Kashmiri Goats, Imaginaries of Freedom, and the Planetary Pandemic

By Mona Bhan & Haley Duschinski

This piece is part of APLA’s newest Speaking Justice to Power Series, which focuses on Kashmir and marks the one-year anniversary of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the constitution (August 5, 2019). The Series page is available here

What might a more than human analysis of Kashmir’s political history reveal about the nature of Kashmiri sense of self, place, and identity in the global world order? Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, this article unpacks images of wild and riotous Kashmiri goats roaming freely in a Welsh village to reveal Kashmir’s dark histories of slavery, taxation, and colonialism. These images illuminate the contemporary violence of Indian military occupation, and project cosmopolitan forms of future freedom from the boundaries of the postcolonial nation state.

Weeks after governments around the world imposed travel restrictions and quarantine orders that removed humans from typically busy markets, roads, and city centers, images of animals reclaiming depopulated spaces circulated widely in news reports and social media. Coyotes were spotted in the streets of San Francisco, monkeys engaged in rowdy street brawls near Bangkok, and pumas descended from the mountains to hunt in the streets in Santiago. The torrent of reports, soon accompanied by humorous spin-offs bearing the hashtag #WeAreTheVirus, suggested that humans were responsible for the global crisis through their excess, and that nature was pressing the reset button.

In one of the earliest such stories on March 30, global news sources reported that Great Orme goats were taking over the streets of the coastal town of Llandudno in North Wales. Photographs and videos shot through windows by local residents went viral, showing the goats leaping through the city streets and destroying carefully manicured gardens and hedges as they transformed Llandudno into a goat’s town (Figure 1).[1] Media reports characterized the goats as riotous and naughty. The Llandudno city council office tweeted a tongue-in-cheek public welfare message discouraging townspeople from behaving like these “rogues” who had disregarded the city council’s lock-down restrictions.[2]

Figure 1

The goat sightings in Wales drew considerable attention, with international audiences expressing amusement and fascination with the antics of what became known as the Kashmiri Goats — an invocation of their origin in the Northwestern Himalayan region bridging South and Central Asia. For Kashmiris, the social media fascination with these rogue Kashmiri goats felt bitterly ironic. Eight months prior to the World Health Organization’s declaration of a global pandemic, India had introduced significant constitutional changes to alter Jammu & Kashmir’s legal and political status by eliminating its autonomy within the federation of Indian states. In an effort to contain popular opposition, the state had escalated its human rights abuses in the region by imposing an intense militarized lockdown, detaining thousands of people through arbitrary preventive detention laws, and severely restricting mobility and communications throughout villages, towns, and cities.

Since March, the covid-19 public health crisis has played out through longstanding structures of militarization, occupation, and counterinsurgency governance, producing a military-directed collective quarantine within the pre-existing lockdown and leading to an uptick in longstanding patterns of ceasefire violations by India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (Aijazi 2020; Bhan and Bose 2020; Figure 2). The recent increase in cross-border firing and shelling between India and Pakistan has destroyed houses and schools, forced evacuations, and killed goats and other livestock. Against the backdrop of this continuous confinement, the free-roaming Llandudno goats reminded Kashmiris of their own long-frustrated aspirations of freedom.

Cartoon by Mir Suhail

The origin story of the Llandudno goats reveals Kashmir’s historical centrality in colonial investments in breeding pure blood lines and imperial desires for exotic fabrics and species. According to Llandudno’s tourism website[3], in the early nineteenth century, a large herd of mountain goats transported from Kashmir to France caught the attention of a British squire who transported two of them to England, hoping to raise a herd to produce prized cashmere wool. Impressed by the shawl they produced, King George IV enthusiastically accepted a pair of goats and launched the Windsor herd. Credited with amazing agility and peculiar dietary preferences, they were unsuitable as park animals and eventually transported to the limestone cliffs of Great Orme on the North Coast of Wales. At least sixty of them survive today.

