Historians' Watch

Kashmiriyat: The Death of an Idea

Kashmiriyat is dead, this much is certain. And everything associated with it—religious harmony, secularism, the distinct relationship between Kashmir and India—is gone as well. Kashmiriyat has been in the throes of death for some decades now, but the latest moves by the Indian government to abrogate Article 370 and 35A, and demote the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to a union territory, have put the final nail in its coffin. Constitutionally and rhetorically, Kashmir is no longer special.


The idea of Kashmiriyat rested on asserting Kashmir’s uniqueness in the Subcontinent, and emerged, in part, out of Kashmiri nationalism’s close relationship to Indian nationalism in the early twentieth century. The idea of distinctiveness, however, was not entirely foreign to Kashmir’s own Sanskrit and Persian narrative tradition through the centuries. This interconnected tradition celebrated the sacredness of Kashmir’s landscape, its historical tradition, and the variety of people who made it their homeland well into the late nineteenth century. For centuries, assertions of Kashmir’s singularity allowed it to claim a much more significant space for itself alongside and within more powerful empires than it would have otherwise attained.

By the turn of the twentieth century, as Kashmiri Muslims organized themselves into a community with specific grievances against the Hindu Maharaja (ruler) of the now princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the narrative of uniqueness receded into the background. An anti-Maharaja movement coalesced around threats to Muslim identity and Islam in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Its main demands were redress for the lack of representation of Kashmiri Muslims in government employment, for the most part setting aside the concerns of the working poor, peasants, and minorities.

By the mid-1930s, the winds were shifting again. Attacks against the movement for being either too focused on Muslims or not focused enough on Muslim demands grew in intensity. As such, the need to shift the emphasis away from religion to the concerns of the marginalized and minorities became apparent to at least a section of the leadership.  At this same moment, the Indian National Congress had begun to turn its attention to princely states and had also started a Muslim mass-contact program to attract more Muslims into its fold. A Muslim-majority princely state such as J&K aligning itself with the Congress was an attractive proposition for the organization.

It was in this context that the outlines of what would later come to be officially termed Kashmiriyat emerged. The All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, headed by Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, began its conversion into the All Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, shifting, at least rhetorically, away from religion to class and minority issues. Abandoning the term ‘Muslim’ in its appellation and replacing it with ‘National’ instead was a clear indication of its alliance with the Congress. In a speech on 28 March 1938, Abdullah pointed out that Hindus and Sikhs too suffered under the same yoke of exploitation and irresponsible government as Muslims, and responsible government was possible only if all groups united against the common enemy.

The Kashmir nation emerged as central to this project, and needed definition as well as a history. Although never acknowledged as such, the nation was synonymous with the Kashmir Valley, and the movement invoked its exceptionality to fit a new political purpose. Kashmir was the beautiful homeland of multiple religious groups that had lived in harmony since time immemorial. Islam had made inroads into Kashmir not through force but rather peaceful means. Beginning with the Mughals, alien rulers had destroyed Kashmir’s peace and plunged its people, regardless of religious affiliation, into a benighted state. This narrative also allowed the National Conference to distinguish itself from the All India Muslim League by rejecting the two-nation theory.

These ideas were not entirely fabricated. Kashmir’s narrative tradition resonated with belonging to Kashmir—the mulk—that cut across religious and other affiliations. Yet it also illustrated instances of intense schism and conflict along lines of religion, sect, and class that were as much a part of Kashmir’s past. And, much like the modern project of Kashmiri nationalism, the earlier narrative tradition too was rooted in institutional contexts and a product of, even as it influenced, political projects, such as legitimizing particular rulers.

Kashmiri nationalism did not go unchallenged. It was seen by many within the Kashmiri Muslim community and a wider community of Indian Muslims as betraying their interests. After all, it was the promotion and protection of Muslim interests that had been the basis of the movement against the Maharaja. Many also did not appreciate the close alliance between the National Conference and the Congress, which was seen as unrepresentative of Muslims in British India. Nonetheless, at least a majority of Kashmiri Muslims – in part due to the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Abdullah – accepted the nationalist idea.

Life after 1947

With independence, partition, and the lapse of paramountcy, the idea, now termed Kashmiriyat, gained a new lease on life. The National Conference, with Abdullah at its helm, took over the reins of the administration of the now Indian state of J&K in late 1947. As India and Pakistan battled over the erstwhile princely state, the need to legitimize J&K’s accession to India became imperative. The Maharaja had acceded to India amidst a fog of revolt and war, with significant constituencies in J&K against his move. In addition, partition violence was spilling over from the Punjab, with large numbers of Hindu and Sikh refugees pouring daily into the state.

