N runs a small store in a town in the Jammu district. He has been an acquaintance of mine for several years now. Each time I travel from Jammu to Srinagar or Doda I make it a point to stop in his town and look him up. It is not that I am fond of him at all. To be frank, he repels me with his smug over-confidence, but I find his views interesting in a way. After all, he is an ardent supporter of the Jama‘at-i Islami, and it is not often that one can befriend a hardcore Jama‘ati.
‘I’ve heard that the government is deliberately promoting the Qadiani sect in Kashmir’, N tells me almost as soon as I enter his shop. Before I can react he hurriedly adds, ‘I’ve also heard that Israeli soldiers are going around villages in Kashmir at night dressed as ghosts to scare people’. I think he’s joking, but he is dead serious. ‘Yes’, he seeks to assure me, ‘This is what I heard, that the government of India has employed these Jewish agents to frighten our people’.
N then launches into a loud, aggressive harangue against the Indian government, the Americans, the Jews and other such ‘enemies of Islam’ as he calls them. A small crowd gathers in the shop to listen to his speech. He asks me what brings me to his town this time, and I tell him that I want to meet a certain man, who is said to be a Sufi of sorts.
‘Oh, that man!’, N exclaims with disdain. Probably since the man in question is widely respected N changes his tone somewhat and says, ‘You can buy all other groups with money and sweet talk but there’s only one group that can never be bought’. Predictably, the one group he is referring to is his very own Jama‘at-i Islami.
‘The Jama‘at’, N boasts, ‘can never waver from the path of Islam’. ‘You will not find such dedicated servants of Islam in any other group’, he asserts. Several other groups that call themselves Muslim, he says, are actually ‘creations’ of the ‘Jews’ and other such ‘enemies of Islam’ or else work, knowingly or unwittingly, to serve their interests. These, according to him, include the Barelvis, the Shi‘as and the Ahmadis. The Shi‘as, he alleges, abuse the companions of the Prophet; the Barelvis supported the British Raj; and the Ahmadis were propped up by the British to divide the Muslims and to destroy the spirit of jihad.
I tell N about the research project I am working on, on peace and religion in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘All this is useless’, he tells me flatly. ‘True peace and justice can only be established if India accepts the Qur’an as its constitution and if its rulers become Muslim’. He offers Saudi Arabia as a model for India to emulate. His father, he says, once visited Saudi Arabia, and came back with stories of ‘true Islamic justice’ strictly followed there. He saw, for instance, a thief’s hand being chopped off, much to the glee of the large crowd gathered to witness the spectacle. N tells me that India should follow the example of Umar, the second Sunni Caliph, who, when he heard that his own son had committed a crime, ordered that he should be flogged with 70 stripes. When, after the thirtieth whipping; his son died, Umar ordered that the remaining forty stripes be inflicted on his grave. In the ‘true’ Islamic dispensation that he dreams of, N tells me that Muslims who refuse to say their prayers shall be treated as apostates and shall be killed, and if a man, even if driven by hunger and poverty, steals food his hand shall be chopped off. I express my alarm, but N defends himself by saying that in the ideal Islamic state that he aspires for the state would provide for the basic needs of all its citizens through the public treasury (ba‘it ul-mal), and, that, therefore, only a habitual or congenital criminal would ever resort to robbery. ‘It is not like in your India where criminals roam freely’, he says with evident disgust.
Not a single Muslim state in the world, I tell N, is the sort of Islamic utopia that he hungers for, not even Pakistan, which I know he passionately supports. ‘Let Pakistan go to hell’, he answers. ‘Every Muslim, no matter where he or she lives, should work to establish an Islamic state, the system of the Prophet (nizam-i mustafa)’. Islam, he tells me, has come to ‘conquer the world’ (ghalib hone ke liye), not to be dominated (maghlub) by other ideologies or religions. This is why, he says, the ‘enemies of Islam’ (here he specifically names the Jews, Christians and Hindus) are ‘mortally afraid’ of Islam and have been consistently ‘conspiring’ to eliminate it. It is because of this, he says, that Muslims all over the world are being cruelly oppressed.
