In Kashmir, the institution of Mirwaiz is once again faced with an enemy who must not be named
In Jammu and Kashmir, the authority of the Mirwaiz is again being challenged, in both politics as well as religion.
In June 1989, the death of the architect of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, caused ripples as far as Srinagar in the Kashmir Valley, where an insurgency was in its nascent stage. “La Sharqiya La Garbiya, Islamia, Islamia. (No east, no west, only Islam),” the Valley reverberated.
A day after his death, according to a report by Newstrack, a gunman appeared at the stage erected in the historic Jamia Masjid in downtown Srinagar, bypassing the senior separatist leaders present there, and announced that a shutdown must be observed the coming Friday. This was, perhaps, among the early signs of an Islamisation of the insurgency that would soon turn into jihad and then eventually challenge the political separatist leadership itself.
The act was also a direct challenge to the authority of the hereditary clerical order of the Mirwaiz, whose religious and political authority is derived from the pulpit of the Jamia Masjid. The then Mirwaiz, Moulvi Farooq, seemingly underestimated the significance of what had transpired. “It’s a good thing,” Moulvi Farooq told Newstrack. “It should upset me and other leaders (but) we aren't bothered.”
The Mirwaiz shot down the interviewer’s apprehensions that the passage of power from the political leadership to the insurgents would be dangerous for Jammu and Kashmir. “Don’t worry about us,” he had retorted. A year later, the Mirwaiz would be assassinated by the insurgents and his young son, Umar Farooq, was coronated as the Mirwaiz. He has never named his father’s killers.
Fast forward to 2019, the authority of the Mirwaiz is again being challenged, in both politics as well as religion. The challenge is not from gunmen but youth who are intent on taking matters in their own hands. On 28 December, 2018, sometime after Friday prayers concluded at the Jamia, a group of masked youth waved the flags of the Islamic State, one climbed the mosque’s pulpit, and shouted slogans in its favour. In the evening, a video of the incident went viral online.
The act by the masked youth was immediately condemned by Farooq, who also heads the mosque’s management committee and a faction of the separatist Hurriyat. Though flags of the Islamic State have regularly appeared in the area, this act was symbolic. In recent years, the Jamia’s pulpit and stage have rarely been opened to other separatist leaders. In 2008, the stage was reluctantly given to the Valley’s octogenarian separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, but he was not allowed to sit on the pulpit that was much smaller back then.
The 28 December incident was termed as “desecration” by the mosque’s management committee. The Wednesday after the incident, Farooq cleansed the pulpit and declared that the coming Friday, 4 January, would be observed as “day of sanctity”. The Valley’s separatist leadership gathered at the mosque in solidarity and condemned the incident for having not only desecrated the mosque but also maligned Kashmir’s separatist struggle. Besides the Mirwaiz, Yasin Malik of the JKLF and a representative of the Jamaat-e-Islami, its spokesperson, Zahid Ali, were present on the occasion. Senior separatist leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, gave a telephonic address.
The enemy who must not be named
What complicates the separatist opposition is that the bulk of the Islamic State-inspired youth are the resentful and dejected lot of their constituency. In their address on 4 January, the leaders were aware of this fact. Malik praised the youth of downtown Srinagar for keeping the separatist struggle alive, making it the “symbol of resistance” and warned that “conspiracies against the downtown” were at play.
Without mentioning the Islamic State, Malik pleaded to the youth to not get swayed by such global ideologies and instead bring forth their grievances to the separatist leadership. “We have to appear as oppressed before the world, because we are being oppressed,” said Malik. “How can we go before the world with this name (of the Islamic State) that will make them say that we should be bombed?”
Due to the “hype” given to the incident by mainstream Indian media and wary of India’s attempts to link the Kashmiri separatist struggle with global terror, Geelani warned that the act had neither served Islam nor the separatist movement but was being used to link the Kashmiri separatist struggle with “global terrorism”. “Our enemy is not only cruel and oppressive but also cunning.”
