Not so long ago in Kashmir, an author had submitted the manuscript of his book with a matter-of-fact title, Kashmir: Political Dispute to a local publisher. From that day onwards, he would visit the publisher every week to enquire about the date of publication. After all, he had to plan for the book’s release and was hoping for an early booking at a local hotel. He was keen to have many people and as many local intellectuals present at the event as possible. Then, on August 5, 2019, the government abrogated Article 370 amid a communication blockade, military siege and the arrest of thousands.
“Since then, I have not heard anything from the author and I have also stopped publishing books concerning Kashmir politics,” says the publisher, pleading anonymity. “No author these days is interested in publishing anything that is remotely related to politics of the region or Article 370, and no publisher would dare to publish it,” he says. In the initial days after the abrogation, local newspapers refused to entertain columns of their regular columnists. With time, the columnists also stopped writing. A Kashmiri author, who has written several books in Urdu and Kashmiri, says he is writing a fat book about the political situation of Jammu and Kashmir from the 1950s to 1990. “But I will not publish the work,” he says. “I have told my children that it should only be published after my death,” he adds. The author has been working on the project for the past few years. Another Kashmiri author, whose English poetry book was on display at a local bookshop, insisted that the shopkeeper remove it.
No major book released by local publishers in English has come into the mainstream market in the past few years. Publishers say the arrest and harassment of writers and journalists has discouraged authors. On July 7, 2022, an unsigned article titled, Vultures of Single Narrative Feasting on Misery, was published in a local newspaper. It accused some journalists and authors of being “part of the global terrorism architecture”. The article quotes American counter-insurgency theorist David Kilcullen, who warns: “Beware of the ‘scripted enemy’, who plays to a global audience and seeks to defeat you in the court of global public opinion.” He had accused and named several authors and journalists who write for foreign publications, of being involved “in psychological warfare unleashed to have twin objectives—deny terror violence and encourage the targeted readers to carry out pre-determined action”.
One of the journalists named in the article spoke about it on condition of anonymity: “I never thought I would think a second time before writing anything on Kashmir. It did impact me in many ways.” A situation has been created in Kashmir where many writers have been forced into silence and self-censorship. “The premise of this article is to create an adverse opinion about journalists, and comes at a time when many of them are already facing a witch-hunt,” wrote another journalist named in the article in response. Many authors, who were regularly writing about Kashmir affairs, refuse to talk about their silence.
While there is complete silence among English language writers, the scene is very different among Kashmiri-language writers. Mohammad Amin Bhat is the president of Adbi Markaz Kamraz, one of Kashmir’s major literary bodies. He says around 200 books written in Kashmiri by writers and poets were released this year. “This year alone, I might have attended around 20 book releases across the Valley. I think poets and litterateurs are moving away from the Cultural Academy and are publishing their books on their own, or with other publishing houses. A different system of publishing is emerging in Kashmir, and it is a welcome development,” Bhat says.
Author Parvaiz Ali, who started his publishing house Ink Link Publications two years ago, says it is true that writers are self-publishing or pre-ordering around half of the print run for publishers to release their books. He says writers don’t have knowledge of publishing, while publishing houses don’t care to inform authors about publishing and its laws. “There is a simple rule within the industry in the Valley—the author should pre-order at least half of his or her books,” he says. Ali has published 20 books by different writers and poets this year, and says he published these only after much scrutiny and editing. “One reason why you won’t find any record of books by leading Kashmiri writers, including great poets like Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil, is that their books were either printed by unknown publishers or were self-published,” he adds.
Poet, playwright and actor Bashir Ahmad Dada says most Kashmiri-language books published these days avoid direct and indirect comments on the current political situation. “These books avoid any reference to the political situation. No doubt many books are being released by authors themselves or by local publishers. But everyone prefers to be silent on the political scenario, both in fiction and poetry. That is itself a commentary on our times,” he says.
For the past few years, the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, also known as the Cultural Academy, has not reprinted any Kashmiri books it has published. It has also stopped publication of its literary magazine Sheeraza, which used to come out in eight languages, including English.
There isn’t a single book by the Jnanpith award winner Rehman Rahi, acclaimed as the greatest living Kashmiri poet, that was published by the Cultural Academy or any other publisher. Rahi was the youngest Indian to receive the Sahitya Academy award in 1961. Over the years, the poet emerged as the most authentic voice in the language. His book Siyah Rood Jaren Manz (In Black Vernal Showers, 1996), is a long lament on the political turmoil in Kashmir. The book, which is regarded as his finest work, earned him a Padma Shri in 1999. But it is not available anywhere now.
While Kashmir’s poets and authors have been silenced by the fast-changing political events in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370, they have not given up writing. “A lot of people are writing both poetry and prose. They are writing their memoirs, political history and what happened in Kashmir in the past 30 years. But everyone is keeping it to themselves,” says a publisher, adding, “I don’t know whether they will ever dare to send us a script for publishing, or if it will remain with them forever, and whether we will ever get the courage to publish them.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Bitter Truths")
Naseer Ganai in Srinagar