For Uighur exiles, Kashmir is heaven
On a wintry November morning in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir, Mohammad Abdullah sits on the carpeted floor in his living room, with a black and white portrait of his father, Haji Abdullah Karem, hanging on the wall. My father was among the last Silk Route traders, says Abdullah. Karem, an ethnic Uighur Muslim from the Chinese province of Xinjiang, would undertake the perilous mountainous route that stretches from Kashgar to Ladakh through the Karakoram mountain pass that divides China and India.
Abdullah says his forefathers had trekked the same route, travelling in caravans on top of horses and double humped camels, stopping at the sarais – resting stations for travellers – on the way, bartering silk, spices and pashmina fine cashmere wool. One such journey to Ladakh located in Indian-administered Kashmir in the 1940s would turn fateful when Karem could not return home after the People’s Republic of China took over Xinjiang in 1949.
The Communist government blocked the mountain pass, eventually choking off trade. Karem had left behind a wife and a young son whom he would never see again, said Abdullah, adding that his father lived out the rest of his life in India, married a local Ladakhi woman and fathered four sons and four daughters. Abdullah, 60, who works for the regional government, lives with his family members in the Rajbagh area of Srinagar, which has remained untouched by the months of deadly anti-India protests that gripped the Muslim-majority Himalayan region.
Uighur heritage A cluster of identical houses built in the traditional Kashmiri style with low-hanging roofs and a wooden exterior is occupied by his brothers and extended family. One of the few relics of the past left with the family is Karem’s portrait – an imposing looking man wearing a doppa – a Uighur skullcap, squinting his eyes as if shielding himself from the sun. In 2014, a devastating flood ravaged Srinagar. Their house, along with others, was not spared.
The deluge swept away precious memories, but they managed to save Karem’s original passport issued by the Republic of China, along with a woollen Khotan traditional rug and a copper vessel used by the caravan on the Silk Road to cook mantou steamed dumplings, both of which have been in the family’s possessions for nearly two centuries. Of all his brothers and sisters, Abdullah is the one the most in touch with his Uighur heritage. For most of the family, it was a matter of surprise that their Uighur heritage could evoke curiosity.
“In our hearts we are as Indian as can be. Although, we would really like to visit Xinjiang once to see our ancestral land,” says Abdullah’s son, 32-year-old Wasim. He spends part of the year in Leh, where he is building a resort, and part of it in Srinagar. But with renewed hostility between India and China and the crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang, there is little possibility of procuring a visa, though both sides of the family have been trying for a few years.
Seven years ago, Abdullah made his first visit to Hotan in Xinjiang to meet his half-brother. Abdullah’s dialect is a mix of Urdu, Ladakhi and Kashmiri, with a sprinkling of Uighur words that trace their origin to the Turkish language. Before visiting his brother, he worked on learning the language he inherited from his father and he thinks that he is now one of the only two Uighur language speakers in India. “All the people that I met in Xinjiang wanted the freedom we have in India. The sort of protests we see in Kashmir would not be possible there at all. The state would repress it immediately,” he says. Arrival in India Most of the Uighur community is disengaged from both the Kashmiri separatist movement and the Uighur cause.
As second and third generation Uighurs who have grown up in India, the Uighur cause is too far removed, and as refugees who found a home here, they are non-critical of the state. Abdullah though, has taken up the cause of three Uighur men who have been held in jail in Ladakh after crossing over illegally into India three years ago. “They landed without a visa, with the hope of reaching Mumbai to meet [Bollywood star] Shah Rukh Khan and become rich like Indian movie stars,” says Abdullah shaking his head, his expression a blend of amusement and concern.
The Uighur community in India is not large and mostly second and third generation citizens whose parents or grandparents came here as refugees. Those who spoke with Al Jazeera estimate that there are less than 30 families located mainly in Leh, Kargil and Srinagar. For most people, even in Kashmir, it is a revelation that people of Uighur origin live in India at all, as they are often mistaken for people from Ladakh or Tibet with similar facial features. “Kashmir has a long history of trans-Himalayan migration, because of its connection to the Silk Route,” said Abid Ahmed, editor at the cultural institution, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, in Srinagar. The best documented of these migrations is that of the Tibetan Muslims of Srinagar, who settled in Kashmir after the 1959 Tibetan uprising.
The Uighurs came in two waves. In the first, they came through trade and cultural exchanges between India and Xinjiang province . Most Uighurs, who came during the 1930s and 1940s, were traders and stayed behind in India after China clamped down on independence movements from the province. Mohammad Rahim, 58, works as a construction contractor in Srinagar and Leh, the capital of Ladakh. His father Haji Abdul Rahim was from the Uighur town of Karghilik and settled in India in the 1940s. Rahim’s mother is from Ladakh and he himself has married a Ladakhi. “I try to keep the Uighur culture alive for my children, but it is not easy,” he says, with a tiny shrug. He acknowledges a sense of loss. “The only thing we have preserved is the Uighur food which we eat on special occasions, laghman [pulled noodles] and polo [rice pilaf].” The second wave The second wave of nearly 1,000 Uighur refugees arrived in India to escape the communist regime in 1949. The Indian government initially hosted them, but after increasing pressure from Beijing, refused to provide them with asylum. The group under the leadership of the most prominent Uighur politician of the time, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, was forced to leave India in 1954. They appealed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt first, each of which turned them away, until they found refuge in Turkey.
Erkin Alptekin, a Uighur nationalist and the son of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who was 10 years old at the time, recalls the flight to India. “It was a hard trip. There were no streets. The highest mountain passages in the world are here. Sometimes you had to sit for hours in the snow and wait for the fog to dissolve,” he told Al Jazeera in an email. “We were warned not to fall asleep, because the body loses heat and then one dies.” The journey took them nearly a month and a half, during which his sister succumbed to frostbite. “When we met human civilisation in Ladakh, in Kashmir, we thought as children that we were in paradise on earth,” said Alptekin, who currently lives in Germany, where he runs World Uyghur Congress, an organisation of exiled Uighurs and is one of the most well-known activists for Uighur independence. Alptekin’s family found a temporary home at Yarkand Sarai, in Srinagar – once a rest house and an international trading hub for traders from Central Asia – Yarkand, Samarkand, Kazakhstan, Bukhara – and Gilgit which is located in Pakistan. So popular was the trading route that Central Asian people are still widely referred to as Yarkandi in Kashmir. The sarai, which local historians date to the late 19th century, had been lying desolate following the end of the Silk Route trade until it became the home of the political exiles of 1949.
“When we arrived in Srinagar, there were a couple of older Uighur families already living in that area,” said Alptekin, who visited Yarkand Sarai again last year. The ramshackle exterior of Yarkand Sarai, a closed set of buildings with small houses that overlook the River Jhelum in downtown Srinagar, gives no evidence of its storied past as a flourishing centre of trade and shelter for Uighur exiles. Across the street on a small patch of land sheltered under a shrine, sits a graveyard where the Uighur people of Srinagar are buried. Abdul Hakim’s family is one of the two Uighur families still living near the cemetery.
His father, who was from Karghilik, traded in carpets and settled in Kashmir in the 1940s. He, too, had a family from which he was separated across the border. He talked to Al Jazeera over the phone from Ladakh where he was visiting his relatives. “I heard from my mother that he had two children there and a wife and brothers and sisters and he could never meet any of them again,” says Hakim, who works with the state police department. In 1976, the family was granted asylum in Turkey. “Our passports were stamped and bags were packed. And we thought we would live with our people there. But, we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. Our roots are here,” Hakim says.