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 —


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 —

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 —


Bare Lives: Making Brooms for a Living

Every year, thousands of non-local migrant workers arrive in Kashmir from various Indian states to make a living. Many among them bring the raw material for making brooms, a trade which gives them a better life than they can think of in their home states.


In the busy, dust-laden market of Batamaloo locality in Indian administered Kashmir, several non-local migrants are sitting on a pavement with stacks of brooms laid out in front of them. A lean, seventeen-year-old, Raju Ram is one among hundreds of non-local broom makers who arrive in Srinagar city every year. Raju came to Kashmir three years ago with his family and started making and selling brooms to earn a living. “This is the only profession I know. I can’t do anything else,” he says with a resigned look on his face. Raju inherited this occupation from his parents who, in turn, earned it from theirs, continuing a family business that has been going on for generations.

In 2011, Raju, along with his family, left Indian state of Rajasthan in pursuit of ‘a better livelihood in Kashmir.’ His father had been coming to Kashmir for more than eight years and he was drawing good business. “In Rajasthan, the broom making business is in decline. Kashmir is far better, although doing business here is a bit tough,” Raju says.

Raju looks older than his age. His face looks burned and he squints while speaking. Poverty and lack of opportunities in his home state of Rajasthan brought him to Kashmir. Now, every day is a battle to eke out a living for himself and his family. Raju rides an old bicycle atop which he carries his stack of brooms which he sells to shopkeepers around Batamaloo.

“My area of operation is Batamaloo. I don’t venture outside of that,” he says. His father travels to other places in the city, selling brooms made from the leaves of date palm trees, ‘which grow in multitude in Rajasthan’. To earn a living by selling brooms was a natural choice for Raju to make. “There is nothing else out there that I can do. My entire family is into this business, so why should I do anything else.” The money earned from this profession is very little. Raju says it’s enough to keep him going but life has no meaning for him.

“Poverty has taught me this lesson. The only thing I know is how to feed my belly.” The searing indictment is followed with a smile. “Ab Kya Karsakte Hain (What can one do)?”

Every day, Raju wakes up at 7 and immediately starts arranging the brooms on his bicycle. “I have to sell a lot of these before I leave.” For past three years, Raju comes every five months to Kashmir and stays for three months.

“During this time, we have to sell our entire stock,” he says. On a good business day, Raju sells about 20-30 brooms. “But business has been bad for many days now,” he says. The raw material costs his family around thirty thousand rupees and to earn a small profit on this involves battling day in and out amidst heat and rain. The only consolation for Raju is that in Kashmir, broom business is better than in Rajasthan.

“Kashmir is beautiful, but not without its troubles. The local people around the place we live trouble us. They want us to leave,” he says. His remark draws a suspicious look from a sari-clad woman who approaches us and takes Raju away. “I am his mother. Please stop bothering us!” she says.

Like scores of other non-migrant broom-makers, Raju lives in on a clearing of land converted into a slum dwelling on Jammu-Srinagar highway near Bemina locality. From a distance, the place looks like a mass of garbage until you see people moving about in it. Small tarpaulin covered hut-like structures lie scattered in the area. These are homes of the broom-makers, handmade by them. A foul stench wafts through the entire place, refusing to evaporate in the air.

In front of a makeshift hut whose contents lie about like the entrails of a dead animal, a woman is sitting on her haunches thrashing a broom on a spiked plane of wood. Her ragged clothes are featureless. Everything here is dirty, torn and reeking of stench. A naked, unwashed child is asleep in the hut as another plays in the dirt.

Khema, a man from Rajasthan in his thirties, is talking to few customers. His wife is in process of making a broom, thrashing the thick date palm leaves on a spiked wooden surface to make them thinner and perfect for a proper broom. The entire family has remained unwashed for months on end. “There is not enough water here to drink,” says Khema’s wife. Khema arrived in Kashmir some two months ago with a stock of brooms to sell. Khema is worried that his stock will not be finished in a month. “Ramadan was a good month for business,” he says.

