Jamaat in retreat

Print edition : March 14, 2008

Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sheikh Mohammad Hassan startles observers by refusing to participate in a secessionist anti-election campaign.

in Srinagar

Separatist leaders in the State march towards the U.N. office in Srinagar on February 9 demanding that the remains of Maqbool Bhat, founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, who was hanged 24 years ago, be returned.-ROUF BHAT/AFP

UNDER the dirty grey carpet of ice shrouding the Kashmir valley, the first signs of the political life that will blossom this summer are rustling. On February 14, Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islamis amir, Sheikh Mohammad Hassan, the chief of the political formation that gave birth to the Hizbul Mujahideen, announced that he would not participate in a secessionist campaign seeking a boycott of the Assembly elections scheduled for later this year.

Hassans language was startling. Elections, he said, do not have any impact on the status of the Kashmir issue. If people cast their votes in the elections, it does not mean that they have given up their freedom struggle or accepted Indias domination of Jammu and Kashmir.

I am at variance, he said, with leaders and organisations who overemphasise the election boycott campaign, which may sometimes prove counterproductive. Among these leaders is the Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani. The Jamaat is a founder-member of his hardline Tehrik-e-Hurriyat secessionist coalition.

Coming just days after the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council announced that it would not kill election participants 69 political activists were shot dead in 1996 and 99 in 2002 the Jamaats declaration is of obvious significance. A peaceful election could ensure record voter participation, particularly in the Islamist strongholds of southern Kashmir. More important than a peaceful election, though, are signs that the Jamaat and the Islamists whom it represents is seeking to reintegrate itself in Jammu and Kashmirs political life.

This past year, the Jamaat has been seeking to return to its roots: organising rallies against moral corruption and Western cultural influences, but studiously avoiding polemic on the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. Large rallies have been held across much of south Kashmir; Kulgam, the base of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, has been a key target.

Ideologically affiliated but institutionally distinct from its counterparts in India and Pakistan, the Jamaat was founded by Saaduddin Tarabali. A theologian and science teacher who was among Islamist ideologue Maulana Abdul Ala Maududis associates, Saaduddins central concern was freeing Islam in Jammu and Kashmir of the syncretic folk practices, which he, like many religious conservatives, believed had corrupted the essence of the faith.

Back in 1945, in his inaugural speech to the newly founded Jamaats cadre, Saaduddin railed against the sad state of Islam in this land today. He lamented that Kashmiri Muslims were totally ignorant of the true spirit of Islam.

Our State is such that leave alone making an unbeliever a Muslim, Saaduddin said, no true Muslim can be fully satisfied with us. Only when personal reform is achieved, in Saaduddins view, can the party of Islam be able to place before the world a broad Islamic revolutionary programme.

What was this programme? According to the Jamaats constitution, the organisation is committed to establishing the true faith [iqamat-e-din]. Its members are called on to know the difference between Islam and jahiliyat [ignorance], abandon all customs, practices and beliefs that are in conflict with the Quran and the sunnah [theological tradition] and not have any close social relations, apart from ordinary human links, with morally corrupt people and those who have forgotten Allah.

It expressly commits the Jamaat to using democratic and constitutional means while working for reform and righteous revolution, forbidding ways and means against ethics, truthfulness and honesty, or which may contribute to strife on earth.

For decades after Independence, the Jamaat participated first through proxies and then up front in mainstream political life. It endorsed candidates to the Jammu and Kashmir Legislature, who swore allegiance to Indias Constitution. Speaking for the emerging Muslim middle-class the petty bourgeoisie, orchard owners and bureaucrats the Jamaat insisted that Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir was contested, but stayed clear of successive violent movements intended to overthrow it. In the mid-1970s, though, that began to change, with fateful consequences.