Although Great Orme goats do not themselves produce pashmina or cashmere wool, they are deeply incorporated, through shared aesthetics and affect, into the same transactional histories of trade, colonialism, and imperial breeding as pashmina goats, once called shawl goats, from the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir. As the British East India Company built and consolidated its power across South Asia in the 18th century, it promoted the consumption, production, and circulation of prized and orientalized Kashmiri shawls, extolling the native craftsmanship and local varieties of shawl goats that produced wool of “extraordinary fineness” (Zutshi 2009: 425). Exported to Britain and Europe, the shawls were a key driver of industrial modernity and exerted considerable influence on Victorian fashion sensibilities. By the beginning of the 19th century, imitation industries that mass-produced inexpensive shawls flourished in many towns across Britain and Scotland (Zutshi 2009).

But the historical significance of Kashmiri shawls cannot be reduced to European trading routes and commerce models alone. Kashmiri shawls graced men’s turbans in Egypt and were adorned by men and women in Iran, Turkestan, Tibet, Delhi and Istanbul long before they became prized exotic commodities in European markets (Maskielle 2002: 28-29). These various complex trade networks shaped the constitution and form of Kashmiri cultural production, giving rise to hybrid cultural traditions in which “vernacular taste and cosmopolitan influence [were] skillfully negotiated” (Rizwan 2020). This “lived cosmopolitanism” (Rizwan 2020) continues to be expressed through Kashmir’s rich visual and material culture — including domestic household artefacts such as rugs and shawls — and informs Kashmiri collective identity as transnational actors. Kashmir’s forced incorporation into India has obscured the extent to which Kashmiri cosmopolitan identities are deeply rooted in their dense cultural, religious, and economic exchanges with regions in Central Asia.
As Siddiq Wahid (2016) notes, Kashmir and the regions of Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan lost their connections to Central Asia “with the creation of the modern Westphalian Jammu and Kashmir state in 1846,” when the region “became a colonial political project in the Great Game rather than the seam of cultural, commercial, and political relationships, even if not always idyllic, that had prevailed till then.”

As political artifacts, Kashmiri shawls are also tied to a long tale of foreign invasions — by Mughals under whose reign Kashmiri shawls enjoyed royal patronage, by Afghans and Sikhs who decimated the industry though stringent taxations, and by Dogras who viewed Kashmiri shawl weavers as slaves. And they figured prominently in Kashmir’s forced incorporation into the Dogra royal dynasty during the period of British colonial rule. In March 1846, the British East India company sold an expansive tract of land and 2.5 million people to the Maharaja Gulab Singh for the paltry sum of 75 lakh rupees — approximately USD $100,000 by today’s standards. As part of the transaction, Gulab Singh agreed “in token of such supremacy” to “present annually to the British Government one horse, twelve shawl goats of approved breed (six male and six female) and three pairs of Cashmere shawls” — a “gift” that meant the acceptance of British paramountcy and a guarantee of protection from external enemies. In producing the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, this Treaty of Amritsar marked the beginning of an era of repression and persecution under Dogra rule, lasting until 1952.

These trajectories of colonialism, settler colonialism, and late modern colonial occupation continue to play out today, with the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A on August 5, 2019 ushering in a new era of denial of Kashmiri sovereignty. As the State of Jammu and Kashmir was brought into the Indian federation in 1947 during a period of war and instability on the subcontinent, Articles 370 and 35A were written into India’s new constitution to incorporate the conditional and provisional nature of the accession and grant Kashmir’s residents rights and privileges that made them stewards of their own territory (Duschinski and Ghosh 2017).

The Indian parliament’s recent abrogation of these articles signals an intent to carry out far-reaching changes to demographic and land holding patterns by opening up Kashmir to settlement by outsiders who were previously restricted from purchasing land in the region. These legal maneuvers have raised new and grave concerns related to sustainable development and human rights due to their impact on key legal protections that supported Kashmiri economic, social, and cultural rights and protected Kashmir’s fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The abrogation enables massive demographic changes that could make Kashmiris minorities in their own homeland and undermine the territorial attachments that form the basis of Kashmiri ethnic identity.

At the same time, India’s unilateral changes to Jammu and Kashmir’s political borders has escalated tensions between China and India in the Ladakh region, where  pastoral communities rear pashmina goats, coveted globally for the warmth and softness of their wool. But ongoing and heightened border violence between India and China have restricted the goats from accessing their grazing lands, leading to the deaths of thousands of kids since the onset of the recent standoff in May 2020.

