The valley of love

by Badri Raina
first published in the Hindu, August 1, 2003

by Badri Raina
first published in the Hindu, August 1, 2003

A WEEK, it is said, is a long time in politics. With respect to Kashmir, a week can indeed be a very long time. As life gets busier and busier, and time and space become more and more precious in terms of profit-making, `up-market’ approaches to problems require that we solve them even before we have understood them. Or that we understand them in instant, post-modernist ways. Thus, for example, globally, `terrorism’ has been identified as a simple enough expression of `Islamist’ ill-nature, and the answer has been located in quashing `terrorists’ with extreme force. Such emphasis on the products of history envisages that the processes that inform them are relegated. Our historical sense is thus labelled not sense but nuisance. It is another matter that, be it Afghanistan or Iraq or Palestine or Kashmir, such market-driven impatience leads the world every day into more intractable problems, belying the elementary postulates of rational existence. Current `advances’ in science and technology thus go hand in hand with monumental and potentially catastrophic historical illiteracy. Often, of course, as with respect to Kashmir, it is not so much a question of illiteracy as of a coercive refusal to acknowledge that the problem bears dimensions that refute the construction we have chosen to place upon it. We recall what Karl Marx had underlined penetratingly that the trick that informs bourgeois revolutions is that the method of science will be used to the hilt to master nature, but strenuously prevented from any application to cognise social relations.

As I report on my two-week visit to the Valley (June 8-21), however, some watershed markers of Kashmir’s modern history are best recapitulated as informing points of reference. If the changing times there are to be harnessed towards desirable conclusions, those markers must not be lost sight of. For a century between 1846 and 1947, the most comprehensively oppressed section of Kashmiris was Muslims, who had next to no presence in rural property, or the services and hardly any education. Indeed, when Sheikh Abdullalh came with an MSc degree from Aligarh in 1930, he was the first Kashmiri Muslim to have gone that far. As a peculiar form of serfdom obtained among the Muslims (called `begar’), it is small wonder that the first political organisation floated by the Sheikh should have been called the Muslim Conference; the appellation may have seemed to connote a merely communal concern but, in fact, took in a much wider reference to class oppression – much as Dalit politics expresses class inequities in addition to social realities. This, after all, was the reason that the Sheikh was able to draw support from distinguished Pandit intellectuals of the time as well.

The Pandits, meanwhile, lived by their wits, maintaining their indispensability both to the Dogra rulers and to Kashmiri Muslims, but sharing with the latter deep ethnic intimacy. The one time that the Pandits found cause to express resentment with the establishment was in the early 1920s when the Maharaja began importing Punjabi bureaucracy into the State service. Thus, in 1924, the Pandits were to raise the slogan `Kashmir for Kashmiris’.

Impelled by the syncretic Sufi Islam of the Valley, which intersected everywhere, and accreted Pandit folklore, practices and modes of worship (the second day of Sivaratri celebrations in Kashmir is called Salaam), and by what seemed the socially radical and secular dynamics of the `National Movement’ shaped in the main by the preferences of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Abdullah rechristened his political organisation as the National Conference. Thus, when Muhammed Ali Jinnah visited the Valley to plead his communal thesis with Kashmiri co-religionists, he received significant rebuff. As the Partition set the subcontinent aflame, Gandhi said the only light he saw was in Kashmir. The invasion in October of 1947 found a dithering Maharaja and an undefended Valley. Abdulllah’s party of the plough, however, organised Kashmiri masses across communities in heroic resistance to the invader; rows upon rows of disciplined Kashmiris marched – with wooden sticks and wooden rifles in hand – to the ringing slogans Hamla Avar Khabardar/Hum Kashmiri Hein Tayar, and Shere Kashmir Ka Kya Irshad/Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Itihad. Had Kashmiri Muslims then desired to join Pakistan, there was nothing to stop them (something that the Togadias of our time need to ponder).

The installation of the popular government led by Abdullah yielded the Naya Kashmir programme with two revolutionary axes of transformation, namely, land to the tiller, and free education up to the post-graduate stage. In the Kashmir Constituent Assembly, the Sheikh pronounced both the desire of the Kashmiris for maximum freedom and the conviction that a Sufi Kashmir could not tie up its future with a theocratic Pakistan. The Delhi Agreement of 1952 followed, to be incorporated as Article 370 into the Constitution.

