Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative: A Reviewer’s Prejudice

Kashmir Exposing the Myth Behind the NarrativeOf the several reviews of Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s – by now – well-known book, KASHMIR- Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative that one had occasion to go through, two [Chitralekha Zutshi: This book claims to expose the myths behind Kashmir’s history. It exposes its own biases instead, Scroll.in, October 24, 2017, and Reapan Tikoo: Building a Flawed and Divisive Narrative, Kashmir Times, June 3, 2018] invite immediate attention for a poor analysis and writers’ prejudice. While Zutshi looks more aggrieved by the book finding an international publisher, thus attaining credibility, Tikoo has exposed his failure to make an impartial comment on a work of meticulous research.

Zutshi, a US based academic and author, has chosen to mislead readers by pedaling a view that the book is an exercise in Kalhana-bashing, and almost shouts angrily “Who is the author to challenge Kalhana?  How can he do that? She accuses him of labeling the 12th century chronicler as a Kashmiri Pandit when the designation has 16th century origin. Curiously, the book nowhere mentions Kalhana as a Kashmiri Pandit.

Evident from her review, Zutshi’s outburst springs from her discomfort over the book finding a publishing house internationally reputed for bringing out highly academic titles. In view of the rigorous and exhaustive procedure of reviewing a manuscript at the SAGE before accepting it for publication, one can understand her unease, for the book does not conform to the position taken by her community on the Kashmiri Pandit Narrative. Criticising, without a single corroborating instance, the book for pointing out instances of Kalhana’s imagination working behind his reconstruction of the earliest history of Kashmir, Zutshi fails to counter facts and sources given out by the author except through making vague comments like ‘Archival Sources’ quoted in the book are either not identified by primary source or the archive or library in which these are located. By all probability, she has not bothered to go through the exhaustive ‘Notes and References’ accompanied with each chapter of the book, for, she appears in an unusual hurry to discredit it as “dangerous”, “tendentious’ and “a polemic”. All archival sources quoted in the book are mentioned with location. Here are some to confront the allegation: chapter 5: 40, 106, 127, 194, 197, 228, 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 236; chapter 6: 41, 88, 92, 115, 117 to 123; chapter 7: 2; and chapter 9: 8. Commenting on Zutshi’s outburst, BBC Correspondent Riyaz Masroor, in fact, considers it as “a badge of honour” for the author of the book, and I cannot agree more with him.

Zutshi’s love and admiration for Kalhana is quite in place and understandable but what she would not concede is the fact that the chronicler is not a deity above criticism and Rajatarangini is not a scripture to be spared of critical analysis. If the two have escaped scrutiny so for it does not mean no one must ever try. Having said that, Kashmir- Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative is not about Kalhana or his much acclaimed work. It is about a community narrative on victimhood, its sharp political overtones and its factual inaccuracies. Of the 11chapters, the shortest of all is related to the Rajatarangini where the author has pointed out many fictional and make-believe developments that Kalhana presents as historical facts. For instance, it highlights the fantastic description of the ancient city of Srinagar with, what Kalhana wants us to believe, “ninety-six lakh houses resplendent with wealth” or the 5th century ruler Mihirkula massacring three crore women of high birth with their husbands, sons and brothers or a ruler of Kashmir invading present Srilanka. Is this history or pure poetic imagination?

In highlighting these impossible-to-believe developments, the book seeks to argue that such account of our earliest history cannot be relied upon, especially when it is sought to be presented in the 21st century as the cornerstone of a purely political (and patently communal) narrative. As regards the later period, the book gives due credit to Kalhana for his ‘graphic account’ of events and reckons the Rajatarangini as receiving “eminence of an inevitable reference on Kashmir and for its author an enviable position and such fame that refuses to fade with the passage of time.”

