Kashmir unrest: Once a bastion of religious pluralism, the Valley is now a battleground of militancy

While the Kashmiri youth choose between terrorism and tourism, the government’s job is to address their ideological predicament.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi April 27, 2017 22:17:11 IST
Kashmir unrest: Once a bastion of religious pluralism, the Valley is now a battleground of militancy

Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs conducted a case study on how Kashmir’s religious diversity turned into the ‘religious militancy’. Highlighting the valley’s shift from religious pluralism to radicalism and sectarian discord, it concluded that religion has become increasingly important as a central marker of identity and a flashpoint for conflict in Kashmir. It reads: "Religious pluralism and religious tolerance have ebbed over the past two decades, making Kashmir a major element in a wider set of sectarian divides. For instance, events within India like the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu extremists (and the deadly riots that followed) heightened tensions within Kashmir and outraged the international community."

The traditions of religious pluralism have deep roots in the history of Kashmir valley. Even when the entire country was afflicted with the partition on the religious lines, the Kashmiris were basking in the glory of its marvelous communal harmony and interfaith diversity. At a time when the Islamist nationalism was on the march in Pakistan in 1970s and Hindu nationalism was taking roots in India in 1980s, Kashmir’s syncretism still flourished by leaps and bounds. Though a few hardcore religionists in the valley sought to sabotage the valley’s distinct moderate religious precepts and practices, the common Kashmiris have been imbued with the pluralist Rishi-Sufi tradition. Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir have been known for their wide embrace of the Hindu and Buddhist cultural practices. This is why their version of Sufism is distinctly known as Rishi-Sufism. The Dargah of Hazratbal in Srinagar has been the most visited religious place in the entire valley.

But what has catapulted Kashmir from being the bastion of religious plurality into a battleground of the radicalism and militancy? This question is exponentially arising, more relevantly now when a top army official in Kashmir, Lt Gen JS Sadhu acknowledges the disturbing growth of religious radicalisation among the Kashmiri youth. He has recently stated that the "public support to terrorists, their glorification and increased radicalisation are issues of concern”, as reported in The Indian Express.

This reinforces the point that the practical solution to the country’s gravest tragedy does not lie in a military crackdown, but rather in a dialogue-based ideological discourse. It cannot be denied that the separatist leaders have cunningly propelled their political ambition into a religiously inspired and ideologically motivated cause. What was known as an ‘independence movement’ of the Kashmiri militants over the past three decades, is now being shaped and intensified as a religious conflict. This is precisely why the militant ideologues have successfully swayed a vulnerable section of the Kashmiri Muslim youth. Regrettably, this is the worst time in the valley’s history when the religious antagonists have smartly played into the local politics. In many earlier incidents, they tried hard to further this nefarious end, but to no avail. Remember the attacks on the Kashmiri pundits on one hand, and the militant-led siege of the Sufi shrine Charar-e-Sharif in 1995, on the other. Both were viciously planned to disturb the religious harmony in the valley. But the valley's Hindus and Muslims in general and the Rishi-Sufi followers, in particular, responded in a mature manner. They did not react with any violent outburst even though they were shocked by the destruction of the Sufi shrine. Thus, they sabotaged the religious fanatics’ ferocious designs to fan the fire of communal disturbance and resultant destabilisation in Jammu and Kashmir.

But later, separatist ideologies thrived in the fanatic religious indoctrination catching the imagination of the gullible Kashmiri youth, students and children with impressionable minds. Pakistani jihadist ideologues preached the narrative of political Islamism which disassociated the Kashmiri Muslims from their local harmonious practices and syncretic culture. They emboldened the separatist leaders and strengthened their political appeals among the gullible Kashmiri youths. The above-mentioned research study held by Georgetown University also underpins this point: "Just as the Pakistani government supported religious militants in Afghanistan to further its own interests, it has pursued a similar strategy in Kashmir. Jihadist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed were a useful tool for the Pakistani government: they effectively challenged Indian control of Kashmir, provoked harsh repressive measures from the Indian military, and allowed the regular Pakistani military to gain distance from frontline hostilities."

Now, the most precarious thing that the religious zealots seem to have spread in the valley is the narrative of victimhood and the psyche of retaliation among the angry Kashmiri youths. Consequently, today’s generation in Kashmir is going haywire, protesting, hitting the streets, injuring and killing the police personnel and getting themselves injured and killed and thus shaking the state administration, day in and day out. Most deplorably, a few misguided youths are waving the Islamic State flags and chanting pro-Pakistan and anti-India slogans in valley. Thus, things have turned the worst.

In this grim situation, while the Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti appears to be helpless, the army takes a fresh pledge to fight the militants. A top commander is reported to have said that "the army will have to kill militants and will do so but there is no intent to harm civilians".

But the question is: how can the army fight the ideological indoctrination in the valley through the military crackdowns? The militants have been waging their 'battle of faith' on the social media and messaging apps, circulating the provocative videos and fabricated texts. Recently, the Chief Minister Mufti has expressed concern over the videos of militants being circulated on the social media, which result into the growing militancy in the Valley. In her meeting with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she said that social media, particularly Facebook and WhatsApp have been widely used to create more and more stone pelters in the valley, as reported in the Urdu daily Inquilab on 25 April. An editorial in the leading Urdu newspaper in the valley, Kashmir Uzma noted that certain WhatsApp groups based in Kashmir have whipped up the provocative passions in the entire Indian Muslim community. Clearly, this situation compelled the Jammu and Kashmir government to order the suspension of internet services in the valley for a period of one month or till further orders, as Firstpost reported.

