Why, In Contesting Narratives, Kashmir Is Lost In The Translation?


by Haseeb A Drabu

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In an occasional article (GK, Sunday, 26th April 2020), I did a semiotic analysis of one of its news reports. To give credit where it is due, not many newspapers would publish, on its editorial pages, a comment on its own news operations. Arguing that there is much more to news than the text and the visuals, it suggested that GK’s news selection and display revealed, or perhaps reflected, the extant and emerging political state of play in Kashmir.

People being paraded for identity check during a crackdown in the early nineties.

When a response to it reached the social media, twitter gave it a new form, quite unrelated to the original and it morphed into a distant cousin of its own!

The exchanges, if you can call them that, on social media are of course, between people, but they are more about positions and perceptions. Bred in silos, a point of view propagated in an echo chamber results in the same voices being heard repeatedly. Nowadays, they meet in the toxic environment of twitter. And then the trolls take over!

Time to move beyond the polemics. While obviously this essay is referenced to the twitter spat, it seeks to raise some broader questions that are uncomfortable yet important. The idea is not to be accusatory and castigate but to start an introspective conversation; conversations with self, as a friend of mine suggested I ought to have.

Using the shoot and scoot platform of twitter to comment on my write up, a Professor who is a sanctified intellectual, prefaced a substantive point with a pejorative: “Someone tell this half-backed mind that Arabic and Persian is a part of our Islamic culture DNA along with Urdu and not alien-like Hindi”. I will address the issues underlying the personal comment first.

Antonio Francesco Gramsci (1891-1937), the Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician

Irked by the unwarranted personal comment presumably based on a second-hand understanding of what I had written, I responded in the same vein. I tweeted, “And here is a brain so perfectly baked that it preaches secession from 5 pm to 10 am quoting Gramsci (pronouncing it Grahamski) yet works for a civil society institution controlled by “occupational forces” helping produce compradors! PS: the phrase is half baked, not “backed”.

Let me frame the context of the point I was trying to make in the tweet, beyond the repartee. The sub-text of my tweet was to question the moral and intellectual integrity of those espousing secession, even as they, in their professional capacities, work all their life, manufacturing consent in favour of what they oppose. How can those people from our society lionise separatism when all along they have, side by side, been helping what they call “India’s hegemony over Kashmir”? Am I accusing them of being “Indian agents”? No, of course not. That would be puerile, though possible.

It is all very well to bring to bear intellectual giants like Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said or Noam Chomsky in support. But do we internalise them to discern the implications of what we lean on them for; be it in the form of political constructs or as theoretical frameworks. Or is it only as a rhetorical tool for reconciling and rationalising, if not justifying, the death and destruction all around us in the Valley?

Gramsci, for instance, has consistently argued that colonisers operate and exercise control through institutions of civil society, foremost among then being the educational institutions; school, colleges and universities which are normally seen as non-political. If indeed, it is so, then isn’t working for the university tantamount to being a part of what the resistance intellectuals call the “apparatus of the hegemony of the colonisers”?

If one works for three decades in the University, then one has been an intrinsic part of what Gramsci calls, “the process of moral and intellectual leadership through which the “dominated” or “colonised” consent to their own domination by ruling classes, as opposed to being simply coerced by the army and the military”.

From his perspective, universities are stronger and more integral to domination than the State’s coercive apparatus like police and army. He writes, “When the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed. The State was only an outer ditch, behind which there stood a powerful system of fortresses and earthworks”. Clearly, he saw the police and army as the outer trench and schools and universities as the real powerful fortress! So while many of us may have worked in the “trenches”, many others have spent their entire life in the “fortress”.

Indeed, Gramsci’s main thesis is that “the most important State activity is applying educative pressure to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration.  No wonder, then, after being “taught” in the University, the one avenue and only aspiration of most youngsters is a government job. Ever thought of that?

Edward Wadie Said, the Literature Professor at the Columbia University, who is considered to be the founder field of postcolonial studies

For those who will think that this is far-fetched and remote from reality, I refer to Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism, where he discusses the pre-imperialist novels of Jane Austen, generally not considered to have an overtly colonial theme or any political overtones. Said has demonstrated how Austen humanised the repressive colonial ideology making it “coexist alongside the devaluation of colonized cultures”. And to bring home the point, unsuspecting students of our University have been taught Austen for years. She isn’t only about “marriage is on the horizon”, if you know what I mean!

To unravel the unseen and unstated mechanics of how it operates, I can do no better than point in the direction of Gauri Vishwanathan’s brilliant work, evocatively titled, Masks of Conquest. It lays bare how educative practices, particularly those of literary studies, are used to establish “hegemony in a colonial setting”. Vishwanathan demonstrates how literary studies are used “to strengthen cultural hegemony in enormously complex ways”. It is fascinating to see her unravel, how the teaching of literature was intimately linked to the consolidation and maintenance of British rule in India.

