Kashmir and the Presentist notion of the Past

Pashmina Shawl

In the modern day academic arena, often the two closely associated disciplines of anthropology and history inform our notion of the past. In the context of modern South Asia or to be more specific postcolonial India, Prof Thapar admits that historians in the postcolonial era did engage in writing history (or build up the past) keeping in mind the nationalist sentiments which is where the presentist notion or the nation-state’s ideology crept in to influence the pre-national past. This essay attempts to elaborate on some of the consequences of such a notion of history (presentist notion) on the trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir and beyond with respect to its tumultuous relation with present-day India.

Majority of the history written in postcolonial India catered to a secular imagination of the past giving importance to the ‘Ganga-jamuni tehzib’ (Hindu-muslim unity). While the then contemporary political situation was still recuperating from the scars of partition, historians tried to forge a secular imagination on the ruins of the empire’s worldview of Indian history. According to Neeladri Bhattacharya, the secular historians tried to counter communalism both in history writing and in society by choosing to counter the communal myths directly without complicating or problematising the past. This, according to him, had put the secular historians behind the eight ball and often got them into the tropes of defending Islam in South Asia. In the quest for overpowering each other, both these streams of history writing eventually overpowered or maurauded histories of so called margins and disputed regions. One such region is the region of Kashmir. Historians in India have informed the Kashmiri past using the tropes laid down by the Britishers and in a way that it has been reduced into a disputed borderland, laden with conflicts with the interests of different postcolonial nation-states.

The communal historical outlook towards the region has considered Kashmir as a land with an ancient Hindu past invaded by the Islamic rule in between then moving into an era of chaos. While the secular narrative has counter-argued by exemplifying the syncretism of the different religions in the region thereby trying to make it an ambassador of secular India. Even historians of Kashmir such as Ishaq Khan tried to argue for the Islamic era but perhaps failed to problematise the simple transformation of the society over the medieval period and ignored the importance of Kashmir’s linkages with the Central Asian provinces. While lately another narrative has gained ground in Kashmir that picks the invasion of Kashmir by the Mughal regime as the starting point of colonialism in Kashmir. Therefore, these have left three distinct narratives around the history of Kashmir with each distinctly catering different political agendas. The communal one fuelled the right-wing communal movement championed by the current regime in India. The simple reductionist syncretic secular narrative perhaps suited the agenda of the Indian National Congress and National Conference regime, while the final narrative derived lately by popular historians of Kashmir of a five hundred years of colonial rule suits the liberation movement in Kashmir. However all these three narratives employ a presentist notion of informing the pre-national Kashmiri past or to be specific the era when Kashmir was not marred by borders and concertina wires..

The communal narrative is mostly based on myths and questionable sources. While it presupposes the continuity of Hindu rule from time immemorial, it fails to take into account the events in the Buddhist era and in the Hindu revivalist era in between the 6th to 12th century. While it is indisputable that a Hindu past did exist in Kashmir, but whether it was all peaceful or oppressive is highly questionable due to the prevalence of caste discrimination moreover, the available travelogues of Xuanzang (a.k.a Hiuen Tsang) where the Buddhist traveller describes the differences between the Buddhists (whom he refers to a ‘believer’) and the Brahmins (whom he refers to as ‘non-believers’) expresses the tension within the region between the groups. Again, later in the early 14th century, when Islam spread in Kashmir little sources that are available suggest the prevalence of caste discrimination in Kashmir therefore, the ‘all peaceful hindu era narrative’ of the communal historians can be contested  on different grounds. However, this narrative spread through various mass mediums more so in the present era with enough Islamophobia, makes it a viable political tool.

Coming to the second the perhaps the most important narrative, the syncretic secular narrative of history. This, according to Prof. Bhattacharya tried to counter the former by presenting a rosy picture of religious harmony in the transitional and in the Islamic era of the medieval and early modern period. However, this failed to address the issue of mobility and interaction of Kashmir with people across the Central Asian geography. In the words of Ludden it followed the conventional trope of looking into the past through the idea of what he calls ‘civilisation history’. He continues, that this narrative or method of writing history seldom focused on the connected nature of the region in the pre-national past rather confined their history within the postcolonial borders that did not feature a century ago. The above shortcoming of  this narrative not only a bait to be countered politically, but also  it failed to substantially challenge the communal narrative with any alternate position or worldview. This restrained narrative initially helped the newly formed Indian state to efficiently switch to the communal mode as and when the political mood shifted. In simpler words this narrative helped the Indian National Congress  and its successors to argue for its ruling legitimacy in Kashmir as it envisaged Kashmir to be within and only within South Asia. Later this idea helped the right-wing nationalism in India to legitimately propagate its narrative of occupying all of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir without any autonomy of the region and even without people’s consent.

Finally the third narrative recently deployed by a lot of Kashmiri historians also fails to a certain extent when they invoke the category of colonialism since the Mughals. Although this narrative opposes the other two mainstream methods of history writing, without a significant focus on Kashmir’s relation, interaction and place within the larger global history. This emphasis within the South Asian empires either in the medieval or in the early modern era, this narrative fails to offer anything significantly new. Rather engages in the Hindu-muslim binary with a different sort of whataboutery.

The reason I mention, the early modern trade linkages, is because it opens up a different possibility to imagine and interpret the past thereby opening up an avenue of informing the history of the region. Historian Davis advises historians about learning efficiently from anthropological sources at the same time stresses to imagine the possibilities of the past as the foremost job of an historian. In the context of Kashmir, if enough importance can be given to the trade linkages of Kashmir due to its Silk Route, then the possibility to understand the past of Kashmir can be multiple. The route I am talking about is the same route through which the famous Pashmina shawl travelled into medieval Europe before their (Europeans) arrival into South Asia via maritime routes. If the economy that was transacted, the social and diplomatic traditions that existed within these routes, can force the historians to imagine and write a different history of the region then it can potentially challenge the Delhi centric history that has been written or to put in perspective which has dominated the discourse.

Subhajit Pal, M.A Global Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi




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