In his work of “creative non-fiction”, Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir, Iqbal Chand Malhotra narrates history in a way we’re not used to. Malhotra rejects the widely accepted history and conventions about Kashmir. He does not portray the circumstances of the region as an outcome of rushed decisions or communal bloodshed alone. Instead, he reasonably convinces the reader that the reality of Kashmir grew upwards and outwards from a series of small events. He deliberates on theories and nimbly traces patterns in events to carve out a trajectory that has, arguably, not been presented before.
The narration delves into an era when the British had grown insecure of its Russian adversaries’ presence in the mountainesque buffer zone of Hunza Valley, which lies between present-day Afghanistan and China in the 1880s. The British-Russian rivalry is at the centre of this piece. Their activities in Kashmir, according to Dark Secrets, resulted in disturbances in the region that have evolved into today’s larger violence.
Malhotra lines up the events like dominoes, waiting to fall in a clinical and sequential way. It starts with the first tap – the British interest in spying on the Soviet nuclear programme from top-secret bases in Kashmir and Punjab. These events are imagined in scenes that are deftly written to capture the geopolitical tension and enacted by animated characters like that of a British general with candour, a Russian agent who drinks, and stalwarts of the Indian freedom movement, to name a few.
The intentions and the actions of the multi-dimensional characters presented here give heft to Kashmir’s history. The narrative effectively steers away from the standard version of Kashmir’s history in which, we have been told repeatedly – as though this is the only story we should know – that the last viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, and British Army leaders manipulated Jawaharlal Nehru into making decisions that caused a deadlock in Kashmir after 1947.
A different history
Dark Secrets argues that the British-Russian rivalry was a significant factor dancing around India’s independence movement. In their equation, the British were the paranoid ones, who during their governance of India, feared Russian interruption.
For instance, the author conjectures that the British viewed an influx of communists into Nehru’s Congress as a Soviet attempt to start a violent political war inside India against British rule. The desperation of the British grew, Malhotra argues, when they started meddling in the royal politics of Kashmir so as to control the region with absolute authority.
Kashmir’s conventional history has often told us how the last ruling king of the region Hari Singh was cornered into signing the Instrument of Accession so that the Army of India could be sent to Srinagar to “liberate” it from Pakistani forces.
According to Dark Secrets, the British barred Hari Singh, king of Kashmir, from interfering in frontier areas. His officials were also not allowed to undertake any activity in Ladakh without consulting the British Joint Commission. The author tells us how the series of embargoes, meant to gain more control, eventually sent cracks across the territory:
“But this episode ended the untrammelled hegemony of the British in the state as Hari Singh kept standing up against the British on several issues, gradually culminating in the events of August 1947 when he thwarted British designs and took decisions that ultimately led to the division of the state along military lines between India and Pakistan.”
Such thoughts – or creative speculation – often plug the gaps in the narrative to build a consistent story. These literary devices and practical conclusions give Malhotra the liberty to surpass the limitations of exhaustive data that he has amassed over years.
The overall narration is so active that it poses many questions, and at the same time it asserts itself firmly. The question is, does this imaginative retelling of Kashmiri history come at the cost of facts?
Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir, Iqbal Chand Malhotra, Bloomsbury India.