“During the ’90s, we used to hide all the literature on Kashmir – particularly the books on politics and religion – in a small trunk that was later buried and dug out every now and then,” said Tahir Iqbal (name changed to protect identity), a medical student from Handwara, a town in North Kashmir. “We were afraid that if such literature was found, it would always bring trouble to its owners.”

Personal libraries have long been important part of Kashmiri households, with the number of books indicating the class and social status of the owner. Often passed down from the careful collections of fathers and grandfathers, these libraries symbolise the struggle for education that remains closely connected to the struggle for self-determination in Kashmir.

The history of the peoples of Jammu and Kashmir has been punctuated by the presence of other regimes across the centuries, ranging from Mughal and Afghan rulers to Sikh and Dogra ones. The large population of natives were exploited and Kashmiri Muslims, in particular, who formed the majority of peasants and working class, were deprived of access to education, socio-economic growth, and political rights.

Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a mere handful of schools and colleges were set up across the region by the Dogra rulers. Kashmiri Pandits gained wide access to these institutions, gradually establishing a dominance over literacy, learning, wealth and social status.

This growth came at a time when Muslims had just begun to gain entry into educational institutions. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the literacy rate among Kashmiri Muslims barely amounted to one percent, explaining their glaring absence from higher institutions of teaching and administration.

In the 1930s, a struggle began where the demand for education was knotted together in the resistance against the feudalism of the Dogra regime. The All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, formed in 1932, which became the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference in 1939, promised social and economic justice to the people of the region. Led by Sheikh Abdullah, it prepared a draft of the future constitution of the state that promised education to the masses and land to the landless peasants, among other rights.

In 1947, as India and Pakistan gained independence, Kashmir’s ruler, with Sheikh Abdullah’s approval, chose to join India.

Sheikh Abdullah addressing a mammoth gathering in Srinagar in 1975. Credit: MY Taing / CC BY-SA 3.0

After 1947

The years after 1947 witnessed a steady rise in short stories, plays, political treatises, and cultural histories written by Kashmiri Muslims who were holding fast to a space of narration that had been historically denied to them. Indigenous traditions of recording poetry and tareekh (historiography), which had been crushed by centuries of occupation, began to be reclaimed slowly. The cultural production of the period was marked by existential themes, political mobilisation, and recording of histories that had hitherto been suppressed or manipulated in the records of previous rulers.

In the modern history of Kashmir, the earliest record of a Kashmiri setting up a publishing enterprise dates back to the nineteenth century, when Sheikh Jan Mohammad Ganai, belonging to a Kashmiri family that had migrated to Lahore during the Sikh rule, published a journal, and his son, Sheikh Ala Baksh Ganai rose to prominence as a book seller in the city. The first printing press in the region, however, was set up by a Dogra ruler in Jammu in early 1920s for the publication of newspaper, Pratap that carried the royal commands and narratives.

Later, in the 1930s, Sheikh Abdullah and Prem Nath Bazaz started Hamdard, a major newspaper that claimed to be the voice of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. After the 1930s, Daryaganj in Delhi became a prominent space for Urdu publications and pamphlets that were circulated in Kashmir. This was also a time when Ahl-e-Hadith texts were being circulated in softbound Urdu booklets and local newspapers were being brought out by presses scattered scantily across the region.

Upward social mobility, granted by land redistribution and an increase in the literacy rate, steered the majority of the population towards an enriched culture of reading and writing. The literary history of nineteenth century mystical poets like Shamas Faqir, Wahab Khar, Rasul Mir, and Mahmud Ghami was also being revived in the written word by local publishing initiatives at this time.

In late 1940s, when the anti-imperialist Progressive Writers’ Movement reached Kashmir, several writers and poets would travel to the towns and villages for literary meets in order to build a strong political consciousness. The works of poets like Abdul Ahad Azad and Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor began to be circulated as critical voices of cultural expression in Koeshur (Kashmiri language), along with those by other literary luminaries like Rahman Rahi, Dina Nath Nadim, and Ghulam Nabi Khayal.

