Engagement with South Asian history often occurs either through the Eurocentric divisions of core and periphery or through the irredentist nation-states’ paradigm. However, South Asian history is a complex one, beyond the linearities of colonial narratives and territorial borders. For example, recent scholarship on Tibet has underscored some complexities of South Asian history. It has been marked with the question of accurate representation, beyond the colonial and Eurocentric narratives of either a romanticised or a demonised Tibet, and as scholars like David Atwill suggest, “tinged by the preconceptions of the center.” Explorations into the complex premise of Tibetan identity and self-definition through the narratives and articulations of Tibetan communities opens up an alternative paradigm to view and analyse not just Tibetan history but the larger connected histories of the South Asian region. One such community is the khache, or the ‘Tibetan Muslims of Kashmir’, who had settled in Tibet in pre-colonial and colonial times and returned to Kashmir as the ‘Indian diaspora’ after the communist takeover of Tibet in 1959. The khache not only presents an alternate and a lesser known history of South Asia, it also challenges the contours of diaspora studies.
The term khache was predominantly analogous to Kashmir or ‘Kashmiri Muslims’ which was later broadened to identify Muslims from all parts of Central and South Asia, residing in Tibet. Gaborieau accounts that “they came from Kashmir either directly via Ladakh, or more often through the large network of Kashmiri merchants settled in the Indian town of Lahore (now Pakistan), Delhi, Bañaras, Patna, Dhaka (now Bangladesh) and later Calcutta; they entered Tibet via Kathmandu (Nepal) which shelters an old Kashmiri community.”
A well consolidated Khache community in Tibet, cohabitated and assimilated with the Buddhist society, was witnessed during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama, from the seventeenth century. An account of the Tibetan society since the seventeenth century, in the works of scholars like Atwill, reveals the existence of a highly secular, yet religiously rooted society which had absolute religious freedom, but was deeply integrated. The Muslim community had unhindered freedom to excersie their religious practises and sustain their religious order. The khache were of immense economic and political importance to Tibet. Along with undertaking trade and economic investments, they were employed in political and diplomatic roles, for connecting Tibet to the larger world. The khache who had become a part of the Tibetan socio-cultural, economic and political landscape had to invoke diaspora status and migratory history during the communist China’s takeover of Tibet in 1959. The communist government aimed at the total control of Tibetan society and identity, curbing religious and cultural freedom of both the Muslim and the Buddhist communities. The khache, as Bhutia in her work observes, to preserve their religious identity, shifted their narrative and cultural memory, tracing their ancestral roots to Kashmir, claiming Indian citizenship. After rounds of negotiations among the governments of India and China, in 1960, around 120 khache families were repatriated as ‘Indian Muslims of Kashmir’ to Indian occupied Kashmir.
To look at the case of the khache through the lens of diaspora puts forward certain complexities, which challenge the very contours of the conceptual framework of diaspora studies. Diaspora, in simple terms, is defined as a community which resides in a territory to which it or its ancestors had migrated, displacing itself from its territorial homeland. It is from their sense of belonging to a particular territory, or as William Safran opines, their place of ‘eventual, mythic return’ or to the markers like language, culture, ethnicity or religion that the community collectively identifies itself and/or are collectively identified by the others.
