Chitralekha Zutshi, Class of 1962 Professor of History, specializes in modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean world, with particular expertise in Islamicate identities and political culture, nationalism and national movements, and historical thought and practice. 

Her latest book, “Sheikh Abdullah: The Caged Lion of Kashmir,” a biography of the controversial Kashmiri leader, was recently published by HarperCollins India in its prestigious “Indian Lives” series. Its North American/European edition will be released by Yale University press this May.

Chitralekha Zutshi, Class of 1962 Professor of History
Chitralekha Zutshi, Class of 1962 Professor of History (Courtesy photo)

The book has received an enthusiastic reception in India, and the Reves Center for International Studies asked her to discuss not only about the subject of her book, but also about the process of researching and writing it over the course of 10 years.

Q. Where did the title come from and what does it convey to you?

A. Sheikh Abdullah was popularly referred to as Sher-i-Kashmir (Lion of Kashmir) for his role as revolutionary leader of Kashmiris. As a result, he ran afoul of the ruling dispensations and was placed behind bars a number of times throughout his political life. He was also metaphorically caged in that he could not envision a political role for himself beyond Kashmir.

Q. Why did you choose to write about Abdullah? What about him intrigued you? Why is his story important to the historical record? Why is it important to you?

A. I have been researching on and writing about the history of Kashmir for nearly 30 years now, and Abdullah looms large in its modern history. In addition, his legacy is controversial and contested in the subcontinent, which called for a comprehensive examination of his life. I also wanted to place his political life in the context of regional and global ideological currents such as anti-colonial nationalisms, Islamic universalism, socialism, communism and the Cold War, as well as his engagement with his advisors, well-wishers, critics and interlocutors.

Q. History through biography is a compelling way to communicate both a person’s life and an era. Is this your first biography? What were the challenges? And at the same time, as a social/political historian, did it provide opportunities to tell the story or an era and region in a new way?

A. Yes, this is my first biography, and it was indeed a challenge to write it.  Historians think in terms of broad social and political movements and ideologies rather than individual lives. So I had to remind myself that the central character of the book was this one individual, but as I said earlier, he was such a colorful figure who was linked at different moments in his life with significant personalities and ideologies, which allowed me to both discuss his life as well as the larger socio-political contexts in which it played out.

Another challenge I faced as Abdullah’s biographer in particular was that he did not leave behind a sizeable body of writing, so I had to cast a wide net and draw on a much larger collection of sources, including oral histories, press reports, government documents, visual materials and the private papers of a slew of individuals who were associated with him. Finally, I had to adopt a more readable writing style so that the book would reach a broader audience beyond the academic world.

Q. You commented that you needed to work with oral histories. Were they recordings or were you able to interview anyone who knew him? Were there any interviews that stand out in your memory?

A. I used an array of oral histories, most of which I collected myself. I interviewed his colleagues, friends, critics, family members and ordinary people who remembered him as a political leader. This took me to many cities and towns, including Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore, Srinagar, Anantnag and Jammu. I enjoyed most the stories told by ordinary people who attended his rallies and were transformed politically by him, because that gave me a textured understanding of his oratory, charisma and popular appeal.

Q. For many Americans, their knowledge of Indian political figures and history is probably limited, even though it’s the world’s largest democracy and an increasingly important political and economic force in the world. What would you like the U.S. audience to know and understand more?

A. Well, I want Americans to think of India beyond the stereotypes of cows, poverty, caste and religious zealotry. I want them to be able to appreciate the subcontinent’s diversity and complexity, its varied languages and literatures, its cacophonous politics, its tradition of dissent and revolt, among other things. I also want them to recognize that the subcontinent has always been a political and economic force in the world — for instance, historically it was the linchpin of the Indian Ocean network where a variety of people (Malays, Chinese, Gujaratis, Tamils, Portuguese, to name a few), goods (textiles, spices, horses, porcelain, again to name a few) and ideas (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, nationalism, also to name a few) were traded and exchanged. The other point that is seldom appreciated is the importance of the subcontinent’s regions in defining its past, and the role played by regional leaders, such as Abdullah, in shaping its politics and institutions in profound ways, particularly in the 20th century.

Q. One of the phenomena we see today is the rise of strong man political leaders — often right-wing leaning. How is Abdullah similar and how is he different?

A. Abdullah certainly fits the bill of a strongman political leader, especially after he became the prime minister of the Jammu & Kashmir state in India in 1947. He decimated his political opponents, silenced the press and in effect created a one-party state. He also carried out some revolutionary reforms, such as redistributing land to the peasants, but he did so by executive fiat rather than through a process of consultation and dialogue. The consequences of these actions eventually led to his downfall.    

Q. Can you describe Abdullah’s relationship to Jawaharlal Nehru. Were they allies, competitors, or is that too simple a description?

A. Abdullah and Nehru were good friends and comrades until about 1952, when their relationship began to sour. They met in 1937 and Abdullah, then a fairly unknown regional leader, became deeply influenced by the nationalist ideology of the Indian National Congress (of which Nehru was a leader). He then steered the Kashmiri movement, which had begun as a movement of and for Muslims, towards a more inclusive nationalism. Nehru fervently supported him as the sole leader of Kashmiris throughout the 1940s and even after it became apparent that Abdullah’s administration in Kashmir was repressive and anti-democratic. This was because he saw Abdullah as the vital link between Kashmir and India. Once Abdullah began to speak in terms of Kashmir’s autonomy from India, however, Nehru turned against him, and Abdullah was eventually removed from office in 1953.

