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Toheed Ahmad*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

What is not lacking (in Aziz Ahmad’s novels) is a gallery of vivid pictures of many aspects of contemporary South Asian reality, painted by one who has absorbed the positive values of the West without losing touch with those of his own native tradition.

The trouble is that hardly anyone in the West whose professional task it is to study these aspects can read what he has to tell them, while those in the West who can read Urdu well are for the most part lacking in the academic expertise of the professional historian and/or social scientist. And so important sources of study remain unutilized. For example, the problem of Kashmir is one of the major problems of the politics of the post-1945 period. An important element in the determining of the present situation was the internal political struggle of the 30s and 40s. Where can one find a vivid picture of Kashmir during those years? In Aziz Ahmad’s novel, Aag (Fire). But those who (if they knew about it) would like to read it for this purpose, can’t. And those who can read it aren’t for the most part interested in doing so for this purpose.

At this point a question naturally arises is: What about historians and social scientists in Pakistan and India who write in English but know Urdu well? Don’t they use these materials? The answer is: For the most part, No. Why not? For several reasons. First, numbers of them come in a category already described, of people who have acquired their English at the cost of letting their Urdu rust. Secondly, many of them are more English than the English –more royal than the king. In a society where conventions have for centuries been more rigid than they are in the modern West, English-derived conventions (e.g. that a novel cannot be a worthwhile source for academic studies of this kind) are observed with a rigidity which, the Western world does not apply to them. Even where non-fictional writing is concerned they think (often, but not always, rightly) that the works written in Urdu lack the scholarly qualities of works written in English, and that therefore no self-respecting scholar pays any attention to them. Even if the premise were wholly correct, (and it isn’t) the conclusion doesn’t follow from it. But there it is. They think that the premise is correct and that the conclusion does follow from it; and they act accordingly.

Where historians are concerned, another factor is at work…… one cannot put an equal sign between ‘history of India’ and ‘history of the British in India’. What various classes and groups of Indians were doing is sufficiently important to merit much more study than it has yet received. And this aspect of Indian history cannot be adequately studied without knowledge of Indian languages, among which Urdu perhaps has a wider spread than other; by which I mean that materials in Urdu treat the history and the social and cultural life of a larger area, and over a longer period, than most other Indian languages do… both Persian and Urdu source materials of the study of the 18th century and after are generally unutilised.

(Prof. Ralph Russell, ‘Aziz Ahmad, South Asia, Islam and Urdu’ in:

Islamic Society and Culture. Essays in Honour of Prof. Aziz Ahmad. Ed. Milton Israel and N. K. Wagle. Manohar, New Delhi, 1983, pp 59-68).

The Kashmir question arose in the 30s of the last century when much of the local population began to see injustice as the reason for their backwardness, poverty, disease, and misery which they started to say was the result of neglect of their Dogra rulers. There may not have been any political expression of this malaise but Urdu poets and writers articulated such simmering discontent in their poems and fiction. In this article I am not going into the history of Kashmir or talk of the plight and the various intifidas its people have launched against their ruler and against the military occupation of their land since 1947. I will also not raise any of the solutions proposed by Pakistan to resolve this long festering dispute with India. I intend to explore the reality of Kashmir as interpreted by the literati in light of Prof. Ralph Russell’s remark cited above. If literature is accepted to be the mirror of life what have the literati shown in this mirror? Ignorance of these literary realities by our foreign policy establishment, and by much of the world’s policy makers and media, is a stark fact that keeps this ‘most beautiful prison in the world’ hidden away. Not knowing the long history of the Kashmir issue, which almost runs parallel in time with the modern Palestinian question, the national struggle underway in Kashmir for at least 90 years is being branded by the West as ‘terrorism’, ‘Islamic terrorism’, ‘cross-border terrorism’, blindly adopted by the Indian establishment, which disrespects the immense sacrifices rendered by Kashmiris and results in denial of their inalienable national rights.

We shall not mention the story of local literatures in Kashmiri and the local languages, because that is a separate subject. So is the subject of Kashmir in Hindi and other Indian literatures and Kashmir in world literature including English and Chinese. Research work in these three areas would throw up much evidence to see the travails of these people of the roof of Asia. I will restrict my examination to a portrayal of Kashmir in the poetry of Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) and the Prof. Aziz Ahmad’s Urdu novel Aag (1946). My main source of information was the Department of Kashmiryat and the Urdu Department of the more than a century-old Oriental College of Punjab University where I learnt that besides these two writers, Krishan Chander (1914-1977) is considered a hero by the Kashmiri youth for his gripping portrayal of the region in his several Urdu novels and short stories. Then Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) the incomparable master of Urdu short stories set many of his stories in the backdrop of Kashmir which was his ancestral land. Hafiz Jullundhri (1900-1982) the prolific Urdu poet who wrote the lyrics for Pakistan national anthem, spent long periods of time in Kashmir and wrote many poems making the beauty and misery of Kashmir his subject. Many more poets and prose writers who sang of Kashmir are mentioned in the thesis.

