Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth loss

Here is the last part of the column series by Khalid Bashir Ahmad focussing the loss of history and intellectual tradition that Kashmir has suffered at the hands of inefficient bureaucracy, complicit curators, wily outsiders, and corrupt political leadership.

Khalid Bashir Ahmed
Srinagar, Publish Date: Jan 21 2018 11:03PM | Updated Date: Jan 21 2018 11:03PM
Kashmir heritage: Tale of a mammoth lossFile Photo

At one point in time, the Information and Public Relations Department had in its Reference & Research Section one of the best reference libraries on Kashmir which is now in a bad shape due to inadequate space, lack of professional management, ravages of fire and flood, and questionable behaviour of its borrowers. Over the decades, the greens of the library were grazed by everybody – scholars, officials of the department, journalists and bureaucrats – and not all have returned the borrowed books. A serving minister has two books, Times of India Year Book 1970 and International Law, outstanding against him since decades. A former head of the Information Department who later held a constitutional position in the state is yet to return books like Buddhist Kashmir, The Western Frontiers of Kashmir, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, Freedom at Midnight, Ghalib Shinasi and Best Quotations. Books shown outstanding against one of his successors include Islam in Modern History, Development of Islamic State and Society, Handbook of Muslim Jurisprudence and Introduction to Kashmir and its Geography. Another has Press, Politics & Public Opinion in India, and The Greatest Quotes outstanding against him since 1980s. Yet another did not return Keys to Kashmir and Qura’n-i-Sharief. A senior officer of the library who later rose to a higher academic position outside the State and has since retired, has not returned Selections from Lenin & Stalin on National Colonial Questions, Mukhtasar Tawarikh-i-Jammu, Journalism in Modern India, Anglo-American Plot Against Kashmir and Freedom at Midnight. A middle rung official has seven books outstanding against him which include Last Years of British India, Decline & Fall of Roman Empire, The Kashmiri Pandits, The Indian Press: Profession to Industry, Punjab Today and A History of Europe. Among the defaulters are men from the fourth estate also. Seven such gentlemen have not returned at least 18 reference books to the library. The titles include Gilgit: The Northern Gate of India, The Islamic Bomb, Hair Apparent, Kashmir Problem, Essential Documents and Notes on Kashmir, The Arabs, News Reporting, Journalists’ Handbook, Ladakh Crossroads, History of Freedom Struggle in J&K, Terrorism and Security, Kashmir in Sunlight & Shade, From Jinnah to Zia, Pictures of the Kashmiri Autumn, Newsweek Bound File, The Constitution of J&K, Cultural Heritage of Kashmir and Aatash-i-Chinar. 

In 2007-08, Riyaz Rufayee, the then Chief Librarian, Allama Iqbal Library, University of Kashmir, undertook stock verification of his collection and, to his shock and surprise, found more than 40,000 books missing. “It took me about a year to complete the job”, recalls Rufayee. The stock verification report was discussed by the Library Committee which recommended it to be placed before the University Council. At the Council meeting, the then Vice Chancellor, playing safe, declined to act on the report while he was in the chair. So did his successor. As a result, the report was shelved. Besides, thousands of ‘honourable’ borrowers, including some VVIPs like a former senior bureaucrat who later headed one of India’s leading universities, not returning books, some unscrupulous elements are said to have stolen sack-fuls of books from the library during the early years of turmoil in Kashmir when the law and order in general and the administrative set up in the University had completely collapsed.  