The book raises an important question about Kalhana’s sources for reconstructing 4000 years of Kashmir’s history preceding his own time. The chronicler admits having studied 11 earlier works but debunks them all for one or the other reason. So what is the source of his information on ancient Kashmir if it is not his poetic imagination of which he makes a boastful mention? Another important question seeking an answer is if these 11 works were available to Kalhana why have not these passed down to us? Did these contain details that did not go along with Kalhana’s narrative?

Zutshi’s review is a sweeping criticism of the book without any substantiating reference. The fact that she has wholly and only focused on Kalhana is an academic dishonesty and a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real subject matter of the book – a flawed community narrative. The well documented and argued chapters on the so-called aborigine status of Kashmiri Pandits, their alleged forced conversion and mass destruction of temples, power and clout enjoyed by them throughout the history, propaganda about Muslim dominance, Pandit agitation of 1967, mass migration in 1990 and demand for a separate Hindu homeland do not seem to be of any significance for Zutshi.

Zutshi has a problem with the sources of the book of which more than 90% are not, what is now a fashion to label as, Islamist. These include works like the Nilmatapurana, the Rajatarangini, A History of Kashmiri Pandits, The Valley of Kashmir, The Kashmiri Pandits, The History of Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir, Hindu Rulers Muslim Subjects, Buddhism in Kashmir, Majmoo-e-Tawareekh, Kashmir Then and Now, Wail of the Vale, and so on. Among the quoted individuals are Kalhana, Jonaraja, Srivara, Birbal Kachru, Prem Nath Bazaz, Kashyap Bandhu, J. L. Bhan, J. N. Ganhar, Shyam Koul, Neerja Mattoo, Arjun Dev Majboor, K. M. Pannikar, Jogesh Chander Dutt, Balraj Madhok, B. K. Nehru, Ved Kumari Ghai, Jialal Kilam, R. K. Parimu, R. C. Kak, B. N. Mullik, P. N. K. Bamzai, Harinder Baweja, Jagmohan, Devika Rangachari, Balraj Puri, Vijay Bakaya, B. G. Verghese, V. M. Tarkunde, Anuradha Bhasin, Krishan Dev Sethi, Sanjay Tikoo, Mridhu Rai, Jialal Koul, not to speak of M. A. Stein who brought to light Kalhana’s Rajatarangini by his English translation and exhaustive annotations, Tyndale Biscoe, Henny Sender, Victoria Schofield, Robert Thorp, Christof Heyns, and Walter Lawrence. Among faith-neutral sources are the Glancy Commission Report, Census Reports, official statistics and documents, academic studies, UNESCO literature and reports of human rights organizations. Which of these sources do Zutshi have a problem with?

Coming to Reapan Tikoo’s review, it is a poor representation of the writer’s understanding of history. By opening his review with characterization of a thoroughly researched and referenced work as ‘open propaganda and divisive’ speaks very poor of the writer and his capacity to read, let alone review, a book on history. His knowledge of Kashmir history flows from tales told by community elders rather than taking the trouble of studying it himself. People like him feel offended by the viewpoint, even if deep rooted in logic, which runs counter to their carefully nurtured narrative. It is no surprise that Tikoo’s piece abounds in misconception and misrepresentation. The name Takht-i-Sulaiman of a hill in Srinagar according to him is “an attempt to disassociate Kashmir from its glorious past” that he alleges “is now part of the narrative in the Valley”. It takes a little effort, which he would not do, to go through history and discover that the name Takht-i-Sulaiman precedes by many centuries its present name Shankaracharya. Obviously, he has not read old texts on Kashmir like the Rajatarangini which although he sounds very emotional about. Kalhana, it may shock him, did not know of any shrine or hill by the name of Shankaracharya. The hill has been known by different names in different periods of time. During Kalhana’s time it was known as Gopadari. Its present name, Shankaracharya, is a later day development related to the post-Muslim rule.

