Negotiating past narratives of Kashmir

  • Gowhar Yaqoob
  • Publish Date: Jul 3 2018 7:28PM
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  • Updated Date: Jul 3 2018 7:55PM
Negotiating past narratives of Kashmir

The aim to unfold ethical by reaffirming the sacred marks a political choice to defy the non-sacred.

Combining rich archival resources with extensive ethnographic survey, Chitralekha Zutshi’s Kashmir’s Contested Pasts: Narratives, Sacred Geographies, And The Historical Imagination unravels chronologically a vast canvas of narratives of history writing and historical consciousness across four centuries in Kashmir. Zutshi over longue duree, syndicates the narrative traditions in multiple languages, genres and forms, to connect the past ‘sacred space’ in myth with the contemporary ‘embattled territory’ of politics in Kashmir. She fittingly explores, ‘vibrant and textured historical tradition’ of Kashmir along with the articulation of idea of ‘place, community and region’ through discussing numerous texts. This book is simultaneously a history of and history about the stories and texts from great antiquity to the present. Zutshi argues to study objectively the variations and continuations - from sixteenth century Persian textual narratives to the ‘narrative publics’ of the present. The book proposes to make contribution to the South Asian scholarship by studying ‘the nature and variety of historical knowledge and practices, before and after the advent of colonial modernity’ (p.7). 

Zutshi examines the texts along three analytical axes: a) to locate these historical narratives within the longer literary and narrative tradition of Kashmir; b) to show the narratives in form of tazkira and tareekh composed by the Sufis largely driven by a theological principle, therefore linking historical practice with the articulation of religiosity; and c) historicity defined by organizing time and space and the interaction between the two. This she accomplishes over six chapters in the book. 

While beginning with, in italics, a small story of the origin of the land based on Sanskrit myth of the Lake Satisar, Sage Kashyap and the Demon Jaldobhava; not so surprising, like most origin-stories, this one too begins with the divine intervention. Zutshi exemplifies the mythical origin and in subsequent chapters illustrates how the idea of Kashmir was reshaped in specific political, institutional, and intellectual contexts. While probing the internal temporal frame and dialogue between time and space, the first chapter begins with the sixteenth century Persian tazkiras and tareekhs. She argues how the relationship of the authors of these texts with khanqahs (hospices) of different Sufi orders and their patronage networks ‘naturalized’ Islam in the Kashmir context. She argues that these ‘were driven by a desire to present a vision of an Islamized landscape through an appropriation of earlier, pre-Islamic tradition into the fold of Islam, embodying transition from Sanskrit to Persian.’ (p.35). Therefore, the intervention of Sufi mystics and their disciples redrew Kashmir’s landscape both in spiritual and in political terms where the tazkiras of saints and tareekhs of kings mutually defined the relationship between spiritual authority (Sufi) and temporal authority (ruler). 

The second chapter brings to light an important transition in the idea of Kashmir as a sacred space in the tareekhs written during the Mughal rule, presenting ‘Kashmir as a political territory in the historical time through the dialogue between the center and the periphery’. (p. 69). This becomes, what Zutshi calls, ‘a methodological feature’ for locating Kashmir within the larger Mughal Empire as Kashmir’s Persian historiographical tradition, asserted its autonomy in narrating the past (p.73). Through formulating its own set of engagements with the past, the texts drew authority from their specific location within the larger historiographical tradition giving voice to the mulk, synonymous with the historical narrative that shaped it (p.110). However, towards the end of the Mughal rule, setting in the Afghan rule, the texts of that time gave voice to a collective category of the people as qaum. 

What we see in the third chapter is the examination of Persian historical narratives amidst the complex linguistic ecology of the nineteenth century, which it is argued, yields different insights into historical practices in the nineteenth century South Asia (p. 131). The nineteenth century historical tradition is shown to be concerned with defining and repositioning Kashmir as a polity within a more global context; with textual narratives engaging with oral and performative narrative traditions. Zutshi suggests that during this time Kashmiri Muslims drew contours of a community identity in response to the Dogra state (p.155). Since the historical production on Kashmir had shifted to Punjab by the early twentieth century, therefore historical practices had ‘crystallized’ the ideas of viewing Kashmir’s past through its people along particular religious communities. In comparison to earlier narratives that saw themselves as continuations of a longer narrative tradition, and more importantly connected to the past, the nineteenth and twentieth century narratives moved outside the ‘indigenous’ tradition of history-writing and idea of Kashmir.