The Kashmiryat Department was set up in 1987 to study the languages and literature of Kashmir. Although they have an impressive library and a body of students and faculty, more attention, and resources, are required to raise its profile and push its products out to the world. There is much research work out there that needs to be edited and translated into English and other major world languages. At their Urdu Department I got to see a doctoral thesis on ‘Urdu Literature and Kashmir’ that Ralph Russell would have wished world’s major universities and think tanks to have access to, beginning with our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs and all University Departments of Defence and Strategic Studies, which at some universities goes by the name of Peace and Conflict Studies. Of late, there has been a mushrooming of Public Policy Centres at our universities where I am afraid the standard of literacy cannot be much higher than at our foreign policy establishments. These Centres could do with copies of a thesis like ‘Urdu Literature and Kashmir’ to broaden the horizons of their faculty and students. Such literature also needs to be translated into English, making it accessible to the wider world. The doctoral thesis was completed in 2004-2009 session by Ijaz Ahmad who at that time was Lecturer at Government Islamia College, Lahore.

I consulted a 1995-97 M. Phil. thesis on the topic of ‘Iqbal and Kashmir’ in the library of the Kashmiryat Department from where I picked up most of the following. Iqbal’s ancestors were Kashmiri Brahmins one of whom converted to Islam and moved down south to Sialkot. Not only did Iqbal weave Kashmir’s natural beauty and history into his verse, he also spoke out for and participated in campaigns to highlight the freedom struggle brewing in Jammu and Kashmir. In February 1896, some elders of the Kashmiri migrant community in Lahore set up an ‘Anjuman-e- Kashmiri Muslmanaan’. At that time Iqbal had moved from Sialkot to Lahore for higher education. He also participated in the activities of the Anjuman. At that time political activities were banned in Kashmir but some Kashmiri students returned to their homes after finishing their studies at Aligarh Muslim University set up ‘Reading Rooms’ where they met frequently with friends for political discussions. In 1924, protesting workers of a silk factory near Srinagar were fired upon. Several died and many were injured. People resented this high handedness and came out onto the streets to express their indignation. The army was called out to quell these crowds by force. Such actions spread the growing popular disquiet and resentment against the Dogra rule.

Iqbal corresponded copiously with the Urdu magazines which published articles and poems on Kashmir. In a letter dated 12 March 1922 he wrote to Zahooruddin Mahjoor, a famous Kashmiri poet, “It is sad that the literature of Kashmir has been destroyed. The Sikh rule, neglect of the state government and the indolence of the Muslims are mainly responsible for this disaster. Is it not possible that the educated Kashmiris of the Valley for a Society to preserve the extant literature?”

Iqbal visited Kashmir for the first time in June 1921 when he went to Srinagar for two weeks in connection with the hearings of a court case of one of his clients. He stayed in a house boat on Dal Lake and was so moved by the natural beauty of the Valley and the sad plight of the poor and illiterate people that he composed one of his great Odes to Freedom in Persian titled Saqi Nameh from where let’s read the following few verses:

But oh! This poor Kashmiri
who In slavery born and bred,
Is busy carving idols from
The tombstones of the dead.

His mind is blank and quite devoid
Of any higher thought;
So ignorant of his own self
And by self-shame distraught.

His master goes clad in fine silk
All woven with his sweat;
But tatters, patches and rags and shreds
Are all his body’s lot.

There is not in his eye the light
Of vision that reveals,
Nor does in his bosom beat
The living heart that feels.

Come, pour a drop upon him of
Your soul-kindling wine,
And from his smoldering ashes make
A spark that leaps and shines.

(Translation from Payam-e-Mashriq at

On 14 August 1931, in response to an appeal by Iqbal, a Kashmir Day rally was held in Lahore at the end of which Iqbal delivered an address in which he said, “Until recently Muslims of Punjab and Hindustan were not fully conversant with the history of Kashmir. The recent barbarities inflicted upon Kashmiri people have woken up the people of Punjab. The throne of Kashmir and Hindu newspapers have been spreading disinformation, calling the popular unrest as rebellion’ and that these are Hindu-Muslim riots. But I reject the notion that this is communal rioting. Many Kashmiri pundits have come to me with complaints against the Dogra government. I advised them to present their demands to the government in unity with the Muslims. In truth, the political movements of Hindustan were bound to impact the people of Kashmir. So they too woke up to the plight of their neighbours. Time itself is spreading awareness among the Kashmiris’.