Khema first arrived in Kashmir eight years ago with a promise of earning a decent livelihood to his family. The money he has earned barely goes above subsistence. He recalls his life in Rajasthan as one of perpetual misery. “Rajasthan is poor. There is not enough to eat and a consistent water scarcity. In Kashmir, we are far better off,” he says.

Khema’s twelve-year-old son, Billo, carefully begins to take off the tarpaulin cover of the hut they live in. On the previous night, strong winds and rain had blown the cover of their hut, exposing the entire family to rain. “But we managed to not let the rain affect the brooms,” Khema says. He joins his son in rearranging the tarpaulin cover.

Billo is an eager looking child who has come to Kashmir to help his father, leaving his studies midway. Khema believes it is time for him to learn the trade of how to make brooms. “There is not much he can do with himself if he studies. It’s better for him to learn the trade as early as possible,” he says.

Asked what brings him to Kashmir every year, Khema rubs his belly and utters a single word – ‘bhook‘ (hunger). As he finishes tying the tarpaulin cover to the roof of his ‘hut’, it begins to rain again.

Originally published here —


‘Celebrating’ Eid: The poignant lives of Kashmir’s Orphans

Suhail Ahmad Khan, 12, is a feeble boy whose bright black eyes give him inquisitive looks but silence pervades his movements. Unlike kids of his age, Suhail isn’t looking forward to Eid, a holy festival marking the end of Ramzan, the month of fasting for Muslims. The festival in fact adds burden to his memories of home in north Kashmir. Suhail is an orphan amongst 40 other odd orphans at Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation in Jawahar Nagar locality of Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar.

I asked him what Eid meant for an orphan like him. He looked down and started fiddling with the hem of his shirt. He had no answers to my questions, any question. “He is a silent kid and he remains occupied with himself,” said one of the men at the office attached to the building which houses the orphanage.

In 2009, Suhail, then aged six, was brought to Yateem Foundation by his cousin. He is among the few whose relatives have ‘stopped coming for him’, says Bashir Ahmad, program executive of the JK Yateem Foundation. On the occasion of festivals like Eid, Suhail has to spend it at the orphanage unlike most of the kids. “When nobody comes for him, I take him to my place,” says Bashir. “He is a pretty lonely kid,” he remarks.

Most orphans at Yateem Foundation go to their extended families on Eid and are returned after three to four days. On fewer occasions during past Eids, Suhail’s cousin would turn up at the orphanage and take him to his home in north Kashmir’s Uri, but this year the prospects are bleak. “His cousin has stopped visiting him after he got married. It doesn’t look like the kid is going home this year,” says Bashir.

Suhail smiles softly when asked to write his name. He speaks Kashmiri language with an accent inflected with the dialect of Gujjars living in mountains of Kashmir. He says the Yateem Foundation ‘is good enough for me but not as good as home’. His home is in Nellusa village of Uri town, some 105 km from Srinagar. A massive 7.6 earthquake on Richter scale in 2005 flattened Uri. Nearly 1500 people died in the disaster and thousands of homes were shattered to a mass of debris. Suhail’s home was reduced to rubble too.

The image of home in Suhail’s imagination is built by his fond recalling of being a darling of his father and a nuisance to his mother. Speaking of the tragedy which befell his home on October 8, 2005, he recalls it as if nothing has happened. “Gar saara toot gaya tha (The whole house had broken down),” he says as if speaking of a broken toy. There is no emotion in his voice. Suhail seems to have settled in his fate of an orphan.

His father, Mir Ali Khan, a woodcutter, died shortly after the earthquake for which he blames his mother. “Mother poisoned his food. One morning we woke up and found him dead. White froth was coming out of his mouth,” Suhail says in a matter-of-fact tone.

One morning, his mother left to fetch firewood from a forest nearby but she never came back. Suhail and his sister were left alone. “My aunt took my sister and I was brought here by my cousin,” he explains. Suhail recalls his childhood at home marked with fights between his parents. His disregard for his mother, his father’s second wife, is upfront and he doesn’t shy from speaking out about her. “She fought with father every day and was hostile to me. She beat me up regularly for no fault,” he says.

