June 16, 2021
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J&K's Holy War

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi had seen in Kashmir "a ray of hope in the darkness", as communal harmony held against the tide of mutual carnage that was afflicting other parts of the country. Today, J&K desperately needs leaders who can point its people in

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J&K's Holy War
J&K's Holy War

Framed by the narrow slit in her veil, Shehzada Batloo’s eyes were level and strong. If there had been tears there for the son she had lost to police bullets, they had long ago dried. "I think all mothers should feel proud if their sons are martyred", Shehzada Batloo later said of her teenage son Samir Batloo, who was shot after the mob he stood with charged a Police post in Srinagar’s Fateh Kadal area. "I believe my son will vouch for me in the hereafter", she continued, "and I will be rewarded with an abode in paradise".

Across the Pir Panjal mountains in Jammu, Kuldip Kumar Dogra dramatically committed suicide at the end of a speech in which he demanded land for Hindu pilgrims at Amarnath. Hindutva leaders held out Dogra’s death as a model for emulation -- and their audiences responded. Protestors have proved willing not just to die but to kill.

Ever since the Shrine Board protests broke out in June, a cult of death has flourished in both Kashmir and Jammu, as both Islamists and Hindutva groups have engaged in what they represent as a war for civilizational survival. In both Kashmir and Jammu, the soldiers of this war -- mobs numbering tens of thousands -- have swept the state before them.

On the morning of August 15, India’s Independence Day, Police personnel hoisted the national flag on the Clock Tower at Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk -- a ritual that had continued uninterrupted through the long jihad. Less than two hours after the flag went up, though, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel at Lal Chowk were told an Islamist-led mob was marching there, intending to hoist Pakistan’s flag on the tower. With strict orders not to fire, the CRPF pulled down the Indian flag rather than allow it to be ripped apart by the protestors. Elsewhere in the city, Islamist leaders like Asiya Andrabi were doing just that.

India’s strategy -- if it can be described as one -- in essence appears to be one of retreat. Ever since the Police opened fire on protestors seeking to march across the Line of Control (LoC) to Muzaffarabad, leading to street battles which led to the loss of at least twenty lives, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) government has withdrawn from confrontation. Large parts of historic Srinagar are in the de-facto control of Islamist groups, with Police and CRPF personnel holding a handful of fortified pickets at major street corners.

Perhaps the most spectacular demonstration of just how far the state’s retreat has gone became evident on August 18, after the J&K government allowed Islamists to stage a massive pro-Pakistan protest in the heart of Srinagar -- ignoring warnings from India’s intelligence services that the decision could lead to a meltdown of state authority. Led by the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat’s (TiH) Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the All Party Hurriyat Conference’s (APHC’s) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, at the time of writing, tens of thousands of protestors assembled at Tourist Reception Centre in an unprecedented show of strength, even as Police were ordered off the streets to avoid confrontation.

Srinagar district Commissioner K. Afsandyar Khan and Senior Superintendent of Police S.A. Mujitaba were earlier despatched to stage negotiations on the management of the scheduled protests with Geelani -- a de-facto acknowledgment that the Islamist leader has emerged as an alternate source of administrative authority. Their request for the protest to be scaled down was rejected by the Islamist leader. Governor N.N. Vohra and his advisors then ordered Director-General of Police Kuldeep Khoda to move his forces out of central Srinagar, to avoid clashes with protestors.

In essence, Governor Vohra’s strategy rests on assurances from Geelani and Farooq that the protests will remain peaceful. Advocates of this hands-off-the-mob approach note that similar assurances ensured a 100,000-plus gathering called to mourn the killing of Islamist leader Sheikh Aziz -- who was fired on by the Police while attempting to march across the Line of Control (LoC), and thus became the first APHC leader to die of Indian, rather than jihadist, bullet injuries -- remained peaceful.

Whether or not violence ensues, it is clear that the present strategy is leading to a large-scale erosion of state authority. Last week, Kulgam Senior Superintendent of Police, Imtiaz Mir, was reported to have been surrounded by a mob and compelled to shout pro-Pakistan slogans. Elsewhere, the homes of pro-India leaders of the National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have been torched; while leaders of anti-Islamist militia groups have been attacked. Former state forests minister Qazi Afzal and his colleague Dilawar Mir -- both of whom supported the shrine board protests -- are among those who have been targeted.

Body of Tanveer Ahmed Handoo after he was shot during a protest in Srinagar

But just what is it that drives this anger? Is it resentment against India -- or something more primordial? For answers, we can turn usefully to history.

"There is no Hindu or Muslim question in Kashmir", Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah said in 1948, "we do not use such language". His words were, at best, a comforting fiction.

