Diasporic Communities and Identity Formation:
The post-colonial Kashmiri experience in Britain

Zafar Khan, University of Luton


            Central to the question of integration and assimilation of post-war settler communities in Britain is the increasingly salient issue of identity. The western world since World War II has become both racially and ethnically increasingly heterogeneous (Glazer and Young, 1983), which makes the question of identity all the more relevant. The maintenance and formation of identity and community mobilisation within the diasporic minorities is a multi-dimensional process which takes place as a consequence of social, cultural and political factors both internal and external to diasporic minorities.

            This paper discusses Kashmiris in Britain whose political and social mobilisation provides an important basis for looking at the formation and maintenance of collective identity. The post-colonial period in particular has raised a number of questions on identity and ethnicity in relation to the Kashmiris, because, unlike most other South Asians, Kashmiris in Britain have had to forcefully assert their identity and communal persona, or, alternatively, their collective and national identity.

            The question of national identity is significant on account of the uncertain political and constitutional status of their region of origin and its division between India and Pakistan, who strongly contest the ownership of the territory. The issue is inextricably bound up in events in both the colonial and post-colonial periods.

            However, the Kashmiri presence in Britain needs to be seen in the broad context of post-war migration to Britain from her former colonies. For many centuries Britain has welcomed many religious, cultural and political groups and individuals who left their native lands on grounds of persecution, conscience or for economic reasons. Traditionally, the Irish, the Jews and earlier the Huguenots, formed the main influx of these migrants to Britain. However, it is only subsequent to World War II that Britain experienced a large flow of migrants from her former colonies, who subsequently played a key role in the reconstruction of the peace-time British economy.

            A key feature of this migration was that for the first time in the history of Britain, relatively, a large number of migrants belonged to non-western religious, cultural and social value systems. Not only were these migrants visibly different, but they professed and adhered to assertive religious and cultural systems. Inevitably, therefore, this process of migration has had major consequences for both the settlers and the indigenous communities of Britain .

            Despite recognition of the religious, social and cultural diversity of Britain’s post-colonial society, accommodation of the immigrants has been achieved largely within the overall dominance of the majority, the British mainstream. Such a dominance/polarisation and disparity in power has imposed a homogenous societal mainstream framework which has an impact on the processes of 'integration', 'assimilation' and indeed identity. It can be said, therefore, that a majority/ minority dichotomy essentially becomes a process of conflict and that the process of accommodation and compromise, and hence integration, takes place within this framework of competing claims. Thus, it is in this context that the ‘accommodation of difference’ becomes material to our discussion. (Parekh, 1998)

            As Parekh argues:

A good society should aim to ensure equal treatment to all its citizens, including its cultural minorities. However well-intentioned and generous it might be, its capacity to do so is limited. First it has a particular character and cultural identity which it has acquired over the centuries and which is deeply woven into its way of life. It is therefore necessarily partial to its way of life and cannot treat all its constituent ways of life impartially. (Parekh, 1998: 410)

However, Parekh also recognises the limitations of going ‘beyond a certain point without losing their coherence and causing widespread disorientation and resentment.’ (Parekh, 1998) It would appear that mainstream British society is willing to accommodate but only on the basis that its own distinct character can remain intact. The pressures on this distinctiveness, however, are likely to come from equally assertive minority communities, as indeed is typified by post-colonial settler minorities in Britain.

            Ellis's study of communities and services in the British city of Coventry provides a useful example of how ethnic and national identity is asserted by minority communities both in relation to their interactions with the mainstream dominant society as well as with other minority communities. (Ellis, 1991: 378) This research has given credence to the view that identity formation and its maintenance are affected by a number of contributory factors within majority/minority dichotomy and inter-community contexts.

            Roger Ballard, in reference to the South Asian diaspora, also observes that: ‘Britain is now a visibly multiracial society, in the sense [that] its citizens now include 2.7 million people who are either wholly or partly of non-European ancestry'. (Ballard, 1994: 1) Also, ‘secondly and just as importantly, it has become a much more overtly poly-ethnic society’. Commenting on South Asians in particular he points out that, ‘inspired as they are by cultural, religious and linguistic traditions whose roots lie far beyond the boundaries of Europe, the new minorities have significantly expanded range of diversities covered by local British lifestyles’.

