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Writing Histories in Conflict Zones

How does one write histories in a conflict zone, especially where the State makes it difficult to access materials related to the subject being studied? While we have good tools for writing about past conflicts, those tools do not apply to regions like Kashmir, which are currently witnessing conflict.


Writing Histories in Conflict Zones

Idrees Kanth

How does one write histories in a conflict zone, especially where the State makes it difficult to access materials related to the subject being studied? While we have good tools for writing about past conflicts, those tools do not apply to regions like Kashmir, which are currently witnessing conflict.

Idrees Kanth ( is a doctoral student at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

How many of our historians in the tradition of Gibbon have laboured to examine and digest all the extant authorities, afterwards to select the material from immaterial, then to finally tell the whole “true” [emphasis mine] long story, making each personage and every fact fall into proper place so as to give unity and perspective to the whole. It is painful to state, but it is a stark truth, none of our contemporary historians have made an effort to put events in the right perspective …It is not only distortions but lies about medieval history of Kashmir that are being international-ised…They have coined all derogatory words for the resistance movement started by Kashmiris in 1931…If a Scottish [William Dalrymple] who fell in love with dusty Delhi and took the world on an odyssey to Mughal India, why cannot our historians fall in love with their own land and give an “unbiased” [emphasis mine] history of Kashmir to the world.

Let there be a people’s history of what has happened during these 17 years. Let educated class here take the initiative. They just have to write facts and our fact is so strong that we don’t need any exaggeration. Thus there will be something concrete for the posterity. On the partition of the subcontinent there are hundreds of books...Holocaust is still fresh in the memories of people of every region. The credit for it should be given to Jews...They didn’t miss anything. And there is a lesson for educated class of Kashmir in it, and if they failed to do something concrete now, then there will be nothing for coming generations.1

he two quotes above, drawn from Kashmir’s most popular local daily, manifests the anxiety and historical consciousness of a community (Muslims) that is claiming rights for itself. What has emerged in Kashmir today is the idea of a “distorted past” and the need to write “factual history” and moreover to document that history to create an archive for posterity. The need to document Kashmir history has also stemmed from an associated anxiety embedded in a feeling that “Kashmiri culture” is waning under the influence of modernity. But what makes the task of archiving or writing histories of Kashmir a most difficult exercise is not only the constraints imposed by the conflict situation in the region, but more importantly the lack of accessibility to records and institutional support.

Focusing itself on the content and practice of history writing in Kashmir, this short essay seeks to evaluate the themes that engage local scholars and new generation writers of the region, and the challenges that confront historians as they attempt to

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Economic & Political Weekly


write the histories of modern Kashmir. In the course of the essay I intend to answer a question: what explains the sustained interest and engagement of Kashmiri people with their own past, especiall y over the last two decades?

But before I begin to discuss the content of history writing in contemporary Kashmir, I would briefly like to dwell on the issue s of the archive. Generally, the archives of most princely states are not well catalogued and preserved, and hence not easily available as the colonial ones. In most cases officials in princely states treated the documents they generated during their ministerial tenure as personal property and removed them when they left office. Many princes were equally reluctant to place documents that they deemed personal or politically dangerous in any archiv e (Ramusack 2004: 10).

However, the situation with Kashmir archives is even worse. The repositories, both in Delhi, at the National Archives of India (NAI), and in Srinagar in Kashmir Valley, are either scanty on the material or unwilling to give access to anything relate d to the subject, owing to “security concerns”. In Kashmir especially, much of the material is missing from the archives and the press and information department, and whatever very little is available is unprocessed and hence very difficult to be made use of. At the NAI, the 30-year declassificatio n rule does not apply to region s like Kashmir and no access is give n to any documents beyond 1924. But why 1924 is chosen as the cut-off date defie s explanation. An equally serious challenge has been posed by the two decades of ongoin g conflict in Kashmir. While the conflict has accentuated the historical consciousness of Kashmir’s local populace and has drawn many among the young to study history, it has also made it difficult for aspiring historians of Kashmir to conduc t sustained research. Many librarie s have been burnt and many importan t records displaced as the state has even more consciously sought to withhold informatio n and to appropriate popula r narratives.

