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Kashmiri Ethos Lives On in the Life and Work of Iconic Political Leader and Social Activist Khem Lata Wakhlu

Kashmiri Ethos Lives On in the Life and Work of Iconic Political Leader and Social Activist Khem Lata Wakhlu

As a child growing up in Kashmir, seeing women in power, working with men and being equal was a norm for me. It’s because of the non-conformist familial values that I was bought up in. It was normal for women in my family to not be engaged in gendered roles. I was fortunate to grow up watching my aunts, my cousins, and my siblings living their lives to their real potential.

My aunt, Khem Lata Wakhlu was one such role model.

I have wanted to document her journey and philosophy for a long time and what better time than the launch of her book “A Kashmiri Century: Portrait of a Society in Flux” to sit down with her to talk about her life, work, and philosophy.

When Wakhlu started her political career, it was the early 1970’s. A defining move by a woman. Her strength was her husband and family. Not only did they encourage her, but they also helped her in her path to political prominence.

Her husband was a Commonwealth scholar and in her interactions with educated women in the 1960’s in the United Kingdom, what really impressed her was that women had permeated all facets of life. This motivated her to rethink her own objectives, especially because she was educated. In her time, she was also surrounded by quite a few women in the family who were passionate about education.

After their return from the U.K., she and her husband decided that if they were to serve their community, they will need to get involved. And when she decided to contest elections in Kashmir, her biggest cheerleader was her brilliant husband Dr. O.N. Wakhlu. With his support and that of her family, she was able to become a career politician. She remembers how the community in Kashmir supported her. The shopkeepers would implore her to use their space for her campaign. The neighbors, friends and family all came together to support her.

Of course, there were the few naysayers who had things to say about how as a woman candidate she was bringing shame to her family and the Kashmiri pandit community, yet none of them dared to say that to her face. The first election she contested was in 1971 and she spent only 3,000 rupees on her entire campaign.

I asked her what her biggest challenge was. She feels that when she introspects her journey, she is amazed at how her journey to public life was such a ride even though she was working in step with so many men for the first time.

We may have seen a very different Kashmir than the one Wakhlu helped build. She speaks of an ethos in her new book which just hit the stands. She explores in this riveting narrative of family, love, relationships, and community in Kashmir spread over generations, the ethos that made Kashmiris special.

It was the politics that connected her directly with the people of the valley. After her debut as an independent politician, she joined the ruling National Conference, the party of the Abdullah family. Her timing for joining the party was when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah rejoined the political center stage after many years out of the limelight.

This allowed her to travel all over the state even to remote places and get to know the state of the people of both prominent religions intimately. She developed insight into their lives, priorities, and their communities. She was able to understand the ethos of these communities that existed from times before independence from the British empire and then the accession of Kashmir to India. She could clearly follow the changes in the Kashmiri society from those times and the process of indoctrination over the years. And she wrote it all down.

Her love for writing is a combination of natural acumen and encouragement from her father and then-husband who would inspire her to write to him to communicate even when they had their little tiffs.

Her book is a fresh look at Kashmir that was. Over 13 stories. Using the anecdotes of her own family, she narrates stories of how families who migrated to other parts of India would abduct well-born Kashmiri children to continue their Kashmiri lineage. You may get transported to the times when Kashmir was a plural society, rich in education, with its own sub-culture of traditions, caste, bloodlines, and the politics of Kashmiri familial relationships. A very typical of the Kashmiri way of doing things. Our own little dynasty.

The anecdotes in the book tell the story of families, the culture of the Kashmiris, their idiosyncrasies, the habits, the behaviors passed down to each generation, the customs, and their deeper significance, the joys, and the disappointments. All the little stories make Kashmir special. Regardless of the religious affiliation, these could have been taken from the files of any family with lineage in the valley.

The opening story was of her grandfather’s brother, who was abducted by a noble Kashmiri lady called Sumali Kaul of Lucknow. Her great grandfather Kashi Nath and a few family elders undertook the journey from Srinagar in the valley to Lucknow (which took a couple of months in those times) to retrieve the child. Upon reaching the Kashmiri Mohalla in Lucknow, they approached a Kashmiri elder of the community knowing well that asking for such an urgent meeting would accentuate the urgency of their mission to retrieve their abducted child.

