Akbar Jehan: An Intimate History of Kashmir

By Masood Raja

Khan, Nyla Ali. The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation. New York: Palgrave Pivot.

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Many of us in the Sub-continent who grew up with an awareness of the history of Kashmir do not usually realize that the histories we receive are highly motivated and are presented to us with the traces of the preferences and prejudices of the historians and their respective governments and nations. History is never unmotivated, but it offers itself as fact and truth. We on the Pakistani side grew up with a certain view of shaikh Abdullah and his family. In our distorted narratives he is the great “traitor” who sold Kashmir to the Indians for personal gain. But even those of us who know this distorted history of Shaikh Abdullah will have no clue as to who Akbar Jehan was.

Not a female figure in the shadows working behind a patriarchal barrier: she was rather at the center of the Kashmiri struggle and remained its driving force even after her husband had passed away. This brief volume is, thus, an act of retrieval as well as abrogation: it retrieves the silenced history of Akbar Jehan not as a supporting wife but a s a leader in her own right and it also abrogates the patriarchal male-centered history of Kashmir and the Kashmiri struggle. For Pakistani readers, the book also provides a rare glimpse into the life and struggles of Kashmiris on the Indian side of the line of control and the importance of Akbar Jehan to the rise of the National Conference as a viable and pragmatic Kashmiri political party.

Stylistically, this is not just a simple memoir. The book, instead, weaves through the personal and the political without ever hegemonzing or homogenizing a universal Kashmiri identity. The author announces this complex nature of the text, this interplay of the personal and political, particular and universal in the introduction:

Although the weaving of my personal voice into the narrative makes this work auto/biographical . . . my memory and historical interpretation aid theact of writing political events and crises in the life of Akbar Jehan, which is very much the story of modern Kashmir. (3)

This, I must admit, is a very instructive passage as it guides us not only about the authorial intention but also about a plausible way of understanding the book. In simple words: this is not just a memoir written by a privileged author about her privileged grandmother, even though that is how the less generous and more cynical amongst us would like to read it. The passage enlightens us that even though this text is part biographical and that while access to Akbar Jehan’s life was given to the author simply through an accident of birth, the authorial figure inscribing this text is also a historically constituted subject who is also engaged in a complex historiography in the process of composing the text. Thus, in other words, while the access to Akbar Jehan—the subject of this text—was a given in the life of the author, what the author does with this access is deeply discursive and made possible only through the author’s scholarly training and her grasp of history as well as historiography. What comes out at the end is not simply a nostalgic engagement with childhood memories of the author about this larger-than-life female subject, but a deep understanding of Akbar Jehan and her accomplishments as a living breathing human subject of a particular spatial and temporal politics. Thus, the narrative, despite being biographical, becomes an act of historical retrieval because the author performs her authorial identity as a scholar and not just, as some would have us believe, as the privileged granddaughter of an illustrious Kashmiri woman.

For the Pakistani readers, the text can be extremely useful in complicating the received, and prejudiced, knowledge about the Jammu and Kashmir history. Not only would the text introduce them to this hitherto unknown figure of Kashmiri history (I am pretty sure that not many Pakistanis are aware of Akbar Jehan’s role in Kashmiri struggle) but also the struggles and trials of the National Conference and its leadership in the post 1947 era. As I mentioned earlier, In Pakistani popular circles Shaikh Abdullah and his family is often remembered as the sell-outs who harmed the cause of an independent Kashmir. This brief book, in a way, tells us a story of their struggle on the other side, a narrative not dependent upon Kashmir’s connection with Pakistan or India but rather of Kashmir’s struggle and survival and fight toward self-determination as an autonomous place inhabited by an autonomous group of diverse human subjectivities. Furthermore, we learn that in this entire struggle Akbar Jehan played a central role! Thus, in the end, this is not just a story of how Akbar Jehan impacted the life world of the private sphere but rather a narrative of her role as a subject of politics whose actions impacted the possibilities and future of the Kashmiri people and the nation!

Just as Akbar Jehan needs to be read and remembered as an individual subject in her own right, so does her grand daughter. Nyla Ali Khan is a scholar of immense depth and profound grace. In this lyrical, poetic, and incisive account of Akbar Jehan as a political figure, Khan has given us a gift, an offering into the very soul of the Kashmiri struggle. While it would be absurd for her to excise the privilege of being born into the family, it would be equally inane on our part to read her as an extension of her illustrious family. Khan is an autonomous, as autonomous one can be in this postmodern world, enunciating subject: Her work is informed by a deep understanding of history, philosophy, and philosophies of subject-formation. We should, therefore, read her as the formidable scholar that she is and value her work accordingly!