Politics of Hate

J&K's syncretic traditions have been increasingly marginalised. A neoconservative Islam shaped by west-Asian petro-dollars, often channelled through Pakistani agencies, has acquired primacy. Hindutva's helped the Islamist project along...

Politics of Hate

Bright pink plastic flowers and lurid crepe-paperwreaths adorn Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) first shrine to theLashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). In June 2008, two still-unidentified Pakistani terroristswere shot dead in the forests next to the village of Chhatterhama, 30 kilometresfrom the central Kashmir town of Ganderbal. Mired in the communally-charged,region-wide agitation against the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the localcommunity saw the killed terrorists as soldiers who had died for their cause."Here was India conspiring to seize our land and hand it over toinfidels", says local businessman Zahoor Ahmad, "and here were thesetwo foreigners who had given their lives to save Islam in Kashmir. One of themwas just fourteen or fifteen, no older than my brother. And so, we gathered Rs.11,000 to give these martyrs the kind of burial they deserved".

Last month’s violence and demonstrations in J&K -- a wave of Islamist-initiatedprotests against the grant of land to the Shrine Board to build temporaryprefabricated housing and restrooms for pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra(pilgrimage), and a second phase of violent agitation by the Hindu right inJammu to protest its revocation by the state government -- have been describedas the largest mass movements in the state since 1990. While it is far fromclear if some of the claims made for the scale of protests are true -- Policevideotape shows no gathering in Srinagar larger than four to five thousand --there is no disputing their extraordinary scale and intensity. Indeed, theviolence unleashed in June proved adequate to precipitate a final break in thelong-troubled Congress-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) alliance, leading to ameltdown of the state government and imposition of Governor’s rule untilelections are held in October 2008.

Yet, there has been little serious effort to explain why the use of 39.88hectares of land -- just the size of five football fields -- should provoke suchan intense reaction. Even less effort has been made to understand that thestrains that drove the crisis will not be stilled by the coming elections.

Chatterhama isn’t a likely location for a shrinecelebrating the Lashkar’s Islamist cause -- but it does provide a useful prismto examine the Shrine Board riots. Not a single resident of Chhatterhama joinedthe jihadi movement in J&K. Its residents -- in the main, Shawl Bafs, orartisans who hand-embroider shawls -- were supporters of the National Conference(NC). Few would offer even ethnic-Kashmiri jihadi groups like theHizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) shelter or support. As a result, Chhatterhama never oncesaw an exchange of fire between jihadis and the police or army. But when theShrine Board agitation began, the village embraced a cause it had long resisted.Islamists in Kashmir had characterised the protests as a battle for survival."It is a conspiracy to civil occupation and to change the Muslim characterof the valley," Kashmir lawyer and Shrine Board protest leader, Nazir AhmadRonga declared. "After having successfully occupied J&Kmilitarily," he continued, "New Delhi is pushing ahead with civilianand cultural occupation".

Paranoiac? Yes. But local authorities and political parties had done nothing tochallenge rumours spread by Islamist groups that a large-scale plot was underwayto give away land to outsiders -- to outsiders, moreover, hostile to Islam. As aresult, the jihad in J&K acquired a new legitimacy. 

On June 23, one day after the terrorists’ killing, Chhatterhama villagersmarched to the main crossroads at Batpora to express their outrage on the ShrineBoard issue. Work on the Lashkar shrine began the same afternoon. And thefollowing Friday, Chhatterhama observed the two terrorists’ Rasm-e-Chehlumdeath-rites alongside another protest march against the Shrine Board.

Part of the reason for the success of the Shrine Boardprotest in Chatterhama lies in the fact that Islam has had a profound influenceon the cultural life of the village, part lies in economics. Like much ofKashmir, Chatterhama is also in the midst of a dramatic period of change. Inthis case, Shawl-Bafs have been hit hard by competition from cheapmachine-embroidered shawls, often made in Ludhiana and Jalandhar. Embroideringshawls, moreover, is murderous work: wages run as low as Rs. 80 a day for workwhich leaves many Shawl Bafs half-blind and arthritic before they turn forty.But few young people in Chattarhama, despite the spread of school and collegeeducation, have the kinds of specialist skills needed to get new-economy jobs inthe service or information-technology sectors. Even fewer have the kind ofcapital needed to set up independent businesses -- or pay the bribes oftenneeded to get government jobs.


