Three responses to Khalid Bashir’s Book

Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s new book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind The Narrative has created ripples in Kashmir’s literary and political circles since its release in Srinagar in August. The book has evinced a robust response from a wide variety of readers in Kashmir, which include journalists, history buffs and scholars. The book is hot on controversy as the subject matter deals with one of the most debated topics of our times; the history of Kashmir.

On Saturday 24 November, the book was subject of discussion at a book-discussion event organized by Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies (KCSDS). The discussion was lively and warm. Wande Magazine reproduces here the responses to the book by three prominent Kashmiri journalists.

‘Khalid Bashir’s book is a corrective to history that has been handed down to us’ – Hilal Mir, editor with Greater Kashmir

I am handicapped both by the knowledge of history and literature. But I will share some of my experiences, which I have had as a journalist and also as a student in a primarily Pandit school called National High School, which might enlighten this already enlightening book. I am also reminded of one religious preacher Abdul Rashid Bhat Tahiri from Batamaloo. I think he was tortured at the age of 71 by Border Security Force (BSF). He once told us that the Afghan governor Kakar Khan once asked Kashmiri Pandits that they should celebrate Herath in July. He told them that you claim that during Herath, rain and snowfall occurs; let us see if snow falls in July. He told us that Kashmiri Muslims said that it snowed in July also. I think he wanted to convey through this how we have internalized this narrative, the myth that Khalid Bashir talks about. We have internalized this narrative in many ways.

I will give my own example. Once we were at a friend’s party in New Delhi. Our Bengali friend had invited us for a New Year party. NDTV’s Defence Spokesman Sudhiranjan Sen was also there. He got drunk and started to say that ‘you Muslims should be deported to Pakistan or rather be killed, which would be more preferable.’ I got angry and in a fit of rage, I also told him that you have been snake charmers in history. I told him we (Kashmir) have a recorded history of 5000 years. I wasn’t aware of myself, that this 5000 year old history which I so proudly brandished at that time is distorted in it’s own way. It’s because we have internalized this so much.

Barring Akhtar Mohiuddin’s book The Modern Approach to Kashmir History or these diffused memories, which Tahiri sahab narrated in his sermon, I don’t think there have been any serious efforts so far to counter this narrative in such a comprehensive way, especially when this narrative has seamlessly travelled into the present. We are suffering this narrative. For example, Ashok Pandit or any other Pandit panelists are also actually penning down this narrative on a daily basis in every TV studio. They are actually constructing a new historiography in TV studios, mixing fact with fiction, lies, deceit and misrepresentations. The only aim of this narrative, which has travelled from Kalhana in different forms to present, is to delegitimize the majority community’s political aspirations. I think the primary lesson to be drawn from this book is how to fight this narrative that has been built on the past history of Kashmir, whether that history was real or imaginary. I think Khalid Bashir’s book is an important corrective to history, which has been handed down to us from the past several generations. More than rewriting of history or presenting alternative history, I think it’s also a deeply political book because it challenges the hegemonic discourse which while craving freedoms for a miniscule minority, while penning down in detail their real or imagined persecution, denies the same freedoms to the 95% of the majority. In this sense, the book is very important for its political aspect.

There are some very illuminating pages in the book, which I personally find very enlightening. For example, the manner in which the investigations into post-1931 revolt has been written. We have similar probes today also, where everything is in the hands of the government. For example, the probe into 1931 killings appears very similar to the probes into Bijbehara massacre or other such massacres of recent times. In fact, from Khalid Bashir’s book I came to know that two persons had been injured in Nawab Bazar area, where I hail from, in 1931. One of them happened to be my great grandfather. He had been injured in the firing and from what I have heard from my aunt; he died three months later because of his wounds. This was a very illuminating aspect of the book.

The other fact borne out of the reading of Khalid Bashir’s book is the fairness towards minority community through out history shown by the majority community - while they (Muslims) might be saying Kanne wasse poas, batte banne doas but at the same time they have acknowledged the contribution of Pandits towards education and other fields. Muslims showed fairness, without being informed of the power-relationship; the fact that Pandits were in education or they were dominating every other field was informed by power, because Muslims couldn’t have been teachers in those places. But contrary to this and we still find it till today is what Pandits by and large perceive about Muslims is deeply informed by almost like a fascist descent into politics, which many Pandits have embraced.

