Kashmir: a tale of two mothers


Kashmir: a tale of two mothers

A one-time homeland to Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs is being tragically torn apart.

Swaran Singh


Iftikhar was my favourite taxi driver while I lived in London. An elderly Muslim from Lahore, he spoke in lilting, lyrical Punjabi typical of that part of the world. In June 1999, as India and Pakistan fought the Kargil war, he was driving me to Heathrow when the conversation turned to the conflict. I asked what he thought. ‘Doctor sahib‘, he said, ‘when my mother had me, she was suffering from tuberculosis. She was weak and her milk had dried up. Her nextdoor neighbour was a Sikh woman who had also given birth. My mother asked her to breastfeed me. When you ask me about the war, what can I say? I was born of one mother’s womb; another mother suckled me. How can I choose?’

I thought of Iftikhar as India and Pakistan are again on the brink. On 5 August 2019, Amit Shah, India’s home affairs minister, announced in the upper house of the Indian parliament (Rajya Sabha) that a presidential order had been issued revoking Article 370, depriving the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status that conferred on it a certain level of autonomy, and fundamentally changing the relationship between India and Kashmir.

The immediate and long-term consequences of this Indian move will be far-reaching, and may be very damaging. No one can foresee the outcome and many will rightly be trepidatious. But at this critical juncture, it is important to realise the complexity of the Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir, and its varied victims. Much of the media portrayal of the conflict is one between a Hindu nationalist India and the Muslim population of Kashmir. This is only partly true.

I come from a clan of Kashmiri Sikhs from Poonch, a beautiful district in Kashmir with the line of control (LOC) that divides India and Pakistan running right through it. Kashmiri Sikhs are ethnically distinct from Punjabi Sikhs, and were originally Kashmiri Brahmins (or Pandits, as Kashmiri Brahmin Hindus are commonly known).

There are several versions of when and why my family converted to Sikhism. One tells the tale of two brothers, Madan and Gopal, from Rishikesh who travelled north and settled in Poonch in the late 18th century. This chimes with accounts of Max Macauliffe (1841-1913), who traced the arrival of Sikhs in Kashmir as accompanying Raja Sukhjawan, a Hindu who was made governor of Kashmir by Timur Shah in the mid-1750s. Some historians believe Sikhism came to Kashmir during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s rule in the early 19th century, while others believe it was Banda Bahadur (1670-1716), the Sikh general who created the Khalsa (the pure ones) in Kashmir. Bahadur was born in Rajouri, a region adjacent to Poonch to which he retreated, following a lost battle, in order to raise a fresh army. Regardless of the historical veracity of competing accounts, Kashmiri Sikhs have been a culturally, linguistically and ethnically distinct group for at least 200 years.

The River Jhelum circa 1938, showing the waterfront of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.
The River Jhelum circa 1938, showing the waterfront of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.

No more, though. Kashmir has been ethnically cleansed of its Sikh and Pandit populations, in a systematic and purposeful manner. Over half-a-million non-Muslim Kashmiris have been driven out of their homeland since 1990. Beginning in 1989 with the assassination of Pandit Tika Lal Taploo in Srinagar, a meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed campaign of terror was unleashed against non-Muslims. My paternal uncles owned two iconic bookstores in Srinagar ̫ Hind Book Store and Kashmir Book Store, famous with hippies, backpackers and the assortment of Western travellers who flocked to Kashmir and its idyllic beauty, and celebrated it, as Led Zeppelin did, in their majestic song ‘Kashmir’. But my uncles, fearful of the posters that appeared on walls claiming Islamist rule, the masked men with Kalashnikovs forcing locals to change the time on watches to Pakistan Standard Time, and threatening messages broadcast from mosques, left everything they knew and owned behind, to live as refugees in neighbouring Jammu. They were lucky to escape unharmed. Girija Tickoo, a young Pandit woman, was abducted in June 1990. Her mutilated body was found on 25 June 1990. She had been raped and then her sawed in half, possibly with a carpenter’s saw, while still alive. Sarla Bhat, a 24-year-old nurse, was tortured and gang-raped over five days in April 1990 before being shot and killed. The list of atrocities against Pandits is long and horrific. And the indifference of the world startling.