Worse, in Chatterhama, as elsewhere, mainstream pro-India political groupingshave been instrumental in legitimising the ideological claims of the Islamists-- and in giving the Shrine Board protests their scale and intensity. Baramullaoffers an interesting illustration of the mechanics of the protests. Islamistsset off the conflagration with, for example, a 600-strong June 27 peasantgathering at Watergam, led by Jamaat-e-Islami activist Nisar Ahmad Ganai.Elsewhere in Baramulla, however, pro-India parties drove the protests. On June30, a 5,000-strong gathering at Sheeri-Baramulla, for example, was led by localNC activist Abdul Qayoom and PDP dissident Ghulam Mohideen. 

In Anantnag, similarly, both the All Parties HurriyatConference (APHC) and Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Tehreek-i-Hurriyat played animportant role in organising protests. Tehreek leader Hafizullah Mir, forexample, organised an 800-strong rally at Anantnag’s Lal Chowk on June 25,while APHC-linked Fayyaz Ahmad Sodagar and Zahid Hakim led comparable crowds atthe same venue the next day. It was, however, the Congress that helped theprotests move beyond the Islamists’ urban bases. Local Congress leaders burnedeffigies of PDP patron and former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed atWandi-Valgam on June 30, while NC activists were the principal leaders ofprotests in Paibugh.

Secessionists were, in fact, often peripheral to the protests that are now beingheld out as examples of their influence. On June 27, secessionists were reportedto have led a 2,000 strong protest which hoisted a Pakistani flag on the clocktower in Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk. Leaving aside the fact that the flagsbore the crescent-and-star logo of Islam and not Pakistan’s national insignia-- as reported by several Indian newspapers and even the venerable Economist --Police videotape shows politicians Javed Mir and Firdaus Ahmad Shah arrivinglate in the course of the protests, rather than actually leading them. 

Significantly, the district of Kulgam saw a grand total of just seven protestgatherings. While the Jamaat-e-Islami organised the 8,000-strong rally at Qaimohon June 30, and an earlier gathering at a historic shrine in Kulgam town, therewas no violence at all. The explanation lies in the configuration of thedistrict’s politics. The main political force, the Communist Party of India(Marxist), is the sole party in the region which had not made an alliance ofconvenience with the Islamists. Its principal rival, the PDP, had no interest infuelling the anti-Shrine Board protests, once it had itself come under assaulton the issue. Local NC leaders simply did not have the on-ground muscle toinfluence the course of events. 

Why, then, was Chhatterhama so quick to join the Islamistcause? One factor appears to be the growth of neo-conservative religious groupsin the area, which, until recently, had almost no rural reach. "Most peoplehere used to worship at shrines", says local Jamaat-e-Islami activistBashir Ahmad Bhat, "and followed practices that were Hindu in origin. Butmy generation has learned to read, and thus discovered the true Islam".

He is closer to the truth that most people have understood.

Back in 1912, Maqbool Shah Kraalwari published the Greeznama, an extendedlament about the irreligious character of the Kashmiri peasantry:

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

Liberal commentators are fond of pointing to J&K’s syncretictraditions. On point of fact, the landscape Kraalwari described has beenincreasingly marginalised over the past century. Instead, a neoconservativeIslam shaped by west-Asian petro-dollars, often channelled through Pakistaniagencies, has acquired primacy. The roots of Kashmir residents’ fears lie inthe central project of this new Islam: the sharpening of the ideologicalboundaries between faiths. 

