‘You have read a lot of fiction on Kashmir, here is some real history’

  • Haroon Mirani
  • Publish Date: Jul 31 2017 9:40PM
  • |
  • Updated Date: Aug 1 2017 12:30AM
‘You have read a lot of fiction on Kashmir, here is some real history’

Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s recently released book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative seeks to upend, as the title suggests, the popular “Kashmiri Pandit narrative”. In a long career as a bureaucrat, Khalid served as Director, Libraries and Research, and looked after the J&K government’s Department of Archives, Archaeology and Museums before retiring in 2014. He is currently working on his second book, Kashmir: A Walk Through History, which will likely be published later this year.

 

Haroon Mirani caught up with Khalid to discuss his recent book. Why did he write it and what is his argument?

Excerpts:

 

What prompted you to write this book?

There are a few books that touch upon the subject of Kashmiri Pandits but none that deals exclusively with it. The Pandit narrative has dominated historical and political discourse on Kashmir for centuries. It has remained unchallenged for a long time. It was the absence of a counter argument that attracted my attention to the subject. Add to this the widespread circulation of myths and half-truths, and the painting in black of Kashmir’s majority community since the unfortunate mass migration of the Pandits. Now, here is a book that gives you a different perspective, a different story.

 

How long did it take to write this book and how much did you research?

I started researching around 2010 but it was only after my retirement in 2014 that I actually sat down to write it. The subject called for lot of research, for digging out material and subjecting it to scrutiny and cross-referencing. The book draws upon ancient, medieval and contemporary sources, a rich archival record, journalistic writings, reports, and interviews. It is supported by about 1,200 references and notes.

I also substantially relied on books and sources, as well as individuals, from the community. Bringing out the contradictions in the original sources of the narrative, I think, has added to the book’s authenticity.

 

So, what does the book discuss?

It discusses various elements of the Pandit narrative. The narrative tells us that Islam made a violent entry into medieval Kashmir, resulting into forced conversion of its inhabitants, wanton demolition of temples, eviction of the “indigenous people”, and continuous persecution of a small minority that stuck to its faith.

The mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 saw this narrative gain wide currency, with new elements added to it. It then became the mainstream Indian view about Kashmir’s minority community. The book deals with all these aspects. It identifies events that were twisted out of context. The historical facts, sources and events that it brings to the fore refuse to sit with the prevalent narrative. It blows away the fog and separates fact from fiction. It presents events as they occurred rather than as they have been told. These facts have been either overlooked or kept under wraps for a very long time to perpetuate a suitable narrative.

The book is an academic work. The fact that it is published by SAGE, an international publishing house known for producing high-quality research around the world, proves that. The book is being marketed as an academic publication and, as the author, I take pride in that.  

 

How did the conversion of the majority of Kashmiris to Islam affect the society?

The Brahmins had held political and economic power long before Islam came to Kashmir in the 14thcentury AD. They were the kingmakers and rulers had been playing to their tune. When the Muslim Sultanate was established in Kashmir, the new rulers, who were alien to the land and its language, did not want to disturb the applecart and retained Brahmins in their administrative apparatus. On their part, the Brahmins, to retain supremacy in the affairs of the state, quickly renounced Sanskrit, the language of their scriptures, and took to learning the language of the new rulers – Persian and later Urdu.So, contrary to the Pandit narrative, the Brahmins held high positions under Muslim rulers.

On the other hand, when non-Muslim rule returned to Kashmir in 1819 AD, whatever little presence there was of Muslims in the administrationwas done away. The Brahmins, thus, became all-powerful. This was the period when the Pandit narrative, originated by the 14th century versifier Jonaraja, was spiced up with additional myths and unsubstantiated tales. The return of the Brahmin storyteller presented the 500-year Muslim rule as the period of perpetual persecution of their community. Concurrently, the Muslim majority was subjected to unthinkable repression, so much so that they could not think beyond merely surviving.Their complete disempowerment ensured that there was no challenge to the Pandit narrative, which had ruthless official machinery backing its perpetuation and circulation. The Brahmins had the power and the pen to write the story of Kashmir as they pleased.

It is said that the disempowerment of the converted Muslims was not so much because of oppression by non-Muslim rulers as it was a result of their own failings. Also, that holding on to the Hindu caste system affected their progress.