I venture to ask him if his claim is true how is it he can speak so freely in his town, which has only a very small Muslim population, almost all its inhabitants being Hindus. It is with great difficulty that I repress the urge to tell him that if he spoke so assertively in many Muslim countries he could be sure that he would have been marched off at once to the gallows.
N tells me that Muslims in Kashmir and in India must struggle to establish a state on the model of that of the Prophet in Medina more than 1400 years ago. For this purpose they must also engage in missionary work among the Hindus, to bring them to Islam, because, he claims, Islam is the only way to salvation in this world and the world after death. I tell him that his aggressive ways and his championing of violence is surely no way to convince others of the claims that he makes on behalf of Islam. The Qu’ran, I point out, tells Muslims that they should preach their faith with ‘gentle words’. N, however, rudely cuts me short and blurts, ‘Islam tells us that it is our duty to speak the truth boldly before others even if it hurts them’.
I decide that I must have my say now. I simply cannot let N go on. I tell him that if he thinks missionary work is a principle duty incumbent upon all Muslims, the seemingly most vocal champions of Islam in Kashmir, the Islamist militants, seem to have completely forgotten this task. Surely, I say, the killings of innocent people by the militants would only further repel people from Islam rather than attract them towards it. But before I can complete my sentence, N retorts, ‘Nowhere in Kashmir have the militants killed any innocent people. You have been fed on wrong propaganda in the newspapers spread by the enemies of Islam’.
When I say that he is talking arrant nonsense he relents somewhat and says, ‘It may be that one or two people have disguised themselves as militants and killed others to settle personal scores but they are not true militants’.
The conversation is, of course, getting nowhere, and I decide to leave. N grabs my hand and gives it a firm shake. ‘I pray to Allah that the next time we meet you will have the Qur’an in this hand of yours and you will be a brave soldier of Islam’, he says with a supercilious smile.
I do not conceal my anger, but I bid him farewell.
As I walk down from N’s shop I am followed by a group of cheerful school boys who have witnessed my heated encounter with N. ‘Uncle ji’, one of them, a Muslim lad, tells me, ‘Please do not mind what that man said. He is notorious for being a stupid loud-mouth’. Another boy, who also happens to be a Muslim, chirps in and says, ‘Yes, he is a little mad’.
I cannot suppress my laughter and the children join me, shrieking out in delight.
I met X one Friday afternoon a outside a mosque in Jammu after the congregational prayers gave over. X, I had been told, was closely involved with the Jama‘at-i Islami of Jammu and Kashmir. I was initially reluctant to meet with him, suspicious that my movements might be monitored by the police, the intelligence agencies or even by the militants themselves. A friend of mine, however, assured me that I had no cause to fear. ‘He’s quite a sensible person, as you will discover’, he told me, ‘and his perspective on Kashmir is quite distinct from most other Jama‘at-walas’.
X, as it turned out, is clearly an Islamist with a difference. I spent almost two hours with him as he passionately advocated the case for an independent Kashmir, while at the same time pleading for peace and bitterly critiquing the militants and the governments of India and Pakistan.
X argues the case for Kashmiri self-determination in both nationalist as well as Islamist terms. In contrast to many other Islamist ideologues in Kashmir, he does not think that the ongoing struggle is an Islamic jihad. Rather, he says, it is basically political. India, he tells me, is morally obliged to allow the Kashmiris the right to determine their political future. This, in fact, is a promise that India had made decades ago before the United Nations. He insists that India has never allowed genuine democracy to flourish in Kashmir, for fear that the people might vote for independence or in favour of Pakistan. Hence, all the regimes that have ruled Kashmir since 1947 have been Indian ‘puppets’, lacking the support of the Kashmiri Muslims. Had India not rigged the 1987 elections, he says, the Kashmiris might not have taken to the path of militancy. After all, he adds, many of the leading militants today were candidates in the elections. As for the role of the Jama‘at in the militancy, X is, surprisingly frank. ‘It was the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front that started the movement’, he claims. ‘The Jama‘at launched its military wing, the Hizb ul-Mujahidin, which it did not officially declare as its own, both to counter Indian repression as well as to protect its workers from the JKLF’.