In the first decades of the twentieth century, J&K saw the emergence of anew middle class that vied with traditional Muslim leaders for power. New formsof Islam, which privileged text over tradition, were used to legitimise theirclaims to speak for Kashmir’s Muslims. One major development was the arrivalin Kashmir of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis, a religious order that was set up byfollowers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly. Ahmad died at Balakote, now inPakistan-administered Kashmir, in 1831, while waging an unsuccessful jihadagainst Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom -- a campaign that, historian AyeshaJalal reminds us in her new book Partisans of Allah, still fires theimagination of Muslims in South Asia. 

Ahl-e-Hadith ideologues, such as the clerics Siddiq Hasan Khan and Nazir Husain,also rejected the accommodation Islam in India had made with its environment.Sayyed Hussain Shah Batku, a Delhi seminary student who carried the Ahl-e-Hadismessage to Kashmir in 1925, denounced key practices of mainstream Islam in thestate, like the worship of shrines and veneration of relics. Along with hisfollowers Anwar Shah Shopiani, Ghulam Nabi Mubaraki and Sabzar Khan, Batkuattacked traditionalists for following practices tainted by their Hinduheritage, like the recitation of litanies before Namaaz. Not surprisingly, Batkucame under sustained attack from traditionalist clerics, who charged him withbeing an apostate, an infidel and even the Dajjal -- or devil incarnate. Hisresponse was to cast himself as a defender of the faith, railing against Hindurevivalists and Christian missionaries, as well as heterodox Muslim sects likethe Ahmadis and the Shia, all of whom he claimed were working to expel Islamfrom Kashmir. 

Despite its limited popular reach, the Ahl-e-Hadith had enormous ideologicalinfluence. As historian Chitralekha Zutshi points out in her work on the makingof religious identity in the Kashmir valley, Languages of Belonging, the"influence of the Ahl-e-Hadith on the conflicts over Kashmiri identitiescannot be overemphasised". While the reflexive media association of theAhl-e-Hadith and terror groups like the LeT can be misleading -- the head of theSrinagar Police unit of the crack counter-terrorist Special Operations Group isalso an adherent -- there is little doubt that the vision of Islam it propagatedprepared the ground for the rise of the Jamaat-e-Islami and modern jihadis. 

Hindutva helped the Islamist project along. Decades ofpogroms -- most recently, the large-scale slaughter in Gujarat -- gave credenceto claims that the Muslims were not safe in India. Kashmiri Muslim students andbusinessmen often encountered discrimination, which made them acutely consciousof the variance between the promise and practice of India’s secularism. Manyof those fighting on Srinagar’s streets were wearing jeans and totingsunglasses: young, middle-class people who venerate capitalism, but have foundin Islamism a medium for their rage at being denied entry at the gates to theearthly paradise it promises.

On a visit to New Delhi soon after Independence, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullahcandidly underlined the relationship between politics in Kashmir and Indiancommunalism. "There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar orBharatpur", Abdullah said, noting that "some of these had beenMuslim-majority states". Kashmiri Muslims, he concluded, "are afraidthat the same fate lies ahead for them as well". 

Islamist politicians have long understood that there is profit to be had inpreying on these anxieties. "It is like worship", the Islamistpatriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani recently said of the anti-India politicalcampaign he leads, "like the recitation of the Kalima [profession offaith], like the offering of Namaaz, like the paying of Zakat [charity], likethe performance of Hajj."

For Geelani and his Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, the anti-Shrine Board protests are acrucible in which piety and xenophobic paranoia can be forged into a programmeof resistance to India. At a June 23 meeting in Srinagar, Geelani explained theimportance of the Shrine Board issue. He charged former Governor S.K. Sinha withworking to "alter the demographic character of our state". Geelanistretched this logic to its limit, "I caution my nation that if we do notwake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our landforever."

Evidence of the threat, Geelani had told the audience at an earlier June 20rally, was abundant. He pointed to recent cases of sexual violence and thekidnapping of children. "Such crimes", Geelani claimed, "wereunheard of in the valley, but the day the numbers of outsiders increased, thecrime rate here also went up". Moreover, Geelani said, the outsiders were"promoting their own polytheistic culture" in alliance with the Indianstate. Asking Kashmir residents to neither employ nor provide accommodation tooutsiders, he asked migrant workers to "leave Kashmir peacefully."

