“We must remain mad in order to be sane”

December 26, 2015   •   By Chitralekha Zutshi

THE BROAD CONTOURS of the conflict in Kashmir are relatively well known. As India and Pakistan continue to claim the territory, having fought several wars over it since independence in 1947, the erstwhile British Indian princely state is effectively partitioned between the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani territory of Azad Kashmir. While Azad Kashmiris have expressed their disillusionment with the Pakistani state in a number of ways, a full-fledged insurgency against the misrule of the Indian state began in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989, and continues to simmer under the surface until today.

What is perhaps less well-appreciated is that the Kashmir conflict is as much a battle of narratives as it is a fight over territory. One has only to cast a look at the nationalist discourses of India and Pakistan on Kashmir — created after 1947 — to recognize this fact. Kashmir is integral to the Indian nationalist imagination because as the only Muslim-majority state in India, it proves India’s constitutional commitment to secular republicanism. From the perspective of the Pakistani nationalist imagination, however, as a Muslim-majority state, Kashmir belongs in Pakistan, which was founded on the idea, much hailed especially in retrospect, that it was a homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Indeed, the Security Council of the United Nations, which mediated the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1947-’48, focused on the religious affiliation of the majority of the population in favoring, at least tacitly, Pakistan’s claim over the region. 

Besides the Indian and Pakistani narratives, Kashmir’s own nationalist narrative forms an integral part of the battle of narratives. While the Indian and Pakistani claims have remained more or less unchanged over the years, Kashmir’s narrative has taken on multiple forms: having emerged in the 1930s, it was articulated as a demand for the economic, and later political rights of the Muslim majority population, which had been relegated to the margins within the educational and administrative apparatus of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. By the 1940s, the main political organization in Kashmir had joined hands with nationalist organizations in British India to transform its platform to reflect the demands not just of the Muslim majority, but of the Hindu and Sikh minorities as well. 

This secular bent informed Kashmiri nationalism, particularly in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, into the early 1950s. Even at that time, however, there were serious critics of this narrative on the grounds that it hewed too closely with the Indian secular nationalist narrative, and was thereby diluting Kashmir’s autonomy and ignoring the interests of the majority. Decades of meddling by the Indian central government in the affairs of this beleaguered state since the 1950s exacerbated revulsion toward India and its secular ideology, and caused widespread discontent with the denial of democratic rights to the people of the state. 

The spontaneous youth protests that broke out in Srinagar, the capital of Indian Jammu and Kashmir, in 1985, after the screening of the film, Lion of the Desert (1981) — about the Libyan resistance, in the figure of the Berber Bedouin leader Omar Mukhtar, to the Italian occupation in the years leading up to World War II — were portentous of things to come. Amid calls for Azaadi (freedom, variously defined), an insurgency against the government of India followed the rigged elections of 1987. Since then, this revolt and India’s heavy-handed military response to it have engulfed Kashmir in a spiral of violence. It is in the context of this now quarter-of-a-century-long insurgency in which loss of life, limb, and property has become all too common, that public discourse in and about Kashmir has become riven along lines of community and history. History has become as embattled a terrain as the territory itself.

How, then, is the past and history, and through them Kashmir itself, imagined in contemporary narratives from the region? Do these literary narratives help displace the shibboleths of nationalist and religious discourses to bring us into a more open-ended realm, where a less violent and more inclusive future is possible?


Righting the Wrongs of History

Kashmir has a long, interconnected, and multilingual tradition of historical writing — from at least the 12th century all the way into the early 20th century — that has defined it as a place, even as it has recorded its history. Within this tradition, which drew from textual and oral traditions in Sanskrit, Persian, and Kashmiri, the region emerged as a “sacred space” created by layers of religious traditions — Buddhism, Shaivism, and Islam — and the people who professed them. The narratives that form part of this tradition did not divide the land, its historical tradition, and its languages along religious lines; Sanskrit narratives were not seen as Hindu, nor Persian narratives as Muslim. Rather, they were considered part of a larger and interrelated literary repertoire that was uniquely Kashmiri. Conflict, which was discussed in great detail in these narratives, was not merely along lines of monolithic religious communities, but also of sect, class, geography, and much else.

This historiographical tradition fell victim to the demands of disciplinary history in the period after 1947. The narratives within this tradition were no longer considered “history” because they intertwined the mythical and literary with the factual. In the more recent past, the same tradition has been decried with renewed intensity because it suggests not just an intertwining of stories and facts but also of religions. I was told by a retired schoolteacher of history that the reliance on stories in Kashmir’s historiographical tradition was responsible for the endemic misinformation about Kashmir’s past within Kashmiri culture itself. The implication is that not only are stories accepted by people as historical fact, but they recount a past in which Vishnu and Brahma coexist on the same plane as the Prophet Solomon in the creation of the Kashmiri land. 