X hands me a copy of a magazine depicting decapitated heads and headless bodies. I don’t know who these victims are. They could be Kashmiris killed by the armed forces or by militants. X points to the pictures and says, ‘Both Pakistan and India want only the land of Kashmir, and neither is concerned about the plight of the Kashmiri people’. I ask him why he is critical of Pakistan as well. After all, I tell him, Sayyed ‘Ali Gilani, an influential Jama‘at ideologue, is a well-known advocate of the merger of Kashmir with Pakistan. Most people also believe the Jama‘at to be pro-Pakistan as well.
X interrupts me and says, ‘No, this isn’t true. Gilani represents only one shade of opinion within the Jama‘at. I, for one, do not agree with his demand to join Pakistan’.
I ask X what he feels about Pakistan. Does he, like the Jama‘at sympathisers I have met on my various travels to Kashmir, believe that the fact that the majority of Kashmiris are Muslims actually demands that Kashmir join Pakistan? I am ill-prepared for what X has to say in reply and am completely taken aback by his response.
Pakistan, he tells me, claims to be an Islamic state, but, in reality, it is nothing of the sort. ‘They still follow British colonial laws, and so does India, so what is the difference?’, he asks, a question to which I admit I have no answer. ‘In fact’, he emphatically declares, ‘The Pakistani rulers are opposed to Islam, and he who claims that Pakistan is an Islamic state is the biggest liar’.
He looks at me as if he has pronounced a major revelation, and I pretend to be unfazed. ‘The rulers of Pakistan lead corrupt, immoral lives, they womanise, just like Bill Clinton, guzzle alcohol and oppress the poor, and so if an Islamic state were ever established in Pakistan they know they would be killed. They talk of the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination but they refuse to accept the Bihari Muslims stranded in Bangladesh’. ‘If they were genuinely committed to Islam as they claim’, he goes on, ‘they would not have banned the Jama‘at in Pakistan twice and nor would they be toeing the American line today’.
X’s bitter opposition to the Pakistani regime comes as a major surprise. I had expected him to simply repeat the views of Gilani, whom I had interviewed some years ago, and whose uncritical support for Pakistan I had assumed was unanimously shared by all Jama‘at sympathisers and activists. Clearly, X has a mind of his own.
‘India should allow the Kashmiris to travel to Pakistan’, he says. ‘The grass looks much greener on the other side of the fence. Once Kashmiris see Pakistan for themselves they would discover there’s much less freedom there than here’. He tells me of a friend of his who recently visited Pakistan, and, on return, vowed never to repeat the experience. Another friend of his, he says, met some Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia while on the haj pilgrimage. They asked him why the Kashmiri Muslims had not killed all the non-Muslims living in Kashmir. Disgusted by the suggestion, his friend replied that Islam did not allow this, and told them that instead of preaching to him they should work to make Pakistanis better Muslims. The Pakistanis, apparently, took that as a major affront and accused him of being an Indian agent.
X tells me that this sort of what he condemns as ‘anti-Islamic’ attitude is characteristic of many radical Islamists in Pakistan. ‘If I had to choose between Pakistan and India’, he reveals, ‘I would rather be with India, because at least we don’t have that sort of suffocation here’.
But what about the recent virtual genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, I ask him. No action has been taken against the perpetrators of the crimes, I point out, and Narendra Modi still sits comfortably in his seat. Are Muslims any happier in India than in Pakistan, I ask.
‘What happened in Gujarat was terrible that’, he replies, ‘but that does not mean that all or even most Hindus are communal or anti-Muslim. If that were the case, how could 100 million Muslims survive in a country dominated by 800 million or more Hindus? They would have cut us down like radish and carrots!’