A case of theft of valuable books, earlier privately talked about by some people privy to the information, recently came in the public domain through an article published in a periodical of a Government-funded institution. As is known, in the wake of Partition and resultant conflagration in Kashmir in 1947 many people from the Valley migrated, or were forced to, go to Pakistan leaving behind their properties including private libraries. These collections were given by the Custodian Evacuee Property to an institution created in 1958 for promotion of art, culture and languages in the State. Few years back, a former officer of the institution, writing for an in-house journal, alleged that some aala aur maiyari (valuable) books were swindled before landing in the institution’s library. One of his former colleagues recalls that these books came from private collections of people like Abdur Rehman Afandi. Afandi was among many people like Mirwaiz Muhammad Yusuf Shah, Brigadier Rehmat Ullah, Sana Ullah Wani of Sopore, Ghulam-ud- Din Wani of Baramulla, Ashiq Hussain of Srinagar and the Rajas of Kohli, Chikar, Dopatta and Kathai whose properties were confiscated on 2 March 1948 under the Enemy Agents Confiscation of Property Ordinance (1948). In the un-edited portion of an article, copy of which came to the fore during an inquiry into some controversial portions of a publication, the author alleges mysterious disappearance of a valuable painting which, he claims, still adorns a wall of one of his former boss’ house. Allegations of pilferage of the institution’s intellectual wealth often come up in private discussions while those who have knowledge about it avoid speaking on record. There is this manuscript titled Majmuai-e-Bayaz by Jaffer Malik that was shown outstanding against a noted researcher and son of a famous poet, who had died in the previous year. Through an order issued on 29 June 1981 the manuscript referred to as “now beyond the scope of recovery” was written off from record but allegedly appropriated by an officer of the institution. In late 1979, the institution held an art exhibition at the Tagore Hall, Srinagar which was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah by drawing a signature painting that turned out to be quite impressive. Riyaz Rufayee who was present on the occasion, recalls that the onlookers felt amazed and the paining was highlighted in the institution’s journals as a prized collection. However, it soon went missing. A former Exhibition Officer, who joined the institution in 1994, does not recall having seen the painting.

 The Archives Repository Srinagar has about 6, 00,000 files but, unlike sister repository at Jammu which has a larger collection, no index register. Over a period of time, some say, the repository has suffered substantial pilferage which in the absence of an index is difficult to locate. Added to it, the Government since decades has not transferred any record to the repository, save a few hundred files from the Chief Secretary’s office in recent years. The Randhawa Committee Report on the Reorganization of Libraries, Research & Museums (1976) had recommended that various government departments should “not weed out their old records without scrutiny of the Research Department, and the archives should be transferred to the Directorate.” The recommendation was observed in breach leading to the most crucial post-1947 period of Kashmir history including the Holy Relic Movement (1963-64), the Plebiscite Movement (1955-75) and the armed insurgence since 1989, not forming part of the record. Established in 1954, the Repository houses post-1947 record of the civil secretariat and other Government departments, and ‘thousands of files’ of the Governor of Kashmir’s office under the Dogra rule. Fortunately, the great flood of 2014 did not reach the stone building of the repository but God forbid, a short circuit can blow up the paper treasure. The building is an old structure with anything but congenial ambiance for housing such a huge and important collection on Kashmir history. Few years back, the Government had started digitization of the record. Strangely, however, after completing 25, 80,000 pages the process was stopped 3 years ago. Rajinder Singh Raina, a frequent visitor to the repository, finds the record “at risk due to lack of space and absence of scientific environment for preservation and protection”. During long turmoil in Kashmir, he observes, ‘the archival record has suffered for want of proper care and management.” About pilferage of archival record, Singh cites instance of a pre-1947 file of newspaper Akhbar-i-Kashmir and a file of English journal, Kashmir Today, pertaining to the year 1948 which he had consulted once but found them missing during a subsequent visit to the repository. 

