Mona Bhan on her grandfather, Pandit Rughonath Vaishnavi, a fierce advocate of Kashmiri Independence
Pandit Rughonath Vaishnavi graduated from Lahore with a dual degree in Psychology and Political Science, and from Allahabad with a degree in law, before he returned to Kashmir in 1938. This was a time of grave repression and uncertainty, but also of hopeful optimism for Kashmir’s democratic future. In 1941 he was nominated to be a member of the National Conference’s Working Committee, at the time headed by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. Dissatisfied with NC’s slogan – “long live responsible government,” that did little to inform people about the specifics of socio-political transformations required to build a socially just and equal society in Kashmir, Pt. Vaishnavi drafted a resolution with a fourteen-point agenda to foreground, in his words, NC’s “revolutionary profile” as a political party. Among other things, the resolution proposed the famous “land to the tiller” reform, in addition to advocating “equal rights for all people of the state”, regardless of their social, religious, or economic backgrounds.
A firm believer in a democracy that did not stifle dissent, Pt. Vaishnavi soon grew disenchanted with the politics of the times, in which NC volunteers had internalized the slogan “One leader, one organization,” a belief that often led to the violent suppression of political difference. A time of global political upheaval, when the possibility of fascist and Nazi forces dominating international politics was all too real, the NC’s indiscriminate suppression of dissent alarmed Rughonath Vaishnavi, who resigned from the party, worried that the NC leadership wanted to “hold the reins of absolute power to their heart’s content.”
Pt. Vaishnavi was a fierce and outspoken critic of the government and considered NC’s rise to power and its repressive regime a “colossal failure of statesmanship.” His apprehensions about the NC were further reinforced when his weekly Urdu newspaper, Jamhoor, was banned in 1952, only a year after it was launched. Soon after he resigned from the NC, and in association with G.M. Karra, he formed the Political Conference, the only political party at the time that championed the Kashmiri right to self-determination, even if it meant Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan. To silence this critical voice, Rughonath Vaishnavi was arrested along with several of his colleagues, and then denied a Habeas Corpus petition on the grounds that the protection of Part III of the constitution guaranteeing fundamental rights was not available to him.
In his unpublished memoir, he writes that it was clear that Kashmiris had been “relegated to the position of slaves” after India gained its independence. “Kashmiri freedom fighters were lifted during the darkness of the night and kicked into dark cells without knowing the grounds of their imprisonment.” Pt. Vaishnavi was himself jailed seven times for his steadfast commitment to the Kashmiri right of self-determination. Along with some of his supporters he was jailed under the most brutal conditions and ordered several times to cease his political activities.
Until his passing in 1996, Vaishnavi continually urged the Indian, Pakistani, and J&K governments’ to solve the Kashmir issue. His writings, in the forms of letters, telegrams, and articles in the magazines The Other Side and The Radical Humanist, provide a rich source of historical documentation and an important archive to begin piecing together a critical history of Kashmir.
Rughonath Vaishnavi’s life and biography raise crucial questions for a deeper understanding of Kashmiri politics, one that does not remain confined to a post-1989 analysis of its political trajectory, or simply attributes the struggle for azadi to Pakistan’s geopolitical, territorial, and religious agendas. His life forces us to raise broader questions that remain profoundly relevant to this day.
What did it mean to hold genuine political ground in times of state repression from the 1930’s to the 1990’s? What forms of dissent were allowed and which ones were clamped down by the state? In other words, what did it mean to dissent? What forms of repressive measures existed in the day to silence political activities that did not conform with Indian perspectives to claim Kashmiri territory? What forms of claims and counter-claims on Kashmir existed at the time of enforced calm in Kashmir? How did political activists go about organizing their day-to-day activities in the shadows of a repressive regime? What form did such activities take? What lessons can we derive from the life of Pandit Vaishnavi and countless other nameless political activists? What kinds of continuities and discontinuities exist between then and now?
Rughonath Vaishnavi was a prolific writer. He has left behind a rich archive of materials that his family hope to make public in the coming years. Some of this work, mostly from the early 1990s, was published in journals, but a lot of it remains unpublished, in the form of prison notes from the 1950s and the 60s, journal entries, memorandums, and countless letters and telegrams, to the UN, and to Indian and Pakistani politicians, diplomats, and activists, urging them repeatedly to “agree to restore to Kashmir its age-old status of sovereign independence that it had enjoyed all along before it was occupied by the Pathans, Mughals, Sikhs, and Dogras.”
In one of his articles, Pandit Vaishnavi recounts his meeting with Govindrao Deshpande, a Bombay-based Sarvodaya leader, who was visiting Kashmir in 1965 for the “settlement of the Kashmir Problem.” I quote Pt. Vaishnavi’s response at length:
For those of us who reduce the contentious history of Kashmir to an erratic series of events in the 1980s, these words might seem prophetic. They also forcefully illuminate the past, and Kashmir’s long and persistent struggle for freedom, rights, and dignity. This struggle has been nothing but arduous–––and violent––– and any many, like Pandit Vaishnavi, who played a critical part in it remain unheard or unseen. Although the armed rebellion of the 1990s in Kashmir began a new phase in Kashmir’s resistance against Indian rule, the resistance itself was by no means new.
