URDU: Story of Banishment

Entrances to government offices in Kashmir have a common story to tell: that they are failures of imagination. While Srinagar Municipal Corporation in shiny metallic letters welcomes you when you enter its big arched gate, Roads and Buildings (R&B) department at Rajbagh flaunts its lustrous black marble plaque with words Engineering Complex carved in Roman as well as Arabic letters, and then there is wide steel-grill entrance of Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education carrying its name on either side: Arabic script on the right and Roman script on the left. But none of these departments have translated their English names into the so-called official language of Kashmir – Urdu.
The sorry state of Urdu language in Jammu and Kashmir is all pervading. It has fallen victim to official neglect and there is hardly any government department that uses Urdu for day to day official business. In different cities of India, one finds government hoardings and signboards carrying both English as well as the official language of the state, but same is not true about Kashmir. The nameplates, boards, notices, hoardings and even the Jammu and Kashmir Government logo is bereft of Urdu.
Even where the Urdu script is used, the language is ignored. The example is the death certificate issued by SMC Srinagar. Just below the bold English words Death Certificate, the supposedly Urdu version reads “Certificate Maut” (certificate death), which seems a weird concoction of the two different languages. Any Urdu knowing person can tell you that certificate is not an Urdu word, rather Death Certificate in Urdu should translate into Sanad-e-Wafaat. This is a chronic error of which almost every government department in Kashmir is a victim. Ironically, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture, and Languages also needs a treatment.
In 1886, when erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir Ranbir Singh declared Urdu as an official language, he did so in order to make it a language of communication between the three linguistically distinct provinces of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. But “Urdu language has been communalized and labeled as a Muslim language. The incumbent officials and higher-ups deliberately ignore this language as they want it to be systematically erased and forgotten” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef, renowned Kashmiri poet and cultural activist of the valley.
“If such a thing had happened in any Indian state,” Zareef Ahmad further says, “people there would have come out on roads and started agitations”.
Retired Section Officer of Manasbal Development Authority, Ghulam Rasool Bhat says that the basic reason for official neglect is that it is much easier to print English language signboards, while Urdu is a bit difficult. He shared an anecdote that once he asked his superior that weren’t they, as per government orders, supposed to use Urdu on signboards? The officer brushed the issue aside saying that it was not compulsory. That shows the level of official apathy meted out to the so-called official language of Jammu and Kashmir.
In order to inquire why Tourism Department does not use Urdu language anywhere, I went to meet Abid Maqbool Bhat, Deputy Director (Publicity) Tourism Department. “We have government orders [to only use the English language] and we cannot change that,” he says. In his white wood-paneled office he was busy and before him on the table lay heaps of papers and files. These greenish files bore the curved name of the state government flanked by a logo: two paddy branches with Jammu and Kashmir Government written in English. I could not find a single file or paper on which Urdu was noticeable. Even the government calendar on the wall was all English.
“For writing signboards and nameplates in Urdu, right type of person are needed, which are hard to find these days.  And besides, it is not mandatory to use Urdu language.” These are the words of Chief Engineer R&B Srinagar, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone.
His contention that it is ‘not mandatory’ to use the official language in public places speaks volumes about the official attitude towards the language.
“Such neglect of Urdu language needs to be addressed. Our civil society and intelligentsia has a role to play in this regard, but it seems as if they are sleeping over this issue,” says Zareef Ahmad Zareef.
Despite neglect at large level, some officers need to be appreciated for their initiatives to have a semblance of the language in the official realm. Health Officer SMC Srinagar Dr. Rubeena Shah made the License Under Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 bilingual on her own because she “thought when other states can have both English as well as their respective state languages why cannot we do the same!”
“Besides,” she reasons “since most of our shopkeepers and vendors are not well versed in the English language it was absurd not to have Urdu options”
When asked why SMC was ignoring the official language, G.N. Qasba Commissioner Srinagar Municipal Corporation replied in assured but ambitious tone: “Give me a month and you will see all these English boards outside our offices replaced with Urdu ones”
Well, it is a wait-and-watch on how much the honorable Commissioner walks the talk and brings some concrete changes.
Meanwhile, forget about other things how Urdu is denied even a symbolic status reflects from the fact that the state emblem adorned with a bloomed lotus and twin paddy branches embraces  Jammu and Kashmir Government in roman letters rather than the official language, Urdu.


This story was first published in Greater Kashmir on 29 April 2012: https://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/gk-magazine/urdu-story-of-banishment/119167.html



Letter to Young Kashmiris

In this letter, I will try to explain how we acquired our language: Kashur/Kashmiri. But, before telling you particular story of Kashmiris it is better, for a broader perspective, to understand the general picture of the evolution of human language; because our (Kashmiri) language did not develop on its own.

We, as hunter-gatherers, must have used gestures (like Chimpanzees and Bonobos do) to communicate with each other, and then those gestures must have evolved into a crude form of verbal communication (like cries, hoots, grunts, whispers, and other sounds). Later, over many centuries of demographic, social and cultural changes and outside influences, our crude verbal communication system must have evolved into a full-fledged language. (Before I proceed further, it is important to mention that there are many theories and speculations on how humans acquired language, but there is no record or direct evidence available to conclusively prove any theory. And, it is a very difficult subject area which was once considered as “unsuitable for serious study.” So, what I will tell you in the remaining part of this letter is not absolute truth but only a reasoned speculation).