The attack on this tradition — in particular on the account about the emergence of Kashmir from a lake through the divine intervention of Vishnu and Brahma — is an attempt to resist the inclusion of Kashmir’s past into Hindu (Indian) mythologies, and to chart a course for its history that is not in any way linked to India. In these counter-narratives, Central Asia emerges as the alternative focal point around which Kashmir’s history unfolds and its history before the advent of Islam from Central Asia in the 14th century is mostly elided. In recently revised middle-school textbooks, for instance, one can see the division of Kashmir’s history along religious lines, with the “Muslim” period being regarded as the beginning of the real history of the place. On the other side, votaries of the Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) minority present this history as ending with the advent of Islam. For one side, this is a full-throated assertion of Kashmir’s independence from India; for the other, an attempt to claim membership in the Indian national community. 

In these narratives, history is defined primarily in terms of the present (political) moment and a way to right its wrongs, as well as those committed in history-writing. The focus is on historical “wounds” — moments of intense collective suffering for a particular group. For Kashmiri Muslims, July 13, 1931, when several Muslims fell victim to the forces of the Jammu and Kashmir ruler, is invoked as a moment of trauma, but also one of reawakening after centuries of slumber. The same day, July 13, 1931, when several Hindus were killed and their homes ransacked in the resultant rioting, is decried by Pandit organizations as the beginning of their “genocide,” which culminated in the community’s migration from Kashmir in 1990.

For Kashmiri Muslims, then, the narrative of suffering is neatly folded into a narrative of the community’s ability to overcome it, while for Pandits the moment of suffering becomes yet another in a long series of persecutions by Muslims. In both cases, the stories of divine origin and resurrection, designated as myths, have been replaced by a history of brutal repression, displacement, and slaughter — now designated as historical truth.


History as Trauma/Past as Nostalgia

“The traumatized,” writes Cathy Caruth of victims of traumatic events, “carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history they cannot entirely possess.” History as a symptom, she further notes, is “intimately bound up with a question of truth.” For the narratives discussed earlier, trauma is located in particular moments, and history is a record of these instances of persecution and oppression. A focus on such moments becomes a way to surmount the trauma on behalf of particular communities. 

In the recent past, Kashmiris have begun to reflect on the conflict in which they have been engulfed since 1989 in a variety of literary narratives that include poetry, novels, and short stories. Written in Kashmiri, Urdu, and English, such narratives struggle to give voice to individual and social suffering. They record history as trauma in a different way, replete with the impossibility of writing trauma and thereby of possessing it, and ultimately, of the impossibility of accessing the traumatized self. Rather than being located at specific historical moments seen as traumatic, in them trauma unfolds in the aftermath of the events.

In Mirza Waheed’s debut novel, The Collaborator (2011), the protagonist narrator is a young 19-year-old Kashmiri Gujjar man, from a border village on the Indian side, who is forced to work for the Indian army counting bodies of militants and collecting their identification cards. The unnamed young man’s inability to escape this life of collaboration with the occupiers and join his friends on the other side as a freedom fighter, even as he goes through the heaps of bodies every day dreading that he will come upon one of his friends, leaves him suspended in an incomprehensible space. How is he — placed between counting bodies on one side and attaining martyrdom on the other — going to come of age?

The Collaborator vehemently rejects the Indian and Pakistani nationalist discourses on Kashmir as it brings out the diffuseness of trauma for those whose lives are destroyed by these very narratives. As the protagonist silently screams at the end of the novel, “to hell with the Indians […] to hell with the Pakistanis, to hell with the Line of Control […] to hell with jihad, and to hell with, to burning, smoldering hell with everything!”

The Garden of Solitude (2011), Siddhartha Gigoo’s debut novel, is the story of another Kashmiri young man as he grapples with violence, exile, and self-realization in the midst of the conflict. Sridar is a Kashmiri Pandit teenager whose family is forced into exile from Kashmir when the insurgency gathers pace in the early 1990s. As the family is rent asunder from their home, friends, books, and everything they have known, they become exiles with no past. A family friend from Kashmir writes to Sridar’s father, “I remember your words that we must remain mad in order to be sane,” signing off with, “Waiting for your homecoming in sensible times.” 

The only way to make sense of their trauma is through dreams, which pervade the novel. And for some, such as the protagonist’s grandfather, the sole way to remain sane is to retreat completely into the world of dreams and hallucinations. The Garden of Solitude illustrates poignantly the anguish experienced as both communities suffered unfathomable losses — the exiled Pandits lost their homeland, their ancestors, and their past; the Muslims who stayed in Kashmir lost their sons, their neighbors, and their future. All that remains in Kashmir is a broken present.

Waiting as a condition of trauma defines the existence of many of the characters in these novels. This is probably best illustrated in another debut novel, The Half Mother (2014), by Shahnaz Bashir. At the beginning and end of this novel, the protagonist, Halima, sits endlessly by the window of her house waiting for the return of her disappeared son, who is taken by the Indian army one night. In between, she runs from pillar to post attempting to locate him at detention centers, army camps, and police stations, all to no avail. For her, daily routines are suspended, day and night merge into each other. The only possibility of reunion with her son is in a dream, from which she has to perforce wake up, only to begin the ritual of waiting yet again. 

