Dr Nyla Ali Khan is a US-based Indian academic and author of three critically acclaimed books, two of them on Kashmir. Her new book Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s Reflections on Kashmir, as the title explains, is about the legendary Kashmiri leader who also happens to be her grandfather. In an exclusive interview with Riyaz Wani, Khan talks about the book and Kashmir.
Your new book is a collection of the letters and speeches of Sheikh Abdullah. Why did you decide to write this book? It must have been an arduous task to collect historical documents.
The completion of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s Reflections on Kashmir brings me to the end of a significant and personally fulfilling journey. This has been an arduous journey of revisiting history and deliberately veering away from the temptation of interpreting it through the subjective lens of contemporary politics.
The reason I chose to bring the speeches to light is because I am driven by the greater goal of engaging with the various stakeholders in Kashmir and also for setting a firm ideological foundation. Several attempts to deconstruct the political fabric of Kashmir have been made by academics, scholars and ideologues of various hues, but it is high time we move beyond social commentary, de-mythologising and de-canonising, to the revival of transformative progressive politics.
Q. You have tried to highlight Kashmiri nationalism in the book…
Yes, in this book, my attempt is to highlight what I consider a serious omission in the histories of independent India and Pakistan. The development of Kashmiri nationalism, prior to the independence of India and creation of Pakistan in 1947 and its further evolution in later years, has not been adequately recognized or accommodated by either country. The foundation of Kashmiri nationalism was laid in 1931 and this nationalism recognized the heterogeneity of the nation. It was not constructed around a common language, religion, culture, or an ethnically pure majority. This process of Kashmiri nationalist self-imagining is conveniently ignored in the statist versions of the histories of India and Pakistan.
Here, I would also like to point out that there are some purportedly ‘subaltern’ versions of the history of Kashmir which, in their ardent attempts to be deconstructionist, insidiously obliterate the process of nation-building in Kashmir in the early to mid-decades of the twentieth century, inadvertently feeding off statist and oftentimes right-wing versions of history. In romanticizing militant resistance in Kashmir, such versions fail to take into account the tremendously difficult task of restoring the selfhood of a degraded people, and also the harsh fact that a political movement which does not highlight the issues of governance, social welfare and the resuscitation of democratic institutions ends up becoming obscurantist.
Q. Were there any enlightening moments while working on the book?
Poring over the speeches of Sheikh Abdullah, arguably the only Kashmiri leader who enjoyed mass support in his lifetime, has enabled me to realize that instead of allowing polarizing elements to disrupt nation-building, we need to cull advanced and reformist ideologies in order to build common ground. The documents reproduced herein provide tremendous insight into peace-building, democratization, and the processes of negotiation, dialogue, and accommodation required to reach some kind of fruition.
Q. Sheikh Saheb has been a legendary Kashmiri leader who held complete sway over his people during his lifetime. But today people in the Valley blame his decisions for the current troubled state of affairs. Do you think he can be rehabilitated as a leader?
To my mind, there is a historical value in revisiting and challenging the historical narratives about the political personages of pre and post 1947 J&K and the movement for an independent Kashmir. My attempt to highlight the history of a region in a particular era is not to localize it or to rehabilitate Sheikh Abdullah. I think it is important to reshape historical memory so that it includes the humanitarian and pluralistic endeavours of leaders of the movement at that critical juncture post-1948.
Q. Does your book give a more nuanced understanding of Sheikh Saheb’s decision to choose India over Pakistan than what is prevalent in Kashmir? Is there any new light that his letters and speeches throw on the crucial events of the period?
My book is a compendium which is an emphasis on the significance of constructing a politics that would enable the rebuilding of a pluralistic polity and society in Kashmir, furthering the progress of indigenous institutions and promoting democracy as well as demilitarization.
My book highlights different aspects of the political history of Kashmir with which political life of my grandfather was intricately intertwined. Sheikh Abdullah — the rebel, Kashmiri nationalist, and first Muslim Prime Minister of J&K — who was the pioneer of broadening the political, economic, intellectual and cultural horizon in the state and, toward the end of his life, predicted the diminishing of that horizon. Several themes regarding the politics of the anti-monarchical movement in Kashmir and the politics of self-determination as well as autonomy are reiterated in the speeches that I have reproduced.
Q. Despite the prevailing amnesia in Kashmiri discourse about Sheikh Saheb, Kashmir hasn’t had the leader of his stature and mass following after him. Why
Sheikh Abdullah was a large presence on the political landscape of India for fifty years. In a fragmented sociopolitical and religious ethos, he represented the pluralism that would bind the people of J&K together for a long time. His complete identification with the people of Kashmir was unflinching and remained unabated. No other political player in J&K has been able to do so.
Although his political strategies, dialogues with the Indian and Pakistani states, negotiations, and political accommodations have been deprecated by his critics, his leadership, perseverance, patience in treading a lonely path, and fighting a long drawn battle that led to several years of incarceration need to be viewed in the light of the volatile geopolitical situation of the Indian subcontinent. His speeches and interviews offer the historian, the political scientist, the sociologist, the diplomat, the statesman, and the lay person a rich and multilayered narrative of the construction and evolution of Kashmiri identity, the dilemma that a statesperson is, and the intricacies of the politics of nation states in which demands for selfhood and autonomy become misshapen but remain irrepressible.
Q. Some of the letters clearly echo the current turmoil in Kashmir. What is your take on the present scenario?
After 70 years of independence, the politics of the subcontinent really hasn’t evolved, and most politicians continue to harp on the same old issues without looking for resolutions. The uncertainty and unpredictability created then still exists and continues to tell on the minds of the people.
The cultural identity of the Kashmiri people is damaged by the erosion of their autonomous institutions, by traumas and terrors generated by insurgency and counter insurgency. The tradition of Rishiism and Sufism must not be allowed to die in the Valley; it continues to bolster a cultural and religious identity that the militarization of Kashmir has not been able to do away with. Any unitary discourse that claims to encompass the reality of Kashmir would be lop-sided and suspect. So, it is time that ideological divides are bridged. We need a return to the rule of law and the process of internal political dialogue.