former state education minister recently ousted in this month's state elections, says he is hopeful that schools will be able to cultivate tolerance, even as the population grows less diverse. "Education has a tremendous liberating power. It makes you humanistic. If you talk to students at college, they may talk against the government of India, but they are secular in their outlook."

At the Government Boys Higher Secondary Institute in Srinagar, Muslim students are asked to explain ideas from the Koran. Hindu students (there are still six left, out of hundreds of Muslims) discuss lessons from sacred Hindu texts. And Sikh boys talk about their holy book. Principal Syeeda Shafi says her teachers do what they can to mold tolerant, globally minded students – even in a cultural vacuum.

Nevertheless, the straight-talking Ms. Shafi stops short of nostalgia in talking about Kashmir's multiethnic tradition.

"It was a lovely mixture of cultures," she says. "But there was a problem: The Pandits used to overestimate their own talents, and underestimated ours. Our Muslim children were neglected.

"If the Muslim youth had been given chances to work in the central government offices, if they were allowed to see the outside world, maybe these problems [the insurgency] wouldn't have come up."

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