Much like dreams, the past is brutally interrupted and revealed as fantasy in all these narratives. The landscape of Kashmir is no longer “sacred,” soaked as it is in the blood of innocents. The house/homeland of the past bears no resemblance to the house/homeland in the present. Time becomes disjointed as the reliability of the memories is called into question. The present can suddenly overtake the past and its truth is no longer accessible; it becomes “the past which died before its birth,” as Sridar describes it to his father in The Garden of Solitude. This moment of crisis, highlighting the fallibility of the past, is captured beautifully in literary narratives. Not surprisingly, it is at this very moment that the past is hijacked by divisive narratives laying claim to community traumas and undeniable historical truths.


Beyond Religion and Community?

Fiction no doubt challenges Indian and Pakistani state-backed narratives, but at the same time it calls into question the extremist communitarian and historical narratives put forward by those claiming to represent the grievances of Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits. No single community, we realize as readers, has exclusive rights on trauma and grief. Instead, one recognizes that the experience of trauma resides not in specific events that target particular communities, but in the aftermath that rents asunder communities, neighbors, and friends. However, much like historical and nationalist narratives, literary narratives too are constructed, and while they certainly offer alternative ways of thinking about the Kashmir conflict, they too remain rooted within imagined terrains of community and history.

Mirza Waheed’s second novel, The Book of Gold Leaves (2014), is set in the city of Srinagar, the center of conflict at the beginning of the insurgency in the early 1990s, with a love story as its backdrop. As readers, we get so caught up in the characters’ and their families’ lives that the insurgency sneaks up on us, much as it sneaks up on the characters. The novel thus captures the everyday-ness, the commonplace nature of the conflict, even as it illustrates how thoroughly it reconfigures the lives of the people who have no choice but to live through it.

The Kashmiri Muslim community remains the novel’s central frame of reference, defined in terms of the tyrannies it faces at the hands of the Indian army. While the deaths of Pandits by militant groups evoke private sympathy among the characters, Muslim deaths brought about by the army and collaborators of the Indian state are publicly mourned and protested. The novel does not make light of the assassinations and forced exile faced by Pandits, but it is the revolt of and resultant persecution faced by Kashmiri Muslims that clearly takes precedence.

Siddhartha Gigoo’s short story collection, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (2015), is similarly framed around the travails of a particular community, in this case the Pandits as they become refugees in their own country. The lead story, “The Search,” takes place in a future where the community has ceased to exist, and any evidence that proves that it ever existed, is located in the Museum of the Disappearing Clans. A scholar working on these materials gradually unravels the heartrending truths about the migration and consequent obliteration of the community in exile. The story suggests that the community disappears not just because it is forced out of its homeland, but also because without access to its books, manuscripts, heirlooms, and stories, it can no longer hold on to its own memory.

Kashmir’s literary narratives refuse to forget. They commemorate the shared culture that allowed different communities to coexist in Kashmir and profoundly lament its loss, but they also refuse to forget the atrocities committed against individuals solely because they belonged to particular (religious) groups. They reveal the deep cleavages in Kashmir’s body politic exposed by the conflict, which forced individuals and communities to take sides. It may be easy for us to remain neutral as readers, but for those who actually lived through the violence and terror, and lost heavily as a result, it is not possible, or even desirable, to do so.


Good Stories

At the end of his memoir, Curfewed Nights (2010), Basharat Peer writes longingly of “good stories” that no longer exist in Kashmir; they have been replaced by stories of violence, bereavement, and exile. Indeed, it does seem as though Kashmir is altogether devoid of heartening, redeeming stories. The public sphere is rent by acrimonious debates about the appropriate moment for the beginning of the true history of Kashmir, or the relative historical suffering of communities, even as the Indian and Pakistani nationalist narratives compete for supremacy. From the perspective of these irreconcilable narratives, the Kashmir conflict appears irresolvable. 

The stories that Peer longs for and which remind him of a more peaceful Kashmir, however, continue to circulate. They are still narrated by Dastaan Goh, or traditional Kashmiri storytellers, in villages, towns, and cities, and disseminated through the narrations of older men and women to younger generations. They continue to be performed by Bhand Pather, the Kashmiri street theatrical groups. As a result, Kashmiris continue to identify with these stories, such as the origin story of Kashmir through the intervention of a variety of divine figures, claiming them for Kashmiris as a whole rather than associating them with particular religious communities.

This multitude of poems, novels, and short stories, although replete with anguish about the seemingly unending brutality, do not allow us to forget the past and hence the possibility, however slim, of a better, more ethical, future. They are the good stories from Kashmir.


Chitralekha Zutshi is Professor of History at the College of William and Mary.