Besides individuals and institutions eating into the intellectual wealth of Kashmir, calamities, both natural and manmade, have also depleted its sources of knowledge. Massive damage to Kashmir’s intellectual heritage was inflicted by burning down of the Jamia Madinat ul Uloom, Hazratbal on 21 February 1992 turning into ashes a collection of 16,000 books and manuscripts including a 400 year old copy of Holy Qura’n, titles on history, politics and religion and works by noted scholars on life of Prophet of Islam (SAW), and Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation of Qura’n. Most of the collection was in Arabic and Persian languages with some translations also in English and Urdu. Tragically, the institution was again ravaged by fire on 30 April 2015 that perished a collection of 2700 books serving as important sources of Islamic studies bought from countries like Egypt and Lebanon. Likewise, the library of the Islamia College, Srinagar went up in flames in an act of arson in which the college was burnt on 15 October 1990. About 65,000 books were lost to the blaze including titles like Al-Khilafat: Its Rise & Fall, Literary History of Arabs, Tawaseen of Mansur Al-hilaj, acclaimed commentaries on Al-Qura’n, earliest books on the life of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and a collection on Islamic art and science. More shocking was the fact that not a single student or faculty returned any book out of the hundreds, if not thousands, that were outstanding against them at the time of the disaster. Another educational institution that went up in flames, on 25 July 1989, was the S P Higher Secondary School (Boys), Srinagar established in 1874 AD. The biggest loss to the school was its rich library comprising over 12,000 books painstakingly built over a century. During the intervening night of 9 and 10 June 1999, the Head Office of the Academy of Art, Culture & Languages caught fire resulting in the loss of several important paintings including one of Zaina Dab, the famous palace of Zain ul Aabideen adorning the walls of the building, manuscripts, books and artefacts. Further damage was caused by water used by fire tenders to douse the flames. The Academy at a specially held presser, refuted media reports about any loss other than office record suffered by the Academy in the incident but knowledgeable sources point out that the employees of the institution were ‘directed’ not to speak a word about the fire incident. As ‘advised’, they reportedly remained off-duty on the day press conference was held in the premises of the institution. 

 

THE LAND OF MANUSCRIPTS

Kashmir has a long history of scholarship and private libraries. The 12th century versifier, Bilhana refers to the scholarly discussions held in his time in the high rising buildings situated on the banks of the Jhelum. His more famous contemporary, Kalhana consulted at least 11 earlier manuscripts while composing the Rajatarangini. Zain ul Aabideen, the 15th century ruler of Kashmir, had many old Sanskrit works including the Kalhana’s tome, translated into Persian. The 16th century Islamic scholar, author and spiritual personality, Shaikh Yaqub Sarfi had a magnificent library in Srinagar with a collection of 15,000 books. In 1875 when Georg Buhler visited Kashmir, he found “[a]ll the Sanskrit-speaking Pandits, as well as some of the traders and officials, possess larger or smaller libraries.” He mentions by name 22 Pandits in Srinagar city alone who possessed “the most considerable collection”. He felt that the lists furnished to him were not complete and spoke of libraries at Sopore, Islamabad and Baramulla also. Over the centuries, the tradition of families inheriting large collections of books and manuscripts lost roots among new generations who sold as scrap many rare and priceless collections. Peerzada Muahammad Ashraf who surveyed manuscript collections in Kashmir under the National Mission Manuscripts, a Government of India project, and National Register of Records to create a country-wide database on manuscripts, says that of the surveyed collections about 35,000 manuscripts in Kashmir were with private individuals and institutions. There are many more whose owners were reluctant to share information. In several cases, the manuscripts were unsafely stashed or moth infested. The largest collection of manuscripts in a government institution in Kashmir is at the Research Library, Hazratbal which has 5824 manuscripts in languages like Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Kashmiri, Urdu, Punjabi, Bakha, Brej Basha, Hindi, Dogri, Turkish, Pashtu, Balti, Dogri, Tibetan and English. The entire collection is digitized. 

Many Kashmiri Pandit families migrating from the Valley in 1990 left behind private libraries that, they alleged, were burgled or torched. Among such persons, Dr. V. N. Drabu, Trilok Koul, P. N. Kachru and Dr. K. L. Chaowdhary claimed that their rich collections of books and paintings were looted. Former Director Doordarshan, Rajinder Singh Raina recalls having seen in 1993 truckloads of books and Persian and Sanskrit manuscripts being sold as raddi (scrap) at Baba Demb, Srinagar. These included inherited collections of families whose new generation sold these as scrap. Manzoor Ahamd Daik who runs Kashmir Research Institute at Brein, Nishat with an impressive collection of books and manuscripts blames Governments in New Delhi and Srinagar for their “disinterest in our rich history in the form of manuscripts and old books and, in fact, [they] would be happy if all of it was destroyed”. Daik claims to have approached every who-is-who in Srinagar and New Delhi including Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers asking for measures and financial assistance to preserve and protect treasures of manuscript wealth of Kashmir but, sadly, with no result. The only ‘noteworthy’ step the State Government seems to have taken a few years back was the creation of an independent ministry of culture whose only contribution was undesirable bureaucratic and ministerial interference in the affairs of an autonomous institution - the Jammu & Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture & Languages.

