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Book Review: Connecting Kashmir’s past with the present

The book Kashmir: Looking Back in Time-Politics, Culture, History by Khalid Bashir Ahmad is an attempt at connecting Kashmir’s past and present. The book has many essays on many unexplored areas of Kashmir’s culture and history. Overall, the book is a good vade mecum for anyone who wants to understand the politics of political leader like Sheikh Abdullah and unexplored areas like cinema in Kashmir, the evolution of journalism in Kashmir and more.

Faizaan Bhat, TwoCircles.net

Since the partition of British India in 1947, both the nation-states of India and Pakistan have laid claims on the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The modern nation-state controls knowledge through its state institutes and educational spaces. As newly formed nation-states, India and Pakistan have done the same since the dismantling of the colonial British Empire to write or rewrite the history of Kashmir for legitimizing their respective claims. These states have also written official chronicles to support their narratives. This has left very little scope for an objective study of Kashmir’s history and political events. 

This is where author and writer Khalid Bashir Ahmad pitches in. Khalid Bashir does not shy away from writing about contentious subjects such as Kashmir’s beleaguered and contested history. The same is the objective of his new book “Kashmir: Looking Back in Time – Politics, Culture and History,” Published by Atlantic Publishers, the book is spread over 310 pages and divided into three themes namely Politics, Culture and History with fifteen essays in total. 

As is his established style now, the author uses archives, personal interviews, books for his study which is very objective, honest and unapologetic. 

The book also has essays on the history of subjects like cinema and sports in Kashmir, which hardly anyone writes on. 

The first theme of the book “Politics” deals with Kashmiri leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who dominated the political landscape of Kashmir for 50 years. A huge canvass of literature exists on the political life of Sheikh Abdullah which projects him as the symbol of resistance, archetype of progressive thinking and an embodiment of secularism of Kashmir.

However, this vast corpus of literature falls short on many fronts in explaining the paradoxical approach of Sheikh Abdullah towards many historical events that shaped modern Kashmir.

Undeniably, Sheikh Abdullah was the face of the struggle against the autocratic Dogra state. He headed the first political party of Kashmir namely the Muslim Conference and was the main person behind the conversion of the Muslim Conference into the National Conference. Later on, Sheikh facilitated Kashmir’s accession with India and became its strong votary at different levels. He, however, also patronized a movement under the banner of Plebiscite Front for twenty-two years using all his tactics and strategy to undo the accession with India. And finally, in the 1970s, Sheikh shook hands with the Indian state led by Indira Gandhi and became the head of the Kashmir government although as a Chief Minister. These turn of events projected Sheikh Abdullah as the most controversial political figure, which the first section of Khalid Bashir’s book has lucidly brought out. It is precisely in this context that the book is a valuable addition to the existing literature on Sheikh Abdullah and many other unexplored areas of Kashmir’s politics, history, and culture.

Khalid Bashir’s book tries to engage with Sheikh Abdullah and other themes academically and gives us a critical view about them. The book gives insights into Sheikh’s complex figure and the enigma he was. The book examines the politics of Sheikh Abdullah from the 1930s till his death. It discusses how Sheikh organized his politics, the conversion of Muslim Conference to National Conference, his patronization of Plebiscite Front, dialogue with India and its impact on Kashmir.

The book debates the political developments since 1930s Kashmir and the Sheikh’s role from the 1930s till his death. It re-looks and re-reads the idea of the formation of the Plebiscite Front and its role in the politics of Kashmir and deliberates on the political role of the Sheikh. 

In the last essay of the first section, Khalid Bashir writes about the letter Sheikh had written to D.P. Dhar who was one of the main architects for his ouster in 1953. The letter reveals that how Sheikh discusses important matters, including about his family, with D.P. Dhar. However, the author doesn’t write about Sheikh’s letter to Nehru about the presence of IB which had no jurisdiction in Kashmir and Maulana Azad’s visit to Kashmir and Sheikh not giving him time for a meeting, which can be argued were also a reason for his ouster in 1953. 

The book has been successful in charting out multiple dimensions of Sheikh Abdullah. Additionally, the book also provides insights into the Sheikh’s paradoxical approach to many significant historical events.

The book has an interesting essay about the intellectual theft of manuscripts on page 72. The essay talks about the Chinese scholar and traveller Heun Tsang stealing manuscripts on 20 horses and scholar Aurel Stein’s taking thousands of manuscripts, some of which (at least 350 manuscripts) he submitted to the New Bodleian library at Oxford and the scholar Bohler taking 300 manuscripts. 

The book has a wonderful essay on the evolution and the closure of cinema in Kashmir. The author has been honest and unapologetic about the subject. The essay discusses the first feature films shown in the cinema theatres and the making of films in Kashmir and the protest led against it in 1932 by one Pandit community and call for social reformation. The essay also discusses the Hindi film industry’s cinematic representation of Kashmir. 

The last chapter of the book discusses the evolution of journalism in Kashmir. It traces the evolution of journalism before ‘Ranbir’, known as the first newspaper of Kashmir and mentions many newspapers that were started before it. The chapter discusses the first journalist associations and first journalists of Kashmir.    

The book has many essays on many unexplored areas of Kashmir’s culture and history as well. Overall, the book is a good vade mecum (a handbook or guide that is kept constantly at hand for consultation) for anyone who wants to understand the politics of Sheikh Abdullah and unexplored areas like cinema in Kashmir, the evolution of journalism in Kashmir and more. 


Faizaan Bhat is an independent researcher from Kashmir and writes on South Asian Politics.