Two leading universities on the Indian side of Kashmir have removed the poems and a memoir written by two internationally acclaimed authors from their master's program curriculum, claiming "resistance literature" in the syllabus promotes a "secessionist mindset, aspiration, and narrative" among students.
The decision to drop the literary pieces on July 21, according to local news reports, is based on a verbal order allegedly issued by the regional government, and university officials have confirmed their removal.
The University of Kashmir, in its third semester of the master's degree in English, used to teach students about the writings of Agha Shahid Ali and Basharat Peer. Ali was a Kashmiri-American poet who had moved to the United States, where he became affiliated with the late-20th century New Formalism movement that stressed traditional forms of verse. He died on Dec. 8, 2021, with brain cancer and is buried in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Peer is a Kashmir-born America-based journalist, author and political commentator, formerly a New York Times opinion writer, now with the International Crisis Group.
The curriculum included three Ali poems — "Postcard from Kashmir," "In Arabic," and "The Last Saffron." The poems reflected the themes of exile, nostalgia, cultural heritage, and the political situation in Kashmir.
The curriculum also included Peer's memoir, Curfewed Night, which won the Crossword Book Award for nonfiction and was chosen among the books of the year by The Economist and The New Yorker.
The second university to remove works is Cluster University Srinagar, which had incorporated Ali's poems into its curriculum. "I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight" and "Call Me Ishmael Tonight" narrate tales of the poet's nostalgic longing for Kashmir's beauty and peace from far away and explore blending cultures and reimagine classic Western literature with Eastern influences.
The schools' decision to drop Ali's and Peer's works triggered a debate among the locals regarding the importance of freedom of expression and cultural representation in Kashmir. Critics argued that embracing diverse narratives is crucial for fostering empathy and promoting inclusivity.
Literature student Insha Shah expressed disappointment at the decision to exclude Ali and Peer from the syllabus, saying students are being deprived of an opportunity to engage with the thought-provoking works of the two authors.
"Aga Shahid Ali has left an indelible mark on the world of literature with his evocative verses that delve into themes of exile and identity, offering profound insights into the human condition," Shah told VOA.
"Likewise, Basharat Peer, an immensely talented author, presents a vivid picture of life amid conflict by deeply resonating with the feelings of people," she said.
Farooq Ahmad Masoodi, the dean of academic affairs at the University of Kashmir, conceded the works of the two have been removed but said he is unaware of a verbal order issued by the local administration as reported by local news organizations.
"The decision was made by the board of studies of the respective department," Masoodi said. "The addition or deletion of syllabus is a routine process subject to periodic updates," he said.
Qayyum Hussain, vice chancellor of Cluster University Srinagar, also claimed to have "no information" on the removal of Ali's work from the university curriculum.
Mirza Waheed, a Kashmir-born, London-based author and journalist, called the move an "ugly" attack on freedom of thought. He said the decision to remove Ali's and Peer's works is "yet another tactic in the Indian state's war against Kashmiri memory."
"It is also a clear indication of how a state of abnormality is imposed and people are expected to go along with it," Waheed wrote on Facebook. "This is how book bans are normalized. At some point, they will go after bookstores, then libraries, then the solitary reader with a book at his home."
Syed Naeem Akhtar Andrabi, the former education minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said the move is a part of the larger plan of the Indian government under the Bharatiya Janata Party to "obliterate the only Muslim-majority state" in the country.
"I see the move as a distortion of their version of Hindu Rashtra [a concept that envisions a political and cultural state in which the dominant religion and culture are Hinduism]," Andrabi told VOA. "They started with the dismantling of the state in 2019 [when the Indian government removed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir] and proceeded with taking everything and now they are trying to capture the intellectual space, which spans over thousands of years whose contemporary expression is conveyed in the poetry of Agha Shahid Ali and the writing of Basharat Peer and others," he said.
"How else can the present generation connect with other parts of the world without writing and poetry?" Andrabi said. "They are trying to hide from the world not just the intellectual and literary image of Kashmir but also anything that reflects the pain and misery that this place has been experiencing for decades," he said.