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A woman’s journey in Kashmiri politics

Nyla Ali Khan’s recent book The Life of a Kashmiri Woman: Dialectic of Resistance and Accommodation, though primarily a biography of her grandmother Akbar Jehan, promises to be much more than that. It is also a narration of the story of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the charismatic political leader who is still recognized as the greatest political leader that Kashmir ever produced. It is also a depiction of Kashmiri identity politics as it evolved and took shape during various phases. However, most significantly, it is a feminist narrative of gender dimensions of Kashmiri politics and an account of women’s place and role in it.

The central character of the book is Akbar Jehan, whose life is intrinsically linked with the political trajectory of Kashmir. Hailing from an aristocratic background, she left the life of protection and comfort to marry Sheikh Abdullah, who was pursuing a political life fraught with challenges. Akbar Jehan, as the book informs us, remained committed to her husband’s ideology and made his political struggle her own, standing by him through the turbulent years of the twentieth century. In 1947 when the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) faced a tribal attack and the National Conference organized a local militia, Akbar Jehan led the Women’s Self Defence Corps, which provided military training to Kashmiri women. Later, she helped in the task of repatriation and rehabilitation of abducted young women. In 1953, when Sheikh Abdullah was incarcerated, she took it upon herself the task to singlehandedly raise her young family while at the same time taking over some of duties of leadership from her husband. This was especially difficult, given that her relatives and friends had abandoned her by then. Isolated due to the hostile attitude of the political authority in Jammu and Kashmir, she was also to face the “conspiracy case” against her husband, in which the Sheikh was accused of being the Pakistani agent in receipt of huge sum of money from the government of Pakistan. Akbar Jehan was accused of being the conduit through which the money exchanged hands. (The case was later withdrawn.)

Rather than serving as a mere shadow of her husband, Akbar Jehan emerged as the symbol of continuity of Sheikh’s politics and led his followers while he was jailed — organizing protest demonstrations and leading processions. As a result of her years of political experience, she had the opportunity to prove her own mantle as a Parliamentarian following her election in 1977. Even in the midst of party turmoil, which involved the fall of her son Farooq Abdullah from power, Jehan managed to win reelection in 1984.

Nyla Ali Khan, by Nyla Ali Khan. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The author, Nyla Ali Khan. Photo by Nyla Ali Khan. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In a world of male dominated politics with few women role models to emulate, Akbar Jehan’s journey remains important. Kashmiri politics has generally remained bereft of women leaders. It is only recently that women such as Mehbooba Mufti have had some presence, following the path first tread by Akbar Jehan.

However, it was tragic that, following the Sheikh’s death in 1982, she had to witness the decline of the political edifice that he had built. Throughout the period of militancy, when many of the leaders of the National Conference left Kashmir for safer places, she continued to stay on, still acting as a rallying force for the party loyalists. But having witnessed the decimation of her husband’s political agenda as well as anger and hostility of the people, she died a sad woman.

By exploring the context of Akbar Jehan’s career, Khan has sought to represent the story of Kashmir’s politics from a gender perspective. It is a story of a woman located in the “rigidly entrenched gender hierarchy” who moves “beyond the pigeonholes that conventional narratives have constructed for women.” This narrative represents the immense potential that Kashmiri women have vis-a-vis the sphere of politics.

By bringing women to the center of Kashmir’s political discourse, Nyla has sought to question not merely the academic silence around the gender dimensions of Kashmir’s politics but has also sought to challenge the dominant paternalistic notions about the relationship between women and politics. Even when women are portrayed in academic work, their role as agents in their own rights can often go missing. In her story of Akbar Jehan, Khan reveals her agential role.

To do this, Khan follows an unconventional approach. Rather than dividing the life of Akbar Jehan between public and private, she sees one realm as the extension of the other. Finding an overlap between Jehan’s familial and political roles, Khan notes that there was no part of her personal life which was not political. From her decision to marry Sheikh Abdullah, to her struggle in bringing up the family in the absence of her husband in the situation of hostility and isolation, to her decision to continue staying in Kashmir during the period militancy — all these were overtly political acts. The “personal is political” is what was inscribed in the life story of Akbar Jehan.

Writing the story of politics from the perspective of woman is not easy. There is a paucity of documented material on women and the role that they play in society and politics. As Khan notes, there is a general reluctance to recognize the progressive role of women in the larger political context of Kashmir — hence no documentation of their role. Reconstructing the story therefore takes lot of research. There are many gaps, and one gets the feeling that there are various dimensions of Akbar Jehan’s life which could have provided more depth to her story. It would for instance have been interesting to know the critical side of Akbar Jehan and her personal response if not towards her husband’s political decisions, at least toward her son Farooq Abdullah’s follies.

That said the book is a very important contribution to the literature on Kashmir’s politics. It is one of those rare personal accounts written with empathy and academic dexterity.

Featured Image: Shikara, Dal Lake. © MaresaSmith via iStock.

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