A riveting chronicle of Kashmir’s modern history

Lalit Gupta
The ‘Kashmir Issue’ has drawn the attention of researchers, scholars, and writers. In the last seven decades, piles of books by outsiders as well as local authors on the happenings in the ‘Valley’ have filled up libraries and public and private collections.
While the gaggle of outsiders: including prejudiced intellectuals, hyperactive academicians, highbrowed scholars, diehard ideologues of the right or left hue and disguised agents of the state have incessantly dished out catchy titles. The local accounts mostly in Urdu, English, and sparsely in Hindi comprise the bulk of so-called eyewitness versions by the mainstream politicians, governors, army commanders, bureaucrats, and a few men of letters. The other category is that of contemporary histories and political commentaries by professors in various departments of the Universities of Jammu or Kashmir.
Khalid Bashir’s book titled ‘Kashmir: Looking back in Time – Politics, Culture, History’ (Atlantic, 2021), is one such latest addition in the growing corpus on Kashmir. Penned by the son of the soil, Khalid Bashir, a recognized researcher who has already won accolades in academic circles for his previous two books – “Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative” (SAGE, 2017) and “Kashmir: A Walk Through History” (Gulshan, 2018).
What distinguishes the book under review is its manner of catching the mood and scene of the events, the high watermark of political and cultural developments in Kashmir from the early decades of the 20th Century with help of unwritten and unspoken archival literature, along with published works, travelogues, Urdu newspapers from Lahore, Srinagar, and Jammu, and oral histories/interviews of the senior citizens.
The chronological sequencing put forth in the light of actual quotes from old files and records unfolds like pages of a diary thus generating a revelatory effect upon the readers and help them to arrive at an informed perspective without any bias or slant.
The three major sections of the book viz., Politics, Culture, and History are further divided into sub-chapters with apt headings. The section on ‘Politics’, divided into sub-sections: Muslim Conference to National Conference; A loyal Rebel; The Plebiscite Ruse; and A Letter to New York—analyzes “how Sheikh Abdullah, the Lion of Kashmir, reneged from some of his publically declared cherished ideals, like building and nurturing of Muslim Conference and then dissolving it, fighting all out against the autocratic ruler, and later ending up in taking the oath of allegiance to him and his progeny; and inspiring and patronizing a well, organized struggle for plebiscite in Kashmir and winding it up to take oath as the Chief Minister of the State—a far lower position in power and esteem, when he was removed and arrested as Prime Minister in 1953”.
The section on Culture divided into sub-sections such as Tale of Mammoth Loss; The Celluloid Years; Kashmir to Ka’ba; Changing Place names; Story of an Uptown Quarter; Of Prices and Fairs; Romance and Rumors–“takes the reader through the rich and varied cultural settings of the land and the huge loss it suffered in terms of its valuable inheritance”. its subsection ‘Tale of Mehmud’ exposes ‘contemporary crises’ and how inefficient bureaucracy, complicit curators, archaeologists, wily outsiders, and corrupt political leadership have been hand in glove in robbing the Valley of the valuable artifacts. The Celluloid Years tells the ‘story of the beginning of the colorful journey of cinema in Kashmir. The princely state’s own censor board and moral policing, giving way to a post-Partition atmosphere in which film stars visited Srinagar cinema to rousing receptions. When shot-in-Kashmir films opened up Valley’s pristine beauty to audiences across the nation and resulted in a tourist boom. The film stars having acquired iconic stature not only fired the imagination of young but also their fashions and styles. The sub-section goes on to tell how the once vibrant cinema culture after the dictates of the militants has vanished into the air.
The sub-section titled Kashmir to Ka’ba is a vivid account of the arduous journey undertaken by the devout to perform Haj from Kashmir in the 1930s-40s. The ‘Changing Place names’, while drawing attention to today’s practice of changing names, tells how in the past also such change in place names was affected in Kashmir whenever a political regime wanted to stamp its presence. It simply indulged in inscribing old place names with new names.
The Story of an Uptown Quarter talks about Srinagar being is one of the oldest cities. It then focuses on ‘the growth and transformation of the once sleepy village of Sonawar to the favorite abode of rulers, bureaucrats, and foreign tourists’.
The sub-section Of Prices and Fares takes the reader through the absorbing details of prices and fares when essential commodities’ cost was abysmally low. ‘Romance with Rumors’ speaks of peoples’ penchant for gossip and how wily politicians used rumor-mongering as a political tool.
The Section on History, with its chapters; Sir Mohammad Iqbal: The Untold Story; The Temple agitation; Through the Dogra rule; A Bowl of History and Dateline Kashmir gives an account of the important developments that took place in Kashmir during 1846-1947 (which the reviewer prefers to name Dogra Century). Labeling it ‘as one of the most oppressive periods of Kashmir History’, the author Khalid Bashir seems to be simply echoing the fashionable and politically correct expression that portrays all outsiders, who ruled after the fall of the local Chak dynasty, barring Mughals, as inhuman and ‘zalim’.
Sir Mohammad Iqbal: The Untold story, tells about the role of Lahore based poet Allama Iqbal, as a guardian philosopher of the political awakening of Kashmiris in the 1930s and how in later years he was subjected to allegations and how his stature and station dwindled in his own community.
The Temple Agitation traces the trajectory of the agitation by minority Pandit community after the government ordered the takeover of the temples in Srinagar and “how it pushed the city into turmoil for weeks, until a settlement was reached between the warring sections”. Through the Dogra Rule, narrates the masala stories ‘about the working of government, and the psyche of its administrative elite’. It also talks about ‘the superstitious ruler, a Rasputin Guru, an embarrassed Maharaja, collaborative Moulavis, passport seeking beggars, a snooping Resident’ et al.
The Bowl of History is about the hill station of Gulmarg which became important during Dogra Period for being the salubrious site where a number of important laws and legislations were penned by the ruling elites. It also lists high and mighty who enjoying royal hospitality indulged in sports and merry-making at the famous bowl-like resort.
Dateline Kashmir traces the birth and growth of print media in Kashmir. The Appendixes carry three documents carrying correspondence between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah with Iranian President on the issue of the convening of Constituent Assembly in Jammu and Kashmir and the letter of Maharaja Hari Singh to the Presidents of India about his bitterness about the betrayal of the forces at the helm of affairs in the pre and post Partition days.
Khalid Bashir’s latest book, an absorbing and interesting read while breaking many myths wades into the labyrinth of data successfully throws light on grey areas of Kashmir’s contemporary history.