The posthumously published volume of his poetry called Armughan-e-Hejaz contains an interesting chapter titled ‘The verse book of Mullazada Zaighum Lolabi Kashmiri’ which comprises of 15 Urdu poems, one in Persian and a couplet each in Urdu and Persian. Mullazada Zaighum is said to be a fictitious name to whom Iqbal attributes this chapter. Lolab is a pretty valley that lies between Srinagar and Baramula. Its third poem is a haunting dirge on the misery of the Kashmiris which goes like this:

Kashmir, which yesterday the savants called Little Iran
Is now an oppressed, begging slave.
When God fearing folk bow before rulers,
The sky itself cries out in pain.
The miserable house of the old farmer nestled on mountain slopes
Is full of tales of his cruel fate.

Oh! My slow-judging Lord, when will this noble, skilled and brainy nation
See justice done to them.

(Translation by the author)

Prof. Aziz Ahmad (1914-1978) was a noted writer of long and short fiction in Urdu, an influential critic and a prolific historian of Indian Islam. After getting a BA in English in his home town of Hyderabad (Deccan) he travelled to Britain and got an honour’s degree in English Literature at London University. He returned to Hyderabad and taught English at Jamia Osmania and was later employed as Secretary to Princess Durreshehwar, an Ottoman royal who married into Hyderabad’s ruling family. Prof. Aziz accompanied her royal party for summer trips to Kashmir. He made three trips to the Valley during which he made copious notes on the life and nature he observed – the shops he saw, the city streets he visited, the congested inner city housing and the luxury mansions around Srinagar that he toured. In the bustling carpet shop called “Khawaja Ghazanfar Sikander Joo” he noted the Persian verse inscriptions woven into the carpets and epigrams engraved on jewelry pieces and tapestry cloths. All these details were included in his novel Aag (1946) which Aziz Ahmad always described as his favourite novel. In all he wrote ten novels, five collection of short stories, two books of literary criticism besides more than half a dozen history books. He started his literary career as a translator beginning with Urdu translation of a Kipling short story. His other translations included selected works of Dante, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Harold Lamb and Aristotle. Handling these masterpieces of world literature with his command over French, German, and Turkish besides Urdu, Persian and Arabic must have raised his literary vision to unparalleled heights.

Upon partition and the resultant dissolution of the Hyderabad State, he moved to Pakistan and joined the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as Advisor to the Department of Films and Publication in Karachi. It is worth mentioning that two other famous literati worked alongside him at the Department – Ms. Qurratul Ain Haider and Prof. Ahmed Ali. Later Prof. Aziz moved to London and taught Urdu for some years where he made friends with Prof. Ralph Russell. Later he went to Canada and taught at the University of Toronto’s Department of Comparative Religion where he breathed his last in 1978. His mortal remains lie buried in Toronto.

Where can one find a vivid picture of Kashmir during (the internal political struggle of the 1930s and 1940s?) In Aziz Ahmad’s novel Aag (Fire), are the words of Prof Ralph Russell which, for our purpose, bear repetition. Aag captures the soul of Kashmir society. It is the story of three generations of people living in Kashmir during the turbulent period of 35 years ending in 1942. One day, during a discussion in the Joo shop the subject of rampant poverty of Kashmiri people came up. A visiting character Mr. Zehri cries out that ‘the only solution to these problems of the country is a democratic government’. He goes on to explain, ‘By God! Khawaja Sahib, I weep at the plight of my country. My eyes shed tears of blood. The sheep, goats, horses and mules are better off than us. When badly beaten by their masters these animals sometime rebel. We humans are not even aware of our misery. Look at our hungry and destitute masses filling our streets. Such sights make my blood boil’. Mr. Zehri would then cite extracts from the lectures of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Nawab Mohsen ul Mulk to the effect that illiteracy was the major cause of our poverty and backwardness.