Understanding the Jamaat-e-Islamis hijacking by the jehadist agenda needs engagement with the political climate of that period. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wielded something resembling political omnipotence in Jammu and Kashmir during the mid-1970s, a status acquired by the decisive military defeat of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. Her progress on the Dal Lake by boat was propelled by turbaned oarsmen, the historian Victoria Schofield records, of Indira Gandhis October 1975 visit to Srinagar, in a manner reminiscent of the visits of Mughal emperors.

Indira Gandhis visit followed the conclusion of a political deal with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. In essence, Abdullah was anointed sole spokesperson for the State, in return for unquestioning support both for the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union and for the Congress rule in New Delhi.

Abdullahs political enemies soon felt the lash. During the Emergency, both his Hindu-communalist adversaries in Jammu and the Jamaat faced proscription. Much of the Jamaats leadership was jailed. Some 125 Jamaat-run schools, with over 550 teachers and 25,000 students, were banned. So were another 1,000 evening schools run by the organisation, which reached out to 50,000 boys and girls. All of this had Abdullahs enthusiastic support. In one speech, he described the Islamist organisations schools as the real source for spreading communal poison.

How accurate was Abdullahs charge? The scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded that in the Jamaats perception, the schools were a response to its belief that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth. It was even alleged that the Government of India had dispatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician] D.P. Dhar, to investigate how Islam was driven out of Spain and to suggest measures as to how the Spanish experiment could be repeated in Kashmir, too.

Soon, the strength of the Jamaats apparatus was tested. In March 1977, Indira Gandhi withdrew the Emergency and called general elections. She was defeated. Now wearing the halo of political martyrdom, the Jamaat sought to capitalise on the new situation. It allied itself with the Janata Party both at the national level and in Jammu and Kashmir, where elections were held the same year. Incendiary communalism was used to take on the Jamaat. A vote for the party, Abdullah claimed, was a vote for the Jan Sangh, a Hindu-chauvinist constituent of the Janata Party whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims.

Islam, leaders of the National Conference insisted, would be in danger if the Jamaat-Janata alliance came to power. Mirza Afzal Beg, Abdullahs key deputy, would often open a green handkerchief containing Pakistani rock salt as opposed to Indian sea salt signalling support for that country. National Conference cadre administered oaths on the Quran to potential voters, while clerics were imported from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to campaign in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu.

It paid off: the National Conference won 47 out of 75 seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, a decisive majority. Moreover, the National Conference secured over 46 per cent of the popular vote, an exceptionally high proportion in Indian elections. By contrast, the Jamaat-e-Islami could secure just 1 of the 19 seats it contested and received only 3.59 per cent of the Statewide vote. This was a performance poorer than even that of the fledgling Janata Party, which picked up 13 seats in Jammu and secured 23.7 per cent of the popular vote.

But Abdullahs victory came at a price. His aggressive use of Islamist themes and images during the campaign had cost him support in Jammu, particularly among Hindus. Just one of the seven seats that the National Conference picked up in Jammu, Ramban, had a Hindu majority. In effect, the National Conference had abandoned its historic project of building itself into a spokesperson for the entire State and retreated to its heartland in the valley. More importantly, the party had opened the gates for the large-scale use of religion in mass politics, a weapon that others, in time, would also learn to use.

It was in the wake of these developments that the Jamaat began its transfiguration into a platform for the nascent jehad in Jammu and Kashmir. The vehicle used for this was its student wing, the Islami Jamaat-e-Tulba (IJT). Formed in 1977, the IJT was to develop transnational linkages with neoconservative Islamist groups, in much the same manner and much the same time as the Students Islamic Movement of India elsewhere.

At the outset, the IJT reached out to Saudi Arabia-based neoconservative patronage networks for help. In 1979, the IJT was granted membership of the World Organisation of Muslim Youth, a controversial Saudi-funded body which financed many Islamist groups that later turned to terrorism. The next year the IJT organised a conference in Srinagar, which was attended by dignitaries from across West Asia, including the Imam of the mosques of Mecca and Medina, Abdullah bin-Sabil.

