History as Politics: On Writing Past

'Past can also thus become a mirror which – if we allow it to – reflects our own bias.'

Amit Kumar, a scholar of history, responds and critiques the method of writing about past employed by two Kashmir scholars in the essay The Politics of a Struggle. 

Wande Magazine has done a great job in publishing three back to back articles on the relation of Pakistan with the movement of self-determination/Azaadi in Jammu and Kashmir. All the three articles make different cases and have been well debated. But what I found problematic in all the three articles was the ever-present ‘presentist bias’. The authors it seems wrote about history without going back to the past. In all the three articles, the present was too much intrusive in the past thus making it more a reflection of our present concerns rather than studying it in its own context. I understand it’s impossible to separate the past and present, but to study the context is as important as to study our own biases. Past can also thus become a mirror which – if we allow it to – reflects our own bias. This presentist bias pushed the authors to pick up examples as they wished and made assertions without enough references and by just rolling few heads. I tried to read the most recent article and found it problematic on many counts. Below is my short response to the article – not much what was right or wrong but rather on the style of writing. So this response should not be seen as a political or ideological response but rather a critique of the way of writing and making assertions.

The article begins with this quote: ‘We are ghosts; we are martyrs. We don’t exist but we die. We make noise but our message is distorted! We think our politics is moral but they reduce us to criminals. And what about our sacrifices; they echo in writings no one reads. And who are we? We are creatures out of time. We live in past and in an imagined future. We are Muslims but disloyal to Islam. We are modernists but abhor modernity. We are somewhere in between. - Anonymous (a Kashmiri-Pakistan Supporter)’ This is a very interesting way to start a serious discussion. You can create an anonymous character and ascribe her anything you want. You need no reference. Just go on with your sloganeering (pretty poetic though). Of course, one is aware of the risks of life which many in valley face due to the ideas they hold on to. But does that mean we go to anonymity or we go on with our arguments using some other method and some other source? It’s not such a difficult choice given the seriousness of the discussion. It also prevents readers from raising the eyebrows at the start of the piece.

The authors write: “As for the princely states under British Paramountcy, they were given an option to join either of the newly formed nation-states.”

This is the first of the many factual errors that this paper has. Princely states did not have two but three options – the third option was to remain independent. Would not it be common sense to ask, that why Mountbatten urged Maharaja to join either of the two dominions rather than ordering/directing him? The authors would have done great to find how and why Chowdhary Hamidullah Khan (whom they quote in the paper), the acting president of All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference urged the Maharaja to declare Jammu and Kashmir independent immediately. Or for what reason Qaid e Azam declared on 17th June 1947 that, ‘Constitutionally and legally the Indian states will be independent and sovereign on the termination of paramountcy… it is open for them to join the Hindustan Constituent Assembly or the Pakistan Constituent assembly or decide to remain independent.’

At another place, the authors write: “In the popular imagination, at least on the Indian side, the map of Jammu and Kashmir has a particular shape and one needs to emphasize that the territory denoted by the map is a colonial construct. One also needs to emphasize that once we accept this territorial integrity then we have to accept the influence of British on Kashmir.”

Of course British had influence not only on Jammu and Kashmir but the whole of South Asia. But authors don’t bother to explain this influence. Do they mean the geographical entity – that was Jammu and Kashmir in pre-1947 period is shaped by British colonialism? Or do they mean the space constructed by British in the sense Lefebvre or Harvey uses it? On the first count, they are wrong – if they are assuming – that it was all top-down British hegemony. It would be great for the authors to revisit the 1840’s and 50’s to see the kind of negotiation and bargain that took place between Dogra rulers and British imperialists. Even on the second count i.e. to see Jammu and Kashmir more than a geographical space, British Empire was never completely successful. Jammu and Kashmir was not a plain canvas where anything could be sketched but it was a space inhabited by people – who resisted not only British but also Dogras in their dominance. Authors would have helped someone like me not to stretch my imagination too far, had they not just dropped a word but explained in simple terms what they meant by ‘influence of British on Kashmir.’ Anyways!

The authors go onto write that, “MC’s revival on Kashmir’s political scene also clubbed with Qaid-e-Azam’s Kashmir visit in 1944. The visit dented the popularity of Sheikh’s NC and to salvage its image; the party resorted to propaganda in the Jammu region (Abbas, 2001, Kashmakash, 189-190).” This was something I did not expect from the scholars of political history. How can one quote a Muslim Conference leader to prove that Qaid e Azam’s visit dented the popularity of Sheikh’s NC? It’s a common sense that MC leader will highlight the role of Qaid e Azam in Kashmir. It’s like quoting Chaudhary Ghulam Abbas to support his own argument. The assertion of the authors might be right. But could they find no alternative voice to say the same thing? Some British officer, Bazaz or even Puri could have brought some more credibility to their assertion!

On Naya Kashmir Manifesto, the authors explain it thus: “Fearing that support for MC and Muslim League was swelling, National Conference initiated one of the most progressive manifestos ever conceived called Naya Kashmir (though as some have suggested it was a replica of the Soviet doctrine). It was a populist measure taken by Abdullah and his men to undermine the politics of ML and MC.” I want to highlight two things here. First, since when did something progressive (that’s the adjective authors use for Naya Kashmir) become populist? Progressive ideas are seldom taken by everyone because they are too radical. But populism cuts across classes. So was Naya Kashmir happily taken by everyone as a gift or did it become a weapon for Kashmiri peasants particularly. Have authors mistakenly used populist for radical? I leave it for them to decide! And secondly, despite calling it progressive manifesto, the authors in just two lines portray the document as a crafty design to score petty political points and underscore the vision and sacrifice of those who dreamt of a new world – from Baba and Freda Bedi, Taseer, NN Raina, Com Dhanvantri and many other unnamed men and women who gave their suggestions while formulating their ideas on cooperatives, women education, health and literacy. Nice way to rubbish our own history!