As if other adversities were not enough, the flood of 2014, one of the worst that ever hit Kashmir, played havoc with libraries, especially in Srinagar city. In a radius of about 2 kilometers from the Radio Kashmir to the J&K High Court on the one side and the Amar Singh College to the Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothi Bagh on the other, over 2, 50,000 books were lost in Government institutions alone. According to the statistics made available by these institutions, in the S P S Library, Kashmir’s largest public library, 15,501 titles, about 5% of which were reference books, turned into rubble. Another 300 to 400 books were partially damaged. Some of the rare titles lost in the deluge included Mathnavi Maulvi Roum (1873) with commentary by Abul Ali Mohammad Behrul Aloom, Hayat-i- Afghani on history of Afghanistan (1867) by Mohammad Hayat Khan, Tazkira-e- Rausa-i-Punjab, Saheef-e-Zareen (1902) on Indian rulers by Parag Narain Bhargav, Himalayan Journals (1854) and Survey of International Affairs (1925). The flood took a heavy toll of books in different educational institutions. Housed in the ground floor, the Amar Singh College library lost 44,000 books out of a collection of 60,000. Fortunately, the reference section of the library comprising 16,500 reference and 3500 rare books was saved for its location in the first floor and timely rescue efforts of the library staff. The Sri Pratap College library lost around 55,000 books including about 3,000 reference titles. The flood consumed another 43,000 books at the Government College for Women and about 50,000 titles including rare books and old manuscripts of the nearby College of Education which also lost rare collection of paintings by Rabindra Nath Tagore. The library of the J&K High Court with a collection of about 15,000 books also perished, as did the libraries of the Advocate General and the High Court Bar Association. Likewise, the libraries of Radio Kashmir, Srinagar and Doordarshan Srinagar were fully consumed by the flood. The two institutions had about 8,500 and 6,000 books respectively, which included subjects like history and literature. The Government Girls Higher Secondary School, Kothi Bagh lost its entire collection of 22, 071 books (about 1,000 partially and the rest fully) including reference titles and encyclopaedias. Libraries of private schools including the Burn Hall School, Presentation Convent and CMS School also suffered huge losses. 

The great deluge also severely hit the J&K Academy of Art Culture & Languages where 3000 books, including 137 rare titles, were damaged. Further, from a collection of 5000 stock copies of books and journals, including a large number of out-of-print titles, published by the Academy over the past 60 years, 1050 were “severely damaged”. Most of the retrieved books “have undergone changes in their respective physical shape and form; pages stuck together”. Majority of them have been affected by fungal growth too. Out of the total 626 manuscripts of the Academy, 142 were damaged, 79 totally. Some rare manuscripts, however, were saved for being located higher than the flood level. Experts from National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property, Lucknow, found “sporadic and fluffy fungal growth and enormous presence of blackish spores” on the affected manuscripts which had “aesthetically spoiled such valuable unbound paper manuscripts”. A serious conservation problem, they observed, was the “transfer of bleeding color from the supporting packing material to the original documents”. The Report further added: “Deposition of mud had obscured the script and in addition had caused physical deformation as visible in the below picture. Most of the manuscripts in bounded volumes were seen affected by water percolation which caused sticking of paper folios together and also stained.” The painting collection which include works of giants like M F Hussain, Subramaniyam, Laxman Pai, Gaitondai and G R Santosh, was also affected. On most of the paintings, experts found “adherence of thick muddy deposition on either side”. The only reassuring thing in this gloomy scenario is that the entire collection of Academy’s manuscripts, paintings and sculptures was digitized in 2013, making soft copies of the treasure available. 