I do not think it is correct to say the Muslims of Kashmir were submissive subjects. They confronted their oppressors and, in many cases, the occupation forces suffered major reverses. They fought the Mughals, the Afghans, the Sikhs and the Dogras. They never accepted the occupation of their land by outsiders. But these rulers were coldblooded and invented unimaginable cruelties, both physical and economic, to suppress the uprisings. 

As for the caste system, it wasn’t practised by the Muslims here. So, there is no question of it impeding their progress. What did hurt them severely was the brazen communalism of non-Muslim rulers. The Mughals and the Afghans, too, had literally left them out of the structures of power.The Muslims were never trusted because they disliked alien rule. They were even banned from being recruited in army.

 

The Pandits dominated Kashmir’s socio-economic landscape until 1990. How did their exodus affect the society?

The book, drawing a wealth of data,clearly establishes the dominance of the Pandits in the administration. Naturally, their migration created a vacuum but the majority community successfully filled it so far as manning different services and departments were concerned. Your profession – journalism – is the best example of how the Muslims not only successfully filled this vacuum but took the profession to new heights. So far as the social landscape is concerned, the void is as open as they left it. The composite culture of the society has taken a severe beating.

 

From the arrival of Islam until the Pandit migration several centuries later, was there ever a time when the Muslims were dominant in Kashmir, politically, economically and socially?

In the Sultanate era, the Muslims flourished in trade, commerce and literature. Kashmiri handicrafts, which are still a big part of our culture and economy, are the gift of this period. Intellectually, the significance of this period can be gauged from the fact that at one point there were as many as 1,678 Kashmiri poets of Persian in the valley. The nadir came when non-Muslim rule returned in the early 19th century and the Muslims were reduced to “hewers of wood and drawers of water and denied the barest rudiments of citizenship”.

 

You dispute the claim that the Pandits are Kashmir’s indigenous people...

The claimants of the aborigine status say they are the descendants of the Nagas, supposedly the earliest inhabitants of Kashmir. The aborigine theory rests on the existence of the Nagas. And if there are no Nagas, the story crumbles. The source of the Naga story, the Nilmatapurana, sometimes describes them as humans and other times as reptiles. The text fails to firmly establish whether they were humans or snakes. How can you trace your ancestry to a creation whose physical form you are not sure of? Importantly, there is no archaeological evidence of the existence of the Nagas. The earliest excavated settlements in Kashmir, in Burzahom and Gofkral, have thrown up no religious images or icons that could be linked with the presence of the Nagas.

The aborigine theory, so far as it considers only the Pandits as the original inhabitants of Kashmir, is absurd. I mean, how you can exclude Muslims who, according to your own assertion, were your kin before conversion? By this logic, Sham Lal Pandit or Manohar Koul is an indigenous Kashmiri but a Mohammad Sayeed Pandit or Javed Ahmad Koul is a foreigner. This is ludicrous.

As regards the popular history of ancient Kashmir, it is heavy with myths, and the beliefs and perceptions of the narrators. The first 3,000 years of the “5,000 year recorded history” of Kashmir are a description of persons and events that cannot be traced in any credible sources. Scholars have expressed serious doubt about the credibility of this story.

 

Did the Muslims and the Pandits behave differently under trying situations?

The Pandits were alive to the importance of constructing and communicating their narrative to the world, and they did it quite successfully. The Muslims simply failed on this count. If not for the European travellers and officials who visited Kashmir during the 19th and early 20th centuries AD and recorded the plight of the Muslim majority, the gravest atrocities ever suffered by a people would have gone unnoticed.

 

There has been a demand for a separate homeland for the Pandits in Kashmir. What do you make of it?

It would be dreadful. The demand for a separate homeland for the Pandits in Kashmir is fraught with great danger. You are basically seeking to create a geographical entity purely on the basis of religion –something which, for its horrible fallout, you had rejected back in 1947.

The homeland is sought to be carved out of the “regions of the valley to the east and north of the river Jhelum”, meaning that over two-thirds Kashmir will be snatched from the Muslims and given to a community that is less than 4% of the population for its exclusive settlement. Since the homeland will be exclusively for Hindus, millions of Muslims will have to be thrown out of these areas. Incidentally, the identified area includes almost all water sources and tourist places of Kashmir. The demand is the manifestation of the extremist Hindus’ desire to “reclaim Kashmir as a Hindu land”.

 

If you were asked for a one-line introduction of your book, what would that be?

I would say: “You have read a lot of fiction on Kashmir, now is the time to read some history.”