One Eid when Suhail was aged four, his elder sister Kulsum had gone out to fetch a pack of biscuits for themselves. On returning home, he found her mother seething in anger. “She had fought with father and when she saw me, she leapt up and beat me with a stick,” he says.

His Eid was ruined and he had a sore back but Suhail says that celebrating Eid at home was still pleasant as he had his elder sister to play with. The death of his father and further disintegration of his family due to the earthquake has left him with no hopes of availing those pleasures. At the orphanage, he has no friends, no pals, to call his own, “I had one friend at school but he too left after meeting an accident which left his legs injured.”

At home during Eid, his father would spoil him with love. Suhail would hop on his shoulders and go around the village. “I loved my father more than my mother,” he declares. Suhail felt his father’s death keenly and his brow twitches in remembrance of him. His father called him Zameer Ali, he says boastfully.

At the orphanage, Eid is a sullen affair for Suhail who prefers silence over brouhaha. Every year on Eid, he and other children get two new Kurta-Pyjamas, a shiny shoe or slippers and some ‘Eidi’. “We all look so alike here. It’s the code of this place,” he says wryly.

Life at the orphanage is marked with obligations of which religious obligation is the primary one. “It’s important to give these children a moral education to help them grow up to be religiously upright,” says Bashir Ahmad. But this comes with a denial of little freedoms that childhood is blessed with. “At home, you can do anything. Not here,” says Suhail. He quickly adds that he loves this place as it has given him an education which he wouldn’t have availed at home.

On Eid, Suhail and other children at the orphanage wake at the crack of dawn. “We first offer the morning Salah and then have tea in the hall.” Afterwards the children would be taken to the Children’s Park of Jawahar Nagar. This is the happy little time they would get. “We all play in the Children’s Park. I love it there,” says Suhail. Would he like to go out more often? “Yes, but we have to be obedient here. We cannot go out on our own.”Suhail’s happiest moment on Eid is when he buys a toy gun from the Eidi. His eyes lit up when asked what he would do with it. “I like to play with the toy-gun. It makes me look like a mujahid.”

Suhail says he has three options for the career he wants to pursue, which he calls umeeds (hope). He wants to be either an Islamic scholar, a teacher or a mujahid. “My father always told me to fight for my deen (religion).” On the day of Eid, he indulges in the militant dream by playing with the toy-gun. “Without a toy gun, there is no Eid,” he says.

Suhail takes little solace in his studies with Urdu as his favorite subject. He reads newspapers and innocently says what is going on in Kashmir – the insurgency. Deep inside a structure which allows these children no freedom to experience the life outside, it is difficult to believe that children like Suhail look at the armed insurgency with awe and romanticism.

In the first twenty five days of Ramadan, Suhail observed fast for seventeen days. “I like Eid ul Fitr better because of Ramzan,” he says, “On this Eid I want to play at home.” But there are no signs yet of this wish to be granted. His cousin hasn’t called on him for eight months. “I phoned him but he tells me he is busy,” he says.

The life at an orphanage is predictable and it attunes to children’s need of education, but it leaves them wanting for the desire of freedom. “When I came here, I felt like coming to a prison, like I was being locked up. I cried for whole days till I started adjusting,” says Suhail. When his needs were met, Suhail stopped complaining. “They gave me whatever I asked for. There are good people here.”

The number of orphans in Kashmir is pegged at 2.4 lakh, of which around 20000 are sheltered at orphanages. Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Foundation is one such orphanage out of hundreds which boasts of satisfactory infrastructure. The forty odd children at the orphanage study at private schools. “I study at Soliha Sublime, Rajbagh and it’s a good school. The teachers are also good,” says Suhail.

However, there are other several orphanages in the city which are un-registered and un-regulated and the children at these places are living in the worst imaginable conditions. Only 27 orphanages are registered with the Jammu & Kashmir Social Welfare Department. According to officials, the department directly runs 11 Bal Niketans and six Nari Niketans where it provides lodging, boarding and education to orphans.

