December 2001 News

Kashmiriyat is not dead

10 December 2001
Indian Express
Amitabh Mattoo

New Delhi: Ever since Lashkar-i-Jabbar, a little known militant outfit, attempted to enforce a dress code on Kashmiri women, a few months ago, deeply disturbing images, flickering out of the Valley, seem to signal that Kashmir’s civic culture is rapidly being ‘talibanised’. Pictures of tailors and cloth merchants doing brisk business selling burqas have appeared in virtually every national newspaper. Recall also the recent television programme that showed a group of articulate students at Srinagar’s Kashmir University vigorously defending Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. In addition, there are increasing reports of Kashmiri youth being recruited by the Lashkar-e-Taiyba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. And, in one bizarre episode, militants apparently shot a schoolteacher dead in front of his students because he had taught his daughters how to ride a scooter. Meanwhile, relations between different religious and ethnic groups in Jammu and Kashmir are more polarised today then ever before in the last decade. Not surprisingly, the debunking game has begun. Self-styled experts and analysts claim Kashmir’s traditional pluralistic civil society was merely a myth perpetuated by liberal ideologues of secularism. They argue that small elite that has been marginalised in Kashmir’s contemporary discourse had constructed Kashmiriyat — the common cultural ethos that apparently bound the people of the Valley together. And that stories of Kashmir’s togetherness were simply a product of the political imagination of a few who were interested in promoting a particular kind of political discourse. Discovering the reality of Kashmir’s past and present requires dedicated scholarly work by social anthropologists, historians and political scientists, and — unfortunately — little work has been done on the subject, at least not in this country. But even a superficial survey of the last century suggests that Kashmiriyat, the philosophy of live and let live, and its most striking manifestation in the Valley’s once-vibrant civil society, was produced at two levels. On the one hand, there was — for want of a better word — what one might term as the ‘master narrative’ of Kashmiriyat. This was indeed an idealised normative discourse that drew strength and sustenance from the cult of Rishis, the vaks of the 14th century Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded, and the message of the patron saint of the Valley, Nund Rishi, Alamdar-i-Kashmir. Blending together, Shaivite Hinduism, Mahayana Bu-ddhism and Sufi Islam into a composite cultural message, Kashmiriyat — in this form — was what provided the philosophical mo-orings to Kashmiri society. While this discourse existed as an almost Weberian ideal-type and less as a true picture of reality, it provided Kashmiris with their collective conscience against which all societal actions had to be judged. Even in the worst days of a traumatised Kashmiri society, faith in this composite syncretic identity remain unchallenged, except by fanatics on the fringe. And the National Conference of Sheikh Abdullah translated the culture of this identity into a coherent political ideology in the 1930s, with the decision to abandon the sectarian politics of the NC’s precursor, the Muslim Conference. On the other hand was the powerful subaltern narrative of Kashmiriyat that flourished under the umbrella of the master discourse. It is often forgotten just how vibrant this civil society was in the past. Consider some examples, chosen deliberately for their ordinariness and triviality. At the point that Srinagar’s main street, Residency Road meets Lambert Lane, on the first floor of the building that today hosts ‘Hot Bread’, was the old India Coffee House. Spread over a large dark hall, the premier tables were on an adjacent balcony that looked down on Residency Road. If you grabbed the right seat on the right table and moved your head gently in a semi circle, nothing significant that happened in ‘happening’ Srinagar, from Regal Chowk to Grand Hotel through Mir Pan House and Shakti Sweet House, could escape you. India Coffee House was the centre of gossip and intrigue. Journalists gathered their news here at a time when Kangar jung (fighting with charcoal filled pots) symbolised the height of violence, politicians plotted coups in the corner tables of the dark black hall, and reputations of the rich and famous were destroyed over endless cups of South Indian coffee. There was, of course, the more serious side as Sartre and Marx and Picasso’s art were devoured over masala dosas. The Coffee House would close with the setting sun. The patrons would quickly divide into two. The dilettantes, the new recruits, would go home to their parents and wives and children. The committed would move towards the bars. Marina above Mir Pan house was just a street across for the more desperate, but the classy ones were Premier and Capri before the former fell into bad times and the latter was destroyed in a mysterious fire. Premier, in the 1960s, boasted of a live band, cabaret artistes, a belly da-ncer and the magician, Gogia Pasha, slicing women with a Gilly, Gilly Gilly! It was only in the early hours of the morning that Srinagar’s avant-garde would finally call it a day, and the city was safe in their hands. Or, consider the popular appeal of cinema. For a small town, Srinagar had more than half a dozen movie theatres and rarely could you buy tickets for a new film at the normal price for weeks together. When Raj Kapoor’s Bobby was released in Srinagar in the 1970s, at Palladium in Lal Chowk, there were almost riots, and — it is believed — that one top Blackie (the local term for those who procured tickets from the management and sold them at black market prices) built a mansion out of the gains. When video arrived in Srinagar in the 1980s, nearly every locality had a parlour and Oscar — the best-known source for English video rentals — had everything from Kursowas’ Rashoman to Bertolucci’s The Last Tango in Paris. Not surprisingly, summers in Srinagar attracted all sorts: film stars from Mumbai, the philosopher Jiddhu Krishnamurthi meditating near Pahalgam, the writer, Eric von Daniken, who was convinced that god was an astronaut and had landed near the sun temple at Martand, and scores of the rich and famous who stayed at Butt’s secluded Clermont Houseboats on the Nagin lake. The locals enjoyed the attention and the company, even the garib angrez (‘the hippies’) were welcomed with affection and a joint of Kashmiri grass. I am convinced, therefore, and I maybe wrong that beneath the facade of fanaticism, Kashmiriyat is waiting and watching and will return to disprove all the Cassandaras and the contrarians. But it would help if those like-minded in the rest of India, did a little to help and recover the faith of the Kashmiris in the values that made them believe as much in the idea of India as they did in their own culture.


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