Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Reviews-A Mission in Kashmir & In Search of a future

One Issue, Many Perspectives. Yet Refreshing

D. Suba Chandran
Assistant Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

A Mission in Kashmir
Andrew Whitehead
Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 2007, Rs.495, 285 Pages

In Search of a Future: The Story of Kashmir
David Davidas
Penguin-Viking, New Delhi, 2007, Rs.495, 381 Pages

Andrew Whitehead and David Devadas’s works focus primarily on Kashmir Valley. Whitehead gives an extra-ordinary insight into the infamous raid by the pashtuns backed by Pakistan military on Baramulla. Starting his analysis on his interactions with Sister Emilia Montavani, an Italian nun who witnessed the attackers ransacking the Christian mission in Baramulla, Whitehead constructs the events of one of the most important episode in the contemporary history of Kashmir.

In Sister Emilia’s words, “the Monday after the feast of Christ the King they (the raiders) reach here. Then they started to shoot. They came inside. We were working still. Our dispensary was working still. The hospital had patients. They were on the veranda of the hospital, going from one ward to another. They say: shoot, kill, maro (attack).”

However, she and some of the others were saved, by a Pakistani army officer, who apparently was educated by nuns. Whitehead writes: the arrival of this Pathan officer, Saurab Hyat Khan, put an end to this initial bloodshed. But it was not the end of the mission’s ordeal. All the survivors – nuns, priests, nurses, patients and local non-Muslim refugees – were herded into one small ward of the mission hospital. There were about eighty people in all, including broods of children, and three British boys, one newly born, who had been orphaned in the attack.” Whitehead has also interviewed Khan Shah Afridi, who took part in the raid, who recounted: “We shot whoever we saw in Baramulla. We did not know how many we killed.” All in the name of liberating Muslims from a Hindu ruler!

This raid has left an imprint in Baramulla that anyone visiting the town even today could feel the echoes, silently being reverberated in conversations and discussions with the locals. Once the imposing presence of the security forces is absorbed and the initial emotional barrier of reluctance is broken, one could feel the remorse amongst the local population today for what had happened sixty years ago. Those youth who are playing cricket in the Degree College ground in Baramulla would tell different tales of their aspirations and expectations, but the older generation still remembers the sacking of their town as a decisive event in the history of Kashmir.

Whitehead, while narrating his story, touches upon many vital issues that need larger deliberation; Kashmiriyat and Kashmiri Islam – two most important among them. On Kashmiriyat Whitehead observes: “And it seems the term kashmiriyat was never used before 1947 – it was in part invented as a political rallying cry. Yet its strength has come from a perception that Kashmir has been inclusive in its culture, and that both the Muslim majority and the vastly smaller and more privileged Hindu minority contributed to the language and the culture, respected and honoured the other community’s religious festivals and practices, and so shared a Kashmiri identity which created a bond stronger than the differences of faith and belief.”

Second important issue is what he writes about the Islam in Kashmir. He writes: “There is something quiet distinct about the Kashmiri style of Islam. The traditional, tiered-style mosque architecture has more in common with the Central Asia that with the cupolas of the grand mosques across the plains of north India and Pakistan. The service with its lilting, intoned prayers and responses, has a gentle haunting air and aesthetic appeal which I’ve never found anywhere else.” Clearly Kashmiri Islam is unique in many ways and in fact has shaped the Kashmiryat.

Where does the Kashmiryat stand as a political cry or an emotional and psychological appeal? After almost two decades of violence and victimizations, how much of it is left in the Kashmir Valley? How many use today as a mere political rhetoric and how many really believe and practice it? On the nature of Kashmir Islam, is there a threat to it from a puritanical stream? Undoubtedly, the older generation believes in the Sufi nature of Islam; however does the younger generation also believe in the same? These are important questions that need to be further explored, for they have vital importance to the final resolution of Kashmir conflict.

David Devadas’s In Search of Future: The Story of Kashmir, starts with a mega statement: “Every bit of the book is fact, based on detailed research conducted over the past nine years, although I have used the narrative style of faction to convey the story.” The book is heavy and controversial; one is not sure how factual or the facts, when it makes sweeping generalizations. Consider the following: “Kashmir struggled vigorously to become a modern nation state, but failed to develop a viable model. Kashmiris were hobbled by internecine suspicions as well as the culture of guile and intrigue that grew through centuries of colonial oppression. An even greater weakness is that the aspiration remained stuck in a mindset of contemptuous superiority, one that not only kept it divided within but prompted it to look for a future premised on the oppression of others – a colonist’s model that was out of sync with an age that offered unprecedented opportunities for living together in mutual accommodation.”

The book is likely to remain controversial as this paragraph in the first chapter. But this should not undermine the painful efforts of Devadas to understand the psyche of Kashmir. Given the complexity of the task that he has undertaken, the process needs to be appreciated, though one may not agree with the conclusions. Given the fact that, a simple question posed in Kashmir to the same person is likely to elicit different responses over a period of time, what constitutes the fact becomes questionable. The truth in answer to a question in Kashmir depends on how comfortable the respondent feels to the interviewer. In most cases, there are standard interview answers, which should be probed further and quantified, before making a general assertion.

Devdas’s account of Kashmir’s history starts in 1931 and with 9/11, covering seven decades of political, social and emotional upheaval in three hundred and fifty pages. Herculean task, deftly handled in a journalistic way through certain characters and events from Sheikh Abdullah to AB Vajpayee.

Both the books, though look into an issue that have been widely commented and written about, yet they are refreshing in their own ways.

(By arrangement with the Book Review)

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