In an interview with Dr. Altaf Hussain Para
There could be no thorough understanding of Kashmir’s history unless one comprehends the personality and politics of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. It is a matter of fact that Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah has been Kashmir's most enigmatic and complex political leader who was as much master of his persona as he was victim of it. Dr. Altaf Hussain Para in an engaging and scholarly work 'The Making of Modern Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and the Politics of the State' tries to unknot the Sheikh’s complex personality.
Altaf Hussain Para completed his masters as a gold medalist in History from the University of Kashmir in 2004 and a degree of Doctorate in Modern History from the same university in 2009. Currently he teaches History at Cluster University of Srinagar. His papers have been published in several reputed journals including Economic and Political Weekly. Besides he is a regular contributor to the prominent local dailies of Jammu and Kashmir. Oracle Opinions spoke to Dr. Altaf Hussain Para to seek his views on the major developments in Jammu and Kashmir since 1931 and also tried to untangle the personality and politics of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah.
Excerpts from the interview:
Please tell us something about your academic journey. Was your choice of being a history writer merely about a chance or a decision based on a firm choice? What was the major influence?
I belonged to an ordinary peasant family with my parents hardly managing both ends to meet despite working hard day in and day out. I had a very poor schooling considering the deteriorating academic standards in our government run schools post 1990s. Besides, I learnt some handicraft to add to my father’s income. Thus, economic conditions at home and the turmoil in the state perhaps had an impact on my thinking process and my choices in academic and intellectual pursuits. Despite taking sciences as subjects after matric at the behest of my father, I would always feel more comfortable with social sciences in particular with History. Therefore, I shifted to Arts subjects after 12th and started enjoying my studies and spending long hours in the college library. History was my only option when I applied for admission in Kashmir University and I never believed my eyes when I found myself at the top of the admission merit list. Notwithstanding poor economic condition at home, my parents encouraged me to stay around University campus on rent which provided me sufficient time to study and I completed my degree with two gold medals.
The study of history needs to be given more attention than it receives at present particularly in areas where conflicts have a more historical dimension. A better understanding of the root causes of a problem of any nature leads you toward a better and long lasting solution.
How significant is the study of social sciences, especially history, in a disputed region like Jammu and Kashmir. What problems does a student face while working on a politically sensitive topic like that of yours? Does our students have required academic freedom to carry out research in its most objective sense?
Knowledge of social sciences, particularly of history, is indispensable for the creation of a rational social set up free from dogmatic and unscientific worldview. History is to a society what memory is to an individual. It helps you not only in critically evaluating complex situations, but it is also important in taking right decisions when needed. Thus the study of history needs to be given more attention than it receives at present particularly in areas where conflicts have a more historical dimension. A better understanding of the root causes of a problem of any nature leads you toward a better and long lasting solution. Having said this we must also learn, through regressive research and debate, to distinguish between history and propaganda. For this we need to be more open to reinvestigate so called ‘politically sensitive’ research themes. By turning a blind eye towards sensitive research problems, we are bound to add to the complicacies. Any kind of research activity is meaningless unless it adds to some important knowledge that helps you to solve problems that you face. My working on a what you termed as a politically sensitive issue is in itself evidence that there is not much difficulty in choosing complicated research themes but you face difficulties while exploring your sources. Most of the times archive administrators won’t allow you to study sensitive sections of official papers, many people whom you approach for interviews choose either not to talk at all or remain ambiguous in their answers and in my case I found that many a times individuals and organisations have destroyed important records either for the fear of repression or because of changing their ideologies or in some cases, for both. But these are practical difficulties that researchers face everywhere in the world. Also there are methodological solutions to resolve these difficulties provided you work professionally. Our students need to focus more on understanding nature and limits of their chosen subjects and mastering the research methodologies in order to be professionals rather than propagandists.
While reviewing the existing accounts on Sheikh I found that most of them were one sided- either demonizing or lionizing him-without establishing cause and affect relation of significant historical situations related to modern history of Kashmir with Sheikh its dominant character.
What prompted you to work on Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in the first instance and how your work is novel and different from the existing accounts?
It is a bit funny. My curiosity to work on Sheikh Abdullah developed because I had rented a room during my post-graduation only a few hundred meters away from his grave which lies guarded by police officials and where I would spend most of my evenings during summers along with my friends discussing the man and his contested legacy. We would always find our opinions divided on any of the historical events that Sheikh is associated with. Those conversations developed a curiosity in me to know more about the man and his role in our history.
I cannot claim that my work on Sheikh is the last word on his historical role and legacy, but I have tried my level best to put his political deeds, or misdeeds, to historical scrutiny without imposing my own self on facts to derive results. While reviewing the existing accounts on Sheikh I found that most of them were one sided- either demonizing or lionizing him-without establishing cause and affect relation of significant historical situations related to modern history of Kashmir with Sheikh its dominant character.
