Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Agha Shahid Ali as Krishna, Or, The Limits of the Secular in Kashmir

[This essay was first published in Sarai Reader 09: Projections (April 2013, Delhi).]

I can’t fully recognize the deity, though – they have so many.  In all probability it must be Bhagwan Krishna; it’s a good-looking god, pleasant, benign, not intimidating. In spite of being blue – Mirza Waheed, ‘The Collaborator’ (2011: 286)

In the June of 2012, on my trip to Srinagar to meet people who knew the poet Agha Shahid Ali (1949-2001), I met the writer and researcher Abir Bashir Bazaz at what he said was ‘Shahid’s favourite cafĂ©’, Hideout, nestled next to the bund that runs along the river Jhelum. It was in a conversation with him that a particular image frequent in Shahid’s oeuvre was fore-grounded – the image of Shahid as a young boy dressed as Krishna – which turned out to be a visual clue to unpack the problem of secularism in Kashmir. More precisely, to unpack one colourless understanding of secularism as the problem in Kashmir – the one which does not take account of the fact that religion can form the horizon of political thought, which seeks to always see them apart, and refuses to acknowledge that historically, a political demand can become imminent within a religious utterance.

Shahid, Abir told me, ‘was very fond of his image as Krishna’ (Bazaz: 2012). It was one of his favourite self projections, recurring in accounts of him that I heard later from several of his friends, and his elder brother and father. It was an image that crystallized like no other his idea of togetherness between faiths – a young Shia boy dressed as a Hindu god. It was a simple ecumenical image, an exercise in effortless hyphenation. The image appeared again in his last years in Brooklyn, when he told his younger friend Amitav Ghosh that ‘[w]henever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism, I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room. What do you make of that? I ask them’ (Ghosh: 2002). Shahid’s answer to the general question of ‘Muslim fanaticism’ is in the painfully particular, in the indulgence of his own mother Sufia for his childhood desire to pray to Gods outside Islam. 

Months after my conversation with Abir, in the winter of Srinagar, Iqbal, Shahid’s elder brother, confirmed Ghosh’s account sitting in the verandah of their house in the affluent neighbourhood of Rajbagh. He pointed towards Shahid’s room and told me ‘bhaiyya had a small mandir with prasad, puja and everything, then another time he had a small chapel full with hymns and prayers. His affair with Gurunanak, I think,’ Iqbal said smiling, ‘lasted a shorter while’ (Iqbal Ali: 2012). ‘Ma used to,’ he said, ‘dress up bhaiyya as Krishna’ (ibid.). Ghosh also recalls this as Shahid’s ‘favourite story’, saying that as a child ‘[h]e was initially hesitant to tell his parents but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine’ (Ghosh: ibid.). Shahid repaid this childhood debt years later when his mother lay dying in a hospital in Manhattan in 1997 by recalling this scene in what was to be one of his most moving and cited poems Lenox Hill – ‘…to save you as you were, young, in song in Kashmir, / and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir / listening to my flute. You never let gods die’ (Ali; 2010: 247). To the collective, political problem of alleged ‘Muslim fanaticism’, Shahid’s answer lies is in the exceptional, in the intimate, in a delicate childhood memory where one religion seamlessly dissolves into another. 

During the 1990s, Abir told me, he felt Shahid was intellectually rigorous on several matters – they used to talk over hours about poetry and Kashmir – except when it came to ‘the Hindu-Muslim question because he immediately became sentimental about it…he did not push the envelope, I think…did not realize more substantially the question of difference,’ the variant trajectories that Islam and Hinduism have historically followed in Kashmir (Bazaz: ibid.). ‘Given what had happened here,’ Abir suspected, ‘he would have certainly gone deeper’ had he lived longer and continued to write on Kashmir (ibid.). My conversations with Abir were happening at a stage when I myself was coming to terms with what this ‘question of difference’ could be. Shahid’s simple syncretistic vision projected in the image of him as Krishna was seductive and no doubt moving rhetorically. Its undemanding message spoke resonantly to the slogan that I had frequently heard growing up in north India in the 90s, by which the better portion of the subcontinent sought to constantly exorcise its communal ghosts – Hindu Muslim Sikh Isaai, apas mein hain bhai bhai (‘Hindu Muslim Sikh Christian, all are brothers’). I had thought that the basic idea – of a sibling-like congruency among faiths – behind this slogan could be easily transplanted to Kashmir. 

