“Aryan Valley” and the Politics of Race and Religion in Kashmir

In 2003, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire to stop years of cross-border shelling across the disputed Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Declared five years after the end of India and Pakistan’s first war as nuclear rivals in Kargil, the ceasefire was hailed by many as a “significant step to end one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.” In order to transform Kashmir’s global image “as a place of tanks and troops,” the J&K government decided to open previously inaccessible border villages in Kargil to domestic and international tourists, repackaging them as virgin sites for race and heritage tourism. For instance, in 2010, the J&K government marketed Batalik, a critical battle zone during the Kargil war, as a high-altitude warscape and also home of the ethnic minority of Buddhist Brogpas who were promoted as the “last pure specimens of the Aryan race.” Racialized depictions of Brogpa difference triggered an obsessive interest in their language and culture, as well as their DNA, and attracted a wide variety of Indian and European tourists, filmmakers, and journalists to the area. Brogpas, it was clear, had become central to projects of “post-conflict” recovery in Kargil.1

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Figure 1. Foreign tourists in a Brogpa village. Photo by author, 2009.

Race-and-heritage tourism became a way to legitimize the state’s assertion of normalcy in J&K, a highly dubious claim given that threats of cross-border violence continually disrupt the state-scripted façade of political order and stability while erasing people’s ongoing struggles against a brutal military occupation. Instead of applauding the state’s facile strategies to enforce peace through tourism and economic recovery programs, Kashmiris have long sought a political resolution to the Kashmir dispute. Despite such contestations, however, the J&K state’s policy to boost border tourism has allowed it to mobilize money and resources as well as discourses of cultural and racial distinction to claim Kashmir as a “post-conflict site,” a discursive and political category that renders invisible new forms of virulent politics that are becoming prevalent due to racialized forms of tourism in Kargil.

Yet, one cannot overlook the fact that the opening up of “remote” villages in Kargil, a place non-existent in the Indian imaginary until the war of 1999, has instilled hopes of upward mobility among Kargilis. This is especially true for the ethnic minority of Brogpas who have remained peripheral to nationalist visions of social, economic, and political integration.2 While the influx of tourists creates aspirations of economic mobility for a community overwhelmingly reliant on military portering and recruitment, Brogpas also accrue new forms of cultural capital by participating in global circulations of travel and fantasy. Brogpas claim that they are “Aryans”—people with long noses, high cheek bones, and ample body hair, perceptions that are fueling Kargil’s postwar industry. Domestic and international visits to Brogpa villages are now packaged as explorations of the “Aryan Valley.” Younger Brogpas are actively cultivating their “Aryan” identities by adding the suffix “Aryan” to their personal Facebook names or by setting up on-line portals to showcase their “Aryan” heritage.

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Figure 2. Brogpas portering for the Indian military. Photo by author, 2003.

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Figure 3. A festival organized by the Indian military in a Brogpa village. Photo by author, 2009.

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Figure 4. A seminar organized by young Brogpa students. Source: Facebook.

Narratives of Brogpa “racial” distinction are by no means recent. Colonial schemes of linguistic and racial difference have long been used to categorize social distinctions in the region, resulting in highly racialized assessments of people’s identities. Hindu ideologues in the 1900s also actively promoted Aryanness as a key determinant of authentic Hindu and Indian subjectivities (Bhatt 2001, 94).

What is new, however, is the way in which the J&K state’s attempt to promote “border tourism” as a “peace industry” has become unwittingly aligned with the recent surge of right-wing Hindutva groups in Kargil who rely on the discourse of Aryan and Hindu indigeneity to validate their hold on India’s disputed territory, laying new grounds for intensely violent politics in the post-conflict period. Since the Kargil war, many right-wing militant groups, such as the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have become politically active in the Himalayan region to protect what they perceive to be India’s “natural frontier lines,” a task for which Brogpa Aryanism plays an indispensable role.3 The RSS treats Aryanism and the associated Vedic cultures as fundamentally Indian, a militant ideology that validates India’s Hindu origins at the expense of excluding and even demonizing minority religious and adivasi (indigenous) groups, who define themselves as India’s “original inhabitants.”4 In order to disprove theories of Aryan invasions into India, the RSS promotes Brogpas as “pure Aryans,” showcasing them as India’s mul nivasis or indigenous inhabitants, a political feat that is accompanied by disregarding the claims of many other “non-Aryan” adivasi groups to indigeneity.5 Even as the RSS continues to forcibly draw adivasis across India into the Hindu fold through its large-scale “reconversion efforts” (Chatterji 2009, 35; Menon 2010, 59), Brogpas, because of their “Aryanness,” have become particularly salient to validate claims of Hindu indigeneity in India.

