The birth of Central Asian Studies in KU

Dr K N Pandita
The Communist Party of India (CPI) played a prominent role in the freedom movement of Kashmir led by the National Conference under the leadership of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah. The Communist movement had attracted the attention of almost all colonised people in the Asian Sub-Continent after the end of World War II. A new social, political and economic order was in the offing under the Marxist-Leninist ideology which propounded the concept of common ownership of the means of production and economic equality among the citizens.
In 1938-39, Sheikh Abdullah fared goodbye to the Muslim Conference, and laid the foundation of the National Conference. The reason for his departure from the Muslim Conference, which also pursued the agenda of freedom of J&K from autocratic rule, was, by and large, the Jammu region-centric ethos of Jammu Muslim leadership of the Muslim Conference of that day. This parochial stance was not acceptable to him because it did not cater to the interests of the vast agrarian and labour class of the three regions of the State. The peasantry that formed the backbone of the economy would not receive justice under the dispensation of the Muslim Conference, the Sheikh was convinced.
Interestingly, the CPI also based its entire political, economic and social philosophy on the welfare and amelioration of the toiling masses. The Punjab branch of CPI owned the cause of the NC and Sheikh Sahib was much impressed by their dedication to the great human cause.
Simultaneously, Sheikh Sahib came into contact with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the most outstanding ideologue and leader of the Indian National Congress. In a chance meeting at the Lahore railway station, while Nehru was on his way to NWFP on the invitation of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (alias Frontier Gandhi), he suggested Sheikh Sahib accompany him to Peshawar. The over-imposing rally of the Khudai Khidmatgar volunteers (also called Red Shirts), the enthusiasm and the loyalty of the huge Pathan population of the NWFP towards their leader, instilled great hope and a unique vision in Sheikh Sahib. He ruminated that this spirit could also become the driving force for the poor and famished people of his State.
Nehru’s lifelong friendship and support to Sheikh Sahib in his great struggle for the freedom of his compatriots from autocratic rule and the vision of the masses of people of the State becoming the architects of their destiny was the primordial element that made the Kashmir leader’s dream a reality in 1947.
This will help understand the reason why the white plough on a red background with three white strips became the emblem of NC. Years before the State ousted autocracy and wooed secular democracy, the NC had drawn the manifesto for it which ultimately became the base for the new J&K Constitution. The fact of the matter is that the celebrated document called Naya Kashmir Manifesto was to a large extent a copy of the Constitution of the Soviet Central Asian State of Uzbekistan. Although proposed by BPL Bedi, originally from Lahore but based in London and an active member of the British Socialist group, the draft of the Naya Kashmir Manifesto was scripted by a Kashmiri Pandit who had undertaken the mission of popularising the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the Fabian socialism of Nehru among the senior echelon of the NC as well as its dedicated cadres. Thus was founded the progressive group in NC of which GM Sadiq became the outstanding leader late on.
For Sheikh Sahib, the acclamation of socialist ideology by the NC stemmed from his keen interest in how the Muslim dominated states of Central Asia had come out of medieval backwardness and moved towards modernity and its enlightening features. Indeed, when we bring to mind the tyranny and oppression of the Central Asian people in the Khanates of Bokhara and Kokand, and also take the jadidiyat (modernism) movement into account, we can infer without hesitation that it must have enamoured Sheikh Sahib as the module suiting his people the best. But the vision could not be realised without the input from the intellectual segment. How deeply he must have pondered over the thesis in seclusion is anybody’s guess? One can imagine that he must have opened up to Nehru in his private meetings with him because in India, there was no leader more informed on what was going on in Central Asia under the Soviet power.
We are told that in 1954 Nehru visited Central Asia on an official invitation from the Soviet government. In Uzbekistan, he evinced a keen interest in visiting the famous structures of the Timurid period. Among other monuments, he was taken to the Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand. In the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. It is considered a masterpiece of the Timurid Renaissance. By the mid-20th century, only a grandiose ruin of it still survived, Nehru expressed his disappointment on seeing this unique masterpiece of architecture reduced to ruins and neglect. The Soviet authorities felt embarrassed as well as surprised that Nehru showed deep interest in Timurid architecture. In his travelogue, My Tajik Friends I wrote that when I visited Bibi Khanum in 1982, I saw the architects and engineers busy repairing and renovating the masterpiece. I was told by the engineer-in-charge the story of Nehru’s visit that after the incident the Soviet government had allotted a good annual budget for the repair and renovation of this and other monuments.
