Letter to Young Kashmiris II

Dear Young Kashmiris,

That my last epistle (1 Jan 2018) was of some value to you, that it was able to convey a useful message, I continue my next letter. And this time let me guide your focus to something about which you might have already started thinking: who are we Kashmiris? From whence have we come from? And why are we called Kashmiris?

When we ask questions like these we mostly rely on history, or, to be specific, on historiography. Though some people confuse myth and history and accept whatever is said in mythical stories as historical truth. But I want you to have a scientific temper and look at these questions with an open mind. That is to say, not to take what is handed down to you as absolute truth. Because our identities i.e., we as Kashmiris or someone as French or Nigerian or Guatemalan, have complex histories, as what our identity today is was not how it always was, say, two thousand years ago. So, the fundamental idea is that our identity (as Kashmiris) is ‘constructed.’ And, it was constructed by us Kashmiris, but in dialogue with others (non-Kashmiris).

Let me give a simple example. Imagine there is a large family and it has two dozen members: grandfather and grandmother, and their children and their children’s children. Let’s call it the Camenzind family. If Camenzinds were living on an isolated island all alone, nobody would call them Camenzinds, because among themselves they were just brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and cousins. A daughter from this family would not call her father Mr. Camenzind, would she? Or, a son would not ask his mother, “Where are you going, Mrs. Camenzind?”, would he?

Exactly the same way, if we Kashmiris were living all alone in our beautiful landlocked Valley without ever having any contact with the outside world or different people, we wouldn’t be called Kashmiris. Because we didn’t need to have that name for us, as we already knew who we were through our common dialect. The point is our identity or ethnic name as Kashmiris was neither given to us by God nor did we take it voluntarily. Then, how we came to be called Kashmiris? You may ask. Precisely when we had our first contacts with the people who didn’t speak our language. And who were these different people? Nobody knows for sure.

However, what we know, in the light of the archeological discoveries, is that our ancestors first lived at higher places in south Kashmir, like Pahalgam, where a crude hand-ax and flakes were discovered by archeologists in 1969, believed to be from the Middle Pleistocene Age. Through a rough estimation, our earliest ancestors lived 7.8 lakh years ago. However, later, moving towards Karewas (plateaus) in central and north Kashmir, our ancestors established subterranean dwellings i.e., human settlements that were created underground. You might have already heard or read about Burzhom, the archeological site just 5 kilometers from the Shalimar Garden, or about Gofkral in Tral district, 40 kilometers from the Srinagar city. Such dwellings were first discovered in the late 1930’s by a team of foreign archeologists. Just last year, in March 2017, a team of archeologists from the Kashmir University discovered very significant pre-historic sites and objects, which are believed to be 5000 years old. These sites, all in north Kashmir, were found in Harwan (Sopore), Tregam (Kupwor), Turkpur (Bandipur), Vizer Kreeri (Baramullah/Varmul), and Yembarzalwore (Kupwor). As archeologist Ajmal Shah says, “These archaeological sites are having richest cultural material pertaining to the Northern Neolithic Culture of the subcontinent. If excavated, these sites will add a mine-full of information about Kashmir valley’s cultural heritage.”

Based on these settlements and objects, archeologists argue that during the Neolithic (new stone) Age, Kashmiris, primarily settled in north Kashmir, had contacts with the outside world through the old silk route which connected the Kashmir valley with Kashgar (Xinxiang in China) and Central Asia region. Most of our trade, commercial, and travel routes passed through the north—but since 1947, all these historical routes remain out of bounds for us.

At any rate, what we know so far is that we Kashmiris have a 5000-year-old civilization; we were born artisans who were “adept at weaving and intricate craftsmanship”; we bravely faced and adapted to adverse climate by creating underground dwellings; we innovated and made fine and advanced tools, like harvesters, spear-heads, spindle whorls, double-edged picks, copper arrowheads, celts and knife blades; we had international trade links with neighboring regions in China, India, and Afghanistan, selling and buying stuff like beads, pendants, and terracotta bangles. In short, we were a hardworking community of innovators and imaginative craftsmen, and relics of our craftsmanship are visible in many pockets of Kashmir even today.

Which religion we followed 5000 years ago? We were neither Hindus nor Buddhists nor Muslims. Probably, we were animists i.e., we believed in mystical powers of nature, or sun, moon, and sky, or inanimate objects, like trees, mountains, and rivers, or, as with Mongols, thunder and lightning—in the book A Little History of the World, which I recommended in my last letter, you will learn more about ancient beliefs of humans.

So, when exactly were Kashmiris called Kashmiris and how did we acquire our language, Koshur? Now this question might have popped up in your mind, right? Well, for such questions we rely on language experts, or, more specifically, on philology (“The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages”). In my next letter, inshallah, I will try to answer this question. In the meantime, to learn more about our origins, you can read the first chapter (pp. 1-15) of Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (Sage: 2017).

Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir


First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 January 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/272238.html


Letter to Young Kashmiris

Dear Young Kashmiris,

I was meaning to write you this letter for some time now, I have things to share, words to tell you. I understand the life-world you live now, I have passed it, not long time ago. The things I want to share are the things I wish someone had shared with me when I was as young as you. But that is past now. And you are the future.

Let me start with few dry statistics, so that you are familiar with the larger picture. You belong to the most educated generation in the modern history of Kashmir. You may ask what does that mean. Well, imagine Kashmir in the 1920s or 1930s, and imagine your father’s-father’s-father or your mother’s-mother’s-mother. What was their generation doing when they were as young as you? If you read our history you will know that, in 1911, there were hardly 5 high schools and around 172 primary schools in Kashmir, and less than 7 percent population was able to read or write. Out of 1000 people only 35 were literate during the 1930s. We had 4 million population (40 lac) then and yet only 19,455 people knew English. Most of the people were poor, they tilled land, and very few earned their livelihood through trade or government employment.

Today, most of you are in a far better position as compared to your father’s-father’s-father or your mother’s-mother’s-mother. In contrast to 5 high schools in 1911, we have over 800 high schools today, while around 9 lac students are enrolled in 11,000 government-run schools, over half a million of you (5.7 lac) are also studying in 2600 private schools—the current overall literacy rate in Kashmir is 63 percent. And you can see that while a lot of men and women still work in the agricultural sector, thousands of them also serve in the public service—in 2016, the total population of government employees in Jammu and Kashmir was 4.8 lac. You have around 40 colleges now, and you have even options to go outside of Kashmir to pursue your studies, something that yours—and mine—grand grandfather or grand grandmother could have never imagined.

I am sure you already knew much of what I just outlined, but sometimes it is important that we are aware of our privileges so that we may not take things for granted.

When I say young Kashmiris I have people in mind who must be currently in their 8th standard and above, and between ages 15 and 20. This is the formative period of one’s life i.e., it is during this age when a person starts to think about “the serious stuff,” and seeks answers. No matter how hard we try to seclude you in the world of fairy tales and keep you away from the true realties of the world this stage is inevitable. And it has arrived. You will begin to, or might have already begun to, ask yourselves questions like “How this world was created?” “Why are countries fighting wars?” “Why different people have different cultures?”, or, closer home, “Why were people protesting on streets in 2016?” All this is “the serious stuff” I am talking about, and I am sure there must be many more questions nagging your mind at this stage now, and surely not all will get satisfactory answers in your lifetime.

While you will get answers for your queries gradually, some things you will discover through experience and some by reading. Though by reading a person can also gain experience, for experience, however, you don’t need to read. Your father’s-father’s-father might not have had education but he could still be an expert in his work. But, he lived in a different era and you live in the age where without reading you end up losing many opportunities to realize your potentials. So: read, read, and read.

But what to read, you may ask. Well, let me give you a small list of readings which will help you and may resolve the puzzles in your mind. We can start with history, because you may want to know how the world civilization came about—one of the questions in the bundle of “the serious stuff.”

In 1935, Ernst Gombrich, a 26-year-old man from Vienna, wanted to write about the world history for young kids. He shared the idea with a publisher named Walter Neurath who liked it and asked him to finish the book within six weeks. A complete history book within just six weeks, that is around 42 days! A monumental task. But Gombrich took the challenge and finished the book on time. He read books in mornings and afternoons at his home and libraries, and set a tight schedule for writing: one chapter a day, every evening. Ultimately, the book came out in 1936 in German titled Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser. Gombrich wanted to translate the book into English, so that it could reach wider audience around the world. But, he couldn’t finish the translation as he died in 2001 in his London home. However, the English version of the book was published four years later after Ernst Gombrich’s granddaughter Leonie Gombrich and his assistant Caroline Mustill finished the translation work. And the book, titled A Little History of the World, came out in 2005, and it became the bestselling book on world history for young and adult readers alike.

What could you expect from the book? In forty chapter, you will hear Gombrich’s story in a simple, accessible, and entertaining language. The book is not filled with dates which many people find boring, but it engages you in the story of our human civilisation. It covers our progress from the Caves to Machines to Wars to Art and Sciences. It also discusses the world religions, like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. It shows us how much we achieved and how much we also lost in this path of progress, how high we went in our achievement and how we failed due to our imperfection. This is the book, dear young Kashmiris, you should read, so that you can take in the grand sweep of human history, and develop, at this early but formative stage of your life, a healthy spirit of openness to ideas. Inshallah, I will return with another letter. Till then enjoy A Little History of the World.

Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir 





First published in Greater Kashmir on 1 Jan 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/270734.html