Chinese Muslims in Kashmir
This is the story of how minority Uighur Muslims from the Xianjiang province of China had fled to Kashmir, following the communist revolution in 1949, and settled there for some time.
The contemporary history of Jammu and Kashmir is exceedingly complex. As early as 1953, a long report on Kashmir in the respectable American periodical New Yorker ‘arrived at the inevitable conclusion, which no leader can yet publicly express, that no solution has become the only solution for Kashmir.’ Many aspects of the problem around Kashmir were written about over the last few days since the government of India made a new law practically abolishing the special autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Most of the recent observations, predictably enough, have focused on Kashmir’s relations with India, and to a lesser extent, Pakistan. But the so-called Kashmir problem has historically involved other nations too. No matter how strongly India seeks to keep it confined within its exclusive jurisdiction, some aspects of the problem will sooner or later slip into a larger international concern, as indeed they have in the past.
Against this context, it may be useful to recall a little-remembered episode from the recent history of Kashmir which had some implications on the relations between India, US, Turkey, and China. It is the story of how minority Uighur Muslims from the Xianjiang province of China had fled to Kashmir, following the communist revolution in 1949, and settled there for some time. It is an admittedly fragmented, and incomplete, story of an ethnic minority people who had lost their motherland and has since dispersed in many directions, almost all of them forced. As such, it ought to have some bearing on the various migration debates around the world too. It also shows how some imagined nations never quite manage to culminate in a sovereign state.
Xinjiang is the westernmost province of China and borders as many as eight countries, including Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It is also the largest administrative region in China. Until recently, most of its people were Uighur in terms of ethnicity and Muslim in religion. Islam is an important part of their identity, and their language is close to Turkish. Culturally, they have always considered themselves closer to central Asia, and in the past, a section among them used to consider themselves Turks. The area came under Chinese rule as late as the eighteenth century. During the Chinese revolution of 1949, the Uighurs were worried that their territory would be handed over to Russia and had for a brief while set up an independent state called East Turkestan. Isa Yusuf Aleptakin was one of the leaders of this movement. But when the Chinese state once again took control of the region, where resistance against China over the years has stayed alive, Aleptkin and some of his followers had to flee.
They fled to Kashmir. The province was no stranger to international guests, and to efforts by external regimes to reorganize its landscapes or social and cultural profiles. It had already made a name as a paradise on earth, as, that is, the Switzerland of Asia, where tourists arrived from all over the world at least since the early twentieth century. The British had recently redeveloped it as a fancy summer retreat. Even earlier, in the sixteenth century, the Mughals had merrily recast Kashmir as a replica of their central Asian homeland. They built nearly a hundred pleasure gardens, of which Shalimar is probably the most famous. So famous that not too many years ago, ten-rupee currency notes in India bore an image of this Mughal garden in Kashmir. The Mughals also imported chinar saplings from Persia and planted them all over the Kashmir valley. Three hundred years later, those chinar trees, with their sprawling branches and majestic height, lorded over those gardens and the landscape of the valley. Those gardens and chinars made up the heavenly image of the valley in the tourist’s mindscape.
The British, who arrived in the nineteenth century, decided to reorganize those gardens. The Mughal gardens were now filled with all conceivable varieties of exotic English flowers: pansies, candytufts, delphiniums, snapdragons and so on. Kashmir was now made into an exotic vegetable and fruit orchard too, and cherries, apples, peaches, artichokes, asparagus, lettuce, and celery would be grown and exported. They used to count for as much as one-fourth of the total export of the princely state of Kashmir. The English planted willows and poplars, which gradually came to compete with the chinars as the signature tree of Kashmir. Those even remotely familiar with the game of cricket know how Kashmiri willow is second only to the British willow when it comes to manufacturing top quality cricket bats. There’s more. Exotic fish, such as trout, were imported from Scotland and America and fed into the streams of Kashmir, where they have since prospered. Christian missionaries too followed, although their labour bore more fruit in terms of schools and hospitals rather than converts.
The rule banning foreigners from building houses in Kashmir long predated article 370 or 35A. A clever British man called Kinnaird came up with an innovative design to bypass the law. He was the first to present the idea of summer residences on houseboats, which technically could not be called houses if strict legal definitions were followed. This is how the famous tourist attraction of Kashmir was born, as a clever tactic to exploit a legal loophole. There is a competing version that a local shopkeeper called Pandit Naraindas first came up with the idea of the houseboat. Either way, they emerged during the 1880s, and by 1906, there were nearly a hundred of them in Kashmir.
By 1949, the princely state of Kashmir had built up an impressive reputation as a holiday destination for the well-heeled. But the Uighur followers of Aliptakin were no rich tourists. Xinjiang had a chequered history. The Ili region, to which Aleptakin belonged, had been a bone of contention between the USSR and Kuomintang government in China since the 1930s. Aleptakin was one of the Uighur leaders close to the Kuomintang, along with Masud Sabri and Md. Emin Bogra. In 1944, the people of Ili rebelled against the then government of Turkistan and later successfully set up the second government of East Turkistan. In 1947, the Kumintang supported nationalist party government in East Turkistan was headed by Masud Sabri as the governor. Bogra was the deputy governor, and Aleptakin the General Secretary.