Khawaja Ghazanfar Joo had sent his son Sikander to Aligarh Muslim University for higher education. In an interesting contrast upon his return to Srinagar, Sikander’s taste in poetry had changed from his father’s. While in his conversation, Ghazanfar Joo continued to quote Persian verses from Hafiz Shirazi, Sikander would cite Allama Iqbal’s Urdu couplets on the plight of the Muslim Ummah and the misery of the Indian Muslim. Sikander’s son Anwar, in turn, adopts progressive thought and becomes an active supporter of the Kashmiri Muslim Conference as it opposed the Kashmiri National Conference which was inspired by the Indian National Congress and its leaders. Sikander tells a friend, “My son is getting involved in politics. I wonder what has happened to him. Now he addresses rallies of Muslim Conference and fights with Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Rahman. I too don’t like Sheikh Sahib but he is very powerful. He has taken over Hazrat Bul shrine by force. This worries me”. When his interlocutor consoles him that Anwar was young and emotional and should be allowed to play out his youthfulness, Sikander bursts out, “But he is also becoming a communist and says that there are commonalities between Islam and Communism. He pampers our servants, closes office at five pm and gives one full day a week off to all workers in our factory. He insists that nobody will work for more than six hours a day and quarrels with me when I stop him. I say to myself that after my death Anwar will inherit all that I have and then he may do as he liked. But Sir, my health is going down day by day”.

In his conversations and speeches to Muslim Conference rallies, Anwar would quote Mullazada Zaighum Lolabi’s Urdu and Persian verses as written by Allama Iqbal. Interestingly, the verses given by Aziz Ahmad in Aag are the same as given by me above. Anwar is a great admirer of Quaid-e-Azam and is often shown quarreling with those who opposed Mr. Jinnah or tried to run him down. He would read newspapers and listen to the radio to keep abreast of the tortuous negotiations between the British, Hindus and the Muslim League. Once a supporter of Indian National Congress Kaiser Singh gets into an argument with Anwar over the support of the Pakistan idea by the Communist Party of India. Saying that ‘we don’t want a Russian government in India’, Kaiser accuses the Communist Party of taking funds from the government and that their sympathy for Pakistan was because most of the leaders of the communist Party were Muslim. We see Anwar gradually being won over by the policy of Kashmir National Conference and becoming resolute in his support for the Muslim League and Quaid-e-Azam. And this while his father Sikander, like a lost generation, whiles away his leisure with women, and seems to have quickly overcome the modicum of progressive thought he had acquired at Aligarh. Some of this cultural tenacity can be attributed to his discomfort at Anwar’s large hearted progressivism which he opposed. This is subtle shift among the three Joo generations which needs a closer study which may show a pattern that was visible among Muslims throughout Hindustan. Today’s generation of Kashmiri activists can also be studied in this Joo paradigm.

Another shift occurring in the three generations portrayed in the novel is the expert knowledge of carpet making in Kashmir. Ghazanfar Joo would often impress his ‘learned and curious’ customers with his history of carpet weaving of which we are told he knew a lot. “In Kashmir there ruled a god-fearing and just king Zainul Abdeen. He was son of Sikander the Iconoclast. King Zainul Abdeen used to watch carpet making in the court of Emperor Taimur in Samarkand” he used to tell his customers. “He invited some of those carpet weavers to come to Kashmir to carry on their trade. He also invited many other workers of different vocations”. He would then ask if they had seen Mirza Haider Kashghari’s book ‘Tareekh-e-Rashid’ and would advise them to reads this outstanding history book. Mirza Haider was appointed vizier in King Zainul Abdeen’s court. In ‘Tareekh-e-Rashid’ he writes that except for Samarkand and Bokhara there are no carpet weavers left in the whole of Transoxania. But Kashmir had these weavers in abundance. He would tell them that the King also promoted other articrafts, which were later patronized during the Mughal era. If his customer happened to be a Raja of a Sikh state like Patiala, Kapurthala, Ghazanfar Joo would tell him, “Maharaja Ranjeet Singh never visited Kashmir but his governor for this region Colonel Mian Singh had a great green silk carpet woven for Ranjeet Singh. It was decorated with walnut flower buds on whose leaves you could see dew drops resting. Three great weavers wove that masterpiece. Fazal Jan, Jabbar Khan and Kamal Joo”. He would then take a deep breath and add, “I am your humble servant who has many defects and very few good qualities but I am a descendant of Kamal Joo, who was my grandfather”.

Literacy for Diplomacy requires immediate attention at our Foreign Office. Though our Foreign Service comprises of the most literate class of our civil servants, but since they operate in a globally competitive environment their literacy skills need continuous improvement. In the Global Competitiveness Index Pakistan stands in the lowest category, way below Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Iran and India, the Foreign Service has to perform at the highest level to render value to the state and justify its existence. They have to compete with the best and the brightest of recognized competitive economies in order to secure and promote Pakistan’s interests.

