By: Shams Rehman
British Kashmiris are described here as those residents of Britain who or their parents originally came from the Jammu Kashmir State and have or entitled to the ‘State Subject’.
Origin All but around 300 families of British Kashmiris came from what is commonly known as ‘Azad’ Kashmir – the Pakistani controlled part of the divided Kashmir State. The 300 families that originate from the Indian controlled part of Kashmir mainly come from the Valley of Kashmir and consist of professionals and businessmen.
Currently ‘Azad Kashmir’ is divided into three divisions – Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Poonch. Each division is then divided into districts and sub-districts or tehseels. Mirpur division includes Mirpur, Bhimber and Kotli districts. Most of the British Kashmiris have come from Mirpur Division with majority from Mirpur and Kotli districts. This has been one of the main reasons that British Kashmiris been described as ‘Mirpuris’ by the pioneering social science researchers in Britain who either did not know that Mirpur was actually a district of Kashmir or chose to overlook Kashmiri as the national political identity of ‘Mirpuris’.
Over the past few years, the numbers of Kashmiris in Britain from different districts of Muzaffarabad division have grown significantly resulting from migration mainly of skilled Kashmiris and students from Muzaffarabad and Poonch divisions.
When and why did they come to Britain?
There has not been one single or common reason for the Kashmiri migration to Britain at different stages. Different phases of migration from Kashmir were caused by different factors. The available record shows that the first Kashmiri came to Britain around 1830 through a British Kashmiri marriage or what today would be called ‘transnational marriage’. According to Rozina Visram in ‘Asians in Britain’ here name was Nazir Begum who came in 1820s as spouse of a colonial Officer from Ireland Major Thomas Cobb. Another such marriage is mentioned by Yousaf Saraf in his mammoth ‘Kashmiris Fight for Freedom’ Jani and she was from Kishtawar.
The labour migration – arrival of Kashmiris to Britain for work from Mirpur – began around the end of 19th century. The earliest labour migrants were mainly from Dadyal area and many of them worked on British Merchant navy ships in Bombay and Karachi before coming to Britain. They also included Kashmiris whose forefathers migrated from Kashmir Valley at different times due to famines or high taxations on the shawl weaving industry. Several Kashmiris arrived after the First and Second World Wars. They included soldiers who fought alongside British forces.
More Kashmiris came soon after the invasion of Indian and Pakistani armies and the division of Kashmir in 1947. Numbers went further up near to 1960s when hundreds of Kashmiris from Mirpur rushed to ‘beat’ the visa restrictions that were to be introduced on entry to Britain by the 1962 Immigration Act. The pace of migration process further accelerated when many of 100,000 people displaced by the forced construction of Mangla Dam in Mirpur joined their friends and relatives in Britain. Till this period the Kashmiri migrants from Mirpur consisted mainly of young and middle aged men. With few exceptions the arrival of families began in 1970s.
By 1980s many of the parents whose children and grandchildren came to UK in 1960s and 1970s had no one left to look after them in Kashmir. They were also grown fairly old and fragile by now. So they were called over to UK by their children to live with them in 1980s.
Around the same time marriages also started taking place between the children of those Kashmiris who were settled in UK and their relatives who were left in Kashmir. This started the process of Shaadi or marriage migration in 1980s that continued through 1990s. Since 2000 many students and skilled Kashmiris have arrived mainly from Muzaffarabad and Poonch divisions but also some from the Valley of Kashmir.
One of the main reasons for Kashmiris coming to UK has been the same as for other British communities who came from different parts of the world at different stages of labour migration. This reason has been the going of such companies as the East India Company in different countries of the world and capturing them under their rule and the accumulation of their resources and wealth – colonialism. So Kashmiris like many other migrant people are here because British were there.
Generally Kashmiris in Britain from the earliest to present day can be divided into the following categories according the period they came in and the purpose of coming.
