Fire destroyed 200-year-old Sufi shrine Peer Dastgeer Sahib in June 2012. Photo: Abid Bhatt

Very recently a friend appearing in an interview in New Delhi was asked a strange question. Why was Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan offered tight security in Kashmir? Does it mean militancy is still a major threat? The applicant quoted police figures on garrisoned Kashmir saying not more than 247 rebels fight over half a million troops in Kashmir, plus several thousand spies and nearly a lakh cops. To him and many others the security was offered to shield the star from “unruly” fans. Rewind to the interview. So many mosques are coming up in Kashmir. Why are people suddenly turning religious? I mean I heard the youth are getting radicalised, another interviewer asked? The outspoken applicant in reply sought reasons as to why so many small temples have come up along Srinagar-Jammu highway, away from local Hindu population, which was not the case until few years ago. The interview then suddenly shifted to the applicant’s extra-curricular activities.

For the past many years, the question of mosques coming up in every lane of Kashmir is being asked. Then religious groups like Jamiat-e-Ahl Hadith (JAH) or the Salafis (popular but contemptuously referred to as the Wahabis and a constituent group of Sunni Muslims), Deobandi and Barelvi outfits (Shrine goers) or even Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) are discussed. Years ago JeI was pegged as a group from which youth sought inspiration from. Note, the state has often described people ‘radical’ once they offer it formidable belligerence, politically or ideologically.

In recent years, we’ve been told that JAH is promoting Saudi Islam or Wahhabi Islam in Kashmir, a land that has roots in Sufi ethos, in an attempt to push it against Barelvi sect. And now a new group Carvan-e-Islam that randomly came from nowhere has started promoting ‘moderate Islam’. It has seen a valley’s top bureaucrat leading its rallies, although he has been denying regularly that he promotes any one sect in Kashmir either personally or in official capacity. One wonders how processions of Carvan-e-Islam are allowed by the state while the Ashura processions of Shia Muslims always face strict curbs, water cannons, aerial firing and bamboo beating every year.

Last few months has seen target killings of personnel of religious groups. And with it several Kashmir mosques (mostly belonging to Hanafi sect—which in the eyes of the state follow moderate Islam) started catching fires. Almost half a dozen cases of fires witnessed that also saw a famous Sufi shrine getting devastated in Srinagar’s Khanyar area. Separatists suspect it as the “handiwork of agencies” hell-bent on dividing the Kashmir society along religious lines and “weakening the united resistance”, while the police has been blaming either miscreants or short circuits as cause of fire.

If we look back, one would realise how complex the situation has remained ever since the armed rebellion for Azadi broke out in 1989 and how the state has actually sided with the group (irrespective of its ideology) that doesn’t pose any threat to it.

For example, JAH that preaches puritanical Islam owes its rise to the not-so-powerful-now JeI, which was cut to size by various state machineries during the past few decades. JeI — a cadre-based politico-religious body in the state was a revivalist movement and had operated within a moderate Hanafi framework. It fuelled Islamic movement in the Valley through a definite doctrine but in sync with socio-cultural essence of the Valley. JeI brought modern religious education in Kashmir by organising seminars, discussions, opening schools and donation centres. However, as JeI also proved to be a political wing of the largest militant outfit, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, it soon saw itself juxtaposed to state and Centre policies. Soon notorious renegades and government gunmen started hounding JeI members triggering a huge flux among JeI cadres, who fled from villages to Srinagar and other urban areas. The JeI’s weakness created a huge vacuum only to be filled by the JAH. Side by side huge militarisation, raging conflict and loss of identity forced Kashmiris to live in a highly insecure environment. While civilians were seeking refuge in religion, the JAH proved to be the only platform that until now had the state patronage.

