Kashmir’s Reading Room Party


It is pretty difficult to tell the exact day and date the Reading Room Party was formally constituted in the Kashmir Valley, though most historians agree that it was formed around April-May 1930. What the Reading Room Party of the 1930s meant for Kashmir’s socio-political awakening then and how it is relevant to the present day Kashmir discourse when the Internet, technological advancement, digital revolution, smart phones and social media have perhaps replaced the conventional Reading Room Party, Gowhar Geelani explains.

Reading room party

Exactly eighty six (86) years ago Kashmir’s Left-wing intellectuals established the Reading Room Party to discuss the French and Russian revolutions and the way forward for Jammu & Kashmir. Historians say that The Reading Room Party of the 1930s played its role in shaping Kashmir’s political future. The present day Kashmir has many a coffee house and café where the young and assertive generation of Kashmiris could be seen writing their stories, creating a piece of art, making a cartoon, reciting poetry and discussing contemporary politics with a lot of passion. Yet it is difficult to foretell what this new change could bring about for the future…

That said, eight decades are long enough a period to analyse the socio-political landscape of  the beleaguered Kashmir Valley which has seen itself torn between the dominant Dogra narrative before  the Partition and the narrative of Indian nation state post 1947.  What has perhaps changed is the conscious attempt by the present generation of Kashmiris to diversify the art of storytelling and the noticeable self-belief to deconstruct the dominant state narrative with an attempt to create an indigenous one, especially post 1990.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, many historians say, the Punjabi and Muslim leftists had a reasonable influence on Kashmir’s polity. Zahid Ghulam Muhammad (ZGM), a columnist based in Srinagar, argues that “the communists occupied the intellectual space in Jammu and Kashmir for about two decades, starting from the 1930s.”

“After 1938, some key Kashmiri leaders considered Kashmir as a ‘laboratory for testing Socialist ideology’,” ZGM says.

According to him, the ideas of Communism started gaining ground in Jammu and Kashmir with the conversion of Muslim Conference into the National Conference in June 1939.

It was a Kashmiri Pandit and author Prem Nath Bazaz who is said to have made Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah realise that his dream of “empowering Kashmiri Muslims and awakening them politically” could not translate into reality unless the Dogra rule was replaced by a responsible secular government.

The Sheikh was convinced, but at the same time he was apprehensive as the Muslim dominated Kashmir valley around that time would oppose any secular political movement tooth and nail.

PN Bazaz proposed to the Sheikh to raise public awareness by bringing out an Urdu weekly ‘Hamdard’.

After the conversion of the Muslim Conference to National Conference, the flag of the Party was bright red with a white plough in the middle. The flag was designed to appeal to the vast majority of Kashmiri Muslim peasants who were living in extreme poverty.

“The colours and symbol of the flag reflected the influence of Communist ideas and ideals: the Russian Revolution had taken place barely twenty-three years earlier and the proximity of the Soviet Asian Republics to Kashmir was a source of inspiration to young Kashmiris who yearned to liberate themselves from an oppressive monarchical system,” author and prominent HR lawyer Nandita Haksar writes in her book The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism.

But it all started in May 1930. Historians say that the Sheikh [Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah] was approached by the Reading Room Party (RRP) that had been organised by a group of some educated Muslim men. These young men would read Urdu and English newspapers vociferously; discuss the French and Russian Revolutions besides exploring the possibilities of finding reasonable jobs for themselves. It is said that the newspapers and pamphlets were published in thousands and smuggled through vehicles like trucks and cars entering Srinagar from Pakistan’s now garrison city, Rawalpindi.

Anwar Ashai, a retired engineer based in Srinagar, claims that it were his father Ghulam Ahmad Ashai who was instrumental in establishing the RRP in Srinagar. “GA Ashai Sahab, my father, was an educated Muslim who had graduated from Punjab University in 1915. He started working as deputy inspector of Schools. The then autocratic ruler Maharaja Hari Singh dismissed him from his services because of religious prejudice,” Ashai says.

He adds that his father set up the Reading Room Party in Srinagar in and around 1929. Historian Fida Hasnain writes that the establishment of the RRP was formally announced on 8 May 1930. Most historians believe that the RRP was formed on 8 May 1930 while some claim the date of setting up the RRP was 12 April 1930.

Humourist-poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef says that the RRP was established by a group of educated young people on 12 April, 1930. Others like Zahir-ud-Din while quoting credible historical accounts write that the RRP was formally constituted on May 8, 1930.

“They [the young Kashmiris] would assemble in one house owned by Mohammad Sikander, Post and Telegraph Master, who had voluntarily reserved a portion of his house in Mohalla Syed Ali Akbar in Srinagar for these young Kashmiris,” Zareef told this writer.

According to Zareef, Khwaja Ghulam Nabi Gilkar, Molvi Bashir Ahmad and Mohammad Rajab were instrumental in establishing the RRP.

Members of the RRP would write articles under their own names or pseudonyms to highlight the problems of the educated youth, their socio-economic and political issues, and also suggest remedies and make recommendations to bring about a change.

There was also a place near the old Court road in Srinagar, owned by the late politician Ghulam Mohiuddin Karra’s family, where many Kashmiri communists like BN Bazaz, PN Jalali, Gayasuddin and GM Sadiq would often meet to discuss various contemporary issues of the time.

“That place was also referred to as Study Circle,” Zareef says, adding that “even the progressive writer and Communist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz would visit the place.”

