1n 2017 the Kashmiri Lives Project was developed by members of Rochdale’s Crescent Radio 97fm to record the lived experiences of their community, through interviews with three generations. We supported them in this project through oral history and archive training, and the stories now form part of our permanent archive collection. In this blog post, we share some of the story and history of the Mirpuri/Kashmiri community in the UK, and particularly in Greater Manchester.
Where is Mirpur / Kashmir?
The Mirpuri community in Manchester comprises people who originate from the Mirpur district in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, a region in the north-east of Pakistan on the border with India. While Mirpur is a relatively small region in Azad Kashmir, by far the largest proportion of the Pakistani community in the UK is of Mirpuri descent – an estimated 60-70 percent.
Kashmir was part of the Mughal Empire until it came under Sikh rule in 1820. Following the first Anglo-Sikh war in 1846, Jammu and Kashmir was created as a princely state. After the partition of India, both India and Pakistan claimed Jammu and Kashmir,
Historically, the region has been primarily rural and dependent on subsistence farming
Mirpur, with a population of roughly 96,000, is the biggest city in Azad Kashmir, a rural region that suffered enormous bloodshed during Partition and was left without any proper water supply.
Many of the Mirpuri community in the UK have a strong sense of identity as Kashmiri rather than Pakistani, and this identification led to the setting up of a Kashmir National Identity campaign in 1999, in the run-up to the 2001 Census.
“I sometimes make a point of asking people where they are from—what is their ethnic origin. Some respond, “Bangladesh.” Some say, “Ukraine.” Others say, “Poland”, but most respond, “Pakistan.” I stop them and clarify, “Do you mean Kashmir?” Their faces light up. They are delighted that someone in the political system recognises the difference.” Simon Danczuk MP as reported in Hansard 1
Despite the campaign, Kashmiri was not included a separate tick box in the 2001 census, but 25,265 individuals identified themselves as Kashmiri by write-in responses to the ethnicity question.
Why they came to the UK
Mirpur has a long history of out-migration for a variety of reasons, which helps account for the diverse origins of the Mirpuri community in the UK.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries sailors from Mirpur were taken on as engine-room stokers on British ships sailing out of Bombay and Karachi. A significant number of the seamen who were recruited from Mirpur were taken on for the outward journey but not re-employed on return journeys and so found themselves effectively forced to remain in Britain. Others chose to jump ship to escape maltreatment and poor working conditions.
In one of the interviews for the Kashmiri Lives Project, Mohammed Yaseen Chohan shared a letter written by his great-uncle Great Uncle, Qutab U Din Chohan, who was working on the steamships as a sailor, to his father.
The journey wasn’t easy:
“I’m writing to tell you how we are and what we’ve been through. Our ship is getting ready to sail to Britain… I’ve experienced problems on the journey. There’ve been such obstacles and storms on the way…The stormy sea is affecting everyone, be they officers or sailors. The waves push the ship down and make it sway…When the ship goes up and down so much, we can’t think what to do. When the food’s being cooked, nobody could even look at it, as if just the sight of it would make them sick. At times like this all we can do, think of our family…and mothers. “
During the Second World War, many Mirpuris were taken on to work in the munitions factories, and many stayed on after the war. Overseas workers from countries which had been part of the British Empire were encouraged to come to Britain, and Mirpuris who were already here amplified the message, seeing work in the UK as a way of improving prospects for themselves and their families back home
The next wave of migration began from the 1950s onwards. Kashmiris migrated to the UK to help with the labour shortage, particularly in the textile industries in Lancashire and Yorkshire and car manufacturing in the Midlands.
“When I came, you could easily get work in the factories. You could get work in several places. You could work in any place of your choosing.”
Alongside these pull motivations, there was also a strong push motivation in the 1960s: the construction of the Mangla Dam, which resulted in the flooding of several hundred villages and the towns of Mirpur and Dadyal, in which over 100,000 lost their homes, land and livelihoods.
“When Mangla Dam was constructed it was as though we’d been imprisoned.” Nazir Afzal
Listen here to a documentary from the Kashmiri Lives project which includes an interview with Muhammed Farooq, who had to leave home at 6 years old when his village was submerged by the building of the Mangla Dam.
Among those displaced by the construction of the dam, a number who had received financial compensation chose to travel to Britain, often to join family members already here.
