Iqbal Championed Their Cause, Made Way To Kashmiri Hearts

The poet philosopher’s biographer, Iqbal Singh Sevea, writes the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims, and memories of his family’s painful migration from Srinagar shaped Iqbal’s views on the disempowerment of Muslims 

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Abbaji, my grandfather Muhammad Sharif Khatlani, grew up in poverty. A square meal was a privilege most people around him did not have in Kashmir during his childhood. Abbaji came into his own in Lahore, which unlike Kashmir was culturally rich and prosperous. Lahore’s enabling atmosphere shaped him as a student in the 1930s. Abbaji dabbled in journalism in the Paris of the East. The fortune of seeing poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal in his flesh and blood was the highlight of Abbaji’s stay in Lahore.

Iqbal inspired and guided young Kashmiris in Lahore, the city that offered them opportunities while they faced exclusion from equal opportunities in education and employment. He was deeply attached to Kashmir; the land of his forebears. Iqbal’s advocacy of the rights of Kashmiri during the Dogra rule before 1947 made him a hero of the marginalized Kashmiri Muslims of Abbaji’s generation. 

Iqbal, who lived and died in the present-day Punjab province of Pakistan, is to Kashmiris what Tagore is to Bengalis. He was proud of his Kashmiri lineage and spoke out against the serfdom Kashmir’s rulers condemned their majority Muslim subjects. Schools, landmarks, parks, and the main library of Kashmir’s oldest university are named after Iqbal and memorialize him in his land of ancestors.

Iqbal’s biographer, Iqbal Singh Sevea, writes the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims, and memories of his family’s painful migration from Srinagar shaped his views on the disempowerment of Muslims. He associated himself with the Anjuman Kashmiri Musalmanan (Society of Kashmiri Muslims), which highlighted the problems of Kashmiris. He presided over the Kashmir Committee to unite Kashmiris to resist the Dogra rulers.

The resistance was boosted after the opening of the Srinagar–Rawalpindi road in the early 19th. The connectivity allowed Kashmiri Muslims to travel to Punjab in large numbers for education. Influential Kashmiris settled in Punjab offered them scholarships and formed the All-India Kashmir Muslim Conference in the 1930s to offset the Dogra regime’s exclusionary policies towards Muslims in education and jobs.

Kashmir’s iconic leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was among those who were educated in Lahore. Abdullah aspired to become a doctor but there were no medical colleges in Kashmir then. Eligible candidates could study medicine in British India but only if the state funded them. The Dogra rulers’ policy of favouring Hindus for scholarship programmes dashed his hopes of becoming a doctor. Abdullah’s application to enroll at a Jammu college was rejected for speaking up for the right to education for Kashmiri Muslims.

Abdullah was eventually forced to go to Lahore to get an undergraduate degree. Iqbal greatly influenced him there. Abdullah felt ‘transported into a strange world, in earshot of the trumpet of Israel’ when he heard Iqbal speak out against the plight of the Kashmiri Muslims. 

The rejection of Abdullah’s candidature for civil services and the realization that he could not aspire to be more than a schoolteacher turned out to be the last straw. In the book Incarnations, which profiles notable Indians down the ages, author Sunil Khilnani writes about how some educated Muslims got around the bias ‘by sucking up but Abdullah was repelled by the idea of ingratiating himself with his oppressors’. He was convinced that the ‘ill-treatment of Muslims was an outcome of religious prejudice’. He was determined to get rid of it.

Abdullah chose to return to Kashmir to lead the resistance against the monarchy. Many Kashmiris stayed back in Punjab, where the community’s influence grew after the Partition. Mian Salahuddin, a two-time parliament member in the 1960s, was the most influential Kashmiri politician before the emergence of Nawaz Sharif in the 1980s.

Sharif, whose Kashmiri family was uprooted from East Punjab and settled in Lahore after partition, went on to become the prime minister thrice. His brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is now the prime minister. Kashmiris occupy important positions in his federal cabinet.

A family of Kashmiri origins owns Pakistan’s biggest Jang Media Group. Kashmiris have held also top positions in the military and bureaucracy. To name a few, Ali Azmat of the iconic Junoon rock band is of Kashmiri origin. So are Sana Mir and Nida Dar, the most recognisable Pakistani women cricketers.           

Iqbal’s grandson, Mian Yousuf Salahuddin, another prominent Kashmiri, lives in his family’s expansive, 350-year-old Barood Khana haveli, in Lahore’s walled city. It is a must-see place for visitors because of its association with the poet-philosopher. His ancestors migrated to Sialkot from Kashmir sometime in the middle of the 19th century.

In the 17th century, the haveli used to be one of Lahore’s biggest Mughal ammunition stores. Salahuddin’s great-grandfather, Mian Karim Buksh, bought it in 1870 to match his stature as one of Lahore’s wealthiest people. His family was lucky enough to have managed to bring their gold with them from Kashmir. They invested it in property and flourished. At one point, they owned large parts of Lahore.

Buksh made a fortune with his construction business. His success mirrored the change of fortunes for Kashmiris in Punjab. The Kashmiri community has emerged over the centuries among the powerful urban groups in Pakistan’s Punjab. They have a strong presence in places like Gujrat, Gujranwala, Lahore, and Sialkot.

Kashmiris have held key positions of power in Lahore since they began to migrate to Punjab in the 19th century to escape the oppressive rule back home. A large number of them began acquiring influential positions in cities like Sialkot, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Lahore by the early 20th century and began actively supporting the struggle in Kashmir against the Dogra rulers.

Soap manufacturer and contractor Muhammad Sultan, a Kashmiri, was part of Lahore’s first municipal committee in 1862. Salahuddin’s grandfather, Mian Amiruddin, a member of the Punjab assembly, went on to become the first Muslim mayor of Lahore in 1931. The community has since continued to grow from strength to strength.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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