A short note on the ban on Kashmir Reader


Late last night – with utter shock, I received the news of banning of Kashmir Reader newspaper from a close friend who works as a reporter at the same newspaper. He was disgruntled and sad. With the banning of a well respected newspaper, the government in Kashmir has shown to what extent it can go to crackdown on people’s voice. Kashmir Reader represented a robust image of a people’s voice talking back to power in a searing and critical manner through its bold editorials and reports; which often always questioned, and rightly so – the narratives constructed by the ruling establishment over Kashmir. Its editorials delineated for the common man how these narratives support the structure that’s killing and maiming and blinding Kashmiris for the last nearly three months. No wonder, that it’s the same structure which has found the voice of this newspaper dangerous for its spin-doctory and has effectively exercised its force to shut this voice down.


Shutting down of Kashmir Reader should not be read in isolation to what’s happening in Kashmir for the last three months. The repression exists on the word too; on language and articulation also. Journalism, by its logic is a profession which is at the forefront of where language emanates from. By banning the publication of a newspaper, the state wants to ban language itself – the language which challenges its unbridled power and the sheer impunity with which that power is exercised. Kashmir Reader, as we know it, was doing just that – questioning the barbarity of the state which has unleashed terror on Kashmiri streets, playgrounds and homes and now on paper too.

Kashmir Reader is a newspaper loved by the people on the street; it’s respected for its pro-people coverage especially during the last three months. It’s boldness in covering current anti-India uprising despite government’s decision to not allocate advertisements to it is reflective of its commitment to report and document the siege Kashmir is experiencing. Sadly, the siege has extended to the newspaper too. The siege is not only on the newspaper; it’s on the collective intelligence of those who take to language to express their voice and discontent with the scheme of things in Kashmir. When a voice like Kashmir Reader is banned, it doesn’t become too difficult to see that the government wants to extend the current crackdown to such limits that no one is left to speak for Kashmir. Is such an order of things possible for the government to achieve? Fortunately, Kashmir has emerged from the darkness of nineties when its stories lay buried in snow to a time when every single Kashmiri, born and brought up in the last two decades – has become a storyteller of pain, suffering and resilience.

Kashmir Reader represents one such example of this ability to articulate one’s freedom amidst dehumanising violence. Walter Benjamin has said that language is the anti-dote of violence and it’s this language, represented by Kashmir Reader, which is at assault in Kashmir. As someone who has worked with the newspaper, I am certain that Kashmir Reader cannot be muzzled. It will reclaim its language back from the clutches of censorship and speak back truthfully on its committed subject – Kashmir.

To bury a martyr is not a thing to be forgotten

20160120_131830A beautiful winding stretch of road leads to Atta Mohammad’s home in Bomiyar, Uri. The beautiful landscape is in sharp contrast to what it holds beneath. Atta Mohammad died a week ago at his home after a prolonged illness. The sole gravedigger of his village for several decades till his death, Atta was carried to the bosom of the earth plaintively by his loved ones, who include the whole village and the villages after that.

Beneath the earth where the roots of three Walnut trees meet, Atta Mohammad lies buried. I offer him a fateha in my broken half-remembered Arabic.

A short uphill walk away from where Atta Mohammad lies buried is the graveyard of the unknown martyrs of Kashmiri struggle. 235 of them, Atta Mohammad had counted and preserved. On some of the identified graves, name plates have been installed. Javed Iqbal Khan, Shopain. Bashir Ahmad Dar, Baramulla. Farooq Ahmad Sufi, Pulwama. All of them laid to rest by Atta Mohammad.

How did they remember the graves of the identified men when their families came searching for them. “We kept their details in our memory. Their physical description, the clothes they were wearing or some articles they were carrying,” Atta’s son Manzoor Ahmad Khan told me.

“We could not have forgotten. To bury a martyr is not a thing to be forgotten,” says Manzoor, who vividly remembers the nights when his father and he dug graves for the martyred men brought to them by police and Indian soldiers.

“They always came in the silence of the night with torn bodies of one or more men,” he says. The oppressor fears the light of the day, I wonder. The oppressor is afraid of being found.

There is no faltering in memory when memory is the sole weapon of the oppressed. This is demonstrated by Manzoor when he recounts the first time and the last time he helped his father dig graves for the martyred men. He doesn’t falter. He remembers it like yesterday. It’s interesting how memory, which is often fragmented, stands as the greatest affront against occupation of Kashmir.

As we solemnly speak of the bodies underneath the mass graveyard, an oft repeated phrase Khoon diy Baarav meaning Blood will speak comes up. It occurs to me that in the struggle for Azadi, we are not alone – the dead are alongside us. The disappeared too, for the disappearance of the man is proof that he existed, that he resisted the occupation. The mass graveyard of the martyr’s in this small village of Tchahal in Bomiyar is the living challenge to the occupation which it cannot ever wipe out.

In his modest home at the edge of a road, little children mill about with roosters. The mourning of their grandfather lost on their innocent minds. A tall bearded man greets us as we enter Khan’s living room. Atta Mohammad’s legacy is talked about.

“His name will be remembered alongside the martyr’s. While living he earned himself a place in Jannah by offering last rites to the martyr’s and gave them an honourable burial,” the neighbour says.

