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Divided Presents and Pasts

The Power of Narratives in Contemporary Kashmir

Kashmir’s rich historical traditions, replete with stories and folklore drawn from a multilingual tradition of historical composition in Sanskrit, Persian, and Kashmiri, get glossed over when its past is neatly divided into Hindu and Muslim periods.

There has been a recent proliferation of writing on the importance of narrative(s) in understanding and engaging with the Kashmir issue.  This has happened in part because, as the issue continues to simmer without any real resolution and becomes increasingly divisive in some ways, facts/reality with regard to the situation have become particularly hard to pin down. As a result, in a quest to understand why and how Kashmir has been and continues to be an object of desire, scholars and other writers have turned their attention to representations of Kashmir and the Kashmir issue in films, novels, memoirs, and so on.

Moreover, as a new generation of Kashmiris both within and outside Kashmir seeks to grapple with having grown up almost entirely in conflict or having been displaced by it, they have produced a vast array of poetry, short stories, films, and other kinds of visual and textual narratives.  These narratives call our attention to the myriad ways in which Kashmiris themselves are coming to terms with living in a situation that is not quite full-scale conflict, and yet not peaceful either.  

Yet another kind of narrative, however, which has received less attention but plays a particularly potent role in framing the contemporary situation in Kashmir, is the historical narrative.

Divided Presents and Pasts

In a recent article, “Kashmir’s Media Story”, in Himal South Asian (18 July 2014), Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal writes eloquently about the intense pressures faced by the Indian and Kashmiri media during the height of the insurgency in the 1990s and the distortions of the truth that resulted in reporting, with the media becoming a site for competing nationalist narratives.  Political and corporate pressures, she illustrates, continue to drive reportage on Kashmir today.  For instance, by focusing on presenting Kashmir as a thriving tourist economy, the Indian media obfuscates the political issues that remain unresolved and the economic issues that plague Kashmiris.  She points out, rightly and rather alarmingly, that the media within Jammu and Kashmir seems to be coming under government pressure as well, and is becoming less likely to report on human rights and development issues.  At the same time, there is increasing acrimony, especially between Jammu-based and Valley-based media outlets.  

Even the way the Valley-based press and publications have been marketing itself over the past decade or so, I would argue, has become increasingly contentious. Whether in reporting news stories, or in its opinion pages, or book reviews, or the books that are published by Valley publishers, the narrative of Kashmir’s past and present is cast in terms of binaries.  The present is almost always seen as a continuation of some aspect of Kashmir’s history, with particular themes such as the persecution of Kashmiris by a long line of foreign rulers making a regular appearance.  History itself, thus, has become a battleground for how Kashmir is to be envisioned in the present, how its contours are to be drawn, and inevitably also, who has the right to belong to the entity thus envisioned.

The lines of division are drawn along the moment of Kashmir’s transition to Islam, with those who seek to distance Kashmir from India asserting that Kashmir’s history begins at this moment, and others who seek to align Kashmir with India asserting that Kashmir’s real history took place prior to this moment. While the former emphasise Kashmir’s historical ties to Central Asia, the latter emphasise its ties to India in the past.  In both cases, one side’s empirically grounded ‘history’ is characterised as baseless ‘myth’ by the other side.  The controversy that broke out in 2008 over the vision document of the Institute of Kashmir Studies, which celebrated Kashmir’s ties to India as much as to Central Asia, is a case in point.[i]

The division of Kashmir’s past into “Hindu” and “Muslim” periods is most recently apparent in the history textbooks prescribed by the Jammu and Kashmir board of secondary education.  The class VII textbook, for instance, states that Kashmir was under Hindu rule in the early medieval period, and in the fourteenth century Shah Mir established a Muslim dynasty there. While these textbooks discuss Kashmir in the context of the emergence of Islam and its links to the Islamic world, there is almost complete silence about Kashmir’s substantial contribution to philosophical thought and culture, particularly in Sanskrit, prior to the establishment of the Kashmiri Sultanate and indeed during its reign as well.   

Three points need to be made here: First, this inevitably casts Kashmir’s past, and also its present, in Hindu versus Muslim terms, thus yet again eliding the real political and economic grievances of ordinary Kashmiris.  Moreover, aligning the Hindu and Muslim periods with the Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions respectively obscures the deep inter-fertilisation between the two traditions. Second, the characterisation—of the pre-Islamic period, along with its Sanskrit tradition, as somehow ‘Indian’ (an idea accepted by both sides)—is the legacy of nineteenth-century orientalists and Indologists who studied Kashmir’s past through a focus on its Sanskrit tradition, and much as they did in other parts of India, saw Islam (and the Persian tradition) as an interpolation on its political and literary landscapes. (It is deeply ironic that just as Kashmir’s Persian tradition was elided by nineteenth-century orientalists, historians and authors writing in Kashmir today are choosing to forget Kashmir’s Sanskrit tradition.) And finally, the battle to define the content of Kashmir’s past is as much a battle to define the meaning of history itself.