The flood irrevocably damaged the Information & Public Relations Department’s 1800 international and Indian newspapers clipping files on Kashmir, representing the period from 1940s to 2000. Newspaper files from 2000 to 2014 were also lost. Earlier, books and post-2000 newspaper files had been shifted to the first floor of another building. Immediately after flood water receded, an official of the department who had painstakingly built on and properly maintained this valuable treasure asked for two computers, a few accessories and two hard-coke stoves costing in all about Rs. 2 lakh to dry and scan the files for digital preservation. The response was a snub by the senior most officer of the department: “This is a tall order”. The wreckage of the fungus inflicted files now mourns this apathy which only matches with the naked ignorance of an officer who, as head of the department inspected an archives repository and on observing piles of files of old record admonished his staff for wasting office space for ‘raddi ke dher’ (heaps of scrap) and even suggested its auction. 

Yet another major casualty of the flood was the SPS Museum. A team of experts from the National Museum, New Delhi assessed the damage suffered by the Museum and observed that “[t]he most affected artifacts are of organic nature. The damaged objects include 124 paintings, 38 manuscripts, 4 photo albums, 92 textile items mainly shawls, 24 papier machie [completely damaged], 6 musical instruments, 14 earthen glass ware, 4 astronomical instruments, 26 straw ware and 490 objects of natural history. The condition of Gilgit manuscripts was ‘bad’ requiring “immediate attention”. The National Museum team had submitted a conservation and treatment proposal for the flood affected artefacts that, sadly, hit a bureaucratic hurdle. 

The tape library of the Doordarshan Srinagar was completely washed away by the flood. Former Director, Shabir Mujahid says that many old recordings had been already lost due to failure in shifting these from obsolete to new technology, and inundation few years earlier when standing rain water gushed into a wooden barrack housing the library. The huge loss includes footage on shifting of the Moi-e-Muqaddas (Holy Relic) from the old to new building at Hazratbal, the first tele-films of Indian television in any language - Rasul Mir and Habba Khatoon, and Arnimal-, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s public speech at Lal Chowk after his return to power in 1975, his funeral procession in 1982, a rare discussion on Iqbal aur Kashmir between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Ali Sardar Jafri and Jagan Nath Azad and interviews with and performance by legendary Dilip Kumar, Begum Akhtar, Malika Pukhraj, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Runa Laila. Bashir Budgami, filmmaker who directed Rasul Mir and Habba Khatoon, describes the loss as “of huge proportion and irreparable”. Happily, he has a copy each of the two films which he had offered to the Doordarshan for transfer but the reply was a cold shoulder. The tape library of the Radio Kashmir was saved in the flood for being located in the first floor while its book library was washed away. 

The loss to private libraries in the city where houses remained submerged for over a week under 10 to 15 feet high water is equally large. Although it is difficult to accurately quantify the loss, Editor Kashmir Uzma, Javed Azar gives a rough estimate of at least 1, 00, 00 books that the flood consumed in private houses in the city. Peerzada Muhammad Muzaffar, for instance, he adds, lost his lifetime collection of about 3000 books on select topics. The loss to publishers and book sellers was enormous. Sheikh Ajaz of Gulshan Books, a leading publishing house in Kashmir, “lost over 2, 00,000 books from thousands of titles, mainly on Kashmir and Islamic literature.” His stocks at five godowns at Maisuma and Bemina were consumed by the flood. The worst hit areas of Lal Chowk, Maisuma and Bemina had about 30 booksellers whose collective loss is estimated to be anywhere between 5,00,000 to 6,00,000 books. The affected area also houses most of the newspaper offices, some of whom like the daily Aftab lost their entire newspaper archives. 

 

Khalid Bashir Ahmed is the author of Kashmir-Exposing the myth behind the narrative