Manzoor speaks of carrying forward the legacy of his father by remaining true to the Kashmiri struggle. “My father is a great example before me. I would be honoured to carry forward his legacy,” he says.

Atta Mohammad was the last dead person to be buried in his village. The role of the new gravedigger seems unmistakably to be taken by Manzoor, Atta’s young son.

Remembering Galeano in Death

Galeano-3-997x1024A young man was killed in the forests of Tral. The men in uniform repeat the unsurprising refrain of ‘accidental death.’ What is accidental in ‘death by a bullet’ by the way? Khalid Wani, the slain man was heralded to the bosom of the earth with wedding songs replacing the rattle of bullets in air. Next day, streets of Tral throbbed with anger as those who knew Khalid and those who didn’t pronounced his innocence with slogans of Azadi. ‘My son was tortured to death, he didn’t die with a bullet,’ father of Khalid said.

The death of Khalid occurred around the same time that Galeano breathed his last. Thousands of miles away in Uruguay, Eduardo Galeano, whose imaginative and illuminative book Mirrors I recently skimmed through, died of cancer. He was 74. Khalid was 23. First reports suggest that Khalid had gone to see his militant brother in the forests. His brother fights Indian military occupation of Kashmir. Galeano struggled with remembering memories. Khalid is a memory too. Galeano wrote, “I believe in memory not as a place of arrival, but as point of departure—a catapult throwing you into present times, allowing you to imagine the future instead of accepting it.”

Photo Credit : Kashmir Reader

There is a lesson in each death. The lesson of remembering that the dead too lived; that we shouldn’t remember them as simply dead people. Galeano further wrote, “It would be absolutely impossible for me to have any connection with history if history were just a collection of dead people, dead names, dead facts.”

Kashmir was not always gray. It was grayed. Galeano would have said.

His book Mirrors is subtitled Stories of Almost Everyone. A chapter on war is presented below


On the back of a blue ox rode Lao Tse.

He was travelling the paths of contradiction, which led to the secret place where water and fire fuse.

In contradiction all meets nil, life meets death, near meets far, before meets after.

Lao Tse, village philosopher, believed that the richer a nation is, the poorer it becomes. He believed that knowing war teaches peace, because suffering inhabits glory:

Every action provokes reactions.

Violence always returns.

Only thistles and thorns grow where armies encamp.

War summons hunger.

He who delights in conquest, delights in human pain.

Every victory should be celebrated with a funeral.

Love in the time of occupation

9780670087426I was born in a desperate time; the nineties of Kashmir. The city where I grew up was gripped with a mad fury to be free. I didn’t fully understand what was going on until one day when I received a slap from an Indian trooper stationed outside my school for the fault only he knows. I determined to learn taekwondo. I failed. I was twelve. My uncle, like Faiz, the main protagonist in the novel had decided to free Kashmir of bunkers, and something more. He returned shrouded in exquisite white cloth.

His love story untold and buried, like him.

Until, Mirza Waheed decided to write The Book of Gold Leaves.

It’s early nineties and Kashmir has declared war against Indian state – considered alien to this day. Faiz is a devoted paper-machie artist, silently scraping a livelihood for his large family in downtown Srinagar, the scene of war. Roohi is a strikingly beautiful girl, whose long hair evokes in him the tender feelings of an artist about to paint his life’s masterpiece. Inside the shrine in Khanqah, they hurriedly fall in love.

But when war touches Faiz and everything around him, the artist in him is irreconcilable to the order of the things around. He can’t take it anymore, he repeats to himself. With indubitable clarity, he sets out on a journey to reclaim his home from the clutches of tyranny. He is a militant now.

The love story between Roohi and Faiz is tormenting, yet sublime. The eventual doom of all such love stories never overpowers the narrative. Instead, it lends it magic as the time and space during which the love story unfolds is one of great upheaval. But there is still love in this land, Roohi reminds Faiz in their first outing together, snuggled inside an auto rickshaw. Kashmir will heal, she promises.

The blooming of a Shia-Sunni love affair between Faiz and Roohi is a beautiful ode to a city, forever moored in spirituality. With Kashmir erupting in war and thousands and thousands of people dead (More than 70,000 Kashmiris have lost their lives since 1989), the love affair is a perfect picture through which loss is seen. The loss becomes more intimate, more real.

Waheed deftly uses the metaphor of the river in evoking the presence of a timeless witness, who has seen it all. The river Jhelum runs through city of Srinagar like an artery, breathing it with life and death. Roohi and Farhat’s little conversation under the drooping wooden ceiling of the shrine turns haunting for me as Waheed draws attention to the Jhelum flowing nearby. As they talk, Jhelum waters carry torsos or body parts of those dismembered in some some detention cell upstream – this is banal yet terrifying.

The river has a story to write. The river is a breathing character in the story. Azad’s poem The River emerges as the continuous metaphor of the novel. The river forms a presence in the lives of the characters and undermines the occupation and its attendant miseries for the people of Kashmir. The river is a subsumation of everything that happens in the city and in the lives of the people. The city is in ruins and there is an enveloping presence of occupation, of the spider’s web of triumphal nationalism.