However, the National Conference and Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad’s state-backed militia soon repressed these endeavours. Eventually, the ’50s and the ’60s saw several writers either clamouring for state patronage or abandoning political themes in favour of romantic and spiritual ideals. However, a few like the famed afsaana nigaar (storyteller) Akhtar Mohiuddin remained committed to their art, chronicling the travails of Kashmiris.

With the support of local printing presses, magazines, periodicals, pamphlets and journals, Koeshur was extensively promoted – a necessary step for a language that had languished for long, ignored over the years by royal patronage and colonial rulers, and never taught formally in schools or universities.

While a progressive indigenous imagination focused on nourishing the distinct Kashmiri identity, the decades between the ’50s and the ’80s were also marked by a steady influx of Soviet literature and Leftist political treatises. Gair Mulki Zabaanon ka Dar-ul-Ishaat, Moscow and Dar-ul-Ishaat Tarqi, Moscow supplied Russian texts translated into Urdu, while English translations were taken care of by Progress Publishers, People’s Publishing House, and Raduga Publishers, Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Indian government had also set up the Jammu and Kashmir Publications Division, which chiefly brought out government reports and commissioned books on history and culture under its supervision. Because local publishing endeavours had not gathered much strength at the time, and charged the writers for bringing out their books, quite a few developed an inclination to be published by the Sahitya Akademi. Its publishing model promised royalties and greater security.

The Seventies and after

The ’70s and ’80s saw a growing Kashmiri Muslim middle-class that was recording its histories in its own voice, resisting the forced assimilation into a larger Hindutva project. Despite institutional hostility against such counter-narratives, booksellers like Kupwoar Brothers, Ali Mohammad and Sons, Sheikh Muhammad Usman and Sons and others kept the cultures of reading and writing alive. Later, in the ’90s, Kashmir Book Depot and Gulshan Books grew to support local publishing and to bring the rest of the (written) world to Kashmir.

The years following 2008 witnessed a defiant sea of voices that continued with the rich literary resistance of previous generations by writing extensively in English. This was not the first time that Kashmiris were “speaking up”, nor was this the first instance of Kashmiri writing in English. But social media and new media platforms extensively amplified the voices that had emerged in the early 2000s.

Another strong part of the publishing industry in Kashmir comprises publishing houses dedicated to resistance literature and religious tracts. Millat Publications, established by the Hurriyat Conference, has published several books on religion, resistance, and Kashmir’s campaign for self-determination, many of which have been authored by the senior pro-freedom leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Several books by Jamaat-e-Islami thinkers and scholars have been routinely published and distributed via local networks. However, after the ban on the organisation in 2019, the circulation of these books was restricted.

Islamic literature published by Dar-ul-Uloom magazines and booklets combines religious and ethical commentary with a reflection on the political condition of the people of Kashmir. From decrepit booksellers in villages to newspaper vendors in towns, these literatures enjoy a dedicated readership despite challenges posed by the authorities.

While the state-run Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages in Srinagar has promoted literature in Urdu, Koeshur, Dogri, Gojri, and other languages, several local bodies such as Adabi Markaz Kamraz and Maraz Adabi Sangam have supported local literary voices and publishing initiatives at the district level across the Valley. Literary conferences and poetry symposiums at the regional level have been sustained through the difficult years of the war owing to the strong support from the community.

While writing can certainly never be “apolitical” in an area of constant conflict, reading, too, is not the same. During the dreaded Cordon and Search Operations over the last three decades, several book collections, cherished by their owners, were destroyed by the armed forces. While searching for “incriminatory” material or “dangerous” individuals, soldiers would often ransack the Kashmiri homes, and inflict harm not only on the inhabitants, but also on their belongings. Fearing for safety, many families have burnt or buried their books, family albums, magazines, and scrapbooks.

Double lockdown

Gulshan Books Kashmir, which runs a publishing house and five bookshops across the Valley, has published over a thousand titles on Kashmir’s history, culture, and politics so far. A division of Sheikh Muhammad Usman and Sons, this enterprise has been in the books business for more than eight decades.

Its owner, Sheikh Ajaz Ahmad believes that local publishers make a critical contribution in providing Kashmiri scholars, academics, and writers with a space to disseminate their ideas, experience, and expertise. “That’s how our lost culture and history can be salvaged,” he said.

