Scripting a Biography of Kashmir through the Life Stories of its People

New books by Nandita Haksar and Meera Khanna are a valuable addition to the literature on Jammu and Kashmir

Two recent paperbacks describe Kashmir through different sets of biographies. Both are by activist Indian women who write empathetically but realistically of the Kashmiri aspiration for freedom. Each tries to focus on Muslim-Hindu fraternity.

Meera Khanna’s superb biographical sketches, woven together in In a State of Violent Peace: Voices from the Kashmir Valley are like short stories, mainly about what happened around 1947 and 1990. She narrates stories about a Kashmiri doctor’s incarceration in Lahore, the sacking of Muzaffarabad, and the siege of Gilgit with the touch of a suspense thriller. Her stories stand alone, but come together like pieces of a jigsaw. Her documentation of inspiring, brave and caring women and men is a rare and valuable addition to literature on Kashmir – not least because the communal harmony and women’s empowerment portrayed have been under siege over the past quarter-century.

Based exclusively on each protagonist’s narration, one or two of Khanna’s stories tend at times towards the hagiographic. The majority of her subjects are Kashmiri elites but she also has some intimate, insightful portraits of women, girls and men on the other side of the social spectrum, also caught in the horrors of a war they did not manufacture.

Haksar, in The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism: From the Cold War to the Present Day, narrates two life stories – of Sampat Prakash, a Communist Pandit, and Afzal Guru, a surrendered militant who was hanged in Delhi in 2013. She disappoints by focusing more on the first biography than on the second. More ambitious than Khanna, Haksar attempts to combine half-a-dozen strands in her book. The first is `Kashmiriyat,’ for which she valiantly continues to search after discovering quite early that it is a myth. Khanna, on the other hand, not only finds but brilliantly documents liberal inclusiveness.

Meera KhannaIn a State of Violent Peace: Voices from the Kashmir ValleyNoida: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2015.

Meera Khanna
In a State of Violent Peace: Voices from the Kashmir Valley
Noida: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2015.

Haksar’s second strand celebrates the employees’ rights movements in Kashmir, even though she calls her protagonist “patriarchy personified” and concludes that Communism was no match for fundamentalism and xenophobia in Kashmir. Her protagonist nods when Haksar tells him that “Kashmiri Pandits espoused Kashmiriyat only when it could be used to protect their interests” but he claims confidently that communal harmony thrives in the trade union movement. She leaves it at that, even after she discovers that not everyone in Kashmir’s workers’ unions holds to secular inclusion, that the relationship between bureaucrats and their staff is like that between “feudal lords” and “serfs”, and that a high point of employees’ agitations is to march on the wrong side of the road.

Another strand is Haksar’s attempt to understand Kashmir. Her ancestors migrated from there two centuries ago but she posits herself as an empathetic Indian, not a Kashmiri. While Khanna conjures vivid pictures with the self-effacement of a gifted artist, Haksar’s voice is present throughout, as in a candid chat about her voyage of discovery.

Haksar uses her two biographical narratives as entry-points to try and narrate a comprehensive story of what happened in Kashmir from the late Dogra period till now. Much of this grand narrative is told through the prism of one protagonist, and occasionally the other. But the author’s voice slips in and out, often at length, leaving the reader unsure whether errors should be attributed to a protagonists’ subjective perception or not.

For instance, we are told that the Taliban “succeeded against the USSR in Afghanistan,” although the Taliban emerged after the USSR ceased to exist. And, Haksar says, the Hizb-ul Mujahideen was “headed by Syed Salahuddin” when it “entered Kashmir in September 1989.” In fact, the Hizb was formed within Kashmir, and not by Yousuf Shah alias Salahuddin. He was only released from jail in March 1990. Syed Ali Shah Geelani sent him then to take over Hizb. Adopting the nom de guerre Syed Salahuddin at that stage, he ousted Hizb’s Ahl-e-Hadith-affiliated founder Amir Nasir-ul Islam and its founder commander Ahsan Dar by late 1991.