Both Abir and Ghosh however suggested that there was something of a missed opportunity in this image, an avoidance perhaps of a fuller encounter with the experience of the majority of Kashmiri Muslims. They suggested that the visual overlap of the Muslim boy with the Hindu god projected by Shahid might not be complete, that it made for excellent poetry perhaps but as a political insight it was possibly feeble. The image suggests an equidistance, an idea that both faiths have to chart the same distance, as it were, to reach this ideal togetherness. The full complementarity of Hinduism and Islam that is the point of the image, its wishful locus, misunderstands how these two faiths have been experienced by Kashmiris, how they do not simply balance out on the weighing scale of power. ‘The truth is,’ Ghosh wrote, ‘that Shahid’s gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always towards the inclusive and ecumenical, an outlook that he credited to his upbringing’ (Ghosh: ibid.). I argue in this essay that the simultaneous seductiveness and the inadequacy of Shahid’s image, of inclusiveness so defined, parallels the seduction and insufficiency of the way secularism is usually deployed in Kashmir.

Since the 1980s, the problem in Kashmir has been projected as that of a failed secularism. The short history often given of the years since 1989 hollows out the connection between religion and politics in Kashmir under the umbrella phrase of Islamicization which assumes that religion has no place in politics, that it can only be an impurity from outside and that it will necessarily only take up a fanatical shape. Working with a limited definition of secularism, Indian writers, politicians and army chiefs have failed to take into account that the religious sensibility that informs the political mobilization in Kashmir is rooted in, among other things, the long history of how the majority of Kashmiri Muslims have fared during successive governments, first the Hindu Dogra kingdom (1846-1947) and then the Indian rule. This projection of the Kashmiri movement for freedom as failed secularism is both an intellectual cop-out and a kind of political stratagem against all separatist thought that necessarily builds on the religious experience of Kashmiri Muslims. 

For instance, writing soon after the Agra Summit between the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in 2001, Indian columnist Tavleen Singh wrote that ‘[g]roups like the JKLF and Kashmiri leaders like Shabir Shah have tried to maintain the secular character of their struggle for freedom but have failed’ (Singh: 2001; emphasis mine).They have spoken,’ she writes, ‘often about the tragedy of Kashmiri Hindus being forced out of the state,’ but then with little evidence adds, ‘but their appeals lack popular support’ (ibid.). In a similar vein, Gen. (rtd.) Srinivas Kumar Sinha, former Governor of J&K (who was instrumental in establishing the Sri Amarnath Trust Board in 2003) in an interview in 2008 made a broad statement that ‘[t]here is an environment of religious intolerance in Kashmir. There was ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the state but no one talks about them. Kashmir has been Talibanized by the Separatists. The Secular lobby never condemns the communal politics of Syed Ali Shah Geelani’ (quoted in Fotedar: 2008; emphasis mine). Published in the same year, Sumit Ganguly’s book-length study The Crisis in Kashmir, in trying to understand why Kashmiri ‘mobilization [took] place along ethnoreligious lines’, also explains its cause in the failure of secular politics in the region (quoted in Rai: 2004). This simple projection of Kashmir as a case communal politics vs. secular politics – always focusing overwhelmingly on the recent uprising since 1989 as if the history of Kashmir before that is a blank slate – is a red-herring of enormous proportions. It has kept us all this while from understanding that if we are to speak at all of a botched secularism in Kashmir then dating it to 1980s does not cut it. We have to project it back painstakingly by at least a century and a half and see it instead as a political deployment, as an official policy that was by and large institutionalized by governments in Kashmir, whether of the Hindu Dogra kings, or later with compromised changes, Indian.

