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Competing communalisms

BJP-PDP alliance is marketed as a historic reconciliation. But it could firm up long-running processes of communal mobilisation.

Written by Praveen Swami |
March 12, 2015 1:09:37 am
From the first decades of the century, communalism gained traction in Kashmir. From the first decades of the century, communalism gained traction in Kashmir.

Four years ago, just days before police hunted down fugitive Islamist politician Masarat Alam Bhat at his safehouse in old Srinagar, he issued this message for India: “You will become tired of killing us. Some day you might be horrified at what you have done to humanity. We will never tire of struggling for our history, for our future, our freedom. We will not forgive.” Last week, Alam, the architect of the bloody 2010 street clashes that still haunt Kashmir’s political life, walked free after four years in prison.

This was Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s first major executive decision since he took office, and one impossible to fault on principle. Keeping Alam in prison under preventive detention laws, without either charges or trial, was the stuff of tyranny. The Sayeed government has also announced it will allow Hindutva leader Pravin Togadia to visit the state, in a similar defence of liberal principles.

Yet, it isn’t principle that’s moving the CM. Sayeed, after all, hasn’t said he intends to repeal the state’s controversial Public Safety Act. Nor have police been asked to ensure Alam faces prosecution under criminal law. Behind Sayeed’s decision are simple political calculations. The PDP’s constituency includes a large cohort of voters sympathetic to the secessionist movement. The Jamaat-e-Islami was central to the PDP winning several southern Kashmir seats. In urban seats, where low turnout had long ensured automatic National Conference wins, the PDP secured the support of young new Islamists sympathetic to leaders like Alam.

Alam’s release signals to this constituency that the PDP isn’t a slave to the BJP. It won’t be the PDP’s last attempt to nurture this constituency —and each decision, inexorably, will lead to counter-pressures to placate the Hindutva forces in Jammu.

For a sense of why this is a real peril, we must locate current Kashmir politics in history. The identity of the Dogra monarchy, historians like Chitralekha Zutshi have shown, was deeply enmeshed with religion — much like Islamic rulers in the princely states of British India with Hindu majorities, like Hyderabad. The Dogra shahi presided over an elaborate network of trusts and institutions devoted to the perpetuation not just of the Hindu faith, but Hindu monarchical rule.

In Kashmir, communal identity had not yet formed. In his 1912 poem, “Greeznama”, poet Maqbool Shah Kraalwari lamented peasants who “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”. Late in the 19th century, however, sweeping land reforms also stripped elite Muslims like the Khwaja Naqashbandis of lands they had held for centuries, replacing them with Punjabi and Dogra administrators of the monarchy.

The first decades of the 20th century saw this class push to build a Kashmiri Muslim identity. Srinagar’s Mirwaiz Rasool Shah, the grandfather of the current Mirwaiz, set up the Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam in 1899 with the objective of combating the folk practices of popular Islam. Rasool Shah’s successor, Mirwaiz Muhammad Yusuf Shah, brought the ideas of the famous Dar-ul-Uloom seminary at Deoband. The neo-fundamentalist Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadih made its appearance at around the same time led by Sayyed Husain Shah Batku, holding popular Islam responsible for the miseries of Kashmir’s Muslims.

Kashmir’s Jamaat-e-Islami gave these currents political shape. The Jamaat believed, scholar Yoginder Sikand observed, “that a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris”.

From the first decades of the century, communalism gained traction in Kashmir. In 1931, after Dogra troops killed 28 protestors in Srinagar, Hindu-owned businesses and homes were targeted. More communal violence broke out that September. Partition, which saw thousands butchered across the southern parts of the state, entrenched the communalisation. “There isn’t a single Muslim in Kapurthala, Alwar or Bharatpur,” Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah said of the toxic legacy of Partition violence, noting that “some of these had been Muslim-majority states”. Kashmiris, he added, feared “the same fate lies ahead for them, too”.

Hindus living south of the Pir Panjal mountains looked at these events through a different lens but saw the same apocalypse ahead. In 1953, the Praja Parishad, an alliance of landlords and business elites angered by the redistribution of their assets, launched an agitation against Abdullah’s policies.

Abdullah used the rise of the Jana Sangh-linked Praja Parishad to stoke communal fears in Kashmir. In one speech, he claimed that the Praja Parishad was part of a project to convert India “into a religious state wherein the interests of Muslims will be jeopardised”. If the people of Jammu wanted a separate Dogra state, Abdullah said, “I would say with full authority on behalf of the Kashmiris that they would not at all mind this separation”.

From 1977, when the Jamaat allied with the Janata Party — a precursor to the PDP-BJP alliance — Abdullah’s language became increasingly irate. He attacked the Jamaat’s alliance with the Janata, “whose hands were still red with the blood of Muslims”. National Conference leaders administered oaths to their cadre on the Quran and a piece of rock salt, a symbol of Pakistan.

The paranoia paid off. The National Conference won all 42 seats in Kashmir. But when the 1983 elections came around, other politicians showed communalism could be a multiplayer game. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi conducted an incendiary campaign in Jammu, built around the claim that the discrimination the region faced was because it was part of “Hindu India”.

Across the Pir Panjal, Farooq Abdullah and his newfound ally Maulvi Mohammad Farooq — Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq’s father — let it be known that they were defending Kashmir’s Muslim identity. At a March 1987 rally in Srinagar, Muslim United Front candidates, clad in the white robes of the pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state.

From the rise of the long jihad on, the division was cast ever stronger. In a 1998 book, Kashmir’s Islamic patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, suggested that Kashmir’s secession from India was essential for the survival of Islam in the region. For Muslims to live among Hindus, he argued, was as difficult as “for a fish to stay alive in a desert”.

In 2006, following a successful Islamist campaign against prostitution in Srinagar, Geelani launched the fateful mobilisation that would explode in 2010. He claimed that “hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris”.

In the following years, new campaigns were mounted, each pitting an authentic Kashmiri Islamic identity against India’s modernity-suffused vice: the targets ranging from migrant workers alleged to have raped a teenager to a teacher whose students were filmed dancing during vacation. “I caution my nation,” Geelani warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”

Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu have seen similar communal processes, often built around opposition to cow-slaughter. Last year, dozens of Muslim-owned businesses were torched in Bani after allegations of cow-slaughter. The year before saw savage rioting in Kishtwar and Poonch. Two years ago, a stray remark by a schoolteacher almost sparked off riots in Bhaderwah. In 2007, an India-Pakistan cricket match led to pitched communal battles in Rajouri.

The century of communal mobilisation has now reached a decisive point. The PDP-BJP alliance in Kashmir has been marketed as an historic reconciliation between the state’s Hindus and Muslims. It could just as easily end with the partitioning of the state’s peoples by two colluding communal blocks.

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