Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Interview with Nyla Ali Khan

A new scholastic work on Kashmir, “Islam, Women and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan” is a book, first of its kind written by any Kashmiri woman scholar who goes through hundreds and thousands of pages of history, travels across length and breadth of the state and revisits the hearts and minds of the key players and eye witnesses to tell the world the story of Kashmir. The Author, NYLA ALI KHAN, until recently a Professor of English at University (now on move to Oklahoma University) in United States, says her book is a tribute to the resilient spirit of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. In an interview to ZAFAR CHOUDHARY, the author talks about the motivation behind this book and the work she plans to carry on Kashmir in near future. Here are excerpts:

Since your book “Islam, Women and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan” hit the bookstalls, it is being described by readers and reviewers as first of its kind. First in depth study by a woman…. first thorough study of the tragedy of Kashmir” etc. How is it first of its kind?

Although there is a plethora of richly nuanced books on the complexity of the Kashmir issue, Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir, is the first book written by a Kashmiri woman from an interdisciplinary perspective seeking to challenge the hegemony of statist versions of history and foreground the versions of history that have been relegated to the background. My book, Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan is a labour of love into which I put my heart and soul. It is an interdisciplinary work in which I have deployed not just literary analysis but political critique; history as a revisionist project; erosion of the cultural syncretism of J & K; significance of retrieving our rich cultural heritage and building a whole new edifice on our legacy; role of lay women during the awakening of nationalist sentiment in J & K in 1931, during the resurgence of the separatists movement in 1989, the increase in gender violence because of the brutal militarization of the State; and finally, the nuclearization of J & K. I have used self-reflexive and historicized forms, drawn on my heritage and kinship in Kashmir in order to explore the construction and employment of the Kashmiri political and cultural landscape, and gender in secular nationalist, religious nationalist, and ethnonationalist discourses in J & K.

In my book, I seek in the collision of modernity and communal memory a horizontal relationship producing intersectional spaces between different cultural realities, times, and ways of reflecting upon the construction of my own subjectivity. I have tried to underscore the dire need to retrieve and renew contact with our national culture but also recognize the dangers of mythologizing historical and cultural pasts. Acknowledging our complicity in oppression, reconceptualizing paradigmatic structures, and mobilizing cultural and political coalitions is riddled with conflict but it is the need of the day for us to engage in these processes, in doing which I have employed all my energies.

It appears, unlike most of the members of your family, you are scholar first and then anything else. What was the primary motivation for writing this book?

First off, the interdisciplinary approach in my book is designed to help readers think critically and constructively about the ethical implications of various approaches to research selection, evidence gathering techniques, inextricable link between social power and structures of inequity, and the production of knowledge. The reprehensible endeavours of the Indian and Pakistani establishments to rewrite history impelled me to undertake the book-length study of the politically tumultuous situation in the state of J & K which has led to an increase in gender-based violence. In my book I have made an honest attempt my to provide my interviewees with a legitimate forum at which they voice their political, cultural, and social ideologies without fear of reprisal or erasure. The ethnographic field research, which I undertook, was a method of seeking reconnection by simultaneously belonging to, and resisting, the discursive community of traditional Muslim Kashmiri and Gujjar rural women. I was further motivated by the desire to critically observe the sociopolitical discourse in Kashmir through from the margins instead of from an elitist center. My goal was to engage in reflective action as an educator working with diverse cultural and social groups. I wanted to examine the systems that have generated the culture of silence, in which the political elite has been complicit.

“…… Kashmir: Between India and Pakistan”, the title clearly suggests Kashmir a victim, in equal parts, of India and Pakistan. This is contrary to the popular perception, at least in Kashmir valley. Your comments

Kashmir is a parchment on which various discourses, nationalist, ethnonationalist, secular nationalist, Islamist, militaristic, have been inscribed and reinscribed for several decades. Since the dawn of the Independence and Partition of India, the aspirations of the people of J & K have gone unheard in the cacophony of the vacuous political rhetoric voiced by Indian and Pakistani mainstream politicians, who have made no bones about their myopic political agendas and political strings attached to any developmental aid given to J & K. The long history of discriminatory treatment of the populace of J & K, the discriminatory nature of which was further aggravated by the visibility of their perceived difference of, has created a negative self-image in many Kashmiris, which hasn't been redressed by the militarization of the region. Kashmiris have time and again attempted to chart a viable course in the choppy waters of duplicitous subcontinental politics but have always been subjected to political and social constraints. We still have a long way to go in recognizing the dire consequences of trauma brought on by political turmoil, military brutality, the dadagiri of militias and paramilitary divisions of the police, and fear psychosis created by such happenings. There are people who do not have recourse to the judicial and administrative machinery. It is unfortunate that the more unaccountable state-sponsored agencies have become in J & K, the more aloof and gluttonous our bureaucratic, military, and administrative machinery has become. The culture of impunity has grown around India and Pakistan like nobody's business. Given the reality of the two nation-states, I emphasize that it is upto us, the people of J & K, to bring about restitution in a war-weary and battle-ravaged society. We cannot confuse the idea of the nation with the practices and power of the nation-states of India and Pakistan.