Even as that historic covenant between the Centre and Kashmir began to be subtly but systematically undermined, a new class of college-educated Kashmiri Muslims emerged by the mid-1970s, only to find that their future remained effectively confined to the less-than-meagre opportunities that obtained in the State. This new articulate and politically aware class also began to see that political democracy was to be denied to them as well. As Yusuf Shah of the Muslim United Front was cheated, among others, of electoral victory in the Amirakadal constituency in 1987, he was to transform into Salahuddin of the Hizbul Mujahideen; the bullets were to follow. Since then, the incredible cupidities of the major political formations were to ensure that the darkness remained unrelieved. In fact, the most deleterious occurrence with respect to the `Kashmir Problem’ has been the convergence between fascistic `nationalism’ at home and the designs of a new, unchallenged imperialism emanating from one single nation abroad.

LET me say with responsibility that during my two-week stay in the Valley, I travelled freely and without `incident’ to all parts – north, south, west, east – and to every nook and corner of the city of Srinagar, including the `forbidden’ down-town. Having left Kashmir some 42 years ago, my first endearing recognition is that no magic works as well in Kashmir as the ability to speak the language. Clearly, as an interventionist, this was a huge, initial advantage. Let me also say that the persons and groups I interacted with included Kashmiris of every conceivable definition – shikarawalas, itinerant furriers, retailers, hoteliers, office-goers, students and teachers at the university (where I was privileged to lecture on two separate occasions), artists, ex-militants, legislators, and a thousand-strong-mass of people at a public meeting. This is not to speak of `tourists’ who, in large numbers, seemed to be having a `good time’ indeed. That new lessons have been imbibed across the board was in evidence everywhere; confidences-in-vernacular available to me leave me in no doubt of that reality. The coordinates of the change that has come over the Valley seem as follows:

With the exception perhaps of the hard-core Geelani faction, disenchantment with the jehadi tehrik seems total. The erstwhile supporters of jehad whose allegiance followed a patently communal logic – among them the non-Kashmiri-speaking Muslims who have felt a closer ethnic bond with similar co-religionists across the Line of Control (LoC) – acknowledge, however sadly, that the General Pervez Musharraf-run `client’ state of Pakistan (client to the United States) is no longer either a worthwhile or a realisable option. Young people from such families, whom this writer had known a decade ago to spew rabid `Islamist’ fervour, today poke fun at Musharraf’s strutting entrapment between an obsolete theocratic project and the diktats of an `anti-Islamic’ imperialism. An important element here is also their greater willingness to see opportunities of personal advancement in newer technologies and correlated institutions in a market-driven world of seemingly undifferentiated scope. A proliferating access to the visual media has made accessible to such young people the burgeoning desire for peace, democracy, and modern development among wide sections of the urban elite within Pakistan, and the articulate critique of such elites of the Pakistani state works as a decisive influence. Those others whose allegiance to the idea of Pakistan has been less literate, more subliminal, curse that country for having betrayed Kashmiris in the way in which the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) today pours scorn on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. That disgust is captured in the eloquent Kashmiri phrase Pakistanus gao Dakistan, that is, `May Pakistan suffer annihilation’.

Perhaps the most telling source of repugnance with the jehadis is centred around the experience that most of them have used the gun either to amass wealth, or to get any sort of job done (from property-grabbing to college admissions, marriage deals and appointments), or generally to acquire social power and recognition – all of that inimical to the `mission’ and, in popular parlance, more in the nature of `commission’. One of the results is that either the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) no longer feels the confidence to give calls for hartal, or, when it does, it is sniggered at and largely observed in the breach.

The old sentiment for azadi remains real, but with new caveats. One, that total independence is simply a bit of a pipe dream. Many made the point to me that Pakistan has never endorsed that option anyway. Some are even willing to embrace the thought that separation from both India and Pakistan, were that to happen, could very well turn Kashmir into an imperialist enclave and playground, with catastrophic consequences for Kashmiriyat.

As to religious freedom, Javed, the itinerant furrier, makes the point that whereas Kashmiri Muslims have always enjoyed complete religious freedom, it is not unusual to find mosques in Pakistani cities fired upon, or Shia Muslims attacked by Sunnis. This concatenation of perceptions, imbued universally with the incalculable suffering of the past decade or more, has, as I found in all my interactions, led to a surge and sentient rediscovery of the old values of Kashmiriyat, something that expresses itself first and foremost as an overwhelming desire for peace and non-abrasive coexistence.