I recall reading about one such Literacy drive at the US State Department during the term of President Kennedy. This was nicely expressed by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in his bestselling book A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965). In a chapter titled ‘The Reconstruction of Diplomacy’, Schlesinger Jr. has a section called ‘A Note on language’ which applies in toto to our own Foreign Service. ‘The intellectual exhaustion of the Foreign Service expressed itself in the poverty of the official rhetoric. In meetings the men from the State Department would talk in a bureaucratic patois borrowed in large part from the Department of Defense. We would be exhorted to ‘zero in’ on ‘the purpose of the drill’ (or of the ‘exercise’ or ‘operation’), to ‘crank in’ this and ‘phase out’ that and ‘gin up’ something else, to ‘pinpoint’ a ‘viable’ policy and behind it, a ‘fall-back position,’ to ignore the ‘flak’ from competing government bureaus or from communists, to refrain from ‘nit-picking’ and never to be ‘counterproductive.’ Once we were ‘seized of the problem, preferably in as ‘hardnosed’ a manner as possible, we would review ‘options’, discuss ‘over-all’ objectives, seek ‘breakthroughs’, consider ‘crash programs’, ‘staff out’ policies– doing all these things preferably ‘meaningfully’ and ‘in depth’ until we were ready to ‘finalize’ our deliberations, ‘sign on to’ or ‘sign off on’ conclusions ( I never could discover the distinction, if any between these two locutions) and ‘implement’ a decision. This was not just shorthand; part of the conference-table vocabulary involved a studied multiplication of words. Thus one never talked about a paper but always a ‘piece of paper,’ never said ‘at this point but always ‘at this point in time….when the Department stopped talking and started writing… the result was far worse. Whether drafting memoranda, cables or even letters or statements for the President, the Department fell into full, ripe dreariness of utterance with hideous ease. The recipe was evidently to take a handful of clichés (saying something in a fresh way might create unforeseen troubles), repeat at five-minute intervals (lest the argument become clear or interesting), stir in the dough of the passive voice (the active voice assigns responsibility and was therefore hazardous) and garnish with self-serving rhetoric (Congress would be unhappy unless we constantly proclaimed the rectitude of American motives).

During my own days in the Foreign Service I did make attempts to draw attention towards this subject of Literacy for Diplomacy in the Foreign Ministry. In the mid 90s a series of Guest Speakers were initiated which was inaugurated by the great Prof. Dr. Annemarie Schimmel who enthralled the audience with her talk on Iqbal’s Universal Message. Then we had the pleasure of listening to Jameeluddin Aali, Zia Mohyuddin, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi, and Zamir Jaffrey who inspired us all to read more Urdu literature and also hone our language skills. Actually writing is a function of literacy, and as pointed out by Schlesinger above, the quality of work produced by the Foreign Ministry has a direct impact on the diplomacy of a country. In the next decade I was involved in a book-reading programme which was directed at the fresh entrants in the Foreign Ministry. Those who stood out in this reading for writing programme are now at the top rungs of the Service.

Today the Foreign Ministry is required to switch to using Urdu as per the government policy. May of the old truths about the competence of the Foreign Service will get phased out and new language benchmarks will need to be evolved. Reading about the world and other countries strategies and policies will still need excellent English skills while analyses and reporting may be required to be done in Urdu. So the Foreign Service will essentially need to become bilingual. And not to forget the foreign language learning requirement of our diplomats. Major world languages will still need to be learnt where the courses will require the use of English as a base language even though the teaching is done in a direct method. This is a difficult transition and will have to be handled competently. We should aim to producing a bilingual Urdu-English Foreign Service whose members are equally at ease in both languages. Initially Ambassadors should be free to report in either of the two languages. We should not banish the use of English language but open doors for the use of Urdu as well. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should prepare its summaries, reports and drafts of speeches in Urdu. In this exercise, the institution we should closely look at is the superior judiciary, especially the language policy of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. I feel that an English-Urdu Glossary of Diplomatic Terms needs to be evolved and distributed among all members of the Foreign Service as the relevant thinks tanks and the media. Give them a couple of years to digest this Glossary and to suggest improvements and changes. Then a reading list of important books of Diplomatic History would need to be translated into Urdu to provide a range of vocabulary and examples of diplomatic analyses and writing. The fresh entrants to the Foreign Service while being trained at the Foreign Service Academy will need to be given greater exposure to Urdu reading and writing along with the professional course which should continue to be given in English. This could be an opportunity of intellectual energizing of our diplomacy and cultural rejuvenation of the Foreign Service.

The example of Kashmir as so poignantly pointed out by Ralph Russell will greatly benefit by the direct usage of local evidence of the deroulement of the ongoing crisis in the Kashmir region. Our long term Kashmir policy would greatly benefit from such enrichment. Our diplomacy will thus get access to our indigenous sources of knowledge so far denied or available only on individual bases to our diplomats. We will thus be able to put more of Pakistan into our diplomacy.