In this novel, Mirza Waheed conjures details and sequences of life in old city Srinagar like a finely drawn embroidered shawl. The little scenes and their effect on my memory, as someone who grew up in the same dilapidated yet throbbing Old city, was to reimagine the process of growing up. In Faiz and Roohi’s love story laid one of my own flights of fancy.

There is sorrow in Kashmir’s history. Mirza Waheed evokes this sorrow with sublime prose which has exceeded the dim scope of his earlier novel. The Collaborator was foregrouded on a painful part of our inconsolable history, the much talked about nineties, the time when the meaning of stories changed forever. With The Book of Gold Leavestakes a different path. It fits an irredeemable love story into a thick of political awakenings in a people long subdued by tyranny. In this way, it makes possible to picture life in Old city when the plundering boots were on a rampage.

Politics permeates every single breath of life in Kashmir and this finds expression in such a way in the novel that characters come alive. Major Kumar is a superbly drawn character who shifts between guilt and duty. His admission that Kashmiris are not his people, that he doesn’t know them perfectly captures the dilemma of the Indian state; of whose he is a representative. They might lay claim to land and its people, but they know it doesn’t belong to them.

Waheed’s characters are irredeemably romantic. Shanta Koul is silently angered at the occupation of her girl’s school by Indian army. Yet, like her love for Syed Afaq Bukhari, a muslim teacher in her school, she is unable to do anything.

The exodus of Kashmiri pandits from the valley is drawn with little judgment. When Dina Nath, the old Pandit educator comes to say good bye, Mir Zafar Ali, Faiz’s elder brother asks in a sorrowful tone – “Must you punish us all for the sins of few?” The question is a way of addressing the brotherhood the two communities shared.

One of the primary questions asked of fiction is that can language evoke lived experience? In reading the The Book of Gold Leaves, the life of Old city comes breathtakingly close to my lived experience. It’s a novel far exceeding anything that has been written on the city so far. The lyrical beauty of the prose closely matches the nostalgic aura of the old city. The sublimity of Mirza Waheed’s prose is assured and does not falter. It’s a good sign for the future.

Originally published in the February issue of Contributoria — https://www.contributoria.com/issue/2015-02/5496aa35a658be1c0f00000a

Portrait of a poet as a revolutionary

PicsArt_1427545477726Kashmiri poet Abdul Ahad Azad is considered as the first radical writer to push for change in his region

In the summer of 1943, when Kashmir was in the throes of political turbulence following widespread resentment among the people against the autocratic Dogra rule, Amin Kamil, a distinguished short-story writer and poet, remembers paying a visit to Hamdard, a weekly Urdu newspaper run by editor Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz. It was here that Kamil met Abdul Ahad Azad, an obscure person at that time.

Kamil recalls finding nothing distinct in Azad’s persona. “A dark, turbaned man who would not attract people’s attention, except when he spoke,” Kamil describes Azad.

On their second meeting, also in 1943, at the Hamdard office, Azad finally spoke to Kamil and in such a way that reflected the poet’s deep engagement with the people’s struggle for rights.

Bazaz had recently released a pamphlet titled Kisaan Tehreek (Farmer’s Movement), in which farmers and peasants of the valley were advised to maintain a joint and organised opposition to the National Conference, the party led by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Finding that Bazaz had inadvertently used his name as the author of the booklet, Kamil had gone to complain about the matter. Azad was present on the occasion and felt that Kamil’s complaint was genuine. However, he reflected: “I think farmers and peasants should be made to realise the necessity to fight for their rights, they should be united and organised because oftentimes these people are used for political and societal purposes by politicians.”

The well-considered comment by the poet reflected his progressive streak of mind. “Abdul Ahad Azad was a progressive poet. His poetry is an amalgam of political protest and revolutionary zeal,” says poet and historian, Zareef Ahmad Zareef.

What sort of a revolutionary was Azad? This is a question several writers and literary commentators have engaged with.

Azad had a profoundly painful sense of Kashmir’s history, says Shafi Shouq, former Professor of Kashmiri at the University of Kashmir. “Kashmir’s history was to him a record of successive subjugation, plunders by foreign warmongers, macabre events and abject misery. His patriotism had two aspects: love for the natural beauty of the land, admiration for its intellectual and spiritual legacy, and conviction in the freedom of the working classes to be achieved through people’s struggle,” he adds.

Azad wrote at a time when Kashmir was experiencing an awakening: resistance against the Dogra rule. But his poetry doesn’t just reflect and reinforce this resistance. Like a true Marxist, he settles on the idea of “continuous change bringing about a classless society”. His poems The River and Change attune to this idea of a spirit finding no solace in conciliatory political orders.

What is life but the book of change?

Change – more change – and yet more change!

Flux is the living reality,

And change the meaning of flux.

O compulsion! Slavery! Subjection!

O restless, Helpless heart! O Shame!

Rend the veil! Uncover the seething, bubbling heart!

Change! Change! Bring a new change.

Abid Ahmad, editor of Sheeraza English, a quarterly journal of culture and literature released by J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, believes that Azad was a step ahead of Mehjoor as a revolutionary poet.

