Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative; Khalid Bashir; 412pp, Rs 595; Sage
It is highly recommended that readers begin with the epilogue of Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, one of the more important books to have come out of Kashmir in recent years. The reader would then be better prepared for the sharpness of the chapters entitled ‘malice’, ‘power’, ‘blood’, ‘agitation’ and ‘media’ that precede it.
In the epilogue, Khalid Bashir writes: “Nobody would dispute the fact that in a situation as sensitive as Kashmir, selective mention of tragedies will all but bridge the trust gap. Understanding and recognising each other’s pain and suffering are crucial for achieving this. Alongside a reference to Nadimarg, Wandhama and Sangrampora (places where Kashmiri Pandits were massacred by suspected militants), a mention of Gawkadal, Sopore, Handwara and Islamia College (places where Kashmiri Muslims were massacred by government forces) is imperative to complete the picture of Kashmir tragedy.”
To present a complete picture before the world appears to be Khalid Bashir’s primary aim behind problematising the narrative that has fostered a lopsided understanding of Kashmir’s past and present for political ends.
The central premise of the book is contained in a Persian couplet:Khisht-i-awwal chu nehad memaar kaj, Taa surayya mee rawad dewaar kaj (If a mason puts the first brick askew, the wall, even if raised up to the Pleiad, is bound to come up slanted). Bashir argues that the edifice of Kashmir’s history has been erected on one such crooked foundation, a book called Rajtarangini, which translates as The River of Kings, but was by design or carelessness or the prevalent tradition fashioned into the ‘History of Kings’ over the years. This book and its derivatives became, with unsavoury consequences, the History of Kashmir over time.
Abandoned Kashmiri Pandit home in Hall village, Pulwama, Kashmir.
(Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)
Bashir argues that, relying primarily on his poetic imagination and a few fragmentary sources he himself undermines, Rajtarangini’s author Kalhana has described 3,000 years of Kashmir with whatever his “mind’s eye” led him to in the 7,800 odd verses of his opus. “Mind’s eye” is Kalhana’s own description of the wellspring of his imaginative and literary prowess. He claims to have written Rajatarangini in a year. Khalid is, therefore, inclined to see Kalhana as more of a literary genius than a historian. Jonaraja and Srivara who succeeded Kalhana have skipped from their works important contemporaneous developments like the flourishing of Islam and the waning power of the Brahmanical elite. Subsequent historians, a sizeable number of them Muslims, built on the nebulous narrative that was passed onto them, or simply replicated it, and inserted their own distortions on the way. The overall effect of such historiography was that a narrative was born through which the Kashmiri past began to be viewed, often erroneously. This includes the Kashmiri Pandits’ claim to being the ‘aborigines’. Bashir has finely problematised this claim, and persuasively established the fallacy of the belief that denies the privilege of such aboriginality to the Muslims only because they converted to Islam from Hinduism. Central to the raging rightwing propaganda on Kashmir is the assertion that ‘aborigine’ Pandits have been forced out of their homeland by ‘foreign’ Muslims. The results of the communal framing of Kashmir’s past, especially since 1947, can be seen in TV debates that propagate half-truths and outright lies about Kashmir on a daily basis.
Since Rajtarangini is the only foundation of Kashmir’s written past it is canonic. But Kalhana’s text has more to do with his own context, status at court, and his own ambitions than what he says actually transpired through thousands of years.
The treatment of Rajtarangini in Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative might appear as an angry polemic but it has actually drawn attention to the need for a serious scrutiny of conjecture disguised as historical truths in various other histories also. At times, Khalid Bashir’s arguments appear like the mirror image of the narrative it sets out to contest. But that seems to be deliberate in the what-is-sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander vein.
The funeral procession of a militant killed during an encounter with security forces in south Kashmir on November 24, 2015.
(Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times)
In effect, it also posits that if the entire Kashmiri Pandit community can’t be held responsible for the past acts of a Pandit elite that served nearly all foreign rulers, all Kashmiri Muslims also cannot be held accountable for the wrongs of a medieval king painted as an idol-breaker in historical accounts. There still are a few Kashmiri Pandit families with the Durrani surname, a marker of their ancestors’ proximity to the Afghan rulers of Kashmir, who are detested by nationalistic Kashmiris. At the same time, a sizable Muslim population deems a class of Muslims as “collaborators” in contemporary Kashmir. The emphasis is clear: we must not employ past events, which took place in a different context, to ‘make right’ the present.
Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative draws attention towards vital relevant historical facts that are missing from populist narratives surrounding the migration of Kashmiri Pandits in the past and the tragic mass migration of the community in 1990. For example, about 112,000 Kashmiri Muslims escaped to Punjab by 1891 to escape the brazenly anti-Muslim policies of the Sikh and Dogra monarchies. This number comes close to the number of Kashmiri Pandits (124,078, according to the 1990 Census) who migrated at the onset of the armed insurgency. This is not to say that the two exoduses square up or one justifies the other but only underscores the fact that certain events are not exceptional.
The erasure of these facts in discourses on Kashmir leads Bashir to question the narrative building around the return of Kashmiri Pandits to their homeland. A certain section of Kashmiri Pandits are calling for a return to their homeland of those Kashmiri Pandits whose ancestors had migrated centuries ago to other parts of India for better opportunities or to escape persecution. Bashir asks are thousands of Jammu and Kashmir Muslims who had similarly left Kashmir in the past also entitled to a return?
Bashir’s book can be better read within the politics of Kashmir historiography. It is in that context that it raises debate and serves as a corrective rather than being seen as ‘the’ truer version of history, which is anyway impossible for a single text to cover.