According to researchers, we the modern humans (homo sapiens: ‘wise man’) originated in Africa, from where we begin to leave around 60,000-70,000 years ago and migrated around different parts of the world. Due to great climatic changes, a lot of us had died, reducing our population to around 10,000 people. But after improvements in climate, our population grew and some of us migrated, in different groups at different times, through Bab-al-Mandab Strait, which separates African continent and Arabian Peninsula. This theory is based on scientific studies on fossils of modern homo sapiens (found in Ethiopia), DNA testing on present-day populations, and examination of sea cores (Though recent discoveries of fossils of earliest homo sapiens in Morocco, China, and Israel may change or modify this theory. But till that happens let us go with the one I have just told you.)

Some 50,000 years ago, one of the migrant groups from Africa had settled around the Middle East and southern Central Asia and it was probably some people from this group who later entered the Kashmir Valley and made it their home. Since we come from the same migrant group our languages have similarities. This is found by many philologists also who have developed a language model called Proto Indo-European (PIE), which is considered as the oldest common language spoken by people around 4500-2500 BC (Neolithic Age). The word Proto comes from Greek protos meaning ‘first’ (also: primitive or original) and Indo-European indicates languages covered in geographical distance from the Indian continent to Europe. Thus, Proto Indo-European means primitive language spoken from Europe to the Indian subcontinent. Some theorists say PIE was mainly spoken around Eastern Europe and as some speakers of this language migrated (thanks to the domestication of horses and wheeled carriers) to other parts their dialect underwent a change over the years. So, from this common language (PIE) has derived many other languages called Indo-European languages. Philologists use comparative method to tell us the commonalities between languages. For example, the German word for father is ‘Vater’ which sounds similar to English ‘Father’, Greek and Latin ‘Pater’, Sanskrit ‘Pitr’, and Persian ‘Pedar’. Similarly, we can see resemblances in the initial consonants of the following terms: Vidya (Sanskrit), Idea (Greek), Videt (Russian), Videre (Latin), Vedere (Italian), Vedea (Romanian), Ver (Spanish), Voir (French) Witen (old English).

Is Kashmiri language part of Indo-European languages? Yes, indirectly. Because Kashmiri language belongs to what is called Dardic languages, and Dardic languages belong to the Indo-Iranian language family, which is derived from Indo-European languages. Dardic languages are spoken in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir, and they are further divided into three sub-groups: Western, Central and Eastern. Kashmiri belongs to the Eastern Dardic group, and it is the only language within Dardic language family to have been “used extensively for literary purposes.” Over the centuries, Kashmiri language received influences from other languages, like Aramaic, Sanskrit, Punjabi, and Persian.

Sanskrit, which was spoken by Indo-Aryan people who are said to have come to Kashmir around 3000 BC, had a major influence on Kashmiri language. Since Sanskrit already had a script, Indo-Aryan settlers used their script (Sharda and Devanagiri) for Kashmiri language, as they gradually learned it and started speaking it in everyday conversations. But they used Sanskrit for religious and literary purposes; for a long time, Sanskrit literature flourished in Kashmir.

The earliest literary composition in Kashmiri language is attributed to great mystic Lal Ded, who wrote her ‘Vaakh’ poetry (Lal Vaakh) in the 14th century. After Lal Ded’s Vaakhs, another great mystic Sheikh-ul-Alam or Nund Rishi wrote his ‘Shrukhs’ in the 15th century. Thus, Lal Ded and Sheikh-ul-Alam introduced literary trend which influenced generations, both intelligentsia and common people. Among different literary genres, poetry has remained the high point of Kashmiri literature.  Though fictional prose has been written in Europe since the 17th century (like Cervantes’ Don Quixote), it was only by the mid-20th century that Kashmiri writers also started writing short stories and novels. In 1950, Somnath Jutshi wrote, “Yelli Pholl Gash” (When Dawn Cracked), which is considered as the first short story in Kashmiri literature. Seven years later, in 1957, Akhtar Mohiuddin wrote the first Kashmiri novel “Doad Dagg” (Sickness and Pain).

Today, over 5 million people speak Kashmiri, in its three main dialects: Kishtwari, Poguli, and Rambani. Kashmiri Muslims write it in Perso-Arabic script, while as Kashmiri Hindus prefer Sharda letters. Due to many factors (especially westernization), contemporary parents from urban middle-class families do not encourage their kids to speak in their mother tongue. Some schools also discourage conversation in Kashmiri. But, from pre-historic times to the 21st century, Kashmiri language has traversed a long history, witnessing many changes on the way. It will continue to change, and continue to grow. Some are apprehensive it may disappear if newer generations continue to remain indifferent to it. But, the language is still spoken in larger parts of Kashmir and outside, hence it is unlikely that it will become extinct in the near future.

[P.S: In my previous letter, based on the information from Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (2017), I had written that first humans existed in Kashmir around 7.8 lakh years ago. But it seems incorrect after I researched more about it. As archeologist Ajmal Shah told me, “The evidence of earliest human existence in Kashmir has not gone beyond 20,000 years BP [before present].”


Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir




First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 Feb 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/275763.html

Letter to Young Kashmiris II

Dear Young Kashmiris,

That my last epistle (1 Jan 2018) was of some value to you, that it was able to convey a useful message, I continue my next letter. And this time let me guide your focus to something about which you might have already started thinking: who are we Kashmiris? From whence have we come from? And why are we called Kashmiris?

When we ask questions like these we mostly rely on history, or, to be specific, on historiography. Though some people confuse myth and history and accept whatever is said in mythical stories as historical truth. But I want you to have a scientific temper and look at these questions with an open mind. That is to say, not to take what is handed down to you as absolute truth. Because our identities i.e., we as Kashmiris or someone as French or Nigerian or Guatemalan, have complex histories, as what our identity today is was not how it always was, say, two thousand years ago. So, the fundamental idea is that our identity (as Kashmiris) is ‘constructed.’ And, it was constructed by us Kashmiris, but in dialogue with others (non-Kashmiris).

