Behind the narrative

Ahmad’s account is a potential paradigm shift in Kashmir’s narrative, but it ain’t all about the Hindu-Muslim binary

GOWHAR GEELANI
Srinagar, Publish Date: Jan 3 2018 11:18PM | Updated Date: Jan 3 2018 11:18PM
Behind the narrative

Khalid Bashir Ahmad, a former civil servant from the Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS), has stirred a scholarly debate by writing “Kashmir: Exposing The Myth Behind The Narrative”, his second book in English language. 

Previously, he has also published two works in Urdu poetry and prose. 

The act of writing a review of Ahmad’s book has put me in a dilemma. When I attended the author’s book release function inside the auditorium of Srinagar’s Sri Pratap College’s a couple of months back, I bought a copy of his book and went up to him to get his signatures on it. 

“Gowhar Geelani mohabattoun ke saath” (Gowhar Geelani with lots of love), he wrote just above his name printed on the second page of his book. 

And this precisely is my dilemma. Should I review his book “mohabattou’n ke saath” (with lots of love)? Or, ghairjanibdaari aur khuloos ke saath” (with impartiality and sincerity)? 

Let us face a simple fact: Ahmad deserves accolades for his scholarly courage to challenge even the most celebrated chroniclers and versifiers of Kashmir whose writings have attained the status of a scripture that is not to be questioned. 

The author raises questions marks on the widely known narrative, the Rajatarangani, compiled by Kalhana. He describes Rajatarangani as “sometimes strikingly precise but generally incredibly fictional”. In his view Kalhana’s Rajatarangani is a mix of fiction and history. This claim by the author has created ripples and stirred up the political hornet’s nest in and outside Kashmir.

Ahmad’s book is deeply political. He has taken a strong position against the dominant narrative. His account has set a new precedent. And his writing is sort of a paradigm shift which paves the way for looking at Kashmir’s 5,000-year-old written history in an unconventional manner. The author goes back-and-forth to trace the history of Kashmir from the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras who ruled Kashmiris as outsiders. 

The author appears neither sentimental nor naïve. In his scholarly pursuit, he has relied on multiple sources to ferret out many a fact about Kashmir’s past and also contemporary history. By and large, he has been successful in critically examining various sources, and in his interpretation and analysis of the past and present events. Generally speaking, Ahmad is neither reckless with language nor careless with attributions. 

The very fact that his work has been accepted and published by prestigious SAGE and listed as “academic work” should mean a lot to him as a writer. It says a lot about the hard yards that the author has put in with an academic bent of mind to make a meaningful contribution to Kashmir’s chronicles. His book, after all, chronicles Kashmir’s wretched past, the days of the cruelest regimes in human history. 

That said, one book is never enough to fully record or understand the history correctly. Context and historicity are critically important. It will perhaps take many more exhaustive books, written with scholarly acumen, from authors who have analytical sweep to debate the events of the past dispassionately. For a full-scale examination of Kashmir’s past we need to think radically and intellectually, and act sensibly. 

Dealing with sensitive topics such as Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim narrative— communal harmony or communal tensions, conflict or confluence—requires both literary sensibility and intellectual sensitivity. 

There are numerous passages in Ahmad’s book wherein a reader gets an impression that the author is exposing a privileged and exploitative class, irrespective of faith, which has subjugated the Kashmiri masses during the Mughals, Afghans, Sikhs and Dogra periods and also in previous phases of the foreign rule. Sadly, at certain places it appears a narrative that aims to create a Muslim-Hindu binary.

“Historically, Kashmir has seen three major religions gaining ascendancy in this tiny country. It is a tale of conflict and confluence among Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam”, the author writes in prologue.    

As the scholar Walter Laqueur points out, modern historiography, with its demands of integrity and evidence, is less than two hundred years old. Ibn-e-Khaldun, an eminent Arab scholar and historian of 14th century AD, warns historians of “over confidence in their sources” and “inability to place an event or events in real context”. Noted Indian historian Romila Thapar in one of her lectures in a seminar in Bombay warned about situations used as a binary projection of Hindu and Muslim. She argued that Mahmud’s raid on the temple of Somnatha in 1026 and the destruction of the idol did not create a Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. 

Khalid Bashir Ahmad claims that he has analysed the Kashmiri Pandit community narrative in the light of historical material and dug out many fallacies by cross-referencing, as is done in widely accepted practices of historiography. He also claims to have sifted fact from fiction.