These constraints and the sustained lack of any institutional support have imposed particular conditions on the researche r and perhaps may explain why academic and scholarly histories of moder n Kashmir barring a few exceptions have not quite seen the light of the day. What we have instead is a surfeit of works

by journalists, policymakers, upcoming writers, etc, concerned with the incidents surrounding the events of 1947, or of the emergence of political consciousness among Kashmiris in contemporary times (Akbar 1991; Puri 1993; Bhattacharjea 1994; Jha 1996; Singh 1996; Joshi 1999; Joshi 2008; Devadas 2007). These account s inevitably lead to teleological inter pretations with a focus on explaining the genesis of the current crisis in Kashmir while being oblivious to the critical relationship between history, identities and nationalism. While this corpus of writing may claim to be useful, nonetheless it cannot be termed historical scholarship.

Suppression of the Local

In the past, histories and accounts of Kashmir as written by its own people have gene rally tended to give expression to the continued suppression of the local community by “outsiders” over many centuries. Most of these accounts are woven around how the Mughals, the Afghans, the Sikhs, the Dogras, have occupied Kashmir at various points in its history, and perpetrated violence over its people. In such narratives, the people have usually remained undifferentiated, while internal forms of hierarchy and its impact on the social structure have been relatively un examined. This attribution of violence as being exogenous has sustained the communitarian narrative in local Kashmiri writings, and manifests a deep urge among Kashmiris to be seen as apart from other people. In the post-1989 period this consciousness has become more pronounced and has witnessed a surge in indigenou s writing and an unprecedented interest in things native.

Much of this contemporary writing and discourse is overtly political in its theme and appeal, as Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims engage with the past to legitimise their respective claims in the present. A good example of this discourse is how the events of 19312 are narrativised today. While the Muslim commentators eulogise 1931 as the inauguration of their struggle for a free Kashmir, most Pandit accounts see these events as the beginning of their suppression by the Muslim community.

This has accentuated religious identities and in the process the boundaries of the two communities have become more defined and circumscribed. At another level, this engagement with the past has also fashioned a manifest concern for preserving the Kashmiri language and way of life, and words like culture, tradition and heritage have become part of the everyday lexicon. Almost every day the local newspapers carry write-ups on Kashmir’s histor y and the need to document it as the historian is called upon to perform his presumed duty towards his “homeland”: the historians should “fall in love with their own land and give an unbiased history of Kashmir to the world”.3

My contention is that community and claims (claim to rights) dialectically shape each other, and in the process the past is called upon as a reference point to substantiate these claims in the present. While this may not be always so, a community’s claim to rights is generally linked up with the notion of a singular and a particular past. Conversely it is through this process that a community survives as a self- conscious entity and the discourse on rights is sustained. So one can say that community, claims and the conception of singular (particular) past are interlinked. In many ways, the Kashmiri community and the associated narratives are a manifestation of this phenomenon.

Yet this engagement with the past cannot be seen only in instrumental terms as politically motivated to sustain the claim of a putative Kashmiri nation or otherwise, but also imbued with a sense of yearning for a people who have experienced rupture, violence and disharmony in their lives. While the state for long has been propagating the ahistorical idea of syncretic culture and “peaceful coexistence” (Kashmiriyat) of religious communities in Kashmir to meet its own specific agendas, many individual Pandit and Muslim narratives manifest a nostalgia and a longing for a lost familiar world of “coexistence”, a past, which may not have been always there.

This dialectic of claims and counterclaims and the call to preserve Kashmiri culture, which is perceived under threat, has not only seen a very perceptible engagemen t with the past, and a noticeable

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increase in literary output within the Kashmiri civil society, but has also helped shape “Kashmir studies” as a legitimate subject of inquiry and research, and as increasingly central to the Kashmiri popular imagination. It has also resulted in the emergence of a political community in Kashmir that seeks to legitimise its claim for rights through employing a modern political vocabulary. However, to have any deeper understanding of many of these agencies and processes that have shaped Kashmir’s social and political landscape would need historians and specifically Kashmiri historians to research and reflect on its modern and contemporary history.

