Kashmir’s rising tide of hate
Politicians must take on the Islamists’ deceitful politics of death — or risk being swept away.
Early this month, Nigeena Awan was dragged out of her home at Kellar, Kashmir, beaten up and executed with an assault weapon from point blank range. Her father, Mohammad Sharif Awan, was ordered to bury his daughter without ceremony; the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which carried out the execution, also warned neighbours against dignifying her death with last rites.
Hours after Awan’s death on June 3, People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti visited Shopian to stage a protest against the alleged rape and murder of two local women — one of them, like Awan, a high school student. She said nothing about Awan’s execution, though. Nor did Islamist cleric Tariq Ahmad, who has emerged as the key leader of the Shopian protests, say anything; nor, for that matter, did the local leadership of the National Conference. No one has called for the men who killed Awan to be found and prosecuted. No one even bothered to visit her family, even though the hamlet of Pahlipora at Kellar is just a 10-km drive from Shopian.
But violent death has visited the Shopian area often, for the most part without drawing comment. In April, 60-year-old Reshma Awan, like Nigeena Awan a member of the Gujjar pastoralist community, was executed by the Lashkar-e-Taiba at Pahlipora. Her son, Mohammad Aslam Awan, was shot and seriously injured while attempting to protect his mother. Last month, Dachnoo resident Mohammad Saifuddin was killed similarly. And a day after Nigeena Awan was murdered, unidentified men shot dead shopkeeper Mohammad Abdullah Gela at his Sangarwani home.
What, then, is it that has vested the Shopian deaths with special significance? The silence that surrounded Awan’s death necessitates an examination of the complex — and often deceitful — politics of death in Jammu and Kashmir.
“Long live Pakistan, We want freedom,” chanted the mob of young men who, armed with shovels and axes, gathered to demolish Sabina Hamid Bulla’s home in downtown Srinagar on May 5. Back in 2006, as Ms Bulla’s home was being brought down, few understood its full import. The Islamist assault on Ms Bulla, a Srinagar madam whose brothel is alleged to have serviced top politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats, sparked off a series of fateful events.
Even the most obtuse among the ranks of Kashmir’s Islamists understood by 2005 that their movement had failed. Much of the secessionist leadership was preparing to make peace with India. Large swathes of the Islamist vanguard, the Jamaat-e-Islami, had allied themselves with the PDP; important elements of the Hizb were preparing to accept defeat.
Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani — recently described by Hizb ul-Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah as “the name of our struggle”— set about crafting a response to the crisis.
Mr. Geelani’s followers began to make the wider case that the secularisation of culture in Kashmir constituted a civilisational threat. In an article published in May 2006, Islamist leader Asiya Andrabi attacked “young Muslim girls who have lost their identity of Islam and are presenting the look of a Bollywood actress but not Fatima and Aisha (R.A.) [Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and wife].”
Later, Islamists leveraged the uncovering of Ms Bulla’s operations to argue that India was engaged in a conspiracy to undermine Jammu and Kashmir’s Islamic character. Kashmir University scholar Hameeda Nayeem even made the extraordinary accusation that the scandal pointed “unequivocally to a policy-based state patronage [of prostitution].”
In the summer of 2007, the rape-murder of a north Kashmir teenager was used to initiate a xenophobic mobilisation. Addressing a June 24, 2007 rally at Langate town, Mr. Geelani said: “Hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.” He called for them to be “driven out of Kashmir in a civilised way [sic.].” By early last year, campaigns like these had almost become routine. Islamists mobilised against a career counsellor who, they claimed, had been despatched to Srinagar schools to seduce students into a career of vice. An Anantnag schoolteacher also came under attack, after a video surfaced showing that a group of his students had danced to pop film music on a holiday in the town.
From these events, Islamists learnt that the conditions existed for xenophobic politics to succeed.
Last summer, matters came to a head after the State government granted temporary land use rights for facilitating the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in south Kashmir. Mr. Geelani led the movement against the order, again claiming the existence of a conspiracy to settle Hindus in the region. At a press conference, he warned that the authorities were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the State.” “I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.” Mr. Geelani also held out dark hints that a genocide of Kashmiri Muslims was being planned.
Mr. Geelani’s position stemmed from his long-standing belief that Islam and Hinduism were locked in an irreducible civilisational opposition. At an October 26 rally in Srinagar, he insisted that “the people of the State should, as their religious duty, raise their voice against India’s aggression” (emphasis added). This duty stemmed from the fact that to “practise Islam completely under the subjugation of India is impossible because human beings in practice worship those whose rules they abide by.”
Mr. Geelani’s success needs to be read against the evidently inexorable growth of the Jamaat-e-Islami from the 1950s. As scholar Yoginder Sikand has pointed out, the Jamaat believed that “a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris.” It was even alleged “that the government of India had dispatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician] D.P. Dhar, to investigate how Islam was driven out of Spain and to suggest measures as to how the Spanish experiment could be repeated in Kashmir, too.”
By 1987, the social coalition drawn to this ideology had acquired a political voice, the Muslim United Front. At a March 4, 1987 rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared variously that Islam could not survive in India’s Hindu-majority landscape.
Now, the Shopian rape-murder — if that is what investigators eventually determine the deaths to be — is being used as a tool to peddle that proposition again.
Earlier this month, the pro-Islamist Kashmir High Court Bar Association released a report claiming the “perpetrators belong to a particular community, and had even vandalised the bodies of the victims.” Its general secretary G.N. Shaheen added, in case anyone missed the point, the rapes were carried out by “Hindu fascists.” Based on dubious evidence — the HCBA report asserts that the “ill-fated duo was raped even after their death,” a claim no pathologist has so far felt confident of making — the report was clearly intended to inflame.
Pro-Islamist media have been helping to ensure that the venom spreads as far as possible. In a June 16 article, Riyaz Masoor, editor, Rising Kashmir, suggested that the victims “represented the nation Kashmir and the rapists represented the state of India; it was the Hindu India raping the Muslim Kashmir.” Mr. Masroor accused the Indian Army, which until now has not been alleged to have played any role in the Shopian deaths, of going “on a raping spree.” “Let them carry a poison pill with them,” he advised the State’s women: “if, God forbid, they are caught, let them swallow the poison and embrace death and defeat the evil military man of the world’s largest democracy.”
The lies seem to be working. Even the United States-based MacArthur Foundation’s Asia Security Initiative last week claimed that the judicial commission investigating the Shopian deaths was questioning Indian troops — a claim whose credibility must be read alongside the bizarre assertions in the report that the Shopian victims were sisters who grew up in an apple orchard.
Long before the Shopian tragedy presented itself as an opportunity, Mr. Geelani had sought to provoke a confrontation on the Amarnath Yatra. While welcoming pilgrims and tourists to Kashmir, he claimed that a long-standing decision to allow pilgrims to visit the shrine for more than a fortnight was “a nefarious decision of India.” “It is destructive for our cultural fabric.”
Last year, Kashmir’s people decisively rejected Mr. Geelani’s communal chauvinism and defeated his demand for a boycott of the Assembly elections. The candidates they elected, though, have so far shown little integrity or commitment to those they represent: both the National Conference and the PDP have sought accommodation with Islamist secessionists. They must summon up the courage to take on Mr. Geelani — or risk being swept away by the rising tide of hate.