Z is a Shi‘a Muslim and works in a government department in Jammu. He tells me about the small Shi‘a community in the town, which comprises of some 40-odd families. Most of them are Kashmiris and Ladakhis, there being very few local Shi‘as.
Most Shi‘as in Jammu and Kashmir, Z says, think that remaining with India is the best option for them. If Kashmir joins Pakistan, they feel, the Kashmiri Shi‘as are bound to be targeted by militant Islamist groups, as is the case in Pakistan today. ‘In Pakistan Shi‘as worshipping in mosques and imambaras are gunned down in cold blood’, Z tells me. ‘Radical Deobandi and other such groups there are even calling for them to be declared as non-Muslims like the Ahmadis’. ‘On the other hand’, he says, ‘no such thing happens in India, where Shi‘as have complete freedom of religion’.
I ask him if the recent massacre of Muslims in Gujarat does not disprove his point.
‘In Gujarat’, he replies, ‘Muslims were killed indiscriminately, and these included Shi‘as and Sunnis. But in Pakistan, Shi‘as are being singled out for attack, which, in a sense, is probably worse from the Shi‘a point of view’.
No religion, Z argues, gives permission to oppress others, but that is precisely what some Islamists are doing in Kashmir and the RSS is doing in the rest of India. The conflict in Kashmir, therefore, is not a jihad but simply instigated by politicians and ‘pseudo-religious’ leaders to promote their own gains. For this they deliberately give a ‘wrong’ interpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad. According to the Shi‘a faith, Z explains, jihad can only be declared by a leading Shi‘a scholar (maraja or mujtahid). No Shi‘a mujtahid, he adds, has so far blessed the struggle in Kashmir as a jihad. Yet, Shi‘as in Kashmir fear to speak out against the militants for fear of being killed. Yet, Z says thoughtfully, if the ‘Wahhabis’ are not countered they might unleash a wave of killings against the Shi‘as if Kashmir joins Pakistan or becomes independent, as the Taliban did when it captured Afghanistan or as some radical groups in Pakistan are presently doing. He tells me of how the Shi‘as have for long been oppressed in Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabi ‘ulama, who consider them as heretics.
Z says that Shi‘a-Sunni relations in Kashmir have historically been tension-ridden but are now generally peaceful, although suspicions remain. He refers to several hardliner Islamist outfits that are vehemently anti-Shi‘a. He singles out, in particular, what he call as the ‘Wahhabis’, groups, funded, so he claims, by the Saudis, who preach anti-Shi‘a hatred. This propaganda may not have been as successful as was intended, he says, but ordinary Sunnis in many places are said to continue to hold virulently anti-Shi‘a views. ‘Many Sunnis, particularly in the Kashmir valley, believe that Shi‘as spit into the food that they offer Sunnis and pronounce ritual curses, because of which Sunnis refuse to eat their food’. ‘The intention in spreading such baseless rumours’, he explains, ‘is probably to ensure that ordinary Sunnis do not befriend Shi‘as’.
Anti-Shi‘a propaganda has, Z says, not impacted much on Sunni-Shi‘a relations in Jammu, and there have been no violent clashes between them so far. However, in the course of the last several years, primarily as a result of the growing Deobandi, and to a lesser extent, Ahl-i Hadith, influence among the Sunnis of Jammu, Sunni attendance at Shi‘a majalis (religious gatherings) and azadari (mourning rituals commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain) has markedly declined. The Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith (in contrast to the Barelvis) castigate these practices as ‘un-Islamic’. Z hastens to add, however, that the local Sunnis and Shi‘as both wish to ensure peaceful relations in Jammu, and suggests the need for the ‘ulama and other leaders of both communities to work together to combat sectarian hatred. He admits that little has been done on this front, however, although he does mention to efforts of a certain Barelvi organisation headed by Haji Abdul Majid, a local community leader, that organises a public meeting every year to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet. This annual ‘Shahid-i Azam Conference’, organised in the month of Muharram, is attended by Shi‘a and Barelvi ‘ulama from Jammu and Kashmir and other states, who travel around the Jammu province addressing lectures devoted to the Imam’s life and teachings.
M is a leading Muslim activist in Jammu. He is equally critical of Hindutva groups as he is of radical Islamists, such as the Jama‘at-i Islami and the Lashkar. The latter, he tells me, ‘do not reflect the Islam of the vast majority of ordinary Kashmiris’. ‘They are simply political outfits in the garb of religion’, he insists.