Perhaps it was ever thus. In 2010 my mother, terminally ill with cancer, agreed for me to video-record her narrating her life story, so my young children would know her, even if only through that movie. She was of the generation that spoke little, and whose waking hours were consumed by a thousand chores, big and small, and who had to look after a large family with very little money and none of the accoutrements of modernity. Over two hours she told me things that I neither knew nor could have imagined.

Several people in my extended family had been killed by Muslims in the 1947 partition madness. In revenge my great grand uncles had gone on reprisal killings. In the massacre of one family, they abducted 10-year-old Muslim girl. When my great grandfather found out, he was extremely angry and distressed. He insisted that the child be taken back to her family, but there was no family she could return to. He adopted the girl, and when she turned 13 he married her to his 13-year-old son. I knew her as an aunt with piercing blue eyes and a perpetual hint of mischief on her face. I spent a lot of my childhood playing in her house with her son. My dying mother told me that her real name was Fatima, that she never spoke about her past, and died taking all her secrets and untold griefs with her.

That very year my brother-in-law Gurdev was contacted by a family from Lahore claiming to be his cousins. Gurdev was born in Lahore. His parents fled at the start of the killings in 1947. His paternal aunt refused to leave the family home, insisting that the ‘madness would pass’. The family was attacked and everyone killed but for two young boys, who had to choose between being killed or converting to Islam. They converted, and 60 years later, thanks to the internet and social media, traced Gurdev. The families agreed to meet as the Pakistani side was planning a trip to India. A date was set and my sister, Gurdev’s wife, started planning a meal.

The choice of dishes was problematic. The Muslim part of the family wanted only halaal; my sister refused to cook anything but jhatka meat (the Sikh way of killing an animal, with a single stroke severing the head to minimise suffering). The only option was to cook a vegetarian buffet.

Gurdev’s cousins arrived, attired in the Pathan garb of Kamaeez Shalwar, and with Muslim skull caps. Gurdev greeted them in all his turbaned glory. The cousins read the Namaaz in my sister’s Sikh household before eating. There were tears of joy and sorrow, much reminiscing of what little each could remember from their turbulent past, a long list of all the uncles, aunts and peers who had passed away, and proud displays of the achievements of the younger generation. No one mentioned partition, politics was studiously avoided, and religious differences, simultaneously visible and completely ignored, were not allowed to get in the way of the palpable intimacy of the occasion. Like Iftikhar’s two mothers, here were those of the same flesh and blood, brought up by two different mother cultures. They would not eat the same meat, but could love each other nonetheless.

A woman pulls up her boat to pick up some items at a shop on Lake Dal, Srinagar (2002).
A woman pulls up her boat to pick up some items at a shop on Lake Dal, Srinagar (2002).

Kashmir has been bleeding profusely for 30 years now. Kashmiris, once famous for their pacifism, have turned against each other, and one community has driven the other two out of the land. Kashmiri Muslims have their own long list of accumulated tragedies and suffering. When I was growing up, Sikhs used to make fun of their avoidance of conflict by telling a story about 100 Kashmiri Muslims who flee from a confrontation with a Sikh armed with a stick, explaining, ‘What could we do? We are all alone, but the Sikh and the stick were two!’ That famous pusillanimity is long gone. Fuelled with rage at ill-treatment by Indian forces, armed by Pakistan, infiltrated by ISIS-trained killers, Kashmiri Muslim youth are driven in hordes into extremism. In the process, they have forgotten their ties with their Hindu and Sikh brothers and sisters, whom they perceive as the enemy.