If we were to project – in the root sense of the word, Latin pr icere means to throw forth – our historical narrative backwards, much before 1989, we will see an almost continuous and harsh inequity under which a majority of Kashmiri Muslims have laboured, which in turn created conditions of their consolidation as a political force as Muslims (see Rai: 2004; Mishra 2000). Even a cursory glance at these decades would explain how religion, being a reason for systematic political and material disfavor becomes as a consequence a medium of political outrage. Almost ever since the British East India Company formed the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir by the Treaty of Amritsar in March 1846, and sought to legitimize it as a Hindu buffer state between its Indian territories and the more unstable influences of Afghanistan and Russia, Kashmiri Muslims, leaving a small elite, found themselves under a rule whereby they had a fiercely unequal access to political power, bureaucratic positions, revenue machinery, land holdings, education, religious rights and the opportunities to live with comfort, dignity and without violence. 

For a particularly violent instance, during the Kashmiri famine of 1877-9, it was charged that the Dogra maharaja Ranbir Singh (1830-85) ‘in order to save the expense of feeding his people,’ had preferred to drown boat-loads of Muslims in the Wular Lake (see Rai; 2004: 142). Such an event was only emblematic of a far more pervasive exclusion of Kashmiri Muslims from, as Mridu Rai argues in her redoubtable book Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, the symbolic, economic and political resources of the Hindu Dogra state (see ibid.). For instance, by its agricultural arrangements, the Dogras prevailed over a system where the entire tax-collecting machinery was headed by the Kashmiri Pandits, who despite being only about 5% of the Kashmiri population, owing to their high level of literacy, prosperity and political influence also hugely dominated the spheres of bureaucracy and education. A decade after the said famine, in a note on the ‘Position of the Cultivating Classes in Kashmir’ submitted to the colonial Foreign Department in 1890, the British civil servant Walter R. Lawrence noted that the ‘administration of Kashmir [is] opposed to the interests of the cultivating classes [which were mostly Muslim] and to the development of the country,’ asserting that ‘the officials systematically endeavoured to make themselves feared by the people’ (quoted in ibid. 148). He added that while many of the Pandit officials might be ‘individually gentle and intelligent, as a body they were cruel and oppressive…and their combination [wa]s of so perfect…a nature as to make impossible to break’ their stranglehold over institutional power (ibid. 150). 

In matters of official religious and cultural patronage too, the scale was titled in the favour of the Kashmiri Pandits and the Jammu Hindus. Largely by-passing the colonial government’s anxious command to be more ‘representative’ of their kingdom, the Dogras overwhelmingly favoured Hindu religious customs and sites of worship over Muslim ones by making large donations, by incorporating patently Hindu icons in the political rituals of the court and, among other discriminatory acts, virulently punishing cow-slaughter. In his 1884 Ain-i-Dharmarth maharaja Ranbir Singh outlined the purpose of his Dharmarth Trust with ‘a view solely to ensure the advancement of the sacred religion of the Hindus’ (see ibid. 115-6). A review of the almost hundred years of the Dogra rule should leave no doubt that it was a blatantly Hindu state and that it methodically thwarted the concerns of its Muslim majority which in turn led to the banding together of the Muslim citizens identified and excluded as such. The very basis for their exclusion – their religious identity – became necessarily the vehicle of their struggle.

Under pressure from the British government in 1931 to hear and look into these long held, distinctly Muslim grievances, which had erupted earlier that year on 13th July when for the first time Kashmiri Muslims had openly demonstrated against Dogra authority, maharaja Hari Singh set up the Glancy Commission which went on to recommend that the king should allow the formation of political parties and the publication of newspapers in the state, till then banned. It was during these years that Sheikh Abdullah (1905-82), whose son and grandson were also to become chief-ministers of J&K, ‘appeared to be everywhere and speaking for every class of Kashmiri Muslims’ (ibid.: 270; emphasis mine). Capitalizing on the recommendations of the commission, Sheikh Abdullah founded the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference in October 1932, whose name was changed to National Conference only in 1939. 