As Jammu and Kashmir moved towards independence, both Hindu and Islamic neo-fundamentalist movements acquired strength in the region. Communal skirmishes punctuated the course of the freedom movement. In 1931, after Dogra troops killed 28 protestors in Srinagar, Hindu-owned businesses and homes were targeted. More communal violence broke out that September. Partition entrenched the communalisation. In Kashmir, Muslims watched the large-scale communal massacres in Jammu with fear. Sheikh Abdullah later described how deeply the experience had scarred his constituents. "There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur", Abdullah said, noting that "some of these had been Muslim-majority states." Hindus in Kashmir had their own fears -- fears driven by Pakistani state support for tribes engaged in a campaign of communal cleansing.

Freedom ought to have meant the birth of democratic institutions which could address these anxieties. Instead, elites in both Kashmir and Jammu accelerated the communalisation process. Navnita Chadha Behera, a scholar of regional conflicts in J&K, has noted that the state’s constituent assembly secured "a clear concentration of powers in the valley through disproportionate representation."

Kashmiri elites used their new power to redress the historic grievances of their region’s Muslims. However, they demonstrated little regard for competing claims from Ladakh and Jammu. For example, the NC worked to give Kashmiri Muslims greater representation in the state bureaucracy. However, they marginalised Hindu Dogras, Muslim Gujjars, and Ladakh residents of both religions.

Five years after independence, the Praja Parishad launched an agitation against Sheikh Abdullah’s policies. Its leaders -- an alliance of landlords and business elites angered by the redistribution of their assets -- called for the abrogation of Article 370, the removal of Dogra imperial laws that allowed only state subjects to purchase land and the full application of the Indian Constitution . "Ek desh mein do vidhaan, do nishaan do pradhaan nahin chalengey", went the Praja Parishad slogan: "one nation cannot have two constitutions, two flags and two Prime Ministers".

Sheikh Abdullah used the rise of the Jana Sangh-linked Praja Parishad to stoke communal fears in Kashmir. In one speech, he claimed the Praja Parishad was part of project to convert India "into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised." If the people of Jammu wanted a separate Dogra state, Sheikh Abdullah said, "I would say with full authority on behalf of the Kashmiris that they would not at all mind this separation." Sheikh Abdullah had, tragically, transformed himself from a spokesman for all the state’s peoples into a representative of Kashmiri Muslims alone.

From 1977, the unresolved strains between Kashmir and Jammu became increasingly sharp. In order to fight off growing competition from the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), Sheikh Abdullah began to cast himself as a defender of the rights of Muslims. He attacked the Jamaat’s alliance with the Janata Party "whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims." NC leaders administered oaths to their cadre on the Quran and a piece of rock salt -- a popular symbol of Pakistan. Abdullah’s lieutenant, Mirza Afzal Beg, promised voters he would open the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road to traffic. It paid off: the NC was decimated in the Hindu-majority constituencies of Jammu, but won all 42 seats in Kashmir.

When the 1983 elections came around, politicians learned from experience. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted an incendiary campaign in Jammu, built around the claim that the discrimination the region faced was because it was part of ‘Hindu India’. Across the Pir Panjal, Farooq Abdullah and his new found ally Maulvi Mohammad Farooq -- secessionist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father -- let it be known that they were defending Kashmir’s Muslim identity. Matters went from bad to worse. At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front (MUF) candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state. MUF leaders built their campaign around protesting the sale of liquor and against laws that proscribed cow slaughter, which were cast as threats to the authentic Muslim character of Kashmir.

Jammu and Kashmir’s two-decade Islamist war sharpened the pace of communal polarisation within the state. Although Muslims in Kashmir were the principal victims of a jihad fought in their name, few politicians in the region proved willing to confront Islamists head on. Hindutva groups in Jammu adroitly leveraged the situation to cast the conflict in the state as a Hindu-Muslim contestation.

In both Jammu and Ladakh, the shrine war has strengthened forces who want the state divided on religious lines -- a dramatic reversal of the situation in 2002, where the Jammu State Morcha, which called for such a Partition, was decimated. Islamists in Kashmir, too, have made it clear they see Partition -- and the incorporation of the Muslim-majority areas north of the Chenab river into Pakistan -- as the only way out of the crisis.

Partition plans for J&K aren’t new. In 1950, even as India and Pakistan were still struggling to emerge from the communal holocaust which had claimed between half a million and a million lives, the United Nations-appointed mediator on J&K, Owen Dixon, suggested that a solution to conflict in the state might lie in replicating the logic of Partition. Dixon’s plan was, at the time, rejected in both India and Pakistan. However, the iniquitous structure of state politics gave it continued life. Former Sadr-i-Riyasat (State President) Karan Singh was among those who put out variants of the proposal, on one occasion advocating the merger of Jammu into Himachal Pradesh, and turning Kashmir into a separate Muslim-majority state. Secessionists like TiH chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani and People’s Conference leader Sajjad Gani Lone; Hindutva groups; and the Pakistani state have all propagated variants on this theme since.