The recent past, however, has been challenging. The calamitous floods of September 2014 had submerged their main bookshop at Residency Road, Srinagar, damaging a significant part of their stock. Slowly, as business began to pick pace, the events following August 5, 2019, compounded their woes.

The sudden shutdown of communication lines and subsequent restrictions after the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A meant a series of struggles many were not prepared for. The lockdown imposed since March to contain the spread of Covid-19 has only made matters worse for local publishers in an already struggling economy.

“We had close to 250 new titles in the pipeline, but unfortunately we had to stall them for some time,” said Ahmad. “Increased dominance of e-commerce portals and the rise in e-books have spelled difficulties for brick-and-mortar book shops the world over, and in Kashmir, we are faced with additional challenges.”

Distribution networks, too, have been severely impacted owing to the curfews, heavy deployment of troops and disrupted communication channels. Even after telephone lines were restored a few months after the announcement of the territory’s new status, publishers found it difficult to acquire, produce and sell books. “Frequent internet shutdowns and a slow-speed internet have crushed our publishing cycles,” Ahmad added.

In March, Gulshan Books had donated around a thousand books to different quarantine centres set up across Kashmir. “At the beginning of the Covid crisis, we saw thousands of students, who had been stranded all over India and the world, coming back to Kashmir and being shifted to various quarantine centres,” said Ahmad. “We made books available to them in order to help them pass their time more productively over the two-week quarantine period.”

A reading culture has grown consistently over the past few years, he added, with books on Kashmir’s history and politics as well as titles on imperialism and fascism being among the bestsellers.

For book-lovers in towns away from the capital city, several small book shops dotted along the busy lanes have opened the fascinating worlds of old folk poetry, rare religious tracts, resistance literature, short stories, and linguistics. Long hours of search are often rewarding. “I believe luck was on my side when in a rusty, forgotten bookstore in Kupwara, I happened to have found some banned books, tossed away carelessly by their previous owners,” said medical student Tahir Iqbal with a chuckle.

Luck can take on strange meanings in Kashmir. “The internet is a must for most businesses to function, including ours,” said Ahmad. “Lack of proper access to communication services has isolated us from the world we are supposed to thrive and survive in.”

Shabir Ahmed Matjee finds resonance in Ahmad’s words. He is the founder of Meezan Publishers, a prominent Urdu language publishing house which has brought out more than 300 titles so far. “We have barely been able to publish 30 books in the past two years,” he said. Normally we would easily bring out 80 titles in a year. More than 60% of our publishing cycle has been hit by the siege since last year.”

Meezan would normally send its manuscripts via email to printers in New Delhi. However, after August 5, 2019, when all mobile and broadband services were suspended for months, this was impossible. Meezan has been publishing local writers, besides making Urdu literature published in other parts of the subcontinent available for the local readership in Kashmir. Over the years, it has also been endeavouring to enhance the reading culture by organising seminars and debates where local writers of Urdu are also felicitated for their literary contributions.

While Sheikh Ajaz Ahmad remains hopeful that the delicate pleasures of exploring bookshelves and holding a book in one’s hand cannot be replaced by any digital ecosystem, Matjee finds the future bleak. “Successive governments have never encouraged publishers in Urdu, which is supposed to be the official language of the erstwhile state,” he said.

Internet shutdowns

Launched by five computer graduates from Kashmir University in 2017, Lalchowk Online, with more than 20,000 downloads, is the largest online bookstore in Kashmir. In addition to delivering academic and literary titles across the region, they also ship books written by Kashmiri authors to a global readership spread across the USA, Europe, Japan, and West Asia.

Sheikh Usman, one of the founders of Lalchowk Online, noted that there has been a surge in orders even before the Covid-19 lockdown. “Since August 5 last year, amidst an absolute communication ban, people started reading more books,” he said. “And now, during the pandemic, when people are forced to stay inside their homes once again, books have emerged as superlative partners.” Usman added that he has observed a renewed interest in titles pertaining to politics.

“It is heartening to see our youth particularly inclined to buy and read books on culture, literature, language, and politics,” he said. “Our website has a dedicated section earmarked for the ease of access to these disciplines.” Counting classical Kashmiri poetry, Urdu literature, and monographs on Kashmir among his bestsellers, Usman also spoke of a substantial increase in the demand for motivational and religious titles.