Abdullah projected his voice as the voice of the majority of Kashmiri Muslims, particularly the cultivators and craftsmen, and till about the mid-1930s spoke openly and virulently against the dominance of the Kashmiri Pandits. He was to later tone down this rhetoric by using a more ‘secular’ language of rights that seemed to be borrowed from the Indian National Congress but was crucially different from it in the sense that it did not dilute the religious identity within a political demand, letting politics emerge from the bedrock of religious affinities (see ibid. 274-87). Even as his party sought to build bridges within a more nationalist framework through the idea of shared Kashmiriyat (‘Kashmiriness’) between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, these different communities very precisely remained religiously defined in his party’s rhetoric. If we are to call it ‘secularism’, it was not of the kind that denied religion but instead made religious affiliation and specific demands of thwarted religious communities its modus operandi (see ibid.). In a speech in Jammu in 1937, Abdullah had demanded the ‘grant of perfect religious liberty’, asserting that Hindus would no longer be allowed to think of them as ‘mere sheep and goats and not as Muslims’ (quoted in ibid.: 278). It is easy to notice that the 1930s only crystallized the long simmering process of the consolidation of Kashmiri Muslims as Muslims in order to make their material and political demands. The religious sphere and the political sphere were from then onwards to remain indistinguishable in the history of Kashmir. The inclusive idea of Kashmiriyat was not a denial of religious belonging which remained accounted for within it (see ibid.: 224-6).      
In 1983, when Tavleen Singh went to cover the elections for the state legislature in the J&K she observed that the ‘main characteristic’ of Prime Minister ‘Indira Gandhi’s campaign…had been to play what we liked in those days,’ she says, ‘to call the Hindu card…[Indira Gandhi],’ she adds, ‘manipulated the sentiments of Jammu’s large Hindu population by making campaign speeches that hinted darkly at the dangers of Muslims ‘from across the border’ being allowed in by the hoard if Farooq Abdullah [newly appointed leader of National Conference after his father’s death in 1982] came to power’ (Singh: ibid.). A friend who was accompanying Singh on her trip explained the absence of commentary on Gandhi’s ‘patently communal’ campaign from national front-pages in India because, he ventured, the Indian journalists only liked ‘to highlight the communalism of the other side,’ presumably as an aberration of constitutional ‘secularism’ (ibid.). This recounting suggests that the Indian dispensation continued to use a religiously informed language in the way it made political calculations in Kashmir well after 1947. Oddly enough though the representatives of the Indian government and media were still left surprised when it was a religiously based idiom, which as we have seen had a long history in the politics of the region, that also informed the militant struggle for azadi (‘freedom’) in Kashmir, in varying lengths among different militant groups. 

Oblivious of how religion could be channeling a political struggle, the former Governor of Jammu & Kashmir Jagmohan, who presided over Kashmir over the early years of the uprising and spearheaded the brutal Indian crackdown, in an interview to Kalyani Shankar, recounted those years as being dominated only by what he disapprovingly phrased as ‘Islamic frenzy’ being carried out by violent ‘anti-national elements’ threatening ‘Indian secularism’ (quoted in Shankar: 2012). In a completely different vein, in January, 2010 Yasin Malik of the JKLF asked Kashmiri Pandits to return to the valley, supplementing his invitation with a scene that highlights separate religious belonging among Kashmiris even as it brings them together, creating a vision of togetherness realized in the acceptance, not in the dissolution of alterity. With the same pitch as the earlier Abdullah, he addressed the crowd at Gawkadal in Srinagar, saying that ‘[t]he minorities have stayed back in the valley [those that did] because of the support and cooperation of their Muslim neighbours… not…because of government backing’ (quoted in ANI: 2010). Here, the Muslimness and the Panditness of the neighbours in Srinagar is emphasized, not dissolved, even as their peaceful coexistence is outlined within Kashmir, which, Malik notes elsewhere, is known for ‘our centuries-old religious tolerance and harmony’ (quoted in GK: 2012). Malik’s political vocabulary is attuned to religious specificity even as it aims for inclusiveness.

