How a few harsh words lit a communal fire in Kashmir's Badgam

Troops from three battalions of the Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles regiment have been out on Badgam’s streets for the first time in years, but the context to the communal violence is more significant than the rioting itself.

Praveen Swami July 25, 2013 11:12:45 IST
How a few harsh words lit a communal fire in Kashmir's Badgam

No one seems sure just what their name was, the two young men who began arguing at the side of the road by last Thursday evening after their vehicles brushed each other.  This everyone remembers, though: one used harsh words for the  Shi’a faith, or perhaps it was for the Sunni faith.  There was a scuffle at a place called Khomeini Chowk, and then they went home.

It took just those words, though, to light fires that have destroyed lives.

Early the next morning, stone-throwing mobs confronted each other in half a dozen villages. In Payrus and in Sahipora, local police have told Firstpost, over a dozen homes and a Shi’a Imambara have been burned down.  Fatima Mir, an elderly woman, is in critical care, battling for her life because of head injuries.

For the first time in years, troops from three battalions of the Indian Army’s Rashtriya Rifles regiment have been out on Badgam’s streets.

The clashes that have led to curfew being imposed across the central Kashmir district of Badgam, bang next to Srinagar, and home to a significant part of the state’s Shi’a minority, aren’t big enough to attract attention in the national media. Everything has a context, though—and it’s the context to the communal violence in Badgam that’s more significant than the rioting itself.

For decades—even centuries—there’s been low-grade sectarian skirmishes in Kashmir, mostly signifying nothing more than the human capacity for violence over petty differences. In recent years, though, these skirmishes have shown a worrying uptick: tension flared up across Badgam in 2011 after a cellphone sex-clip of a Shi’a girl and Sunni boy surfaced, and there was violence between members of the two religious groups in Srinagar’s Hawal area last year.

Like such violence across South Asia, the tensions have as much to do with politics as with faith. Home to Muhammad Yusuf Shah, the fugitive head of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Badgam once had a powerful Islamist presence.  In recent years, as the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir has waned, the Jamaat’s reach and influence has declined—and new religious organisations have begun jostling for influence.

The pietist Tablighi Jama’at, arguably the largest neo-fundamentalist proselytising organisation in the world, has struck roots—helped by the setting spanking-new seminaries affiliated to the great Dar-ul-Uloom at Deoband, including Maulvi Abdur Rashid’s Dar-ul-Ulom Bilalia and Mufti Nazir Ahmad Qasmi’s Dar-ul-Uloom Rahimia.

Kashmir’s Barelvi tradition, hard-hit by violence attributed to Mr Shah’s Hizb and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, is also showing signs of revival: preachers like Ghulam Rasool Hami, head of the influential Karavan-e-Islami, and Abdul Rashid Dawoodi draw large audiences.

It’s hard to say just who will win this battle for hearts and minds—but the Deobandis have been adroit in putting their Barelvi opponents on the backfoot.

Evidence of a tide of religiosity emerged in recent survey of media use by young people by the New Delhi-based Institute for Research on India and International Studies: more than 61% of young people regularly listened to religious sermons; a quarter to jihadi speeches.

Fascinatingly, the communal violence in Badgam found reference in the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra's Twitter feed-a sign of the new kinds of transnational political currents feeding Islamism in Kashmir.

 

Kashmir’s Shi’a population have mostly been bystanders to this religious competition—but the rising tide of religiosity is fuelling fears, especially given the regional context. The assassination of National Conference-affiliated Shi’a leader Aga Syed Mehdi in 2000 highlighted the ideological strains: Islamist groups like the Dukhtaran-e- Millat, as also the political outfits like the Islamic Students League and the Muslim League even lashed out at secessionist leaders for attending his last rites.

How a few harsh words lit a communal fire in Kashmirs Badgam

Curfew in Kashmir. AFP

In part, the fears are driven by the fate of Shi’a in Pakistan—where terrorists claiming ideological affiliation to the Deobandi tradition have been slaughtering members of the community. Murtaza Haider, a scholar, noted in  recent commentary, hundreds of not thousands of Shi’a have been butchered; “taken off buses, lined up, and gunned down”.

Hermann Kreutzman, an expert on Pakistan’s Northern Areas, has recorded that this violence was linked to it’s government’s sponsorship Sunni jihadists to counter Iranian influence.  In 1988, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf presided over a large scale slaughter of Shi’a in Gilgit, part of pre-1947 Jammu an Kashmir; he is still referred to locally as “the Butcher of Gilgit”.

Kashmir’s Shi’a leadership has long feared the consequences of jihadi terrorism might have for the community: in the 1990s, its leadership even sponsored a militia to cushion against the possibility of an Islamist victory. Elements of the Shi’a community have also drawn ever closer to the state: in 2009, hundreds turned out to mourn Shabbir Malik, a local boy who died alongside other  Indian troops fighting jihadists.

“I don’t think”, says Badgam superintendent of police Muhammad Irshad, “that we should read too much into the violence. Kashmir’s religious sects have lived alongside each other for centuries”.

He’s right, but the Badgam violence is interesting none the less: a small symptom of a society and region going through a complex and fraught transition, the outcome of which no-one can predict.

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