M is a forceful critic of the notion of an Islamic state, which forms the central pillar of the Islamist project. ‘Before 1947 the Muslim League claimed that Islam could not survive without a separate Muslim state of Pakistan, but see what Pakistan has become today’, he points out. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan, he says, is neither truly ‘Islamic’ nor a genuine republic. The ‘two-nation’ theory of the League—that the Hindus and Muslims of India were two separate nations—fell apart no sooner had Pakistan been established, with mounting ethnic tensions finally leading to the creation of Bangladesh. ‘Just because people adhere to the same religion it does not mean that they belong to the same nation’, he says. Likewise, he adds, people of different religions can indeed live together harmoniously as members of a common nation-state, provided, of course, that justice is ensured and not community is discriminated against. It is completely misleading, he insists, to speak of the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir as a single, homogenous community. Like other communities, they are divided on lines of ethnicity, language, region and sect. ‘The Kashmiri Muslims, the Dogra Muslims, the Gujjar and Bakkawarwal Muslims, the Shias of Kargil’, he says, ‘each think of themselves as different communities and do not speak with the same voice’.
As a liberal, as he calls himself, M is against the idea of Kashmir joining Pakistan. He predicts that if Kashmir joins Pakistan, as the Islamists insist it must, it would meet the same fate as East Bengal. He argues that restoration of the pre-1953 status of Jammu and Kashmir as an autonomous entity within the Indian federation might be a solution acceptable to many Kashmiris, although he adds that the Indian state has shown little interest in moving towards such a solution. At the same time, he insists, a solution cannot be imposed on the people of the state. Rather, he pleads for what he calls a ‘trilateral settlement’, in which the people of Jammu and Kashmir should also be recognised as a party to the dispute. ‘Our state is not a piece of real estate, whose future can be decided by two outside parties, India and Pakistan’, he cautions me. A lasting solution to the problem necessitates that the views of all communities in the state, and not just of the Muslims of the Valley, be taken into account. He admits that getting the different communities to come to a consensus is difficult, but suggests that the initiative must be taken, and in this moderate religious leaders can have an important role to play. He also pleads for greater contact and exchanges between people on both sides of the Line of Control in J&K so that they can dialogue with each other in order to come up with a possible solution.
One possible solution of the Kashmir question, M says, is an independent Jammu and Kashmir. Such a state would be necessarily a secular one, and would guarantee equal rights to all its citizens. Yet, he says, although this sounds fine in theory, it would be accompanied by intractable problems. For one thing, the non-Muslim communities will probably reject the scheme outright. For another, granting independence might further strengthen anti-Muslim forces in India, leading to unimaginable bloodshed. M tells me that this must be avoided at any cost, and so is hesitant to endorse Kashmir’s separation from India. Yet, he also admits that many Kashmiri Muslim leaders see independence as the only way out. ‘They just are not sensitive at all to the aspirations of the non-Muslim communities in the state and to the Muslims living in the rest of India’, he confesses.
M argues that the Kashmir issue is both political as well as religious and communal, and hence insists that its resolution cannot be left to politicians alone. ‘It is imperative’, he stresses, ‘for moderate religious leaders to also engage in the peace process’. ‘We cannot wait for politicians to solve the issue, for they have a vested interest in perpetuating it’, he says, adding that unless ‘ordinary’ people from the different communities begin to take it upon themselves to work for peace and inter-communal dialogue, peace cannot be worked out. Since the Kashmir issue is generally framed in religious or communal terms, by both Hindus and Muslims, he says, it is necessary for religious leaders to speak out against communal hatred and the use of religious appeals to foment strife. This, however, is not happening, he laments. ‘Muslims and Hindus have such terrible misunderstandings about each other’, he tells me, ‘but there is absolutely no organised work underway to bring them to sort out their differences’. He cannot think of a single voluntary agency in Jammu, or a single professor at Jammu University or any Jammu-based journalists, barring a few exceptions, who have organised any programmes for inter-communal harmony. Inter-religious dialogue meetings, even where, as he puts it, religious leaders ‘praise their own religions, talk peace and pat each other on the back and depart’, are almost unheard of in Jammu, M says. Most religious leaders, he claims, are simply not interested in peace and dialogue. Rather, he says, they have a vested interest in perpetuating inter-communal differences, for otherwise their own positions of authority would be threatened. Many of them are ‘really not religious at all’, and are ‘simply into the business of making money and fame in the name of religion’, so why, he asks, should they be interested in inter-faith dialogue at all?.
This is Part V of a VII Part series by Yoginder Sikand, first published in 2010