Writing Histories in a Conflict Zone

This brings me to my essential question: but how does one write histories in a conflict zone especially where the state makes it difficult to access materials related to the subject being studied? While we have good tools for writing about past conflicts, those tools do not apply to regions like Kashmir which are currently witnessing conflict. The challenge is to develop a methodology for writing histories of areas where the conflict is ongoing.

One may reply in a more inquiring and reflective tone: can oral histories, memories and private records offer us an alternative? While it may not be an easy task considering the levels of mistrust in the society, oral histories certainly have the potential to challenge the assumptions, generalisations and some of the accepted narratives on Kashmir. Oral histories may provide us an insight on how pasts are imagined and constructed in popular consciousness and how self, one’s community and “the other” is visualised. Oral histories may also offer us perspectives on how common people place particular events: the significant and not so significant, in their personal lives and in the process resist its appropriation by the state and many nonstatist actors. While it may not always be a corrective to other narratives and sources,4 oral history and memory has immense significance in a place like Kashmir where communities and claims are being shaped around real and invented pasts.

Oral histories and other alternative sources certainly have the potential to make a rich archive which can provide us first-hand accounts of many recent incidents (post-1940s) in Kashmir, especially those which find little mention in official records; and by offering multiple accounts of events which are seen as accepted truths, oral narratives can add nuance to and even challenge their dominant interpretation. The “events of 1947 in Kashmir” are particularly interesting and a good case in point. What did 1947 mean to the local people in Kashmir and what importance do they ascribe to it now? It may turn out that 1947 would have different or little significance for many of them. This would be of some vital bearing, especially as 1947 occupies centre stage in many of the writings on Kashmir. Concomitantly it may also allow us to recognise the transcendence of themes, issues and concern across the “1947 divide”. Even while it sounds promising, such initiatives would require professional expertise and institutional support and that seems a bit farfetched at the moment. However, what is more conceivable for now and what would certainly help the “not so famous home grown researchers” is when the local families open up their private archives and allow access to their rich collections and priceless resources. That would certainly be a great service towards promoting Kashmir history and empowering the young historians of Kashmir.


1 “Mythology Is Not History”, Greater Kashmir, 14 May 2007; “Writing People’s History”, Greater Kashmir, 27 December 2006.

2 On 13 July 1931 21 Kashmiri Muslims were killed by the Dogra forces outside the Central Jail in Srinagar for demanding a fair trial for Abdul Qadeer a person who had come to Srinagar in the services of a European visitor as cook and made a speech which was considered seditious. The Dogras who were Hindu chieftains and claimed descent from Rajputs ruled the princely state of Kashmir from 1846-1947. They followed Sikhs, Afghans and Mughals, who together with Dogras are seen as “outsiders” who ruled Kashmir for more than three and a half centuries. 13 July 1931 thus became a marker for the first instance of defiance of the locals against the long-standing “outside rule”. On the incidents of 1931 and after, see Zutshi (2003).

3 “Mythology Is Not History”, Greater Kashmir, 14 May 2007.

4 Prachi Desphande (2007) brings this out very well in her book (Introduction, pp 3-9).


Akbar, M J (1991): Beyond the Vale (New Delhi: Viking).

Bhattacharjea, Ajit (1994): Kashmir: The Wounded Valley (New Delhi: UBSPD).

Deshpande, Prachi (2007): Creative Pasts, Historical Memory and Identity in Western India 1700-1960

(New Delhi: Permanent Black).

Devadas, David (2007): In Search of Future: The Story of Kashmir (New Delhi: Viking).

Jha, Prem Shankar (1996): Kashmir 1947 (Bombay: Oxford University Press).

Joshi, Manoj (1999): Lost Rebellion: Kashmir in the Nineties (New Delhi: Penguin).

– (2008): Kashmir 1947-1965: A Story Retold (New Delhi: India Research Press). Puri, Balraj (1993): Kashmir: Towards Insurgency (Delhi: Orient Longman).

Ramusack, Barbara (2004): The Indian Princes and Their States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p 10.

Singh, Tavleen (1996): Kashmir: The Tragedy of Errors (New Delhi: Penguin). Zutshi, Chitralekha (2003): Languages of Belonging, Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir

(New Delhi: Permanent Black), Chapter 5.









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Economic Political Weekly

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