Geelani’s ranting -- none of which would have beenunfamiliar to Hindutva leaders in Maharashtra -- was of a piece with KashmiriIslamists’ long-standing xenophobia. In the decades after independence, thescholar Yoginder Sikand tells us, Jamaat-e-Islami leaders believed that an"Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of theKashmiris". It was alleged that "that the Government of India haddispatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician andstate Home Minister] D.P. Dhar, to investigate how Islam was driven out of Spainand to suggest measures as to how the Spanish experiment could be repeated inKashmir." 

Resistance to this imagined plot often exploded into violence. In May, 1973, anAnantnag college student discovered an encyclopaedia containing a drawing of thearchangel Gabriel dictating the Quran to the Prophet Mohammad -- an image that,in some readings of Islam, is blasphemous. Protestors demanded that the authorbe hanged: "a vain demand," Katherine Frank wryly noted, "sinceArthur Mee had died in England in 1943." India proscribed sales of theout-of-print book, but four died in rioting.

Politicians often drank at these communal wellsprings. At a March 4, 1987, rallyin Srinagar, Muslim United Front (MUF) candidates, clad in the white robes ofthe pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of asecular state. MUF leaders built their campaign around protesting the sale ofliquor and laws that proscribed cow-slaughter -- represented as threats to theauthentic Muslim character of Kashmir.

Fears of religious-ethnic annihilation are again being whipped up. Writing inthe Srinagar-based Rising Kashmir, Khalid Wasim Hassan asserted that"India is now openly following a policy aimed at changing the demography ofKashmir." India, he argued, hoped that "settling non-State subjects isgoing to have its impact on the discourse of the self-determination movement andthe end result of [an eventual] Plebiscite [sic.]". Islamists aren’t theonly ones making these kinds of arguments. Senior Congress leader Ghulam RasoolKar, writing in the Urdu-language Khidmat, also claimed, somewhatincredibly, that the purpose of the land-transfer to the Shrine Board was toreduce the Muslim majority to a minority. 

It isn’t clear if politicians in Kashmir have thewill -- or even desire -- to reverse the entrenchment of Islamism in the Valley.Across the Pir Panjal mountains, in the Hindu-majority regions south of theChenab River, Hindu reaction is gathering momentum, too.

When the Congress’ central leadership arm-twisted former Chief Minister GhulamNabi Azad into revoking the grant of land to the Shrine Board, few hadanticipated that the communal backlash in Jammu would prove as intense as itwas. Few in New Delhi had been watching the steady growth of Hindu reactionsince 2003, mirroring the expanding ideological influence of Islamism inKashmir. 

In the build-up to the 2002 elections, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) founditself discredited by its failure to contain terrorism. Much of the Hindutvamovement’s cadre turned to a new grouping, the Jammu State Morcha. JSM leaderswanted a new, Hindu-majority state carved out of J&K. In the event, both theJSM and the BJP were wiped out in the elections, winning just one seat each. Anew generation of Hindutva leaders then took control of Hindu neoconservativepolitics in Jammu. Sushil Sudan and Anil Kumar were its most visible figures.Bajrang Dal chief Sudan, the son of a politically-active family from Sundarbani,had a clear understanding of street-level politics. Kumar was a long-standingRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak from West Bengal, who had cut his teeth inorganisational work in the Kalakote-Sundarbani belt. The two men proved perfectpartners. If Kumar had the ideological vocabulary needed to draw Hindus toHindutva, Sudan understood the mechanics of the mob.

Soon after the Congress-PDP government came to power, this new Hindutvaleadership unleashed its first mass mobilisations. Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena andVishwa Hindu Parishad leaders claimed former Chief Minister Mufti MohammadSaeed’s calls for demilitarisation and self-rule were existential threats.Pointing to the expulsion of Pandits from Kashmir at the outset of the jihad,Hindutva leaders claimed that Saeed was now preparing the ground for theexpulsion of Hindus -- and Hinduism -- from Jammu.