The fourth chapter discusses the return of Sanskrit to the centre-stage during the British colonial intervention and orientalist knowledge production and exploration of Indologists into classical past of Kashmir. Within these shifts, Zutshi argues that the various avatars of Rajatarangini ‘deracinated’ texts from their regional contexts so that Kashmir’s Sanskrit tradition was asserted to be the Hindu past of India and the Persian literati increasingly reaffirmed Kashmir as a sacred space for the ‘Muslims’. These texts came to be viewed either as the Hindu or the Muslim texts.

In chapter five, she attempts to conceptualise ‘vernacularity’ of the cosmopolitan languages, therefore making Kashmir simultaneously the cosmopolis and the local. The coming together of cosmopolitan-vernacular such as Persian and Kashmiri through the sacred routes around the Sufi shrines and networks in Zutshi’s assessment have allowed ‘interfertilisation’ between textual and oral historical narratives. These practices thus not only linked the physical landscape but also the political, the institutional (shrines) and the readership (consumer) into a ‘circular movement’ giving rise to Kashmiri ‘narrative public’. Thus, the space was sustained by transmission of ideas, stories and knowledge through intercession of different individuals, in oral and written sources, in different languages and genres. 

Finally in the last chapter, Zutshi turns to the Urdu and English press and publishing and debates and discussions within these arenas, to explore the ways and lines along which Kashmiri’s past is rethought and redefined. She argues that in the contemporary Kashmir, while the academic histories and the press has generated a deeply polarised discourse about Kashmir as a ‘territory’ rather than as ‘place’, it is the ‘alternate publics’ that is increasingly gaining significance over the ‘narrative public’. The author suggests an ethical obligation on historians to keep in view the longer narrative traditions of the past because, in her analysis, reconciliation with a ‘myth’ labeled as ‘Hindu’ is regarded as problematic by a Muslim population (p.311).   

Zutshi historicises continuity, redefinitions and repositioning of Kashmir in the historical tradition of Kashmir. This tradition begins with a sacred route until the present, which in her scheme is disrupted after the ‘partition’ and ‘misrule’ that has impacted the ‘heterogeneity’ of the contemporary ‘narrative publics’ in Kashmir. In her entire oeuvre Zutshi’s analysis and discussion is distinctly sharpened along either/or formulation. The analysis lacks deeper engagement focusing on transitions from Sanskrit to Persian textual traditions and from narrative publics to alternate publics. Instead, the reader is led briefly into the origin myth and into the land quite mysteriously onto long tradition of Persian hospices and political regimes until the present. These sharp divisions remain consequential to the reader throughout. Zutshi’s longue duree approach including ethnographic survey remains almost impressionist, and on surface, especially in discussing the emergence of alternate public, the transition from narrative to alternate publics and the constitution of alternate public. Indeed, the entire book advances in a chronological order from sixteenth century to the present to corroborate religiosity and sacrosanctity of the idea of Kashmir through textual, oral and performative narratives. As argued by Fred Dallmayr, it is crucial to reiterate the implications of employing sacred and profane as political categories. The sacrosanct and the religiosity are employed logically as categories to explain the battle over the past tradition, and to explain the territorial conflict in the present times. This deterministic episteme using ‘sacred space’ and the ‘sacredness of the place’ (Kashmir) as tropes to endorse an idea of a place cultivated through the Hindu sages’ or the Sufi mystics’ intercession cannot possibilize an inclusive polity for posterity. That polity needs to move beyond Zutshis’s either/or formulation, which prioritizes the ‘sacred’ category and therefore endorses systemic neglect of ontological enquiry of Jaldobhava historically. It further obscures formulation of epistemic categories to retrieve, what Hayden White calls, ‘ethico-political’ reflections on Historical Studies. Nevertheless, with certain limitations, the book with its specific relevance to Kashmir over three major temporal shifts before, after and during colonial modernity makes it significant for postcolonial theorists and practitioners studying historical traditions in South Asia.


(Gowhar Yaqoob is a Srinagar-based independent researcher. She was formerly a Fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study Shimla (2015-2017). Her research largely focuses on medieval and early modern literary cultures in Kashmir.)