5 kilometers away from the town of district Ganderbal, a diversion from the highway leads to a quaint hamlet. Twenty minutes of bumpy ride through a rough way; surrounded by paddy fields and orchards, leads to a village called Gutlibagh, which houses the largest number of Pakhtun communities in Kashmir. A few curves ahead, an old well-kempt house stands with a lively ambience. A German shepherd welcomes the incomers with consistent howling and barking. Inside the house, a single ceiling fan is giving out more noise than air. A man in his early 80s is dozing off on a bedstead. Disturbed by the incomers, the man, Nasrullah Khan bestirred himself and rose from his bed. Khan with clean-shaven looks much younger than his age. Khan belongs to the second generation of the Pakhtun community who migrated to the region during the Afghan rule in Kashmir and settled in various parts of the region.
Recalling his ancestral history, Nasrullah says that, “My father was a trader. He belonged to the Yagistan region of Pakistan. He would visit Kashmir quite often. He was enchanted by the beauty of the region and decided to settle here. While some of our relatives settled in Zakura area of Srinagar, my father decided to settle in Ganderbal. My father brought about 50 kanal of agricultural land at the rate of 50 rupees per Kanal. We were financially very sound even than the majority Kashmiri Muslim community.”
The Pashtuns chiefly came in under the Afghan rule, but many were brought by Maharaja Gulab Singh under the Dogra rule for service on the frontier and are now found mainly in the south-west region of Jammu. In July 1954, some 100,000 Pashtun tribesmen living in Jammu and Kashmir who previously did not hold nationality effectively became Indian citizens. The ceremony was presided by the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad at the village of Gutlibagh Ganderbal, during which citizenship certificates were presented in batches. It is said that the prime minister paid a tribute to the Pashtun community for its "role in the country's liberation struggle”. Leaders of the Pashtun community also pledged their loyalty to the adopted homeland. Largely, Pashtuns reside in district Ganderbal (Gutlibagh), Anantnag, Kishtwar and Baramulla (Uri, Sherri, Kaleban).
With over a lakh population in Jammu and Kashmir, the community is striving to protect its culture and identity. The elders in the families are trying hard to ensure that their children and grandchildren carry their culture and identity to the coming generations. Like others, Nasrullah Khan is also doing his part by recalling the legends of his community.
“Being born here in Kashmir, I still can’t speak Kashmiri, none of my siblings does. It is because our late father ensured that we kept our language unadulterated. So, he never encouraged us to speak or learn any other language. When I became a father, I wanted my children to be educated. While they went to school, they learned Kashmiri and Urdu. Eventually, while speaking, they started to lapse into Urdu and Kashmiri. Now, I can hardly claim that my children speak pure Pashtun. But I ensured that we continue speaking in our language at our home,” Nasrullah said.
“For my grandchildren, I started telling them legends about my father and forefathers so that they know about how their ancestors lived. I tell them stories about how my father once bare handedly fought a leopard and killed it in just a few blows by breaking its spine, and survived with a small scratch on his back. I tell how their grandfather, that’s me, would spend nights in the deep forests and be back in morning with a great hunt and how I would travel miles to the Great lakes for fishing the famous trout,” Nasrullah added.
“I was the best hunter in the community,” Nasrullah bragged.
Having lived for more than a century now, the Pashtuns have managed to preserve certain parts of their distinct culture and identity. The community still holds 'jherga' (councils) to decide disputes before heading to the police and court. The Jherga is headed by a person who holds a good reputation among the community.
“Jherga has been a part of our custom for decades. No matter how small the dispute might be, the Jherga decides on it and gives a ruling, which everybody in the community has to follow. If a person or a group of people refuse to follow the ruling, the person/group is ostracized from the community,” Asgar Khan, a local Pashton said.
“I believe it is a very effective way for quick dispensation of justice. Also being an underprivileged community, with meager sources of income, Jherga is most suitable for us as it doesn’t cost any money at all,” Asgar added.
While earlier, Pashtos fought to keep the Kashmiri wazwan away from their marriage ceremonies but now wazwan has taken the place of their traditional dishes. What makes their weddings distinct are the folk songs, dance and sword fights. Marriages still take place within the community so that the language and culture remain preserved.