Frightened flock

Print edition : August 24, 2007

A demonstration by the All Jammu and Kashmir Joint Labours Association demanding stern action against the persons involved in the rape and murder of Tabinda Gani, in Srinagar on July 27.-NISSAR AHMED

Islamists in Kashmir appropriate the issue of the rape and murder of a girl to whip up a wave of xenophobia.

A demonstration by

A NARROW path leads up to a cluster of homes perched above the village of Langate in northern Kashmir. Blue mountains form a serene backdrop to the apple orchards that stretch down the slopes as far as one can see. It is just the kind of scene that has led so many to describe Kashmir as an earthly paradise.

Twelve-and-a-half-year-old Tabinda Gani had taken this path on July 20, making her way home from school around the time of the Friday afternoon prayers. Her elder brother, himself a teacher at a local school, saw the eighth grade student and stopped to ask her if her Maths teacher had been present. She nodded and scurried on but never reached home.

Ganis naked body was found later that day. She had been beaten and raped before her throat was slit. Soon, thousands of people poured out onto the streets, protesting and demanding that the killers be caught and punished. The police in Handwara moved just as fast. Within days, four men were arrested for the crime. Two of them were ethnic-Kashmiri men from Langate, one a cobbler from Rajasthan and the fourth a carpenter from West Bengal. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad went on record to promise that legal means would be found to fast-track their trial.

Yet, that did not prevent Ganis savage rape and murder from becoming the centrepiece of a battle.

Shaheed Tabinda Zindabad! That had been the slogan for protestors in Langate who continue to protest after the Friday prayers, two weeks after her death: Long live the martyr Tabinda.

On August 7, the underlying xenophobia for which the childs tragic rape and murder was appropriated made itself apparent. In Shopian district, about 55 kilometres from Srinagar, unidentified militants shot at Abdul Kalam, a migrant worker from Malda in West Bengal. The house of Farooq Ahmed Dar in Drawani village was raided and Kalam, his tenant, was dragged out, shot and left to die.

While no militant group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, Islamist hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads the secessionist group Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, had asked outsiders to leave the Kashmir valley. Speaking at a July 24 rally in Langate, Geelani characterised Ganis rape and murder as the outcome of Indian rule in the State a tactic he had successfully deployed last year, after the uncovering of a prostitution scandal in Srinagar. Then Geelani alleged that the Indian Army and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were collaborating to promote immorality and obscenity. Lakhs of non-State subjects, he claimed, had been pushed into the valley under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris. The majority of these non-state subjects are professional criminals and they should be driven out of Kashmir, he concluded.

Hilal Ahmad War, who heads the pro-Islamist Jammu and Kashmir Realistic Front, also weighed in against the presence of migrant workers. Defending an August 3 general strike call against the workers, War demanded that the migrants leave the State. One fails to understand why these labourers are flocking to Kashmir only, he said in a statement that demonstrated a breathtaking ignorance of reality. Migrant workers, the secessionist leader said, ran all kinds of illegal businesses from their slum clusters.

Tabinda Ganis mourning family in Langate.-ANNIE ZAIDI

Tabinda Ganis mourning

Major terrorist groups soon joined the campaign. On June 27, Hizbul Mujahideen spokesperson Junaid-ul-Islam laid down a one-week deadline for non-State workers to leave the Kashmir valley. The involvement of non-State subjects in criminal activities is increasing almost every day, he said, and is pushing the Kashmiri youth to all kinds of social evils. A Jaish-e-Mohammad spokesperson, in turn, asked tenants to turn out non-State subjects in a decent way. Like Geelani, the Jaish-e-Mohammad described the presence of migrant workers in Kashmir as part of a well-planned conspiracy to destroy its economy and society.

Meanwhile, there were protests of an unprecedented scale in and around Langate. Focussed on the demand that Tabinda Ganis murderers be publicly hanged, the protests drew supporters from across northern and central Kashmir. Although northern Kashmir has a bitter history of violence against women by members of Islamist terror groups, many protesters blame outsiders. Kashmiris cannot kill like this, one protester told Frontline, it must have b een professional killers.

Caught up in the whirl of anger that sometimes follows intense personal grief, Ganis family has endorsed these demands. Her brother, Masood Ahmed Shah, insists that they have trust in the law. We did not kill the men even though we suspected them. We have not harmed the rapists families. But we want a public hanging. We want such a punishment that makes the valley of Kashmir quake.

At Hawal Chowk in Srinagar, one side of the road is lined with ethnic-Kashmiri labourers, waiting for work. The other side is crowded with outsiders Biharis, Bengalis and a smattering of workers from other States. In the days after Islamists held out threats to migrant workers, this side of the road almost emptied: thousands fled Kashmir, fearful that just such a quake would follow.

However, under pressure from their most influential constituents, the major labour-consumers like orchard owners and the urban petty-bourgeoisie, Geelani and his supporters among terror groups were forced to back down. Both Geelani and the Hizbul Mujahideen now let it be known that their orders applied to criminals not workers as such. Conscious of the damage his statements had caused, Geelani also demanded that workers be treated with respect.

Still, tens of thousands of migrant workers who remain in Kashmir are on tenterhooks, and in the light of the attack on Abdul Kalam, their fears are very real. Besides, the memory of the massacre of nine migrant workers by a Hizbul Mujahideen hit-squad last summer has not quite faded. Before that, in August 2000, the Lashkar-e-Taiba killed 28 migrant workers in southern Kashmir. The Lashkar had also executed 12 brick-kiln workers from Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh at Sandu, near Anantnag, while six Nepali workers were shot dead at Lasjan, near Srinagar, in the run-up to the historic and bloody 1996 Assembly elections.

