Katiyar's bombshell

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

"CERTAIN tendencies have been asserting themselves in India," said Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1951, "which may in the future convert it into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised. This would happen if a communal organisation had a dominant hand in the government and Congress ideas of the equality of all communities were to give way to religious intolerance."

Five decades on, just that prospect is staring Jammu and Kashmir in the face. Although there has been no violent street-level response to the horrific communal massacres of Gujarat, the events of March have had a deep mass impact. Secessionist groups in Jammu and Kashmir have always asserted that they do not wish to have a future in the Indian Union. Now many ordinary people are asking if they could have one, even if they wished.

Perhaps the most graphic illustration of the new vulnerabilities of Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir came in early March. Bajrang Dal leader and Bharatiya Janata Party MP Vinay Katiyar asserted that the historic Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar was once a temple founded by an obscure Hindu saint. Katiyar told The Asian Age that he wished to move the courts to reclaim the shrine. The shrine is home to one of the most venerated relics in Jammu and Kashmir, the Moe-e-Muqaddas, a hair believed to have been of the Prophet Mohammad. Its disappearance in 1963 had provoked protests which only ended with its recovery a few months later after a massive police and intelligence investigation.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee later denied that Katiyar ever made the remark; so did Katiyar's personal staff. Interestingly, however, the Bajrang Dal leader did not join in this retraction.

Meanwhile, Srinagar saw a string of strikes and violent protests through mid-March. Cars were set on fire and groups clashed with the police, although there was, mercifully, no loss of life. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah demanded Katiyar's arrest. The Kashmir Bar Association, an affiliate of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), moved court to have the Bajrang Dal leader prosecuted for incitement to communal hatred. Katiyar was summoned to appear before Principal Sessions Judge B.M. Kirmani on April 19.

How Katiyar's prosecution plays itself out remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the affair is part of a growing communal problem through the State. In the wake of the Godhra killings, the Hindu Right had launched an energetic mobilisation in Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu. It took the arrest of over a thousand people, and a massive police clampdown, to ensure that no violence took place. The mobilisation was in part an effort to avenge the National Conference's (N.C.) recent victory in the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, which has in recent years been a BJP pocketborough. The defeat came about owing to low turnout in pro-BJP urban pockets, and the division of Hindu votes between the Congress(I) and the BJP.

Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, meanwhile, has good reasons to take on the Hindu Right's renewed communal aggression. On March 18, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced that the problem in Jammu and Kashmir was "also due to governance". He continued this attack on his ally in the National Democratic Alliance by asking unspecified "new political elements" to campaign against the N.C. Vajpayee also promised "free and fair elections". His earlier suggestion that past elections which brought the N.C. to power were not fair had provoked angry comment from Abdullah.

VAJPAYEE'S attack on the N.C. was part of his larger political strategy on Jammu and Kashmir, which has sought to bring elements from within the APHC and the Hizbul Mujahideen into the political process. While there is nothing exceptionable about this, the fact is that it could pose a threat to the N.C. And even as Prime Minister Vajpayee made his remarks, Union Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah was telling a massive rally in Sopore that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was guilty of "dirty politics". Referring to the RSS' Bangalore resolution that the future of Muslims depended on their earning the goodwill of Hindus, Omar Abdullah asked what their position would be in Jammu and Kashmir, where Hindus are in a minority: a polemical question that may appear to be attractive in Sopore, perhaps, but hardly to Hindus in Jammu.

Within the State these political developments are certain to sharpen the already severe strains among the ethnic-religious communities. The problem is that the N.C.'s anti-RSS stance is not backed by a wider progressive agenda. The next Assembly elections, it seems, are likely to be fought along communal lines. The N.C. will seek a mandate not only in the Kashmir Valley but the Muslim majority parts of Jammu, while the BJP will fight its back to the wall in the Hindu- and Buddhist-dominated areas. To gain legitimacy in the valley, the N.C. could also provoke a showdown with the Union government over the Panchalthan killings. With no mainstream party having an agenda that cuts across regions, such a campaign will have awful long-term repercussions.

Some observers have claimed that the lack of a violent response in the Kashmir Valley to events in Gujarat suggests that Muslims there have nothing to do with the religious community in India. One article in the Urdu newspaper Aftaab, for example, criticised the Srinagar religious leader Maulvi Umar Farooq for holding prayers in memory of the dead in Gujarat, arguing that Indian Muslims had never "sympathised with us". However, the reaction in Jammu and Kashmir has been considerably stronger than in December 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. If in 1992 people did not care about communal events in India, today many young people fear that their religious rights are threatened by the Hindu communal forces who have a major role in governance. Worst of all, the N.C.'s continued presence in the NDA discredits its anti-RSS stance, and strengthens groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba that are arguing for new recruits to join the armed struggle against India.

In Jammu, things are even more fraught. "While in the Kashmir Valley," Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in 1947, "there is remarkable communal unity, and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs alike have demonstrated cohesion of purpose in effort in the face of a common danger, in Jammu there is fierce communal passion, and the RSS, the Akali Dal and the Muslim League, operating in various degrees, have created a situation full of explosive possibilities."

That situation is upon the State again.
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