There are no villains or heroes here. The geopolitics of Kashmir, the nationalistic frenzy being whipped up, the macho posturing and duplicitous diplomacy, the raw pain of individual and collective devastations, all point to a continuing catastrophe. Pakistan sees Kashmir as its revenge for its own dismemberment and the creation of Bangladesh. India sees Kashmir as absolutely vital to its national security. Neither side will relent, while Kashmir bleeds from a thousand cuts. Kashmir seems trapped between two punitive, vindictive fathers. There is no healing and no soothing mother around, just perpetual distress and hardship.

Meanwhile, the world media has an easy interpretation of the Kashmir problem – a nationalistic India persecuting a Muslim minority state. It is expedient to focus on the tragedy as one only of Kashmiri Muslims, since for many, Kashmiri Sikhs and Pandits do not meet the criteria of victimhood. Kashmiri Hindus can’t be considered victims because they are, well, Hindus. Since India is supposedly in the grip of Hindu nationalists, any suffering Hindu group can be ignored, akin to the idea that Jews can only be oppressors because of the plight of Palestinians. The victimhood of Palestinians automatically places Jews in the oppressor box. So it is with Kashmiri Hindus, although they are ethnically, politically and even on religious grounds far removed from the Hindus of central India.

Indian refugees in a migrant camp in RS Pura on 6 June 2002, in Jammu.
Indian refugees in a migrant camp in RS Pura on 6 June 2002, in Jammu.

Moreover, the Sikhs won’t claim victimhood. Deeply ingrained in the Sikh psyche is the requirement to stay in Chardi Kalaa – spirit in ascension. Sikh history is a litany of persecution and massacres by the Mughal rulers of India. The Sikh prayer has a section where the torture of Sikhs is graphically described and blessing sought for the souls of those martyred. The descriptions – of Sikhs scalped and bodies dismembered, sawed and broken on the rack – would not be allowed in a BBC news report without the warning: ‘Some listeners might find the contents distressing.’ Every Sikh child hears these descriptions at every prayer, which ends with ‘May the Sikhs be in Chardi kalaa, may all be blessed by the will of God’. To be a Sikh is to stay upright, righteous and resilient. Sikhs have lost many battles, but have never been defeated; for to be a Sikh is never to accept defeat. Such a culture does not seek or fetishise victimhood. Sikhs seek no comfort, and none is provided.

But that does not make their suffering any less painful or less deserving of world attention. The elders of my clan are dying, holding on to whatever remnant of Chardi Kalaa they can muster. Soon they will all be gone. The world will move on. My clan painfully watches its own destruction, aware that no one cares. They are victims of a denial of their victimhood.

Kashmir’s tragedy encapsulates all the ethnic, religious, territorial and cultural conflicts that currently ravage the world. From the legacy of colonialism to the geopolitics of the post-9/11 world, Kashmir puts in stark contrast the world’s modern fissures. To see it entirely as a problem between Hindu nationalism and Muslim victimhood is to miss the messy complexity and ignore the plight of all of Kashmir’s victims.

Swaran Singh is professor of social and community psychiatry at the University of Warwick and an NHS consultant psychiatrist.

Pictures by: Getty Images.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Jonathan Yonge

18th August 2019 at 5:48 pm

But Swaran, you say “Kashmir has been ethnically cleansed of its Sikh and Pandit populations”

My friend, religions are not the same as ethnicity. You even point out that your own family converted to Sikhism. By implication, you share the same intolerance to other religions that they do to yours.

What are you doing ? This is madness.

Sumit Singh

16th August 2019 at 6:57 pm

Hi Winston,
Help me understand this. At one point you are saying that Britain should allow people from different religions and race and let them practice the way they want it. At another point you are saying Kashmir is a Muslim majority (though entire J and K is just above 50% Muslim, even if the figure is not exact, it is besides the point) and should be allowed to remain separate. So when it is a Christian or Hindu or Atheist majority nation, it should allow Muslims to come and once they become majority in an area there should be a plebiscite and they should be allowed to separate. There is also an assumption here that they may want to separate.