As X speaks I think of Gilani, who writes in his jail memoirs, Rudad-i Qafs, that it is almost as difficult for a Muslim to live in a Hindu society as it is for a fish to live in a desert. I mention this to X, who mulls over it and, then tells me that he totally disagrees. He points out that he himself lives in an almost entirely Hindu locality. The local Hindus know that he is associated with the Jama‘at and that several of his own friends and relatives are or have been militants. ‘No, I don’t feel at all threatened by my Hindu neighbours’, he confesses. He talks about a close Hindu friend, and this brings tears to his eyes. In between muffled sobs he tells me how many Hindus he knows and daily encounters still respect Muslims, despite what has happened in Kashmir. ‘If Muslims are travelling on a train and want to pray, the Hindu passengers make way for them’, he says. ‘Do you think they would allow this sort of freedom for public worship for non-Muslims if Kashmir is ruled by the likes of the Taliban?’, he asks. I choose not to answer. In any case RT has answered the question by simply asking it.
‘We are tired of this endless bloodshed’, X explains, as he quickly wipes his eyes. He reiterates the point that India is much to blame for refusing to recognise the right to self-determination of the Kashmiris, but trains his ire on the Pakistanis as well. ‘The ISI’, he says, referring to the dreaded Pakistani secret service organisation, ‘is an anti-Islamic outfit. They simply use the name of Islam for their own purposes’. This is a rare admission from an avowed Islamist, and I ask him to elaborate. ‘If I were to meet the Pakistani president’, he goes on, ‘I would tell him that it is the ISI that is ruling Pakistan, not the Pakistani government. The ISI is ruining Kashmir. It is making Kashmiris kill each other’.
Radical Islamists deny the legitimacy of nationalism altogether, claiming that it is a sinister ploy on the part of non-Muslim ‘enemies of Islam’ to divide the worldwide Muslim ummah. In Islamist discourse the nation-state is presented as yet another enticing idol that threatens to take the place of the one God. I ask X how he, as an Islamist, can support the cause of Kashmiri nationalism. I remind him of the writings of Sayyed Abul Ala Maududi, the founder and chief ideologue of the Jama‘at, who vehemently denounced nationalism as akin to idol worship. X agrees with the point, but says that Maududi actually opposed the creation of Pakistan. He does not, however, refer to Maududi’s migration to Pakistan and the emergence of the Pakistani Jama‘at as a vocal champion of what it regards as Pakistani national interests. ‘I am all for an independent and secular Kashmir, where all communities would enjoy equal rights’, X tells me. I don’t know if I should take him at his word. Perhaps he says this to convince me that he isn’t in the radical camp. After all, he knows that I am not a Muslim, and, like many people I’ve been interviewing in Jammu, probably suspects that I am a government agent, or, who knows, maybe even a Hindutva spy.
How, I ask X, does he reconcile his advocacy of a secular Kashmir with his commitment, as an Islamist, to an Islamic state. ‘An Islamic state cannot be imposed by force’, he answers. ‘It will only be established through peaceful persuasion and missionary activism. If, because of this, the majority of the Kashmiris desire to live in an Islamic state we have to respect their choice’. He recognises, however, that even if Kashmir were to become an Islamic state it would still have to deal with the issue of a large Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh minority. He claims that Islam has ‘the perfect solution’ to this issue. Religious minorities, he seeks to assure me, would be ‘treated well’ in the Islamic state, although he also adds that Islamic missionary groups would seek to propagate Islam among them, but using only peaceful means. ‘We should relate to non-Muslims through love’, he says, ‘not only because Islam tells us to, but also because this is the only way they would be willing to lend a receptive ear to the call of Islam’.
I am, of course, sceptical, and I make no pretence of concealing it. I make the rather obvious point that the Buddhists of Ladakh and the Hindus and Dalits of Jammu would probably never agree to live in a Muslim-dominated independent Kashmir. X brushes aside my argument and claims, ‘If Kashmir becomes a true Islamic state, following the politics of the Prophet, there will be no problem at all for non-Muslim citizens’.
I do not wish to engage in that debate, knowing that our perspectives are completely at odds. Instead, I ask X whether an independent Kashmir would at all be a viable state. ‘No state can be a paradise’, he replies. He agrees that it would be difficult to convince both India and Pakistan to grant Kashmir independence, particularly since, as he claims, vested interests in the Pakistani and Indian army and secret services establishment are making a lucrative livelihood at the cost of the misery of the Kashmiris. However, he suggests that to get round the problem Kashmir could be a condominium, internally independent, but with its foreign affairs and defence jointly handled by India and Pakistan. That, he says, would be a preferable alternative to joining either India or Pakistan. ‘If Kashmir joins Pakistan the Kashmiris will soon repent. They will be exploited by the Punjabis, just like the Bengalis were or the Sindhis now are. The rulers of Pakistan have Islam only on their tongues, not in their hearts’, he asserts. ‘And then economic conditions in Pakistan are dismal, much worse than in India’. ‘On the other hand’, he quickly adds, ‘if they remain in India cross-border militancy will continue indefinitely, since it has now become an international phenomenon, quite out of the control of anybody’.