Since your research is more about Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, how do you see him as a conscious student of Kashmir history? Since Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah time and again spoke of 1586 A.D. as the beginning of “colonialism” in Jammu and Kashmir, how far was he justified in that? Was his assessment of Kashmir history a politically driven valuation or was it based on some solid historical facts. What are your views?
As I said, my work is essentially on modern history of Kashmir and what role Abdullah had played in its making, or unmaking. To be honest, Sheikh has predominantly influences our contemporary political history since 1930’s with an enduring impact. He was undoubtedly an exceptionally charismatic mass leader who had meteoric rise to the top slot of Kashmir politics. He was a mixture of opposites, if I may put it mildly. An enigmatic leader who wore many hates and made frequent U turns which contributed in creating a disputed political identity of the people he claimed to represent. Despite beginning his political life as an anti-Feudal revolutionary in 1931 and championing social democracy, secularism, economic justice and women rights, he established a strong regimentalized state apparatus and cult politics in 1948 with least regard to the democratic and constitutional principles. In order to supress dissent voices, he introduces draconian laws and inhuman torture tactics in the state. He remained consistent only on two things; he was a [pragmatic] secular and he was anti-Pakistan. Perhaps for this reason, Jawarlal Nehru overlooked or patronised his authoritarian behaviour in the state. Having said this, one must give him due credit for his bold decision to introduce radical land reform in the state. Despite introducing it under political compulsion caused by an impending UN sponsored plebiscite, the reforms empowered rural peasantry, caused a death knell to feudal order and substantially reduced poverty in the state.
Regarding second part of the question I must say that all political leaders and political parties across the globe have been dishonest to the historical episteme. They selectively quote history to suit their ideologies. If past is unpalatable, they either manufacture ‘facts’ or fictionalize the history to fit it to their agendas. ‘If there is no suitable past, it can always be invented’. ‘Colonialism’ is a phenomenon that emerged from Europe and south Asia became its victim in the middle of the 18th century when Mughal authority was on its death bed. It is not methodologically right to evaluate a period of history by applying a paradigm that was not in existence at that time. You cannot blame medieval autocrat for his disregard to constitutional democracy or for having expansionist tendencies because constitutional democracy and concept of nation state were not in existence during his time.
The Muslims from Punjab and other areas through organisations like Kashmir Committee and Ahrar Committee have played a great role in highlighting the grievances of Kashmiri Muslims and also watering the early sapling of Kashmir’s struggle for freedom.
Was Sheikh Abdullah really Sher-I-Kashmir? Is this title substantiated by any primary or archival record?
Well calling or not calling him Sher e Kashmir is simply a matter of perception.
The Muslims from Punjab and other areas through organisations like Kashmir Committee and Ahrar Committee have played a great role in highlighting the grievances of Kashmiri Muslims and also watering the early sapling of Kashmir’s struggle for freedom. However, their role is least highlighted in academic circles of the State. What are the reasons for such a historical dementia? Is it a politically motivated decision to erase their role from the Kashmir’s freedom movement? In your opinion what are the possible reasons?
I cannot agree more with you on this. Punjab was undoubtedly launching pad from where the anti-feudal struggle in the state owes its origin. Kashimiri nationalist leadership received their first lessons in politics and political work from Punjabi leaders and organisations. They provided funding, logistics and external support to Sheikh for establishing his first political organisation, The Muslim Conference, in the state and highlighted the plight of suffering Kashmiris under irresponsible Dogra state throughout the British India. However, from 1936, Sheikh Abdullah disassociated himself from Panjabi organisations in order to assert his independence. He came under the influence of Prem Nath Bazaz who wanted him to work under the tutelage of National Congress. Abdullah also saw in this an opportunity to get rid of the criticism from Indian Hindu press in British India and Kashmiri Pandit community in the state. No wonder than that ‘histories’ written under the influence of National Conference ideology tried either to downplay the role of Punjabi organisations and individuals in Kashmir’s anti-autocracy movement, or try to brand them as communal outfits with divisive agendas.
How could you interpret the decisions of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah like converting Muslim Conference into National Conference in 1938, putting his weight behind India in 1947, patronising Plebiscite Front since 1953 and again making an accord with India in 1975?
Apparently the decision to convert Muslim Conference into National Conference was taken to attract non-Muslims to join the national movement with an intention to maintain an equal distance from Muslim League and the Congress. Barring a few individuals the change hardly moved the non-Muslims in the state to join the movement. Instead it created a division among the nationalist leadership thus weakening the movement. On the other hand National Conference worked as a local unit of the INC in the state from 1940 as did the Muslim Conference in case of Muslim League thus ending any possibility of a consensus in 1947.