“Azad was more rebellious than Mehjoor. He was an idealist who had absorbed communist thought and an idealist has to be absolutely a revolutionary. Through his poetry he kept on hoping for a just and equal society,” says Ahmad.

The opening lines of Azad’s poem The River starkly capture his unassailable desire to seek change.

My yearnings find expression

In bubbles, commotion, tumult;

It’s in wandering to distant goals

That I find the music of life

Azad was born into a peasant household of Raa’nger, Budgam in 1903. His father Mohammad Sultan Dar was a widely regarded Sufi poet, who was well versed in the Arabic and Persian languages.

Sultan Dar had two children before Azad was born; a daughter, Maale Ded, and a son, Ghulam Ali Dar. It is said that Azad was born 12 years after the birth of Sultan Dar’s other two children.

An interesting tale of Sufi foreknowledge surrounds Azad’s birth. A wandering Sufi by the name of Gani Sahab Al-Muarif one day came to stay at Sultan Dar’s home in Raa’nger. During the course of his stay, he told Sultan Dar and his wife that very soon they would be blessed with a son. He stated that the child should be named Ahad and he would earn a great name for himself.

Very soon indeed, Abdul Ahad was born to the amazement and delight of his family.

A precocious child, Azad was taught reading and writing by his father and brother, who had opened a maktab (a religious institution). It was here too that he learned the Arabic and Persian languages and pored through volumes of Persian and Arabic literature.

“From an early age Azad had shown a literary cast of mind owing to the atmosphere he was brought up in. He had read a great deal by the age of 14 and had started writing poetry very early on,” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef.

Azad was only 15 years old when in 1918 he was appointed as a government teacher in a school in the nearby village of Zuvhuma, for a sum of 13 rupees a month. During this time, he also researched the Kashmiri language.

“He taught Arabic in the school and devoted all his time to reading and writing besides teaching,” says Zareef. “He carried out thorough research into the Kashmiri language and became well versed with its literature and linguistics.”

The fruit of this research was later collected into a three-volume study of Kashmiri language and poetry, which is today regarded as a seminal work. The History of Kashmiri Language and Poetry is an influential work of the literary history of Kashmiri language written in Urdu. It stands as a work of immense value for both historians of the language and poets and writers. The first volume was published in 1959, 11 years after Azad’s death.

Writing in the foreword of the first volume, Amin Kamil had only praise for Azad’s tremendous effort. “To my mind Azad was the first person who had a deep longing for Kashmiri language and literature to attain a higher status. Here was a weak-bodied, turbaned village schoolteacher who was in profound grief over the morass of oppression and subjugation that the Kashmiri people had been thrown into and who felt Kashmiris should readily wake up to the glorious tradition of their past and live a freedom-filled, dignified life.”

Azad expressed his sadness by invoking Kalhan, Ghani Kashmiri and Yaqoob Sarfi in these lines of lament:

We have got some red, black, green, and yellow dresses.

We have got some red, black, green, white and yellow dresses.

We have got some red, black, green, and white and yellow dresses.

Kalhan Ghani ti Safri seyraab ker yem aaba’n

Sui aab saani baapath zehr e hilal aasyea

(In whose providence Kalhan, Ghani and Sarfi flourished

would those waters prove hemlock for us?)

Azad’s poetic lament was apt as Kashmir was reeling under centuries of decadent foreign rule and subjugation was cowering men and women into lifeless creatures. It was this state of being that Azad was referring to, says Zareef. “Inspired by Allama Iqbal’s concept of Khudi (self-realisation), Azad through his poetry appealed to people to unshackle themselves and take charge of their lives.”

Azad was a radical poet more concerned with ideas, says Abid Ahmad: “Like Iqbal, poetry was only a medium for him to express his revolutionary ideas.”

On a hot August day, with the sun shining fiercely over the lush green paddy fields of Raa’nger, I met Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, Azad’s grandson from his adopted son Javed Ahmad Dar. Mushtaq Dar, 37, is a devout religious man who, while talking, characteristically fingers his flowing black beard. He speaks with reverence about his grandfather. That reverence takes an apologetic and defensive tone when Azad’s Marxist strain is brought up. Mushtaq vehemently denies that Azad was a Marxist poet. “Azad was not a Marxist. Some people have wrongly attributed this label to him for their own political purposes,” he offers.

Mushtaq quotes judiciously from Azad’s poem Insaniyat (Humanity) to substantiate his defence and adds in a slow voice: “Although a revolutionary, Azad derived his poetic inspiration from Sufi thought.”

Azad had married relatively young, as was custom during those days. His wife came from Surasyar, a village some 30km from Budgam. They had a son who died at age four, whose death greatly troubled Azad – it forced him to shun his nom de plume of Janbaaz and adopt Azad for the rest of his life.

For a long time, no more children were born in the Azad household, which led Azad to adopt his brother Ghulam’s son, Javed Ahmed Dar aka Javed Azad.

Javed Azad grew up to be a poet himself and worked in Radio Kashmir. He died at the age of 70 in 2004. Javed Azad left behind two sons, Hafiz Dar and Mushtaq. Today the grandsons also live in Raa’nger, Budgam, which lies 15km from Srinagar.

