FEATURING THE ELOQUENT LETTERS OF SAYED ASGAR ALI RAZWY
"When Asgar telephoned my home for the first time in October, 1965, I was suspicious. As a writer, I receive a fair share of crank calls and, as a result, whenever a stranger calls, I'm on my guard."
So I began writing "A PORTRAIT OF ASGAR AND THE PLIGHT OF KASHMIR", a biography about Sayed Asgar Ali Razwy and a history of his beloved homeland, Kashmir.
I listened to my caller for a few moments without comment, I just "ahummed" a couple of times so that he'd know I was there. But it wasn't very long before I realized that this call was not one of the usual nuisance variety. This man was quite apparently sincere, placid, honest and highly intelligent. I decided that if my assessment of him was wrong, I deserved to make a fool of myself. So I opened up and began asking questions.
First, what had prompted him to call me?
Asgar told me that he had just read an article about me in The Montreal Star. In the interview, I had stated my view that adults in a free country must be prepared to become involved in life. I had expressed my deep conviction that each human being should commit himself to contributing something to the world around him in whatever way he - or she - can.
Asgar told me that my story had moved and inspired him and that, as a refugee from Kashmir, he now felt compelled to do something to help his enslaved compatriots.
People often come to me for advice, but I told Asgar that I knew absolutely nothing about Kashmir - not even where it was . How could I be of any help? He invited me to meet with some of his fellow ex patriots at the Islamic Institute in downtown Montreal the following Sunday.
On Sunday I arrived at the Islamic Institute, a modest, aging building on Sherbrooke Street not far from McGill University. I entered the foyer along with a companion, and when I looked up the dark, spiralling staircase, I saw a fragile looking man with bushy eyebrows and glasses coming down to greet us.
"You are Phyllis Mass?" he said with a lilting accent. "You're Asgar," I declared with a feeling that I was greeting an old acquaintance. He welcomed us warmly and then guided us upstairs to a very small, dimly-lit room where four other men were waiting. Asgar introduced Dr. Hyder, Dr. Malik, Dr. Khalifa and the fourth man, also a physician, whose name escapes me. Like Asgar, these doctors were all refugees from Kashmir.
Thus I was introduced to Kashmir, a land of exquisite beauty that has suffered for centuries, like a precious porcelain doll being torn apart by ravenous dogs. Because of its strategic geographical location, its two main religious faiths, and its riches, Kashmir, like a beautiful woman, has been coveted by greedy men and has known no freedom or peace.
This small group soon formed the Kashmir Plebiscite Committee of Montreal and we did all we could to draw attention to the plight of the Kashmiri people. Our purpose was not to choose sides between the interests of Pakistan and India, but to promote the right of the People of Kashmir themselves to have a free plebiscite to decide their own destiny as had been promised by both India and the United Nations. A promise that has been was denied again and again as the people of Kashmir continue to suffer in chains.
But we were a small group and we kept running into brick walls. We did not make any significant inroads into the problems but, out of our coming together, the little study called, "A Portrait of Asgar and the Plight of Kashmir" was born.
I published A Portrait of Asgar and The Plight of Kashmir in 1968 after exchanging letters with the great but modest Islamic scholar Sayed Asgar Ali Razwy for years until his untimely death, and after dedicating myself to learning all I could about the history and the politics of Kashmir and its hungry neighbours.
At the time, information about Kashmir was scant and hard to come by. I did a lot of research and gathered everything I could find into this small book which I have shared with interested parties all over the world.
A Portrait of Asgar and the Plight of Kashmir is not available in stores, but copies were placed at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Library of the British Museum in London, at the University of Honolulu, Hawaii, and were deposited, as required by copyright law, in the Library of Parliament in Ottawa where they must still be available to the public. Copies were also donated to the Fraser Hickson Library in Montreal, but were reported "stolen" one after another by the librarian of the day, Ms. Trenholme.
After moving to New York, Asgar wrote of his longing for the Fraser Hickson Library:
" I hope you will not indict me for my cynicism if I tell you that I do not like the New York Public Library. It's a reference library, and it's dismal and somber. How I long to be in the Fraser-Hickson Library !"