But by 1948 the Communists got the better of the Kuomintang government in China. In Xinjiang, they removed the government of Sabri and installed pro-Russia communist party leaders in charge. They in turn arranged for pro-Russia Burhan Shahidi to take over. By 1949, Burhan Shahidi too had abdicated in favour of the Communist Party. The new Chinese government now became an alien power looking to expose Uighurs to oppression by Stalinist Russia. That is how Aleptakin and his followers came to see their predicament in 1949. But ‘we had no sufficient force or strength by which we could have defended our country against this communist invasion’, wrote Aleptakin.
They decided to leave, in the hope that other peace- and democracy-loving countries would help them to recover their country. There is no clear figure on how many of his fellow Uighur Muslims accompanied him. He writes that there were hundreds and that they left by the end of September 1949. The communist army meanwhile ‘occupied’ Turkistan. The new government sent wires to the border patrol to arrest the fugitives. Emin Boghra and Aleptakin were handed over to the military police. Aleptakin was tied with ropes, but he somehow managed to escape as they were transported to the mainland, and made his way to Ladakh.
They crossed ‘mountains, rivers, impassable ways’ and ‘faced unbearable hardships’, along the way. Finally, some 789 of them reached Ladakh on December 29, 1949. Incidentally, they were not the earliest Uighurs to arrive or wish to grow roots in Ladakh or Kashmir. They had been carrying out trade for centuries. As recently as the 1930s and 1940s, quite a few came as traders and eventually decided to settle down since it was becoming increasingly harder to return home on account of worsening political conditions, as briefly noted above. Most of these families have since more or less fully integrated with the local population, intermarried and took up residence and employment. They are still around, but in very small numbers, dispersed in Leh, Kargil, and Srinagar, according to a 2016 report by Al Jazeera.
But Aleptakin and his followers were not so lucky. They were political refugees from China. They had to surrender their arms, ammunition, and extra clothing ‘to the ruthless Chinese soldiers’ at the border. The refugees plodded through the treacherous way, in a desperate race against time, lest they ran out of food or clothes. They were forced to abandon their relatives, even wives, and children, who could not go any further. They were marching along an 18000 feet high altitude route, where the thin air made nostrils ooze blood, and many would, naturally enough, die along the way. The route was often alternately under six feet deep snow and glossy ice, and a majority of them were walking on foot. Yet others did not have tents, and Aleptakin wrote movingly of mothers trying to nurse children in their enfolded arms, but the biting cold making their bones freeze. About 54 died, along with 470 horses and pack horses, and 49 had their hands or legs frozen and became permanently handicapped. Property worth approximately a million rupees was either lost or had to be discarded along the way.
Even after reaching Ladakh, about 220 of them had to return to their country, probably because they did not have any resource left, and 568 went over to Srinagar. 400 among them since proceeded to Mecca, though details of how they pulled it off are not clear, and about 100 were stranded in Srinagar in November 1950. Given that a great many did not carry valid passports, the Indian government kindly allowed them to enter, and arrangements were made for the ailing to be admitted to government hospitals in Leh and Srinagar. A small dispensary was also opened at Sarai Sefa Kadal, where they were eventually offered shelter. More than 300 of them were carried from Leh to Srinagar by air, entirely free of charge. Sheikh Abdullah, the premier of Kashmir, ordered for ration cards to be issued to them, and sanctioned a sum of 5000 rupees for their aid.
Later, Aleptakin appealed to the embassy of the USA, with a request for money and hopefully some educational training for the young among the Uighur refugees. Little detail of what subsequently happened is known. But they were still in Kashmir in 1953 and learning the Kashmiri language, presumably for their eventual absorption into mainstream Kashmiri society. A cultural delegation from China refused to visit Kashmir that year in response to the Sheikh’s audacity to shelter dissident exiles. China saw it as an unfriendly gesture and lodged an official protest with India.
What happened to the Uighur refugees in Kashmir after this episode is harder to trace. Aleptakin went to Taiwan in 1954, trying to get Taiwan to drop its claims on Xinjiang, which it refused. He later found refuge in Turkey, where some continued to encourage him to persist with his struggle for an independent Xinjiang as possibly a client of Turkey, while China repeatedly denounced him. Aleptakin later became disillusioned against America too. There are unconfirmed reports that when he died in Istanbul in 1995, at the ripe old age of 94, over a million people attended his funeral.
A handful of them stayed back in Kashmir and were gradually integrated with the mainstream Kashmiris. Some even returned to their traditional businesses, dealing in silk, tobacco, gemstones, textiles, and leather. But obviously, they identify neither with Kashmiri separatists nor with Uighur ‘nationalists’ in their homeland. The younger generation, which is now exposed to a better life in the west, aspires for better opportunities. The internet has allowed some to get back in touch with their extended families in Uighur, though they show no particular interest in their political movement. They believe their fate is now tied up with that of Kashmir alone.
Sometimes, material that appears totally out of the immediate context, offers a more grounded context to intractable current problems. 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson had probably never heard of Kashmir, and certainly could not have known of this obscure episode. But one of her little poems best captures the poignancy that surrounds this passage of a forgotten people to permanent exile.
To be forgot by thee
Of other minds
The heart cannot forget
Unless it contemplate
What it declines
I was regarded then
Raised from oblivion
A single time
To be remembered what----
Worthy to be forgot
Is my renown.