Feeding on fears

Published : Jul 18, 2008 00:00 IST

A Kashmiri Muslim protester throws back a tear-gas shell at the police during a demonstration against the governments decision to transfer forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, in Srinagar on June 24. - FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

A Kashmiri Muslim protester throws back a tear-gas shell at the police during a demonstration against the governments decision to transfer forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, in Srinagar on June 24. - FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Jammu & Kashmir: In the Kashmir Valley, Islamism and Hindutva are enemies that share the same cause.

They regard the mosque and the temple as equal, Seeing no difference between muddy puddles and the ocean, They know not the sacred, the honourable or the respectable.

MAQBOOL SHAH KRAALWARIS 1912 Greeznama lamented the robust syncretism of Kashmirs peasants: like other revivalists, both Hindu and Muslim, the poet was frustrated with his peoples refusal to embrace the new, neoconservative faith systems that were sweeping across South Asia.

Less than a century later, the landscape Kraalwari described has disappeared, flattened by a seismic cultural upheaval. Since mid-June, Jammu and Kashmir has been scorched by a communal conflagration of a scale and intensity that has taken many by surprise. Hundreds of people have been injured and four persons have died.

Although Islamist-led mob violence has occurred fairly frequently in recent years (the protests in 2006 against a prostitution scandal and last summers attacks on couples in Srinagar are cases in point), the dispute over permission to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board to build temporary accommodation for pilgrims on 39.88 hectares of forest land has brought more people on to the streets than at any point since the long jehad began in the State.

For the most part, commentators have cast the conflict as the outcome of former Governor S.K. Sinhas aggressive advocacy of Hindu chauvinist interests, the search of the secessionist for an emotive cause, and the opportunism of major political parties. All these explanations are correct. None, though, fully explains just why so many young Kashmiri men are willing to sacrifice their lives to oppose a temporary land allotment.

It is like worship, the Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani recently said of the anti-India political campaign he leads, like the recitation of the kalima [profession of faith], like the offering of namaaz, like the paying of zakat [charity], like the performance of hajj. For Geelani and his Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, the protests against the allotment of land are a crucible in which piety and xenophobic paranoia can be forged into a programme of resistance to Indias presence in Jammu and Kashmir.

At a June 23 meeting in Srinagar, Geelani explained the importance of the Shrine Board issue to his followers. He charged Sinha with working to alter the demographic character of our State. I caution my nation that if we do not wake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our land forever, he said in summation.

Evidence of the threat, Geelani told the audience at an earlier rally on June 20, was abundant. He pointed to recent cases of sexual violence and kidnapping of children. Such crimes, he claimed, were unheard of in the [Kashmir] Valley, but the day the numbers of outsiders increased, the crime rate here also went up. Moreover, the outsiders were promoting their own polytheistic culture in alliance with the Indian state, he said. Asking Kashmir residents to neither employ nor provide accommodation to outsiders, he asked migrant workers to leave Kashmir peacefully.

Geelanis ranting, none of which would have been unfamiliar to Hindutva leaders in Maharashtra, was of a piece with Kashmiri Islamists long-standing xenophobia. In the decades after Independence, the scholar Yoginder Sikand tells us, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders believed that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris. It was alleged that that the government of India had despatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician and former State Home Minister] 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.

Islamist resistance to cultural modernity often exploded into violence. In May 1973, a college student in Anantnag discovered an encyclopaedia (Arthur Mees Book of Knowledge) containing a drawing of the archangel Gabriel dictating the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad, an image that, in some readings of Islamic tradition, is blasphemous. Protesters demanded that the author be hanged. A vain demand, the American writer and Indira Gandhis biographer Katherine Frank noted wryly, since Arthur Mee had died in England in 1943. A Government of India decision to prohibit sales of the out-of-print book did nothing to quiet tempers. Four persons died in rioting.

Politicians routinely tapped Kashmirs communal wellsprings. At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state. The MUF leaders built their campaign around the sale of liquor and laws that proscribed cow slaughter, which were seen as threats to the authentic Muslim character of Kashmir.

Fears of religious-ethnic annihilation have surfaced again. Writing in the Srinagar-based Rising Kashmir, Khalid Wasim Hassan asserted: India is now openly following a policy aimed at changing the demography of Kashmir. India, he argued, hoped that settling non-State subjects is going to have its impact on the discourse of the self-determination movement and the end result of [an eventual] Plebiscite [sic.].

On point of fact, it is the Pakistani state the Islamists wish to join that has been guilty of bringing about large-scale demographic changes in Jammu and Kashmir, and not India. As the scholar Navnita Behera has shown in her book Demystifying Kashmir, the state-backed but illegal settlement of ethnic Punjabis and Pashtoons has reduced the Northern Areas Shia majority from over 80 per cent at the time of Independence to just 50 per cent now. Azad Kashmir has also seen a large-scale influx of ethnic Punjabis, and the loss of some of the regions most fertile land to hydro-electric projects that benefit the plains.

Few of the arguments against the land-use rights granted to the Shrine Board stand on firm empirical foundations.