Let me give a simple example. Imagine there is a large family and it has two dozen members: grandfather and grandmother, and their children and their children’s children. Let’s call it the Camenzind family. If Camenzinds were living on an isolated island all alone, nobody would call them Camenzinds, because among themselves they were just brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and cousins. A daughter from this family would not call her father Mr. Camenzind, would she? Or, a son would not ask his mother, “Where are you going, Mrs. Camenzind?”, would he?

Exactly the same way, if we Kashmiris were living all alone in our beautiful landlocked Valley without ever having any contact with the outside world or different people, we wouldn’t be called Kashmiris. Because we didn’t need to have that name for us, as we already knew who we were through our common dialect. The point is our identity or ethnic name as Kashmiris was neither given to us by God nor did we take it voluntarily. Then, how we came to be called Kashmiris? You may ask. Precisely when we had our first contacts with the people who didn’t speak our language. And who were these different people? Nobody knows for sure.

However, what we know, in the light of the archeological discoveries, is that our ancestors first lived at higher places in south Kashmir, like Pahalgam, where a crude hand-ax and flakes were discovered by archeologists in 1969, believed to be from the Middle Pleistocene Age. Through a rough estimation, our earliest ancestors lived 7.8 lakh years ago. However, later, moving towards Karewas (plateaus) in central and north Kashmir, our ancestors established subterranean dwellings i.e., human settlements that were created underground. You might have already heard or read about Burzhom, the archeological site just 5 kilometers from the Shalimar Garden, or about Gofkral in Tral district, 40 kilometers from the Srinagar city. Such dwellings were first discovered in the late 1930’s by a team of foreign archeologists. Just last year, in March 2017, a team of archeologists from the Kashmir University discovered very significant pre-historic sites and objects, which are believed to be 5000 years old. These sites, all in north Kashmir, were found in Harwan (Sopore), Tregam (Kupwor), Turkpur (Bandipur), Vizer Kreeri (Baramullah/Varmul), and Yembarzalwore (Kupwor). As archeologist Ajmal Shah says, “These archaeological sites are having richest cultural material pertaining to the Northern Neolithic Culture of the subcontinent. If excavated, these sites will add a mine-full of information about Kashmir valley’s cultural heritage.”

Based on these settlements and objects, archeologists argue that during the Neolithic (new stone) Age, Kashmiris, primarily settled in north Kashmir, had contacts with the outside world through the old silk route which connected the Kashmir valley with Kashgar (Xinxiang in China) and Central Asia region. Most of our trade, commercial, and travel routes passed through the north—but since 1947, all these historical routes remain out of bounds for us.

At any rate, what we know so far is that we Kashmiris have a 5000-year-old civilization; we were born artisans who were “adept at weaving and intricate craftsmanship”; we bravely faced and adapted to adverse climate by creating underground dwellings; we innovated and made fine and advanced tools, like harvesters, spear-heads, spindle whorls, double-edged picks, copper arrowheads, celts and knife blades; we had international trade links with neighboring regions in China, India, and Afghanistan, selling and buying stuff like beads, pendants, and terracotta bangles. In short, we were a hardworking community of innovators and imaginative craftsmen, and relics of our craftsmanship are visible in many pockets of Kashmir even today.

Which religion we followed 5000 years ago? We were neither Hindus nor Buddhists nor Muslims. Probably, we were animists i.e., we believed in mystical powers of nature, or sun, moon, and sky, or inanimate objects, like trees, mountains, and rivers, or, as with Mongols, thunder and lightning—in the book A Little History of the World, which I recommended in my last letter, you will learn more about ancient beliefs of humans.

So, when exactly were Kashmiris called Kashmiris and how did we acquire our language, Koshur? Now this question might have popped up in your mind, right? Well, for such questions we rely on language experts, or, more specifically, on philology (“The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages”). In my next letter, inshallah, I will try to answer this question. In the meantime, to learn more about our origins, you can read the first chapter (pp. 1-15) of Khalid Bashir Ahmad’s book Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative (Sage: 2017).

Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir


First published in Greater Kashmir on 15 January 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/272238.html

Letter to Young Kashmiris

Dear Young Kashmiris,

I was meaning to write you this letter for some time now, I have things to share, words to tell you. I understand the life-world you live now, I have passed it, not long time ago. The things I want to share are the things I wish someone had shared with me when I was as young as you. But that is past now. And you are the future.

Let me start with few dry statistics, so that you are familiar with the larger picture. You belong to the most educated generation in the modern history of Kashmir. You may ask what does that mean. Well, imagine Kashmir in the 1920s or 1930s, and imagine your father’s-father’s-father or your mother’s-mother’s-mother. What was their generation doing when they were as young as you? If you read our history you will know that, in 1911, there were hardly 5 high schools and around 172 primary schools in Kashmir, and less than 7 percent population was able to read or write. Out of 1000 people only 35 were literate during the 1930s. We had 4 million population (40 lac) then and yet only 19,455 people knew English. Most of the people were poor, they tilled land, and very few earned their livelihood through trade or government employment.

Today, most of you are in a far better position as compared to your father’s-father’s-father or your mother’s-mother’s-mother. In contrast to 5 high schools in 1911, we have over 800 high schools today, while around 9 lac students are enrolled in 11,000 government-run schools, over half a million of you (5.7 lac) are also studying in 2600 private schools—the current overall literacy rate in Kashmir is 63 percent. And you can see that while a lot of men and women still work in the agricultural sector, thousands of them also serve in the public service—in 2016, the total population of government employees in Jammu and Kashmir was 4.8 lac. You have around 40 colleges now, and you have even options to go outside of Kashmir to pursue your studies, something that yours—and mine—grand grandfather or grand grandmother could have never imagined.