For example, once as a reporter in Greater Kashmir, I went to Purkhoo Camp in Jammu. I did a full-page story on the plight of Pandits there. Barely after an hour, some Kashmiri Pandits belonging to Panun Kashmir came and organized a small procession. I think they were hardly six or seven people. Most of the Pandits were reluctant to join the procession. I could see that. And when they spoke to me, I could see that the narrative was the same like you drove us out etc. But when I kept on speaking and they opened up a bit, then you could find that they also felt exploited at the hands of Panun Kashmir, they actually said this. In fact one old man told me that – ya la ilaha illa mohammad rasullah agar hai asse winkes wuh lachh ropyi diihen, aes chalav kun ti, maklaav yi tafreekai (Swearing by the Kalima, if the government gives us 20 Lakhs we would go anywhere and end this misery). These were his words, I have written them. The point I want to make is, that by writing this book and already some critiques have started pouring in, we should not essentialize the entire Pandit community like that. The entire community is not like that. There were Pandit teachers in our school, who would scold a Muslim boy in front of the whole class and tell other Pandit boy that – Yi kinni pagah cholle, yi kinni pagah masala, cze kyah karakh? (This boy will sell lentil-wrap tomorrow on the roads, what will you do). But there were also great Pandit teachers who were above these prejudices.

One other good take away of the book is that the most detailed and exhaustive chapters of the book are named Power, Blood and Agitation. I think they have been written in a different context. But aren’t these three words still defining our lives: power, blood and agitation. I think they define our world quite comprehensively.

Some of the questions that came to my mind while reading the book are that history is not supposed to be a linear thing, for example what we say in defense of Sikandar Butshikan. In shop front discussions, people also call him by the name Butshikan. We have internalized it so much. At the same time, while reading the book, I came to know that one of his commanders was Suha Batta who had converted and he is said to be the primary scourge for Hindus, he killed may Pandits. But can Sikandar escape blame, because Suha Batta was his commander? While we are trying to salvage Sikandar’s image, that he was not an idol breaker etc but can he escape blame for Pandit killings?

Similarly when we say that Kashmiri Pandits frequently went to Kabul, calling for replacement of one governor or the other because of his atrocities, doesn’t that imply that the Afghan governors were also very cruel towards them, the way they were towards the Muslims. These are some of the questions, which need to be answered.

Also, for example as recently as 1990, is it not true that the Pandits left and their properties were looted by people here, the looters may be thugs but it’s a fact that they were looted by people here and the entire Kashmiri nation was at the forefront of the movement at that time and it was our responsibility to safeguard their properties. My point is that our response should also not be communal, they have built a narrative, which is highly communal, and we are seeing its manifestations even today at TV studios, where they openly spew venom against Muslims but our response shouldn’t be like that; it should be more nuanced and informed.

‘Khalid Bashir’s book is a paradigm shift, which paves the way for looking at Kashmir’s 5,000-year-old written history in an unconventional manner’ – Gowhar Geelani, Journalist and Political Commentator

Mr. Khalid Bashir Ahmad deserves accolades for his scholarly courage to challenge even the most celebrated chroniclers and versifiers of Kashmir whose writings have attained the status of a scripture that is not to be questioned. The author raises serious questions marks on the widely known narrative, the Rajatarangani, compiled by Kalhana. He describes Rajatarangani as “sometimes strikingly precise but generally incredibly fictional”. In his view Kalhana’s Rajatarangani is a mix of fiction and history. Well, this is a claim that has created ripples and stirred up the political hornet’s nest in and outside Kashmir.

Ahmad’s book is a deeply political book in which he has taken a strong position against the dominant narrative. His account has set a new precedent. His writing is sort of a paradigm shift, which paves the way for looking at Kashmir’s 5,000-year-old written history in an unconventional manner.

The author is neither sentimental nor naïve. In his scholarly pursuit, he has relied on multiple sources to ferret out many a fact. By and large, he has been successful in critically examining various sources, interpretations and analysis of the past events. The author is neither reckless with language nor careless with attributions.

The very fact that his work has been accepted and published by prestigious SAGE and listed as an “academic work” should mean a lot to him as a writer. It says a lot about the hard yards that the author has put in with an academic bent of mind to make a meaningful contribution to Kashmir’s chronicles and narratives. His book, after all, chronicles Kashmir’s wretched past, the days of the cruelest regimes in human history.

That said, one book is never enough to fully record or understand the history correctly. Context and historicity are critically important. It will perhaps take many more exhaustive books written with scholarly acumen and analytical sweep to debate the events of the past dispassionately. For a full-scale examination of Kashmir’s past we need to think radically and intellectually, and act sensibly. Dealing with sensitive topics such as Kashmiri Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim narrative, communal harmony or communal tensions require literary sensibility and sensitivity.

There are passages in his book where a reader gets an impression that the author is exposing the privileged class, which has exploited the Kashmiri masses during the Dogra, Sikh, Mughal and other foreign rules, but there is also an impression at some places where it appears a narrative that creates the Muslim-Hindu binary.