I am intrigued by X’s outspokenness. Perhaps the Jama‘at is not as monolithic as I thought it was and as it is commonly depicted in the media. I again ask X what he thinks of Gilani, who has consistently claimed that the militant movement in Kashmir is a religious war, between Islam and infidelity, and not simply a political struggle. ‘I totally disagree with Gilani on this’, X answers, to my obvious surprise. ‘This is not a jihad, but simply a political movement. Not everyone in the Jama‘at thinks it is a jihad. Gilani’s views are his own and do not represent the Jama‘at as such’. He explains Gilani’s position as a result of him being ‘under the influence of the ISI’. ‘If he retracts from that position’, he whispers, ‘he would probably be killed off by ISI agents, so he has to keep to that stance’. ‘Anyone who dares to openly question the Pakistani position can be murdered’, he tells me. He cites the recent killing of the moderate Kashmiri leader Abdul Ghani Lone, who was killed, under the ISI’s instructions he claims. At the same time he also refers to what he calls ‘fake militants’ , agents of the government of India, who have killed numerous people, as well as elements in the dreaded Lashkar-i Tayyeba who have also taken scores of innocent lives.
We talk about global developments, about the war in Iraq, the fighting in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and America. I ask him why so much of the Muslim world is characterised by such instability. X replies that this has nothing to do with Islam as such. He blames what he calls ‘enemies of Islam’, particularly the American establishment and Israel, for most of the troubles that Muslims now face. Yet, he does not overlook the role of Islamic extremists, who, he says, misuse religion for their own narrow ends. He makes a distinction between a legitimate jihad, conducted in defence of life and religion, and illegitimate violence, undertaken for worldly goals and which involves the killing of innocent people. The latter sort of violence has no relation with real Islam, he insists, but admits that this is what militancy in Kashmir has been reduced to, to a great extent. But misusing religion or promoting violence against innocent people in its name is not a Muslim monopoly, he reminds me. ‘In India and Pakistan, America and Israel, indeed all over the world’, he laments, ‘all religions are being hijacked by extremists to promote irreligious goals. He who has no real religion becomes an extremist and uses religion to kill’.
Most Kashmiris, X tells me, are now plainly tired of the ongoing violence in the region that has taken a heavy toll of almost a hundred thousand lives. No longer do the militants have the same support they once enjoyed, he confesses, partly because of the infiltration of criminals parading in the guise of freedom fighters or Muslim mujahids. Besides, of course, militant attacks bring in their trail violent reprisals by the armed forces against innocent civilians. He singles out, in particular, the Lashkar-i Tayyeba for attack. ‘Many Lashkar men have nothing at all to do with Islam. Often, they are sent to Kashmir to fight as a punishment for not being considered Islamic enough’.
Another sign that the Kashmiris are increasingly tired of the violence, X tells me, is the conversion of a number of Kashmiri Muslims to Christianity in recent years. Newspaper reports put the figure at ten thousand. No one knows what the numbers actually are, but X admits that they are considerable. ‘These conversions are a direct result of militancy’, he says. ‘I want to tell the likes of Gilani’, he tells me, ‘that they are driving Kashmir to perdition, causing thousands to abandon Islam’. Militancy, he explains, has led to an almost total collapse of the missionary work of groups like the Jama‘at, leaving many poor Muslims vulnerable to the appeals and blandishments of foreign-funded Christian missionaries. In the ongoing violence numerous Jama‘at activists have been killed, and the missionary network of the Jama‘at is now almost totally defunct.