You have depended significantly on the oral history. You met people and have named them. After all your family is also an essential part of Kashmir's history. Who do you relied most (in the family) on in gathering information for your work.

History is not a seamless narrative in which all the pieces effortlessly fit together. On the contrary, History with a capital “H” is replete with gaps, omissions, erasures, and strategic manipulations. The use of oral history in my book addresses the complex ways in which challenges to an established or state-sponsored discourse might be voiced from the periphery, which recognizing the power of centrist discourses to defang the theory and practice of resistance.

While researching I was fortunate to have access to the priceless archival material collected by my maternal uncle Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, who was a young and zealous political activist during the heyday of the Plebiscite movement and was persecuted during the autocratic repression of the autonomous status of J & K. He has a well-developed sense of the various historical discourses, dominant and peripheral, which have been inscribed, erased, and reinscribed on the political and sociocultural matrices of Kashmir. I also talked with Ghulam Mohammad Shah sahib about the nationalist awakening in J & K in the 1930s and later the duplicitous policies implemented by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his ilk to break the revolutionary spirit in the State. My mother, Suraiya Ali Matto, who spent invaluable time with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah sahib while he was in externment in Kodaikanal from 1965 until 1968, reminisced about that period. Last but not least, my father, Mohammad Ali Matto, was generous with the scholarly materials in his library and enriched me with narratives of the consciousness movement, beautifully interweaving the personal with the political and social.

One of the good things about you book is that it originates from margins and touches upon perspectives of varied hues. You are essentially from elitist background. How you have able to keep yourself away from your background in leading with objectivities.

Working on my book enabled me to critically appraise political, cultural, and social discourses which my locations of privilege hadn't allowed me to question previously. I have been conscious of the limited representations in some other works on Kashmir which reflect the power relations between those who represent and those who are represented. For me, my maternal grandfather, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah sahib, has always been a larger than life figure, whom I revere. I question some of his political decisions but am fully cognizant of the collision of the ideas of self-determination, identity, and unity propounded by the young members of the Reading Room Party and the Plebiscite Front with the brutal force and suppression wielded by the Indian and Pakistani nation-states. I have appraised not just the history of the Kashmiri nationalism dominated by the elite but I have carefully looked at the politics of the people and the political mobilization engendered by such politics. Popular mobilization in J & K during the 1930s and 1940s took the form of uprisings, which was a primary locus of political action. This potent political resistance was led by people like Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, Chauhary Ghulam Abbas, Mirza Afzal Beig, Maulana Masoodi, Ghulam Ahmad Ashai, Kasap Bandhu, who did not have access to the echelons of power and spoke vociferously from the margins. Their activism made substantive forays into established discourses and structures of power. I have engaged constructively with issues of representation and knowledge production. The primary question for me is “Who is speaking and who is being silenced?,” enabling me to recognize the legitimacy of knowledge produced from the point of view of the local subject, like the vaakhs of Lalla-Ded; the cultural and religious knowledge disseminated by Nund Rishi; the determination of the women's militia in 1948; the stoicism and perseverance of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons; the conviction of the workers of political parties who maintain the vibrancy of the credo of self-determination; the collision of the idea of self-determination with military oppression on the contentious site of nationalism .

While working at such an important project on Kashmir, I find, you have missed to deal in detail with Sheikh Sahib's lately troubled relations with Nehru and the latter's betrayal of commitment on Kashmir. Isn't it?

On the contrary, I have delved into the disastrous ramifications of Nehru's volte face in 1953, which bolstered the courage of the then sadr-i-riyasat Karan Singh to unconstitutionally oust Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from office and install Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad as head of government in his stead. Abdullah's pro-independence stance received a severe blow when the dissident faction within the NC was joined by the Constituent Assembly speaker G.M. Sadiq and D.P. Dhar, a Pandit deputy minister of interior. The Soviet stance on the Kashmir issue seems to have had an influence on this group. The fall-out of this rift was the dismissal of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as prime minister by the titular head of state, Karan Singh, and his arrest under a law called the Public Security Act. Abdullah would be shuttled from one jail to the next for the next twenty-two years, until 1975. This coup was authorized by Nehru.