A tarmac road passes through Raa’nger, connecting the village with Chadoora. It is named Azad Road in memory of the poet. Raa’nger looks prosperous with concrete houses and tarmac streets.

The two-storey house the Azad family lives in is whitewashed outside, giving it the luxurious look of a bungalow situated in some posh colony. A large portrait of Azad hangs on the wall of one of the carpeted, furnished rooms. Azad’s name is spoken with reverence and unmistakable pride inside the house. Mushtaq Ahmad, who runs a pharmaceutical business, after finishing reading Azad’s poem, begins to dwell on the lack of credit given to Azad by the Kashmiri people and academia in particular.

“Azad was a revolutionary poet. His contribution in awakening the Kashmiri people from the slumber of subjugation was immense. But nobody is paying heed to his poetry. Had people listened to him, the long desired freedom would have come to Kashmir,” says Mushtaq.

Abid Ahmad agrees that Azad remained a neglected poet throughout his life and the same can be said even today: “One of the reasons for this is that he would not write in praise of rulers or their adversaries.”

In absence of a strong intellectual tradition in Kashmir, Ahmad says that it’s not enough to just read and appreciate Azad’s poetry but to ask the larger pertinent question: where did such poetry come from? “At an academic level, researchers would only read his poetry without putting him in a wider context. Because of this approach, there is no serious work available on Azad.”

The revolutionary in Azad is not the aspect overlooked just by academia in Kashmir, but in a strange way people in his native village have construed him as a Sufi poet. Ghulam Mohammad, 63, nods appreciatively when I mention Azad to him but is unsatisfactory in the picture he draws of Azad: “Azad was the son of this village. He is revered here as a Sufi.”

On my way home, as the bus waves past the paddy fields, a wrinkled old lady sitting beside me offers her own summation of Azad. “Azad was a mystic. His tomb is a shrine.”

During the 100-year rule of Dogras, it was the Muslim majority population that bore the brunt of an “overtly Hindu state”.

“The Hindu Dogra state had employed its entire machinery to subjugate and oppress Kashmiri Muslims,” says Anwar Ashai, son of Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, a Kashmiri nationalist who was an instrumental figure in the nationalist struggle of Kashmiris in the 1930s and 40s.

It was in this atmosphere of abject poverty and oppression that a voice like Azad found expression. “Azad’s poetry expresses feelings of unease and restlessness. Being at unease with oneself, with the political and social order and with God himself were the elements of his poetry,” says Ahmad.

Lines from The River express this unease:

I move on day and night

Through rocks, ravines and ditches;

I do not pause for raise,

I do not pause for play;

I am at home with the bats

As I am with the bulbuls.

Azad’s lifespan, from 1903 to 1948, was a time of revolutionary upheaval in the world. In Russia, the old autocratic order of tsars was replaced by the Russian Revolution of 1906, followed by two debilitating and monstrous world wars, first in 1914 and then in 1939. During this time, Muhammad Iqbal had earned remarkable fame as a revolutionary poet envisioning a brave new world for the Muslims of the subcontinent.

“It was no surprise that Azad was inspired by Iqbal. In fact many titles of his poems were in part influenced by Iqbal’s poems of the same theme. Shikwa e Iblees is one of them,” says Zareef.

Following Iqbal’s tradition, Azad believed that poetry could be used as a medium to articulate revolutionary ideas about society reeling under subjugation and exploitation. “Azad wrote at a time when the world was being shaped by revolutions, that is 1903 to 1948. And poetry was believed to be most effective medium of reaching to the masses and motivating them to bring about desired social change,” says Professor Shafi Shouq.

Azad’s poetry also broke away from traditional Kashmiri poetry, which Professor Shouq believes had “developed stagnation because of the stereotyped expressions revolving around clichéd notions of human beauty and mystic concepts”. A radical shift from the fantastical descriptions of beauty and myths was needed, and Azad quickly adopted the role to steer society towards upliftment through his revolutionary verses.

Azad was a modern poet who had departed from the long-standing tradition of Sufi poetry, says Ahmad. The advent of modernity in Kashmiri literature was different from the western conception of modernity. “In our case, modernity means a break from the past. It was a break from the mystic traditions of Sufi poetry.” Azad and Mehjoor were the precursors of modernist poetry in Kashmir.

“Azad rid the Kashmiri language from its mystical tradition of jargon and abstract language,” adds Ahmad.

Writing in the oppressive times of Dogra rule, Azad had felt that writing should infuse hope among readers and a thirst for transformation of the exploitative political order.

“It was a time when life was felt to be devoid of grace and beauty. The common masses were consumed by hunger, disease, and forced labour (begaar). Azad, being infused by the revolutionary ideas, decided to locate his poetry within the social, economic and historical situation and use it as an arsenal to fight notions of social hierarchy that justified economic exploitation,” says Professor Shouq.

Azad started saying Kashmiri poetry at the young age of 15. His father, himself a Sufi poet of some status, enjoyed listening to Kashmiri masnavis and songs. Usually the teenage Azad would recite the poetry and this influenced him to write his own. Initially he would recite and write ghazals and sometimes masnavis, but later on he moved to other forms of poetry.

