Marx in Mystic Valley: Revisiting Kashmir’s Progressive Writers Movement

In the year of Imperial sunset and rise of the new power structure in South Asia, the valley’s versifiers flocked together to float a literary movement. Years later, the movement remains a contested legacy between Left and Right.


Throughout his eventful career, Ghulam Nabi Khayal wore many hats. As a writer, he had his brushes with Bakshi’s ruthless Gog’gie gang. As a newsman, he survived multiple assassination bids. And as a go-to person, he played a mediator in the thespian kidnapping case involving Mossad. But then, the seasoned scribe recalls one feat—that took birth when crumbling Raj got replaced with Nehruvian India—with a touch of nostalgia.

Then as a tall Ganderbal man became emergency ruler of Kashmir, Khayal—a dreamy downtowner with an apparent tilt towards Mirwaiz Manzil—became part of a literary group called Progressive Writers Movement (PWM).

His literary league was a bunch of weary wordsmiths adopting the popular nomenclature of the times when Leftist Bloc was staring at Uncle Sam’s Capitalist Bloc. In the times of the Cold War, many of these Jola-yielding men roaming Srinagar streets would discuss Leftist writers and intellectuals over chai and cigarette. They were gradually setting the literary mood in the valley.

Later the group inspired by renowned works of ‘comrade’ writers would circulate and even translate the books on Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse Tung in the Kashmiri language.

The ideas of Marxism, Socialism, and Communism were already impacting the minds of the intellectuals and youths across the Sub-Continent with the establishment of two left parties- the Communist Party of India (CPI) and Congress Socialist Party (CSP).

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The attraction for such fad literature was felt among the writers of Kashmir, too. Soon, a number of outstanding classics like “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky’s “Mother”, Nikolai Gogol’s “Inspector General” were translated in the Kashmiri language by Som Nath Zutshi.

Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” and “The Bear” and many more Russian short stories, poems, and other literary works were translated either from the English versions or from Urdu versions.

“I remember,” Khayal recalls, “most of Kashmir’s intelligentsia was associated with that movement for years.” In fact, he says, Kashmir owes its first-ever literary magazine, Kongposh, to the movement.

Among the literary stalwarts part of the movement were Dina Nath Nadim, Amin Kamil, Akhter Mohiuddin, Somnath Zutshi, Rehman Rahi, Ghulam Nabi Firaq and others. These writers, Khayal says, introduced the nuances of literature for the first time in the valley and revealed the warmth of feelings which remained alien for several hundred years.

“With solely one auditorium located in Nedu’s hotel, writers would bring together all progressive and modern themes under one roof, give life to them through dramas,” Khayal recalls.

Weekly meetings on Friday used to be held usually in Indian Coffee House, where writers would consent and dissent, provide healthy criticism, and discuss each other’s works honestly. “I would rather say that the seeds of literary criticism in Kashmir were sown due to Progressive Writers Movement,” Khayaal asserts.

Ghulam Nabi Khayal

But sadly, everything that might lead to a great and bright future is forcibly shut in Kashmir and the same fate was shared by the PWM.

“Such great corpus of knowledge and reform was shared by people, that it threatened those at the helm of affairs, most notably, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, who assumed it to be a communist attack on his government,” Khayaal laments.

Subsequently, most notable members of this structure were ideologically influenced, threatened, and lured into government jobs. “I’m nostalgic of a time when only a handful of people struggled to help it survive but in vain,” Khayal says.

To counter the PWM’s influence, he says, a separate association was formed in the name of Cultural Front which could not stand the test of time and eventually crumbled.

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But the PWM, in its essence, was the first step towards social realism, says Prof. Shafi Shauq.

“Most of the writers associated with this movement all over the world were Marxists but the whole literature that they produced that era was realistic,” says the literary powerhouse with over 100 book translations under his belt.

Then, Kashmiri literature—which is 800 years older compared to the other languages of the Sub-Continent—was the romantic, lyricist, and versified narrative.

“It was the progressive writers of Kashmir who had to write something new about the society which was never thought about,” the professor informs. “Before that we had translated the Persian literature and wrote many Masnawi on local indigenous themes like Akkinandun or Hemal and Nagrai.”

Literature, Prof Shauq says, has to be individualistic and the centre of a writer’s literary concern. “It was these progressive writers who filled this gap in Kashmir and for the first time novels, short stories, and dramas were experimented in the 1950s here,” he says. “Whatever good literature we have produced was in that period only.”

There was euphoria among the writers and intellectuals of that period to be socially relevant, to have a social commitment, and devout the literature to aesthetic activity and help the social cause, he says. “That enthusiasm made those writers conduct gatherings and meet-ups in all around the state.”