The Mirwaiz himself reiterated that the separatist struggle was indigenous but there were attempts to “hijack” it. He asserted that the fight was for Kashmir’s right to self-determination and spoke of the United Nations’ resolutions on the dispute. “We are fighting for our rights, we have no global agenda,” he said. It is precisely this politics that is ridiculed by the growing section of Islamists in the Valley, mostly the youth, as un-Islamic. The youth, Mirwaiz said, must “control their emotions. We must know which direction we have to take."
Of all the speakers, only the Jamaat’s representative specifically criticised the Islamic State but still maintained that the separatist struggle would continue till Islamic rule was established in the Valley. The open-ended criticism by the other separatist leaders, some observers point out, could be to gradually open a front against the Zakir Musa-led Ansar Ghazwatul-Hind, an organisation self-avowedly linked to Al-Qaeda. Musa had threatened to hang the separatist leaders for calling Kashmir a political issue.
The battle for Kashmir’s youth
The Kashmiri separatist movement, since its armed eruption, has often oscillated between propagating that the struggle was religious or political in its nature. Sympathisers of Islamism point out that even Syed Salahuddin, the head of the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council, at one point, sought Al-Qaeda and Taliban’s help in Kashmir. In the early 1990’s it was the Hizbul Mujahideen, now the largest jihadist outfit, that trained its guns on the “secular” insurgents of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front.
In 2009, as Mirwaiz Farooq discreetly met India’s home minister, the process of talks was derailed after an attack on the separatists resulted in critical injuries to a key leader. It is, perhaps, the shifting of goalposts that has led to the new wave of youth, from Burhan Wani to Zakir Musa, taking up arms to outrightly declare jihad and distance themselves from Pakistan. The separatist solidarity after “desecration”, too, points to the fact that the events at the Jamia could not be seen in isolation.
A shift in the politics of the Jamia and downtown Srinagar — the bastion of the Mirwaiz — was perhaps signalled in July 2017 when, just a few yards from the Jamia, the flag of Pakistan was thrown to the ground as the funeral procession of a slain mujahid from the area was being taken out, and Hurriyat representatives were prevented from addressing the mourners. The following year, at the funeral of another youth who was mowed down by a security force vehicle during stone-pelting outside the Jamia, the Hurriyat spoke of youth “giving sacrifices for khilafat”.
Over the last few years, several instances across the Kashmir Valley have pointed to growing disillusionment with the politics of the Hurriyat and growing frustrations with Indian stubbornness in taking forward political processes. In recent years, the availability of global jihadist ideologies at their fingertips, through smartphones and the internet, have given the youth in despair a new hope for a potent method to achieve their goals.
Fridays at the Jamia have turned into gatherings where sympathisers of almost all armed outfits converge and clash with security forces. During Ramzan in July 2017, mobs chanting slogans in favour of Musa lynched a policeman to death as devotees prayed inside the mosque. The same year, in September, a large Islamic State flag was displayed in the courtyard of the Jamia as masked youth offered funeral prayers for the jihadist Abdul Qayoom Najar, who was claimed by both the Ansar Ghazwatul Hind and the self styled Islamic State in Kashmir.
The stone-pelting youth have often entered the mosque’s premises to flee security forces. Sometime during late 2017, a video from the Jamia went viral, causing outrage against the Mirwaiz. In the video a young boy is lying on the ground, his face bloodied and open shirt revealing his pockmarked chest and moments after blood oozes out of his mouth, a voice is heard saying “we have been enclosed”, referring to the gates of the Jamia locked “by agents of Mirwaiz”.
For now, the symbolism of the pulpit has given the separatist leadership a chance to rally against the growing threat of global Islamist ideologies, but the fight for Kashmir’s youth would be a long one, given that the Hurriyat has so far even failed to reach a consensus over a political roadmap for the future of Kashmir.
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