While the events after August 5, 2019, were a “near-death experience” for the business, the first few weeks of the pandemic lockdown burdened them with the downright frustration of not being able to process or deliver an increasing number of orders placed online. “Last year, we almost shut our business down,” Usman said with a tinge of dejection. “We had been actively expanding into other categories and services, but everything came to an abrupt halt after August 5.”

Compelled by the losses, most of his business partners had to leave the Valley to find work elsewhere, and Usman said he had noticed many similar online ventures closing entirely due to the frequent internet shutdowns and continued ban on full-speed internet since August 2019. “We had no other option but to resume our services via SMS and phone calls when telephone lines were restored months later,” he said. “It was beyond our imagination, yet we managed to start afresh.”

However, the situation still remains grim. “Earlier, every order was registered on our site’s back-end, but now almost 80% orders are not even recorded owing to the restricted internet,” Usman said. “Close to 25%-30% of our prepaid online orders fail to register on a 2G network.”

Haseeb Ashai, co-founder of Lalchowk Online, said that many customers have complained about the money getting deducted even as the order was not registered on the website owing to the slow-speed 2G internet. “We are not able to update our website either on such a poor internet network,” Ashai said. “So, some customers confirm their orders via phone or on our social media accounts because our back-end services like SMS verification and e-mail confirmation had to be suspended, given our inability to update them frequently.”

Said Sheikh Usman, “After the first phase of the Covid-19 lockdown was eased, we delivered more than 4,000 books in just a month. But with the knife of internet shutdowns being sharpened against our throats every day, it is extremely difficult to operate.”

Writing today

According to Khalid Bashir Ahmad, the author of Kashmir: Exposing the Myth behind the Narrative, the challenges for a Kashmiri writer are not limited to restrictions on movement or lockdowns alone. “When curfews are imposed, forcing you to remain indoors and only unpleasant news of deaths and more afflictions comes in, thinking and writing become jarring,” he said. “There have been various forms of restrictions on a daily basis for decades now. How is a writer supposed to access relevant archives or travel for conducting interviews?”

Khalid Bashir Ahmad acknowledged the contribution of local publishing houses in providing opportunities to writers and scholars from Kashmir, but he strongly feels that by pricing their books exorbitantly, they deprive a large section of readers, comprising students and educated unemployed youngsters, of the knowledge produced locally.

“Neither can many of these titles be found in public libraries, nor can they be afforded by aspiring scholars,” Ahmad said. “It is disheartening for an author to be unable to reach out to a wide readership despite many young readers developing a fierce interest in reading about their homeland.”

Zahid G Muhammad, senior columnist and writer, observed that Kashmiri readers are increasingly also interested in knowing about the developments in India and Pakistan, turbulent Sino-American relations, and a range of events across the world that are connected to their lives. He is appreciative of several global publishing houses that have been producing astute scholarship on Kashmir by internationally acclaimed scholars and writers. He is also hopeful that reputed publishing houses can open up possibilities for writers from the region itself.

Muhammad considers the emergence of local Kashmiri poets and writers on a global stage to be of crucial significance for their stories to be told in their own voice. “But the top publishers in India are reluctant to publish Kashmiri authors because their political phraseology becomes a problem for them,” he added.

Over the years, local publishing houses have also reprinted old titles on Kashmir’s history as well as time-honoured works by Kashmiri authors like PNK Bamzai, GMD. Sufi, Ghulam Hassan Khan, Prem Nath Bazaz, Mohammad Yusuf Saraf, Muhammad Din Fauq, and several others. However, according to Muhammad, no new books have been published in Srinagar since 2019.

“Many books are pending with the publishers for more than three years,” he said. “From levying 24% GST on paper to the government libraries’ lack of interest in buying books on Kashmir, local publishers and writers have been dealt a fatal blow. The series of lockdowns have only magnified the crisis.”

Khalid Bashir Ahmad added that delays in receiving royalties and often disrupted publishing cycles are a pressing challenge for the writers in the region.

As a way out, the idea for a writer’s cooperative was mooted a few years ago by senior writers, and some businessmen had also proposed the need for creating a corpus in order to support writers and their research. But after August 5, 2019, businessmen either left the region or chose to remain silent. “Perhaps we can pursue these plans once the pandemic ends,” said Muhammad.