Rather than creating a space for genuine dialogue, such narratives serve as a particularly powerful means of rehearsing irreconcilable ideological positions.  Not only do they misrepresent Kashmir’s history—which cannot be reduced to neatly divided Hindu and Muslim periods, or Sanskrit versus Persian, or indeed Hinduism versus Islam—they also undermine people’s ways of engaging with the past.  For the inhabitants of Kashmir, the past has always been a series of stories, drawn from a multilingual tradition of historical composition in Sanskrit, Persian, and Kashmiri, and disseminated by wandering storytellers, minstrels, bards, and ordinary men and women. 

The stories that animate this tradition are about the creation of the land, the successive migrants who have made it home (resisting while also accommodating to the traditions that came before them), and perhaps most importantly, about those rulers and their agents who, regardless of religious affiliation or place of origin, wreaked havoc on the land and its people.  These stories have allowed for the possibility of a variety of people calling Kashmir home by helping them to articulate their differences, and thereby accommodate them, while also negotiating a more favorable place for Kashmir within much larger empires.  As Salman Rushdie notes in his memoir Joseph Anton, although stories may be untrue, they are powerful because they help us to understand truths that cannot be accessed otherwise and also because they belong in an intimate way to each of us (19).

Writing History in Contemporary Kashmir 

Instead of dismissing these stories as impure histories at best or as superstitious myths at worst, those who write about Kashmir’s history—both in the popular and academic domains—have a responsibility to nurture these stories and learn from them.  Participating in this arena, which I have termed the Kashmiri narrative public, would allow for an engagement with Kashmir not simply as a territory, with Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri nationalisms competing over it, but rather as a place—located at a crossroads and drawing on ideas and people from multiple regions. And since these stories have always been about ordinary Kashmiris confronting enormous physical and political adversities, it would create a creative space for Kashmiris today to protest their circumstances and register their complaints.  As the Kashmiri playwright Motilal Kemmu has noted, the only way ordinary Kashmiris can recover their voices in the contemporary situation of conflict and violence is through a revival of their storytelling and performance traditions such as bhand pether.     

Does academic history bear a special responsibility in this respect? I think it does. Academic history cannot simply hide its biases behind a cloak of empirical objectivity, especially since it has the power to shape the narrative of Kashmir’s past and present in more salutary ways.  No progress is possible if Kashmir’s rich historical tradition, replete with stories, is characterised as a source of myths that are leading people astray.  For instance, some recent articles in Kashmiri newspapers and journals have, in the name of uncovering historical ‘truth’, declared unacceptable the ‘Hindu myth’ of the divine origins of Kashmir from the lake Satisar through the intervention of the gods Brahma and Vishnu.[ii]

It is important to note that this story is accepted and celebrated by most Kashmiris regardless of religious affiliation, economic location, or educational status, and is not viewed as tied to a particular religion, but rather is seen simply as an integral part of the repertoire of tales through which the land’s past becomes meaningful to its inhabitants.  This is also evident from the fact that Kashmir’s Persian historical narratives from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries celebrated this as the story of Kashmir’s origin quite as much as the story was celebrated in the Sanskrit texts that preceded them.

The division between Hinduism and Islam within the narrative of India’s past—and the resultant schism between its Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions—which was put in place precisely by disciplinary history when it emerged in the South Asian context in the late nineteenth century, cannot be allowed to color the way that we engage with Kashmir’s history or its historical tradition, which drew on multiple concepts from myriad religious and literary traditions to articulate the idea of Kashmir as a sacred landscape.  We cannot deny the existence of this vibrant tradition in the past simply to strengthen partisan ideological positions in the present.

Narratives, as we can see around us, have the power to shape the way that we think about a people and place, particularly one torn by conflict, and therefore they can also serve to assuage the wounds that conflicts generate.  It is thus up to us, as historians of Kashmir, to uncover the narratives of negotiation and adaptation in Kashmir’s past so as to be able to allow for the possibility of similar accommodations in the present. This is possible only if, instead of making a break with the earlier tradition of historical composition in the name of positivist history, we see ourselves as heirs to this tradition, a tradition that was picturesque and factual at once, and expressed differences even as it found ways to bridge them.   


[i]  See, for instance, Mohammad Ashraf, ‘Institute of Kashmir Studies (Myopic Vision Document attempts to bull doze History)’, 2008 (, accessed 21 May 2012)

[ii] See, for instance, P. G. Rasool, ‘The Myth of Satisar’, Conveyor, 3 (5), 2011: 48-9 (, accessed 22 May 2012).


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