Some insights from history can help in understanding the current political blitzkrieg in Kashmir.
Abu’l Fazl’s account of the late 16th-century conquest of Kashmir by Mughal emperor Akbar gives an uncanny sense of déjà vu, no matter from which perspective one looks at the onslaught for subjugating Kashmir by a relentlessly centralising Indian juggernaut.
The title of the celebratory chapter of the imperial ideologue’s Akbarnama, read together with detailed annexures in the A’in-i-Akbari, announces violent setting-up of a major milestone in the fast expanding Mughal power: 'The conquest of the flourishing country of Kashmir through the fortune of the Shahinshah' is the title of the chapter in question.
After briefly recounting the history of political violence in Kashmir for close to a century, especially since Akbar’s father Humayun and grandfather Babur broke on the Indian political scene and their unsuccessful attempts to properly integrate Kashmir in the emerging Mughal empire, which led to frequent massacres and loss of human resources, for which there is no lamentation, Abu’l Fazl writes: “It is an old rule that when good intention and choice action meet together in a seeker after fortune, almighty God grants him the easy realisation of every wish that he may entertain, and even spiritual and physical successes for which he has framed no wish rise up and serve those favourites of fortune who possess those two attributes (good intention and choice action).”
“Accordingly, the circumstances of the world’s lord tell of this, and this book in some measure recites the fact of the conquest of this country as a new instance”.
Thus, Akbar was able to accomplish what his father and grandfather could not.
Understandably, Abu’l Fazl, who was treated by Akbar as among his closest friends and advisors, does not provide details of horrendous violence and yet mentions different ways in which the “wicked” and “foolish” opposition were neutralised, either through winning over “untrustworthy” local collaborators or deploying massive military resources to crush any resistance.
According to him, “The soldiers prevailed over every house, and in every corner there were hot encounters (with Mughal forces taking over the rooftop of virtually every house, sar-i khane, to ensure complete acceptance of the fait accompli)”. This was achieved through systematic planning for months, followed by massive march and deployment of large contingent of the army through all the roads to Kashmir.
Abu’l Fazl relates: “Whoever knows a little about the ravines of the road to it will understand that no thought of strange conquest troubled the minds of the inhabitants. On all four sides, mountains which raise their heads to heaven act as sentinels. Though there are six or seven roads, yet a large army cannot march rapidly by them, as they can also be easily blocked”.
Once the entire countryside, major towns and historic seat of power, the “divinely” created holy city of Srinagar, were taken over, amidst reports of attacks from those still resisting and their swift and merciless shooting down, the Mughals needed legitimacy for their conquest and rule.
Writing after the conquest was secured, Abu’l Fazl notes: “At the present day that a great part of the army in Kashmir has been withdrawn, 4,892 cavalry and 92,400 infantry remain deployed”.
This is a considerable number; yet it could not have sustained the conquest if it were not projected as a legitimate continuation of Kashmir’s fabled four millennia of political achievements, with some aberrations in between. Thus, recourse was made to invoke the region’s vibrant historical traditions, resources of powerful pundits with their own traditions going back to mythical ancient past, and legitimacy sought from Muslim holy-men, one of whom, a Sufi like figure, was approached by Abu’l Fazl himself; the name of much-respected 15th-century Sultan, Zainul Abidin, was also thrown in.
Among the major work of larger political significance for communal harmony in society which the much venerated Sultan Zainul Abidin did was to ban cow-slaughter - a commendable move for Abu’l Fazl.
Further, the author informs: “When the Imperial standards were for the first time borne aloft in this garden of perpetual spring, a book called Rajatarangini written in Sanskrit language and containing an account of the princes of Kashmir during a period of some four thousand years, was presented to His Majesty.
“It had been the custom in that country for its rulers to employ certain learned men in writing its annals. His Majesty who was desirous of extending the bounds of knowledge appointed capable interpreters in its translation which in a short time was happily accomplished”.
Abu’l Fazl goes on to appropriate this history for Mughal imperial project as a continuation of Kashmir’s glorious past. Thus, according to him, a long series of 191 kings had ruled throughout a period of 4,109 years, 11 months and nine days, when Akbar took over the reins of power.
All these were listed and described with frequently provided details of enchantment with the “heavenly” crafted geography of Kashmir (mountains, rivers, lakes, gardens, fruits and flowers symmetrically presenting it as an attractive paradise on earth). This was contrasted with repeated condemnation of its people, mainly Muslims — irrespective of whether they belonged to the sects of Sunnis, Shias or Nur Bakhshis, who originated in Iraq and deviated from both Sunni and Shia beliefs, later styling themselves as Sufis.
The sectarian relations were further complicated in Kashmir with the emergence of the politically resourceful tribe of the Chaks, who were undergoing a process of religious change backed with usurpation of political power in late fifteenth and major part of the sixteenth century.