Asgar's life was devoted to his quiet faith, his family and his people. He was hard working, devoted to his friend and employer, Mr. Keene, a manufacturer of carpet backing. But he denied himself everything. He hardly ate. His usual meal consisted of fruit, cheese and grape juice and his fragile frame reflected this. He loved to walk. His passion was Kashmir. My enduring respect for Asgar Razwy moves me to deny myself sleep to write to the world about Asgar and his people.
Asgar was a highly esteemed Islamic scholar and translator, but he was so modest that I did not find out about his accomplishments until years later. He spoke only about the people of Kashmir. Some time later, through a friend of a friend in California, I acquired a copy of a book entitled, "Salman El Farsi - Salman the Persian, Friend of Muhammad" - A short story of his life by Sayed A.A. Razwy. This small book, no larger than my own in volume, but also laden with information, was published in New York in 1983. Just reading the brief introduction, I am reminded of Asgar's eloquence.
" SALMAN THE PERSIAN WAS ONE of the greatest companions of Muhammad Mustafa, the Messenger of Allah. But the story of his life, unlike the story of the lives of most of the other companions of Muhammad (may Allah bless him and his family), is hidden in mystery since so little is known of it. This is especially strange considering his high rank in the sight of his master, benefactor and friend, Muhammad, the blessed one. The events of his life, it appears, are still awaiting some future seeker of truth to come and uncover them ...."
In one of letters to me, Asgar writes: "Perhaps you know that 225 classified languages and 850 dialects are spoken in the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent. I can speak only Urdu, Kashmiri, Punjabi and Hindi. Among the non-Indian languages I can speak only Persian and Turki (not Turkish). Persian was the court language of India for 800 years and it strongly influenced the Indian cultures. I owe my knowledge of Turki to my sojourn in Srinigar (Kashmir), from 1940 to 1944."
Asgar also spoke French, well enough to translate books from French to English for a friend in Montreal. He writes: " My oldest friends are books, and my hobby is the study of languages. Since I came here (to New York) three months ago, I have not been able to read any book (because he was working day and night to send money home to his family in Kashmir), and I have made no progress in learning Spanish. ... I find myself caught up in a race against the clock..."
This is not the place to recount the story of Asgar's exemplary life, as much as a platform upon which I call caring people of the world to take an interest in the plight of Kashmir.
Here, as a basis for your consideration of the plight of the people of Kashmir, I present the salient points. Let no one confuse the situation of Kashmir with divided Korea or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and certainly not with Quebec where some people desire a separate state when we already live in a great and free country.
The struggles over Kashmir are complex and hinge largely on the conflicts resulting from early conquests, the interests of Sikhs, Sheiks, Dogra Hindus, the involvement of Great Britain, the interests of the majority who are Muslims vs.the Hindu population, and the failure of the United Nations and India to honour their promises that the People of Kashmir would decide their own destiny through a free plebiscite. Since 1846 when the British defeated the Sikhs in the First Punjab War and imposed a war indemnity on the Lahore Court, the troubles have continued.
Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru pledged a plebiscite for Kashmir. On November 21, 1947, he said,
"I have repeatedly stated that as soon as the raiders have been forced out of Kashmir or have withdrawn and peace has been established the people of Kashmir should decide the question of accession by plebiscite or referendum under international auspices such as those of the United Nations"
Lord Mountbatten, on July 25, 1947, told the princes of the Indian States that, "the Indian Independence Act releases the States from all their obligations to the Crown. The States have complete freedom - technically and legally are independent."
But, for sixty years, India has repeatedly found excuses to prevent the plebiscite and the United Nations has repeatedly found reasons not to discuss Kashmir.
It is now the 21st Century and the world is involved in many troubles, wars, natural disasters, man-made disasters, political chicanery, and many other distractions. Who thinks of Kashmir?
I do. I remember my brilliant and gentle friend, Sayed Asgar Ali Razwy, and I honour his memory by reminding the world to look to Kashmir. Do not forget the People of Kashmir.
Let the People of Kashmir decide their own destiny. India and the United Nations must honour their promises to allow the People of Kashmir a free plebiscite. It is time !