Likewise, Tikoo is ignorant about the history of the south Kashmir district and town, Islamabad. I challenge him to produce a single ancient or medieval text mentioning the place as Anantnag. Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book has elaborately dealt with this aspect and established that no place or shrine by the name Anantnag existed in ancient Kashmir and that the place was named as Islamabad in the 16th century after a Mughal Governor, Islam Khan laid out a garden here and Auranzeb, the ruler, named it after him. Aurel Stein who in depth studied old texts like the Nilamatapurana, Mahatayamas and the Rajatarangini, writes, “Of the town [Islamabad], I cannot find any old notice, and it is in all probability, as its Mohammadan name implies, a later foundation”. By citing these instances, the reviewer has only exposed his pedestrian knowledge about the history of Kashmir. What he describes as ‘brainwashing of Kashmiri children’ are facts of history subscribed to by his own community sources but conveniently brushed aside.

Tikoo has tried to play to the galleries by claiming that the book equates Sangrampura, Wandhama and Nadimarg massacres with those of “Gaw Kadal, Bijbehara etc.” That again shows the reviewer as a poor reader. Nowhere does the book equate the two sets of massacres. There can be no comparison between the two sets, for in the one case the killers are known while in the other the mystery persists. The Chhitisinghpora Massacre has cast a serious doubt on all brutal mass killings by ‘unknown gunmen’. Why the book mentions the two sets of massacres together is to bring home the point that alongside “a reference to Nadimarg, Wandhama and Sangrampora (places where Kashmiri Pandits were massacred by suspected militants), a mention of Gawkadal, Sopore, Handwara and Islamia College (places where Kashmiri Muslims were massacred by government forces) is imperative to complete the picture of Kashmir tragedy” and understand and recognize each other’s pain and suffering. What is ‘shameful’ and ‘divisive’ about it? The reviewer suffers from serious imperfection to count Shias and Gujjars as other than Muslims of Kashmir. It reflects a mindset.

The reviewer describes the atrocities-driven mass migration of Kashmiri Muslims during the Dogra rule as “sequential natural catastrophe”. Where do deaths by famines, floods and epidemics fit in with the forced migration of a population?  His claim that during the ‘pre-independence’ period, Kashmiri Pandits accounted for 19% of the total population of Kashmir is, to say the least, bizarre and a fantastic revelation. It mocks at the documented statistics and the successive Census Reports released under the Hindu Dogra rule over Kashmir. Such assertions make it easy for a reader to understand the reviewer’s shallow knowledge.   

A community narrative need not be the actual history of a place or a people. It is one thing to present perceptions and myths as history and an altogether a different thing to prove these as actual history. Kashmir history has long been burdened with a heavy load of fiction, myth and plain untruths. The fact that the book under review has bluntly, and for the first time, taken on long pedaled misconception and misrepresentation with a vast fund of uncontestable sources and references has not gone down well with some people whose narration of Kashmir history it reduces to a figment.

Notwithstanding Zutshi’s and Tikoo’s criticism, the book is a serious read and presents highly researched material on a narrative hitherto considered inviolable. It has opened a new debate on historiography of Kashmir. Significantly, the book has been spoken about as “one of the more important books to have come out of Kashmir in recent years” [Hindustan Times], “a myth busting book” [Counter Currents], “a great contribution to Kashmir’s existing literature demystifying mythical but traditional narrative about Kashmir” [South Asian Journal] a book attaining “significance in the list of contemporary history books [Frontline], a “protestant movement in Kashmir historiography”/ a “scholarly chase” forcing readers “to think critically”/ ‘an important corrective to history handed down to us from the past several generations” [Wande Magazine], “the first scholarly critic of what has been told, retold and packaged in the name of three millennia of “recorded history” [Kashmir Life], ‘a paradigm shift in Kashmir narrative’ [Greater Kashmir], and a book that “makes it difficult to accept the fairy tales about the creation of Kashmir” [Kashmir Ink].

Syed Imran Zia is an ardent reader of Kashmir history and an occasional writer who can be reached at [email protected]).


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