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‘We’re Kashmiris But Nobody Treats Us Like One’: The Tibetan Muslim Refugees Of Kashmir

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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.

LHASA, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 22: (CHINA OUT) A muslim recites the Quran at the Lhasa Large Mosque, first built in 1716, on September 22, 2005 in Lhasa of Tibetan Autonomous Region, China. According to state media, there are over 4,000 muslims in Tibet, who can be traced to the migration of muslims from Ladakh, Kashmir, Nepal into western Tibet, and from northwest China into northeastern Tibet between the 14th to 17th centuries. Many of them got married with local Tibetan people. Now most of the muslims living in Tibet are offspring of the two nations. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
For representation. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images.

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.

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Featured image source: China Photos/Getty Images
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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