His adoption of Azad as a nom de plume followed a particular awakening of spirit and liberation of soul. During the initial period of his poetic life, Azad had adopted Ahad as his nom de plume before he changed it to Janbaaz.

In 1931, when Quit Kashmir movement was launched against the autocratic Dogra ruler, Azad was accused by the Dogra regime of involvement in subversive activities. His home was searched. Finding only literary magazines and books in his house, the Dogra forces let him go without a prison term, but not without a penance. Azad was transferred to teach in a distant primary school in the Tral region of southern Kashmir. Not allowed to speak to his family before departure, this crude treatment was greatly felt by Azad.

Around this time, Azad’s four-year-old son was taken ill and he could do nothing about it. In exile from his home, he spent time at a shrine of Shah Hamdan in Tral in silent prayer for his son’s recovery. His prayers couldn’t heal his son, who died shortly. With his death, Azad shed his nom de plume of Janbaaz, and adopted Azad.

“It was at the shrine of Shah Hamdan that he adopted Azad as his nom de plume, thus becoming free of religious rituals and bindings,” says Zareef. “Azad started believing that a man could shape his own destiny, thus moving closer to Iqbal’s concept of Khudi (self-realisation).”

In 1935, Azad met Mehjoor, the most prominent poet of that era, and the two became friends. Mehjoor and Azad’s poetry converge at one level but Azad largely remained overshadowed by Mehjoor throughout his lifetime.

“Azad died quite young but he made his mark. His poetry remained purposeful, as all revolutionary poetry is,” says Zareef.

Friendship with Azad gave him confidence, says Zareef. But Amin Kamil is of the view that Azad was not to be swayed by Mehjoor. The two of them had immense respect for each other and Mehjoor would spend days and nights at Azad’s home in Raa’nger, but Azad would not hesitate to disagree with him.

Kamil relates an occasion where both Azad and Mehjoor were invited by the schools inspector Ghulam Ahmad Ashai to his home. While Mehjoor gladly went, Azad stayed back. “He didn’t go because he thought he would have to suppress himself by agreeing with whatever Ashai Sahab said,” says Kamil.

Anwar Ashai alludes to a great friendship between his father, Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, and Mehjoor. “Mehjoor was my father’s intimate friend but I am sure my father knew Azad as well, as all of them were progressive people.”

“His integrity as a poet is remarkable. He was not given to trade his integrity, his self-esteem for worldly gains. It’s why he remained poor most of his life,” says Zareef.

It’s also a commentary on his shadowy stature that Azad remained largely unknown and unread during his lifetime. His posthumous recognition as a poet of equal or even surpassing stature to Mehjoor is debatable, but many argue that his poetry is potent and fits the present picture of Kashmir.

“Take Azad’s poetry and see yourself in it. His poetry is particularly relevant during present times because nothing much has changed since the Dogras. The subjugation and oppression continues, however with a different name,” says Zareef.

For Ahmad, Azad surpasses Mehjoor because he was a more rebellious poet. “Azad was not a court poet. In my opinion, Azad is greater than Mehjoor.”

After his untimely death at the age of 45 in 1948, Bazaz released a booklet, Shayr e Insaniyat (The poet of Humanity), in Azad’s memory.

Azad’s poetry was oriented towards the upliftment of man from the wretched oppressive forms of hierarchies prevalent in Kashmiri society. This earned him a Marxist tagline that was of considerable anxiety to many other poets and writers of the time, who totally ignored him. “It was Azad who for the first time infused Kashmiri poetry with progressive ideas of humanity, but he was strangely ignored by the literary community because of his progressive streak. Even at his death, hardly a tear was shed,” says Kamil.

Criticised for his overtly political poetry and for his critique of religious orthodoxy, the first book (Yaavun H’yeng) published on Azad after his death comments on his poetry thus: “Azad found Mehjoor’s style of poetry restrictive and was looking for his own style where he could voice his political aspiration. His poetry is an expression of a radical revolutionary mind which sometimes goes against the religious orthodoxy and sometimes takes on the freedom movement itself.”

Azad’s posthumous success owes to the changing of political climate in valley from the 1950s and 1960s but Zareef argues that there should be a revival of interest in Azad’s poetry as the oppression and subjugation of the Kashmiri people hasn’t ceased. “Independent research should be undertaken on Azad’s poetry. MPhils and PhDs should be carried out.”

Ahmad is of the view that unless a serious cultural practice of valuing our poets is rooted in our society, there can be no genuine appraisal of Azad. “No serious work has so far been undertaken on Azad. The State Cultural Academy can only do as much as it deems worthwhile. Anti-establishment poets like Azad need to be taken up by independent scholars and writers for serious study.”

The current scholarship on Azad is bleak, save a few papers and an issue of Sheeraza Urdu released by the State Academy. His relevancy, however, is not exhausted. His poetry continues to ring true among literary circles.

“Azad is tremendously relevant in the present because the times we are living in are worse than it was under the Dogras,” says an assistant professor of Kashmiri, at the University of Kashmir. “His poetry is filled to the brim with revolutionary ideas about lifting the spirits of youth and changing one’s destiny.”