            Ballard’s analysis, however, like other traditional approaches to post-colonial studies, does suffer from a blanket approach – focussing on generalities and large collectives – which ignores particularly the politically oriented diversity of South Asian settlers. His approach and analysis uses broad nation-state categories of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for ethnic and national definitions despite the fact that such categorisation is not appropriate in the case of Kashmiris. (Ali, Ellis and Khan, 1996: 232-3) He does, however, refer to communities of South Asians within this framework and notes that ‘as many as two thirds [of Pakistani Punjabis] originate from Azad Kashmir and the Potohar region [of Pakistan]’ (Ballard, 1994: 20), quite wrongly ascribing Punjabi identity to the Azad Kashmiri settlers.

            Ballard notes, however, that ‘contrary to the expectations of most of Britain's white natives, settling down has not taken the form of a comprehensive process of assimilation, or even an approximation to it. (Ballard, 1994: 5) He argues that ‘both the older generation of settlers and their British born offspring are continuing to find substantial inspiration in the resources of their particular cultural, religious and linguistic inheritance, which they are actively reinterpreting in order to rebuild their lives on their own terms’.

The Kashmiris in Britain

            Ballard's broad analysis on South Asian presence in Britain nevertheless has relevance to the Kashmiri diaspora. Thus, before aspects of Kashmiri identity are addressed, it is appropriate to briefly outline the position of Kashmir and the Kashmiris in Britain. An overwhelming number of Kashmiris in Britain are from Azad Kashmir, which is part of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani control. As Ballard notes, the Kashmiris from Azad Kashmir make up something like two thirds of the 'Pakistani' migrants in Britain. Thus any analysis of Kashmiri activism or identity in Britain is bound to centre around the Azad Kashmiris. On the whole very few people from the Indian held part of Kashmir have migrated at all. Those who have are either professionals or skilled personnel situated in the Gulf.

            Dr Majid Siraj, a leading surgeon from Indian controlled Kashmir now based in Leeds, notes that: ‘it was very difficult for working class people to obtain passports in Indian held Kashmir. The whole process could take up to two years with numerous visits by the police to check on the applicants’. (1) He believes that, unlike the Pakistan Government, the Indian Government actively discouraged people from the Indian controlled part of Kashmir to migrate. He suggests that there were only around 150 families of Kashmiris, including around 20 families of the Pandits (Hindus), from Indian held Kashmir.

            According to Majid Siraj, there are an estimated one thousand families from Indian-held Kashmir in the USA. Even in the Middle East, unlike Azad Kashmiris, fewer people have left the territory under Indian control. Siraj believes that because of the disputed nature of Kashmir and political ‘instability’, India has not encouraged ordinary people to migrate. For the past fifty years a de facto division of Kashmir between India and Pakistan has existed. They have fought two of the three wars against each other since their independence from Britain in 1947 over Kashmir.

            The history of post-colonial Kashmir is the ‘history of two territories with different patterns of development but with the populations of both areas [Indian and Pakistani controlled respectively] continuing to dispute the division’. (Ellis and Khan, 1999c: 270) A United Nations sponsored armistice as well as mutual agreements between India and Pakistan have kept an uneasy peace with periodic military flare ups across the cease-fire line. Needless to say, the social, cultural, political, economic and geographic dislocation of Kashmiris continues as a result of this conflict.

            At the time of British withdrawal and the independence of India and Pakistan, British rule extended to only fourteen provinces of united India. Apart from these provinces there were some 565 princely states of varying sizes which enjoyed a direct relationship with the British Crown under the doctrine of British 'paramountcy'. The Nawwabs and the Maharajas (rulers) of these states exercised more or less full sovereignty, although the scope of this was considerably undermined by unfavourable direct treaty arrangements with the British Government. Thus, with the end of British rule in the sub-continent and the emergence of two successor states, India and Pakistan, the rulers of the princely states were advised to either join India or Pakistan, with reference to the wishes and interests of their ' subjects'. As the British paramountcy lapsed over the princely states, at least in legal and constitutional terms, this meant that if the rulers wished to remain independent they were entitled to do so.

