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Reflections on Kashmir

Print edition : Jan 31, 2020 T+T-
A shikara on Dal lake against the backdrop of the Zabarwan range in Srinagar on December 16, 2019.

A shikara on Dal lake against the backdrop of the Zabarwan range in Srinagar on December 16, 2019.

The book is a compelling account of Kashmir’s chequered history and the unimaginable agonies of its people under various rulers but makes only a passing mention of human rights issues.

M OOSA RAZA’S Kashmir: Land of Regrets could not have been better timed. Notwithstanding its tendency to view militancy as a response to pressing economic grievances and radicalisation, the book bats vehemently for a softer approach to contain it. Raza travels back in time to the turbulent January 1990 when the advent of Jagmohan as the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir filled him with a sense of foreboding, originating from a legitimate fear that Jagmohan’s “eliminate the militants” policy would invigorate the very problem for which it was meant to be the solution.

As Kashmir descends into the chaotic days of the late 1980s, Raza’s word of caution against ending the erstwhile State’s special status, on the basis of his first-hand experience of the futility of Jagmohan’s strong-arm tactics, assumes significance. The author, who was deputed to Kashmir as Chief Secretary in the 1980s, sheds light on how dialogue, negotiations and healing touches, the components of a conciliatory approach that the current dispensation in New Delhi not only rejects but also mocks as a sign of weakness, can go a long way in preventing the escalation of confrontation.

“I had used the Quran, the hadith, the poetry of Iqbal, Ghalib, Sadi, Hafez and Rumi in my discussions with the separatist leaders whenever the opportunity came my way. I found it most effective…,” Raza writes. His analysis of the mechanism Jagmohan relied on to rein in the militants is useful at a time when political observers are debating how to address the deteriorating situation in Kashmir. He writes: “In pursuit of Napoleonic precision and speed, based on the impressions gathered from highly exaggerated reports in the national media, he [Jagmohan] had decided that starting grievance redressal durbars, implementing neglected development projects, eliminating militants with the help of the armed forces, enforcing PSA [Public Safety Act] and AFSPA [Armed Forces Special Powers Act], and using police and other paramilitary forces to maintain law and order was the way to keep things in control…. But he was sadly mistaken.”

Raza’s diagnosis that the causes for militancy are economic rather than political is flawed. The book mentions New Delhi’s political machinations in Kashmir, chiefly its lack of intent to allow a truly democratic government to emerge in free and fair elections, while emphasising the idea that economic deprivation and an isolated life within the confines of a corruption-ridden Valley served as stimuli for militancy. At one point Raza explains to the Home Secretary the importance of exposing Kashmir’s youths to the different cultures of India, and at another he tells the readers that “the promises made during election campaigns raised expectations, but the failure to fulfil them resulted in resentment, anger and rebellion”. The human rights excesses committed by the security forces become forgettable footnotes. The author writes that one of his aides barely escaped an encounter when he was caught travelling after midnight. He also talks about the police’s ill-treatment of Shabir Shah’s father, resulting in his death. That is about all.

The author might argue that he wanted to keep the focus on aspects other than militancy and human rights issues. He opines at the very beginning that militancy eclipses everything else that plagues the people of the Valley. He has a point there. Although he painstakingly recreates the poverty-stricken, neglected lives of the people and the apathy of their administrators, there is more ink spent on militancy, its causes and possible solutions. This necessitates a more detailed presentation of the human rights problem.

The author offers the oft-repeated argument that a wave of Wahhabi thought is at the core of the transition of Kashmir’s mild-mannered boys to hardened militants. “Many of the unemployed educated youth of the urban areas had given up pir-parasti and had been radicalised by the teachings of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-e-Ahle Hadith,” he says.

For those who have not examined the situation in Kashmir from close quarters and do not know about the Kashmir University lecturer Md. Rafi Bhat or the Army man Mir Idrees Sultan, both of whom gave up their lucrative careers to become militants, there is a danger of falling for the “unemployment-militancy” matrix.

Kashmir: Land of Regrets has many positives. It is a compelling and moving account of Kashmir’s chequered history, the unimaginable agonies its people suffered under Afghans, Sikhs and Dogras. The writing is not in the typical brief and steely bureaucratic style. Rather, it makes you visualise and feel.

The reader will be provoked as Raza takes him/her to the era of begar and mujwaza and to the famine of 1877. His interactions with “ponywalas”, shikara rowers, porters, and an old lady who shares her one-room apartment with 11 family members, give an understanding of the experiences of a diverse section of people caught between the miseries of their existence and the conflict in their homeland.

Raza gives an insight into the State’s silk industry, which is dying because of neglect, and the people’s wait for electricity, a rail line and basic necessities, even as the beautiful land serves as a perfect summer retreat for Ministers from New Delhi. These powerfully told anecdotes at the right intervals are what rescues the book from being a recant of the government’s line in identifying the source of militancy in Kashmir.

The book is a must-read to explore the breathtaking beauty of Kashmir Valley and the magnificent rock formations in the Ladakh range. Raza, through his detailed prose, attentive to the physical features of the places it discusses, takes the reader almost as far as the Pangong lake, and within the Valley to its most peripheral villages.

The book is peppered with references to Kashmir’s traditions, beliefs, the ways of its rural folk, its revered saints, its last local rulers, and the confluence of Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism that its culture represents.

It talks of unique practices such as the Aurad Fatiha that are testimony to Kashmir’s shared values and its once closely bonded society that was known for its tolerance. Kashmir’s cuisines, from the spreads at the banquets of the elites to food cooked on earthern stoves in small hamlets, are described in such detail that they begin to tantalise.

Raza borrows generously from Iqbal, Ghalib and Rumi while delineating the complex situations and moods of the people, producing the desired effect. The reader is seldom strained. Raza also quotes the observations made by foreign travellers from Francois Bernier to Francis Younghusband to William Moorcroft, Charles von Hugel, Godfrey Vigne and Baron Erich von Schonberg. These excerpts provide multiple perspectives and broaden the understanding of Kashmir’s people and society.

Major let-downs

And yet, there are major let-downs. In contrast to a minute-by-minute narration of former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya Sayeed’s kidnapping, the Gawkadal massacre is dismissed in one sentence. “Firing on unarmed crowds on the very day that he [Jagmohan] took over as Governor left most people in shock,” Raza writes. What is remembered in the Valley as “Kashmir’s Jallianwala Bagh” surely deserved a more detailed mention. Raza does not even name the incident, thereby denying his readers the chance to google it and learn about its enormity.

Since he was the Chief Secretary of the State at that time, he could have provided answers to some of the questions that rankle the minds of people in Kashmir and those who are sympathetic towards them. Did the orders to kill with absolute impunity come from the man at the helm? What was Jagmohan’s reaction to this tragic incident? Was there an attempt to fix responsibility? Or were the authorities convinced that extreme violence would dissuade people from rebelling?

We may have to wait for the memoirs of another bureaucrat who served in Kashmir at the time to know the truth.