Subsequent to his arrest, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad was installed as prime minister. A few days later, Abdullah loyalists including Mirza Afzal Beg, were also arrested under the Public Security Act. Bakshi's de facto regime was given some semblance of legitimacy by being formally ratified by members of the NC general council and Constituent Assembly delegates in specially convened sessions. In September 1953, Nehru, who earlier had underscored Abdullah's importance to the resolution of the Kashmir issue, did a political volte face: he justified Abdullah's undemocratic eviction from office before the Indian parliament by asserting that the latter had “autocratic” methods which resulted in the loss of the majority of his cabinet and had caused trauma to the electorate. Despite his political maneuvers, Nehru and his ilk were unable to provide democratic justification for Abdullah's shoddy removal from office. The well-planned coup in Kashmir that led to Abdullah's prolonged detention, mass arrests of his loyalists, and fabricated shows of loyalty to the new regime, unveiled the strategies deployed by New Delhi as manipulative measures that lacked political and ethical legitimacy.

I met with the former Sadr-i-Riyasat, Karan Singh, at his quasi-regal home in New Delhi in the summer of 2007. Fortunately, he was willing to answer the questions I had regarding the 1953 coup. He was also gracious enough to give me a copy of his autobiography in which he has unapologetically written about his role in that hideous manifestation of political wiliness and despotism. When I asked Karan Singh whether his office had entailed work of political import, he averred that subsequent to the 1953 coup, his was the only office that enjoyed constitutional legitimacy.

Contrary to what Karan Singh would have one believe, the dismissal of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah's de jure regime and installation of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad's plunged the Valley into moral and political turpitude, which reverberated in later years. I have quoted the current General Secretary of the National Conference, Sheikh Nazir Ahmad, in my book, according to whom the events of 1953 drastically altered the political landscape of Indian administered J & K. Abdullah's dismissal and subsequent incarceration engendered an irreparable distrust between the populace of the state and the government of India. I reiterate that Nehru had been cast in the mold of the deceiver.

There is quite informative and analytical approach (in your book) to the story of elections in Kashmir and hints on New Delhi's deals in fixing up governments in Srinagar. Statistics are there but such analysis is missing in case of 2002 elections when regime was changed through elections billed as the fairest in history of J&K. Would you like to explain that here!

I have written about the complicity of the Farooq Abdullah led National Conference with the Congress as well as with the BJP, which led to the erosion of the mass base of the NC and also to the alienation of grass roots level workers of the NC. I have been very clear about the deleterious effects of the disconnect between the NC top brass and marginalized workers, which led to the routing of the NC and the rise of a previously obscure political organization, the PDP, in the 2002 elections. I was in the Kashmir valley a couple of months before that election in which the NC suffered a miserable and humiliating defeat.

As far as the claim about the 2002 elections being the fairest in the history of J & K goes, I have my doubts because by then the Centre had very carefully made fissures not just in the mass base of the NC but also in the autonomy of the election process. National and local Newspapers reported despicable attempts at intimidation and coercion by Indian paramilitary troops. According to a rather dubious claim by Indian authorities, the voter turnout in Baramullah district had been forty percent and fifty-five percent in Kupwara district. These figures, however, include voters who were coerced to exercise their franchise. Interestingly, almost a million and a half citizens entitled to vote are just not registered and are, therefore, not included when estimating these figures. Apparently, women didn't participate either in large numbers or enthusiastically in these elections. There were districts, however, in which the voting was impartially carried out. The politicization that was palpable in Kashmiri-speaking areas hadn't occurred either in predominantly Gujjar or Ladakhi constituencies, which did not harbor the antipathy toward the Indian State and its institutions as a large section of the Kashmiri Muslim population did.

You have laid huge emphasis on the dangers associated with the ideas of (any) division of Jammu and Kashmir on ethnic, regional or religious lines. This is what every saner soul says but entire talk ends up in Kashmir valley alone. Jammu and Ladakh are already feeling not only alienated but also suffocated in these two regions' power negotiations with Kashmir. 'Stakeholders' and opinionated experts often say problem is all about Kashmir because sufferings are centered in valley alone. Any one making a case of Jammu and Ladakh is seen as somebody lacking sense of history and may be regional chauvinist. Despite strongly advocating unity of regions, your book also refuses to go much beyond boundaries of the valley. I am asking this lengthy question because your book has not been taken as yet another book as Kashmir. You may like to answer the regional questions.