Interestingly the first Kashmiri in Britain was a woman. In the available record (Saraf, Y. 1976) her name is given as Jani. She was daughter of Dayam Rathore who at the time of this incident was the Raja;ruler of Kishtawar region of present day Kashmir. According to Yousaf Saraf in ‘Kashmiris Fight for Freedom’ one British Army colonel Robert Thorpe fell in love with Jani while holidaying in the famous Tosha Maidan near Sringar in one summer around 1830s. Colonel had to embrace Islam in order to marry Jani. This was perhaps the first transnational or Mungehter marriage took place between a British and a Kashmiri. It is not known where exactly Colonel Thorpe was from in UK. However, as told by Saraf, the couple had three children. The middle one, also called Robert Thorpe, visited his ‘mother’s land’ in 1865. According to father Biscoe, a Christian Missionary in Kashmir Thorpe Junior became attracted more to the misery of the poor classes of Kashmiris rather than the beauty of this ‘Heaven on Erath’ and ‘Venice of the East’.
He wrote several critical articles that were published in British Press. He tried to understand and explain the poor living conditions of Kashmiri peasants and workers through racialised religious perspective and accused British government for handing over a Muslim majority state to a Hindu ruler. He described the Maharaja as unable to rule properly for being Asiatic and his system as very suppressive and exploitative. It seems that many British government officials as well as Maharaja of Kashmir did not like this criticism and ordered Robert Thorpe to leave Kashmir. When he refused he was forcefully tied up with his bed (Khatt;Chapayee) and was carried out of the boundaries of Kashmir State into the British India or Aungrezi Illaqa as it was commonly called by Kashmiris.
Robert Thorpe sneaked back but was found dead one morning in his bed. The cause of his death remains a mystery. Some allege that he was poisoned. Others claim that he died natural death. However, it is clear that he died for the development and freedom of ordinary Kashmiris. He is buried in Srinagar and is described as the first foreigner martyred for Kashmir. Was he a foreigner or first ‘British Kashmiri’ civil activist who died for his ‘mother’s country – Kashmir?’
Another mention of a Kashmiri woman who also married to, and was brought to Britain by, a British colonial officer has appeared in history of Asian migration to Britian by Rozina Visram titled ‘Asians in Britain’ (2002). Identifying various museums with collections from South Asia during the colonial rule she mentions of Newbridge House Museum, County Dublin in Ireland where belongings of Thomas Alexander Cobb (1788-1836) are kept ‘who married to Nazir Begum, the daughter of Aziz Jehan of Kashmir.
Work – seamen or sirangs
The other group of Kashmiri migrants to Britain consisted of labourers from Dadyal town of Mirpur in the later years of 19th century. Prior to ‘discovering’ Britain they had been working on British Indian Navy Merchant ships in seaports of Bombay and Karachi mainly in coal rooms. Before that many of them built boats and sold or navigated through to Lahori Bandhar seaport. This boat industry that existed on Mangla Plateau at the present Mangla dam was demised after British introduced rail and it reached to Jhelum. It was after this that some who became unemployed and did noy have enough land or other work to turn to that some jumped on the same train and ventured out to look for work in big cities of British India such as Bombay, Calcutta and Karachi. It is highly likely that they were not the first ones from Mirpur to these cities.
Anyway, once joined ships and ships came to Britain, it is said that some of them came off and started working in the coastal towns. Then gradually more people from areas around Dadyal also started coming in. It must be noted that many decades before that some Kashmiris from Mirpur district went as far as New York and Australia. But for the majority Britain was always the favourite.
World Wars – Fighting for the Empire?
Some Kashmiris who were serving in First World War in British army came to Britain after the war. My maternal grandfather Bava Ji Reham Ali served in the First World War. Some more came and settled here after the Second World War. Many Kashmiris from different parts of the state fought alongside the British army. Over 50,000 troops were sent by the Maharaja of Kashmir to fight in the 2nd World War.
Some of the soldiers who were made prisoners of war by Germany and Japan also came to Britain after they were freed. My grandfather Bava Ji Sardar Khan who served in the Second World War as Cook or laangery was one of such Kashmiris who spent 9 weeks in UK after being released from prison. According to his only daughter he had choice to stay here and work, but he decided not to stay because of the family in Kashmir and also because the country was very cold, dull and dark. However, as the time revealed this was going to be the destination of almost all his offspring.
The reason for the next phase of Kashmiri migration was to meet the labour shortage in the British industries. After the 2nd World War there were not enough workers in Britain to meet the need for reconstruction and other public and service industries. Also, British workers were not willing to take up some harsh and dirty jobs. They were also by then more aware of their rights as workers and wanted high pays and better working conditions. All these reasons played role in British factory owners and industrialists to look outside of Britain for labour – cheap labour. Ex colonies – places under direct or indirect rule of Britain – were the obvious choice. At the same time ex-soldiers or Ship workers or seamen who been to Britain had many stories about work for their friends and relatives back home. So there was interest on both sides.