Another misleading bit is that, in 1987, “…both the JKLF and Jamaat-e-Islami had received authorisation for an offensive with the full support of Pakistan.” Apart from the fact that “authorisation” for what has variously been called a freedom struggle and a proxy war is a touch surrealistic, the statement is unfair to two highly respected Amirs of Jammu and Kashmir’s Jamaat-e-Islami, neither of whom is now alive to defend himself. At some personal risk, each flatly turned down requests from the ISI at different points in the 1980s that the Jamaat lead Kashmir’s uprising. J&K’s Jamaat-e-Islami never authorised militancy. The ISI bypassed Amir-e-Jamaat Hakim Ghulam Nabi to rope in his rival Ali Shah Geelani in January 1990. As late as 1989, even Geelani had called the JKLF’s militancy hooliganism.

Haksar’s book comes alive when she finally turns to the tragedy of Afzal Guru about two-thirds of the way through. It is a shocking account – from Afzal’s elder brother purchasing property with money raised to save Afzal, to radicalised Hurriyat and Kashmir bar leaders willingness to let him hang, from Rehman Geelani scuttling Afzal’s last hope by publicly lambasting lawyers who had saved him from the gallows to the social rejection that pushed an acquitted woman into a lunatic asylum, from Afzal’s vile torture and blackmail by police to the nationalist media’s reprehensible witch-hunt.

This among Haksar’s several strands ought to be fleshed out separately. For, each of the above-mentioned facts points to a murderously murky reality very far from the romanticised conceptions of freedom and workers’ rights which imperviously frame this book.

Haksar complains about not finding a woman trade unionist in Kashmir to interview. She would have done well to devote space to the secular Navjot Afsana and Afzal’s resilient wife, Tabassum. They could have yielded biographical sketches as inspiring as that of Mehmuda Ali Shah, former principal of Srinagar’s Government College for Women, and as moving as that of Asmat, the militant’s wife – both of which Khanna gives us. Haksar’s encounters with her Pandit protagonist’s wife and step-mother provide interesting ethnographic vignettes, but in passing.

A conversation with Hilal, Afzal’s clean-hearted younger brother, might have given a finer insight into Kashmiri labour’s travails than the on-again-off-again employees associations do. But Haksar’s research apparently steered clear of the entire north Kashmir region to which Afzal belonged.

Credit: Shome Basu

‘We want freedom’ written on the walls by the pro-Kashmir independence protesters during the height of riots that resulted in numerous arrests and many deaths. But separatist sections of the population continue to participate in sporadic incidences of violence and organised protests. Credit: Shome Basu

Her book, sadly, does not focus sharply on the two strands promoted on the cover. The closest thing to fresh discourse on the geopolitical context is the assertion that global human rights organisations promote the West’s agenda. As for Kashmiri nationalism, Haksar highlights the ways in which diverse Kashmiris champion the often nebulous idea but does not probe the apparent sociological exclusion, ideological inconsistencies and territorial hegemony. Whenever she notes anomalies such as Islamist boys wanting help to migrate to the US or the JKLF’s propaganda CD blanking out her Pandit protagonist Sampat Prakash’s enthusiastic participation in its campaign, her stock response is, “I did not understand.”

If she decided on principle to overlook the shifting sands of Kashmiri nationalism, one wishes she had at least questioned the Indian state more closely. Haksar’s by-then-socialist protagonist made a startling revelation to her about a plan to install JKLF mentor Dr Ahad Guru as head of the state government in 1990; Mirwaiz Farooq was to have participated. This is an astonishing tit-bit, for neither had electoral backing and both were assassinated. A whodunit cloud still hangs over Dr Guru’s murder.

“To expose these shadowy powers” (page 262) that have insidiously gnawed the core of our secular democratic republic would be an act of patriotism. One looks with hope to an author of Haksar’s indisputable credentials, an upright woman of principle with an admirably open mind (evident throughout this book), an esteemed part of the justice system and a daughter whom even the most shameless establishment would squirm over opposing. Exposing those “shadowy powers” could lead to lethal pitfalls, but down that road lie justice, democracy and stability.

David Devadas is a Srinagar-based journalist and author of In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir, published by Penguin in 2007.