But there are many orphanages that operate outside government control in Kashmir. A narrow lane in Barbar Shah locality of Srinagar leads to a dilapidated old Pandit house. The structure houses the Alamdar Yateem Trust, an orphanage which looks after 30-odd children. The house is decrepit, the stairs creek and a foul smell emanates from a dirty room in which a row of little children are learning to read. The walls of the room are plastered with dirt and are without paint. Every child is wearing a dirty skull cup over a frilly Kurta-Pyjama.

Bilal Ahmad Querishi, 14, is an orphan who lost his mother in childbirth which brought him to the trust. It’s Bilal’s eighth year now. He looks weak and there are white spot marks on his face. Coming from a poor family in Bandipora, Bilal and his elder brother were taken up by this orphanage. While Arif has left the place to earn a livelihood by working as a salesman in Srinagar. Bilal wants to become a doctor, an announcement which induces laughter from other children in the room. “I want to treat him,” he points to a frail-looking boy in the room. “He is so weak,” he remarks.

Bilal is sitting cross-legged with a torn school bag in front of him. He brightens up when asked what he wants to do on Eid. “I like Eid because we go out on an outing to Childrens Park,” he says. The children go on outings like this twice or thrice a year and this year after the Eid is over, they will be going on a picnic. On the second day of Eid, the children will be leaving for their homes; most of them are from far-flung areas of the Valley.

“We will meet our relatives and then return,” says Arif Ahmad Nayak, a thirteen year old kid whose handicapped father left him at this place three years ago, “There is nothing much at home, Eid or no Eid.”

There are no preparations for Eid for these children. They don’t ask for clothes or accessories. “We provide them with whatever we can. New clothes and shoes, etc.,” says Mudasir Bukhari, general secretary of the Alamdar Yateem Trust, which has been accused in past of forcing the children into begging.

But Bilal says he likes it here more than home. His family has very limited means to sustain themselves. Poverty and the resultant hardships force these families to send their children to orphanages. “Some of the children here belong to very poor families and they leave them here because they can’t take care of them on their own,” says Bukhari.

Alamdar Yateem Trust is an unregistered orphanage and is run on public funds. “We generate funds to the tune of Rs 7 Lakh per annum,” says Bukhari. Being an unregistered orphanage, the funds go largely un-regulated. And the conditions of the place speaks for the neglected treatment it gets.

Arif and Bilal are best of friends at the orphanage and they would like to spend the Eid in playing cricket. “Arif supports Pakistan cricket team and I support India, so there is always a tussle,” says Bilal. This year, if all goes according to plan, the day of Eid for them will begin by waking up early in the morning to offer pre-dawn prayers. Thereafter the children will offer congregational Eid prayers at a local mosque and then leave to the chairperson’s home, where they will have tea and snacks, “Once we are back, we will burst firecrackers and make merry,” says Arif.

Sometimes the longing for home is overpowering for these kids. Some years ago, Bilal was restless to go home and would run to the gate and try to escape. “But older children caught hold of me,” he says sullenly. When the longing for home becomes too much, Bilal likes to stay alone with no one to sully his silence. When I asked him whether he misses home, ten-year-old Sharif Ahmad Khan, a resident of Bandipora, offers a sordid reply, “I miss home every moment of my life.”

Festivals like Eid come and go, changing nothing in the lives of these children. For Sharif and others like him, the occasion of Eid is an opportunity to visit home, however dreary the life at home is. “Home is where I always want to be,” he says ruefully.

Originally published here —

Imagining Gaza in Kashmir

As I write this, Gaza is in mourning. Outside my home in old Srinagar city, a strict curfew is in force. The celebration of the 13 July Martyrs Day, like any other commemoration of martyrdom in Kashmir, is met with a clampdown by the state. There is mourning in Kashmir too for 150 dead Palestinians of Gaza Strip. Mourning takes the shape of protest, of clarion calls for freedom of all oppressed people in the world. Except us.

