The newly formed Institute of Kashmir Studies has provoked a shrill debate among academics, and also in some sections of the civil society. The debate, despite its frequent tumble into abuses and allegations, is only a sign of how the story of Kashmir can no longer be a monologue, but must contend with its democratic polyphony. There are many stories of Kashmir now, all vying for validity, but none commanding authority. The history of Kashmir is no longer something which can be imposed from above: the subaltern will ensure that it will always remain in the making, and never find its conclusion. It is being created as it is spoken about.
The postmodern re-evaluation of the nature of history has managed to put the old correspondence theory under a cloud. The earlier emphasis that the past is “out there” for us to discover and reconstruct, unmediated by language, does not hold substance, since it is widely agreed that language is a contaminated medium, facts/evidences are pre-fabricated, and our understanding of the past stands upon layers and layers of narratives; all of which, instead of leading us toward any “basic truth,” actually drive us farther away. Kashmir’s history, like Kashmir itself, is getting written, written-over, and rewritten. It is not that new irrefutable evidence is emerging, but the realization has dawned that the version of history, which till now we thought was “the history,” is just a story; and, it is possible to have alternative stories.
This present process of history-creation, however, is not taking place in a neutral, fair space. As happens always, the votaries of the official story are afforded an authorial high ground by the state: this dominant version of history in return legitimates the authority of the occupier state. Any mark of dissent is branded as malignant, and sought to be erased.
Take, for instance, R. K. Bhat’s vitriolic response to M. Ashraf’s comments (both published in Greater Kashmir daily) on the institute’s vision statement. It would be pointless to decry Bhat, who clearly betrays an ill intent in trying to noisily silence Ashraf by calling the latter “rabidly communal,” “bigoted,” and a supporter of “ethnic-cleansing” of Kashmiri Pandits, rather than engaging in a scholarly manner with some of the pertinent issues that Ashraf raises.
Bhat’s spat is like a bubble coming out of the gelatinous potage of old hegemony. He is shocked to see someone showing a dare to challenge ‘his’ history; perhaps this is what has evoked a venomous outburst from him instead of stirring him to be circumspect about his own position. Bhat’s ignorance even leads him to portray as a “fact of history” the myth that Kashmir got its name from “Kashyap Muni,” a sage imagined by Kalhana in his kavya (poem) called Rajatarangini, and repeated ad nausea by Brahmins since then. Such Brahminical crudity will not find the natural acceptance it did once. From history Kashyap has been dethroned, and returned justly to its mythic status.
It becomes important now to add “it is believed,” or, more importantly, “a religious community believes,” before we proclaim that Kashmir took its name from a drummed-up sage called Kashyap Muni. But Bhat will keep yapping fictions as facts. His potage has been solidifying for many years instead of becoming more fluid like the society around him. The arrogant certainty with which he deludes himself is twice removed from present debates about the discipline of history. He not only refuses to accept what he remembers as the history of Kashmir as just another narrative, but he also urges others to privilege improbable myths as history. In places with moderately decent academic freedom Bhat would be laughed at, but in Kashmir we have been forced listen to pseudo-historians like him.
It is important to keep in mind what Michel Foucault has taught us: hegemonic discourses are hand-in-glove with power, in that these discourses reinforce power. The discourse on Kashmir’s past, too, is deeply linked to power, i.e. the continuation of Indian control over Kashmir. As a case in point, the categories through which Kashmir’s past and present are viewed are not, and can never be, adequate. Categories like “syncretism” and models like the “cultural mosaic” were constructed in the last few decades and inflicted upon Kashmir’s past. I am not arguing this to give credence to equally stupid viewpoint that Kashmir had either a pure Hindu or a pure Islamic past, but to question the uses and abuses of ‘syncretism’ as a category of understanding.
‘Syncretism’ points to a commonality of some doctrinal elements and not simply to the commonality of everyday life practices. At the doctrinal level, Hindus and Muslims have never shared much, apart from certain universal values, which all religions share. Of course, everyday life in Kashmir has been to a great extent marked by hybridity. But that is the case with most other societies, thus making Kashmir no exception.