Further onwards, the authors pose this question: “Did it (Naya Kashmir Manifesto) answer the question that political theory poses about the nature of the state? If it did so, the politics surrounding Kashmir’s accession to India dilutes the impact of such questions. Kashmiri Nationalism was merged into Indian Nationalism.” Either this paragraph is too confusing or I am too dumb to grasp it. But let me try to make sense of it. This paragraph is like A=B, and B=C, so C=A. So authors ask, did Naya Kashmir talk of modern nation-state? If it did, then the signing of instrument of accession dilutes its possibilities. If I am right till here, then let me add it didn’t just dilute Naya Kashmir - post 1953 Jammu and Kashmir threw Naya Kashmir into a dustbin. But how does all this make Kashmiri nationalism merge into Indian nationalism? Two quotes will suffice this baseless clichéd argument. “Despite all these difficulties, we brought into being the constituent assembly, in order to preserve our right of self-determination” said Krishan Dev Sethi speaking in the J&K Assembly 1952 and second a dissent note by Abdul Gani Goni a member from Bhaderwah constituency moved a note of dissent in which he had argued that in one of the report presented in the JK assembly the clause for the right of secession should be added. He argued very passionately in the J&K assembly in February 1954 that, “The people did not shed their blood for establishing permanent accession to India or for a change in government. They did it only to get their self-determination to be recognized”. So Kashmiri nationalism or Nationalists did not surrender to Indian nationalism. A section might have, a big section hasn’t even now! The note of dissent was seconded not by some Kashmiri Muslim but interestingly by a Kashmiri Pandit named S.L Saraf. Every Kashmiri Pandit was for India? I guess not.

"At this moment, in British India, the political rivalry between Muslim League and Indian National Congress had become an un-ending fact. The resultant political atmosphere was going to impact the 560 odd princely states in the sub-continent. Congress leaders thought better to engage the people of princely states and enlist their support in the freedom struggle of India and launched All India States Peoples Conference in 1927 to disseminate their ideology and program." The last paragraph in the article before the one I quote above ended with talking about Naya Kashmir and when the authors say ‘at this moment’ I guess they mean the time when the manifesto was passed i.e. in 1944 Sopore session. But this paragraph talks about Congress connecting with movements taking place in Princely India which as authors rightly pointed out started late 1920’s or early 1930’s. People's Conference as authors mention started in 1927. My mind swelled on reading this disjointed paragraph just inserted to make a point. A point which had no coherence at all. Communal tensions in British India were ripe around 1944 when the Naya Kashmir manifesto was passed. But Peoples Conference came into being by 1927 when Jinnah was presiding over Delhi Proposal (1927) meant to present common demands of both Congress and Muslim League before the British. He was yet to become Qaid e Azam – the way majority contemporary Indians and Pakistanis know him. Two time periods 1944 and 1927 separated by more than a decade and by a gulf of political formations and authors tell us ‘at this moment’. How callously can one write?

Also Read: Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute

In the subsequent paragraphs, the authors seem to be running with the speed of light ignoring specificities and nuance. So land reform is reduced to giving rise to the middle class from which, the Jam’mat e Islami emerges. But Jam’mat also took the core constituency of Muslim Conference. Which was? The middle class, elites? Authors don’t tell us. If they mean Muslim Conference came from middle class, then they contradict themselves. Because Muslim Conference was there before the land reforms. So were the Muslim Conference leader’s elite? Which strata of the society did they come from? Authors would do well to trace the genealogies of the few or all (as they wish) Muslim Conference leaders. That will reveal much and will also help to bring the class angle in their study of internal dynamics of the Jammu and Kashmir. Also, why didn’t middle classes go to Plebiscite front? After all, it was also pretty radical at that time? The authors, I am sorry to say again disappoint us. They make an assertion without substantiating.

Also Read: Does Pakistan want an Independent Kashmir?

The authors note: “It is a fact that Pakistani State did favour JKLF in the first few years of the popular insurgency but later on moved to support Hizbul Mujahideen. More than anything it was the organic link that Hizbul Mujahideen had developed with the society, and the knowledge of the terrain that led Pakistan to do a strategic shift towards them.” I don’t know how one can even attempt to understand and evaluate this ‘organic link’. If authors mean the networks which Jam’mat had and which were later used by HM, it does make some sense. But to say that JKLF leaders like Maqbool Bhat or Ashfaq Majeed had no organic links with the society and less knowledge of terrain defies all logic. Many people have suggested that the growing influence of JKLF among the youth particularly, and the articulation of an Independent Jammu and Kashmir by Maqbool Bhat and other JKLF leaders and cadres were pertinent reasons for Pakistan to shift its support to HM. The arrest of Bhat in Pakistan, being branded as a pro-Indian agent, banning of his writings and his open criticism of Pakistani elite ruling classes suggest the same. But these are all subjective assertions and can’t be substantiated beyond a point.

The authors explain it thus: “The answer certainly lies in our internal politics: From Muslim Conference to Jama’at e Islami to Hizbul Mujahideen was one such transformation and on the other side was the transformation of National Conference to Plebiscite Front to Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Of course, because of the popular insurgency, the rivalry between these groups was amplified and even bloody.” This rustic and lazy teleology doesn’t even need a response where people are treated as stocks and mathematical equations and one flows from the other and the cycle goes on. ♦

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wande Magazine.

About the Author(s):