I am sure you already knew much of what I just outlined, but sometimes it is important that we are aware of our privileges so that we may not take things for granted.

When I say young Kashmiris I have people in mind who must be currently in their 8th standard and above, and between ages 15 and 20. This is the formative period of one’s life i.e., it is during this age when a person starts to think about “the serious stuff,” and seeks answers. No matter how hard we try to seclude you in the world of fairy tales and keep you away from the true realties of the world this stage is inevitable. And it has arrived. You will begin to, or might have already begun to, ask yourselves questions like “How this world was created?” “Why are countries fighting wars?” “Why different people have different cultures?”, or, closer home, “Why were people protesting on streets in 2016?” All this is “the serious stuff” I am talking about, and I am sure there must be many more questions nagging your mind at this stage now, and surely not all will get satisfactory answers in your lifetime.

While you will get answers for your queries gradually, some things you will discover through experience and some by reading. Though by reading a person can also gain experience, for experience, however, you don’t need to read. Your father’s-father’s-father might not have had education but he could still be an expert in his work. But, he lived in a different era and you live in the age where without reading you end up losing many opportunities to realize your potentials. So: read, read, and read.

But what to read, you may ask. Well, let me give you a small list of readings which will help you and may resolve the puzzles in your mind. We can start with history, because you may want to know how the world civilization came about—one of the questions in the bundle of “the serious stuff.”

In 1935, Ernst Gombrich, a 26-year-old man from Vienna, wanted to write about the world history for young kids. He shared the idea with a publisher named Walter Neurath who liked it and asked him to finish the book within six weeks. A complete history book within just six weeks, that is around 42 days! A monumental task. But Gombrich took the challenge and finished the book on time. He read books in mornings and afternoons at his home and libraries, and set a tight schedule for writing: one chapter a day, every evening. Ultimately, the book came out in 1936 in German titled Eine kurze Weltgeschichte für junge Leser. Gombrich wanted to translate the book into English, so that it could reach wider audience around the world. But, he couldn’t finish the translation as he died in 2001 in his London home. However, the English version of the book was published four years later after Ernst Gombrich’s granddaughter Leonie Gombrich and his assistant Caroline Mustill finished the translation work. And the book, titled A Little History of the World, came out in 2005, and it became the bestselling book on world history for young and adult readers alike.

What could you expect from the book? In forty chapter, you will hear Gombrich’s story in a simple, accessible, and entertaining language. The book is not filled with dates which many people find boring, but it engages you in the story of our human civilisation. It covers our progress from the Caves to Machines to Wars to Art and Sciences. It also discusses the world religions, like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. It shows us how much we achieved and how much we also lost in this path of progress, how high we went in our achievement and how we failed due to our imperfection. This is the book, dear young Kashmiris, you should read, so that you can take in the grand sweep of human history, and develop, at this early but formative stage of your life, a healthy spirit of openness to ideas. Inshallah, I will return with another letter. Till then enjoy A Little History of the World.

Yours truly,

Muhammad Tahir 





First published in Greater Kashmir on 1 Jan 2018: http://www.greaterkashmir.com/news/opinion/letter-to-young-kashmiris/270734.html

Youth Protests in Kashmir

Since 2008, street protests in the Kashmir valley have become frequent. Over 250 protesters and bystanders, mostly young people, were killed in the last three civil uprisings—2008, 2010 and 2016. Many analysts argue that these post-2008 street protests in Kashmir mark a shift from the armed rebellion of the late 1980’s to youth-led civil agitations.  As Tariq Ali argued: “Now a new generation of Kashmiri youth is on the march. They fight like the Palestinians, with stones.

Many policy makers and journalists tend to view youth participation in anti-India protests as a symptom of the economic problem, such as high levels of unemployment. But by way of a counter-argument, it is also asked: why do school-going boys or girls take part in these protests? Or: why were 130 state employees listed by the police for participating in the 2016 summer protests, and twelve of them sacked?

Though India acknowledges the gravity of this unprecedented phenomenon of youth-led street protests, at the same time a certain policy of ‘denialism’ is adopted. The youth protests are projected as a manifestation of economic problems (like unemployment and underdevelopment) or Pakistan-sponsored agitations. Moreover, Kashmiri youth activists and protest participants are being portrayed, with the active help of compliant and sometimes frenzied electronic media, as “radicalised,” “misguided”, “alienated,” “agents of Pakistan,” “anti-nationals,” and “terrorists.” Through seemingly choreographed media performances on certain Indian news channels, these pejorative labels are repeated to discredit and criminalise the youth protests in Kashmir.

Some analysts and policymakers believe the Kashmiri youth are radicalised, and this is the cause of the protests. For example, in a May 2012 interview with the Indian newspaper Business Standard, the then Inspector General of Police (in Kashmir), Shiv Murari Sahai, said: “Our problem today is a radicalised youth bulge [in Kashmir]. Some 50 per cent of the population is between the ages of 13 and 25.”

Sahai is partially right. The youth bulge is a factor for political protests in Kashmir, given the region’s large youth population. As per the 2011 census, around 30 percent of the population of Kashmir was between 15-30 years of age. In the face of high unemployment, the youth bulge can potentially give rise to political violence. But unemployment alone is not enough to explain the protests. Regime type is also an important factor. Political violence can emerge among some cohorts of the youth in a situation where political repression is prevalent and democratic spaces are denied. Scholars like Henrik Urdal, however, argue that political violence is less likely in highly democratic and highly autocratic states than in semi-democratic or semi-autocratic ones.

Young people participate in activism or engage in political violence for many reasons. But generally, young people participate in larger numbers because they usually have fewer familial or professional responsibilities. American sociologist Douglas McAdam calls it “biographical availability” i.e., young people are unencumbered by obligations which adults usually face.