Read against the backdrop of the current legal and political crisis in Kashmir, the Llandudno goats of the North Coast of Wales serve as stark reminders of Kashmir’s longstanding centrality in global networks of circulation and contact, revealing colonial geographies of forced labor, enslavement and coloniality. And as Kashmiris resist India’s usurpation of the region’s resources and territory and struggle against Kashmir’s incorporation into a nation-state that has crippled the region’s economy and transformed it into a settler colony, these cosmopolitan goats also offer opportunities for reimagining Kashmir’s place in global trade, fashion, and industry.

Most importantly, the Llandudno goats offer a timely reminder that Kashmir’s struggle for self determination exceeds the boundaries of territory and imagination imposed by the colonial state. Romanticized images of Kashmir as a “cradle of craft” (Savasere 2011: 287) and Kashmiri goats as wild and riotous are products of imperial histories, and they obscure violent pasts of labor and coloniality. But the Llandudno goats, roaming free in the Welsh countryside, cannot be held captive by nationalist visions and trajectories — and thus they suggest a potential futurity of freedom for Kashmiri humans and animals, alike. Their wildness — itself a condition produced through and constrained by their political and economic histories — inspires hope for future freedom from the violent time and space of the postcolonial nation. If the global pandemic provides a portal to reimagine new worlds (Roy 2020), what potential futures might it generate for Kashmiris to live and breathe in freedom?


[1] See http://www.llandudno.com/the-great-orme-kashmiri-goats/

[2] For photographs, see Taylor, Alan. 2002. “Wild Goats Roam Through an Empty Welsh Town.” The Atlantic, March 31. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2020/03/photos-llandudno-goats/609160/. For video, see @Reuters on Twitter, March 31, 2020,  https://twitter.com/Reuters/status/1245073377724940294.

[3] @ConwyCBC on Twitter, April 17, 2020, https://twitter.com/ConwyCBC/status/1251193988834525184

Mona Bhan is the Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University. Bhan has authored Counterinsurgency, Development, and the Politics of Identity: From Warfare to Welfare? and co-authored with Andrew Bauer Climate without Nature: A Critical Anthropology of the Anthropocene. She is also co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir, and a founding member of the Critical Kashmir Studies collective. Bhan is co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and on the editorial board of AGITATE, published through the University of Minnesota Libraries. Her writings and interviews have appeared in several media and print outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, Scholars Circle, CGTN, Scholars’ Circle, Indus TV, TRT, Kindle, Open Democracy, and Outlook.

Haley Duschinski is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director and Graduate Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Culture at Ohio University. She is a legal and political anthropologist with research specializations in violence, war, and power; law and society; and human rights, militarization and impunity in South Asia, especially Kashmir. She is co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018), and she co-edited special issues of Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law and Critique of Anthropology on occupation and settler colonialism and Himalaya on war in Kashmir. Duschinski is a founding member of the Critical Kashmir Studies collective. Her current research focuses on international interventions for human rights and global accountability in Kashmir.

WORKS CITED:

Aijazi, Omar. 2020. “India Uses Coronavirus Pandemic to Exploit Human Rights in Kashmir.” The Conversation, May 7.

Bhan, Mona and Purnima Bose. 2020. Coronavirus, Occupied Kashmir, and India: Authoritarianism and Lockdown Time. Against the Current 207, July/August.

Duschinski, Haley and Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh. 2017. “Constituting the Occupation: Preventive Detention and Permanent Emergency in Kashmir.” The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 49(3):  314-337.

Maskielle, Michelle. 2002. “Consuming Kashmir: Shawls and Empires, 1500-2000.” Journal of World History, 13(1): 27-65.

Rizwan, Rakshan. 2020. Kashmiri Life Narratives: Human Rights, Pleasure and the Local Cosmopolitan. London: Routledge.

Roy, Arundhati. 2020. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Video interview with Imani Perry. Haymarket Books.

Savasere, Renuka. 2010. “Cradle of Craft.” India International Centre Quarterly. 37(3/4): 286-307.

Wahid, Siddiq. 2018. “What a Central Asian Sojourn Told Me About Jammu & Kashmir.” The Wire, June 12.

Zutshi, Chitralekha. 2009. “‘Designed for Eternity’: Kashmiri Shawls, Empire, and Cultures of Production and Consumption in Mid-Victorian Britain.” Journal of British Studies 48(2): 420-440.

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