            In reality, however, most states and their rulers acceded to either India or Pakistan without difficulty. Problems arose only in the case of a few states, which included the state of Jammu Kashmir. Alistair Lamb offers some useful insights on this period in the history of the sub-continent by arguing that: ‘Jammu Kashmir differed in one important respect from other princely states, [in] that it was rather better situated geographically to exercise a more than purely hypothetical choice as to its future’. (Lamb,1994: 7) Lamb's reference here is to the geographical links with the outside world of Kashmir. Unlike other princely states, Jammu Kashmir's geography greatly added to its attraction to the Maharaja whilst remaining independent of both India and Pakistan.

            In other words, this situation could have led to the emergence of a third sovereign dominion in the post-colonial British India. However, it is not relevant to dwell on this point at length here; suffice it to say that post-colonial Indian and Pakistani states were not likely to let the Maharaja Hari Singh exercise his choice. The Indo-Pakistan dimension and its influences in Kashmir created a climate of uncertainty and the ruler became indecisive which resulted in an uprising against his rule.

            The Maharaja asked for help from India which insisted on his accession to the Indian Union which he did, thus bringing about an open conflict between India and Pakistan. The ensuing open warfare resulted in the de-facto division of Kashmir and its people. (Lamb, 1994)

The process of migration

            As noted, most Kashmiris in Britain are from Azad Kashmir, and form an estimated two-thirds of those who are officially considered as Pakistanis. Since Islam is almost the only religion in Azad Kashmir, overwhelmingly the Kashmiris in Britain are Muslims. The process of Kashmiri migration to Britain took place in phases. The most important phase was from mid 1950s to 1960s. Migration took place from selected areas of Azad Kashmir, in particular from the districts of Mirpur and Kotli.

            There are a number of economic, social and political factors by which the process of migration can be explained. Kashmiris as economic migrants like other South Asian and Commonwealth immigrants were affected by the ‘push pull’ effect as well as other factors which subsequently developed into chain migration. (Anwar, 1979 ) As economic migrants, Kashmiri men left their homeland with the intention of working in Britain for a short period and returning with savings which would be used to improve their standard of living. Kashmiri migrants first settled in the industrial heartland of Britain, mainly in towns and cities such as Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Luton on account of the availability of unskilled work. At this stage Kashmiri migrants considered their presence in Britain as transient rather than permanent, thus obviating any necessity for assimilation or integration.

            Historically, the two exporting areas of Kashmiri migration had a tradition of sending at least one member of each family into other parts of the sub-continent for work to supplement the income of the extended family. From the district of Mirpur (of which Kotli was a sub district until the early 1970s) men joined the British merchant fleet operating from Mumbai ( Bombay) as stokers and other arduous roles. Particularly during both the World Wars Kashmiris from Mirpur became an important source of recruitment for the British.

            Kashmiris also joined the armed forces of British India and like thousands of other servicemen from the sub-continent, served in the war with Allied forces in many parts of the world, both as part of the Kashmiri contingent and directly serving in the British Indian army. At the end of both World Wars some of those working on ships settled in Britain. These early Kashmiri migrants (generally referred to as Mirpuris in the literature on migration) became known as the 'pioneers'. (Anwar, 1979) The pioneers became an important factor in chain migration subsequently from Azad Kashmir in the 1950s.

            Arguably, the central determinant of this phase of migration is considered to be the construction of the Mangla dam, on the confluence of the river Jhelum and its tributary the Poonch. The share of water from the intricate and unified irrigation system which the British had built during the nineteenth century for the Punjab became a source of dispute between India and Pakistan after de-colonisation in 1947. Thus under the auspices of the World Bank and Sindh Waters Treaty, alternative water sources were harnessed for newly created Pakistan. The construction of the dam at Mangla provided much needed power for industry and control of irrigation in the adjacent Pakistani province of Punjab. Construction of the dam at Mangla (completed in 1968) however, meant that some of the most fertile land in Mirpur including the old town of Mirpur itself was submerged under a hundred feet of water.