The above factors seem to coincide in Kashmir: a combination of a youth bulge and political repression. The state in the Kashmir Valley uses wide-ranging repressive methods to deal with anti-India dissent and protests, which includes pre-emptive detentions through laws such as the Public Safety Act, coercion, hard-policing, harassment, deliberate blinding of protestors and killings.  But despite the state using the coercive apparatus in good measure, protests haven’t died down. Kashmiri Muslim youths in the 1990’s were “angry but scared” but post-2008 they are “angry and fearless.” For example, despite the direct threat from the Indian army chief Bipin Rawat in Feb 2017 (and the subsequent fatal shootings at encounter sites), young Kashmiri protestors still helped armed rebels escape at least on 13 occasions by risking their lives.  This aspect of Kashmiri youth activism has baffled many analysts, most of whom see in it portents of a more worrying future.

As argued, the economic argument does not fully explain the political dissent in Kashmir nor does the radicalisation theory. One of the weaknesses of these arguments is that they do not seem to appreciate the political substance of the protests in Kashmir. By using the economic argument and the radicalisation theory as the sole determinants, they take the focus away from the political aspect of the Kashmir conflict.

Though economics does play a role in exacerbating the problem, we can better understand the youth protests in Kashmir by looking at political dimensions. In his 2013 article, academic Paul Staniland argues that the Indian policy in Kashmir suffers from what he calls paradox of normalcy: the Indian state desires to preserve the status quo in Kashmir and “articulates a goal of normalcy that it does not allow to come to fruition.” If the Indian state walks the talk on liberal democracy rhetoric in Kashmir, it would face the democratic challenges to the status quo from Kashmiris—the majority of whom prefer independence. Thus, India continues to manage and manipulate the existing political arrangements in Kashmir through a corrupt political elite and a large coercive machinery, which eventually leads to repression of popular aspirations through coercion and violence.

It is this paradoxical political environment in which youth participation in street protests must be located. The Kashmir youths’ dissent and protest have developed in response to the political culture that the state has maintained in Kashmir. And as long as the “paradox of normalcy” persists, political protests are likely to break out.

The question if this paradox can be resolved is a difficult one. The current dispensation in New Delhi looks at Kashmir through a particular ideological prism. The BJP is against Article 370, the only legal instrument which governs the relations between the Indian union and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This Article was negotiated by the Kashmiri leadership in the early 1950’s to ensure substantial autonomy for the state. Muslims, who form the majority, would like to strengthen the autonomy, though many of them would like to eventually have an independent state of their own. For the moment, what India wants in Kashmir and what Kashmiris want seem to be unbridgeable, a scenario described by John Cockell (2000) as ‘structural paralysis.’

Muhammad Tahir is a doctoral researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. His articles have appeared in The Japan Times, The Caravan, The Express Tribune, Kindle Magazine, and in newspapers and magazines in Kashmir. He tweets @TahirFiraz. Image credit: CC by Kashmir Violence/ Flickr


First published on IAPS: https://iapsdialogue.org/2017/07/24/youth-protests-in-kashmir/

Is Rumi an anti-dote for the post-truth America?


On January 5, 2017, the New Yorker published an article with a revealing title: “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi.” Rozina Ali—who is also the editorial staff of the magazine—raised an interesting issue: that in the West, Rumi, the 13th-century poet and scholar, is “typically referred to as a mystic, a saint, an enlightened man” but “less frequently described as a Muslim.” 

Ali’s contention is that Rumi’s poetry has been decoupled by his English translators from its Islamic context, and that way they have effaced “historical dynamism” within the Muslim scholarship. Because “Rumi’s works reflected a broader push and pull between religious spirituality and institutionalised faith” in the Islamic civilisation.

Ali quotes Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, who believes that reading Rumi without the Holy Quran is akin to reading Milton without the Bible; and, while one can appreciate Rumi’s heterodoxy but at the same time that heterodoxy has to be contextualised within the Islamic history. And such contextualisation allows readers to appreciate that the Islamic culture in the thirteenth century “had room for such heterodoxy”. And, that an Islamic scholar of Sharia could also write widely read poetry of love.

Ali’s article has its own context. In the post-truth culture that has apparently ceased the present times coupled with the vicious anti-Muslim discourse that permeates many western and non-western societies, Rumi has assumed a new meaning: a symbol of Muslim contribution to civilisation. What Ali implies is that Rumi can serve as a potent example to counter those—she, for example, cites the US national security advisor General Michael Flynn—who seems ill-disposed towards Islam or tends to believe that non-western people have no contribution to civilisation.

Problematising the issue 

So, paradoxically, Rumi should be depoliticised—since the Muslim context of his poetry was apparently effaced by the Victorian period translators on purpose—to be used as a political symbol in the Trump era. In effect, Ali’s article has two concerns: translation and Islamophobia. The first issue is essentially of an academic nature and the second one is clearly political.

While Coleman Barks is credited with popularising Rumi in the US— “morphing Rumi into American verse”—but he is also blamed for minimising the Islamic references in Rumi’s poetry and thus effacing its cultural context. And some others have resorted to what Professor Safi calls as a kind of “spiritual colonialism,” like Deepak Chopra and Daniel Ladinsky, who market and sell their unique interpretive works as Rumi books.

By not remaining faithful to the original, what is lost—in such translations—is the culture, tradition, and memory which a work of art carries within it. Thus, Ali cautions that,

“As conduits between two cultures, translators take on an inherently political project.”

