Two Leading Kashmir Universities Drop Agha Shahid Ali, Basharat Peer from English MA Courses

The University of Kashmir, the Valley’s premier higher-educational institution, has dropped three poems by Ali along and journalist Basharat Peer’s memoir from its English MA curriculum. The Cluster University Srinagar has left out two poems by Ali.

Srinagar: The works of two critically-acclaimed Kashmiri writers have been dropped from the curriculum by two leading universities of Kashmir without an explanation.

The University of Kashmir (UoK), the Valley’s premier higher-educational institution, has dropped three poems by Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali along with author and journalist Basharat Peer’s memoir from the curriculum of a post-graduate programme in English.

Shahid’s famous poems – ‘Postcard from Kashmir’, ‘In Arabic’ and ‘The Last Saffron’ – and Peer’s Curfewed Night were taught in the third semester of the Masters of Arts (English) course at the university.

“These works will no longer be part of the curriculum from this year onwards,” a source at the university said, adding that the decision was conveyed “orally” to the “relevant authorities after consultations” by the Vice-Chancellor’s office.

The university has also removed the syllabus of the two-year masters programme from its website. Sources said that the syllabus will become accessible “once it has been updated.”

Asked about the deletions, Professor Nilofer Khan, UoK Vice-Chancellor, said that she was “in a meeting” and promised to get back. She, however, didn’t answer phone calls made later.

A similar decision to discontinue Shahid’s two poems, ‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’ and ‘Call me Ishmael Tonight,’ was taken by the Cluster University Srinagar (CUS), officials said.

‘I see Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’ is one of the most iconic explorations of the struggles faced by the people of Kashmir since armed insurgency broke out in the early nineties. The poem touches on issues of torture, ‘bullet-torn’ bodies and ‘curfewed nights’ that were a recurrent theme of life in Kashmir during the heydays of insurgency.

‘Call me Ishmael Tonight’ is a poignant ghazal with allegedly blasphemous references in which Shahid tries to locate himself in the realm of religion and the conflict in Kashmir. The ghazal also refers to the destruction of some Hindu temples in the Valley when the conflict broke out.

The two poems were taught in the third semester of the ‘Integrated Masters in English’ programme at the CUS. Among other poets whose works are taught in the programme are the influential Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

The syllabus for the five-year programme has not been updated yet and it is still accessible on the university’s official website.

There was no official explanation for the deletions and no order was passed in either of the instances. Professor Qayyum Hussain,
Vice-Chancellor of CUS, could not be reached for his comment.

A former academic at the UOK said that Shahid was a “deeply secular poet whose heart was full of pain and anguish for both Hindus and Muslims” of Kashmir. “Although his work touches on the themes of Kashmir conflict, the three poems (taught at UOK) have absolutely no political connotations,” he said.

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Agha Shahid Ali: ‘A voice like no other’

One of the most widely read Kashmiri writers in English, Shahid’s 2001 poetry collection, Rooms are Never Finished, was the finalist for the National Book Award, the prestigious US literary prize whose winners include the 1949 Nobel laureate William Faulkner and Pulitzer awardees Philip Roth and John Updike among others.

Born in New Delhi and raised in the United States where he died of brain cancer in 2001 aged 52, Shahid was an alumnus of the UoK who had fulfilling teaching stints at the Delhi University, Princeton University and Hamilton College among other reputed institutions.

The American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets, a major anthology of American poetry, describes Shahid as one of the “extraordinary poets born since World War II.”

“His voice was like none I had ever heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward…the formalisation of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid’s most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry,” author Amitav Ghosh wrote in The Ghat of The Only World.

The essay, Ghosh’s tribute to his Kashmiri friend, which was published after Shahid’s death, is part of the Central Board of School Education’s Class 11 curriculum which is taught at more than 27,000 schools across the country.

“It is a tragedy,” said a UOK official, who didn’t want to be named, fearing reprisal from the authorities, “Students in the rest of the country read about Agha Shahid Ali but doing so in Kashmir is unacceptable now.”

Basharat Peer: ‘Brutally honest’

Peer’s Curfewed Night, a deeply personal and groundbreaking memoir of growing up in violence-ravaged Kashmir, received critical acclaim for drawing an unforgettable image of more than three decades of conflict in the Himalayan region.

Author Khushwant Singh had called Curfewed Night a “brutally honest and deeply hurtful” account while The Guardian had said it brings the “Kashmir conflict out of the realm of political rhetoric between India and Pakistan and into the lives of Kashmiris.”

The memoir took Kashmir’s English writing scene by a storm when it debuted in 2008.

London-based Kashmiri writer and acclaimed novelist Mirza Waheed said that the decision to drop the two authors “reinforces” the idea that Jammu and Kashmir is being run by the “most anti-intellectual and anti-thought” administration. “I suppose these days it must look good on a university administrators’s CV to say they removed a beautiful poet from their campus.”

Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha is the Chancellor and de-facto head of the university.

“It is a terrible and sinister decision, part of a broader push to create ‘Naya (new) Kashmir’ which means erasure of history – that we forget our history, our political and cultural heritage, our poets. It is a war on memory,” Waheed said.

Waheed, author of the novel The Collaborator, said that the universities are a “place of knowledge, thinking and critical engagement with literature” which helps students in “locating themselves in the broader world.”

“Shahid’s poetry has been read in Kashmir and across the world for a long time and it will be read even more. Basharat’s memoir is one of the most important books of the last few decades. You can’t erase Shahid from memory. You can’t make Curfewed Night disappear,” Waheed told The Wire over phone.