INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

Witness To History

A remarkable Kashmiri's private collection provides anecdotal details of the formative years of the Valley



By Sandeep Bamzai


Price: Rs 595; Pages: 290

The history of Kashmir is like the Kurosawa epic, Rashomon. There are many honest narratives, but no single truth. Every bit of Kashmir is deeply contested: the land, the people, the politics and-above all-the events that have shaped its destiny. Almost every single significant happening in the Valley over the last 60-odd years has countless versions: each account has its own devoted following; blindly attached to and believing that their understanding alone is the final truth. Added to this are the myopic policies of the governments in Delhi and Islamabad that will not declassify even 70-year-old records on Kashmir lest they compromise national security. In a world then, where scholars are treated like infiltrators, and state propaganda machineries seek to construct a grand discourse that will suit their tactical ends-while genuine intellectual subversives risk being eliminated or totally marginalised-can real history writing have a chance?

Not surprisingly, much of what has been produced on Kashmir, especially in the last two decades, is drivel. I have a personal collection of about 1,500 books and pamphlets published in these years, and-save a handful-all of them would be most useful on a cold winter Kashmir evening generating warmth in a bonfire. The exceptions are those that seek to reconstruct histories before 1947, those that look for sources outside South Asia or rely primarily on subaltern (and oral) sources. Indeed, the two most outstanding recent contributions to Kashmir's historiography began as doctoral dissertations in American universities and imaginatively used a combination of British imperial records in London and unpublished manuscripts and private papers of Kashmiris.

HISTORY REVISITED: Jawaharlal Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah in 1947
Sandeep Bamzai's Bonfire of Kashmiriyat: Deconstructing the Accession is an important contribution despite the inelegant and pompous title. Bamzai's grandfather Pandit Kashi Nath Bamzai was an incisive journalist and a close adviser to Jawaharlal Nehru. Even while being a witness to some of the critical political events that impacted on Kashmir, Pandit Kashi Nath seemed to have an acute sense that history is made as much by the protagonists as by the historians who write it. He kept a huge cache of records which included private papers, correspondence between leaders, intelligence reports and, personal assessments related to the formative years of Kashmir: from the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India in 1947 to the dismissal of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. Unfortunately, Pandit Kashi Nath was not able to personally translate this precious archive of information into a narrative, but fortunately for us he bequeathed the collection to his grandson, who has become the sutradhar.

The book engages with popular debates and poses familiar questions: What were the circumstances leading to the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India? What were Pakistan's interests and policies? What made Maharaja Hari Singh believe that Kashmir could survive as an independent Asian Switzerland? And how and why did Sheikh Abdullah move from being the prime driver of the accession to India to becoming a believer in the independence dream? The answers are not startling. The international politics of Kashmir-including Anglo-American conspiracies- Pakistan's complicity and duplicity and India's mistakes in Kashmir are too well-known to need reiteration. But on each one of these issues, Bamzai's book adds primary evidence, provides anecdotal details and generally adds values to the existing documentation on Kashmir. The book is, in sum, a fitting tribute to the memory of Pandit Kashi Nath Bamzai, an outstanding Kashmiri.

One failing, however: Bamzai's book is not easy to read, and only the real Kashmir aficionados may make the effort to plod through the pages of correspondence and assessments of the time. Frankly, if the documents had been part of the appendices, the narrative would have been crisper and the arguments tighter. Bamzai has promised another book on Kashmir; therefore, a piece of advice. Write like a journalist and think like a scholar, and please not the other way round.


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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
NOVEMBER 20, 2006



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