But when we talk about the correct reading or the correct translation, the concept of authority of text comes to the fore and on that Roland Barthes (1967) argues that text has an independent existence of its own, and it is language and not the author which speaks. The culture and personality of an author should be discarded when interpreting a text, because the text is inherently multivalent and there is no one universal meaning in its language.

On a somewhat more mystical plane, Walter Benjamin in his famous essay The Task of the Translator (1926) says that,

“In translation the original rises into a higher and purer linguistic air…” or translation makes visible “the predestined, hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of languages.”

Thus, from the Benjamin’s perspective, even if Islamic references are minimised in Rumi’s poetry, the translation still captures or transmits the elemental mystery which does not necessarily come from the subject matter.

While Ali’s emphasis on the faithful translation of Rumi’s poetry—which means incorporating Islamic context—may not preclude its secular reading, but such contextualisation can enable or enhance what Benjamin calls its cult value. And from the vantage point of the cult value, it is the existence of Rumi’s Masnavi (“The Quran in Persian Language”) that matters rather than its literary value. But the traditional aesthetics of “eternal value and mystery,” Benjamin cautions us, are susceptible to appropriation by fascistic and bourgeoisie ideologies.

This aspect still seems less of Ali’s concern than the politics of translation and its expediency in the current environment of pervasive Islamophobia. This takes us to the key question: whether the Islamic context of Rumi would make a difference to anti-Muslim views? And I am a bit sceptical about that.

Because even though Ali’s idea might not be completely beyond the pale, the issue is not as simple as it may seem. The first thing that we need to understand is that Islamophobia is well-entrenched in the West’s psyche, the reasons for which goes far back to its Orientalist tradition which viewed Islam with some degree of suspicion.

As Edward Said brilliantly explained in his book Orientalism (1978), the certain negative representation of the oriental people (including Muslims) and their cultures served to justify colonial imperialism and to build a positive self-image of Europeans as enlightened and cultured. In the present times, such negative representations of Muslims have a market (it is more exciting and sellable for corporate media) and geopolitical utility (to make militaristic Middle East policies more palatable to the public). Anti-Muslim views persist, because the media and academia plays a big role in it.

The 1988 and 1996 survey studies demonstrate that negative perceptions regarding Muslims were quite prevalent even before 9/11. That event alone just pushed open the floodgates of anti-Muslim views and gave authors like Roger Scruton (2002) and Bernard Lewis (2002) a free hand to write their Islamophobic treatises. The pre-9/11 Muslim bias in the US was also revealed by Wiki Leaks in 2013, releasing classified documents about Nixon administration’s 1972 “Operation Boulder” that targeted Arab Muslims.

In other words, the orientalist tradition in the West has never gone completely. As an illustration of this, we can read Sir John Keegan’s words in The Telegraph (October 8, 2001), in response to the invasion of Afghanistan:

“This war belongs within the much larger spectrum of a far older conflict between settled, creative, productive Westerners and predatory, destructive Orientals.”

Donald Trump, Alt-right, Golden Dawn or Marine Le Pen represent a movement which is informed by nativism. This movement exploits perceived and real fears to create (or preserve?) a discourse which tries to sustain the cultural demarcations through which self-identity of being European (white) is maintained. Preserving cultural segregation makes not only “othering” possible but is essential for internal cohesion and a superior self-image. But it is also important to remember that not Muslims alone are perceived as “other”. Blacks and Hispanics too are. In the past, Japanese, Chinese, and even Irish Catholics were also despised.

So the question is, would it matter to such nativist movements whether the “other” is cosmopolitan or not? Whether Rumi’s poetry was influenced by Islam? Or whether Muslims of the US inherent Rumi? For such a movement, the other is simply “the other” because they are different; they don’t share the same values. And hence they don’t belong.

If we look at how Nazis excluded the Jews, it becomes clear that the latter’s cultural heritage and cosmopolitan disposition hardly came in their aid. Though some Jews were let off on the consideration of being “prominent Jews” (for example, war veterans). Yet, in the words of historian Louis de Jong it “was a general practice to allow certain exceptions in order to be able to maintain the general rule all the more easily.” And ironically, Nazis had built anti-Jewish museums and libraries about which Hannah Arendt says in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963):

“We owe to this strange craze the preservation of many great cultural treasures of European Jewry.”

So when the Nazis were hounding Walter Benjamin—and he had to commit suicide in September 1940—it didn’t matter that his mysticism had Judaistic context or he was a close friend of the philosopher of Jewish Mysticism Gerhard Scholem. A Jew was a Jew for the Nazis. If it had mattered that a Sufi Muslim was somewhat better than a “usual” Muslim, then during the Gujrat pogrom, mobs would have spared the Sufi shrines. But they didn’t. Because Muslim was a Muslim for them; even if he was a Member of Parliament, it didn’t change their hatred.

Although the situation for Muslims is not as precarious as it was for Jews in the 1930s, but the way President Trump could openly sign executive orders banning Muslims on the Holocaust Memorial Day must raise alarm bells. His national security council includes dangerous people like Stephen Bannon. Moreover, the hate crime against Muslims in the US has increased. The Pew Research shows that 257 incidents of anti-Muslim hate crime occurred in 2015 that is a 67% increase from 2014. And yet, violence against Muslims has been manifesting in other subtler ways.

One is through physical violence, which is visited upon a Muslim on a street in the form of a hate crime, but another is the hidden violence of indifference, schadenfreude and sadism—the latter two pervade social media. The hidden violence of indifference typically manifests itself on such occasions when, for example, the bloody attacks in France (or on whites) evoke world-wide sympathies and symbolic solidary gestures but not when such (and much brutal) attacks happen against Muslims. This kind of hidden violence reminds one of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple in which the minister Anthony Anderson tells his wife:

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”

Thankfully, the recent demonstrations against the Muslim ban order have rekindled some hope.

