In May 1973, someone wandering through Anantnag’s public library discovered, buried inside a dusty encyclopedia, an image with the power to kill: The Archangel Gabriel dictating the text of the Quran to the Prophet. Local clerics denounced the image as blasphemous, sparking off riots. The government banned the colonial-era encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, but the clerics wanted its author hanged — harder to concede, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s biographer Katherine Frank has wryly noted, “since Arthur Mee had died in England in 1943”.
The Book of Knowledge riots, until then a kind of low-farce version of the great Enlightenment battles over ideas, ended in a manner that has become a template for so many tragedies since: A brutal confrontation with the police, with four people killed in firing, and dozens of others injured.
This week’s killings in Kashmir’s Handwara, sparked off by false rumours that a young woman had been sexually harassed by soldiers, tells us many important things: Of mass anger against the degradations which come with life in a militarised environment; of soldiers and police too willing to kill; of a lumpenised youth culture that finds meaning only in violence.
These stories, though, conceal a more complex truth. From the 1990s on, the web of institutions that made up Kashmir’s civil society — among them, its political organisations, cultural bodies and the very structure of the family — have slowly imploded. Though formal democracy revived in 1995, it has failed to transform a dystopic polity.
Failing a serious effort to revive and build a new democratic culture, the prospect of a larger crisis is very real.
The underlying crisis in Kashmir needs to be read against the slow growth, from the 1920s, of neo-fundamentalist proselytising movements. Key among them was the arrival of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, a religious order set up by the followers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareli — a mystic who died in Pakistan’s northwest, waging a jihad against Mahajara Ranjit Singh’s empire.
Led by Delhi-educated seminarian Sayyed Hussain Shah Batku, the Ahl-e-Hadith arrived in Kashmir in 1925. He denounced key practices of mainstream Islam linked to Hinduism, such as worship of shrines, the veneration of relics, and the recitation of litanies. For Ahl-e-Hadith ideologues like Siddiq Hasan Khan and Nazir Husain, the miseries of Indian Muslims were rooted in the accommodation they had made with their environment.
The Ahl-e-Hadith’s political reach was, for decades, marginal. Their intellectual impact, historian Chitralekha Zutshi reminds us, ought not however be underestimated. Kashmir’s most influential Islamist political party, the Jama’at-e-Islami, was closely linked to the Ahl-e-Hadith’s ideas. It appealed to a new, bourgeoisie, who were given education and wealth by Chief Minister Sheikh Abdullah’s reforms — but denied agency and empowerment by a flawed democracy.
From the 1950s on, Jama’at-run schools entrenched a worldview that cast secular democracy as an onslaught on Kashmir and Islam. The Jama’at, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, believed “a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth”.
By 1987, these social tendencies had acquired a political platform, the Muslim United Front (MUF). At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state, and that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was an agent of Hindu imperialism.
The 1990s saw the Islamist-led Kashmiri insurgency sweep aside a decaying political order. Beyond the slogan of “Nizam-e-Mustafa”, or god’s rule, the jihadist leadership, however, had little idea of what social order they envisioned. In his prison diaries, Rudad-i-Qafas, written in 1992-94, Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chastised the young jihadists who acted as though “sworn not to accept any political leadership at all”.
From 2006, a new generation of Islamist leaders — Masarat Alam Bhat, his colleague Asiya Andrabi, and their jailed mentor Ashiq Hussain Faktoo — heard his call. Their mobilisations have given leadership, in the main, to a generation of disenfranchised young urban men.
This youth cohort has seen families invest ever more in their education, only to find there are few secure, formal-sector jobs; found that political patronage to which they have no access is needed for entrepreneurship; and find themselves unable to even earn an income at an age their parents had families.
Andrabi, thus, gave voice to the rage of many when she called on Kashmiris to throw out protesting students at the National Institute of Technology in Srinagar to “their own country”.
It is no coincidence that much of the urban violence since 2006 has taken place in particular parts of Kashmir’s urban concentrations — the shahr-e-khaas, or old cities, neighbourhoods which made up the city’s traditional trading and artisanal hubs. Islamism, to this once-powerful class, offers the dream of redemption.
Little possibility of praxis exists outside the ranks of the Islamist movement. Through its years in opposition, the PDP campaigned not at all on public policy issues. Now, a few months into its time in power, the National Conference has returned the favour.
For young people, therefore, the choices are grim: Escape into the Islamic nation, which exists mainly on the internet; the certain death of the insurgent; the faux agency of the street rioter; the nihilism of the drug addict.
Problems like these, of course, aren’t unique to Kashmir. Post-insurgency societies have often dissolved into violence again because while they could construct political systems, they could not rebuild polities. Punjab was an exception, perhaps because its imperial legacy left it with both robust institutions and a tradition of popular, org-anised resistance.
In the very year of the Book of Knowledge riots, the philosopher David Lewis invited us to understand how fantasy shapes our knowledge. Imagine a story, Lewis wrote, where a brave prince, a beautiful princess, and a fierce dragon named Scrulch, guardian of a great trove of gold, do battle for the destiny of a kingdom. The genre is familiar — but with one twist: Nowhere in this particular variant of the fairytale is it explicitly said that Scrulch breathes fire.
Lewis famously asked if, in this textual world, Scrulch might have breathed fire anyway. The answer can only be that he is just as likely to be a vegan hippie — but few readers will be able to reason away the flames searing their imagination. Thus, the prince is doomed to do battle, even if none is needed.
Politics can, and must, offer Kashmir and India a new imagination — a new way of seeing their relationship to themselves, and each other. There is, however, no leadership in sight that appears equal to such a project.
(This article appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Kashmir’s politics of rage’)
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