Book review

This book claims to expose the myths behind Kashmir’s history. It exposes its own biases instead

On Kashmir, Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book reveals the deep divisions that plague the public sphere.

History has perhaps been the greatest casualty of the conflict in Kashmir. Behind the scenes of street protests, firings, and imprisonments, an equally – if not more intense – battle to control and define Kashmir’s past – and, through it, Kashmir itself – rages on. This battle divides Kashmir’s history along the familiar lines of Hindu versus Muslim, Sanskrit versus Persian, and so on. Within this vision, not only past events, but the people who recount them, and the languages they use for it, are judged on the basis of their ostensible religious affiliation. Often, participants in the battle deploy the language of disciplinary history to validate their own ideas, usually by claiming a factual basis for them while designating ideas that they disagree with as myths.

Such interpretations of the past, of course, are not new, deeply rooted as they are in the historical method adopted and promoted by orientalists and colonial historians who labelled Indian texts as “mythical”, while producing their own “factual” histories of the Indian subcontinent. These histories, moreover, carved up the subcontinent’s past on the basis of caste and religion, with the Hindu and Muslim periods becoming entrenched in the chronology of Indian history.

Countering the Pandit narrative

With his book, Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, Khalid Bashir Ahmad is the latest to join this time-honoured tradition, as well as the more recent battles that seek to partition Kashmir’s past, its tradition of history-writing, and alongside that its present, along religious lines. The book’s main objective is to counter the claims of certain Kashmiri Pandit organisations that Kashmiri Pandits have been suffering persecution at the hands of Kashmiri Muslims throughout Kashmir’s history, the latest example being their forced migration from Kashmir at the beginning of the insurgency in 1990-91.

Just as Pandit organisations delve deep into Kashmir’s past to make their claims, so too Ahmad, in an attempt to refute them, casts a wide net to tarnish all Sanskrit historical narratives written by Brahmins in Kashmir, including the twelfth-century Rajatarangini by Kalhana, as mythical drivel produced by a perfidious group. (It is significant to note here that although Kalhana was of the Brahmin caste, to designate him as a Kashmiri Pandit would be deeply anachronistic since such an identity did not exist in twelfth-century Kashmir.)

For Ahmad, thus, not only are any descriptions in Sanskrit narratives of persecution of Kashmiri Pandits by Muslim rulers and others, including temple destruction, a complete fabrication, but so also are the “myths” they have created to keep the “true” history of Kashmir in darkness. Using archeological and other evidence, he sets about taking apart these stories, including the creation story of Kashmir’s emergence from the lake Satisar through divine intervention – so evocatively celebrated in Kashmir’s Persian narratives, many, incidentally, authored by Muslims – that according to him, have rendered Kashmir into “a story largely based on hearsay rather than actual events”.

As for Persian narratives written by Muslims, Ahmad labels their repetition of these myths as “a copy-paste exercise”, but otherwise finds them capable of recounting facts. His approach to the past is strikingly similar to those that he casts aspersions against, the only difference being that Pandit organisations approach the past from the other end, celebrating Sanskrit narratives written by non-Muslims and using them to justify their grievances in the present, while denigrating Persian histories written by Muslims as biased and unhistorical.

Incorrect standards

Ahmad – like his adversaries among the Pandits – misses a fundamental point, which is that these narratives, Sanskrit or Persian, cannot be judged on the basis of the standards of disciplinary history. Such standards, to put it rather simply, did not exist in the time periods in which these narratives were composed and therefore they were not composed to conform to them. Within Kashmir’s historical tradition (as with historical writing in other parts of the subcontinent), events and ideas from the past were recounted through a set of constantly shifting stories drawn from a common textual and oral repertoire that rendered meaningless the distinction between myth and history. And, the writing of history (much as it is today) was a deeply political act that was meant to advance particular agendas.

It is no wonder that the continuations of Kalhana’s Rajatarangini by Jonaraja and Srivara focused on the depredations suffered by Hindus at the hands of Sultan Sikandar, since they were written to legitimise the rule of his successor, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, who, as their patron, sought to bring back the Brahminical elite into the royal fold after their marginalisation under his father’s administration. Sultan Sikandar’s actions against temples, correspondingly, were not driven by religious zealotry against Hinduism or Hindus – although they were cloaked in religious language to legitimise them – but were, rather, an attempt to gain access to the wealth controlled by Brahminical institutions and assert state power over Brahmans. Similar actions were undertaken routinely by earlier – in this case Hindu – rulers of early medieval Kashmir, who plundered temples and their endowments for these very reasons.

Masking a position

Ahmad’s book does more to expose the deep divisions that characterise the public sphere in contemporary Kashmir than it does to expose the “myths” in Kashmir’s narrative tradition. Indeed, it is these stories that render this tradition into a continuous, interconnected, multilingual, living entity that defines Kashmir as a much more diverse place than Ahmad would lead one to believe. Taking the stories out of their contexts, as Ahmad does, is to do terrible violence to them and to the very idea of Kashmir, where it was possible for people of different religious affiliations to accept and acknowledge differences, and to co-exist despite real conflict and inter- and intra-religious violence at particular historical moments.

Works such as Ahmad’s are particularly dangerous and tendentious because they mask their own political positions by presenting themselves as factual histories based on empirical research. Publication by a reputable publishing house such as Sage lends further credibility to Ahmad’s book, which selectively mines secondary sources by quoting them out of context to advance its particular agenda. As for primary sources, it picks and chooses for the same narratives that it dismisses wholesale as fiction to validate its claims.

Further, it liberally quotes from and echoes the prejudices of the writings of colonial officials such as Walter Lawrence and orientalists such as MA Stein without any recognition of the contexts in which they were produced. In some cases, it is not at all clear what the primary source being quoted is, being identified in the references merely as “Archival Record”, and in other cases, it is not clear which archive or library a source is located in. In short, the book does not live up to the very standards it applies to the narratives it seeks to vilify.

Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative is not a work of historical scholarship, nor should it be read as such. It is a polemic that seeks to promote a particular perspective on Kashmir’s history, in which there have always existed two monolithic religious communities in Kashmir – Pandits and Muslims – perennially at odds with each other, with the former exploiting the latter. Kashmir’s past, especially the relationship among religious groups in this past, is far too complex to be reduced to the competing narratives of Hindu persecution versus Muslim exploitation. By focusing on these twin narratives as the defining feature of Kashmir’s history, this book only serves to distract from Kashmiris’ genuine political grievances and deepens the cleavages that make the Kashmir issue so intractable.

Kashmir: Exposing The Myth Behind The Narrative, Khalid Bashir Ahmad, Sage Publications.

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