Abu’l Fazl criticises all the active groups as people who were “perpetually at strife with each other”, especially targeting the majority Sunnis and branding them as “narrow-minded conservatives of a blind tradition”. So, for Mughal conquerors, as Abu’l Fazl states, “the bane of this country is its people”, yet they were surprised that despite a large population, “thieving and begging are rare”.
Notwithstanding, the Mughal rhetoric of backwardness or the “scantiness of the means of subsistence” in Kashmir, they had found the country rich and flourishing, with Abu’l Fazl himself marveling at people living in four or more storied houses, with lavish lifestyle and animalistic consumption indicating considerable prosperity.
Statistical data provided by Abu’l Fazl and the general perception recorded by him indicate Kashmir was, indeed, a flourishing country that needed to be conquered.
All these were now politically secured, minus its condemned people, mainly Muslims; “the respectable class of pundits”, however, will be part of the new scheme of things. Clearly, the politically resourceful pundits and their high classical language, Sanskrit, is privileged.
On the other hand, Kashmiri is depoliticised and verncularised. As pointed out by Jadunath Sarkar, early 20th century’s foremost Indian nationalist historian, Kashmiri is an old vernacular language with a distinct dialect in Kishtwar, with further differences when used by Muslims and Hindus.
Sarkar writes: “Not only is the vocabulary of the former (Muslims) more filled with words borrowed from Persian, but also there are slight differences of pronunciation”. And, it is not the name used by the people of Kashmir itself. There the country is called Kashiru, and the language Koshiru.
According to Sarkar, called Kashmiri in Persian and Hindi, and derived from Sanskrit Kashmirika, “Kashmiri belongs to the Dard group of the Dardic languages, and is closely related to Shina” — Indo-Aryan language of tribes of people, especially Shina or Shin, residing in the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, Kashmir and parts of Ladakh.
Sarkar further explains, citing Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India: “Since it has been for many centuries under Indian influence, and its vocabulary includes a large number of words from India, its speakers maintain that it is of Sanskritic origin, but a close examination reveals the fact that, illustrious as was the literary history of Kashmir, and learned as have been its Sanskrit pundits, this claim of Sanskrit origin cannot be sustained for the vernacular of the latter”.
Not surprisingly, an otherwise verbose Abu’l Fazl was brief: “Although Kashmir has a dialect of its own, their learned books are in the Sanskrit language”.
Thus, the loquacious vernacular mass was maimed into complete submission. Mercifully, the conquerors announced, the famously skilled Muslim “artisans of various kinds can be deservedly employed in the greatest cities”. Conforming to the ruthless nature of the conquest, one of the first measures was to ensure the control of the revenue department directly from the centre with orders for collected revenue to be sent to imperial treasury.
Abu’l Fazl typically concludes: “Although one-third had been for a long time the nominal share of the State, more than two shares were actually taken, but through His Majesty’s justice, it has been reduced to one half”. Look at the characteristic chicanery: one-third has been reduced to half!
The logic of aggressive political aggrandisement for enjoying absolute power can be absolutely ludicrous. For Abu’l Fazl, the violent subjugation and smothering of a people is a divinely sanctioned historic moment, made possible through “good intention and choice action”. For him, any opposition, especially if it is violent, is an unacceptable and fraughtful affair, qissa-i pur-ghussa, as he liked to call it for the Afghan resistance to the setting up of the Mughal empire.
The Mughals reduced Kashmir to the status of a large district, pompously called sarkar, and attached it with the suba or province of Kabul; the city of Kabul was its capital, though Ghazna was previously the seat of power. The Mughal suba of Kabul comprised Pakli, Bimbar, Swat, Bajaur, Qandahar, Zabulistan, and Kashmir.
Will the modern moguls now aim for the larger geopolitical expansion and how? Among other things, it will involve humongous violence and large-scale destruction of human resources at the cost of which mammoth empires have always been built.
As I like to put it, conquerors eventually come down from their horses to govern with equanimity, doing justice to all, which provides legitimacy to their rule, else mindless political aggrandisement can only lead to further violence and resultant disintegration.
After aggressively conquering Rajasthan, Kashmir, Gujarat and Bengal, besides subjugating large swathes of territory across the Indian sub-continent, and subduing and shutting up almost all the contemporary claimants to political power, Akbar called for peace. He termed it: sulh-i kul, or absolute peace.
Chitralekha Zutshi has produced an excellent piece of work (2014), rising above the usual communal divide on the history of a region known for its shared cultural traditions and contested political claims.
In the language of Kalhana, Kashmir's foremost medieval historian, Zutshi's book offers shantrasa, calm reflection and realisation, in times of political abuses, cacophony and violence.
(The writer teaches history in Delhi University. His books include The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History (Penguin). A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian)