“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Asifa conducts an interview with Dr. Sameetha Agha, daughter of Dr. Agha Ashraf Ali

(Ms. Asifa Amin Koul was born in Srinagar. She went to the Arya Samaj School in Hazuri Bagh, and the Government Women’s College on the Maulana Azad Road, both located in Srinagar. She completed her Master’s degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir. Asifa did internships at “Aaj Tak”, a New Delhi based news channel, and at the Srinagar office of the Agence France Press (AFP). She is presently a correspondent for the Kashmir Times, covering local stories on human rights violations, economic matters and socio-cultural issues. Asifa worked as the Art Director for a national award winning short film, Belaus, for which she won the national award at the Annual Jehangirabad Film Festival in 2006. In her leisure time she likes to spend time with her family.)

Daughter of the soil carves her own niche as historian, thinker and orator

Carrying the legacy of literary pursuit of her family forward, Sameetha Agha, daughter of Dr Agha Ashraf Ali, Kashmir’s renowned educationist, thinker and orator and sister of internationally acclaimed poet, Agha Shahid Ali has finally made her literary debut at international level. Kashmiri born-American based historian and scholar, Sameetha, 44, has edited and written a research piece for an Oxford publication on colonial imperialism, Fringes of Empire: People, Places and Spaces. The book is all set to hit stands shortly.

In this exclusive interview Sameetha during her brief sojourn to Srinagar shares her views on different topics pertaining to Kashmir which include politics to education.

AAK: Please tell us something about yourself-family, education and job.

SA: I was born in Kashmir on August 9, 1965. I did my schooling from Presentation Convent and my 11th and 12th from Nawa Kadal College because it was the only institution in the valley which offered different combination of subjects in Humanities.

Later I went to America in 1984 to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Computer Sciences. But suddenly I developed my interest in History and I did my bachelors in US foreign policy and political economy from Smith College, Massachusetts. Then I went to Yale to do my PhD. For my research I initially opted for Islamic languages but I would have to learn five languages for the kind of work I wanted to do so I switched to International Relations and International History. Finally I opted for nationalism for my research. Meanwhile the turmoil in Kashmir erupted in 1989 and I did some work on Kashmir and Balkans.

I became assistant professor of World History at Pratt Institute, New York. I was appointed chair for the same department for nine consecutive years. But now I have gone back to teaching because I did not get much time to do my own work being an administrator. Presently I am again working as an assistant professor at Pratt.

AAK: Please tell us something about the book, Fringes of Empire and about your own piece in this collection.

SA: This book is a collection of articles by different writers in which we have tried to write a new history by going against official narratives that exist on margins (the colonies of British Empire in India). There is a section in the book in which we are looking at different geographical fringes -the imperial sites of British Empire which include Tibet and Kashmir. Well, the whole book does not really focus on Kashmir, but through different fringes we are trying to provide a view of how the post-colonial states which includes Kashmir function in the present world.

I think that this book will help to remove various misconceptions about Kashmir especially among the people in the West who do not know much about the history of Kashmir. They believe that Kashmir is a religious issue where people are fighting with each other for religion!

My own piece, “Inventing a Frontier: Imperial motives and sub-imperialism on British India’s North West Frontier, 1889-98”, is about how imperial colonial policy was made on North West Frontiers. And I am specifically looking at tribal areas which are now called as FATA in which I have touched some of the biggest colonial wars that took place in these areas during 19th century some of which were much bigger than Crimean War and comparable to Indian mutiny. But majority of the people hardly know anything about these wars!

AAK: How close do you find yourself to your roots-Kashmir?

SA: I think very, very close. I was very young when I left Kashmir for America for my studies. But later I discovered my own location, my own history and what shaped me. The change in political development here (in Kashmir) affected me like anything else. But being a scholar and a historian, Kashmir has always been on my mind. I love reading Kashmiri papers everyday and I read them page to page.

Besides I am in the process of finishing my book on colonial wars in North West Frontiers and after that I want to work on Kashmir. I am very much interested in trauma, memory and history. I can see sadness and trauma on people’s faces. I realise there are children in Kashmir, now in their 20s, who have grown just seeing violence since 1989. I want to look at all these issues from a larger perspective in my next book on Kashmir.

AAK: How do you feel when you hear about the incidents of gruesome human rights violations in Kashmir?

SA: Oh, I feel horrible! I was here post Amarnath crisis last year and I remember there was curfew in the whole city. Everything was closed and deserted.

But I think the situation in Kashmir during Amarnath crisis was quite remarkable because it seemed as if the whole valley had come out for peaceful demonstrations! And then of course the army fired upon them and many people were killed. It was really painful!

Unfortunately, a lot of information like this does not flow into the West. The American newspapers do not really focus on what is happening in Kashmir. So what was happening last year (Amarnath crisis) was not really picked up by American newspapers that way. They may have two lines on violence in Kashmir but not much!!

AAK: And what is the response of other Kashmiris living in America?

