Twentieth Century Kashmir

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In his fourth books, Khalid Bashir Ahmad accesses rare documents to rediscover many people between Allama Iqbal and Sheikh Abdullah to various events from Roti Agitation to the making of National Conference

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah with some of his colleagues, a year after the 1975 accord. The photograph shows the highest flood level in the background.

For fifty years beginning 1931, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah ruled the politics of Jammu and Kashmir, both from within and outside of jail as well as within and outside of power. One of the most enigmatic politicians of his time, he was accused of having conflicting views on issues depending on the time and place he was positioned in. He was loved and hated in equal measure by his admirers and adversaries. His politics was known to be pro-India and anti-India at the same time. A considerable period of his political career, over a decade, was spent in jail which he blamed on New Delhi for misunderstanding him. Architect of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir within the framework of the Indian Constitution—the status diluted over the decades and finally scrapped on 5 August 2019 through a Presidential order—Abdullah was a strong opponent of Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Two-Nation Theory and Jammu and Kashmir joining Pakistan in 1947. Yet, his adversaries within India refused to see in him a pro-India politician. Recently, there have been some overt efforts to, what his supporters feel, dislodge him from the history of Kashmir by withdrawing the annual public holiday on account of his birthday and renaming a police gallantry award named after him.

The first section of the book essays the flip side of politics of Kashmir’s mass leader and how this lion of Kashmir reneged from some of his publicly declared cherished ideals, like building and nurturing of the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference and dissolving it when it had attained political muscle against a despotic regime; fighting an all-out battle against an autocratic ruler and ending up in taking an oath of allegiance to him and his progeny; and inspiring and patronizing a well-organized 22-years-long struggle for holding of 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 than what he had held when he was removed and arrested as the Prime Minister in 1953. The material used in this section includes important archival documents not written or spoken about earlier.

The section on culture presents the richness and variety of Kashmir’s heritage and its tragic loss over the decades. The valley’s culture inheritance is manifested in its archaeological finds, artefacts, manuscripts, and old-printed literature. For long, this priceless wealth has been preyed upon by art smugglers and other unscrupulous persons emptying its past. Tale of a Mammoth Loss exposes a contemporary crisis by bringing to light the loss of history and intellectual tradition suffered by Kashmir. It brings to the fore complicity of inefficient bureaucracy, complicit curators, wily outsiders, and corrupt political leadership in robbing the Valley of its rich heritage. It also chronicles the loss that natural disasters, like fires and floods, have inflicted on Kashmir’s archival wealth.

Achla Sachdev playing the role of Kashmiri woman affected by tribal attack in 1947 in a 1951 Bollywood documentary Storm Over Kashmir.

One of the significant cultural developments taking place in Kashmir during the early 1930s was opening of the first cinema hall in Srinagar. For a long time, Kashmiri society did not accept its youth visiting cinema halls. In fact, as late as up to the 1960s, parents seeking matrimony of their daughter would first convince themselves that the prospective groom was not a cinema or a hotel going guy. A woman visiting a cinema hall was a taboo. Gradually, the number of college going girls and working women visiting cinema halls picked up and during 1970s ladies watching a movie in a theatre was a common sight. With the inception of armed militancy in Kashmir in 1989, the entertainment avenues in the Valley were shut and it was curtains down for cinema halls. There were some efforts by the Government to reopen these but without much success. After some time, the two or three odd cinema halls that had reopened were again closed down. Today, many of the cinema halls have been converted into commercial buildings. The Celluloid Years is a story of the beginning and colourful journey of cinema in Kashmir. It recreates old times taking a reader through minute details including of the first film shooting in Kashmir.

Mecca bound Haj Pilgrims from Kashmir photographed at the Delhi Junction on June 12, 1957. Pic: Photo Division

The people of Kashmir have deep roots in religion and spirituality despite the rapid intrusion of modernity in their lives. As one of the five fundamentals of Muslim Faith, performing Haj has always remained close to their hearts and those who return from this pilgrimage arc considered Allah’s chosen people and revered by all. In the olden times, the journey to and from the sacred cities of Makkah and Medina was arduous and time-consuming that, given the poor economic conditions, only few people could afford. It entailed a long and tiresome road and train journey to Bombay or Karachi before sailing to Jeddah or Eden after which a pilgrim would either walk or travel on a camel’s back to reach the City of Ka’ba. The scenario has gone a massive change over the decades and reduced the weeks’ long journey into few hours’ flight. Kashmir to Ka’ba is about what it was like setting out on the Haj pilgrimage from Kashmir of 1930s-40s.

Storm Over Kashmir documentary director B D Garga with Sheikh M Abdullah during the shooting in Srinagar in 1949

In recent years, we have seen many cities and places in India being renamed. Allahabad became Prayagraj, Faizabad was changed to Ayodhya, and the Mughal Sarai Railway Station was renamed as Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Junction. A walk through the history of Kashmir acquaints us with similar developments taking place in the past as well as in recent years, where names of places were changed. Drawing from archival sources and etymology. Changing Place Names tells us stories about how and when these places in Kashmir underwent name changes.

A Tonga stand in Srinagar.

Srinagar, the famed ‘capital of Kashmir for five thousand years’, is a city with a rich culture. Each of its quarters has a distinct identity and a bundle of interesting stories to share. One such area is Sonawar, an uptown neighbourhood and the Green Zone of Kashmir with an ancient existence. Story of An uptown Quartet chronicles its journey from a small village nestled between a hill and a river to the favourite abode of rulers, bureaucrats, and foreign tourists. It takes a reader down the lanes of history to connect with some of its amazing stories including about people and places that had made it a lively place.

Kashmir has always mystified visitors. Old accounts of travellers open up mysteries and magic that defines the place and its inhabitants. People were simple and lived a modest life. Trade and commerce were conducted through barter system. It may sound incredible but as late as up to the last decade of the 19tt century, money prices did not exist in Kashmir and salaries to the army and civil officials were paid in grain. The highest revenue official in Kashmir, the Settlement Commissioner, was also asked to take oil-seeds in payment of his salary. Of Prices and Fares reconstructs the era when prices of essential commodities were too low to sound true. The chapter takes the reader through a gripping detail on prices and fares prevalent in Kashmir of yesteryears when a sheep cost half a rupee and most of the essential commodities were bought against domestic produce like eggs and grain.

In the olden times, the capital city of Srinagar was a hotbed of political gossip and a fertile nursery of rumours. One would always find eager people gathered around news-fabricators and rumour mongers. Romance with Rumours is a story about the fascination of the people of Kashmir for rumour and gossip, and how rumour-mongering was successfully used as a political tool in the fight against autocracy.

Two horsemen in Tangmarg somewhere in 1940.

The section on history is an assortment of interesting, yet important, developments taking place in Kashmir during the Dogra Rule (1846-1947). Otherwise reckoned as one of the most oppressive periods of Kashmir’s history, the 101-year long rule also offers some interesting tales related to the affairs of governance and individuals at the helm. The rising of Kashmiris against tyranny in 1931 was met with disproportionate force and oppression, generating a wave of sympathy and solidarity from certain quarters in British India, especially from Punjab.

Sheikh Abdullah receives Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on his arrival at Srinagar airport on September 24, 1949.

One of the famous Lahore-based vocal exponents of Kashmir was poet Allama Mohammad Iqbal who is considered as the guardian philosopher of the political awakening of the Kashmiris during the 1930s. He spoke, wrote, and mobilized public opinion about their plight. As a consequence, he became a target of apologists of the autocratic dispensation. Sir Mohammad Iqbal: The Untold Story chronicles how the bard was assailed to dissuade him from creating awareness about the affairs in Kashmir. In the light of the evidence, it analyses the allegation that Iqbal wanted to become the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and, after failing to achieve his objective, joined the forces inimical to the Dogra Rule. It also untangles the riddle why a religious community with whom he shared common ancestry and about whom he waxed lyrical, forsake him when people across religious divide celebrate him.

File image of Hari Singh

In 1939, Kashmir witnessed a violent agitation launched by its minority Kashmiri Pandit community against the Government takeover of a temple in Srinagar. The agitation was the second outpour of the community in seven years after the Roti Agitation launched against the Glancy Commission recommendations on grievances of the Muslims. The showdown continued for several days during which the members of the community took out huge processions through the streets of Srinagar, boycotted work in government offices, pelted stones on the police, and held sit-ins in the temple premises where community leaders made speeches against the government of the last Hindu ruler of Kashmir. Maharaja Hari Singh. The Temple Agitation traces the origin of the confrontation and its volume, and presents graphic account of the chaos and confusion in the Valley, especially in the capital city of Srinagar which W3s pushed into the turmoil for weeks until a settlement was reached between the two warring sides.

Through the Dogra Rule is a narration of stories allowing an insight into the working of the government and the psyche of its administrative elite. It throws up dubious characters associated with the regime including a superstitious ruler, a Rasputin guru, an embarrassed Maharaja, collaborative Molvis, passport seeking beggars, and a snooping Resident, then the highest British official in Kashmir.

Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s new book

A Bowl of History is another extensive and riveting narration on the Dogra period connecting Kashmir’s famous hill station, Gulmarg and its European visitors with important historical and cultural developments. It presents interesting details about the events and people leading to the formulation of many laws and rules, like the law against cruelty to animals, municipal laws, rules for the protection of wildflowers, and restriction on constructions. It also chronicles visits of important persons like Lady Curzon and Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, and his wife, Doreen Maud Milner, besides taking a reader through the years when, apart from golf, polo and cricket matches also were played in the bowl. Further, the chapter traces the launch of the first hotel at Gulmarg, the prevalent modes of transport, and a broke Residency requesting the Kashmir Government to waive off 213 as it did not have money to clear the outstanding on purchase of furniture for a hut at Gulmarg.

Although the first newspaper in Kashmir was started in 1875, the evolution of journalism is attributed to the rule of Maharaja Hari Singh (1925-47) during whose reign several newspapers were published from Srinagar. Dateline Kashmir traces the birth and growth of prim media in the Himalayan Valley and brings to the fore interesting developments including how a reluctant ruler in 1904 when requested to grant permission for starting a newspaper, asked his Prime Minister to issue an order forbidding even receiving such an application in future. It also enlightens a reader about the first press conference held in Kashmir and a government employee used by the Administration as the first embedded journalist in the Valley.

Khalid Bashir Ahmad, the author. KL Image: Aijaz Ganai

The Appendixes carries three important documents including correspondence between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and the President of Iranian Parliament on the issue of the convening of the Constituent Assembly in Jammu and Kashmir, where the latter unsuccessfully tries to persuade Abdullah to drop the idea of proceeding with the Assembly. The third document, a long letter addressed by Maharaja Hari Singh to the President of India, is an important historical text about developments taking place in Kashmir immediately before and after the Partition of India. It is a straight-from-the horses-mouth account in which the erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, besides expressing bitterness on what, he explains, the Government of India and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah did to him, discloses how right from September 1947 he had acted on the advice of the Government of India, and also allows an insight into how the people of the then princely state were placed with regard to the question of accession.

(These passages were excerpted from the prologue of Kashmir: Looking Back in Time—Politics, Culture, History, Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s latest book that Atlantic published last week. Former Director of Information, Archives and Libraries, Khalid Bashir Ahmad has authored Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative and Kashmir and Jhelum: The River Through My Backyard.)

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