The revival of communalism

Print edition : March 13, 1999

NADEEM KHATEEB'S family learned he was dead on February 27. "Your son and two other mujahideen have been martyred in Udhampur," the caller said, claiming to be on the line from London. His wealthy Srinagar family had had no inkling of their son having become a terrorist. The son of a retired Chief Engineer, Khateeb had been living in the United States, working as a well-paid flight instructor in a Georgia school where he had obtained his commercial pilot's licence in 1995.

No one knows what prompted Khateeb to join the fundamentalist group that instructed him to leave for Udhampur, but his death has underlined the ascendancy of far-right groups in Jammu and Kashmir's secessionist struggle. Non-resident cultural neurosis, as with Hindus and Sikhs living in the West, has driven Muslim support for chauvinist groups in Jammu and Kashmir. While groups in the United Kingdom and U.S. have long backed armed groups in Kashmir, Khateeb is the first non-resident Indian to have actually returned to fight in the State.

On February 21, Khateeb was shot dead at Buthal village on the Gool heights of Udhampur district. Unsurprisingly, little effort was made to identify either him or the two other terrorists killed. Most terrorists in the Jammu region are Pakistan and Afghan nationals, with no known identity other than their codenames. All that Khateeb's family has been able to learn is that their son was only recently asked to return to India by his terrorist sponsors.

What is perhaps most interesting about Khateeb is that his story illustrates the growing influence of Taliban-style pan-Islamic groups in sustaining terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. Most of the first phase of young men who joined armed groups after 1988 were from the urban lower middle class, driven by Kashmiri nationalist sentiment. Later recruits consisted of poor rural youth with few ideological convictions, many of whom rapidly defected to pro-India militia groups as the tide turned against terrorism in the mid-1990s. And even fundamentalist organisations such as the Hizbul Mujahideen sought legitimacy as distinctly Kashmiri organisations, bound to a local agenda.

There are other more subterranean signs of the influence that far-right Islamic groups have acquired in shaping the course of events in Kashmir. Last month Srinagar witnessed a blackout of cable television channels deemed offensive by terrorist groups, prinicipally the Harkat-ul-Ansar's avatar, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, for the second time this season. Srinagar cable operators cut off channels such as MTV and those showing Hindi and English films and government and private news in response to calls from terrorist groups. One operator, who was reluctant to shut down the most profitable channels he was offering, was shot at on February 24.

Although cynics have suggested that the main aim of the ban was extortion, the fact remains that the attack on perceived pornography and propaganda found more than a few supporters. All-Party Hurriyat Conference chief and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani had defended the earlier ban, which was lifted after he brokered an agreement with operators promising not to screen "offensive channels". The blanket ban on supposedly offensive channels has now been lifted, but MTV and similar channels remain off the air. While the desirability of MTV might be dubious, the fact remains that the use of coercive means to end access to it is unacceptable. Tragically, no voices were raised in the State establishment to dispute the ban.

Even more disturbing, two young women were shot at in downtown Srinagar on February 23, for wearing trousers in violation of terrorist fiats that women must cover themselves in what the fundamentalists imagine is an appropriately Islamic fashion. The women were hospitalised. Several terrorist groups, and front organisations such as the Hizbul Mujahideen's women's wing, the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, had complained in recent months against women visiting restaurants, hotels and parks without their husbands, and against their use of supposedly inappropriate clothes.

Such rule by fundamentalist edict is not new to the Kashmir Valley. Interestingly, the first efforts to impose an allegedly Islamic order were endorsed by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which has proclaimed its secular convictions. In 1990, the JKLF, its Islamic credentials under attack from the right, collaborated with forcible closures of cinemas and liquor shops. In the years that followed, the Hizbul Mujahideen picked up from where the declining JKLF had left. Women were pushed into purdah, and access to contraception and abortion was terminated. On several occasions, Valley residents seeking to travel to Jammu for such purposes were fined, beaten or even shot. In some downtown urban areas, children were even forbidden from playing cricket, which far-right leaders found to be a frivolous diversion from the task of preparing for war.

By 1995, it was evident that such efforts to coerce society had proved counterproductive. Under severe pressure, the coercive ability of terrorist groups waned, and the edicts were relaxed in an effort to win back at least some popular support. Now, with a new set of actors looming large on Jammu and Kashmir's landscape of terror, the war to control people's minds has begun again.

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