This matter was one of concern to the community as it had the potential of opening the entire Kashmiri community in Lucknow and elsewhere in India to devastating criticism, giving the community a bad name.

The Kashmiri Sabha (community) got involved in this sensitive matter. The Sabha opinion-makers were divided into two groups. One, quite certain that the future of the abducted child was secure in Lucknow with the assurance of modern education and the fact that the child had already adjusted to his new environment. The other held the view that the child needs to be with his legal parents, and it was up to them to decide how and where he would live.

Kashi Nath had never seen a more charming, vivacious, and bolder woman than Sumali Kaul. The bigger shocker was that the child had grown attached to his new environment and did not even respond to his father’s loving embrace.

Kashi Nath had in fact abandoned his wife Heemal and lived a carefree life in the progressive Lucknow society with Mrs. Kaul. Till the family decided to send his wife Heemal to Lucknow as well and as things settled in, the abducted child, his older brother, the kidnapper, and the great grandparents all created an environment for the children to get the best of education and exposure.

Such anecdotes in this book articulate the composition of the Kashmiri society and its reformism, the fads and the taboos, the societal fabric and the transgressions. The book is a Kashmiri granny story treasure. One where your grandparents tell you about what your ancestors did and how life in their times was.

Anecdotal Kashmir documentation begins with the stories of the arrival of Shah Mir who established Islam in Kashmir in 1339 CE and then jumps to the times when the Kashmiris started the period of disconcert with their political situation. The stories of Kashmir in the intermittent period need to be told too. This book just purports to achieve that.

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When asked about the current dissension that the Kashmiris are facing, she squarely lays the responsibility for the indoctrination of the valley on “outside forces and petrodollars”

She recounts her experiences with terrorists when she and her husband were both kidnapped and held hostage for over 45 days. The ethos remained. They were hostages but the respect and ethos were pervasive in the way the abductors behaved with them.

As Kashmiris, who grew up in Kashmir, the concept of religious identity was only introduced when the radicalization of the culture started. In 2018 when I visited my aunt in the valley, despite the terrorism being at its peak, I remember the long lines of people outside her home to meet her for help with their matters; big or small. The power of empathy and compassion, our common heritage, and a resolve to allow Kashmiriyat be larger than hatred, defies every fracture that the world may try to create in the fabric of the Kashmiri society.

Just like any other society, the Kashmiris want to progress as well. They want their children to be educated and have the best possible lives for themselves. They want the same opportunities that people have around the world have and have understood that terrorism is making a better life unviable for them.

The ground-level support for terrorism is under duress or threat of life. So, what do the politicians do to fix this? Wakhlu doesn’t mince her words in blaming politicians for their vacillating loyalties.

She is dismayed that nothing has been done or said by them that could lead to a viable solution to the ongoing commotion. She berates them for not telling the truth for reasons of sounding too politically polarized. That, she feels, is harming the Kashmiris. She also is not impressed by people settled outside Kashmir for opining about the Kashmir solution from afar. She acknowledges that even within Kashmir there are key stakeholders who may be politicians, bureaucrats and law and order officials gaining monetarily and otherwise by keeping the unrest on a slow burn. People of Kashmir are fed up with corruption, favoritism, and nepotism. They want an end to this tumult and are willing to come forward to whistleblow the corrupt.

She wants the politicians to now start preparing for a free and fair election in the Valley and other parts of the erstwhile state. A new wave of young activist politicians is now ready to jump into making sure that legislation works for their people.

Wakhlu is now working on a biopic story of her life and work and promises me that all my questions will be answered when that new book is out.

“A Kashmiri Century: Portrait of a Society in Flux” is published by Harper Collins and available on Amazon in India and on the Kindle Store in the U.S.

Meera Kaul is a Silicon Valley-based author and contributor with an interest in writing about political systems, economic and legal frameworks, foreign relations, policies, and ideologies. 26+ years of experience in executing ventures across three continents. She is a Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Stanford GSB Alum.

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