No evidence exists, for one, to support the Islamist claim of large-scale settlement of non-State subjects: Census data emphatically rebuts the allegation that Kashmiri Muslims are being marginalised in their own land. While the presence of large numbers of pilgrims, without dispute, would damage the environment, it is hard to see how putting prefabricated restrooms for those already there would aggravate the situation. Nor is the claim that the Shrine Board is acquiring local lands true: the orders granting it permission to house pilgrims make clear that the ownership of the land was not being transferred

Still, the one fact that really matters is that large numbers of Kashmir residents see India as an existential threat. Part of the reason for these fears lies in a still-unfolding project to sharpen the ideological boundaries of Islam in Kashmir, which casts Hinduism as a predatory threat. In the first decades of the 20th century, Jammu and Kashmir saw the emergence of a new middle class that vied with traditional Muslim leaders for power. New forms of Islam, which privileged normative, textual religion over syncretic peasant traditions, were used to legitimise their claims to speak for Kashmirs Muslims.

One major development was the arrival in Kashmir of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadith, a religious order that was set up by the followers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly. Ahmad died at Balakote, now in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in 1831 while waging an unsuccessful jehad against Maharaja Ranjit Singhs kingdom, a campaign that still fires the imagination of Muslims in South Asia and about which Ayesha Jalal reminds us in her new book Partisans of Allah.

Ahl-e-Hadith ideologues, such as the clerics Siddiq Hasan Khan and Nazir Husain, rejected the accommodation Islam in India had made with its environment.

Sayyed Hussain Shah Batku, a Delhi seminary student who carried the Ahl-e-Hadith message to Kashmir in 1925, denounced key practices of mainstream Islam in the State, such as the worship of shrines and veneration of relics. Along with his followers Anwar Shah Shopiani, Ghulam Nabi Mubaraki and Sabzar Khan, Batku attacked traditionalists for following practices tainted by their Hindu heritage, like the recitation of litanies before namaaz. Not surprisingly, Batku came under sustained attack from traditionalist clerics, who charged him with being an apostate, an infidel and even the dajjal, or devil incarnate. His response was to cast himself as a defender of the faith, railing against heterodox Muslim sects such as the Ahmadis and the Shias, Hindu revivalists and Christian missionaries, all of whom he claimed were working to expel Islam from Kashmir.

Despite its limited popular reach, the Ahl-e-Hadith had enormous ideological influence: over the decades, it succeeded in undermining the primacy of the peasant Islam Kraalwari had railed against.

As the historian Chitralekha Zutshi has pointed out in her work on the making of religious identity in the Kashmir Valley, Languages of Belonging, the influence of the Ahl-e-Hadith on the conflicts over Kashmiri identities cannot be overemphasised. While the reflexive media association of the Ahl-e-Hadith and terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba can be misleading the head of the Srinagar unit of the crack counter-terrorist Special Operations Group is, after all, also an adherent there is little doubt the vision of Islam it propagated prepared the ground for the rise of the Jamaat-e-Islami and modern jehadists.

Also of significance was the course of the freedom movement in Jammu and Kashmir, which left deep scars on its communal fabric. Directed as it was against a monarchy, which drew its legitimacy from Hinduism, hostilities based around religion were, perhaps, inevitable. All major political parties commemorate July 13, 1931, when Dogra troops killed 28 protestors in Srinagar, as a decisive moment in the freedom struggle. Yet, the violence that provoked the firing was driven by a religious issue, the prosecution of Abdul Qadeer Khan for delivering a communally charged seditious speech, and among other things targeted Hindu-owned businesses and homes.

Srinagar saw more communal violence in September that year. Just as in the rest of India, the at-best ambiguous secularism of powerful elements of the freedom movement left a troubled legacy that is yet to be resolved.

Hindutva, of course, has helped the Islamist project along. Decades of pogroms, most recently, the large-scale slaughter in Gujarat, gave credence to claims that Muslims are not safe in India. Kashmiri Muslim students and businessmen often encounter discrimination, which has made them acutely conscious of the variance between the promise and practice of Indias secularism. Significantly, unemployed and semi-employed urban men jeans-clad, sunglass-sporting, and often English-speaking make up the mobs spearheading the protests: young people who venerate capitalism, but have found in Islamism a medium for their rage at being denied entry at the gates to the earthly paradise it promises.

On a visit to New Delhi soon after Independence, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah underlined the relationship between politics in Kashmir and Indian communalism. There isnt a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur, Abdullah said, noting that some of these had been Muslim-majority States. Kashmiri Muslims, he concluded, are afraid that the same fate lies ahead for them as well.

When Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia threatens to cut off food supplies to Kashmir in reprisal for the anti-Shrine Board agitation, or demands the abrogation of Article 370, it is this fear that he feeds. Islamist campaigns in Kashmir, similarly, serve to legitimise the politics of Hindutva elsewhere in India. In the coming weeks, efforts to arrive at a political compromise on the land allotment to the Shrine Board may help contain the violence.

Whatever arrangement is arrived at, though, will do little to repair the deepening fault lines between Kashmir and India and between Hindu and Muslim. In and outside of Kashmir, this will serve communalists well. While Geelani and Togadia may be enemies, the fact is they are enemies with the same cause.

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