Reflections on a Twitter tete a tete


Let me now respond to the tweet, sans the unpleasant part, that has really triggered the essay. The tweet read, “Arabic and Persian is a part of our Islamic culture DNA along with Urdu and not alien like Hindi”. Where is this response coming from? The tail piece of my write up, which I reproduce here for contextualising tweet and the response it elicited: “As such, I must confess that I used to find this “Ramadhan Mubarak” and “Ramadhan Kareem” very alien. I felt this import from outside was contrary to our culture.  But then you see how the dynamics of mixed cultures and globalization have interacted with Islamic beliefs, rituals and behaviours all over the world. In many Islamic societies, these have been modified so that local rituals fit with modern milieu and values. All this is not tantamount to an act of cultural imperialism nor even an instance of post-modem disorder. These are just new and evolving expressions of existing practices”.

So, very clearly, I was not disowning any Persian or Arabic influences, if anything, I was positing a framework to understand it. For sure, one may disagree with it. Even dismiss it. I do have a more nuanced position on it, briefly touched upon below. For now, back to the Professor’s post. 

I have only one conceptual issue: either all – Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hindi — are a part of our DNA or none is. I am fine with either, but uneasy with this teleological hybrid formulation. Let me elaborate.  

There is a complete consensus among scholars that Kashmiri was written in Sharda script from ancient times, 8th century AD, to be precise. It was popularised at the Sharda Peeth temple, also an established centre of learning in Kashmir. An intrinsic part of our cultural heritage, currently only under administration of Pakistan. As Kashmiris, we can’t mentally secede from it, either historically or intellectually. 

Sharda as a script that belongs to the same family includes Devnagri, the script for Hindi and Sanskrit. One doesn’t have to be a linguist to see that Sharda is just like Devnagri and not anywhere close to Arabic, Persian or Urdu.  Then how is Urdu a part of our DNA and why is Hindi alien? Sharda was the heritage of Kashmir, our heritage, for 1,700 years. If thirty years is a generation, we are talking here of fifty generations and more.

Yes, right now, it is not being used except by a few in the Kashmiri Pandit community for religious purposes. How does that change the past?

One may not agree with the Indic scholars that Kashmiri is derived from Sanskrit.  But it is impossible to dismiss G A Grierson, to whom we owe the preservation of our grammar, the one and only by Ichavara Kaul. But for his incredible work, Kashmiri would have shrivelled long ago to a just a spoken language.

Grierson’s view is “Kashmiri language is a very ancient language, a sister and not a daughter of the form of speech which ultimately developed as literary Sanskrit.” That is in our homologous cultural DNA, if you ask me. Not the whole, but a few nucleotides in the genetic code, perhaps!

True that over the years, there have been many a somatic mutation to the DNA. Sharda got replaced first by Devngari. Then there was a structural break with the scripts of the Perso-Arabic family replacing it with the advent of Muslim rule in Kashmir.

It is neither necessary nor required to shut the Hindu heritage out, in order to own and appreciate the socio-cultural contributions and economic consequences of the advent of Islam in Kashmir. For almost 7 to 8 centuries now Kashmiri is written in the Persian script. Zain ul Abideen changed the lingua franca of Kashmir. Most significantly, he didn’t de-historicize it; he de-communalised it. With that it has become a part of our cultural DNA. These developments happened sequentially, though not in a linear manner. So neither excluded the other as it evolved. What is then the need or compulsion to airbrush the prior past? 

Even more curious is the place of pride that has been given to Urdu in the tweet. While almost everyone finds it richer and flavoursome as a language, Urdu starts developing around Delhi in the 12th century. Its entry into Kashmir happens in the 18th century. Remember there was a time no so long ago, 1889, there were no Kashmiris — Muslims or Pandits – who were proficient in the Urdu language. Which is why the Maharaja had to get Urdu literate Punjabis into his government service. Then how does it override other languages to become our heritage?

Extending the logic of the tweet, Arabian Nights will be a part of our DNA but not Kathasaritsagar, the 11th century Kashmiri collection of tales only because it is in Sanskrit. How can Ali Baba and his forty thieves have more resonance than Liaq Choor and his trusted disciple Mahadev Bhista. To get back to the earlier point of schools as “institution of domination”, Robin Hood, a British version of Liaq Choor, is what I was taught in Burn Hall School; about Liaq Choor I learnt at home from my mother.

It will be enlightening to take a sample survey in any school in the valley; the kids in the English medium will know Robin Hood, the vernacular school kids will be aware of Ali Baba. Unlikely if anyone would have heard about Laiq Choor. That is how the DNA has got “edu-engineered”.  

Even in the two line tweet, the perpetual problem persists: the vernacular is conspicuous by absence. There is Islam, there is Persian, there is Urdu, there is Arabic, there is even Hindi, albeit in negation, where is the vernacular? The problem is that the way in which DNA is getting defined, Kashmiri is lost in translation!

It might be instructive to see how Islam, which is also a body of thought and a civilizational culture across countries and continents, deals with the past. At home, there is nothing more relevant than the Awrad-i-Fathhiya, an invocatory prayer based on Quranic verses, Hadith and prayers of the Sufis compiled by Mir Saiyid Ali Hamadani.

Though widely believed it was composed especially for Kashmiri Muslims, its cultural significance lies in its mode of intonation and recitation as a practice. Its recital – a cultural legacy of Kashmiris — is set to meter of a bhajan. Why this is so is a fascinating ethnographic tale in itself!

Sociologically, it completely overturned the metaphor, even as it retained the “mode of articulation” for the ordinary murid, as a way of transformational tool. This tradition draws from, and has support of Ibn Arabi, who calls it “remembrance as encountered reality”, a sacred dialogue in and through an experience.

This differentia specifica, has been trivialised (and harmed), by counterpoising it as Kashmiri Sufism aka Rishism versus Wahabism. More than such categorisation, it is important to understand the role of “public” history in the existential awareness of being a Kashmiri and being Muslim.

Be that as it may, for now, it is hard not to conclude that majoritarianism works in almost identical ways. On the one hand we have those who want to disown the Muslim past of India. And on the other, those who wants to disown the Hindu past of Kashmir. The former want to go back to an earlier pre-Islamic period to redefine their national identity defined by Hinduism. The latter wants to define their DNA by restricting it to a more recent past. In this, we as Kashmiris, only a handful that we are, are the losers. For me, being Kashmiri, as Naguib Mahfouz says in his context, “is not simply an adjective, but in truth it is life, a shelter and a sanctuary, a beginning and an end”.   

Tail piece:

Hot on the heels of the twitter attack by the resident resistance intellectuals, I have been hauled over the coals by the displaced Kashmiri Pandits over my column in GK.  I have to say I am delighted to be at the centre of this controversy! By centre, I mean, equidistant from both extremes. In a certain way I have been vindicated. One side calls me an “RSS stooge”. The other calls me a “Wahabi Islamist bigot”.

These labels have nothing to do with me. These are an example of the Rashomanian reality playing out in our situation; there is no truth except what you want to see. Or more appropriately what one is made to see in a given situation within an ideological framework. Objectivity gets discounted by subjectivity because of positions, perceptions and prejudices.

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