Amin Readh

31st August 2019 at 4:37 am

Actually, the whole J&K is just over 68% Muslim – according to Indian census 2011. When India was divided Kashmir was clearly meant to join Pakistan. It is a disputed territory.

“There is also an assumption here that they may want to separate.”

Hold free and fair referendum?

David George

14th August 2019 at 8:19 pm

Winston: “We have been confident and comfortable with religious tolerance and freedom for centuries, and we have zero intention of allowing the far right to change that”
You are conveniently ignoring the intolerance of the progressive left to any questioning of it’s (religious?) values. Our NZ PM reacting with “these are not our values” when famous rugby player and conservative Christian Israel Falou urged homosexuals (among other sinners) to repent. Condemnation of Falou for having beliefs at odds with the prevailing “progressive” orthodoxy was savage; he was fired from his team and barred from ever playing rugby again.
This was illustrated as well in the UK with Islamist parents insisting their children were not to be taught about homosexuality or trans issues. Perhaps they would like a separate curriculum, separate schools? Your multiculturalists might even think that would be a good idea even call it diversity or something. Unity through diversity, I can hear it now.
Your multicultural utopia is a lovely idea but it has serious problems, when times are hard it all starts to unravel – just look at what happened to the Jews last century or the Rwandans.
Culture is, above all, a system of values, you can’t honestly speak of universal values in a multicultural society. Different values and languages make genuine interaction difficult, hate develops where mistrust prevails.
Rejecting the process of assimilation (as promoted by this Basu character) is a very bad idea if the history of humanity is any guide.

jessica christon

15th August 2019 at 9:09 pm

“Rejecting the process of assimilation (as promoted by this Basu character) is a very bad idea if the history of humanity is any guide”

In a nutshell, that’s what I’m trying to say here. Thank you for putting it im a more articulate way than I could manage.

jessica christon

15th August 2019 at 9:20 pm

I think the Basu guy who wrote that BBC article is against assimilation though, he was just saying that it’s what India intends to do.👍

jessica christon

15th August 2019 at 9:25 pm

Oops, Basu is the Police Chief quoted in The Guardian. Edit feature please!

Ven Oods

13th August 2019 at 8:36 pm

The shit that people are prepared to visit on one another – whether on grounds of religion, skin colour, or sexual orientation – seems to know no bounds.

jessica christon

13th August 2019 at 1:22 pm

“The Hindu nationalist government seems to ultimately aspire to assimilate rebellious Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir into a form of Indian national identity defined by its movement’s ideology.” (Sumantra Bose)

This is a sensible aim; the multiculturalism isn’t working.

jessica christon

13th August 2019 at 1:25 pm

Oops! That should’ve been a reply to Winston Stanley’s second post where the quote I used came from.

Winston Stanley

13th August 2019 at 5:57 pm

You are conflating an awful lot there, seemingly in an attempt to justify a religious nationalism that is intolerant of other ethnic and cultural groups. Ironic?

The British way is liberalism and tolerance, which means that people can have whatever religion they like, they can get into conservative Christianity, Islam, J udaism or whatever they like, so long as they are not a threat to society. The separation of Church and state means something different in our own political tradition, to say France.

We have been confident and comfortable with religious tolerance and freedom for centuries, and we have zero intention of allowing the far right to change that for their own forlorn political ends, some imagined eventual “Reconquista” that relies on heightened communal tensions now. Anti-Muslim narratives are frankly all that they have left, they have already lost and they more or less know that.

Conservative Muslims and others entirely embrace the British way of life by freely having their own culture and religion. That is what Britain is all about, the freedom to be yourself and to have your own culture without the unnecessary interference of the state. Conservatives of all religions are to be thanked for reminding us that we live in a free society.

The UK counter-terror chief recently explained the British approach. People can have whatever religion they like, and express it how they like. People who do not like that will simply have to get over it. We are a tolerant society, cope with it.

> Basu rejected notions that British Muslims should “assimilate” and defended the rights of religious conservatives of all faiths, saying: “Assimilation implies that I have to hide myself in order to get on. We should not be a society that accepts that.”

