June 13, 2021
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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...

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Politics of Hate
Politics of Hate

Bright pink plastic flowers and lurid crepe-paper wreaths adorn Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) first shrine to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT). In June 2008, two still-unidentified Pakistani terrorists were shot dead in the forests next to the village of Chhatterhama, 30 kilometres from the central Kashmir town of Ganderbal. Mired in the communally-charged, region-wide agitation against the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, the local community saw the killed terrorists as soldiers who had died for their cause. "Here was India conspiring to seize our land and hand it over to infidels", says local businessman Zahoor Ahmad, "and here were these two foreigners who had given their lives to save Islam in Kashmir. One of them was 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-initiated protests against the grant of land to the Shrine Board to build temporary prefabricated housing and restrooms for pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage), and a second phase of violent agitation by the Hindu right in Jammu to protest its revocation by the state government -- have been described as the largest mass movements in the state since 1990. While it is far from clear if some of the claims made for the scale of protests are true -- Police videotape shows no gathering in Srinagar larger than four to five thousand -- there is no disputing their extraordinary scale and intensity. Indeed, the violence unleashed in June proved adequate to precipitate a final break in the long-troubled Congress-People’s Democratic Party (PDP) alliance, leading to a meltdown of the state government and imposition of Governor’s rule until elections are held in October 2008.

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

Chatterhama isn’t a likely location for a shrine celebrating the Lashkar’s Islamist cause -- but it does provide a useful prism to examine the Shrine Board riots. Not a single resident of Chhatterhama joined the jihadi movement in J&K. Its residents -- in the main, Shawl Bafs, or artisans who hand-embroider shawls -- were supporters of the National Conference (NC). Few would offer even ethnic-Kashmiri jihadi groups like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) shelter or support. As a result, Chhatterhama never once saw an exchange of fire between jihadis and the police or army. But when the Shrine 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 character of the valley," Kashmir lawyer and Shrine Board protest leader, Nazir Ahmad Ronga declared. "After having successfully occupied J&K militarily," he continued, "New Delhi is pushing ahead with civilian and cultural occupation".

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

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

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

Worse, in Chatterhama, as elsewhere, mainstream pro-India political groupings have been instrumental in legitimising the ideological claims of the Islamists -- and in giving the Shrine Board protests their scale and intensity. Baramulla offers an interesting illustration of the mechanics of the protests. Islamists set off the conflagration with, for example, a 600-strong June 27 peasant gathering at Watergam, led by Jamaat-e-Islami activist Nisar Ahmad Ganai. Elsewhere in Baramulla, however, pro-India parties drove the protests. On June 30, a 5,000-strong gathering at Sheeri-Baramulla, for example, was led by local NC activist Abdul Qayoom and PDP dissident Ghulam Mohideen. 

In Anantnag, similarly, both the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s Tehreek-i-Hurriyat played an important role in organising protests. Tehreek leader Hafizullah Mir, for example, 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 at the same venue the next day. It was, however, the Congress that helped the protests move beyond the Islamists’ urban bases. Local Congress leaders burned effigies of PDP patron and former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed at Wandi-Valgam on June 30, while NC activists were the principal leaders of protests in Paibugh.

Secessionists were, in fact, often peripheral to the protests that are now being held out as examples of their influence. On June 27, secessionists were reported to have led a 2,000 strong protest which hoisted a Pakistani flag on the clock tower in Srinagar’s historic Lal Chowk. Leaving aside the fact that the flags bore 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 arriving late in the course of the protests, rather than actually leading them. 

Significantly, the district of Kulgam saw a grand total of just seven protest gatherings. While the Jamaat-e-Islami organised the 8,000-strong rally at Qaimoh on June 30, and an earlier gathering at a historic shrine in Kulgam town, there was no violence at all. The explanation lies in the configuration of the district’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 of convenience with the Islamists. Its principal rival, the PDP, had no interest in fuelling the anti-Shrine Board protests, once it had itself come under assault on the issue. Local NC leaders simply did not have the on-ground muscle to influence the course of events. 