The JAH had initially faced opposition. For example, in South Kashmir’s Shangus area there are instances when members of JAH tried to preach in Hanafi mosques but kangris (traditional fire pot) were hurled on them. Similar other instances meant the JAH wouldn’t preach their ideology in local masjids. The takeover was failing. But soon the JAH started constructing their own mosques. The strong factor that saw the JAH penetrate deeper into Kashmir society was increased militarisation of the Valley. In many instances villagers going for morning prayers were suspected as militants and shot dead by troops. Previously villagers or citizens would walk for several kilometres to reach a mosque, but fear of getting killed saw mosques coming up in lanes after lanes. And as population swelled from 77,18,700 in 1991 to 1,25, 48,926 in 2011, expansion of rural and urban areas also saw hundreds of mosques coming up. The JAH’s money from Saudi Arabia was unrestricted so was its influence that was fast spreading especially among educated youth of the Valley. While the state agencies were clipping JeI’s power, the JAH found itself close to the state. The same state which now seems appeasing the shrine believer sect Barelvis. In fact in 2008 the then Governor Lt Gen (retired) SK Sinha helped the then JAH cleric Maulana Showkat for setting up the Transworld Islamic University. The JAH was given 12 acres of land. Reportedly ample financial support from Saudi Arabia had come too. The state agencies chose to stay ignored. Interestingly, Showkat was killed in a cycle bomb episode one Friday in 2011. Salafi ideology Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT)would later blame “traitors from our own ranks” for the murder.

There are instances of killings that show irrespective of what ideology one follows, proximity with New Delhi and state agencies were the reasons of assault on people. For instance, in Seer village of South Kashmir, years ago pro-India People Democratic Party (PDP) worker Ghulam Nabi Khan who was a Salafi Muslim (JAH) by ideology was shot by militants. Then some JeI members were also killed just because of their affiliation with the PDP and not because of what sect they belonged to. It was never a sectarian fight.

Even in pro-Azadi JKLF, some members follow the JAH ideology though the party they work for has a shrine-goers baggage. In police department some key officials, who were at the forefront of counter insurgency some time back, follow Wahabbi Islam but work against the militants often driven by pan-Islamism. Again while the JAH is thought to be proponents of violent Islam it was the JAH’s Maulana Showkat who did a strong peacemaking when years ago members of Muslim and Sikh community came head-on over some issue. Showkat’s march had both JKLF and Sikh members.
The JKLF is many times promoted as a secular party because it fits in the dominant state narrative, despite the fact that they were the ones to shut down cinemas, burn down liquor shops and involved in many civilian kidnappings. If a research is done, the LeT, which the state sees as the most-ruthless group, will be found involved in very small number of cases in which civilians were killed. “In fact it’s the only militant group,” one senior journalist believes, “that apologised for killing an unarmed defence PRO (Major Purushottam ) when its Fidayeen squad entered Srinagar’s Badami Bagh army cantonment in November 1999. Purushottam had saved three visiting photojournalists in the toilet before he was shot.” But since the LeT has been capable to recruit many locals and has been involved in many spectacular attacks on the police and army installations, the group has been easily passed as the one doing something that goes against ‘Kashmiriyat’.

Sectarian war in Kashmir will favour the state which has been facing a popular rebellion so far. And since the Home Ministry’s survey recently found that nearly 60 percent of angry youth who took part in the 2010 civil unrest had spent ample time listening to religious discourses in (Wahabbi) mosques or on the net, pitting good Hanafi against bad Wahabbi, seems the next gamble. Earlier, the army had claimed to have funded renovation of Sufi shrines under Operation Sadhbavana until it faced a fatwa in 2007 and recently personnel of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) were seen offering food at a local Barelvi shrine. The state too is massively funding construction or renovation of many Hanafi shrines which can prove a dangerous trend.

If one carefully observes the standards of living of some senior Barelvi leaders, who have become active in recent months, as well as the reach of the JAH among the educated youth of Kashmir, it suggests that funds are coming for either sects and whether this money is coming from approved channels or from some mysterious quarters, the intention of triggering passions between the two sects seems the prime motive.

As I write this piece, North Kashmir’s Handwara district is protesting against the desecration of yet another mosque today. And, like, always police has registered a case against “unidentified miscreants”.

Mohammad Umar BabaAuthor: Baba Umar’s career started with The Indian Express in Srinagar where he reported on the South Asia earthquake of 2005. In the following years, he wrote features for Kashmir’s first online news magazine Kashmir Newz and in 2008 he joined Rising Kashmir as a senior reporter where he covered 2008-09-10 civil unrest. Baba specializes in producing stories mostly on Kashmir conflict and water disputes in India. Baba joined Tehelka in 2010 and the next year saw him winning ICRC (Geneva)-Press Institute of India (PII) award for his news report on victims of armed conflict in Kashmir.

 

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  1. […] Who is benefiting from the Kashmir sectarianism? […]

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