SA: Well, I cannot really speak on behalf of all Kashmiris there (she laughs). But about the people I know, yes, they are very much concerned about their relatives.Whenever they hear of some disturbing incident in Kashmir, they try to get information about the safety of their relatives. And they all want things to change here.

Then there is a Kashmir Council in Washington DC which holds various seminars on Kashmir. I have myself been to their various conferences and I found them good.

AAK: How do Americans look at the developments in Kashmir? Do they see it through the prism of media or do they try to have their own understanding about Kashmir issue?

SA: Well, Americans mostly know about places like Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan. For those who at all have ever heard of Kashmir, there is a very short attention span as far as Kashmir’s politics goes.

But yes, there are some American scholars who really pay attention to the happenings in Kashmir. And they realise its significance in terms of South Asia and geopolitics. They want it to be resolved.

AAK: You do not live here but you do visit Kashmir more frequently. What changes do you observe on psychology and thinking of people, women in particular because of the ongoing turmoil in valley?

SA: It is only in the past two years that I have started coming here most frequently. Before that I was quite busy with my research. But I have not systematically gone around and talked to people the way I would do for my research on Kashmir. But even from taking to very few people and from my own little observations, I have felt how things have changed drastically since the time I left Kashmir. There is a huge impact of trauma on people. I hear people constantly lamenting on as to what has changed and I have noticed them yearning for things to get better.

AAK: What is your take on the treatment of Shopian rape and double murder case?

SA: Whatever I read from newspapers it seems it was not handled properly. In my opinion a legal system does not really require government intervention. Shopian incident should have been resolved fairly and quickly. And it seems to suggest that legal system is not quite working here and the fact it (resolution of Shopian case) is taking so long that seems to be creating problems for government!

AAK: What is your opinion about the academic atmosphere in Kashmir? Is it improving or deteriorating?

SA: I did not get a chance to visit Kashmir University or any of the colleges and schools here all these years. But through my interaction with some local students I came to know that they are very much dissatisfied with the prevailing education system here. It is from their experiences I felt that neither the level of education system nor the atmosphere in which it is conducted are as inspiring as it should have been for the students. I feel very sad when I hear students talking of pursuing their studies outside the valley!

AAK: How do you assess the influence of women here?

SA: Kashmir has a tradition of strong women both politically and educationally. There is something very unique about Kashmiri women. They are not only interested in politics but they are very much actively involved in it as well. I find it very interesting!

You know there is a woman from some village who visits my father’s residence in Srinagar. What excites me when she talks about politics and sometimes has a strong opinion about some local politicians or a political party. You would not get to see this in many parts of the world where women do not really know who the minister or mayor is!

But at the same time Kashmiri women have also been exploited since 1989 which gets vivid from the incidents like sex scandal and Shopian rape and murder case. And I am sure such things might have been happening ever since conflict arose here!

AAK: Your brother, Agha Shahid Ali, made a name in a very short span of time. He was a man with a sensitive soul which loved Kashmir. How do you see his loss as a poet?

SA: He was unique in lots of ways. I do not have to affirm what others say about his poetry. But in my opinion, as far as his poetry on Kashmir goes, it evokes such a myriad of things that most of us cannot put it in words! That is why it is so powerful!

Personally, his death was a huge loss for our family! We still feel it very deeply. He was an amazing person who had a deep impact on the lives of many people! His death was definitely a big loss for Kashmir.

AAK: How relevant is Kashmir’s past to its present and future keeping into view diverse school of thoughts that exist on Kashmiriyat?

SA: Well, as a historian I believe that past lives on. Past is extremely important for it has an impact on future. As a student of colonial history I believe that until we understand the impact of colonialism and the structures and mindset that we have inherited because of it, we really cannot move forward.

I also believe that when a certain group of people are deliberately alienated from their own language and history, it itself indicates how colonial past has an impact on them. And that is how it has happened here.

AAK: Do you think there are some positive signs in US president Barrack Obama’s interest in relation to Kashmir resolution?

SA: I think no matter how Obama might be more pleasing to listen than Bush, but for great powers like America, issues like these are viewed in the larger context of their own geo-strategic interests. There are some people in America who think that America has its own problems and that there would not be a big shift! They feel that America is not going to view Kashmir on its own but in terms of politics in South Asia and Middle East.

AAK: As a student of history how do you visualise future of Kashmir looking from the present situation?

SA: Well, on talking to local people it seems that Omar Abdullah is quite inspiring for majority of Kashmiri people because they feel that he wants to do something for Kashmir and under his leadership the government is going to be forward-looking.

I cannot really predict future but as a historian when I look at it from a larger historical and global perspective, I believe there has to be a long-lasting political solution with which the majority of the people are happy. And that is what living in modern state and modern democracy means!

I think that this book will help to remove various misconceptions about Kashmir especially among the people in the West who do not know much about the history of Kashmir. They believe that Kashmir is a religious issue where people are fighting with each other for religion!’