However, the close observers of Kashmir do not view these oft-repeated and run-of-the-mill moves as practical solution to the valley’s grim situation. Neither military crackdowns nor suspension of internet services can take Kashmir out of the deepening ideological crisis.

In fact, the current state of affairs in the valley is symptomatic of the same ideological stimulus which was behind the creation of Pakistan in pursuit of the Islamic system of governance. It is patently clear that azaadi (freedom) in Kashmir is no longer a geopolitical issue. It has become a pan-Islamist mission for the whole new generation of the separatist flag bearers. They have succumbed to the exclusivist Islamist slogan: "Yahan kya chalega, nizam-e-mustafa" (only Islamic Sharia will rule in the Kashmir valley). This slogan has been vociferously raised in various parts of Kashmir. It was being raised even on the eve of the Independence Day, by a sloganeering bout at the Srinagar airport, as a reported in The Times of India on 15 August 2016.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw a sharp contrast between the stone pelters and the hardworking stone-cutters in Kashmir. Addressing a public rally at Udhampur after inaugurating India's longest road tunnel at Nashiri, Modi said, according to Kashmir Observer: "You have two paths to choose from which will decide your future: Tourism and terrorism" .... "The bloodshed has not benefited anyone after 40 years. But if tourism had been promoted in these 40 years, Kashmir would have been number one tourist destination in the world."

While Modi’s silence over what he feels about the common sufferers of the daily bloodshed in Kashmir is deafening, his appeal to the Kashmiri youth to choose between tourism and terrorism ignited hope for many Muslim thinkers. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, a noted Islamic scholar known for his peace activism in the valley, took the PM’s piece of suggestion as applicable to the entire country, not only to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. He commented on this in his article for Times of India:

"India’s Muslims often speak out against discrimination, but this movement of theirs has not yielded even one person of the likes of A P J Abdul Kalam. Similarly, Dalit leaders have initiated a movement for putting an end to discrimination against Dalits, yet they have not produced even one person of the stature of B R Ambedkar. These facts are a wake-up call to rethink our position. Now it is time for all communities to centre their activities on availing of the numerous opportunities open to them rather than on voicing grievances."

Modi has also invoked the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his vow to take Kashmir to the new heights of development by follow the three principles: 'insaniyat' (humanity), Kashmiriyat (pluralistic culture) and 'jamuriyat' (democracy). But one wonders if all these tall claims will remain hollow and a sheer rhetoric. Merely casting spell through speeches will not work for the Kashmir’s painful problems. The Modi government will have to sincerely adopt Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s policy of dialogue in the truest sense. After all, the mainstream Kashmiris, from Jammu to Kargil and Leh to Ladakh, are historically imbued in the Indian pluralistic and democratic ethos.

While the Kashmiri youth choose between terrorism and tourism, the government’s job is to address their ideological predicament. This may be too gigantic a task to be achieved, but it should be given paramount importance. Merely making plans to create education and employment opportunities for the Kashmiri youths will not hamper the ideological onslaught on them. A coherent and consistent programme of deradicalisation needs to be scaled up with the cooperation of the moderate Islamic thinkers in restoring peace and religious pluralism in Kashmir. Mosques and religious seminaries of the valley have to be approached with the progressive Islamic literature. In this direction, Maulana Wahiduddin Khan has been working for many years from the late 1960s onwards.

In his writings, Maulana preaches that the violent extremism of Islamist outfits in the valley has no legitimacy in Islamic jurisprudence. He expounds that guerrilla war, engaged in by non-state actors such as the present-day terrorist groups, is brazenly un-Islamic. In his Urdu book Subh-e-Kashmir ('Dawn Over Kashmir'), Maulana writes: "Proxy wars, such as the war being pursued by Pakistan-backed terror groups in Kashmir are also forbidden in Islam." He calls for "neo-Gandhism", a technique based on education and non-militancy which he has conceived in his writings meant for the Kashmiri readers. This writer inquired about his experience in de-radicalising the valley’s misguided youths. In response, Maulana's daughter, Farida Khanam, a professor in Islamic studies, told Firstpost that the progressive literature has been distributed on a large scale, both in the valley and Jammu. "Many Kashmiris who earlier supported militancy due to the twisted beliefs, were convinced that they were following the right path of Islam. So they were laying down their life out of conviction. But after our literature was distributed to them, their religious conviction in militancy has got lessened. That is why the militants are involving children now because the elders are increasingly taking cognisance of this futile exercise," she said.

"In some areas in the valley, the literature has been distributed on a larger scale. When I went to those places some years ago, many people said: "maulana ne hamari jan bachai hai" (Maulana has rescued our life)," Khanam said.

The author is a scholar of classical Islamic studies, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication studies. He tweets at @GRDehlvi and can be contacted at grdehlavi@gmail.com

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