We are a strange people. On Friday, sermons delivered from the pulpits by the clerics call for the freedom of Palestinians, freedom of the Afghans, freedom of the Syrians but they forget their own. Does God forget too?

The streets reverberate with the rousing slogans of solidarity for Gazans. I imagine Gaza in the night. The raining bombs freeze children in their sleep. A boy hugging his sibling in an embrace of death. The death of a mother robbing her children of sleep.

Gaza is not Srinagar. I imagine Srinagar to be Gaza. My friend scoffs, ‘A single bomb will flatten Srinagar.’ A house in Gaza is split into two. The family rushes to find their daughter in the rubble. A toy is found.

We sanctify death. Yes, we do. In death we announce the worthiness of our lives. Of lives shorn of dignity and freedom attained finally in death. There is silence in death. The silence of freedom. We shout freedom from the clock tower at Lal Chowk, only to find it in a bullet.

“What is freedom/Azadi?” my friend asks. There is no answer to this. He knows. Gazans are fighting to be like everyone else. There is similarity in every struggle. I imagine Gazans thinking about Kashmir. I imagine them smiling at us. I imagine them acknowledging that our fight is similar.

I imagine Gaza in the afternoon sun. The debris of houses shining in the scorching sun. I imagine its children picking stones, aiming them towards the enemy, becoming men in the process. And I imagine Mahmoud Dervish silently writing these lines for Gaza:

“Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time in Gaza is not relaxation, but storming the burning noon. Because in Gaza values are different, different, different.

The only value for the occupied is the extent of their resistance to occupation. That is the only competition there. Gaza has been addicted to knowing this cruel, noble value. It did not learn it from books, hasty school seminars, loud propaganda megaphones or songs. It learned these values through experience alone and through work that is not done for advertisement and image.”

Originally published here —

In Conversation with Mridu Rai

murmurs-whispers-conversation-mridu-rai-1405017165AM) You were supposed to deliver the first ‘Pt Rughonath Vaishnavi Annual Talk’ but the authorities sought permission from organizers which they had not taken and the program was ultimately cancelled. Was there any laxity on part of JKCCS or is it just the State exercising its military muscle to prevent public intellectuals from speaking on the issue of Kashmir?

MR) I wouldn’t know the details but from what I understand the requisite permission had been asked for. This was a last minute decision by the authorities to put pressure on the venue owner to prevent the seminar from happening. I find it completely surprising because I don’t think I have anything to say that is particularly dangerous. It’s a pity that there isn’t more openness about having conversations flow naturally. Driving a conversation underground is probably more dangerous than letting people speak their minds.

AM) The clampdown on public spheres where conversations can take place is another feature of the State’s repressive machinery. Do you think denial of space can lead Kashmiris to think and consider violent means to voice their views?

MR) I like to think that violence is something that anyone takes to as the very last resort; there is too much to lose. But certainly, a lack of transparent dialogue is always dangerous because it opens up the ground for innuendo; for suspicion, for conspiracy theories and it fosters an atmosphere for repression. We have seen in 1987 when the elections were rigged. Large number of Kashmiris finally gave up on using the idea of democratic way of accessing their rights. I certainly hope that we never see the kind of destructive violence; destructive for Kashmiris themselves that we saw in 2010. Certainly, it’s always better to talk. The state can only stop you so far. It still has to offer you some reason. I would be interested to hear what reasons they offer for having cancelled the event yesterday.

And I think as a historian, I must be the most harmless person (Laughs). I doubt they have any interest in historians writing on pre-47 Kashmir. I think there is a deep suspicion about JKCCS perhaps and it creates the condition in which dialogue is no longer the alternative.

AM) What do you make out of the whole peace process that has been built, some would say manufactured by India and Pakistan involving a gamut of shady NGOs and peaceniks to tell the larger global community that all is well in Kashmir?

