Search Of A Future:
The Story Of Kashmir”
04 December, 2007
review: “In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir” By
Penguin/Viking; New Delhi 2007
few decades ago, an academic process began, which put much of the 19th
and early 20th century Western writings on the orient under close scrutiny.
Critics like Edward Said found in these writings a highly prejudiced
program of describing alien cultures in a bid to eventually control
them. Describing and defining the Other embodied a discourse through
which European culture also defined itself by attributing radically
opposite tendencies to the Other. The Other, obviously, exhibited irrational
as well as morally inferior characteristics. Control of such knowledge
production was to supplement total military and economic control by
the colonial powers of many parts of Asia and Africa.
of decolonization left awkward territorial constructions in its trail.
Boundaries were drawn through traditional bonds of community, societies
were ripped apart, and many communities were thrown into new systems
of hierarchy in this melee. India and Pakistan were imposed on a subcontinent
full of diverse aspirations for freedom and self-rule. As Nehru cleverly
called his invention “The Discovery of India”, Jinnah, without
thinking much about the geographic and cultural diversity of the Muslims
in the subcontinent, grafted the two parts of his ‘Land of the
Pure’ farthest from its most vehement votaries, and also from
each other. India chose to write its history in a teleological form
of progress and interruptions; one which naturally had to culminate
in the formation of the present-day India; a point where the history
itself would stop. Pakistan remained torn in its identity, as in its
geography: while it saw its roots in the subcontinent, it kept looking
westward to forge a larger Islamic identity. Either way, its history
only started in 1947. India popularized an organic story of how it was
a body, and Kashmir was its head (Many in India readily agreed, unfortunately
because of the general cartographic bias of thinking north as up—glancing
at the map upside down will put Kashmir in its proper place: Crushed
under India’s foot.) Pakistan, on the other hand, first put premium
on Kashmir’s rivers and then its people; it saw Kashmir as its
a place with more plausible claims to unique historical experiences
and more or less a geographical continuity over ages, than both India
and Pakistan, did not have to do much to imagine itself as a nation.
True, it insisted that people of Jammu and Ladakh be part of that nation.
But unlike India, which used aggressive power to force a union on the
diverse peoples of the subcontinent, Kashmir only wished to achieve
it. Its dream of independence, however, was not necessarily hinged to
the continuity of that union.
have passed since India and Pakistan snuffed out the best chances for
the realization of an independent democratic Kashmir. Without any feeling
of remorse, or putting the blame on their own houses, India and Pakistan
are putting the entire burden of the sub-continental peace on the bruised
Kashmiri shoulders. Kashmiris can formalize peace between the two giant
colonial remnants by giving up their own ‘ambivalent’ aspirations
to independence. They must learn the language of their conquerors. Or
at least this is what David Devadas is suggesting in his book “In
Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir”.
Even as we
celebrate the thirtieth year of Said’s canonical work, Devadas,
reminiscent of laid-back colonial travelers of yore, has passed his
casual judgment on all Kashmiris: They are sly, ambivalent, dissembling,
cruel, irresponsible, and full of histrionics (and, yet, they are manipulated
by their own leaders). They have a false ‘sense of superiority
that emerges from a feeling of insecurity’, and possess ‘a
hateful contempt-ridden past’. Only Kashmiris themselves, and
no one but Kashmiris, are to be blamed for their miseries. He even goes
on to say that Kashmiris are hugely caste-conscious. The last one sounds
especially funny for he comes from a country where still entire villages
of Dalits are burnt down, and their women are gang-raped by the upper
castes; and where the upper castes believe violently that they alone
have all claims to merit. Since he is positing Kashmir’s ‘separatism’
against India’s ‘inclusiveness’, Said would have instantly
understood from Devadas’ maneuvers that he is assigning these
negative values to Kashmiris to fashion a positive image of India as
honest, clear, responsible, inclusive and non-melodramatic. Devadas,
without pausing to tell us about India’s attitude in Kashmir,
calls Kashmiri attitude ‘imperial and dominating’!
of a Future is a (though the book’s subtitle suggests that it
is “the”) story of Kashmir’s political history from
1931 up to 2006. It is well-paced, and manages to hold together. That
all his respondents seem to tell him the same seamless story, for he
cross checks no ones account with other historical material, raises
early fears of the run-away journalist taking over a more restrained
historian in him. The fears are proved right. The book claims to be
written in a novelistic style, but Devadas seems to have missed the
most essential point about the art of the novel: A novel doesn’t
ossify the meaning of an action or an event but opens possibilities
for their multiple interpretations. The book is based on a thin ethnography,
building on interviews of former militants, and leading politicians
both in India and in Kashmir. Since his canvas is spatio-temporally
very large, it ignores the fine-grained interpretative explorations
of the rich content of everyday Kashmiri life. Instead of thinking of
culture as a context in which social events, behavior, institutions
and processes can be intelligibly described, he is adamant on seeing
the ‘common-behavior patterns’ of Kashmiris as their culture.
Ergo, he finds, from his interviews with these former militants and
leading politicians, that the common-behavior pattern of all Kashmiris
is characterized by venality and narrow self-interests.
blinkered stencil, or template, as Devadas prefers, Kashmiris don’t
pass his test of morality or potential for selfless collective action.
Speaking to former militants can sometimes give you that impression.
