The great Czech writer Milan Kundera starts his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, with a historical anecdote: In 1948, Comrade Clementis gave his hat to communist leader Klement Gottwald, who was standing bareheaded in the snow, making a speech. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda machinery immediately airbrushed him out of the photographs, not to speak of history! Ever since, Gottwald has stood alone in the snow. Where Clementis once stood, there is a bare wall. All that remains of Clementis in the photograph is the hat on Gottwald’s head!
In 2020, Sher-i-Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, is being airbrushed; not from the photographs just yet but from the history of Kashmir. The one whose hagiography was once the definitive political history of Kashmir, may soon struggle to find his name in the new official history.
To start with, his birth anniversary is not to be found in this year’s list of official holidays. The police gallantry medals are no longer inscribed with his commemorative epithet. The iconic SKICC has dropped the prefix to become Kashmir International Convention Complex. The Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, SKIMS, too may lose its prefix soon.
Yet the many hats that Sheikh Abdullah wore – that of an anti-feudal revolutionary in 1931, the pragmatic secularist in 1936, the emotional communist in 1944, the egalitarian head of government in 1948, the ethnic nationalist of 1952, or the giant with feet of clay in 1975 — will remain! It is not possible to erase him from history. Hence an attempt is being made to erase him from the collective memory of Kashmiris.
This is akin to “damnatio memoriae”– the ultimate punishment Romans gave to the condemned by scratching their name from the inscriptions. The fate of being forgotten was considered worse than execution.
For the last three decades, Sheikh Abdullah’s grave is guarded for the fear of desecration. His “cardinal sin”: he threw the lot of Kashmiris with India. The sui generis terms on which he did so, recently reneged, are now matters of irrelevant archival detail.
This one “political sin” has overshadowed his enormous contributions. He transformed the life of every single Kashmiri; be it by spearheading the anti-feudal movement or by redistributing land to the tiller along with debt waiver on a scale that has no parallels in the democratic world.
Every Indian who values Kashmir as a part of the country owes him a debt of gratitude. It was because of him that Kashmir was the only place in the subcontinent where ideology and conviction overruled religion as the consideration for accession.
Indeed, if the Bharatiya Janata Party could do away with the constitution of Jammu and Kashmir, it was only because, in 1975, Sheikh Abdullah consented to surrender the powers of the J&K legislature to amend its constitution. He oversaw the castration of the J&K constitution that he had earlier envisioned.
When the erstwhile prime minister of J&K accepted to being the chief minister of J&K, it was more than just a personal comedown. He effectively ratified the hollowing out of Article 370 that had been done while he was incarcerated. The Indira-Abdullah accord notwithstanding.
The aggressive flag hoisting in Lal Chowk by BJP leaders in the early 1990s and the assertive flag ceremonies in every nook and corner of the state since have been possible because he grafted the national flag in the constitution of J&K. Speaking in the state’s constituent assembly in 1952, it was Sheikh Abdullah who accorded primacy to the national flag. In the process, he made the flag of J&K, which has now been relinquished, subservient.
Forty years later in a hugely symbolic gesture, he carried the national flag to his grave; his body was draped in the tricolour. He may have been born and bred as a Kashmiri ethno-nationalist but he surely died an Indian.
Why then does the BJP want him erased from memory? If anything they should strengthen his legacy; not his biological or even his political legacy, but surely his ideological one.
Admittedly, ascribing the salvation of Kashmir to Abdullah did lead to a sense of entitlement in his party and progeny. In this dynastic, if not a demagogical context, the names of institutions, roads or parks did reflect an element of absorption with the self. But there is more to it. Much more, in fact.
A place or an institution named after Sheikh Abdullah is a genuine tribute to the person who initiated the freedom struggle of Kashmir. These are expressions that promote a distinctive national consciousness which in turn helps nation-building. It is a re-dedication by the “nation” that was formed on the foundation laid by him. To erase this that is to distort history.
The fact is that over time these names, SKICC, SKIMS, etc have come to become symbolic elements of landscape and reflect civil sensibilities, social sentiments, and real-life associations. Just like in many other cases.
For instance, the alma mater of most Kashmiris, even after 70 years of democracy bears the names of the Dogra Maharajas; be it Sri Pratap College or Amar Singh College. So does the biggest hospital, SMHS. And the main trading hub, Hari Singh High Street. To be sure, every one of them is based on the dynastic glorification of rulers furthering their personal legacy. None of these have been or are being obliterated.
It is obvious that there is a well thought out plan to make changes selectively to only a part of the inherited past of Kashmir. That too by a regime that neither has a democratic mandate nor does it have popular legitimacy. Indeed, even its legal legitimacy is under question in the Supreme Court!
Changing the name of a place or an institution or an award is not a simple disassociation. Nor is it a routine administrative decision. A political name is being erased for ideological reasons. Indeed, it goes far beyond the individual as also the immediate.
Such changes have a much larger agenda: snap every day’s historical connection so as to erase the memory of the past. The toponymic changes are used as a tool to disrupt the ethnocultural continuity of Kashmiris which is the core of historical identity.
In reality, it is an assault that will, in the long run, prove to be more debilitating and damaging than abolishing the compromised constitutional provisions.
How can a democratic society grow so hostile to the past of its constituent part? That too a past which saw and sealed the future of Kashmir with India. While Kashmir did become a part of a large entity in 1948, it in no way meant that its own past had to be subsumed in a larger past. The past can’t be rewritten to align with the ideological predilections of the present. This sort of thing is normally associated with tyranny.
This is especially so when alongside erasing of one set of names, is the process of new naming. The Chenani-Nashri tunnel has been named as Syama Prasad Mookerjee tunnel. The city chowk of Jammu has become Bharat Mata Chowk. Another intersection has been renamed Atal Chowk. A proposal is afoot for the Jammu Airport to become Maharaja Hari Singh Airport and the Jammu University to be renamed as Maharaja Gulab Singh University.
To be fair, this renaming is understandable. The BJP is, arguably, setting the record straight. It will be rationalised as the restoration of parts of history that have been purposely or conveniently excluded so far by the earlier regimes. It is epochalism being expressed through place-names to reflect the new Indian politics in its political ideology, behavioural values and, of course, historical figures. While restoring “their” great men in the new narratives of India, throwing the stalwarts of Kashmir’s political history down Orwell’s memory hole is unacceptable.
It is ironic that in the 1950s, Sheikh Abdullah’s person was under assault even as his ideology thrived. Since the 1990s, both his person and his ideology have been under attack. Now, his memory is. All, mind you, from very different and diametrically opposite quarters.
Poets are not prophets but oftentimes are prophetic. Aga Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s very own poet, prophesied, “My memory is again in the way of your history”. Indeed, it is and how!
This piece first appeared in Greater Kashmir and has been republished with the permission of the author.