By Shikha Sharma:
They look oriental, speak Tibetan, wear traditional Tibetan attire, but practice Islam instead of Buddhism, even getting married as per the Muslim nikaah ceremony. In Tibet, they are confused for Kashmiris, and in Kashmir where they live, they are regarded as Tibetans.
Working mainly in the Tibetan hosiery business and the till industry making Kashmiri embroidery, their livelihoods, like their life, are a mixture of Tibetan and Kashmiri cultures, anchored in the religious world of both Islam and the Dalai Lama. Meet the Tibetan Muslim refugees of Kashmir – a community of around 1200 families who live mainly in three areas in Srinagar – Idgah, Hawal-Badamwari and Gulshan Mohalla.
According to a research paper published in Eurasia Review, the members of this community, descended from the Lhasa Khache, a Muslim enclave that resided in central Tibet during the seventeenth century. In 1959, following the fall of the Dalai Lama’s government and the rise to power of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) in Tibet, the majority of the Khache undertook a mass migration from Lhasa to India. The migration was not smooth and India had to secure migration of around 129 Muslim families from a reluctant Chinese government showing the Kashmiri origin of these families (the community is believed, to have moved from Kashmir to Tibet in the 12th century).
The early settlers gradually shifted to Srinagar from 1961 to 1964. Economic conditions in India, however, were less than welcoming. “A decade and a half after arriving, most Tibetan Muslims lacked employment, was deprived access to higher education and remained in substandard housing,” says David Atwill, Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at Penn State University, who has recently written a paper on the community.
While most of the world rallied behind the plight of the Buddhist exiles, little attention was paid to the Khache, further isolating the Muslim community and tearing at their identities as Tibetan, Atwill, who published his studies in the Journal of Asian Studies, said.
Culturally, the small community has blended Tibetan traditions with those of Kashmir, culturally evolving their own traditions and mannerisms in the last 40 years. Amongst themselves, they converse in Tibetan, but they speak in Kashmiri with their Kashmiri friends and neighbours. They make traditional Tibetan food at home, but are not averse to cooking Wazwan.
Politically and economically, their situation has remained as it was in the sixties, and even though the members are entitled to vote, successive regimes have failed to make them state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir. The state government counts them in its census, but because it will not grant them citizenship, the community lacks access to other basic rights. Under Kashmiri law, non-citizens face certain restrictions, including not being allowed to purchase land, work government jobs or attend state universities.
On account of state restrictions on education, the younger Tibetan generation in Kashmir are also able to study only until school, with most girls dropping out after Class 12. The community though, still turns out to vote in large numbers every election, in the hope that their vote will change things for them one day.
“For us, vote is to prove our loyalty and nationality. We are Kashmiris but nobody treats us (like) one. Every election we come in large number to vote, because if we don’t vote then elected representative won’t listen to our grievances,” Muhammad Yousuf, a Tibetan Muslim descendant, told Greater Kashmir.