            The construction of the dam resulted in the displacement of at least twenty thousand families. The displacement of population, and the tradition of moving away from the region in search of work, contributed towards migration to Britain. The little compensation that the affected families received was put to use either for a passage to Britain for a member of the family or to acquire a piece of land in Pakistan. The process of migration which could be described as chain migration thus came into operation. In other words, Azad Kashmir had a large surplus, able and willing labour force which Britain needed in the 1950s and 1960s. (Ellis and Khan,1999 a: 123)

            Furthermore, British immigration controls in the 1960s contributed to the nature of settlement, particularly the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act. This Act, while placing restrictions on new economic migrants, nevertheless created legal opportunities for those already in Britain to bring in families and dependants. With the arrival of wives and children the 'transient' nature of single male migrants became steadily settled and permanent, thus bringing about new dimensions and imperatives for migrant settlers in social, cultural and religious domains.

Articulation of identity

            Identity is a product of varied factors. Kashmiri identity formation and identity consciousness is a product of a number of influences internal to the social organisation of Kashmiri society. These include the system of biraderi (‘brotherhood’), religion, and the sense of being a Kashmiri. The unresolved nature of Kashmir's future status however, has impacted more than any other as a factor in this context in recent years. Thus this appears to be a distinctive marker of identity articulation within the Kashmiri diaspora.

            Minorities by definition face issues and experiences in dominant societal structures which challenge their strongly held beliefs and values, thus determining, on the one hand, the nature and level of individual and collective integration, and on the other, influencing social and cultural forces which impact on identity formation. Broad majority/ minority dichotomies may also fuel insularity. In turn, this situation can lead to greater group cohesion in a minority, thus providing the impetus to resist social and cultural hegemony of the majority. Such a reactive process may well become a major contributory factor in the maintenance of values, beliefs and, of course, identity.

            Mucha argues that identities ‘can be ( and at least partly often are) constructed by social actors. Social relations are very often extremely complex and groups that dominate in one dimension can have a minority status in an other’. ( Mucha, 1999: 14) This analysis can explain to some extent why settler communities in dominant social and cultural mainstreams, like the Kashmiris and other South Asians in Britain, maintain strong links with societies of origin for social and cultural moorings and as a basis for collective cohesion and community identity. For the influences and determinants of identity articulation within the Kashmiri diaspora, the nature of social relations at family and community level is therefore a contributory factor.

            Like other South Asian communities, the Kashmiri social structure is based on the extended family. However, for Kashmiris particularly, the wider kinship network of biraderi and how it impacts on relations and mobilisation is equally important. The extended family is of fundamental importance as a unit of decision making and with respect to the relations of its members with wider society. Unlike the western extended family, a typical Kashmiri extended family may encompass dozens or even several hundred members, with defined responsibilities and obligations to each other.

            The family is linked into the wider kinship network of the biraderi system. The institution of biraderi – which means brotherhood in a relatively loose sense – provides a useful collective framework for promoting mutual well-being. This is achieved through help and co-operation in social, economic and political spheres and it reinforces a sense of belonging and collective self-assurance. Thereby it could be argued that the effectiveness of biraderi as an institution of mutual support within Kashmiri society is not just practical but also emotional.

            In biraderi members trace a common ancestor and patrilineage. Therefore, biraderi as a group within wider Kashmiri society provides its members with a feeling of security and self assurance. Since there are a number of biraderis operating within the Azad Kashmiri community in Britain, the level of their influence can affect the internal and external relationships of the community as a whole. Biraderi networks in Britain are a reflection of the social organisation of Azad Kashmir.

            Ellis and Khan, in their work on the Kashmiri diaspora in Britain point out that ‘the biraderi networks have the effect of clustering Azad Kashmiris’. (Ellis and Khan,1999a: 124) They argue that this took place because the ‘new migrants were often sponsored by a member of the biraderi to move to Britain [and] this means [ that] the already settled migrant would then provide board and lodging, initial financial support, advice and help in obtaining employment. In turn the new migrant when settled would help another member of the biraderi from Azad Kashmir'. The institution of biraderi, therefore, influences the internal group cohesion of Kashmiris in Britain as it does in Azad Kashmir. The social effects of biraderi and indeed the imperatives of extended family do not necessarily create an environment for assimilation with mainstream British society – especially in a social and cultural context.

            The interaction and integration with the communities outside biraderi(s) may well be determined by what the community and its members consider as being necessary and convenient to maintain their group identity; and the integration would, ideally, take place at a level which poses little threat to group identity. The institution of biraderi and its power in traditional societies like the Kashmiri diaspora in Britain, therefore, cannot be underestimated. Biraderi reinforces many internal group practices and values, and acts as an effective instrument of social control and cohesion in the community. The power it wields is next only to that of religion – effectively Islam.