The extension of Hindu kinship to the Himalayas is therefore a strategic attempt to project India as the “original Aryan homeland” (Bhatt 2001, 205) and Brogpa bodies, race, and culture as living proof of Aryan antiquity. For Brogpas, reliance on race as a growing marker of identity has facilitated their insertion into a pan-Hindutva continuity, making them significant to chauvinist projects of religious and ethnic nationalism that promote Hinduism as India’s primordial religion and bolster Hindu cultural, spiritual, and political dominance along India’s contested frontiers. 

The J&K government’s initiative to establish race tourism as a legitimate industry in Kargil shows how post-conflict interventions in India’s frontier zones are fueling highly inflammatory forms of religious politics. What seems disturbing is the lack of recognition on the part of Brogpas or the state government that their reliance on race tourism is fueling divisive religious politics of the RSS that portray Buddhism as part of the Hindu pantheon while pitting Buddhist Brogpas against Muslims and Christian populations in the region.6 More alarming, however, is the prospect that the alliance between race and tourism as a post-conflict intervention will further weaken the chances of finding humane ways to resolve the longstanding political crisis in the state.

The implicit violence of post-conflict initiatives makes it clear that substantive attempts to restore political order must strive for robust engagements that move beyond ideological categories of peace and normalcy. This imperative seems even more urgent now as India and Pakistan have once again disrupted the “ceasefire” through cross-border bombings, reinforcing the fact that in the absence of a meaningful political dialogue, claims to peace will always remain suspect and deeply fragile.

Notes

[1] Only two out of the four Brogpa villages were accessible to tourists before 2010, after which all Brogpa villages were promoted through the border-tourism initiative of the J&K government.

[2] Brogpas live in four villages along the disputed line of control between India and Pakistan.

[3] Although the RSS established a formidable presence in Ladakh through the Sindhu-darshan as early as 1997 (van Beek 2004; Aggarwal 2004), the organization used the Kargil war of 1999 and the flash floods of 2010 to increase their involvement in political and “social welfare” activities in remote border locations.

[4] Rycroft and Dasgupta (2011) call for a reassessment of the ways debates on indigeneity in India have been framed. As opposed to using the word tribal, which is ahistoric and essentialist, they call for the term adivasi that encapsulates a “range of historically defined, contested, and mediated indigeneities” (2011, 1).

[5] The RSS and the Sangh Parivar use the term adivasi and mul nivasi interchangeably while vanavasi, or jungle dweller, is used to discredit the claims of several “tribal” communities to indigeneity.

[6] Many right-wing Hindu ideologues consider Buddha to be an avatar of Vishnu. For details on the “dangerous liaisons” emerging between the Buddhist leadership and Hindutva groups in Ladakh see van Beek (2004).

References Cited

Aggarwal, Ravina. 2004. Beyond Lines of Control: Performance and Politics on the Disputed Borders of Ladakh, India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Bhan, Mona. 2013. Counterinsurgency, Democracy, and the Politics of Identity in India: From Warfare to Welfare? London: Routledge.

Bhatt, Chetan. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies, and Modern Myths. New York: Berg.

Chatterji, Angana. P. 2009. Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present: Narratives from Orissa. Gurgaon, India: Three Essays Collective.

Menon, Kalyani Devaki. 2010. Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rycroft, David J. and Sangeeta Dasgupta, eds. 2011. The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi. New York: Routledge.

Van Beek, Martijn. 2004. “Dangerous Liasons: Hindu Nationalism and Buddhist Radicalism in Ladakh.” In Religious Radicalism and Security in South Asia, edited by Satu P. Limaye, Mohan Malik, and Robert G. Wirsing. 193–218. Honolulu: Asia–Pacific Center For Security Studies.