The Vision
In 1975 Sheikh Sahib began his second stint as the Chief Minister of the State. It was a summer day. Professor N N Raina, the then HoD of Physic received a call from the then Vice-Chancellor Prof Rais Ahmad. He told him to be ready to accompany him and Sheikh Sahib for a visit to Gulmarg. In the secluded bungalow at the top of Gulmarg where the former ruler used to entertain his guests and wherefrom the snow-clad peak of Kanchanchanga, the second-highest peak of the Himalayas can be seen in great panorama, the three persons sat down. Sheikh Sahib is said to have pointed his finger at the K2 and told Prof Raina that beyond that peak lay the land of his ideological dream. With this, he slowly and systematically explained to his two listeners his dream of developing the State along the parameters employed by the Central Asian Republics. Then Professor Raina chalked out the outline of an institution that could ultimately become the hub of reviving our ancient history of relations with Central Asia and also lay out the roadmap for connectivity and collaboration with that unique part of the Islamic world. The greatest attraction for Sheikh Sahib was discerned in the manner in which the Central Asian Muslim society, while retaining the pristine Islamic civilizational values, had stepped out of mediaeval backwardness, ignorance and obstinacy into modern enlightenment and the world of science and technology. This was no small a vision and there was no better an exponent of the vision than Professor N N Raina, one of the most celebrated intellectuals of modern Kashmir. Turning to Vice-Chancellor Rais Ahmad, Sheikh Sahib said, ” Rais Sahib, now this is your baby.”
A proposal for a multi-discipline centre went to the UGC. It was readily accepted. Vice-Chancellor Rais Ahmad and Prof Raina drew the blueprint together. Disciplines were identified, faculties were advertised and in the autumn of 1976, the Centre of Central Asian Studies was formally inaugurated.
History, Pol Science, International Relations, Languages (Farsi, Uzbek, Mongolian, Sanskrit, Pali), Buddhist Studies, Tasawwuf, Philosophy, philology, Geography, Historical Geography, and Exegesis, were the fields brought under purview. Some of the teaching positions were advertised and filled in due course of time. Prof Maqbul Ahmad, the retired Head of the Department of Arabic in AMU and a close friend of Vice-Chancellor Rais Ahmad, was appointed as the Director of the Centre. Secretarial staff, furniture, furnishing, and other logistic requirement were provided.
The most remarkable addition to the Centre was a relatively small Central Asian Museum, an extension in which Sheikh Sahib took a personal interest. An adequate budget was provided and an expert hand was appointed as the Museum in-charge. Mr J L Bhan, a talented museum expert set up an attractive museum on the first floor of the Iqbal Library building.
Sheikh Sahib expressed a desire to visit the Central Asian Museum of the CCAS. But before doing so, he summoned Prof Maqbul Ahmad and Prof J L Bhan (in charge of the Museum) to come to the Toshakhana at Gupkar Road and meet him there. It was winter and Sheikh Sahib arrived dressed in meticulous Kashmiri Pheran and with a pashmina shawl wrapped over his head and shoulders. He sat inside the Toshakhana and ordered the in-charge to place on a large table before him all the artefacts related to Central Asia and preserved in Toshakhana. About 220 small and big rare artefacts were collected. Before these would be listed and formally handed over to the Director of CCAS, Sheikh Sahib fell into deep thought and then raising his head addressed the keeper as this, ” Yahan Neelam ka ek jug hai wuh mujhe Askardu ke ek delegation ne tohfe ke taur diya tha aur main ne Toshakhana men bhej diya tha.” The keeper searched for it and finally produced it before Sheikh Sahib who confirmed its originality. Tody the emerald jug is preserved in the museum. Sheikh Sahib left Toshakhana but only after all artefacts were properly handed over and taken over. These now embellish the CCAS Museum.
In the later part of 1976 research work by the enrolled students in the Centre was set afoot. All faculties could not be recruited in a short period. Students from the disciplines of history, political science, international relations, geography, sociology, languages and some more disciplines were admitted and assigned to the guides for M.Phil and later on for PhD.
What academic achievements have been made by the Centre during the last forty-six years is a long story which might be taken up by some researchers in good time. Suffice to say that the Centre opened an important pathway for the exchange of scholars and teachers between Kashmir and different Republics of Central Asia especially Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. I happened to be the first beneficiary of exchange protocol which came into force in 1982 when Prof. Muhammad Asimi, the President of Tajik Academy of Sciences paid his maiden visit to Kashmir and address the students and staff in the Kashmir University.
We and the entire Asian region are passing through a difficult period. Academic activities have been adversely affected by the pandemic. We are steadily recovering from it and hopefully, the trying times will be over soon. Brisk intellectual and academic interaction between Kashmir and the CARs is a big ambition for us. Once the conditions normalise, our academic community will highly appreciate and even emulate the vision and push for wriggling out of regress and seeking the path of progress as is done by the vast Muslim population of Central Asia.
(The author is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University)