‘Islam tells us that our principal duty is, not to capture political power, but, rather, to convey the message of Islam to others’, he argues, quoting the Qur’an to back his case. However, he says, the various militant groups are unconcerned about this principal Islamic duty. In fact, he asserts, they are actually working to defeat the cause, ‘axing their own feet’, as he puts it. ‘They’ve created such hatred in the minds of the Hindus about Islam that non-Muslims will probably never be willing to accept it’, he laments. He tells me the story of a friend of his who took a Hindu acquaintance along with him to meet the local commander of the Harkat ul-Ansar, a dreaded Deobandi-related militant group. The Hindu greeted the commander and shook his hand. Shortly after, the commander found out that he was a Hindu. ‘All hell broke loose’, X says, ‘The commander shouted out a curse and then wiped his hands on the ground to cleanse himself, saying that he had been polluted by the touch of a Hindu’. ‘How’, X heaves a heavy sigh and says, ‘can such bigoted people ever invite others to Islam?’. ‘These people are enemies of Islam while claiming to be its greatest champions’.
X is obviously a complex character. I don’t know what to make of him, or whether to take all that he says at face value. He seems honest enough, but I force myself to remain somewhat sceptical. The conversation is absorbing: I’ve never met an Islamist so self-critical of Islamism as it is practised. I wish I could stay longer but it is getting late and so I ask him for permission to leave. He tells me to finish my tea, which is now cold and insipid, while he mutters a prayer in Arabic. I ask him what he has said, and he tells me that he has prayed to God for my benefit in this world and in the next.
‘My brother’, he tells me as he takes my hand in his, ‘all this writing and research of yours is useless if you do not recognise and act on the Truth’. Needless to say, the Truth, as X imagines it, is Islam as presented by the Jama‘at. ‘Yes,’ he tells me, ‘that is the only way to personal and collective salvation’. ‘If India were to become an Islamic state’, he exclaims somewhat excitedly as he probably imagines the prospect, ‘all our problems, even the issue of Kashmir, would automatically be solved’.
‘The Jama‘at is dedicated to that noble mission’, he says as he guides me to the door. ‘There is no organisation, Hindu and Muslim, more genuinely concerned and committed to the welfare of India than the Jama‘at’, he announces, firmly gripping my hand.
He looks into my eyes, and I realise that he knows I am unconvinced.
As these diverse voices so strikingly suggest, Islam, like any other religion, can be understood and interpreted in a variety of ways, often mutually opposed. They point to the obvious, although often overlooked, fact of the fractured and fiercely contested nature of Islamic discourse. The notion of there being a singular, monolithic understanding of Islam, so deeply cherished by radical Islamists and their opponents alike, is, therefore, obviously misleading. The Muslim monolith is a mythical creation. Different Muslim groups offer different understandings of normative Islam, which, in turn, can go along with different political agendas which are sought to be legitimised as ‘Islamic’. This diversity of opinion offers room for promoting alternate ways of imagining inter-community relations in ‘Islamic’ terms.
The voices highlighted here point to the theological resources contained within a broadly defined ‘Islamic’ paradigm that can be used to critique the exclusivist and hostile notions of the non-Muslim ‘other’ that are so deeply ingrained in Islamist discourse, and which are routinely employed by those who see themselves engaged in what they describe as a jihad in Kashmir. Even the belief, held by many people highlighted here, that Islam represents the absolute truth, can be used to counter the arguments of the radical Islamists. Thus, for instance, the stress on the need for peaceful missionary work, and the belief that violence in the name of jihad would gravely hamper the prospects for tabligh, only further alienating Hindus from Islam, is a powerful critique of what the radical Islamists consider as a jihad.
These alternate voices that, in their own ways, critique both the radical Islamists as well as rightwing Hindu groups, cry out to be heard. They can serve as crucial resources in countering the appeals of both Islamist as well as Hindutva extremists and in developing alternate ways of conceiving of inter-community relations in Jammu and Kashmir. In turn, highlighting and promoting such voices could, in its own limited ways, help promote efforts to bring about a peaceful solution to the Kashmir conflict, and one that does justice to all the various communities inhabiting the state.
This is Part VII of a VIII Part series by Yoginder Sikand, first published in 2010