Khalid Bashir Ahmad claims that he has analyzed the Kashmiri Pandit community narrative in the light of historical material and dug out many fallacies by cross-referencing, as is done in widely accepted practices of historiography. He also claims to have sifted fact from fiction. However, author Chitralekha Zutshi in her review of Ahmad’s book, which was published in Scroll.in, argues that Ahmad has exposed his own biases in an attempt to expose myths behind Kashmir’s history. On his part, the author in an interview with Haroon Mirani of Greater Kashmir claims that people have read a lot of fiction on Kashmir and it was about time to read “real history”. Here Ahmad means his book is the real history. 

Now the question is whether Ahmad has written this book purely as a historian and scholar or also as a Kashmiri Muslim, who wishes to prove Kashmiri Pandit or Kashmiri Hindu narrative wrong? 

The transformation of Kashmir from a Hindu to a Muslim society more than 600 years ago, as pointed out by the author, gave birth to a narrative according to which the Muslim rulers forcibly converted and evicted Hindus from Kashmir and destroyed their religious places, symbols and icons. The author opines that this narrative is a fairy-tale and actually almost based entirely on the observations of a chronicler, Jonaraja, who lived during the early years of Islam in the vale. The author writes that this narrative became the hallmark of a miniscule minority of Brahmans, who refused to convert to Islam, and continued playing a victim card.

It is perhaps here that the author needed to shift the debate away from the majoritarian discourse. A scholar transcends boundaries like religion, ethnicity, caste, colour and identity and rises above to tell a larger story for a wider impact.

The author, however, deserves praise for writing a powerful chapter titled Power. In this chapter he has a lot of power in his argument. Agitation, chapter six of the book, is an interesting read. With meticulous research, the author again visits the recent past to talk about the much-publicized interfaith marriage of Parmeshwari Handoo. After marrying Ghulam Rasool Kanth, Parmeshwari took the name Parveen Akhter. Relying on multiple sources, which include newspaper reports, FIRs, speeches and oral history the author talks about the 1967 Pandit agitation. He argues how one interfaith marriage was given a communal colour and wrongly linked with the larger India-Pakistan dispute by influential members and activists of the Pandit community and organizations like Kashmir Hindu Action Committee (KHAC). He quotes competing slogans like hum goli khayenge behan ko wapas layenge and akh niyakh behanji beyi dogwan, traahi Bagwaan trahi Bagwaan to highlight the fault lines. At certain places the author indulges in stereotyping of the entire community, like the case of a Pandit who visits Delhi as a shawl businessman and lies to a rich Sikh customer that he is jobless and persecuted in Kashmir by the majority community.

In chapters seven and eight titled Migration and Homeland respectively the author, in excellent detail, talks about the radical Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) Kashmir project, which is to “de-Islamize the ‘Hindu land’ and seat of Hindu culture and learning”, that is what Kashmir is for the RSS. He cites a relevant example of Balraj Madhok who was RSS’s first chief for its Kashmir chapter way back in 1944. The RSS believes that Muslim invaders Islamized Kashmir after the 13th century AD. With razor sharp precision the author warns about the RSS’s grand Kashmir project that aims to create another Palestine, here in Kashmir, by engineering a demographic change in the Muslim majority region.

He is more or less honest about the factors that led to controversial departures of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir in early 1990, soon after a popular anti-India rebellion broke out in 1989. 

Full credit goes to the author for his courage and scholarly chase. He has forced his readers to think critically, hence this debate. Mr. Ahmad’s latest book, spanning over 358 pages (excluding Glossary), has nine chapters; the ninth one titled Media is unnecessary, in my humble view.

Be that as it may, half the job is already done. Ahmad’s body of work has already instigated healthy debates, which is never bad.

‘Khalid Bashir has marked a protestant movement in Kashmir’s historiography’ – Riyaz Masroor, BBC Correspondent

It has been said that ideas of a society are the ideas of its ruling class and it has always been so, especially from past 800 years. Whatever material we have in terms of Persian history from Hassan Khuehami, Mullah Tahir Gani or others, just because those are Muslim narratives doesn’t mean they are necessarily the common man’s narratives or the narrative from the perspective of the sufferer.

Khalid Bashir’s book as compared to his previous books is a remarkable shift, not just in terms of scholarly research it gives us, or in the way it has been written or the language used but also the intent of the book. It’s a deeply political book. It’s actually an expression of a choked mind, which wants to express itself.