But a large section of writers and poets of that era couldn’t agree with the basic design of progressive writers as they saw it along with the lines of communism. Some of these were devotional and Sufi poets who produced great literature as well but as a continuation of what has been producing from centuries, and which one doesn’t find relevant always. They tried to counter this new modern sensibility and were cynical about the basic principles of the movement because most of them were not familiar with the literature of other languages, the professor says.

“After the 1980’s we had some gruesome experiences,” he says. “Most of the literature of that time is simply indifferent to whatever has happened in our history. Literature has to be always new and fresh.”

But nothing can be written afresh unless the writers are very well-read, Shauq believes. “If the concept of ‘here and now’ is not there, the writing becomes a bundle of clichés without any relevance in the modern age. The reader of tomorrow will not appreciate it because it depicts nothing. Even the short story lost its glamour in the ’80s because the writers were hardly erudite. No writer can write in isolation. Every writer has to be part of all the writers of the past and all the writers of the present. If he doesn’t consider himself a part of world literature he is not worth reading.”

Prof Shafi Shauq

However, Shafi Shauq, the legendary translator of the valley, believes there’s no support of any kind of hope under the social, cultural, and political conditions prevailing in Kashmir.

“How can you write when there is no freedom of expression? I still write at least twenty pages every day and whatever I write today, I cannot publish it because I don’t want to go back to prison,” he says.

Even though the larger narrative glorifies the PWM, there’re some concerns about it. Not everyone sees it with the same prism and simply accepts it as it is, because, the common refrain goes, nothing in Kashmir is as simple, as it looks.

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In the 20th century, when comrades were coming of age, it was Allama Iqbal who inspired almost all poets of the Valley, says renowned columnist, ZG Muhammad.

“There has been a very interesting correspondence between Iqbal and Mahjoor [Kashmir’s national poet]. We also see Iqbal’s influence on Azad in his works,” the columnist says. “So, basically, it was Iqbal who was the source of inspiration for what later came to be known as the Progressive Writers Movement. Whatever resistance literature or protest literature came about during that period was hugely influenced by Allama Iqbal.”

When Lal Ded wrote against caste and gave importance to humanism, it was resistance literature as well, the columnist argues. “Sheik ul Aalam also wrote against oppression and tyranny long before progressive writers. But somehow it became fashionable to accept Mahjoor and Azad as progressive writers because of communist influence.”

But, he says, it would be a complete injustice to count Mahjoor as a Progressive poet. “It’s not that we got our literary heritage only from resistance writers. It had some influence on it, but our resistance literature starts from the 14th century, and in the modern period, the credit goes to Allama Iqbal.”

Bringing the PWM into the Kashmiri literary scene was a calculated move by the communists who mainly came here with a mission, ZG Mohammad says.

“Communists started their influence in Kashmir after 1937,” the writer, known for his Nostalgia column, says. “Nehru sent K.M. Ashraf to Kashmir to convert Muslim Conference into National Conference and to give a secular direction to the Kashmiri Muslims.”

“Khawaja Ahmad Abbas himself told me in an interview that Kashmir was a laboratory for them [Marxists] where they wanted to test their socialist ideas,” Zahid adds. “In order to succeed in those tests they also needed to change the narrative which was predominantly Muslim/Sufi in nature into secular/socialist and that is how help from Progressive writers came.”

PWM was one of the many tests the communists did in Kashmir which was and still remains just a laboratory to New Delhi, he says. “It all happened under the patronage of Ghulam Muhammad Sadiq,” he says.

ZG Mohammad

All programs and gatherings of PWMs were state-sponsored, ZG Mohammad details.

“At the start, it was Dina Nath Nadim, Rahman Rahi, Amin Kamil and Arif Beg, who were influenced by it, and then with time, many others joined. Some were sincere and honest while others joined for material benefits showered upon them by the State.”

After 1947, the columnist says, two important communists were given two important official roles. “BPL Bedi who was a hardcore communist and a close advisor to GM Sadiq [former J&K PM turned CM] was made the chief propaganda officer,” he says. “He started these cultural movements and spent lots of money in promoting such ideologies. Whatever they did was for their own agenda and not at all for our benefit, be it literature or otherwise.”

As an official cultural stint, PWM in Kashmir had a lot of money for its members, the columnist says. “It would be unfair to say that the Progressive Writers Movement represented the aspirations of common Kashmiri people. Consciously or not, they were strengthening New Delhi’s hold on Kashmir,” Zahid concludes.


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