I argue that there is an undeniable historical continuity of religion as the medium of political expression in the valley, that the novelty of 1989 is usually overstated and that analysis such as Singh’s which argues that Indira Gandhi’s bringing down Farooq Abdullah’s government in 1984 was the cause and ‘the beginning of the current Kashmir problem’ is flawed at best. ‘The historic problem [of Kashmir’s integration within India, I presume],’ she writes vaguely, ‘died in the seventies when the Bangladesh war and the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto made the average Kashmiri suddenly see Pakistan through new eyes’ (Singh: ibid.). I seek to argue that the current problem in Kashmir is indebted to and is embedded in its historic problem, if we are to momentarily use this disingenuous categorization. We cannot isolate the years post-1989 and then simply explain them away solely as a Pakistan-sponsored aberration of the constitutional dream of Indian ‘secularism’, painting in one broad brush-stroke factions as varied as the Yasin Malik’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s Awami Action Committee and Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Jamaat-e-Islami.   
In addition to the persistence of religious vocabulary for politics, the disfavor towards Kashmiri Muslims also has a history of continuity from the Dogra princely state to Indian ‘democratic’ rule. Historians like Mridu Rai and Pankaj Mishra have argued that the full effect of the reforms initiated by the Sheikh Abdullah government in relation to landlordism, agriculture and education in the 1950s were only partially realized (see Rai: 2004: 274-87; Mishra: 2000). For example, the Big Estates Abolition Act, the most publicized land reform of 1950 which ensured a maximum limit of 22¾ acres per landowner was compromised by common strategy of the landlord breaking up the joint families ensuring each adult male individual holdings in-effect collectively retaining the land. Also, since the orchards were exempt from the Act, the bigger landlords of Kashmir, ‘whose ranks included Pandits,’ escaped the ceiling in another way by converting cereal acreage into more profitable horticulture (see Rai: ibid.: 282-4). In government service the National Conference gave the Pandits a sizeable stake in the new arrangement by reserving 10% of the state jobs for them, which considering their numbers, was disproportionate and ‘an impressively generous allowance’ (ibid.: 284). In Kashmir University in Sringar, most of the senior teaching staff were Pandit till the exodus of most of the community during the uprising (see Mishra: ibid.). ‘The free primary education,’ over the decades, Mishra argues, ‘had created a new class of ambitious Kashmiri Muslims. But no new institutions had been provided to accommodate these Muslims; and the older ones were monopolized by the minority of Hindus who ran the schools and colleges’ (ibid.). More recently, even as the Indian government supports the influx of greater numbers of Hindu pilgrims for the Amarnath Yatra every year, it has banned Muharram processions since 1990 for alleged security reasons, despite its claims that the situation has improved considerably (see Mehdi: 2012).

When Abir had said ‘[g]iven what has happened here [in Kashmir]…[Shahid] would have certainly gone deeper’ he had hinted at these historical continuities (Abir: ibid.). It was these continuities of Muslim experience in the valley that lay at the root of his discomfort with the easiness of the image of the young Shahid as Krishna, the poet’s choicest self-image. The smoothness of that image held the troubled history of Kashmiri Muslims hostage to an intensely personal and exceptional experience of the dissolution of one’s religion into another, proposing a coexistence that did not ‘substantially realize the question of difference,’ which instead short-circuited it. As a mnemonic, the image did not index the experiences of a vast number of Kashmiri Muslims whose religion was simultaneously a millstone and an intimate channel to make long-held political and economic demands, who did not diametrically oppose secularism against religious investment, who saw togetherness of faiths not as a denial of their specificities or of religion’s imminence in politics, and who often found in the utterance of Allah also the utterance of freedom. When the Indians next hear the Kashmiris shouting the slogan Azadi ka matlab kya, la ilaha illa Allah (‘What do we mean by Azadi, there is no god but God’) – and by no means will this be the only slogan they hear, for instance Ham kya chahte, azadi (‘What do we want, freedom’) will be as if not more frequent – at that point, before the Indians immediately project each of them only as the cinema-burning, bar-banning, burkha-advocating, ‘unsecular’, ‘hardliner’, ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, they should wait and lend their ear to the political demand of Kashmiris against the Indian occupation that has lain for years within the openly religious cry.


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