However, noted author Chitralekha Zutshi in her review of Ahmad’s book, which is published in Scroll.in, argues that Ahmad has exposed his own biases in an attempt to expose myths behind Kashmir’s history. On his part, the author in an interview with Haroon Mirani of Greater Kashmir claims that people have read a lot of fiction on Kashmir and it was about time to read “real history”. Here Ahmad means his book is the real history. Well, that is some claim.

Be that as it may, half the job is already done. Ahmad’s body of work has already instigated healthy debates which is never bad. 

Now the question is whether Ahmad has written this book purely as a historian and scholar or also as a Kashmiri Muslim, who wishes to prove Kashmiri Pandit or Kashmiri Hindu narrative wrong? 

The transformation of Kashmir from a Hindu to a Muslim society more than 600 years ago, as pointed out by the author, gave birth to a narrative according to which the Muslim rulers forcibly converted and evicted Hindus from Kashmir and destroyed their religious places, symbols and icons. The author opines that this narrative is “a fairy-tale” and actually almost based entirely on the observations of a chronicler, Jonaraja, who lived during the early years of Islam in the vale. The author writes that this narrative became the hallmark of a miniscule minority of Brahmans, who refused to convert to Islam, and continued playing a victim card. 

It is perhaps here the author needed to shift the debate away from majoritarian discourse. A scholar transcends boundaries like religion, ethnicity, caste, colour and identity to rise above to tell a larger story for a wider impact.

Throughout history we find numerous examples of propaganda machines like the Kremlin propaganda or the Nazi propaganda. These propaganda machines sustained the fiction in speeches, textbooks, pamphlets and even in diplomatic engagements and negotiations. There have been attempts by various powers to fabricate language and content, and to exaggerate suffering with the aim of peddling and marketing a narrative of victimhood. If the narrative of victimhood remains main contention we may lose sight of the larger reality and all other essential components. 

The author, however, deserves kudos for writing a powerful chapter titled Power. In this chapter, the fourth in the book, he has a lot of power in his argument. He extensively quotes Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s autobiography in which the Sheikh described Kashmiri Pandits as ‘The Fifth Columnists’ and ‘The Instruments of Tyranny’. I personally liked Ahmad’s strong rebuttal of this sweeping portrayal of a community from a person who stands accused of having handed over Kashmir to New Delhi on a platter to satisfy the wishes of the minority community. The author rightly names the celebrated mystic poetess Laleshwari, philosopher Abhinavgupta and poet Dina Nath Nadim besides others to talk about Pandit community’s success and contribution in different walks of life, which include education, media and bureaucracy. He also says members of the minority community (4 percent) were quick in learning the languages of rulers, for example Sanskrit and Persian. So they were polyglots. 

In this chapter Ahmad also quotes Walter Lawrence, the philosopher-poet Dr Allama Iqbal and Sheikh’s close confidant Moulana Masoodi besides others to highlight different points of views about Kashmiri Pandits. For instance, Dr. Iqbal has showered praises on their maturity and red cheeks, and described them as rising stars in one of his verses in Persian language while Lawrence accused the community of not eating or drinking from the hands of a Muslim, and even though a Kashmiri Brahman was dependent on Muslims for various things he never allowed him entry into his kitchen. 

Whether Kashmiri Pandits “exerted influence out of all proportions to their miniscule numbers” or whether they are the true inheritors of a 5,000-year-long history and the only aborigines of Kashmir who were time and again persecuted, discriminated against, victimised, exploited, thrown away, forced to migrate, or, were they always “The Fifth Columnists” who carried tales back to powers that be, a wily exploitative and manipulative class which always sided with the oppressor- all of that is a matter of debate which needs to undergo scholarly scrutiny and must be dealt with literary sensibility.

In chapter three named Malice the author talks about Sultan Sikandar, the sixth ruler of the Shah Mir Dynasty, who stands accused of reckless destruction of Hindu temples and maltreatment of Hindu subjects. Taking a sympathetic view of Sultan the author writes that the amount of disapproval Sikandar has received at the hands of successive historians makes Aurangzeb, the 17th century Mughal ruler of India, look like a saint. Aurangzeb too has been vilified by various chroniclers for his anti-minority policies. 