As most scholars suggest, the main characteristic of a diaspora community is its inextricable link to its homeland, its homeland fantasy, from which it draws its collective identity. The diaspora community maintains its distinct cultural identity, deriving from its homeland, even while it chooses to assimilate with or insulate from the host society. Furthermore, the oral narratives maintain a sense of rootedness, belonging, even if remote, in their territorial homeland, with a filtered imagination of a glorified past and a mythic return. The khache, who categorised themselves as Kashmiri diaspora in Tibet, does not exhibit a diasporic sense of belonging to Kashmir. Rather, there are accounts of a reversed idea of their homeland in pre-1959 Lhasa. A diasporic community, to assert its sense of belonging to its homeland reproduces mythical anecdotes about its inextricable roots in the homeland, for example, the colonial Indian diaspora’s reproduction of India as the land of Ram (from the mythological tale of Ramayana of Hindu religion). As Gaborieau observes, the popular reimaginations of the khache’s Islamic/Sufi mythology links the community to Tibet, rooting their cultural sense of belonging to Tibet. Certain scholars, like Anisa Bhutia, opine that their cultural belonging does lay in Tibet and their claim to Indian citizenship was only a political move to preserve their religious freedom and identity. It was a pious imitation of the Hijra performed by the Prophet in 622 CE when he, along with his followers, moved from Mecca to Medina to preserve Islam. Diaspora scholars like Brubaker suggest that the domain of the concept of diaspora should be extended beyond the territorial paradigm to include transnational communities whose cultural markers and belongings overpower their territorial rootedness, such as ethnic or religious diasporas. However, it is usually witnessed that a displaced community, whose sense of belonging lies in a deterritorial landscape (such as religion) tend to exhibit a territorial imagination and belonging to which it wants to eventually return, such as the sense of belonging of Jewish diaspora which linked its religious identity to a territorial homeland of Israel. Such a scenario is also ruled out in the context of the khache as their religious belonging is rooted in the intangible landscape of Islam, their territorial belonging lay in Tibet and their political belonging and security lay in their Indian diasporic status. How does the current framework of looking at diaspora accommodate such a community?
Moreover, the khache has been variously identified in different territories, such as the ‘Indian Muslims of Kashmir’ by India, ‘Chinese Muslims’ by communist China, ‘Tibetan Mulsims’ by the Kashmiri society. Their identification has been associated with a prefix deriving their nationality or a national identity. However, their sense of nationality remains ambiguous as they choose to identify with the non-political identity of khache, which posits them as a transnational community, whose links range from Kashmir, to Tibet, to India, to Nepal to Central Asia, also symbolic of the connected histories of these regions that they signify.
Indian occupied Kashmir’s situation has been troublesome since the partition of India in 1947. There has been an increasing military oppression in the recent past, under the current political regime. A small community like the khache is often negated in the larger political struggle. An interview with a member of the community provided some insights on their present situation. There are currently around 2000 khaches residing in the Tibetan colonies of Srinagar and Ladakh. Their status is retained as Indian citizens and much of their welfare schemes, such as education are provided jointly by the Indian government and the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala. While there exists a larger solidarity among the Muslim ummah and there is an increasing cultural integration, especially among the youth, the Kashmiri society remains a poltically fragmented one. They are referred to as the ‘Tibetan Muslims’ or the ‘Indian Muslims of Kashmir’ which identifies them with Tibet and India, therefore, losing ground to the larger solidarity in Kashmir against Indian occupation and oppression. The Indian government largely identifies them with Tibetan refugees and such identification is seen through the government’s measures of revoking their state subjectship, land and property rights, or the change of name of their school from ‘Tibetan Muslim Children’s Educational Institute’ to ‘Tibetan Public School’, in the recent past. They maintain strong ties with the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamshala which provides for their political identity. Their self- identification has also been cautious. While they continue to identify with Tibet, they refrain from articulating their territorial identity in the fear they might be reduced to refugee status. They remain a politically weak community, who fail to associate themselves with the Tibetans who are refugees and continue to face Indian oppression faced by the larger Kashmiri community. After the abrogation of Article 370 by the government of India, on August 5th, 2019, their political stance, articulation of their identities have been even more ambiguous and closeted in the fear of losing their Indian domicile status. Since they are largely considered as ‘Tibetan Muslims’, they often fail to be a part of the larger Kashmiri identity forged against the Indian claims to Kashmir and Kashmiri identity. “If we have an option, we would choose to settle in Ladakh than in Kashmir, as we can identify with Ladakhi culture, and we are safer there.”, concluded the respondent.
Aindrila Chakraborty is a student of Ambedkar University, Delhi.