In 1999, the NC itself issued a blueprint for Partition. Based on the proposals of a committee in which opposition groups, religious minorities and the Jammu region were unrepresented, the state government advocated the creation of six new provinces. Muslim-majority districts Rajouri and Poonch were to be carved out from the Jammu region as a whole, and recast as a new Pir Panjal Province. Udhampur’s single Muslim-majority tehsil, Mahore, was to form part of the Chenab province, while the rest of the district was incorporated into Jammu. Even the single districts of Buddhist-majority Leh and Muslim-majority Kargil, were to become separate provinces.

Later, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) threw its weight behind Hindu chauvinist groups in Jammu, who had revived the movement for the division of Jammu and Kashmir into three states, constructed along ethnic-religious lines.

Now, the project has ripened. In Kashmir, Islamists have argued that the violence in Jammu -- amplified through the publication of fictitious accounts of large-scale killings of Muslims and the destruction of mosques -- is the true face of India. Muslims, they claim, have no future. Hindus in Jammu, for their part, have been told that the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley is a precursor to their eventual fate at the hands of the state’s Muslim leadership. Faked statistics have been used to claim that the Muslim-dominated J&K government denies Hindus representation.

Politicians in Kashmir and Jammu have done little to try and dam this rising tide of hate. Where Hindutva and Islamist groups have held dozens of protests, not one major political group has held peace rallies. No effort has been made, either, to build institutions that cut across social fissures. Kashmir and Jammu have separate bar associations, chambers of commerce, professional guilds of doctors and engineers -- and even Press associations. For all practical purposes, residents of the two regions are social strangers, tied to each other by nothing but business -- and mutual hatred.

None of this ought to be a surprise for us. Islamists have long been working to undermine the legitimacy of the secular-nationalist project in J&K -- and with it, the keystones of the state’s incorporation in the Indian union.

In 2006, Islamists leveraged the uncovering of a prostitution racket in Srinagar to argue that secularism and modernity were instruments through which the Islamic cultural climate of Jammu and Kashmir was being undermined. Later, the rape-murder of teenager Tabinda Gani was used to initiate a xenophobic campaign against the presence of non-ethnic Kashmiri workers in the state. Just as the shrine board protests in Kashmir were beginning in June this year, Geelani asserted, "the state government, in collaboration with New Delhi, wants to settle outsiders permanently in Kashmir to turn the Muslim majority into a minority." Soon after, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) bombed a bus carrying migrant workers -- a grim reminder of just what kind of nation Geelani hopes will emerge from the struggle now underway in Kashmir.

Jammu, too, has seen a significant chauvinist mobilisation, feeding off the Islamist campaign in the north. Soon after the PDP-Congress alliance government came to power, this new Hindutva leadership unleashed its first mass mobilisations. Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders claimed former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed’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 asserted that Saeed was preparing the ground for the expulsion of Hindus -- and Hinduism -- from Jammu.

From 2003, Hindutva groups sought to forge these anxieties into a concrete political mobilisation around the issue of cow-slaughter. Hindutva cadre would often interdict trucks carrying cattle, and then use their capture to stage protests. It wasn’t as if the anti-cow-slaughter movement had stumbled on a great secret. For decades, cow-owning farmers -- in the main Hindus themselves -- had been selling old livestock, which no longer earned them an income, to traders from Punjab and Rajasthan. In turn, the traders sold their herds to cattle traffickers on India’s eastern border, who fed the demand for beef among the poor of Bangladesh. But Hindutva groups understood that the cow was a potent and politically profitable metaphor. Violence followed. In December 2007 for example, VHP and Bajrang Dal cadre organised large-scale protests against the reported sacrificial slaughter of cows at the villages of Bali Charna, in the Satwari area of Jammu, and Chilog, near Kathua district’s Bani town. Riots had also taken place in the villages around Jammu’s Pargwal in March 2005 after Hindutva activists made bizarre claims that a cow had been raped.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi had seen in Kashmir "a ray of hope in the darkness", as communal harmony held against the tide of mutual carnage that was afflicting other parts of the country. Today, in the midst of an apparently-permanent eclipse, J&K desperately needs leaders who can point its people in a direction where they might, once again, discover a glimmer of hope.

Praveen Swami is Associate Editor, The Hindu. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal.

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