As his grand-daughter, I saw it enacted on the keyboard of an old and rusty typewriter, day after day. I remember Rughonath Vaishnavi, whom I called Papa, waking up very early in the mornings ––– sometimes before the crack of dawn ––– to write. He wrote mostly on loose paper, before he typed up the hand-written version. After collating and organizing the sheets of paper, he would walk to the post office, a few miles from the house, to mail them to people he thought could weigh in on Kashmir. This was part of his everyday routine, and my starkest childhood memories are of him sitting in his chair, in front of his typewriter, either reading or writing feverishly while sifting through the stacks of documents that cluttered his table.
The life of Pandit.Vaishnavi clearly demonstrate that alternative voices that saw Kashmir as a political dispute, and resisted state policies to subdue Kashmiri aspirations, were prominent in the past too, when the dispute was still in its infancy. But such voices, just like in the present, were deemed seditious and therefore severely repressed. Perhaps it is voices such as these that could have led us on a different historic path in Kashmir. Perhaps, they could have saved all of us from the inexplicable pain and suffering of the past few decades.
For his dogged commitment to the Kashmir issue, for stating in no uncertain terms that “no political expediency could ever justify the subversion of truth” and for demanding an honorable settlement of Kashmir, one in which people’s will would reign supreme, Pandit Vaishnavi is now seen by many as an unsung hero of Kashmir. For many others he is a radical humanist––– and even an extremist––– because he fearlessly championed the Kashmiri right to self-determination. I recently met a colleague of his from the Political Conference, the party that he helped found in 1953. “Unki kalam bahut chalti thi,” he told me, reminding me once again of the power of documentation, the power of history to make itself relevant; the burden of times to reveal their potential however hard we try to repress it.
Many of those who were part of this political and non-violent struggle in the 1950’s and 60’s are no longer with us. Enduring stories, however, remain of how they were brutally incarcerated for “dissenting” against the state or were forcibly exiled from their homes. They were also often branded: Rughonath Vaishnavi was derided as a Pakistani batta, the colloquial word for the Pandits, a label that has persisted, although the politics and the context behind such labels remain terribly unclear. Such labels, however, raise a series of important questions: What was India at the time? What was Pakistan? How would Kashmir have changed the social and political course of these countries? How might Kashmir have been instrumental in forging substantive peace and democracy in the subcontinent, had it not become a victim of vested political interests and political chicanery?
Of course, the branding was not neutral; it came with tremendous social and political repression for Pandit Vaishnavi and his family, and many years behind prison walls, during which time his resolve for Kashmir’s political settlement became even stronger. I recently received two documents from a historian friend of mine; one was the government’s letter to the Additional Superintendent, Criminal Investigation Department (CID), a letter written on May 20th, 1953 in response to Mrs. Arandati Vaishnavi’s request to start a newspaper, the Kashmir Humanist. The ASP CID was directed to check her credentials. The response of the CID is worth quoting at length:
“The applicant is reported to be the wife of Rughonath Vaishnavi, an advocate of Srinagar. The lady is not much qualified but knows Hindi. She has not come to our notice for any subversive activity. Her husband …has been contributing articles to the [newspaper] Jamhoor criticizing the government.”
There is nothing dramatic about this letter. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. Perhaps it is precisely the routinized nature of this exchange that I find deeply troubling. The ease with which allegations of subversion were leveled on people to break their resolve, to dilute the challenge to a leviathan state, a trend that we all know has only worsened and assumed draconian proportions over time, but one that certainly did not begin in the 1980s. In one of his journal entries, Pandit Vaishnavi writes that siding with an honest cause is empowering, and remaining committed to it despite the opposition is the true test of your character. Once during one of his prison stints, a CID man lurked in the shadows of my grandfather’s rented accommodation on Residency Road, right across the White Horse that is now enclosed in a shopping complex. My grandmother nabbed him one night and asked him to leave the premises at once, reminding him that her household had nothing to hide, because whatever her husband believed in was known to all. There was nothing in the house for him.
Rugho Nath Vaishnavi’s writings on Kashmir don’t just foreground his defiant struggles as a political activist but also shed light on the difficult politics of the times. His ability to withstand the tumultuous times and stand up to them without ever giving up his conviction and commitment towards Kashmir was what defined his life’s mission. He passed away on November 22nd, 1996, in his daughter’s home in the Medical Quarters in Udhampur, located right across from the jail in which he was once imprisoned. On our long walks, he would often stare at the prison walls but he hardly spoke about his individual experiences as a political prisoner. For him the prison was as an embodiment of how the history of an entire nation had been imprisoned, its creative impulse stifled. It stood as a poignant yet persistent reminder of Kashmir’s long quest for freedom.
Srinagar / Indiana June 2016
This text was written as an introduction to a recently published pamphlet containing Pt. Vaishnavi’s political writings.