MR) I think these are damages that have been done. The silencing in the international arena on Kashmir, the K-word that has disappeared and precisely the kind of collusions that you have referred to.

In 2010, I was invited to join a panel discussion with various experts on Kashmir. I said that if you look at the peace process and various groups involved in it, the security experts especially have the tendency to produce the most counterproductive ways of approaching the problem. They define the problem in Kashmir according to the solutions they want to apply. Does that make sense, rather than the other way round? You should be looking for solutions once you have understood the problem. The security analysts will do it constantly. It misses out on the human dimension of Kashmir issue.

The security experts don’t have time to think about the sadness of enforced disappearances because those things don’t yield solutions. What will yield the solutions is, may be, reshaping the territory, the external boundaries of Kashmir or maybe formalizing the LoC because these are doable things. But that is not understanding the Kashmir problem. That is completely missing out on the whole point.

The fact that LoC stills exists as LoC means that the settlement of Kashmir, the issue of Kashmiris is constantly put on the backburner.

AM) You have written an excellent book ‘Hindu Rulers Muslim Subjects’ which is an important reference to understand the political transitions that have taken place in Kashmir. As a subject of historical enquiry, when and how did Kashmir interest you?

MR) Well, I got into doing my PhD at around the same time as 1989. For me, it was all people were talking about. Punjab was still a very disturbed state. Kashmir certainly interested me but there were many other reasons why I found Kashmir to be a fascinating and important region to study. For instance, the idea that Kashmiris had this regional identity that was so pre-eminent, that had defeated religious identity. It always made me curious because I come from Bihar myself which people suggest has no regional identity; that caste and religion takes over. So for me, Kashmir was interesting in that sense. I have moved a long way from that position and I do think religious identities matter in Kashmir as well and it can’t be avoided. In fact, the putting down of protests often takes the line of religious difference.

1989 – 90 was such an important period in not just Indian history but also globally. People were already talking about the breakup of the Soviet Union, the brining down of the Berlin Wall. Once again, the idea of self-determination, new nations coming into being, was talked about. The languages adopted by many Kashmiris actually echoed that as well. It fascinated me; there was no way to avoid it.

AM) You contend in your book that political mobilization by Muslim subjects against Dogra rule was informed by a religious sensibility in response to the overt Hindu state. Since the Indian state presents itself as a democratic one, do you see a change in response to the religious sensibilities of Kashmiri Muslims?

MR) No, I don’t. While my book doesn’t really present in detail the history of Kashmir after 1947, what it alludes to is the fact that the unrepresentative nature of indigenous rule in Kashmir is just as unrepresentative as it was under the Dogras. Instead of the British in Delhi, you now have an Indian State which may describe itself as democratic but when it comes to Kashmir, it has chosen the path of conniving with anyone who would not challenge the accession of valley.

I also think that the Indian State, in many ways when it has dealt with Kashmir, has also emphasized the Muslim nature of Kashmiris. It’s their way of saying that see Pakistanis could not take away the majority-Muslim area. Even in terms of characterizing the Kashmir’s inclusion with the Indian Union, it is very important for the Indian State to point to them as the largest population of Muslims in the subcontinent. All these reasons suggest that there is long term continuity.

AM) Speaking on the question of justice, in view of Indian State’s inability to deliver justice in Kashmir, who should Kashmiris seek justice from? And does not seeking justice mean the disintegration of Indian State in Kashmir because if they deliver justice, it means they effectually don’t exist?

MR) Well, that’s right. If you are talking about seeking justice where Kashmiris will have to go, one very important arena without which there won’t be sufficient pressure on the Indian State to deliver justice would be the international arena. There is considerable pressure that can be brought upon the government of India to at least tone down its overt instances of forcible occupation in Kashmir. But another very important arena for Kashmiris to access is that of the opinion making Indian classes, because there they seem to be so little interest in Kashmir. It takes excessive acts such as violence against Kashmiris in 2010 for Indian middle class to sit and notice. And then it is forgotten too quickly. There has to be a way to bear pressure on the Indian government so that the trend of impunity in Kashmir is not allowed to continue. And pressure is the only way to do this. History has already shown that violent resistance doesn’t take Kashmiris very far.