I think in Kashmir’s historiography, Khalid Bashir has marked a protestant movement. It’s the break from the tradition where we have been receiving truths and then acting upon them, believing the narrative unquestioningly. But as Hilal Mir rightly said, we have internalized it so much; the narrative of the people who were closer to power and whose only obsession was with Muslim’s; that Muslims should not grow and that Muslims should not get certain concessions. For example it has become fashionable to speak about secularism or communal harmony but when we talk of Jammu and Kashmir, it has three distinct regions. You go to Ladakh and praise Buddhism, you will be welcomed. You go to Jammu, the city of temples and talk about communal harmony, talk about Dogra rights and it will be alright but when it comes to Kashmir, which is 95% Muslim, when you talk of Muslim interest, when you want to defend the Muslim interest, you are branded as a fundamentalist, you are called communal. That is exactly what Khalid Bashir has tried to point out.

An author like Chitralekha Zutshi, who’s Languages of Belonging is a great book has also said in the Introduction to her book that Kashmir’s historiography has travelled two paths. One strand of historiography on Kashmir has been the effort to club Kashmir history with the grand national narrative of South Asian history or the Indus Valley civilizational history and another strand of the historiography has been to give voice to the regional aspiration, to give voice to the regional sub-national identities. But I was appalled when I read Chitralekha Zutshi’s review of the book and I think it’s a badge of honour for Khalid Bashir. It’s a great compliment from Chitralekha Zutshi when she declares in her review that Khalid Bashir’s book is a dangerous book, although she has not been able to substantiate her objection to the challenging of Kalhana that Khalid Bashir has done in his book.

Khalid Bashir very beautifully tells us that Kalhana writes about 4000 years of history and completes the project in one year, season to season and he proves it. Khalid Bashir’s challenging the narrative is actually a break from the past traditions where in we had always been unquestioningly receiving truths. This culture of interrogating or dissecting the receiving truths and the effort to give new meaning to the established facts is a new trend and I think Khalid Bashir has very boldly started this trend.

What makes Khalid Bashir’s book different and important is what this book does to the narrative? When an author like Chitralekha Zutshi dismisses this book as a polemic and a dangerous book - that is an acknowledgement. That means the book has questioned and challenged the centuries old beliefs and standpoints; that we have 5000-year-old history and it’s all true. In a very simple language Khalid Bashir tells us that a versifier who resorts to poetry and then tells us something about 4000 years and we start bragging that we have 5000 year old history, it’s really bold of him to attack the genre.

Another thing that Khalid Bashir has tried to demystify is the theory of Aborigines. That is very important because we always hear that Kashmiri Pandits are the actual aborigines and all the Kashmiri Muslims are converted-Pandits and that we are only 750 year old Muslims and we must be re-converted into Hinduism. Khalid Bashir has destroyed this aborigine theory by pointing out that even Kashmiri Muslims cannot counter this narrative and claim that they are the real aborigines. Khalid Bashir has placed Kashmir geographically at the crisscross of south Asian and Asian civilizations, and he says that nobody can claim that they are the real Aborigines.

I must also share a memory here. I have been schooled at Pandit owned Sanathan Dharam Pratap School, which was called SDPM. The entire faculty at the school was from the Pandit community. It was 1988, when suddenly the female Pandit teachers started wearing Saris and putting a large tika on their foreheads. As school kids, we wondered why this is happened. Our principal was one Mr. Matoo, who is the uncle of Amitabh Matoo. We tried to ask Mr. Matoo but he did not tell us. There was one another Pandit teacher Mr. Bangroo who used to teach mathematics. He told us that, “Didn’t you read the newspaper, Advani had recently paid a visit to Kashmir and asked their workers that he doesn’t see see any difference between a Pandit woman and a Muslim woman.”

This kind of thing has always been there. But we are at a very delicate stage and an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth approach should not be encouraged. This book may raise eyebrows. This book may upset certain sections. But for Kashmiris, this book is a must read because it goes back and forth. It takes us to the twelfth century when Kalahana wrote something and then it gets us back to the migration part of early nineties.

The Migration chapter is important. The author quotes Justice Tarkunde report in which Tarkunday, after paying a visit to Kashmir, says that the majority community, or the Kashmiri Muslims did not persecute Kashmiri Pandits, instead they helped them. He also quotes certain Pandits and they narrate that people did not harass them. This destroys the narrative that when the Pandits left Kashmir in 1990, there were bloodthirsty mobs encircling their homes and they were threatened. The chapter helps us into putting the 1990 migration into the context. It doesn’t mean that migration was not a bad episode, the migration should not have happened. At that time, Kashmiri Muslims themselves did not know what to do and what not to do. This contextualizing of the Pandit migration will go a long way. It’s a very important chapter.

Khalid Bashir’s book is not the first book and neither it will be the last in this genre but Khalid Bashir’s attempt has taught us that we should not hesitate in challenging or questioning the established and received truths.