The Perfect Prince of Paradise

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The Perfect Prince of Paradise

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

T

here is a song that plays often at Kashmiri weddings and nearly every day on Radio Kashmir. “Naad ha laaye, miyaan Yusufo walo (I am calling out for you, O my Yusuf, come home)”. It is a haunting melody that was written by Kashmir peasant princess and poet Habba Khatoon 400 years ago. In this song, she’s aching for the return of her lover Yusuf Chak, the dashing ruler who fought for an autonomous Kashmir and died for it.

In recent times, the young, exiled king has become a symbol of the state’s lost glory – and Habba Khatoon’s futile search for Chak has become a metaphor for its constant political predicament.

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“We want the 400-year-old era of Yusuf Shah Chak to return to Kashmir,” said the late Mufti Mohammed Sayeed of the Peoples Democratic Party, at the annual Urs of the ruler held in Bihar every year, the place to which Chak was exiled and where he eventually died. Chak represents everything that Kashmiris want their ruler to be: secular, deeply cultural, and proud of his heritage. The king also represents their deepest desire… the desire to be free.

But in this disturbed valley, freedom has had several run-ins with history, only to emerge the loser each time. The story of what happened to Chak, is in many ways, the story of Kashmir – past and present.

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Yusuf Shah Chak, the striking young prince of Kashmir, was adored by his kingdom. Secular to a fault, he banned eating beef because he did not want to hurt the religious sensitivities of his Kashmiri Pandit subjects. But what made Chak truly irresistible to the people of the Valley was that, just like them, he was a lover of Kashmir’s poetry, music, and beauty.

Chak often went incognito among his people, taking solitary horse rides through the hills. One morning, while riding on the outskirts of Srinagar, a sweet female voice drew him. As he pressed closer, he saw a beautiful peasant woman alone in her field, lost in song. Mesmerised by her beauty, Chak stood still. That young woman had a name as plangent as the valley – Zoon. When she detected an alien presence in the field, she was startled and before Chak could say anything, she ran away.

Unable to get her out of her head, Chak visited the spot again the following day. It took him a long time to convince Zoon to marry him, but convince her he did. He named her, his queen, Habba Khatoon. She wrote poetry and sang it to her handsome prince and their fairytale romance became the talk of the Valley. The two would venture far into the wild and find new places where they could retreat. It was on such wanderings that they discovered Gulmarg, the high-altitude meadow of flowers.

The good times, however, didn’t last too long. On December 20, 1585, Mughal emperor Akbar’s army charged into Kashmir. Chak refused to appear in the emperor’s court to pay his respects. Battle ensued, and Chak’s smaller but well-trained army repulsed the advance. They knew the terrain better and mounted a surprise assault that left the raiders befuddled. Eventually, the raiders sued for peace. But talks broke down as Chak insisted on retaining Kashmir’s sovereignty.

Secular to a fault, Yusuf Chak banned eating beef because he did not want to hurt the religious sensitivities of his Kashmiri Pandit subjects.

Akbar’s emissary warned him of the consequences of his arrogance. “Even if the imperial troops have met with disaster as a result of the wrath of God Almighty, the great monarch will send back a hundred thousand troops and this land will be trampled under the feet of elephants. You ought to realise the consequences which your attitude will lead to,” the extract of the letter reproduced in Akbarnama reads.

After days of intense deliberation, Chak decided to avoid the confrontation and bid for an autonomous status for Kashmir in the Mughal Empire. He allowed coins to be minted and the khutba (Friday sermons) to be recited in the name of Emperor Akbar.

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It was Kashmir’s first attempt at autonomy. The second would take place 400 years later in 1952 when after a protracted tug-of-war between India and Pakistan, the 1952 Delhi Agreement, granted that the central government’s authority in Kashmir was to be limited to just three subjects: defence, foreign affairs, and communications. Sheikh Abdullah was prime minister, and just like Chak, he began his autonomous innings with great hope for the Valley – finally they would be free. But before these hopes could flower, both were quickly quelled.

When Chak presented himself in Delhi at the imperial court for the ratification of their agreement by Akbar, he had no idea he would never come back to his beloved Kashmir. Akbar, smarting from the insult of losing the war, ordered his imprisonment and annexed the state to his vast empire. Events in 1953 would take a similar turn. In a sudden reversal, Sheikh Abdullah was summarily dismissed from office and arrested for allegedly conspiring with the US to make Kashmir an independent country. A series of presidential orders were issued, which made other provisions of the Constitution of India applicable to J&K, eroding Article 370, which granted J&K its autonomy and reduced it “to a husk with seed being taken away”. That was the last time Kashmir came close to autonomy.

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Every year on January 4, people at Biswak in Bihar gather for the Urs, a ceremony marking the death anniversary of Chak. They converge at the wild, lush ground around a worn-down sandstone grave at the village’s edge. A langar serves local sweet bundiya and khichdi to devotees and elders drape the grave with a green chadar. This Urs is, in a way, symbolic of a state of half-existence, a yearning for a period in history that stood for everything the Kashmiris believed in.

With the PDP government back in power, the return of this symbol of aazadi to Kashmir, is fraught with risk. Chak’s disinterment and reburial in the Valley will be read in contentiously political terms. It will raise the hackles of PDP’s nationalist coalition partner the Bharatiya Janata Party and the larger rightwing in India.

But just like Zoon, Kashmir won’t give up on Chak. After his death in Bihar, Zoon was left alone. She abandoned the royal palace and spent the rest of her life roaming from village to village, singing songs of separation and yearning to be reunited with her beloved. People imagine a smitten, distraught Zoon wandering across the hills and villages of Kashmir, humming the haunting lyrics for her beloved Yusuf.

“Naad ha laaye, miyaan Yusufo walo.” Her words are echoed by the citizens of this beleaguered Valley.

The wait continues. One day it will come to an end.

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