In his work on kinship relations of Kashmiri Pandits of a southern Kashmiri village, T. N. Madan ignored Muslims who constituted a huge majority of the village, as if there was rigid segregation of the two communities. Well, if Madan couldn’t detect any syncretism in the late 1950s how is it that we have suddenly found it now? Why are India-loyalists bandying syncretism around so much?
Syncretism has political uses. Muslim syncretism suits India’s ‘national integration’ project: it softens the Muslimness in Muslims, and reveals a Hindu influence on them. It matters little that the same syncretism is not required to understand Hindus in India. The “pure” form of Islam (whatever that means) is naturally assumed to be dangerous, but pristine Hinduism (again a misnomer)—in the way Kashmiri Pandits value caste purity—is seen as unproblematic, even desirable.
Kashmir’s syncretism is also called “Kashmiriyat,” which is made out to be the dominant feature of Kashmiri society. How is it that a fragile social interaction between 95 percent Muslims and 3 percent Hindus is constructed as the dominant feature of Kashmiri society? Clamouring Kashmiriyatists may erase the class dimensions of that interaction, but to suggest that everything was hunky dory is to live in a state of denial. For instance, the way Madan “objectively” mentions Muslims (rarely as he does) as performing impure rites for Hindus, as midwives, or tillers of Pandit land, or Muslims in general being “polluting,” without pausing for a moment to question why it should have been like that, underscores this point. Similarly, the lack of any major Kashmiri Muslim rebellion during a large chunk of the Dogra period does not indicate that relations between the explicitly pro-Hindu rulers and their systematically impoverished Muslim subjects were harmonious, as Bhat suggests.
Since we now have the understanding that the official history is used to prop up Indian state’s legitimacy, we can unearth its basic components. For instance, the clue to work loose the mainstream Indian discourse on Kashmir is quite starkly presented in Bhat’s article itself when he seeks to find the basis for Kashmir’s inclusion in India in Hinduism. Bhat spends almost 90 percent of his piece finding this Hindu connection, while he half-heartedly devotes a small paragraph on 700 years of Kashmir’s latest history.
My intention is not to suggest that times and societies prior to Kashmiris’ transition into calling themselves Muslims cannot be a proper subject of history-writing, but the way emphasis is put on trying to find roots of Kashmir’s ‘essence’ in Hinduism, is at best ridiculous.
The same way what the vision document of the Institute of Kashmir Studies, which Bhat cites, claims—historically Kashmir has been integral part of the cultural mosaic of India and no study of Kashmiri thought and cultural is possible without situating it in the broader perspective of Indian thought and culture—smacks of a brazen attempt to add one more piece of state historians’ fantasies to the official, and politically-expedient, history of Kashmir. That “India” as a geo-national construct, and “Hinduism” semiticized to be its official religion, being 19th century products of elite, upper caste, imagination should be taken into account before dimwits are tasked to come up with such half-baked statements.
For other Kashmiri historians who have been contesting arguments such as that of Bhat’s for decades now, they too must display caution while claiming to know “facts.” The real contest is not about whose facts are right, but about who displays a critical capacity to expose the inbuilt power equations within dominant forms of historical narrative. A postmodern consciousness expects us to keep in mind the relativity of our own historical interpretation, and awareness that after all it is just another story. Otherwise, we commit the mistake of seeing the past through our present lenses, like a Bhat or a Madan does, who see Kashmir’s past as a history of persecution of Kashmiri Pandits!
In Kashmir, though, one has to acknowledge that the state propagates the official history (which is what the Institute of Kashmir Studies envisions to do), and those people who contest it are either muzzled or marginalized. Kashmir’s nonconformist historians are accountable to the marginalized, yet politically alert, Kashmiris, who have often been bruised by state-sponsored histories. This is what democratization of history narratives means. People no longer take “facts” without a pinch of salt.
Historians need to catch up with that habit. If that is done, then people like Bhat would need a lot more than an armoury of abusive polemic, and the Indian state much more than the military muscle, to stifle budding challenges to the hegemonic discourse on Kashmir’s past and present.
(Originally published in Greater Kashmir of June 29, 2008).