He added: “You should be able to practise your religion without suffering some condemnation of that; so my view is, do no harm. And that does not matter whether you are conservative Islamic, conservative Christian, conservative Hindu, conservative Sikh. You should be able to practise your culture or religion openly and still be accepting of others, and others be accepting of you. That is a socially inclusive society.” (Guardian)

jessica christon

13th August 2019 at 9:34 pm

But Winston, it’s not working – so what are your realistic options for solving this? When it comes down to it most people would choose almost any kind of stability over chaos.

Gregory Buswell

13th August 2019 at 9:41 pm

“Conservative Muslims and others entirely embrace the British way of life by freely having their own culture and religion. That is what Britain is all about”.

In your opinion, perhaps.

Winston Stanley

13th August 2019 at 11:17 pm

“But Winston, it’s not working – so what are your realistic options for solving this? When it comes down to it most people would choose almost any kind of stability over chaos.”

Seriously, “any kind of stability”? That sounds pretty drastic.

Is the idea that the British are on the verge of accepting a totalitarian, intolerant, ethno-nationalist state b/c AQ/IS killed 87 in UK between 2005 and 2017? An average of 7.25 persons per year? I seriously doubt that.

For comparison, 1,770 were killed, 26,610 were killed or seriously injured, and a total of 165,100 were injured, as road casualties last year in UK. Do the math for equivalent 12 year period. What sort of drastic political solution must that call for?

Around 3,500 were killed in the Troubles in NI in the 26 year period between 1969 and 1995. An average of 134.61 per year. That is around 20 times the death rate of AQ/IS per year in UK.

Were the British ready for “any solution” back then? Hardly. And much less now.

There have been no AQ/IS deaths in UK since 2017, so the security forces seem to be pretty much on top of it, which is their job.

If you have any operational suggestions then maybe you could write to them, maybe with the suggestion that we adopt a fascist state. No doubt they would be interested to hear.

Can we get back to reality now?

jessica christon

14th August 2019 at 7:56 pm


Oh, dear – throwing around the big “F” when you disagree is never a good sign! Seriously though, the days when Britain could go around the world telling other people how to live are well and truly over, so British values aren’t relevant here.

I said most people prefer almost any kind of stability to chaos and that holds true pretty much everywhere. For example – do you think Libya was better for *most* Libyans under Gadafi, or the current the current assortment of warlords and bandits who are in charge now?

That’s, what “reality” is; it’s about what the *real* options are, not the ones that you would like. Sometimes none of the real options are good but on the whole, stability of some sort is more conducive with preserving life and normality than a decades long round robin struggle with various religious and/or ethnic groups jockeying for control with blood being spilt all along the way.

I took a quote from your BBC article and agreed with it: the long term assimilation of the Muslims is a sensible idea, and that is obviously meant in the context of the Kashmir situation. Do you have a *realistic* suggestion of what should be done or do you find it easier to virtue signal and pontificate about British values?

Winston Stanley

15th August 2019 at 5:52 am

Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, they should hold a referendum on whether they want to join with Pakistan. Problem solved, in the democratic fashion. Do not occupy Muslim lands and then you will not have to “assimilate” Muslims.

jessica christon

15th August 2019 at 9:04 pm

Yes, Kashmir is overwhelmingly Muslim but my understanding – correct me if I’m wrong – is that it’s divided between Pakistan and India. India has a claim on it too, so it’s not just “Muslim lands” and the whole of Kashmir isn’t likely to be joining Pakistan any time soon.

I’m not religious, and I admit that people who hold religion of higher importance than life itself – either their own life or that of another person – are almost incomprehensible to me, but I accept that that’s the way it is in places like this, so I try to understand it on their terms rather than mine.

That is why in my view, to become a part of the (relatively safe) majority isn’t such a bad thing if you live in a place where you are an ill-tolerated minority and the alternative to that is persecution or even murder. Do it properly and the grandkids won’t know or care! 🙂

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