June 27, 2020
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Two Poles And A Green Drape

Religion or ethnicity? The Kashmiris’ response to Babri tells what drives their unrest.

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Two Poles And A Green Drape
Photograph by Getty Images & Alamy
Two Poles And A Green Drape

In December 1992, hundreds of Kashmiri militants were in the Valley, backed by a much larger number of protestors. The Babri Masjid demolition on December 6 could have led to big demonstrations and, possibly, militant att­acks. Intelligence reports of the day, however, note no major incidents of violence, except at a couple of places in Chado­ora, Budgam, while in Anantnag, local Muslims int­ervened when stones were thrown at a few Hindu religious places and didn’t allow them to come under harm.  A J&K police official recalls that even the 1,500-odd militants and protestors lodged in Kot Balwal jail didn’t protest that day.

This year, which has seen around 40 days of shutdown so far, there are no shutdown calls for December 6. Last year, the Valley was shut down for five months, but not on December 6. Many leaders and scholars in the Valley invoke this indifference towards Babri to claim that Kashmiri Muslims do not share the culture, history or politics of Muslims with the rest of India, and that their aspirations and visions of the future have little in common. Since 1953, when National Conference (NC) founder and then J&K PM Sheikh Abdullah was arrested, if not earlier, they argue, most Kashmiris have been seeking goals ranging from greater autonomy to “independence” or merger with Pakistan, expressed in the demand for a plebiscite. The focus of Muslims elsewhere, they say, has mostly been on demanding their rights by proving to be “loyal citizens” of India. When Babri was being dem­olished, the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) had begun to lose ground to pro-Pakistan Hizbul Mujahideen, with the Pakistan spy agency ISI backing the latter. Besides deaths in counter-insurgency operations, many were killed in the JKLF-Hizbul clashes.

“Kashmiris have not reacted to ‘Muslim issues’ from the rest of India, fearing it might end up worsening the latter’s problems,” says Saleem Beg, who heads the J&K chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “Since 1953, Kashmiris have looked more towards the West, say, the US, than towards Muslims outside Kashmir. The Babri demolition was just another occasion that highlighted how Kashmiris have no common cause with other Muslims in the country.”

Not just the Babri demolition, but the killings of Muslims in Bhagalpur (1989), Hashimpura (1987) and Gujarat (2002) too did not trigger any retaliatory violence in Kashmir. “Kashmiris have always sympathised with other Muslims in India the way they sympathise with disempowered people in other parts of the world, but they keep their distance too. How else can they claim they are not ‘Indian Muslims’ and that their problem is not with a certain demographic, but with the idea of India?”

Gandhi visited Kashmir in August 1947 and was all praise for the jailed Sheikh Abdullah’s ‘Kashmiri ­nationalist’ ­commitment to communal harmony.

The roots of the disconnect goes back to pre-independence times. During Partition, the Valley was perhaps the calmest place in South Asia, while Muslims were being massacred in neighbouring Jammu. Mahatma Gandhi paid a four-day visit to Kashmir—his only visit—in the first week of August 1947 and said he saw a ray of hope in the Valley. Sheikh was in jail for leading the ‘Quit Kashmir’ movement against Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh. Gandhi was all praise for Sheikh’s ‘Kashmiri nationalist’ commitment to communal harmony, and his concern for the democratic aspirations of the downtrodden.

According to PDP chief spokesperson Naeem Akhtar, a minister in CM Mehbooba Mufti’s cabinet, the relationship between Kashmiri and other Muslims in India has much to do with the legacy of Partition. “Kashmiri Muslims had stayed away from the Partition mindset,” he says. “Nehru and Indira Gandhi were more familiar in Kashmir than, say, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.”

JKLF chief Yasin Malik says Kashmiri Muslims have always been sympathetic towards the plight of other Muslims in India, buts adds a caveat: “Kashmiris don’t want ‘Indian Muslims’ to become part of the Kashmir story. They have their own problems. We don’t want to burden them with more.”