Azad’s first collection of poetry, Kuliyat e Azad, was published by Jammu Kashmir Cultural Academy in 1967 under the editorship of Padam Nath Ganjoo, his close friend. The Kuliyat (Collected Works) has been out of print ever since the first edition was sold out, save a few copies released in 2004. At Kitaab Ghar, the Academy-run bookshop, the only available work on Azad is the Sheeraza issue.

Why the Academy hasn’t released a second edition of Azad’s Kuliyat is perhaps a telling comment on how poets and artists are valued in our society.

“The academy cannot publish unless there is a demand for it,” says Ahmad. But the statement shies away from the work the state Cultural Academy is mandated to do, which is to preserve Kashmiri cultural heritage, without bothering about its commercial value.

“The Cultural Academy takes a lot of time in bringing out a new edition. Can you imagine that the Kashmiri dictionary was out of print for five years before they released a new edition last year,” says Altaf Hussain, a Kashmiri language teacher from Baramulla.

There is a single volume of Sheeraza Urdu, a literary journal produced by the Academy, which was released in honour of Azad on his centenary in 2002. “Barring some articles here and there, there is no other research work available on this poet. That’s why a full scale research into Azad’s life and poetry should be undertaken at Mphil and PhD levels,” says Zareef.

Azad died a lonely death at the State Hospital in Srinagar, now the SMHS hospital, on April 4, 1948. He was diagnosed with appendicitis and died following surgery. He was known to be of weak health all his life and often suffered ailments. His death was not received with state and public mourning of the kind Mehjoor’s did, but his dearest friends knew Kashmir had lost a hero, a revolutionary. Shortly after his death, Mehjoor wrote a poem honouring Azad. Fortunately, Azad had left behind a corpus of work through which “his name will be counted among the pioneers of Kashmiri language and literature, who brought revolutionary ideas into this language,” states Zareef.

Among his famous poems, which include Inquilab (Revloution), Dariyaav (River) and Loal to Gaatijaar (Love and Reason), Shikwa e Iblees (Satan’s Complaint) caused considerable controversy and Shikwa e Kashmir (Kashmir’s Complaint) expresses his defiant patriotism.

The vision of his posthumous fame was silently captured by Azad through his own verse. Azad died with these lines:

Alam haa karri yaad Azad Azad

Kuni saat’e wich’te yaad paavai madno

(The world will remember me and cry Azad Azad

My beloved someday I will remind you)

Azad rests in his grave beneath a maple tree in a cemetery located close to his home in Raa’nger. His name is carved on the white marble tombstone. The cemetery is ringed with a concrete fence. On a black marble stone, near the main entrance, is carved in bold letters: “AZAD THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY POET OF KASHMIR”.

Originally published in the January issue of Contributoria — https://www.contributoria.com/issue/2015-01/54633487f9a5159c0b000021

Braving the deluge: Women who risked their lives for others


On September 5, when three days of torrential rain had waterlogged some parts of Srinagar, Qurat and five young boys travelled to Tengpora locality. She recalls meeting a stubborn, old lady who wouldn’t agree to leave her home, probably afraid of thieves who were rumoured to have broken into abandoned, flood-hit homes and decamped with valuables. On the second day when floodwaters had risen more, the lady was pleading to be rescued.

“It was then that we rescued her,” Qurat says.

For next couple of days during which time Srinagar was turned into a large lake, Qurat became part of the locally driven rescue and relief work in Bemina, Nowgam and other inundated localities of the summer capital. “We waded through waist-high waters and sometimes used boats to evacuate people from their flooded houses,” she says, “it was horrendous to see people left on their own with no government in sight.”

Qurat’s team not only rescued stranded people and shifted them to safer places, but they also provided them with food and clothing. “We rescued some 150 people from Tengpora and sheltered them at a school. With God’s grace, I was not short of money. And my friends and family ably assisted me,” she says.

When the machinery of the state government in Indian administered Kashmir drowned in the deluge, Qurat’s desire to lend a hand to people in need epitomizes the work of hundreds of young people who risked their lives for saving others. According to a study conducted by an independent Kashmiri volunteers group, 96 percent of the rescue and relief work was carried out by local volunteers. Among these were young women of Kashmir who dived into waters sometimes even against their parents’ wishes. Sadly, these brave women didn’t get a mention in the narratives of voluntary rescue ops reported in the local press.

But, by September 8 as Jehlum sank Srinagar with all road and telecom connectivity lost, Qurat was unable to carry out rescue operations on her own. Determined to carry out the rescue work, she joined a voluntary group in Sanat Nagar locality. Their work was cut for the day; the team would meet each morning and divide work amongst themselves. “Each day we chose who would do what and went on our own to different parts of Srinagar,” she says.

The flood had submerged most localities of Srinagar but it miraculously spared the residents who moved from ground floors of their homes to first, then second and even third floor as water level rose dangerously. In many cases, trapped residents refused to abandon their homes. “It was a hard task convincing them to leave. They feared that their homes will be robbed. It was horrifying. On one hand, the waters were rising, but these people wouldn’t leave. At last, they agreed to move because they realized their lives were in danger,” she says.