Nevertheless, Mohammad Maulvi, from Sitamarhi in Bihar, who has been working in Kashmir for 25 years, shrugs off fears of yet another massacre. This is Kashmir, he says, such things happen.

But Mohammad Jafeer, also from Sitamarhi, who has been coming to Srinagar for 16 years, is less blithe. We still have 6,000-7,000 workers here, he says, but half the people left after they saw the statement in the papers by the Hizbul Mujahideen.

Earlier too, there were massacres. But now, people on the roads sometimes abuse us and say we must leave.

It takes little to see that fissures between migrant workers and some elements in Kashmiri society run deep. Shabbir Ahmed, an ethnic-Kashmiri youth who works in an electronics shop, denies that there is any pressure. We only ask gently so, when are you leaving? he told Frontline. But in Jammu, these people held protests. Nobody has done anything to them, yet they give Kashmir a bad name. And they are warning us, saying that Kashmiris are also working o utside. They tell us that these people will not be spared if outsiders are made to leave Kashmir.

Even as Frontline was interviewing workers at Hawal, an argument ensued between a contractor and a carpenter from Anantnag.

Farooq Ahmed, a Kashmiri carpenter who had been waiting at the chowk for 10 days, made it clear that he wanted all migrant workers to leave. There is no work; wages keep falling because these Biharis will even work for as little as Rs. 70 a day, he said. We have families to feed, too. The outsiders are our tailors and butchers and carpenters and masons. Poor Kashmiris are becoming redundant.

But the contractor, Abdul Majeed Bhat, responded by hugging one of the migrant workers he employs and calling him his little brother. He pointed out that his machine was sitting idle because of the exodus of workers. Nine outsiders will do in a day what 25 Kashmiris will not, Bhat said, adding that only one of his labourers has stayed on.

Economic resentment, in short, may account for part of the anger against the migrant workers, especially in times when there is a visible change in the urban landscape. There is money to be made and some Kashmiris are making more than enough of it. Unfortunately, not all Kashmiris have had a share of the benefits. Shabbir Ahmed put it rather succinctly: When it rains, the mud rises.

Workers at Hawal Chowk, both ethnic Kashmiris and migrant non-Kashmiris.-ANNIE ZAIDI

Workers at Hawal

It would be facile, though, to attribute the Islamist campaign against outsiders to an effort to draw on the simmering anger of the Kashmiri underclass. For figures like Geelani, migrants are symbols of rapid economic and social changes in Jammu and Kashmir that threaten their political raison detre.

In a seminal 1998 essay, the scholar Yoginder Sikand pointed to Geelanis core beliefs. Muslims and Hindus, Sikand recorded, were to Geelani members of two different nations despite living in the same territory. Sikand wrote: This, Geelani says, is an undeniable truth. He wrote that not just in matters of faith, beliefs and customs do the two differ, but that they are also distinct and sharply set apart from each other in such matters as food, clothing and lifestyles. For Muslims to stay among Hindus or in an environment which is very different from their own is said to be as difficult as it is for a fish to stay alive in a desert.

For Islamists like Geelani, modernisation and the syncretic cultural currents it brings with it holds out an existential threat. For much of its history, Geelanis parent organisation, the Jamaat-e-Islami, represented the traditional urban and rural middle class. Enriched by modernity, but denied political space by the National Conference, these classes saw religion as an instrument with which to defend their traditional power. In the build-up to the jehad which began in 1988, the Jamaat and terror groups like the Hizbul Mujahideen built alliances with disenfranchised sections: the educated unemployed, the landless rural underclass, and artisans displaced by industrialisation. Now, however, the internal contradictions in this alliance, as well as the rapid pace of modernisation, have undermined its political influence.

Islamists have sought to stem the tide by representing modernity as a force that threatens Kashmirs identity and honour. Figures like Asiya Andrabi, a Geelani protege who heads the ultra-Right Dukhtaran-e-Millat, a womens organisation, have fuelled paranoia about the impact of modernity. In the wake of last years prostitution scandal, Andrabi organised attacks on unmarried couples seen together in public, and claimed that a large-scale conspiracy was under way to corrupt the values of Kashmiri women. Speaking to Frontline, she advised Kashmiri women to carry knives to protect themselves.

Andrabi has also lashed out at clerics arguing for a reasoned accommodation between faith and modernity. At a July 31 press conference, she claimed the reformist cleric Maulana Wahid-ud-Din Khan had been hired by the government of India and the U.S. to make statements against the jehad. She was reacting to a recent article by the cleric in al-Risala, a leading reformist magazine, which argued that the Prophet Muhammads life could not be used as an unthinking bl ueprint for addressing the challenges of modern life.

Underpinning the increasingly aggressive Islamist posture, notes the Jammu and Kashmir-based Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, is the fact that the Islamists support base is shrinking; they need new issues to exploit, especially emotive issues.

While the full consequences of the modernist-Islamist divide are yet to make themselves apparent, there are evident signs of an emerging cultural fracture. Speaking to Frontline on conditions of anonymity, a senior bureaucrat noted the growing visibility of neoconservative Islam in Jammu and Kashmir, which he described as a form of theo-fascism for which there is little support in Kashmir. When my mother died, he said, many young men came to pay condolences, but ended up arguing about the correct Islamic methods of mourning. Some of them want to forbid women from expressing their grief by crying out aloud.

While bigger battles may lie ahead, Tabinda Ganis tragic death has already become enmeshed in the larger tragedy called Kashmir. Part of this tragedy, argues Dr. Siddiq Wahid, Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology, is the slow unravelling of society. He told Frontline: Ethno-religious factionalism is on the rise, but there is also a lot of internal fragmentation between people living in Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh and Leh. There is als o a growing rural-urban divide. The seeds have been sown. The consequences remain to be seen.

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