For him, Kashmiris, while seeking independence, are only playing histrionics
to squeeze more resources out of both India and Pakistan. The demand
for the right to self-determination is ‘ambivalent’. Kashmiris
are not clear in what they want. In any case, it would not matter to
him even if they did know, for the right to self-determination is morally
untenable for him in a postmodern age. He attributes the start of uprising
in 1989 to trans-border Islamic winds, individual suffering of polling
agents during 1987 assembly elections, and a week-long screening of
the film ‘Lion of the Desert’ at a Srinagar talkie. For
him, Kashmiri militants felt like Bombay cinema heroes, and that is
how they wanted to feel. Since the book’s characterization of
militancy is based on the interview of a few former militants, Karl
Popper would have jumped up, and objected to this inductivist farce.
Vast generalizations about ‘Kashmiri character’ are not
only phony, but are frequently sneaked into the text to gloss over his
lack of proper explanation. He accepts fables of how Kashmiris used
guile to escape physical pain in the past to paint their character,
but his own descriptions of Kashmiris’ undergoing inhuman torture
in India’s interrogation cells are allowed to say nothing about
the same character.
despite his stated desire not to write a quickie, overlooks major historical
inaccuracies in his account. Only a few examples: The elephant story
that Kalhana attributed to Mihiragula (6th century), Devadas attributes
to the Mughal Empress Nurjahan (16th century). He insists that the last
Kashmiri king was Sahadeva who decamped in 1320 in the face of a Mongol
invasion. In this, he trusts only the Kashmiri Hindu narrative. That
most Kashmiris believe the last Kashmiri king was Yusuf Shah Chak, whose
poet-queen Habba Khatun’s songs still ring in Kashmiri homes,
is conveniently ignored. His eagerness to indict Muslims of Kashmir,
to fit the stereotype he has forged for them, pushes him to make misplaced
accusations, like: Muslims heaved insults on Hindus by calling them
‘Bhattas’ behind their back. T N Madan, in his ethnographic
work on Kashmiri Hindus, points out that ‘Pandits refer to themselves,
and are referred to by other Kashmiri-speaking people, as the Bhatta.
The word is of Sanskrit origin and means a learned person.’ Or,
for that matter, Dar’s a common Muslim and Hindu surname, and
the word ‘Dar’ is not pejoratively used against Hindus,
as Devadas suggests. What historian Jerome Bruner once said looks apt
here: How much are we to bend the paradigmatic truth to fit the believability
of the narrative mode? Especially when Devadas claims that ‘every
bit of the book is fact’.
characterizations. In his account, Abdullah’s ‘bile never
takes long to rise’; while a ‘solicitous Nehru’ gets
concerned if Abdullah has toilet paper in the prison to which he has
sent him. His book is peopled by a wily Masoodi, a loutish Zargar, a
radiant Guga, an effeminate Yasin, a scheming Geelani, and many Pakistani
spooks. But Indira is invincible. Bakshi becomes Budshah sani—Great
King II, (first being Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin). His two purported main
characters, Aftab and Ali Sheikh, keep leaping out of the text, and
soon become an appendage to the main story. Whenever they come in, their
extraordinary lives are turned into a vignette for entire Kashmir’s
‘frustration’ and ‘depravity’.
a familiar narrative trope, Devadas uses terms like ‘smoldering
Id rage’, ‘smelting Islamic fervor’, etc. to describe
the mood of Muslim peasants agitating against their oppressive Hindu
overlords. But when Hindus attack Muslims it passes of innocently in
his text, without any polemic. In a similar vein, when a militant kills
an innocent civilian, the entire Kashmiri character, along with its
history, is put to trial; but when Indian troops kill people it is quietly
swept away as individual aberration. The politics of partial and farcical
assigning of culpability is, thus, revealed quite openly in the pages
of his book.
of tropes, Devadas’ book does not move away from the apocryphal
rhetoric of foreign powers using Kashmir against India. This narrative
strategy is used to evoke sympathy for India’s state-building
project, even if it romps oppressively over the demands of independence
of other politically-conscious communities, like the Kashmiris or the
Nagas. This brings us to an ironic realization of how post-colonial
academic and political world unwittingly creates the illusion that decolonization
is complete. It makes easy for India, a former colony, to label Kashmiris,
still occupied, agents of the ex-colonial powers. Their human rights
get a short-shrift for no international guarantors dare speak for them.
As while India bares its teeth to the colonized nationalities in its
own backyard, it cries foul in front of the erstwhile colonial powers.
the burden of safety of India’s 160 million Muslims on Kashmiri
Muslims. This is not the first time, and he is not alone in this. Indian
analysts like Kanti Bajpai, Sumit Ganguly, and Ashutosh Varshney, too,
speak of an impending apocalypse for Indian Muslims if Kashmir were
to separate. Along with its much touted secularism, Kashmir is also
the hinge on which India’s federalism rests. Balkanization is
invoked in response to a demand for the right to self-determination.
One needs to seriously question the legitimacy of this discourse. If
the safety of Indian Muslims rests on which way Kashmir goes, then it
is bad news for secularism. And Muslims must be told how precariously
their lives hang in balance in India.
book is full of bitterness. In his black and white world, he comes to
loath Kashmiris, and isn’t very subtle about it. After a ‘detailed
research conducted over the past nine years’, what dawns on him,
about a people ‘who converted to Mir Ali’s syncretistic
Islam’ six centuries ago, is that they can never be happy, because
contentment has always eluded them. Devadas is not willing to go to
the root itself: question the legitimacy of Indian rule in Kashmir.
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