June 06, 2021
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Shehla Rashid & Salam To Lal Salam

Communism may espouse atheism, but for the revolutionaries of Kashmir, religion is an important part of public life.

Shehla Rashid & Salam To Lal Salam
Shehla Rashid & Salam To Lal Salam

Three years ago, a renowned professor of Kashmiri language, made a claim which startled his audience: “I was Communist, I am Communist and I shall die as a Communist if Modi allows me to do so.” The sentence evoked laughter and incredulity, but the ideology has had a presence in political and academic circles in Kashmir for decades.

The Communist Party of India set up a branch in Srinagar in 1942 and soon became influential. In 1949, Jawaharlal Nehru was so perturbed by their sway over the region that he informed the then Prime Minister of J&K, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, that a number of “embassies are greatly worried at the Communist infiltration into Kashmir.” Interestingly, Sheikh Abdullah was also deeply influenced by the ideology. He initiated radical land reforms in the state in the 1950s. However, his political leanings had no impact on his overt religiosity. He would start public addresses with verses from the Quran and would also lead prayers.

Over the years, Communists of the state have translated many Russian writers into Kashmiri. One can find translations of Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy in the J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages.

Leftist parties have also tasted electoral success in Kashmir. The CPI(M) has won South Kashmir’s Kulgam constituency in every Assembly election since 1996. While canvassing for the 2014 polls, CPI(M) leader Mohammad Yousuf Taragami would often invoke Allah in his public addresses. Saints and Sufis featured in his speeches rather than Marx and Lenin. Unsurprisingly, people voted him into power.

Recently, Shehla Rashid, a former representative of the Communist-affiliated All India Students' Association, covered her head at the launch of Jammu and Kashmir’s People’s Movement and began her speech with verses from the Quran. She continued the religious invocation on Twitter: “Alhamdulillah! 7 sitting Sarpanchs from Kangan joined Jammu & Kashmir People's Movement today.”

While most people in Kashmir found the religious references unremarkable, trolls on Twitter went berserk. They accused her of being a “hypocrite” and “regressive” and posted a photo of her wearing a shirt with the slogan ‘akeli, awara, azad’ (alone, wandering, free). One troll, playing on Islamic and Communist salutations, said she had gone from ‘salam’ to ‘lal salam’, while another wrote “lal salam to Islam”. An exasperated Shehla tweeted in response to her detractors:

“Dear trolls,
1) I have never ever claimed to be an atheist.
2) I have never questioned ghoonghat or karva chauth or Diwali or Holi.
Please get your facts right and stop attributing your imaginary statements to me.”

As usual, no amount of reason could silence the trolls. “True,” retorted one, “you were never against religion, you are against India.” But Shehla moved on, ignoring the perceived contradiction between her political and religious ideals, as do most Communists in the state. Perhaps the best response to such criticism would be alhamdulillah (praise be to God)!

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