            Kashmiris, like other Muslims, assert their values through religious expression. Religion, therefore, forms an ’important strand in Kashmiri identity’. (Ellis and Khan, 1999,b: 106) Kashmiri religious sentiments influence the way Islam is perceived by British mainstream society. Ellis and Khan believe that ‘a negative attitude towards Islam is perceived within British society. Also, in spite of an official espousal of multiculturalism it is seen that Islam is not accepted on par with Christianity at official levels’. They also point out that the blasphemy law in the United Kingdom covers only Christianity, and there appears to be no plans to change this even though there is a large and growing population of Muslims in the country. (Ellis and Khan, 1999b: 106 ) The manifestation of religious identity is both local and global, since this dimension of Kashmiri identity fits in with the notion of Ummah, the world wide community of Muslims.

            The most salient feature of Kashmiri identity manifestation in recent years has been their territorial affiliation with the homeland. This dimension of Kashmiri identity has given a distinctive character to the community’s political and social mobilisation and it involves a high level of preoccupation with events in Kashmir. For example, in the May 2000 local government elections five candidates from the Justice for Kashmir (JFK) group were elected to serve on the Birmingham City Council. The JFK mobilised electoral support by highlighting issues that had more to do with the Government's policy on Kashmir than Birmingham’s local problems. Although this appears to be a new phenomenon in ethnic political activism, it represents a continuity of the Kashmiri diaspora’s interest in the events in these regions.

            Rex states that a ‘diaspora is said to exist when an ethnie or a nation suffers from some kind of traumatic event which leads to the dispersal of its members, who nevertheless continue to aspire to return to the homeland’, and explains that the diaspora phenomenon is exemplified by the Jews seeking to return to Zion, black Americans seeking to return to Africa and the Armenians seeking to return to Armenia. (Guibernau and Rex,1997) Though Kashmiris are also dispersed across western Europe and to some extent the Far East and North America, their historical experiences are not similar to those cited by Rex. Strictly speaking, they would not, therefore, be considered as a diaspora in the same sense as the Jews, the Afro Americans or the Armenians. Nevertheless the term diaspora, as Rex reminds us, has also been used loosely to refer to national and ethnic groups dispersed across several countries and continents, as indeed the Kashmiris and other South Asians are dispersed.

            Rex, however, makes some important observations in respect of these loosely referred diasporas in that, though they are destined to remain in their countries of settlement, there is nevertheless a notion of ‘some kind of myth of return’, which influences their mobilisation and indeed their articulation of identity. Dwelling extensively on the Sikhs from the Indian state of the Punjab, Rex points out how religion for the Sikhs remains a central point of reference despite their internal complexities, and what may also be called contradictions of caste for the Sikhs and biraderi for the Kashmiris. (Guibernau and Rex, 1997: 274-278) The Sikhs rise above caste and other differences and continue to maintain their Sikhness. Rex also refers to other South Asian minorities including the Kashmiris in the diaspora, who reproduce their social, cultural, religious and indeed political structures (for example, in the Birmingham City Council elections).

            As Ellis and Khan point out:

Kashmiri political activity [in Britain] provides an important and perhaps unique insight into the complexity of ethnic politics in Britain today. The Kashmiris have incorporated political aspirations for their land of origin into their involvement with British politics, and have succeeded in changing 'foreign affairs' into 'home affairs’ for British parliamentarians. British politicians have had an involvement with the affairs of Kashmir since the early days of the British Empire. However, the nature and reasons for this interaction have changed over this period. (Ellis and Khan, 1998: 471)

Kashmiri identity has been asserted and mobilised effectively in Britain. The manifestation of political activism and mobilisation in the above manner reflects the notion and concept of Kashmiriyyat which literally means Kashmiriness. In conclusion, for Kashmiris in Britain, as long as their homeland remains divided, their activism will feed into identity maintenance and identity articulation not only as an ethnic minority but also as a national minority in Britain.


1. Information given to the author on the number of Kashmiris in the United Kingdom from the Indian controlled part of Kashmir during an interview for this paper in March 2000. Also, see Siraj Majid’s book Kashmir: Desolation or Peace.


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