Why, then, was Chhatterhama so quick to join the Islamist cause? One factor appears to be the growth of neo-conservative religious groups in the area, which, until recently, had almost no rural reach. "Most people here used to worship at shrines", says local Jamaat-e-Islami activist Bashir Ahmad Bhat, "and followed practices that were Hindu in origin. But my 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 extended lament 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 syncretic traditions. On point of fact, the landscape Kraalwari described has been increasingly marginalised over the past century. Instead, a neoconservative Islam shaped by west-Asian petro-dollars, often channelled through Pakistani agencies, has acquired primacy. The roots of Kashmir residents’ fears lie in the central project of this new Islam: the sharpening of the ideological boundaries between faiths. 

In the first decades of the twentieth century, J&K saw the emergence of a new middle class that vied with traditional Muslim leaders for power. New forms of Islam, which privileged text over tradition, were used to legitimise their claims to speak for Kashmir’s Muslims. One major development was the arrival in Kashmir of the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis, a religious order that was set up by followers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly. Ahmad died at Balakote, now in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in 1831, while waging an unsuccessful jihad against Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom -- a campaign that, historian Ayesha Jalal reminds us in her new book Partisans of Allah, still fires the imagination 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-Hadis message to Kashmir in 1925, denounced key practices of mainstream Islam in the state, like the worship of shrines and veneration of relics. Along with his followers Anwar Shah Shopiani, Ghulam Nabi Mubaraki and Sabzar Khan, Batku attacked traditionalists for following practices tainted by their Hindu heritage, like the recitation of litanies before Namaaz. Not surprisingly, Batku came under sustained attack from traditionalist clerics, who charged him with being an apostate, an infidel and even the Dajjal -- or devil incarnate. His response was to cast himself as a defender of the faith, railing against Hindu revivalists and Christian missionaries, as well as heterodox Muslim sects like the Ahmadis and the Shia, all of whom he claimed were working to expel Islam from Kashmir. 

Despite its limited popular reach, the Ahl-e-Hadith had enormous ideological influence. As historian Chitralekha Zutshi points out in her work on the making of religious identity in the Kashmir valley, Languages of Belonging, the "influence of the Ahl-e-Hadith on the conflicts over Kashmiri identities cannot be overemphasised". While the reflexive media association of the Ahl-e-Hadith and terror groups like the LeT can be misleading -- the head of the Srinagar Police unit of the crack counter-terrorist Special Operations Group is also an adherent -- there is little doubt that the vision of Islam it propagated prepared the ground for the rise of the Jamaat-e-Islami and modern jihadis. 

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

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

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

For Geelani and his Tehreek-i-Hurriyat, the anti-Shrine Board protests are a crucible in which piety and xenophobic paranoia can be forged into a programme of resistance to India. At a June 23 meeting in Srinagar, Geelani explained the importance of the Shrine Board issue. He charged former Governor S.K. Sinha with working to "alter the demographic character of our state". Geelani stretched this logic to its limit, "I caution my nation that if we do not wake up now, India and its stooges will succeed and we will lose our land forever."

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

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

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

Politicians often drank at these communal wellsprings. At a March 4, 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 laws that proscribed cow-slaughter -- represented as threats to the authentic Muslim character of Kashmir.

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

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

When the Congress’ central leadership arm-twisted former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad into revoking the grant of land to the Shrine Board, few had anticipated that the communal backlash in Jammu would prove as intense as it was. Few in New Delhi had been watching the steady growth of Hindu reaction since 2003, mirroring the expanding ideological influence of Islamism in Kashmir. 

In the build-up to the 2002 elections, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) found itself discredited by its failure to contain terrorism. Much of the Hindutva movement’s cadre turned to a new grouping, the Jammu State Morcha. JSM leaders wanted a new, Hindu-majority state carved out of J&K. In the event, both the JSM and the BJP were wiped out in the elections, winning just one seat each. A new generation of Hindutva leaders then took control of Hindu neoconservative politics 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-standing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak from West Bengal, who had cut his teeth in organisational work in the Kalakote-Sundarbani belt. The two men proved perfect partners. If Kumar had the ideological vocabulary needed to draw Hindus to Hindutva, Sudan understood the mechanics of the mob.

Soon after the Congress-PDP government came to power, this new Hindutva leadership unleashed its first mass mobilisations. Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad 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 claimed that Saeed was now preparing the ground for the expulsion of Hindus -- and Hinduism -- from Jammu.

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