A rapid, and alas, all-too-brief enumeration of the treatment I received best illustrates that change. The hotel that charges some Rs.1,200 for a room charged me but Rs.600 accompanied every day by a bouquet of felt intimacies; the famous bakery establishment that makes giant bakerkhanies only upon order gave me all I wanted accepting nothing in return; the sisters, Neelofer and Ayesha, upon hearing me ask a boatman-vendor at Nehru Park in the Dal for a cup of Nuna Chai, dragged me and my wife home to a dilapidated houseboat, whereupon the mother not only gave us the choice cup but a dear old familiar shower of the sweetest Kashmiri blessings; at Kheer Bhawani, the two elderly Muslims who see to the infrastructural requirement of worshippers could restrain neither a tight hug nor their precious tears; at a party hosted by a well-known Kashmir Pandit doctor, who spent close to three months in captivity with militants, a highly respected Muslim bureaucrat turned the evening into a saga of Kashmiri songs and made moving lament as to how it is the Pandits who had taught `us’ all `we’ know, and why would they not come back; my breakfast at Soz sahib’s turned out to be a feast of not only converse, but also the rarest of Pampore Sheermal, of which I received a carry-home gift; and if you wanted to share one of those spontaneous experiences of Kashmiriyat try this: upon my return from Kheer Bhawani it is the gracious Mrs. Soz who asks me what the colour of the water in the holy pond was. Legend has it that the water changes colour, beckoning good or bad times.

Kashmiri Pandits are spoken of with regret and deep poignancy – regret that they should have exited in the face of a shared fate, and poignancy at the thought of the suffering they have had to experience away from `home’ and at the thought also that soon they might return to `complete’ Kashmir. At the airport shop, the gentle Muslim owner poses the question whether many more Muslims have not been killed, and expresses the hurt that Pandit `brethren’ rarely remember to mention the sufferings of their Muslim `brethren’. Also commented upon is the sad irony that while the Muslims seek to free themselves of jehadi pressures, influential sections of the Pandits should veer towards right-wing Hindu chauvinism.

At the university, my audience of young men and women listen with an intensity born of the deepest life-experiences. Their analysed openness and warmth renders shallow my experiences as a teacher at Delhi University. Yet, the trapped agony in their bright eyes, the questions they pose with gentleness, tear me apart – How do they make a future in a country where Gujarat happens, where the Togadias openly seek to recast the state as a majoritarian, fascist one, and where the government of the day seems not just helpless but closely allied in consenting silence and non-action?

The public meeting organised by the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), led by its secretary Mohd. Yousuf Tarigami, to greet Member of Parliament Somnath Chatterjee, visiting the State as the Chairman of a Parliament Standing Committee on Communications, provides clear proof of the credibility that democratic politics is beginning to enjoy. The Mufti Mohammed Sayeed-led government is seen to mean well and to be working with honest purpose.

All those who address the meeting (Chatterjee, Tarigami, Soz, the Mufti, and this writer briefly) draw felt responses, even applause, at the programmes and ideololgical directions that are shared. Departing from its unsavoury record, the Congress(I) behaves with a new-found patience and wisdom; the group led by Tarigami provides both secular credibility and democratic energy; and the Mufti educates without euphoria or despondency. One senses, however, that soon this government will have to determine how the `healing touch’ policy may be extended/transformed into a desirable political conclusion. Although the first formal demand for `secession’ from the Union in post-Independence India came from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), correctly understood as a demand, at bottom, for devolution of democracy and power, it has been a tragedy that similar demands from Kashmir have tended to be read as `Islamist’. In changing times, perhaps, it will be appropriate to revisit the autonomy question in ways that such devolution is made available to all provinces of the State.

In an article written in a special number of Seminar, this writer had suggested that Kashmir be seen as a `window to India’, not just as a showpiece of secularism but fraught with consequences for the entire nation-state. This requires, foremost, that Kahmiris – and not just the territory – be embraced as the very best of Indians. And if I say that they are not just among the brightest of us but also the most loving, do not read that as an expression of hopeless ethnic subjectivity.

May I also keep my word to the many citizens of Srinagar to say that the city deserves drinking water quality, far better roads, and avoidance altogether of the driving habits of New Delhi.

Dr. Badri Raina, Professor of English at the Delhi University, writes on cultural and political issues. This article is based on his recent visit to Jammu and Kashmir.