Sir Owen Dixon, the United Nations representative for India and Pakistan, noted in 1950 that the Kashmir issue was so tumultuous because Kashmir was not a holistic geographic, economic, or demographic entity but, on the contrary, was an aggregate of diverse territories brought under the rule of one Maharajah. Sir Owen Dixon propounded the trifurcation of the state along communal or regional lines or facilitating the secession of parts of the Jhelum Valley to Pakistan. Despite the bombastic statements and blustering of the governments of India and Pakistan, the Indian government has all along perceived the inclusion of Pakistani administered Jammu and Kashmir and the Northern Areas in India as unfeasible. Likewise, the government of Pakistan has all along either implicitly or explicitly acknowledged the impracticality of including predominantly Buddisht Ladakh and predominantly Hindu Jammu as part of Pakistan. The coveted area that continues to generate irreconcilable differences between the two governments is the valley of Kashmir. Despite such obstructions, Sir Owen Dixon remained determined to formulate a viable solution to the Kashmir issue and suggested the a plebiscite be held only in the Kashmir valley subsequent to its demilitarization, which would be conducted by an administrative body of United Nations officials. Although, separatist movements have been surfacing and resurfacing in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Pakistani administered Kashmir since the accession of the state to India in 1947, the attempt to create a unitary cultural identity bolstered by nationalist politics has been subverted by regional political forces. The culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse population of Indian and Pakistani administered Jammu and Kashmir has been unable to reach a consensus on the future of the land and the heterogeneous peoples of the state. The revolutionary act of demanding the right of self-determination and autonomy for Indian administered Jammu & Kashmir has not been able to nurture a unity amongst all regional groups and socioeconomic classes. Due to the regional sentiments that are so well entrenched in the psyche of the people, the attempt to create a unitary identity is still in a volatile stage. The symbols of nationhood in the former princely state, flag, anthem, and constitution, have thus far been unable to forge the process of nationalist self-imagining.

My book, Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir, is about the militarization of Jammu and Kashmir which has undermined the syncretic ethos of the State, not just the Valley. I am completely opposed to the attempts of Indian and Pakistani mainstream historians to underscore ethnic, religious, and regional divides in their explications of the Kashmir conflict. For this particular project I conducted field work only in the Valley but hope to expand my work by conducting field work in Jammu and Ladakh as well.

Any differences one could have marked in the book if author were not the granddaughter of first prime minister of Kashmir.

Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir has been written by a Kashmiri Muslim woman academic who teaches at an American university and has a deep emotional investment in Kashmir. I am a writer who wants the recognition of the right to my opinion; the right to stand up for myself and be taken seriously; the right to express my anger without being labeled an 'Islamic militant;' the right to legitimately question things I don't understand; the right to peace of mind; the right to dream and to go after my dreams; the right to seek more spiritual awareness without being labeled a 'heretic;' to feel confident, secure, and peaceful. I just happen to be the granddaughter of the first Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

There has always been curiosity among readers to know about the authors. Would you like to tell us about the choice of your career, route to Amar Singh College, the journey to University of Nebraska and what is ahead?

After completing my schooling in Kashmir, I joined the English Honours Program at Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. My three years at LSR, 1990-1993, are memorable because of the enriching opportunities I got to interact and learn from erudite educators. I was an avid reader and a responsive student, but an unfocused examinee. I had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the courses at LSR whetted my appetite for the idyllic and ornate world of canonical English literature. After completing my B.A. at LSR, I went on to pursue my Masters in English Literature at the University of Delhi, South Campus. The two years at DU were uneventful, rather banal, and not as growth oriented as I would have liked them to be. Most students just went through the motions and learned by rote, which did nothing for one's creativity or critical thinking. Subsequently, I taught at Maulana Azad women's College, Srinagar, as an ad hoc lecturer for about a year and a half. The pedagogical experience afforded to me at the women's college enabled me to work on pedagogical skills, collegiality, communicating with students, and made all the reading that I had done seem useful. I realized that I wanted to establish myself in academia and that motivated me to move to the U.S., unfamiliar territory, in order to pursue a Masters and a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature and Theory at the University of Oklahoma, Norman. I realized my full potential at the University of Oklahoma, where I worked with some wonderful scholars and experts in their respectable fields. While working on my Masters and Doctorate, I taught two full-fledged classes giving me hands-on training as an educator. My work became a lot more purposeful, goal-oriented, and politically motivated. I came into my own as a writer, scholar, and teacher. It was incredible to discover that literature and politics were inextricably intertwined. My Ph.D. dissertation, The Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, was published as a book by Routledge in 2005. I was hired as an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska-Kearney soon after I completed my Doctorate in 2004. I teach courses on non-western literature and World literature at UNK, where I am now an Associate Professor. I will teach at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, which is a research university, in spring 2010 (Inshallah!).

You have said this book is first in the series. Can you give is some ideas about what is pipeline and when do we expect that.

Working on Islam, Women, and the Violence in Kashmir was emotionally exhausting, physically grueling, and required a lot of soul searching, but it was extremely rewarding. Currently, I am teaching three courses at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, which doesn't leave much time for research. But my book is going to be reprinted in the U.S. by Palgrave Macmillan (Inshallah!), for which I need to make some revisions. I hope to begin work on a cross-disciplinary anthology on Jammu and Kashmir to which I have requested academics from the State to contribute.

(Zafar Choudhary is Editor of Epilogue Magazine and can be reached at epilogue@epilogue.in)

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