Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Book Review: Kashmir, The Wounded Valley

Many years ago, Neha and I were walking around Santa Rosa in Northern California. We came across a used bookstore where the owner was listening to some good blues, and improvising with a harmonica. It was a perfect setting. We entered the store and found some very interesting books. Some of these books have been impossible to find elsewhere.

Today's review is about one book from that store. The book is "Kashmir, The Wounded Valley", by Ajit Bhattacharjea.

The book is a condensed history of the Kashmir valley. It starts around 700AD, when authoritative written record begins, and continues on till 1992. It is an insightful read. Written in an easy style, Ajit takes the reader through time in Kashmir's history. Entirely factual, and entirely gripping, the book has the pull of a crime thriller rather than the yawn of history books. It is even more chilling when you realize that all the events occurred. And when you turn to the evening news, you realize that we are still living with the repercussions.

Two things struck me when reading the book.
  1. The valley has had mismanagement and cruel monarchs. Few rulers have cared for the well-being of their people. Dynasties follow a predictable pattern. The first monarch in a dynasty is an aggressive conqueror, or a cunning statesman. The second is a benevolent and able leader. Successive leaders are selfish, greedy, and insensitive to the needs of the people. Few monarchs have focused on improving education or living conditions. As a result, the people have suffered greatly and their lot has worsened over the years. Even before the British Raj, the condition of the people was miserable.
  2. The people are surprisingly resilient, and a little gullible. Kashmiris have a liberal outlook towards life. Most Kashmiris converted from Hinduism and Buddhism to Islam willingly. The benevolent influence of liberal sufis struck a chord among the liberal Kashmiris. Culture played a bigger role than religion in their life. All through the turmoil of Mughal India, Kashmir had peaceful co-existence among Hindus and Muslims. The gullibility of the people leads to their willingness to be ruled and oppressed. And it shows in the lack of popular uprising to demand better rights and better living conditions. They supported outsiders to overthrow the existing monarch, only to find the new boss was same as the old boss. Even when democracy was at hand, they did not demand their rights aggressively. As a result, leaders turned into tyrants, ignoring the needs of the people and holding Kashmir back from fully awakening.
The book also explains how Kashmir became a contentious issue between India and Pakistan, and the mistakes that led us there. The book is impartial: it points out mistakes on all sides. The ruler of Kashmir, Hari Singh, refused to make a concrete decision on joining either side. He had hopes of staying independent despite the impossibility of such an arrangement for Kashmir. Rulers of India and Pakistan refused to give the Kashmir issue the importance it deserved. And as we have seen countless times before, administrative incompetence and widespread corruption made a bad situation worse. Heavy-handed actions by the central government, corruption by well-known people, and a lack of respect for the people's needs alienated an entire state. The people started out amicable to India, eager to strengthen ties with the land of Nehru and Gandhi. Over years, all good will was squandered, culminating in the excesses of the armed forces. Warm friends turned into bitter enemies.

A small bruise festered into an open sore, leading to much pain and hardship for both countries for over fifty years. Over time, that pain has spread through both countries. It has led to war and terrorism.

This book should be a required reading for every Indian and Pakistani student. It has valuable lessons for future statesmen. Due to mortal follies, a place with heavenly beauty has been turned into a dark hell. Having deteriorated so far, it is debatable if the situation will ever improve. If a workable remedy exists, knowing how we got into this mess is the first step towards it.