Are people so naive as to not see what they are doing? Do they contribute willingly or unwittingly to the designs of those whom they castigate in echo chambers as “hegemonic occupational forces”? How can they not see that within their own political framework, at the level of their own personal self, they are “aiding the process of moral and ethical formation of colonised minds” in Kashmir? This is a sure recipe for ideological schizophrenia. Try and reconcile youngsters rooting for Azadi one day and queuing up for recruitments into security forces the next day.

Gauri Viswanathan

While all this is happening unknown and unseen, the public positions of such intellectual activists radicalises the young minds. Their point of view has credibility, by virtue of a position that they hold in the civil society superstructure. While it may not be devious by intent, it is for sure dangerous in its implications. In fact, I would say, criminal. Spare a thought. Death of youngsters has ceased to be a personal loss; it has been made a political issue. Indeed, death has lost its real significance and has gained symbolic connotations.

Tragically, the framework of hegemony has become so ingrained in their minds that they are themselves being hegemonic. The visceral reaction to any alternative thought that is articulated is a consequence of this. Their focus is not to debate but disparagingly debase the person; not the argument or viewpoint. A classic trait of hegemony, as Gramsci, points out. In our context, it amounts to what Naguib Mahfouz refers to as “sectarian sedition”; divisive and detrimental.

Let me now respond to the tweet, sans the unpleasant part, that has really triggered the essay. The tweet read, “Arabic and Persian is a part of our Islamic culture DNA along with Urdu and not alien-like Hindi”. Where is this response coming from? The tailpiece of my write up, which I reproduce here for contextualising tweet and the response it elicited: “As such, I must confess that I used to find this “Ramadhan Mubarak” and “Ramadhan Kareem” very alien. I felt this import from outside was contrary to our culture.

A scene from the longest Iftaar Party in Srinagar on the banks of the Dal lake.

But then you see how the dynamics of mixed cultures and globalization have interacted with Islamic beliefs, rituals and behaviours all over the world. In many Islamic societies, these have been modified so that local rituals fit with modern milieu and values. All this is not tantamount to an act of cultural imperialism nor even an instance of the post-modem disorder. These are just new and evolving expressions of existing practices”.

So, very clearly, I was not disowning any Persian or Arabic influences, if anything, I was positing a framework to understand it. For sure, one may disagree with it. Even dismiss it. I do have a more nuanced position on it, briefly touched upon below. For now, back to the Professor’s post.

I have only one conceptual issue: either all – Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Hindi — are a part of our DNA or none is. I am fine with either, but uneasy with this teleological hybrid formulation. Let me elaborate.

There is a complete consensus among scholars that Kashmiri was written in Sharda script from ancient times, 8th century AD, to be precise. It was popularised at the Sharda Peeth temple, also an established centre of learning in Kashmir, an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage, currently only under administration of Pakistan. As Kashmiris, we can’t mentally secede from it, either historically or intellectually.

How Some KPs Are Hollowing Kashmir’s Prime Heritage

Sharda as a script that belongs to the same family includes Devanagri, the script for Hindi and Sanskrit. One doesn’t have to be a linguist to see that Sharda is just like Devnagri and not anywhere close to Arabic, Persian or Urdu.  Then how is Urdu a part of our DNA and why is Hindi alien? Sharda was the heritage of Kashmir, our heritage, for 1,700 years. If thirty years is a generation, we are talking here of fifty generations and more.

Yes, right now, it is not being used except by a few in the Kashmiri Pandit community for religious purposes. How does that change the past?

One may not agree with the Indic scholars that Kashmiri is derived from Sanskrit.  But it is impossible to dismiss G A Grierson, to whom we owe the preservation of our grammar, the one and only by Ichavara Kaul. But for his incredible work, Kashmiri would have shrivelled long ago to a just a spoken language.

Grierson’s view is “The Kashmiri language is a very ancient language, a sister and not a daughter of the form of speech which ultimately developed as literary Sanskrit.” That is in our homologous cultural DNA if you ask me. Not the whole, but a few nucleotides in the genetic code, perhaps!

True that over the years, there have been many a somatic mutation to the DNA. Sharda got replaced first by Devanagari. Then there was a structural break with the scripts of the Perso-Arabic family replacing it with the advent of Muslim rule in Kashmir.

It is neither necessary nor required to shut the Hindu heritage out, in order to own and appreciate the socio-cultural contributions and economic consequences of the advent of Islam in Kashmir. For almost 7 to 8 centuries now Kashmiri is written in the Persian script. Zain ul Abideen changed the lingua franca of Kashmir. Most significantly, he didn’t de-historicize it; he de-communalised it. With that, it has become a part of our cultural DNA. These developments happened sequentially, though not in a linear manner. So neither excluded the other as it evolved. What is then the need or compulsion to airbrush the prior past?

Pandit Nehru and Mrs Gandhi with Kashmir artists at the reception given by the Prime Minister to the Republic Day folk dancers in Delhi on January 29, 1958.

Even more curious is the place of pride that has been given to Urdu in the tweet. While almost everyone finds it richer and flavoursome as a language, Urdu starts developing around Delhi in the 12th century. Its entry into Kashmir happens in the 18th century. Remember there was a time not so long ago, 1889, there were no Kashmiris — Muslims or Pandits – who were proficient in the Urdu language. Which is why the Maharaja had to get Urdu literate Punjabis into his government service. Then how does it override other languages to become our heritage?

Extending the logic of the tweet, Arabian Nights will be a part of our DNA but not Kathasaritsagar, the 11th century Kashmiri collection of tales only because it is in Sanskrit. How can Ali Baba and his forty thieves have more resonance than Liaq Choor and his trusted disciple Mahadev Bhista? To get back to the earlier point of schools as “institution of domination”, Robin Hood, a British version of Liaq Choor, is what I was taught in Burn Hall School; about Liaq Choor I learnt at home from my mother.

It will be enlightening to take a sample survey in any school in the valley; the kids in the English medium will know Robin Hood, the vernacular school kids will be aware of Ali Baba. Unlikely if anyone would have heard about Laiq Choor. That is how the DNA has got “edu-engineered”.

Ruins of Sharda Peeth shrine in Neelum Valley of PaK.

Even in the two-line tweet, the perpetual problem persists: the vernacular is conspicuous by absence. There is Islam, there is Persian, there is Urdu, there is Arabic, there is even Hindi, albeit in negation, where is the vernacular? The problem is that the way in which DNA is getting defined, Kashmiri is lost in translation!

It might be instructive to see how Islam, which is also a body of thought and a civilizational culture across countries and continents, deals with the past. At home, there is nothing more relevant than the Awrad-i-Fathhiya, an invocatory prayer based on Quranic verses, Hadith and prayers of the Sufis compiled by Mir Saiyid Ali Hamadani.

Though widely believed it was composed especially for Kashmiri Muslims, its cultural significance lies in its mode of intonation and recitation as a practice. Its recital – a cultural legacy of Kashmiris — is set to the meter of a devotional song. Why this is so is a fascinating ethnographic tale in itself!

Sociologically, it completely overturned the metaphor, even as it retained the “mode of articulation” for the ordinary murid, as a way of the transformational tool. This tradition draws from and has the support of Ibn Arabi, who calls it “remembrance as encountered reality”, a sacred dialogue in and through experience.

Kashmir’s Amir-e-Kabir Days

This differentia specifica, has been trivialised (and harmed), by counterpoising it as Kashmiri Sufism aka Rishism versus Wahabism. More than such categorisation, it is important to understand the role of “public” history in the existential awareness of being a Kashmiri and being Muslim.

People offering prayers outside Khanqah Moula. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur
People offering prayers outside Khanqah Moula. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Be that as it may, for now, it is hard not to conclude that majoritarianism works in almost identical ways. On the one hand, we have those who want to disown the Muslim past of India. And on the other, those who want to disown the Hindu past of Kashmir. The former want to go back to an earlier pre-Islamic period to redefine their national identity defined by Hinduism. The latter wants to define their DNA by restricting it to a more recent past. In this, we as Kashmiris, only a handful that we are, are the losers. For me, being Kashmiri, as Naguib Mahfouz says in his context, “is not simply an adjective, but in truth, it is life, a shelter and a sanctuary, a beginning and an end”.

Tail Piece

Haseeb Drabu

Hot on the heels of the Twitter attack by the resident resistance intellectuals, I have been hauled over the coals by the displaced Kashmiri Pandits over my column. I have to say I am delighted to be at the centre of this controversy! By centre, I mean, equidistant from both extremes. In a certain way, I have been vindicated. One side calls me an “RSS stooge”. The other calls me a “Wahabi Islamist bigot”.

These labels have nothing to do with me. These are an example of the Rashomanian reality playing out in our situation; there is no truth except what you want to see. Or more appropriately what one is made to see in a given situation within an ideological framework. Objectivity gets discounted by subjectivity because of positions, perceptions and prejudices.

(An economist, the author is the former finance minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Ideas expressed are personal)


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