Since the early 1930s multiple identities have played a role in mobilising public opinion throughout various political struggles in Jammu and Kashmir. The first significant political mobilisation of Kashmiri Muslims against the tyrannic Dogra rule is said to have happened in 1931.

In modern day Kashmir, there is only a single visible communist political figure in the Kashmir valley, which is Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami.

Tarigami is the State Committee Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and also a member of Jammu & Kashmir’s legislative assembly from South Kashmir’s Kulgam district.

“The ‘Naya Kashmir’ vision document in itself is a reflection of Communist ideology. It is relevant even today, especially with the rollback of the welfare state, even as the gap between the Haves and Have Nots is only growing,” Tarigami tells me.

“Not the left-wing intellectuals but the leftist ideology played a critical role in the Quit Kashmir Movement launched by the Sheikh in 1946,” he says, adding that even the revolutionary reform “land to tiller” introduced by the Sheikh was inspired by Communism ideals.

In Tarigami’s opinion, even after the collapse of the erstwhile USSR “the socialism still has a chance to lead today’s society”.

“See, the world has seen tremendous structural changes. But if I were to choose between capitalism and socialism I would not hesitate for a moment to opt for the latter,” he says.

It is largely believed that Jammu and Kashmir’s former Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, known locally as ‘Sher-i-Kashmir’ [the lion of Kashmir], would often address large public gatherings by reciting verses from holy Koran in a melodious voice, but he was also deeply influenced by Socialism and Communism ideals and the Russian Revolution.

The Sheikh, then Kashmir’s most popular political figure, openly welcomed the Communists and counted many of them as personal friends.

“Among them was Professor M.D. Taseer, a Punjabi Marxist from Lahore, who was invited to be the Principal of S.P. College in Srinagar. He was married to an English woman, Christobel, and their ‘nikahnama’ had been drawn by Allama Iqbal [poet],” author Nandita Haksar writes in ‘The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism’.

Sheikh Abdullah and Nehru
Sheikh Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a gathering in Lal Chowk Srinagar in 1947.

In her book she further claims that “when Sheikh Abdullah became the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1948, he renamed Srinagar Chowk as ‘Lal Chowk’ after Moscow’s Red Square, the name by which it is still called. Even though the Sheikh was attracted to Communist ideals, he never questioned the tenets of his religion [Islam].” [The Many Faces of Kashmiri Nationalism, p18]

According to one historian, the actual spot which came to be known as ‘Lal Chowk’ was in front of Palladium cinema. It used to have a circular podium which also had a flag post. The original podium stands erased now. However, many historians say that Kashmir’s Lal Chowk [Red Square] was named after the renowned Red Square of Moscow by a Sikh Leftist intellectual, Baba Pyare Lal Bedi.

BPL Bedi, father of renowned Indian film actor Kabir Bedi, was Sheikh Abdullah’s close confidant, and author of ‘Naya Kashmir’ document [an important constitutional framework for Jammu and Kashmir under tyrannic Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule.] The Sheikh submitted the ‘Naya Kashmir’ plan to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1944.

Zareef, Kashmir valley’s celebrated satirist-poet, talks about the Himalayan region’s history with a judicious mix of nostalgia and melancholy. According to him, a group of educated people in Kashmir [both Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus/Pandits] was greatly influenced by the Communist ideals. People like Sajad Haider and some of his followers, the two former Prime Minister of Jammu & Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad and GM Sadiq, DP Dhar, Somnath Zutshi, Pran Kishore, BN Bazaz, PN Jalali, Gayasuddin, etc believed in the economic upliftment of Kashmiris.

Impressed and influenced by the Communist takeover in Russia, says Zareef, Sajad Haider and his comrades unfurled a red flag near Palladium cinema located in the city centre which later came to be known as Lal Chowk.

Socialism ideals and communism ideology played a critical part in mobilising public opinion at various junctures of history in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, especially in the 1930s and 1940s during the struggle against autocratic Dogra ruler Maharaja Hari Singh.

But how relevant are communism ideals in today’s Kashmir when things have fallen apart and the regional and religious divides are way too obvious to ignore?

Throughout its wretched history of broken promises and new dreams, Kashmir has witnessed many a social, economic and political upheavals, especially after the 1930s. During the last seven decades many changes have taken place — economically, socially and politically. There is little or no doubt that after the infamous rigging in the 1987 assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir, the restive Himalayan region’s political landscape changed drastically.

Kashmir, as one senior analyst puts it, is a “ticking bomb”. It can explode anytime. There is regional divide. Religious divide. And there is serious political divergence between Kashmir and Jammu, as political forces active in both regions have hardened their positions as never before.

The popular armed uprising of 1989, unfortunate departures of members of the Kashmiri Pandit community in the early 1990s, government’s brutal response to crush the rebellion and official patronage to renegades, and the mass anti-India summer protests of 2008 and 2010 have become new reference points in Kashmir’s political narrative.

In absence of any serious political engagement to resolve Kashmir things are changing rapidly in Kashmir. People, especially the youth, are feeling choked from all corners. The government restrictions on protest demonstrations, student politics, and occasional clampdown on the internet, etc have hardly left any space for democratic dissent. Some say that Kashmir may be witnessing “galloping radicalisation”.

Will the Kashmir’s new generation in modern Reading Room Parties be able to produce knowledge and build a strong narrative to shape restive region’s political destiny remains a million dollar question.

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