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

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

In 2003, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire to stop years of cross-border shelling across the disputed Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. 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 Jammu and Kashmir 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 Jammu and Kashmir government marketed Batalik, a critical battle zone during the Kargil war, as a high-altitude warscape and also as 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 postconflict recovery in Kargil.1

Race-and-heritage tourism became a way to legitimize the state’s assertion of normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir, a highly dubious claim given that threats of cross-border violence continually disrupt the state-scripted facade 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 Jammu and Kashmir state’s policy to boost border tourism has allowed it to mobilize resources as well as discourses of cultural and racial distinction to claim Kashmir as a postconflict 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 supposedly remote villages in Kargil, a place nonexistent 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. 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 online portals to showcase their Aryan heritage.

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 Jammu and Kashmir 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, thus laying new grounds for intensely violent politics in the postconflict 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.2 The RSS treats Aryanism and 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.3 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 to indignity of many other “non-Aryan” adivasi groups. 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), with 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 Jammu and Kashmir government’s initiative to establish race tourism as a legitimate industry in Kargil shows how postconflict 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 of the state government that their reliance on race tourism is fueling divisive religious politics of the RSS, portraying Buddhism as part of the Hindu pantheon while pitting Buddhist Brogpas against Muslims and Christian populations in the region.4 More alarming, however, is the prospect that the alliance between race and tourism as a postconflict intervention will further weaken the chances of finding humane ways to resolve the longstanding political crisis in the state.

The implicit violence of postconflict 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.


1. Only two 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 Jammu and Kashmir government.

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

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

4. Many right-wing Hindu ideologues consider Buddha to be an avatar of Vishnu. On the “dangerous liaisons” emerging between the Buddhist leadership and Hindutva groups in Ladakh, see van Beek 2004.


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? New York: 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 Liaisons: 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.