Q. In your research was there anything that you learned that surprised you? Maybe you hadn’t expected?

A. I learned a lot about the complexities of the process of India’s transition to an independent nation-state, and of course the role played by states such as Jammu and Kashmir in shaping that process. I also came to recognize the extent to which Nehru, even as the prime minister of India, was constrained in his actions by a larger bureaucracy, the opposition in parliament and global events.  

Q. Do you think you see Abdullah differently now that you’ve completed the project? Had you gone into the project with any preconceptions about him or his place in history?

A. I already knew a fair bit about Abdullah before undertaking this project, but while working on it, I came to appreciate the compulsions behind his choices far more, as well as recognize that despite his many limitations, he was the link between India and Pakistan that could never quite be reestablished after his death in 1982.  

Q. You’ve said he could never fulfill each identity — Muslim, nationalist, secular. Could you explain that a bit?

A. Abdullah was a devout Muslim and at the same time a believer in secular nationalism. For him, the Kashmiri nation could become prosperous and successful only if it encompassed the demands and aspirations of every Kashmiri regardless of religion, sect or class background. However, especially once British India was partitioned into two antagonistic states (India and Pakistan), it became well-nigh impossible for a Muslim to be accepted as a secular nationalist in India. Abdullah, who had always walked a fine line between these identities, found himself foundering as he tried to convince his Kashmiri Muslim constituents that he was a true Muslim while at the same time trying to convince Indians that he was a secular nationalist, in the end convincing neither group.

Q. Do you think Abdullah’s story has any lessons or cautions applicable today — in the region or in a larger context?

A. Yes, of course, his story reminds us that the complexities of an individual’s life and political character cannot be reduced to mere labels such as conspiring traitor or revolutionary martyr. India, Pakistan, and Kashmiris built Abdullah up and tore him down depending on the context, expecting him at the same time to resolve the complicated issues surrounding the Kashmir dispute. His story also compels us to remember that the idea of the Indian nation was at one time capacious enough to include multiple religious and regional identities in which it was possible to be both a devout Hindu (such as Gandhi) or devout Muslim (such as Abdullah) and still committed to the idea of plurality and secularism.

Q. The reception of your book has been enthusiastic in India. It seems to fulfill a strong interest or need as well as the fact that he stirs up very strong feelings. Is that an accurate appraisal? Why do you think he evokes such strong reactions?

A. Yes, indeed, the book has been widely excerpted, reviewed and is doing well on non-fiction bestseller lists for quite a few weeks now. In part this is because Abdullah is a significant figure whose story has not been told in a comprehensive manner or placed in its larger historical context. As I already mentioned, he has usually been seen in black and white without an examination of the reasons behind some of his political choices. My biography presents him as part of a global moment, shining a light on the ideologies and the people around him — whether his fellow revolutionaries, colleagues, critics, friends, family members and Kashmiris as a community — that shaped his political life. As a whole, the book illuminates his life from the perspective of the role it played in the making of modern India, both in terms of the idea of India as well as its institutions as an independent country.

Q. How is Abdullah viewed among the younger generations in Kashmir? Is there a generational difference in response to him?

A. Yes, absolutely. The older generation of Kashmiris remember him as a soldier for their rights, almost a saint who had been sent to deliver them from a life of repression and servitude. The next generation that came of age during the time that he was behind bars and eventually made a deal with India (1975) remember him with far less fondness, blaming him for building up their aspirations for freedom only to sell them down the road in exchange for political power. The current generation of young Kashmiris does not remember him very well, and in so far as they talk about him, it is not in particularly positive terms.   

Q. Ramachandra Guha edits the Indian Lives series, of which yours is the second. Did you work with him directly? What was that like? 

A. Yes, I did. When Ram discovered that I was working on Abdullah’s biography, he asked me to contribute the manuscript to the Indian Lives series. I enthusiastically agreed because he would be its editor, and as a biographer par excellence, able to provide guidance through the intricacies of writing a life narrative. And he read every single word of the first draft, providing invaluable comments and suggestions that made for a better book. The comments of the anonymous reviewers for the Yale University Press edition were also extremely helpful in shaping the book’s final form. And I finally want to mention my students in the Kashmir seminar that I have taught at W&M for about the time I have been working on the book; our class discussions about the region have contributed immensely to my thought process as I worked through the project.

Q. In one interview you described the process as ‘a work of serious toil.’ It took 10 years to research and write — as you mentioned, while you were raising a family and teaching — it must have caused some sacrifices in your time and possible frustrations. What motivated you and kept you going?

A. I spent five years researching the book and another five years writing, re-writing, editing it. And you’re right that it took serious toil, willpower and dedication to bring it to print. What kept me going was the encouragement and belief of all those individuals (mentors, colleagues, friends, family, my parents) that I was working on a significant project that needed to be brought to the public eye. Some of them passed while I was working on the book and that spurred me on to complete the project to honor their memory, especially their faith in my ability to produce impartial scholarship on a troubled region. The book is dedicated to the memory of my uncle, an inspiration and fierce supporter of my work. And also to my two sons, who grew up in and around my study while I was writing it, itching to ransack my papers!

Q. The more than a decade-long process of researching and writing this biography was funded by several endowments at W&M, two sabbaticals and external fellowships. What were they?

A. The W&M Plumeri Award (2014) and the American Institute of Indian Studies Fellowship (2014-15) funded the first stage of research for the book during my 2014-2015 sabbatical, which I spent in India. Subsequent research trips to India were funded by the Harrison Ruffin Tyler Faculty Research Award Endowment, the James Pinckney Harrison Chair of History research funds, and the Class of 1962 Professorship research funds. I completed the U.S. end of the research at the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland while directing the W&M DC program in fall 2016. I utilized my 2020-2021 sabbatical to begin writing the book in earnest and completed it after returning to teaching in the fall of 2021 through the fall of 2023.