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Ramban firing reveals the fading communal politics of Kashmir

In another place and another time, perhaps the only thing that would matter is this: that four men are dead, for no very good reason, and at least 11 others are fighting for their lives in hospital. In another place and another time, it would matter that the very same morning, an eminent cardiologist was shot while taking a walk, losing his eyesight—and the two men tasked with guarding him, their lives. It ought not matter what their faith was, or their cause.

In this place and time in Jammu and Kashmir, though, those are the only questions that matter.

Ever since Thursday morning’s killings of protestors near the small Jammu-region mountain town of Gool, the fragile peace the state has seen since 2010 has been put to the test. In Kashmir, across the Pir Panjal mountains, police have had to impose curfew in key cities and towns.

This has nothing to do with terrorism: violence in Jammu and Kashmir is at the lowest level since 2002, and police in Gool haven’t reported a single terrorism-related incident in over two years.  The violence, instead, that tells us something about the deep cultural and political dysfunctions that have survived the death of the two-decade long jihad Jammu and Kashmir.

From the multiple stories emerging on Thursday morning’s killings, it’s hard to say for certain just what happened. Jammu and Kashmir’s minister of state for home, Sajjad Ahmad Kitchloo, said the riots began after BSF personnel walked into a mosque with their shoes on.

Protests in the state following the killing. PTI

Protests in the state following the killing. PTI

In the Border Security Force’s account of events, the detention of a local resident on suspicion led to a brawl—which in turn led him to spread rumours that a copy of the Koran had been desecrated.

In one of the more lurid online telling of events on an Islamist website, a witness claimed to have seen BSF personnel who “picked up [a] Koran and ripped them off and threw them under their feet”.

Take your pick: everyone else is doing it.  Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, has been left complaining that media can’t even get the number of people killed right, let alone more complex facts.

Firstpost was able to establish some shared narrative elements in interviews with local residents and authorities.  Early on Wednesday evening, a BSF ambush party did indeed detain local resident Muhammad Latif, the younger brother of a local cleric.

The BSF says Latif was merely asked for his identification, but “started arguing and didn’t take the query in the right spirit”.  For his part, Latif claims the BSF asked him to put an end to Darood and Taraveeh late-night recitations at his brother’s mosque, part of Ramzan-period ritual.

Early that evening, a small group of 15-20 protestors scuffled with BSF guards stationed at Gool to protect ongoing construction work on the railway line that will link Kashmir to Jammu.  Later, following announcements in the mosque, a larger mob assembled.  In the morning, just short of 6.30 am, talks between village elders and administrators broke down—and large scale violence broke out.

There’s reason to suspect the BSF panicked: the first person injured was one of its own constables, shot in the stomach. It’s easy to counsel restraint, though, when you’re at a safe distance from a crazed mob.  Firing on violent mobs is common in India and the region: five people were killed in Bagaha, Bihar, just last month; in Assam; in Bengal; even on monks in China and Islamists in Bangladesh.

Ever since the large-scale killings of protestors across the Kashmir valley in 2010, the Jammu and Kashmir Police had made a serious effort to improve its non-lethal crowd control capacities. In 2010, a police force trained and equipped for counter-insurgency faced stone-throwing young people, and responded with grossly disproportionate force.

The results are evident. In general, firing on violent mobs across India has been in decline since its peak in 2008—even, the data shows, in Uttar Pradesh, chronically the worst offender.

NCRB--deaths-in-police-firing-2005-2012

 

The real question is: just why is it that violence like this explodes, as it were out of almost nothing?

For an answer to that question, we need to peep back into Jammu and Kashmir’s history.  In the years after Partition, the great Kashmiri leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah attempted an explanation.

“There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur,” his biography, The Flames of the Chinar record him as saying. Kashmiri Muslims, he concluded, “are afraid that the same fate lies ahead for them as well”.

In the decades after independence, the scholar Yoginder Sikand tells us, Islamists sought to cash in on this Jamaat-e-Islami leaders believed that an “Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris.”

It was alleged 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 ish 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 archangel Gabriel dictating the Koran to the prophet Muhammad. Protesters demanded that the author be hanged: “a vain demand,” Katherine Frank has wryly noted, “since Arthur Mee had died in England in 1943.”

Politicians proved quick to cash in on this communal tide. At a 4 March, 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state.

Ever since 2006, when a campaign against a Srinagar brothel expanded into a generalised assault on Indian legitimacy in Kashmir, this themes have regularly surfaced. In the build-up to the 2008 protests against the grant of land-use rights to the Amarnath Shrine Board, the Islamist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani claimed the decision was part of a plot to “alter the demographic character of the state”. He blamed economic migrants for everything from “promoting their own polytheistic culture” to sexual violence against children.

New Islamists like Masrat Alam Bhat, who spearheaded the 2010 violence, promised not just liberation from India, but an Islamic state to “fight out socialism and secularism to remove taguti [false leaders; traitors] rule and to extirpate the western ideology”.

In Kashmir itself, this politics continues.  Earlier this year, Srinagar cleric Bashir-ud-Din lashed out at chief minister Abdullah for defending an all-girl rock band, saying it was a sign of an effort to demolish Kashmiri society’s moral fabric. Geelani spokesperson Ayaz Akbar defended the threats, saying they were a legitimate effort to defend society’s values.

There’s been a steady stream of minor communal incidents in Jammu, too, where the fault lines between Hindu and Muslim lie: in April, communal groups clashed because of an anti-encroachment drive; a teacher’s stray remark almost sparked off riots in Bhaderwah two years ago; in 2007, an India-Pakistan cricket match led to pitched communal battles in Rajouri.

Politicians have been quick to cash in. Geelani has called for a three day strike to protest the Gool killings; his rivals Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik, both in turn locked in a bitter war of words with each other, have given separate calls for protests.

None, notably, has said a word about the man blinded the same morning as the Gool killings—the eminent cardiologist Sheikh Jalaluddin, a man who spent his life doing nothing but caring for the ill. They didn’t have a word to say, either, about the two police officers—both Kashmiris—killed that morning, likely by other Kashmiris.

The protests they’re leading are an effort to sharpen and consolidate group boundaries—not end violence.

In my opinion, though, this politics is losing. From rural students  landing private-sector jobs in Mumbai or Pune, to aspirants to the civil services and the national cricket team, young Kashmiris are showing they have a vision of the future very different from that of the Islamists.

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”.

It was a world, I’d like to think, Kashmir is clawing it’s way back to again.