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Revival of Pluralism in Kashmir: Not an Outdated Concept

I have always viewed Kashmir as a palimpsest on which there are several overlapping discourses, most of which have valid historical and theoretical contexts. Several academics and scholars are contemplating the study of the ancient and modern history of the Kashmir region as a discrete political and cultural entity, as well as its unique and crucial role in global and South Asian politics and culture.

Somewhere along the way the rich historical trajectory and multilingual narrative tradition of Kashmir have been relegated to the realm of oblivion by colonial, orientalist, and nationalist, some ultra right-wing, productions of history. The ugly scars of insurgency, counter insurgency, mass exodus, displacement, dispossession, and despair have underscored brutal aspects of the history of Kashmir, while consigning aspects of the historical and sociocultural evolution of Kashmir, which did not conform either to colonial, statist, or insurgent agendas, to the catacombs of history.

Several historical narratives, textual, oral, and aural were designed to enable the people of Kashmir to take charge of their social and political destinies. Storytellers, performers, folklorists, hagiographers, and historiographers were able to wield temporality and spatiality as powerful tools and challenge the imposition of history on them. In this process of national self-imagining, I would point out, allegory could be taught to re-create and preserve a jeopardized way of life. Post-independence narrative is characterized in this work as well as in some others as the rewriting of history and the creation of the symbols of nationhood. The causal narrative in this kind of framework imparts resolvability to a disharmonious history. The effect of myth and folklore enabled, in the Kashmir context as in other postcolonial contexts, a metaphoric entry for popular culture into the plot, eroding colonial and orientalist histories. The Kashmiri storyteller, performer, historiographer employed the process of tropes and imaginative usage to create the postcolonial world. The array of neologisms and innovations that such writing and telling drew on reconstructed the normative form. This insertion of language variance incorporated and foregrounded cultural differences, challenging essentializing and universalizing readings of texts with respect to social and cultural forces.

The adaption of the dominant languages, Sanskrit and Persian, into a vernacular form, Kashmiri, exemplified the creation of subjectivity. This is compatible with Michel Foucault’s analysis of subjectivity as historically constructed, which I have employed in my work. Foucault’s analysis of subjectivity as constructed by various discourses of power, which vie with each other to control it through systems of domination, applies to the subjectivity of Kashmiris as well. The individual, I would emphasize, is determined by ideological discourse which establishes identity as an outcome of these factors. Various discourses are produced by those who rule the roost in order to circumscribe the subject by producing and inscribing “reality” on the parchment of knowledge and truth, emphasizing the need for a historiographic study.

In the context of Kashmir, the détente between intertextual linguistic, historical, and storytelling traditions to form a national consciousness annuled the cartography of empire, Mughal, Afghan, Sikh, and Dogra, as this historiography highlights. This is aptly reflected in Gloria Anzaldua’s theory of language, which I delved into years ago, as an equation to which people connect their identities. The insertion of language variance diminished the marginalized status of the “other.” In its evolved form, Kashmiri folklore established itself as an oppositional discourse that did not unquestioningly accept the dominance of the norm. Syntactic fusion in the telling/ performing of history was compiled from a vast array of cultural influences which, successfully, reinscribed categories that were officially sanctioned. The Kashmiri postcolonial storyteller, bhanddastaan goh, and ladishah, creates a site, even today, on which indigenous thought patterns, structures, and rhythms are accompanied by the delineation of an alternative reality.

My education has taught me that there are no value free judgments. Historical and political judgments, inevitably, get distorted by an inability to recognize the biases that result from one’s own location in time and space. Unlike some people, I do not think that Kashmiriyat is an “outdated academic concept.” On the contrary, my position is that Kashmiriyat or pluralism, like any other idea lives its ideational life in a particular historical and political context, to which it not only lends itself but also derives meaning in return. It is a concept which is generative and has been used to articulate political aspirations. This significant concept does not attempt to simplify the complexity of religious, social, and cultural identities. At a time of political and social upheaval in the state, this notion engendered a consciousness of place, territory, and culture that offered a critical perspective from which to formulate alternatives to ultra right-wing nationalist discourses. In the polarized and fragmented society and polity of Kashmir, the concept of a syncretic identity or “Kashmiriyat” can be effectively employed to name a cultural alterity through the nation, and create a situation in which the nation-states of India and Pakistan are forced to confront an alternative epistemology.

The younger generation of Kashmiris has been disfigured by the inability of global consumer culture, the national security apparatus and nation-states, either secular or theocratic, to recognize their political, socioeconomic and cultural aspirations. This generation of Kashmiris is war-weary, embittered, and despondent. I would venture to say that we, Kashmiri Muslims as well as Kashmiri Pandits, crave a world in which social justice, political enfranchisement, cultural pride, and self-realization are the order of the day. I yearn for a world in which the living tradition of legends, myths, fables of yore, is resuscitated, reviving the imaginative life of Kashmir. Myths and legends have, historically, been the collective expression of a people’s identity, enabling them to voice their cultural reality. Haitian writer, Jacques Stephan Alexis articulates the potency of myths and magic more convincingly than I, “The treasure of tales and legends, all the musical, choreographic and plastic symbolism, all the forms of Haitian popular art are there to help the nation in accomplishing the tasks before it.” The recuperation of a culture, the reinvigoration of Kashmir’s rich heritage, and the revival of Kashmir’s mythos, might not heal the greatly mauled body politic overnight, but it would certainly provide a much needed step in the right direction.

In the greatly circumscribed “narrative public space” of contemporary Kashmir, folklorists and storytellers don’t enjoy the free rein that they did years ago, which is why multigenre, multivalent and layered narratives would provide a much needed breath of fresh air. Also, Jammu and Kashmir is a conglomerate in which regional, communal, and ethnic divides have been exacerbated in the wake of the recent Assembly elections in the state. My primary interest is to ensure that future generations of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir do not forget, which is why I emphasize that these seemingly unbridgeable chasms underline the need for interdisciplinary academic interventions that seek to bridge the divide between the three parts of the state as well as explore historical linkages with parts of the state in Pakistan. And, I reiterate, there are no value free judgments.

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Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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