Invasion and Division of Kashmir
Another major change that played a big role in uprooting people in Mirpur was the invasion of India and Pakistan in Kashmir and the forced division of Kashmir in October 1947. Thousands of people were made to leave their homes in Mirpur from where non-Muslims were forced to leave and in Jammu where Muslims were forced to flee. The entire foundation of Mirpuri society was shaken and many who were uprooted migrated to Britain.
Number of Kashmiris in Britain rose rapidly during 1950s when Kashmiris who were now working in UK started bringing in their relatives and friends to work in the mills, factories, and foundries etc. By the end of 1957 it can be claimed that the process of coming to Britain was changed into what social scientists call ‘chain migration’.
Sometimes the writers on ‘Mirpuri’ migration to Britain argue that Mangla Dam was the main cause of migration from Mirpur to Britain. There is also this myth that actually Mirpuris came to Britain as a compensation for the building of Mangla dam by Pakistan. However, as can be understood from above details that by 1960s many thousands of Kashmiris from Mirpur were present and working in Britain. The process of coming to Britain was turned into chain migration which means that Mangla Dam or no Mangla Dam, the relatives and friends of the workers in Britain were ‘destined’ to come to UK. However, the building of Mangla dam by the Pakistani Government and the announcement by the British Government of introducing new laws to control migration certainly speeded up the process of migration from Mirpur.
Families; Baal Bacha
The migration of Kashmiris took another turn in 1970s. Again mainly as a result of the changes in law, several Kashmiri men started bringing their wives and children over because now sons were allowed in only if accompanied by their mothers. Prior to the new laws majority of Kashmiri men were reluctant to bring in their families. They thought they will go back soon so what is the point of bringing families over. However, with the change in law many decided to get visas for the wives and children just to be on safe side.
The arrival of wives and children left the grandparents – bays and bavas – in a difficult position. In many families no one was left ‘back home’ to look after bays and bavas. That is how the grandparents started coming to UK after 1980s.
For centuries Shadi is preferred from within the family with first cousin as the first choice. With the arrival of children and wives or Baal Bacha of some of the brothers and sisters to Britain, the children of other brothers and sisters who left there were the first choice of marriage when they became of marriage age. That is how the mangehters or fiancées started migration to UK.
How Many Kashmiris are there in Britain today?
No one knows exactly the accurate number of Kashmiris in Britain today. The main reason for this lack of information about accurate numbers of British Kashmiris is that the national department, the census, which gathers information about the entire population of Britain does not have Kashmiri category in its system. Instead the Census department or National Statistics Office (NSO) considers Kashmiris as Pakistanis if they originate from the Pakistani administered Kashmir or ‘Azad’ Kashmir and ‘Indians’ if they came from the Indian administered Kashmir. However, based on various academic and journalistic accounts Kashmiris are estimated between 800,000 to one million in Britain today.
Where in Britain did, they come?
The decision of where to settle has almost always been linked and dependent on the availability of the work and some contact. Early Kashmiris seamen came to the coast towns of Britain. These Kashmiris mainly worked as vendors and peddlers around the coastal towns. Those came after the division of Kashmir worked mainly in foundries, factories, and textile mills. The majority settled in and around Bradford, Birmingham, London and Greater Manchester. Those, who had some education and could speak some English managed to find work in transport as bus conductors and later drivers and lived in and around Newcastle and Glasgow.
For many decades it was this labour work or semi-skilled jobs that remained the main occupation of (azad) Kashmiris in Britain. In other words, for many decades Azad Kashmiris almost entirely form the working class. Ask your fathers and grandfathers and they will tell you that they worked very long hours and stayed in small houses in dozens. However, this gradually changed with the next generation gaining more access to wider corridors of British Public, Voluntary and Private sectors.(Continue)
About The Writer : (Shams Rehman is a British Kashmir Journalist and intellectual. He has made a remarkable contribution to multi-cultural British society and towards the recognition of the Kashmiri Identity as an ethnic group listed by the British state among other communities).