Monday, September 11, 2000

Beyond The Pir Panjal

Faultline Kashmir, Christopher Thomas, Brunel, Middlesex, UK
Almost every week someone somewhere publishes a book on Kashmir. This is not an exaggeration. More than 500 volumes have been published in the last ten years; as long as peace remains elusive Kashmir will continue to inspire words, words and more words. Much of what gets published is, as anyone can guess, pure drivel: usually crude propaganda, self-indulgent memoirs or tacky verse.
Journalists are often the worst offenders. A week every year at Aahdoos Hotel in Srinagar, a sharing of confidences with the waiter, a guided tour in a taxi, an off-the-record briefing by the local security chaps, a pow wow with local journalists, the mandatory aadab to the militant leader and you have the reporter from the plains, or more likely from Madras, converted into your resident Kashmir expert. Good for national integration, no doubt, but god forbid if the hack decided to extend his 600-word report into a book. The tragedy of Kashmir would be compounded, and indeed it has, several times over the last decade.
Luckily for us, Christopher Thomas is no longer a journalist. He reported for The Times (London) for 28 years (10 of those from India), but is now a full-time writer. However, Thomas is not able to easily break from his past, and there is more than just a trace of professional schizophrenia. Parts of the book are straightforward reportage, fluent but predictable and not new for anyone who has followed Kashmir over the 1990s. The valuable parts, however, are the historical chapters that suggest that Mr Thomas's scholarship has gone beyond the newspaper clippings department of The Times.
Though so much has been written on Kashmir, much of it covers the same ground; a vast terrain remains unexplored. Few biographies exist of the central protagonists of the Kashmir saga. We have to be grateful to Thomas for providing rich insights into the personalities of two of them: Hari Singh Bahadur, the last Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir, and Sheikh Abdullah, the foremost leader of modern Kashmir.
Often caricatured in most accounts of Kashmir, Mr Thomas writes about the last Maharajah with a greater sense of balance. Hari Singh, it is often forgotten, was a pioneering social reformer and a ruler who challenged British authority with greater gall than most of his contemporaries. Sheikh Abdullah, who has been lionised in most accounts, emerges as a more complex person.
Thomas even claims, based on his interview with Abdullah's former press advisor Amin Pandit, that the Sher-e-Kashmir received substantial Pakistani funding after his dismissal in 1953. Said Pandit: "Messages would arrive [that] so many eggs had been sent." An "egg" meant 100,000 rupees. In sum, Thomas has provided us with a readable, if eccentric, account of the tragedy of Kashmir.

(Source: Outlook, 11/09/00)

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