In the past few months, some poets have found a way to share their passion for their craft with the world in the form of digital mushaira (poetry symposiums) hosted over wavering 2G networks. For them, this is a means to honour the urgency of their voice in a place where silence is imposed as a collective punishment.

“In Kashmir, pain manifests itself in numberless ways and I want to write about all of them,” said Naseem Shafai, a prominent Kashmiri language poet. “We write because we do not want these lockdowns to permeate our hearts.” Both her poetry collections from 1999 and 2009 were self-published, and she has been waiting with two new manuscripts since over a year now. “Forget about getting books published, I am not sure if people would want to even touch a new book, fearing the spread of the virus,” she said.

Still, confident that writers and poets have continued to write through the pandemic, Shafai said, “I am not sure when their writings will become public, but privately, history has been documented.”

Battling censorship

Madhosh Balhami lost nearly three decades’ worth of his poetry collection after his house in Balhama village was razed in an encounter between three militants and the armed forces in March 2018. “Kathan tan log waen hisab,” he said. They are watching every word we speak now.

Writing poetry that carries a defiant portrait of the social and the political in Kashmir over the past decades has meant publishing houses have been reluctant to publish his works. Balhami said that he did not try approaching publishers either, knowing that both of them could get in trouble if his poetry were to be published and widely circulated. “Many cases have been registered against me since the 1990s, I have been summoned to army camps, and imprisoned for years at a time,” he said.

Reflecting over the gruelling months since the abrogation of Article 370, Balhami believes that poets and writers now have to deal with a more hostile clampdown on their expression. “I think the past one year has been the worst period I have seen in decades here,” he said.

Balhami explained that had he written poetry on the themes of love and beauty of the Valley and not alluded to violations of political rights and human rights, he would have received wider recognition from cultural and literary institutions. But he made it clear that the tumultuous decades have shaped the literary sensibility of the masses. “No one wants to read or listen to romantic poetry when our world is falling apart,” he said. The poet acknowledged the possibility of many other writers who might be quietly writing about the present moment, but not making it public given the fear and the risks involved.

While a significant chunk of Balhami’s ouvre was composed in prison, Qasim Faktoo, a political prisoner since 1992, has been writing and bringing out almost all his books from his cell. Faktoo, who just had a B Com degree when he was jailed, went on to receive a doctorate despite his incarceration and also served as a lecturer for fellow inmates at Central Jail Srinagar. Several of his important works have been published by local presses in Kashmir. However, owing to repression, some presses either had to close down or change their names.

Faktoo’s son, Ahmed bin Qasim, recounts how his father’s book, Maslah-e-Kashmir ki Sharyi Haqeeqat, was banned and the publishing house had to face censorship pressure for a long time. Faktoo is not allowed to send written material out anymore. He is also not allowed books. He writes letters now – which may be censored as well – on religious and philosophical themes.

“In prison, my father sought refuge in books,” said Faktoo’s son. After finishing each book, he used to send it to our hideaway. After 27 years of his detention, we have a library at our home. He introduced himself to me through literature, but books continue to remind me of his years away from us.”

For Shabir Ahmad Mir, a young writer from South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, whose debut novel The Plague Upon Us has just been published by Hachette India, writing – or at least a significant part of it – is a response to the lived realities of his people. “The everyday conflict sustains my writing,” he said. “Each day brings with itself a new form of assault on our eye-witness accounts, on our memory, and eventually our history. With my writings, I attempt to resist these assaults.”

“A distorted imaginative landscape,” according to Mir, distinguishes the writers of Kashmir from those outside, which has also helped in enriching the local readership. He finds hope in online magazines like Inverse Journal and Kashmir Lit, as well as the extensive presence of social media that has been allowing fresh voices to emerge from Kashmir with fewer worries of gatekeeping and censorship. Mir said that many Kashmiris have been living under restrictions and lockdowns practically all their lives.

“The abnormal has long ago become the normal for us,” he said.

Shivangi Mariam Raj is an academic publishing professional, translator, and independent researcher.

Majid Maqbool is an independent journalist and writer based in Kashmir.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.