In Defence of History

Let me put it straight. This article is not intended to defend or reprimand historical figures. It is intended to be a defence of history and history-writing. The ongoing debate involves two viewpoints located at opposite poles: one defends SMA and the other lambasts him. Singh coins the term ‘Narrativists’ for those who consider Abdullah solely responsible for the tribulations experienced by Kashmiris; his viewpoint is branded ‘hagiographic’ and ‘statist’ by the other side. While Singh elevates Sheikh to the stature of a Messiah, Khwaja and Ahanger, seconding the illustrious Haque’s rhetorical arguments, ascribe monstrosity to him. As a student of history, I dare to contest that both these viewpoints are essentially biased narratives which rest on the false and amplified assumption that SMA was the only one whose actions decided the course of the history of Kashmir.

To be fair to Mr. Singh, much of the content of his articles is rooted in evidence. For example, his arguments about the nature of Muslim Conference’s politics during the 1930s, Congress’ support to agrarian reforms, and the absence of the notion of independence in the pre-1940s’ Kashmiri discourse are based on verifiable facts. However, while Mr. Singh cautions us that “misrepresenting historical facts is essential to narratives”, he oddly commits the same blunder in presenting his perspective. For instance, he alleges that the revived Muslim Conference (c. 1941) had “no sympathy for the demands of Kashmir’s Muslims.” However, he does not introduce us to the measuring rod that he used to conclude this. His assertion that “Quit Kashmir carried the seeds of an independent Kashmir” may be partly true. In a memorandum submitted to the Cabinet Mission (1946), the NC proposed the retention of the Maharaja as a Constitutional Head. After Sheikh was arrested, he endorsed the proposal in a court trial. Further, Singh chooses a random date and thing—the screening of Omar Mukhtar in 1986—that supposedly “undid” the legacy of Sheikh and, therefore, completely ignores the earlier dissenting voices and the pre-1989 frail acts of armed resistance.

Similarly, while the Aligarian duo accuse Mr. Singh of “academic dishonesty” and ask him to “re-read Sheikh Abdullah in an objective and impartial way”, their narrative is not, by any stretch of imagination, objective and impartial. I hate to break it to them but theirs is not a “re-reading” of history since this narrative has been in fashion for decades. This narrative may be populist and politically-correct, but historically not so. At least one of their arguments (“if ever he [SMA] did anything substantial”) vividly reveals their adherence to historical negationism. One might ask, if Abdullah never did anything substantial, why would his contemporaries write accolades in his honour? Why would Bazaz and Mian Yar Ahmed, respectively, address him as Kashmir ka Gandhi and Quaid-e Azam? And why would both the leadership and the people celebrate him as Sher-i Kashmir?

Prior to this unreasonable claim, the authors refer to “a considerable section of Muslims” who resented Sheikh and followed Abbas. They, perhaps proudly, assert that the Quit Kashmir campaign launched in 1946 demanded “the complete end of autocratic rule of Dogras.” This backfires at their entire narrative. First, it was Sheikh, the despised one, and his fellow NC members who launched the movement. Second, MC and other rival groups of NC backed off and fell into the trap of indirectly supporting the continuance of the Dogra rule. Pertinently, Abbas discredited ‘Quit Kashmir’ under Jinnah’s instructions while Nehru opposed it on the pretext of respecting the policy of the AISPC which aimed at the establishment of ‘responsible government’ in princely states, and not complete independence.

In his response, Singh claims that “Ghulam Abbas wanted Pakistan not Azadi.” Contrarily, Christopher Snedden’s study suggests that till July 1947, the MC expressed opinions in favour of an independent Kashmir under the aegis of the Maharaja. Even Abdullah, who is generally blamed to have “persuaded” the Maharaja into acceding to India, made public statements that would translate to “independence before accession.”

Mr. Z.G. Muhammad’s piece is also driven by a deep contempt for Sheikh and lesser regard for history-writing. He arbitrarily traces the beginning of the “nationalist” movement in Kashmir “patterned after the INC” to a supposed “agreement” between Sheikh and Nehru in 1937. He completely obfuscates two significant facts: that after each of the first three sessions of the MC (1932-34), Sheikh would go over to the plains to consult with the Indian leadership; and that immediately after attending the 1934 session of the Central Legislative Assembly, he expressed his wish to launch a Congress-inspired organisation. ZGM. points out that the conversion of MC into NC was not a unanimous decision. He deliberately disregards the fact that after exhaustive parleying on the issue, only one MC member voted against the conversion. In fact, Abbas, initially one among the dissenters, later declared that the objectors to conversion were the ones who opposed the MC itself. He continued to be a member of the NC and did not revive the MC until after the Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution in 1940.

One could also argue that after the dissenting voices resigned from the NC from 1940 onwards, Sheikh’s political decisions encountered little resistance from the leaders who now encircled him. This arguably provided larger space to his anti-Jinnah and pro-Congress inclinations.

The two conflicting narratives awkwardly seem to shake hands on three points. One, by attributing nearly every trough and crest of the history of Kashmir to Sheikh’s decisions, they completely reduce the other political actors to deadwood. Two, both resort to writing history backwards. This is not methodologically wrong but the crucial criterion is to objectively trace the origins of the present situation in a historical past rather than cherry-pick facts to fit them into a presentist narrative. Three, both mostly offer simplistic explanations for complex historical phenomena.

To conclude, the creation of narratives is not the primary function of history-writing. History is essentially a multifaceted record of the past that provides insights into the evolution of a society into its present form. It serves as our collective memory. Narratives, by not adhering to the rules that are sacred to the discipline, tend to skew this memory. Historical phenomena are ordinarily multi-causal in nature and they take place in specific contexts. By over-emphasizing Sheikh’s role, we have continually missed the forest for the trees. Our historians have habitually desisted from asking some uncomfortable questions. For instance, what if other political groups had thrown their weight behind the Naya Kashmir Manifesto or the Quit Kashmir Movement? What if both NC and the revived-MC had not engaged in accepting political counsel from outside? If Sheikh was the “sole soul responsible for the hell we are in”, how can we convincingly explain the continuance of Delhi’s control on Kashmir during his long incarceration? Why is our sense of history permeated by the stories of exaggerated heroism and villainy? Surely, in this war of narratives, history is turning into a casualty. For ages, we have suffered injustices from several quarters. Let us not be, in turn, unjust to our history!

Suhail-ul-Rehman Lone is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Advanced Study, Department of History, AMU. His area of specialization includes the freedom struggle and the agrarian history of pre-1947 J&K.