During the 1960s a series of changes in the immigration laws, beginning with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, made it more difficult to move in and out of Britain. Along with the changes brought about by the building of the dam this meant that settled communities developed, made up of families rather than groups of transitory male workers. Many children arrived in the UK unaccompanied to join their families.
Mohammed Akram Sattar remembered coming to Britain in January 1968:
“I remember, when I came, I would say probably that aeroplane was full of children – I would say probably 80% were kids. The majority of them, they all had a tag on there with the name on, because we were all probably 12, 13 year old, 11 year old – so we don’t get lost, that was the reason. “
Experiences in Manchester
The first generation had to concentrate on securing accommodation and employment, often sharing houses with other families to reduce costs.
They often shared the house with other working men and worked long hours in the mills.
“The first generation didn’t really intend to stay here” Rashid
“We’ll work here for a couple of years and go back to the country and improve conditions there.” Fazal
It used to take two weeks for a letter to get to Pakistan and two weeks back to the UK
“Back then even if you had lots of work you were happy. Going to each other’s houses and talking. If somebody came from Pakistan we’d go visit them and ask how the family was back home. You’d look to meet someone familiar to talk to. Now there’s so many people here” Arshad
A shared language is often a unifying factor in community groups. Pahari (also known as Pothwari and Mirpuri) has been argued to be the second most common mother tongue in the UK, yet the language is little known in the wider society.
“I didn’t forget my mother tongue. My husband used to say never forget your own language. The children will learn English. They’ll also learn Urdu when they interact with Urdu speakers but don’t give up speaking your own language “ Arshad
Councillor Dalit Ali (deputy leader of Rochdale Council) who has been keen to promote Kashmiri culture over the years, has been a strong advocate for the Pahari language, and has published a number of books written in Pahari. “People used to laugh at Pahari, they said that it wasn’t a language because it couldn’t be written. But I tried to write in Pahari and eventually acquired that skill.”
For many young Kashmiris born in the UK, there was a sense of existing between two cultures.
“It’s like living two diffferent lives” Hasan Hafeez
“Mosque for myself back then, it was almost – do I really have to go? Can I not just stay at home and watch some more cartoons or whatever like all my other friends are doing?” Shakafat Ali
However, connections with Mirpur have continued down the generations, with money being sent from Britain for projects such as the construction of mosques (for example, the central mosque in Dudial) and the building of health centres and roads.
The strong feeling of connection even for those who had lived in Britain for most of their lives has meant that many Mirpuris have returned to their birthplace for burial. However, this has become less frequent as younger generations begin to regard Britain more as their home, rather than Pakistan.
While the Kashmiri community in Greater Manchester have made the UK their home they still remember their roots and once a year, young and old get together in places like Rochdale and Oldham for a ‘flag raising ceremony’, a positive symbol of identity.
Despite the pandemic, the flag was still raised at Rochdale town hall in 2020, though without the usual ceremony, and at a socially distanced ceremony in Bradford
Article 370 of the Indian constitution had granted special status to Jammu and Kasmir, giving the region semi-autonomous status, but this was revoked in August 2019, The revoking of special status led to widespread civil unrest in the region, and a heavy military presence. Because of the strong identification of many Mirpuris in the UK as Kashmiri, members of the community have been involved in peaceful protests around the rights of Kashmiris and their treatment in Indian-administered Kashmir. These protests often use the slogan ‘Kashmiri Lives Matter’, drawing inspiration from the activism of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
Kashmiri Lives project booklet: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/download/kashmiri-lives-project-booklet/
Kashmiri Lives Case Study: https://www.racearchive.org.uk/download/kashmiri-lives-case-study/
2011 Census – Kashmiri Research Project October 2009 (downloadable pdf) : https://www.ons.gov.uk/file?uri=/census/2011census/howourcensusworks/howweplannedthe2011census/questionnairedevelopment/finalisingthe2011questionnaire/kashmiri-research-project-2011-final-report_tcm77-183996.pdf
Kashmiri Identity in Britain – full text of a talk given at the launch conference of Kashmir National Identity Campaign: https://www.academia.edu/6487017/Kashmiri_Identity_in_Britain
The context and consequences of migration: Jullundur and Mirpur compared: Roger Ballard Pages 117-136 | Published online: 30 Jun 2010
Kashmir Development Foundation: https://www.kdfajk.org/
Transcripts of the Kasmiri Lives interviews will be available to read in the library later this year – watch this space!