It’s easy for the State to put down violence and it gives them legitimacy in the international community to say that this is a violent militant movement informed by fundamentalism. These are all the characterizations that Indian State has used. And it makes it easy to justify putting it down.

The legitimacy of movement in Kashmir is even constructed but you need to build a consensus amongst these two quarters. It also means to bypass the Indian state. Telling it that look, we don’t believe that you can deliver justice. You have not shown the capacity to deliver justice. Instead of rectifying the wrongs, you don’t even acknowledge that there are any wrongs done. Now you tell us who is behaving unjustly here, who is more violent!

AM) Your book Geographies of Justice: Caste and Violence in Colonial North India is said to focus on the questions of caste and violence in the context of new ideas about community, nation and territory and nation in the north of India. Can you tell us more about it?

MR) As I said, a lot of questions arose from researching Kashmir. Questions like how do you legitimate out and out violence? You see that in case of Kashmir, different languages that are used to legitimate that violence, the security State’s own languages, that it is India’s threat to democracy, that is why it is all justified.

In case of caste, it is the same questions that you don’t think about the international threat, you are not thinking of the security of the State, but you are talking about internal security and social stability. So those languages are used to legitimize out and out violence. If you think about the number of deaths caused by caste wars in India, it outdoes the number in Kashmir.

AM) What are your current academic engagements? Are you writing a new book on Kashmir? Apart from teaching and writing, what keeps you busy?

MR) Well, right now I am trying to finish my second book which is not directly related to Kashmir. It is about caste and violence, particularly Bihar. A lot of questions that I ask came from my first book on Kashmir. In the arenas of caste, I look for the appeal to social justice. I don’t see them working. The different languages through which people try to overcome caste domination and why is it so easy to put down caste resistance with violence. In the past as well, there was violence in caste relations but there used to be at least an attempt at portraying some kind of legitimacy of ideology. But now we hear about caste war. Why does violence become so acceptable?

But after this I hope to return to Kashmir and write a book on the much more contemporary period.

After teaching and writing, is there anything else? (Laughs). It’s an interesting phase in my life; teaching is a time consuming job. Whatever time I have left is for sleeping a little (Laughs). I really feel like a nerd who has nothing else to do but teach, write and read.

It’s not spoken about very much. People just assume that caste violence happens in Bihar. It’s an automatic assumption. But nobody really knows the numbers and extent of caste violence. It’s same like in Kashmir where the extent of violence is become routinised and made invisible.

AM) Tell us something about yourself. You recently shifted from Dublin to teach at a university in Kolkata city. When did you visit Kashmir for the first time? How often do you visit Kashmir now?

MR) I am from Bihar, the polar opposite of Kashmir (Laughs). I have never really lived in Bihar, unfortunately. My father used to be in the Indian Diplomatic Service. If in India, I have always lived in New Delhi, so I consider much more myself a Dilliwalli.

I have just returned from spending something like twenty five years of my life in abroad. I went to do my PhD in the United States and then I decided to stay on and teach. I ended up teaching there for almost thirteen years and then moved to Dublin. And finally Kolkata.

While it is so wonderful to be at these institutions in the West, I feel to teach South Asian history, you have to be in South Asia. I get to teach things without having to explain from the scratch. I am at Presidency University in Kolkata, and I am looking forward to teach a course in Kashmir.

The first time I visited Kashmir was a long time back in 1985 on a holiday with my parents and brother. I thought I had seen Kashmir, from the movies shot here but nothing prepared you for the place. I loved it.

That was my first visit. After that I came for research in 1994 and ’95. And then back again in 1997 and then back again very briefly in 2000. And then again in 2005 and now after nine long years in 2014. I hope with this new project I get to come much more frequently. It’s easier to do it from Kolkata then it is from any place abroad.

AM) Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MR) Well, thank you very much for having this conversation with me.

Originally published here —