What annoyed Qurat during the rescue ops was the attitude of men towards her efforts. But it didn’t stop her from performing her role as a saviour. “At some places, men would just look on as spectators while I waded through floodwaters to reach out to stranded families. I could see that they were questioning the presence of a woman in the midst of situation which is usually seen as man’s domain. But I didn’t care what people thought. I just went on doing my job,” she says.

At her home, Qurat faced a difficult situation too, of dealing with her parents about her rescue work. “I belong to a conservative family and it was difficult to convince them.” she says, “initially they were a little reluctant but I was determined to change them and finally I won them over.”

Qurat's team not only rescued stranded people and shifted them to safer places, but they also provided them with food and clothing. Qurat’s team not only rescued stranded people and shifted them to safer places, but they also provided them with food and clothing.

When floodwaters entered Jawahar Nagar, one of the worst-hit localities in Srinagar, Bisma Ali’s family was stuck in the locality and they made a distress call to her. “My two sisters were in the house. My younger sister told me in a grave tone that water had reached the ceiling of ground floor. I decided right then that I had to be at home,” says Bisma.

In the next couple of days, Bisma managed to raise INR 25,000 with the help of her three Kashmiri friends, “We raised the money from our journalism department at Jamia Milia Islamia. Everyone contributed,” she says, “on September 9 and 10, every Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri came to help in whatever way they could.”

With money in hand, Bisma rushed to buy life-jackets and medicines, the lack of which was severely felt back home. But on September 10 when they arrived in Srinagar, Bisma and her friends felt there was a need to coordinate and organize the relief operation, so they divided themselves into two groups; one in New Delhi would collect relief and get it airlifted to Kashmir, the other would collect it from Srinagar airport.

“It was incredible to see so much of water. I felt panicky, but I held my nerve,” she says.

It was the relief camp set up at Hyderpora, one of the largest in Srinagar, where Bisma and her friends set up their base. What followed from September 10 onwards was something she will never forget. “Water was everywhere. It looked as if every concrete thing had vanished. In the coming days, we waded through chest-deep waters to reach out to stranded families. Our priority was to reach as many families as we could.”

On a tip off that there was a pregnant lady stranded in Rajbagh, Bisma jumped fetched an inflatable boat and set about finding her in the locality. But what she encountered in the way left her scared and almost helpless. A bloated corpse of a woman clutching a photo frame was floating in water near her Jawahar Nagar home.

“The photo was of her three young children. I was terrified. It was the most dreadful thing I have ever seen. When I tried to drag her out of water, her skin was giving away. Haunting is a small word to describe it. We found a man’s body a few steps ahead, who was probably her husband. They were a Sikh family,” says Bisma.

When floodwaters entered Jawahar Nagar, one of the worst-hit localities in Srinagar, Bisma Ali's family was stuck in the locality and they made a distress call to her. When floodwaters entered Jawahar Nagar, one of the worst-hit localities in Srinagar, Bisma Ali’s family was stuck in the locality and they made a distress call to her.

Bisma mustered courage and rowed on. On the second storey of a house in Rajbagh, she found the pregnant lady. “She was four months pregnant. She had gone without food and water for three days. Her employer, a certain professor at University of Kashmir, had abandoned her and her family of four to guard the house. I pleaded with her to move out with us, but she didn’t listen,” says Bisma, “I gave her stock of food and medicine for two days. And from then on, I would come every other day to give her required essentials.”

For the next fifteen days, battling fever and skin infection caused by floodwaters, Bisma kept on rescuing and shipping relief material to hundreds of families stranded in their homes. “I didn’t see a single government official during this period of time. They had all vanished. But what really moved me was the way Kashmiris conducted themselves. Everyone was a volunteer with one authorizing over us,” she says.

According to Kashmir Volunteers for Disaster and Flood Relief, the group Bisma worked with, they were able to reach over 47000 people in different flood-hit areas of Srinagar. “Kashmir was flooded and it needed help. We just played our part,” says Bisma.

When Lal Ded hospital, Kashmir’s lone maternity centre, came under flood waters by the evening of September 7, many women patients in the centre had to face problems. There were expectant mothers and new-borns in the hospital who needed immediate attention. The women volunteers not only rescued them but also provided them medical assistance.

“We were looking for women who required medical help and wherever we faced a problem with a lady patient, I would call my gynaecologist mother who instructed me about what needed to be done at that time,” says Mahum Shabir, another young volunteer who had graduated from Harvard University, says.

Mahum Shabir distributing relief material in a flood-hit locality of Srinagar.Mahum Shabir distributing relief material in a flood-hit locality of Srinagar.

Inshah Malik, a Kashmiri student of political science in Delhi, believes the flood has changed the perception towards women and their role in the society. “What we saw in the valley is that women are equally capable in rescuing and saving people’s lives. This is highly encouraging. The courage the women volunteers of Kashmir have shown is extraordinary. Other women in Kashmir should take a cue from this and learn that they have the agency to help and inspire people,” she says.

Looking back, Bisma says, the experience of floods has made her stronger and a new belief has taken root in her. “It is the belief that Kashmiris are very resilient. We can face any calamity with smiles.”

Originally published here — https://www.authintmail.com/2014/feature/braving-deluge-women-who-risked-their-lives-others-121132