Sheikh Abdullah failed to anticipate Partition when its prospects were as bright as daylight in 1946 and therefore, when he was required to prepare his people for a decision, he unilaterally launched a rash adventure, Quit Kashmir, and landed himself in Maharaja’s jail leaving his people in a mess during the most testing times. He backed Maharaja’s decision to accede to Indian Dominion because he wanted to replace him as an undisputed ruler of the state, of course, under Nehru’s protection. The arrangement worked for some time for the compulsions created by the situation for both Nehru and Sheikh but it was bound to fail. Nehru had visualised deeper integration of the Jammu and Kashmir with India once the flames of Partition/Accession are doused down but Abdullah had dreamed of asserting more independence once the tribal threat was over. A tussle, overdue in 1953, resulted in Sheikh’s unceremonious and illegal dismissal with huge consequences on the relationship of state with India. Ironically Nehru had invested more in Abdullah than in the people of the state whom he considered not what can be called ‘virile’ and prone to easy living.
The Plebiscite Movement launched under Sheikh’s patronage which galvanised people’s imagination for more than two decades created a strong mass psyche which its creator failed to eradicate when he made a volte face by signing an accord with second generation Indian leadership and disowning the movement as political wilderness. In fact looking closely, to Abdullah the movement was never more than a bargaining ploy to reincarnate himself with unbridled authority. In his Accord he failed even to achieve this.
If we look at the history of Kashmir, we hardly find instances of communal thinking. Even in 1947, M.K. Gandhi saw “a ray of hope in Kashmir”. However, after 1947 we see both communities standing each other forcefully. In 1967 Jammu and Kashmir witnessed a serious clash between Hindus and Muslims, when Parmeshwari Handoo married Ghulam Rasool Kanth. What led to the transition of Kashmir from a secular and composed society to a one which was sectarian enough for both communities to stand against each other?
[Will respond to this on another occasion in detail]
There is no denying the fact that religion and religious symbols were frequently used in south Asian anti-colonial movements and in Kashmir’s case it was Islamic symbolism and metaphor which was used to provoke mass imagination against an insensitive and autocratic Dogra state.
Sheikh Abdullah despite being a secular minded person used Islamic institutions and symbols to develop his social base and garner mass support. Does it suggest that Islam remains central to the Muslim politics and there is no running away from it?
There is no denying the fact that religion and religious symbols were frequently used in south Asian anti-colonial movements and in Kashmir’s case it was Islamic symbolism and metaphor which was used to provoke mass imagination against an insensitive and autocratic Dogra state. In Kashmir’s case there were two fundamental reasons for this; a) the state derived its legitimacy to rule solely on the basis of its claim to be the defender of a particular religion and categorised its people and their rights singularly on the bases of their religious affiliations and b) religious places were relatively free where people could have organised big gatherings and avoided persecution. Religion still remains most effective tool of mass mobilization in our part of the planet.
What has been the role of Kashmiri Pandits in the political developments that took place in Jammu and Kashmir from 1931 onwards. Has their role been same throughout the history of Jammu and Kashmir or there have been some shifts in their political outlook.
Being a minority, Kashmiri Pandit Community has learnt, over centuries, to adapt to the new situations thrown upon them. They mastered Persian to stay relevant in a Muslim dominated political system. Even during the notorious Afghan rule, they maintained their hold on statecraft. They were the first to adopt modern education in the state and hence had lions share in the administration under Dogra rule. Being the preferred section of the society among Kashmiris under Dogras, they naturally felt their position threatened when Kashmiri Muslims rose to ask for their rights and therefore played a reactionary role during the anti-feudal movement. Later on some of their leaders anticipated the British withdrawal and the liquidation of the princely privileges in India and hence, they wanted to take away muslimness from the Kashmir movement and wanted to make it a part of a larger Congress led movement. Therefore, they convinced Sheikh Abdullah to convert Muslim Conference into National Conference and cease his relations with the Panjabi Muslim leadership. They succeeded but held back from joining the movement in considerable numbers. In 1947, when tribal thundered in the outskirts of Srinagar and the Maharaja made a retreat to Jammu, posing a serious threat to the life and honour of the community, Sheikh Abdullah mobilised his cadres under National Militia to successfully protect the non-Muslims in the state. Pandits started looking at Abdullah as the incarnation of Krishna till Indian army took over.
What are your future plans? Are you presently working on any other area of Kashmir history? Would you like to share that with us?
Right now I am busy in writing a text book on Kashmir because there are only a few available for common readers to know about our civilisational background.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.