By the end of the decade, the IJT had formally committed itself to an armed struggle against the Indian state. Its president, Sheikh Tajamul Husain, now a mid-ranking leader of the secessionist movement, told journalists in Srinagar that Kashmiris did not consider themselves Indian and forces stationed there were an army of occupation. Husain also called for the establishment of an Islamic state through the medium of a revolution. A year later, in 1981, Husain reiterated his call to his followers to throw out the Indian occupation. Many of those who would later acquire central positions in the Hizbul Mujahideen, including its supreme commander Mohammad Yusuf Shah, cut their political teeth in this climate.

If the IJTs defiance of established Jamaat doctrine was not punished, it was with good reason. Where traditional Jamaat politics had failed to help the party expand outside its traditional bases, as demonstrated in the 1977 election results, the new discourse of the IJT appeared to help it emerge as the principal voice of anti-India sentiment in Jammu and Kashmir. It was bait that the ambitious Jamaat leaders could not turn down.

The National Conferences use of force against the Jamaat persuaded some in the organisation that it needed armed resources of its own. Law, though, was not the sole instrument used to suppress the Jamaat. In the wake of Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos execution by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, Jamaat supporters were targeted for reprisal. Hundreds had their homes and orchards destroyed by National Conference-led mobs, often operating under police protection.

Still, many Jamaat leaders looked at the rise of jehad with alarm in 1989. Then a member of the State Legislative Assembly, Geelani participated in an August 19, 1989, meeting called by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to consider responses to the growing violence. I was the only participant in the meeting who suggested resolving issues through dialogue and avoiding the use of force, he admitted at a press conference last year a startling position for a politician now counted as the political voice of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Clearly, Geelani still felt solutions could be found within existing political structures. The IJT radicals, however, did not and they, not the Jamaat patriarchs, would shape events for the next decade. But the wheel of history did turn again, however slowly. By the mid-1990s, much of the Jamaat rank and file had wearied of the jehad and come to understand that a military victory was impossible. Many felt its association with the Hizbul Mujahideen had led to the sidelining of its more important political aims.

In 1997, G.M. Bhat, the then amir of the Jamaat, came out of jail, gave an interview calling for an end to gun culture, and set about distancing the organisation from the Hizbul Mujahideen. Geelani was incensed, but the tide was against him. Then, in the spring of 1999, former Hurriyat chairman Abdul Gani Bhat called for a dialogue between mainstream political parties and secessionists, a marked departure from the organisations demand for a three-way dialogue between itself, India and Pakistan. The initiatives of both the leaders laid the ground for dissident Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar to declare a unilateral ceasefire in July 2000, which Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee promptly reciprocated.

While Dars ceasefire efforts fell apart, and he was assassinated a year later, G.M. Bhat continued to strengthen the moderates. In the build-up to the 2002 Assembly elections, Geelani found himself dependent on Islamists outside the Jamaat, such as Nayeem Khans Kashmir Front and Shakeel Bakshis Islamic Students League. In May 2003, Jamaat moderates led by G.M. Bhats successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Geelani as their political representative.

In January 2004, the Jamaats Majlis-e-Shoora, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to democratic and constitutional struggle; the language startled many but in fact drew on the party constitution.

Hardliners of whom Geelani is but the most visible have long critiqued this political about-turn. Writing in 2006, the Islamist commentator Sheikh Showkat Husain argued against the Jamaats disengagement from the Kashmiri jehad, insisting that the fate of Islamic movements cannot be divorced from the fate of the Muslim ummah [community of believers] and its various segments, be they in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya or Kashmir.

If Jamaat and other Islamic movements keep aloof from these issues and the state of affairs of the ummah, he wrote, they will do it at their own expense. It will lead them nowhere except to marginalisation.

Now, realising that the jehad has led to a dead-end, the Jamaat has evidently decided to take the chance. Its success or failure will be a critical element in shaping the political future of Jammu and Kashmir.

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