In conclusion, I want to share an anecdote: One fine evening in 2013, my Indian friend walked into the common kitchen of our university dorm and he, surprised on seeing my newly grown beard, remarked with a toothy grin:

“Now you look like a terrorist. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Of course he said this in jest, but I was deeply offended. However, the lesson this episode brought to me was this: your ardently secular, Rumi-loving friend may be nurturing racist, bigoted views without even realising it.


First published in Express Tribune on 6th Feb 2017: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/45819/is-rumi-an-anti-dote-for-the-post-truth-america/

Godman’s Goose

In 1992 three Pulwama villages invoked draw-of-lots to decide where their faith-healer Syed Gayas-ud-din Bukhari should stay. Babhaar, a dusky Pulwama hamlet won. Quickly, the god-man migrated out of his native Rupwen village in Budgam.

Bukhari’s murid (follower), sheep-herder Dost Muhammad Wagay gave-up sheep-husbandry and followed his Pir to Babhar. As a watchman of Pir’s new home, Dost stayed put there, ever since.

The new Babhar residence of the Pir remained crowded with his followers, who visited him regularly. For establishing a spiritual centre by Pir, Babhar’s four zamindars (landowners) — Syeda Begum (Mrs Abdul Ahad Malik), Ghulam Mohammad Mir, Farooq Ahmad Sheikh, and Ali Mohammad Sheikh — gifted land. Pir’s popularity had surged donations and offerings. Within a decade, Pir’s new residence flourished into a vibrant spiritual centre, attracting people from all social and economic classes.

“Even the rich and influential would pay a visit here,” says Dost Muhammad, now a frail elderly in his 60’s.

The seminary known as Darul Aloom Rohani Markaz, tucked inside dense apple orchards, is spread over 6.6 kanals. Inside the walled seminary, air of tranquility and silence pervades. Shrubs and evergreens encircle its manicured garden.

Amidst this serene quietude stand a couple of structures. Right at the entry, a two-level concrete and glass structure, painted in white and green, greets a visitor. It is the Rohani Markaz (spiritual centre).

“This is the place where Pir Sahib used to sit with his followers,” explains Dost Muhammad. “It is now locked, but if you peep through the glass windows you can see his framed pictures inside.”

On the right side is a well furnished white varnished mosque, decked with traditional pagoda-style tin roof. Abutting the mosque on the far side rests Bukhari in his tomb.

The place where Pir used to sit.

Pir’s loyal followers still visit his white-washed brick and mortar tomb — burning incense sticks around it, hanging garlands, tying votive threads on the window handle bars. They donate money in the brown steel safe that sits comfortably at the tomb’s entrance.

“His murids regularly visit the shrine and organize niyaz (a feast in somebody’s memory),” Dost Muhammad informed while advising to remove shoes before stepping on the tomb steps.

There are other structures around also. A two storey building used as a dormitory for the students of the Darul Aloom, a concrete one storey building where the Pir used to sit after migration, a big store house, and a stone plinth of an abandoned construction — now converted into a kitchen garden.

“Previously this place thrived on the footfalls,” says Dost, “politicians, police officers would come here. It was always a lively place.” But not anymore.

Currently, all is not well with this serene habitat. After Pir’s death in March 2009, the 6.6 kanal property has turned into a site of dispute, dividing relatives and the villagers. The centre for community’s spiritual growth has now become a devise issue.

The division is unique. On one side stands Pir’s 58-year-old son Syed Mukhtar Ahmad Bukhari, and Majeed, one of the land donors. Opposing them are Syed Bashir Ahmad Andrabi (Pir’s son-in-law) and the three remaining land donors. The dispute is already seven year old. They lodged FIRs and petitioned courts, and on one occasion, entered into physical brawl also.

Grave of Pir's mother

Pir’s son Mukhtar and his supporters hold that since the seminary’s property belonged to the Pir, his children are its natural and legal inheritors.

Opponents, however, contend that the land was gifted for building a religious institution — a Takeer (Trust) — and not as a personal property.

“When my illiterate father and aunt [Syeda Begum] donated their ancestral land they did it for the sole purpose of establishment of a Trust,” says Abdul Qayoom, son of a land-donor Ghulam Muhammad Mir. “After Pir’s death, his son, who had rarely visited the seminary, claimed ownership.”

Qayoom alleges that Mukhtar even sold seminary’s land at Sombur, in Pampore outskirts, which Pir had purchased from the donations raised at Babhar centre.

But Mukhtar refutes the allegation. “We (one son and four daughters of Bukhari) are the rightful owners of everything that our father owned, and only an owner can sell the property,” he explained.

What makes the case a curious family dispute over property is the presence of Syed Bashir Ahmad, Pir’s son-in-law, in the opposition camp. Working in Handicrafts department, he lives in Srinagar. Presently, the seminary is in occupation of the group that Bashir supports.

Qayoom says more than 100 students are currently enrolled in the seminary, functioning under the guidance of Maulana Shakeel ul Rehman. “It was the wasiyat (will)” says Qayoom, “of the Pir Sahib that Syed Bashir Ahmad should become his spiritual janasheen (successor)”.

Mukhtar neither accepts his brother-in-law as Bukhari’s ‘spiritual’ successor nor does he accept that the land, including the seminary, belongs to any institution.

“My brother-in-law in cahoots with the other party started this dispute,” Mukhtar said. “He claimed he is entitled to care-taking of the property. However, we filed a case in the civil court against him and the Pulwama court has issued a stay order, barring his entry into the premises.”

Qayoom argues that seminary cannot become a personal property because different government departments have also donated to it: toilets by Block Development Office, funds donated by MLAs and Deputy Commissioner, and RDA.