Sheikh’s son and former CM Farooq Abdullah’s elder brother, NC general secretary Mustafa Kamal, has a different view. He believes Muslim leaders like Maulana Azad and Rafi Ahmed Kidwai were more hostile towards his father, both before and after 1953, than any other Congress leader, as they had little sympathy for the Kashmiris’ demand for greater autonomy. “They saw everything wrong with the demand for the restoration of autonomy, which Sheikh raised.” Another Kashmir political leader, who requested anonymity, says this could be because of the pressure on other Muslims in India to prove their loyalty, so they couldn’t support demands seen as anti-India, be it autonomy or “independence”.  “The distrust,” he says, “has been mutual since Sheikh’s arrest.”

To columnist M.R. Vaid, Kashmiri Muslims and Indian Muslims form two different political spheres. “Kashmiri Muslims don’t see themselves as part of the nation-state in which the other Muslims want to improve their conditions,” says Vaid. “They are concerned about each other’s sufferings, but seem to have understood that the Indian State would turn any active relationship between them to the disadvantage of both. The distance could be a refined way of showing concern.”

“Nehru and Indira Gandhi were more familiar among Kashmiri Muslims than Muslim leaders such as Maulana Azad,” says Naeem Akhtar of the PDP.

During India’s freedom struggle, according to Vaid, the maj­ority of Muslims in India had identified with the secular discourse that opposed the politics of the Muslim League and rejected the demand for Pakistan. “During Partition, Kashmir Muslims thought they could see the sham this secularism was. So the two political spheres are historically in opposition to each other. As Muslims, they are tied to each other, but as Kashmiris and Indians, they are poles apart.”

A PDP leader attributes this disconnect to ethnicity. “When the Prophet’s holy relic was stolen from the Hazratbal shrine in 1963 and almost every Kashmiri was on the roads, nowhere in the rest of India did Muslims empathise with them as they couldn’t understand the issue and its gravity. They were not at fault as they couldn’t fathom how deeply wedded the Kashmiri Muslim is to Islam’s Sufi tradition,” he says, requesting anonymity. “Religion is the defining feature of the Indian Muslim’s identity. For the Kashmiri Muslim, in sharp contrast, the def­ining feature is his ethnicity. Being the majority in J&K, they are under no pressure to preserve their religion. As Kashmiris, though, they are an ethnic minority in the country, hence ethnicity dominates their sense of identity and even their practice of Islam, which is less theological and jurisprudential. In fact, they identify more with the nationalism of the Palestinian than the religious sentiments hurt by the Babri demolition.”

CPI(M) state secretary Yousuf Tarigami feels there is no emotional disconnect with Muslims outside the Valley. Recalling that a gloom had spread over the Valley on December 6, 1992, he says, “Everyone was sad. But, yes, Kashmiris are so overwhelmed by their own troubles, they have no time to bother about others.” Professor Siddiq Wahid, former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Srinagar, too has memories of the day. “My most vivid memory is watching Muslim residents of a cosmopolitan neighbourhood in Delhi taking down their nameplates to prevent mob attacks. The 1984 pogrom against the Sikhs was not yet a distant memory,” says the . “I was no longer sure about the ideologies of ‘unity in diversity’, secularism and democracy.”

“The lack of any violent response to Babri in Kashmir was no surprise,” he says, “The basis of the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir is an argument around competing political sovereignties. So much so that when curbs on political sovereignty encroach on religious freedoms, it becomes an issue of religious identity. In contrast, the Hindutva argument has to do with the a priori right of the majority to assert its religious identity. To the extent that it gives free rein to conflate full citizenship with religious affiliation, it increases the chances of those belonging to faiths other than that of the majority community being reduced to second-class citizens.”

Professor Wahid admits, though, that Muslims in J&K cannot be “immune to the majoritarian curbing of religious freedoms in the country. At some point, in a democracy, the rights to political freedom and religious freedom will converge; both, after all, are freedoms. Now, whether these denials of freedoms will result in understanding and compassion between minority groups is a moot question. The answer lies in how far Indians would go in embracing a national identity defined by practitioners of Hindutva. There are signs already that Muslims in India feel betrayed by the State.”

By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar

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