Sikandar is credited for introducing Shariah in governance. In his private life the Muslim ruler abstained from wine and did not listen to music on religious grounds, but does that give him a clean chit is a question that immediately comes to mind? On the one hand, Sikandar is credited for establishing schools, constructing mosques and laying foundation for Srinagar’s Idgah, but on the other hand he also stands accused of demolishing temples and discriminating against his Hindu subjects. Sultan Sikandar ascended the throne at the age of 8. 

Here the author takes a position saying that singling out Sikandar for alleged demolition of Hindu temples is an “intellectual dishonesty” many chroniclers have committed. The problem, however, is that the author here happily quotes Kalhana to make a point that even Hindu Kings were involved in plunder, destruction and sacrilege of temples. Selective quoting of Kalhana seems a bit problematic. Two wrongs never make a right.

Moreover, can the chroniclers of the past be accused of biases, prejudices and of constructing mythological narratives when they did not have access to modern research techniques? Can Ahmad cast a wider net to reject all narratives and chronicles written in Sanskrit language? Did destruction of temples never happen? Or, is the author only challenging the hyperbole regarding the same?

Agitation, chapter six of the book, is an interesting read. With meticulous research, the author again visits the recent past to talk about the much publicised interfaith marriage of Parmeshwari Handoo. After marrying Ghulam Rasool Kanth, Parmeshwari took the name Parveen Akhter. Relying on multiple sources that include newspaper reports, FIRs, speeches and oral history the author talks about the 1967 Pandit agitation. He argues how one interfaith marriage was given a communal colour and wrongly linked with the larger India-Pakistan dispute by influential members and activists of the Pandit community and organisations like Kashmir Hindu Action Committee (KHAC). He quotes competing slogans like hum goli khayenge behan ko wapas layenge and akh niyakh behanji beyi dogwan, traahi Bagwaan trahi Bagwaan to highlight the fault lines. 

At certain places the author indulges in stereotyping of the entire community, like in case of a Pandit who he writes visits Delhi as a shawl businessman and lies to a rich Sikh customer that he is jobless and persecuted in Kashmir by the majority community. This could be done by anyone belonging to any faith or ethnicity.

In chapters seven and eight titled Migration and Homeland respectively the author, in excellent detail, talks about the radical Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Kashmir project, which is to “de-Islamize the ‘Hindu land’ and seat of Hindu culture and learning”, that is what Kashmir is for the RSS. He cites a relevant example of Balraj Madhok who was RSS’s first chief for its Kashmir chapter way back in 1944. The RSS believes that Kashmir was Islamized by Muslim invaders after the 13th century AD. With razor sharp precision the author warns about the RSS’s grand Kashmir project that aims to create another Palestine, here in Kashmir, by engineering a demographic change in the Muslim majority region. 

He is more or less honest about the factors that led to controversial departures of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir in early 1990, soon after a popular anti-India rebellion broke out in 1989. He quotes India’s former spymaster A S Dulat to make a point that most of the intelligence officers for IB came from the Pandit community and those targeted by the armed militants were considered close to the government or intelligence agencies, whether Muslims or Pandits. He quotes some Pandits who in no uncertain terms say they were not harmed by the majority community. For balance, the author also quotes Kashmiri Pandits like Sanjay Tickoo and late H N Wanchoo who never left the Valley. But then, who killed H NWanchoo? 

Tickoo is strongly against demands of Separate Homeland for Pandits and so is the London-based academic, poet and novelist Dr. Nitasha Kaul. 

The author could have been a little more generous and talked more about Kashmir’s communal harmony. For instance, he could have talked about a spiritual master of Kubrawiyah Order Master Ghulam Ahmad Zargar Sahib aka Masterji and Ama Sahib from downtown Safakadal. Politically, Zargar Sahib was a staunch pro-Pakistani but in his spiritual journey he had disciples from Pandit community as well against whom he never discriminated. 

True, the author has a valid point that bonhomie between Pandits and Muslims existed in Kashmir but the two communities always differed on politics.

All said and done, full credit is due to Ahmad for his scholarly chase and courage to challenge a dominant narrative. He has instigated readers to think critically. Ahmad’s book, spanned over 358 pages (excluding Glossary) has nine chapters, the ninth one titled Media unnecessary in my view. This book deserves to be read and debated.