“Actually it is our land donated for a purpose,” explains Qayoom. “If they try to make it a personal property we will take it back.”

When the property transfer was under process in 2010, the opposing group had submitted their objections to the Additional DC Pulwama before 90 days. But, they alleged, a revenue officer was influenced to ensure the land ownership to Pir’s son.

Three years ahead of his death, Qayoom claims, Pir had written a wasiyat stating the property belongs to the Trust and there are witnesses to vouch for that. These documents, however, were kept by a judge.

Mukhtar alleged that his opponents joined by Maulvi Shakeel ur Rehman started Darul Aloom after evicting his family forcefully from the property in June 2010.

Ruhani Markaz

“We had to leave as we feared for our lives,” says Mukhtar. “We had no other option. The case is now pending with DC Pulwama.”

On June 26, 2010 at 5 pm, according to Mukhtar, some 5 to 7 people barged into the seminary premises wielding sticks. They attacked his family and few other people. Mukhtar was with a neighbour at the time, but his son was at the seminary. In the melee one Mohammad Abbas Sheikh was critically injured and hospitalised.

But the opposing group has a different narration about the June 26 incident. They allege that men supporting Mukhtar attacked their women Syeda Begum and Saja Begum, then in their 60’s.

Both the groups registered cases against each other with police. “We lodged an FIR against physical assault. They lodged a counter FIR alleging molestation of old women,” says Abdul Majeed, another resident whose family had also donated 2 kanals of land to the Pir in 1998. But unlike other three families he supports Mukhtar’s right to inheritance, insisting the land transfer to the Pir was through a gift deed.

“The Quran and Sharia makes the inheritance clear,” says Majeed, “Property transfers to legal heirs. The land was given to Pir in 1992 and till 2009 there was no Darul Aloom around. He died in 2009 and after three months the property was transferred to his children.”

Majeed alleges that opponents have “forcefully” brought poor kids from remote corners of Kashmir to the seminary to keep it running. “At the moment, i guess, there must be barely 15 students enrolled. They just want to make money through it. They want the donated land back and talk of Trust is just a smokescreen,” he says.

But why didn’t police help them if the court, as he claimed, had ruled in their favour?

“I approached the police several times. Even I visited the then SSP. But they are dragging the case. Police informed the court that they failed to locate the disputed land site!”

Police, this writer talked to, said they are not authorised to talk. Off the record, however, they said the jurisdiction of the case lies with the revenue authorities. “Legally speaking, we can just provide protection but cannot evict any party,” says a police man at Police Station Pulwama.

Qayoom alleges that Majeed is siding with Mukhtar because one of his relatives, the erstwhile general secretary of the Trust, has misappropriated cash and gold that came as donation.

“He was the bank account holder on behalf of the Trust and I have evidences against him,” alleges Qayoom. “He used Rs 75 lakh of seminary money for the construction of his own house.’’

Majeed refutes these allegations.

Mukhtar, a deputy secretary in Legislative Assembly, says the land donators lack even a shred of evidence to prove that they gave land for the Trust.

“It is a 20 years old thing,” says Mukhtar, “why was the Trust not legally registered in these years? When he (Pir) was alive why didn’t they ask him to register the Trust? If the lands transfer documents were executed in 1995 why didn’t they follow it up till 2009?”

Dost Muhammad

Admitting to the existence of a “religious centre” on the site, Mukhtar said: “it is our pesha [profession] and our livelihood depends on it. Our forefathers too were part of it. We are in this business for the last 100 years or so.”

Hinting at the traditional association of certain castes with the pesha, Mukhtar says his brother-in-law is no Andrabi, but a Shah. “His claims on enrolment make no sense as the property ultimately belongs to me. They are just illegal trespassers occupying the premises against court orders,” asserts Mukhtar.

Talking strictly within the legal framework of inheritance, Mukhtar admitted selling a land plot at Druss. “Suppose I have intention to build a mosque but I die suddenly and I have legal heirs, isn’t it their choice whether they build it or not?” he asked. “His (Pir’s) intentions were indeed noble, but he couldn’t complete it, so what can one do! It is now the discretion of his legal heirs whether they want to continue their father’s mission or use it for their own purpose. Others have no business meddling in this.” He said same argument holds true for another land sale at Sombur.

Asked about his father’s intention in purchasing the Sombur land, Mukhtar explained thus: “If Mirwaiz Kashmir purchases a land that does not mean that he will necessarily build a mosque everywhere.”

“One has his family to look after also. Rohaniyat (spirituality) is fine but one has to live also.”

At ground zero, the new generation is cracking jokes. “The Pir duped the naïve peasants,” one young man, claiming to be equidistant from the warring factions, said. He, however, believed the seminary, if permitted to grow, would contribute positively to the community.

“If the Pir has transferred the seminary property to his heirs, it is a clear case of fraud,” said Tariq Ahmad, a PhD scholar and a Babhar native. “Such cases have made people increasingly wary about pir-muridi system.”

Seminary hostel.

Interestingly, the faith in Pir was unquestioned among warring factions. Village majority believes that Wasiyat must prevail.

Interestingly, the watchman Dost Muhammad’s existence is lost to the parties. He has diligently taken care of the seminary for the last 20 years, at times even sleeping empty stomach. He does not get any salary, but his solemn faith in his Pir keeps him going. Elderly Dost somehow managing a meagre sustenance, tending the kitchen garden and doing the domestic chores.

“Pir Sahib told me,” Dost said with a clear conviction in his soft voice, “If I work here, I will get great rewards in the life hereafter.”


First published in Kashmir Life on 21 June 2016: http://www.kashmirlife.net/godmans-goose-issue-14-vol-08-108835/