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, giving a speech in Srinagar, Kashmir, welcoming Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian Union, 2 November 1947 (Sheikh Abdullah is seated to his left). Wikimedia Commons.

Drawing on the ideas that had given birth to the National Conference, the regime set about fashioning a narrative of secular harmony to represent the new, now ‘independent’ nation of Kashmir and its government.  This narrative was a mirror image of the narrative of Indian secularism, and much like it, poorly defined. Beyond accepting all religions as equal in the eyes of the law and making a plea to protect minorities, there was little sense of how Kashmiriyat would accommodate the interests of the majority community without injuring minority interests, especially now that the majority community was in charge. It was all very well to stage plays in which Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs lived together in harmony. However, this did not address the grievances of the minority Hindu community, which were raised by concrete measures undertaken by the J&K government, such as land redistribution and the allocation of government jobs to Muslims.

It was precisely these issues that brought down the first Abdullah government in 1953, not simply from the perspective of the failure of Kashmiriyat in J&K, but also the failure of secularism in India. It was the alignment of Kashmiriyat and Indian secularism that had allowed the J&K government to negotiate a special status for the state through Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in 1949.  The consensus fell apart in the following years as it became clear that the interests of the majority and minority communities in J&K could not be reconciled, and as the majority community in India took up cudgels on behalf of their co-religionists (the Hindu minority) in the state. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the earlier incarnation of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supported an internal Jammu-based movement to abrogate Article 370 and integrate Kashmir fully into India.

After the fall of the Abdullah regime, successive National Conference governments continued to promote Kashmiriyat as proof of their loyalty to India, even as they joined the centre in whittling down Article 370 to a shell of its original self. The same narrative that had facilitated Kashmir’s special status was now deployed in the service of denigrating it. As Kashmiri Muslims grew increasingly alienated from India, their discontent spilled over into a full-blown insurgency in the late 1980s.

Insurgency and Beyond

The concept of Kashmiriyat suffered in the context of the Kashmiri resistance movement, since it was seen as closely linked to Indian nationalism—merely another sub-nationalism created by India to forcefully bring one more region into its fold. The Kashmir nation’s past was rewritten yet again, eschewing any connections to the Indian subcontinent, and instead celebrating its close relationships to Central Asia. Islam formed the basis of the oppositional identity developed by the resistance and gradually Kashmir’s past prior to Islam’s advent was erased.

Since Kashmiriyat had been developed in part to accommodate minorities, it became obsolete when their numbers dwindled in the Valley as they either voluntarily left or were driven out. The new generation of Kashmiri Muslims, who have grown up amidst violence and repression of the Indian security forces, do not know or care about Kashmiriyat, in part because it is no longer relevant. Those who come across the idea in Kashmir’s intellectual circles, where it can sometimes be found, vehemently reject it for its connections to India.

But the demise of Kashmiriyat has to be placed in the context of the concomitant demise of the secular consensus in India as a whole. The trajectory of the rise of the BJP, and along with it Hindu majoritarianism, can be traced to the same moment as the beginning of the Kashmir insurgency, which in many ways embodies its own majoritarianism. Both signalled the failure of the Indian state to live up to the secular ideals on which it was founded. Although the insurgency and the fortunes of the BJP have waxed and waned in the past thirty years, it appears that the majoritarianisms represented by each are now here to stay.  This is a pity for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it leaves no room for a resolution of the Kashmir issue, other than – or so the BJP seems to think – by brute force.

India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, giving a speech in New Delhi, defending his government’s actions that ended J&K’s special status within India, 8 August 2019. HWO / YouTube.

Kashmiriyat is now a bygone term, whispered in elegiac tones in some liberal living rooms or perhaps an odd classroom, accompanied by nostalgia for the good old days when peace and harmony prevailed. If only the past were that uncomplicated.


  1. Islam/Christianity were never spread/embraced voluntarily but out of one form or other of coercion which in modern times can be termed as marketing/advertising.
    There is enough evidence throughout in history.

  2. Much is spoken about the so-called “Kashmiryat” as if it is a culture that has descended to the Kashmir valley from Mars. How old is this Kashmiriyat? Kashmir has always been a part of India. The Sankaracharya Matt, Vaishno Devi, the Mughal gardens, and the innumerable Hindu temples in the region are a testimony that Kashmir has been a part of India for millennia and does not have any special significance attached to its culture. Kashmiriyat is no different from Tamil culture, Bengali culture, Andhra culture, or any other regional culture. So, the Kashmiri separatists should stop beating their collective breast about it.

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