Feb 2, 2009

India - J&K: Brewing a war in god’s name

Praveen Swami

Liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s plans to restart hops cultivation give a fresh lease of life to Kashmir’s religious right-wing.


Resplendent in his ceremonial turban, the member of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly from Jammu East, Ashok Khajuria, invoked Mata Vaishno Devi as he began reading out his oath of allegiance to the Constitution.

Mr. Khajuria’s use of the goddess’ name infuriated a group of National Conference legislators from the Kashmir Valley — among them Rural Development Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar and his senior party colleagues Mohammad Akbar Lone, Sai fullah Mir and Mubarak Gul. Jammu and Kashmir’s Constitution, they argued, required the use of a generic term for god, not invoking a deity.

In the event, Mr. Khajuria — who heads the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party — backed down and took his oath in the name of the parmatma, or supreme being. “It is OK now,” he wryly asked Mr. Sagar, “or do you still have a problem?”

Jammu and Kashmir, the exchange demonstrates, most certainly has one. Less than four weeks after the National Conference-Congress alliance came to power, driven by an electoral mandate that saw the religious right decisively defeated, the State’s simmering religious war has again begun to gather momentum.

Last summer, the grant of land-use rights to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) unleashed a wave of violence that claimed almost a hundred lives. Now, flamboyant industrialist Vijay Mallya’s announcement of plans to resume the cultivation of hops — used to manufacture beer — has opened up fresh opportunities for the religious right-wing.

“My father Vittal Mallya, who was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s friend, started cultivating hops in Kashmir,” Mr. Mallya told journalists on January 12. “Sheikh Abdullah,” he recalled, “inaugurated the venture in 1973. It was a successful business, but we had to wind it up after the violence in Kashmir began.” Mr. Mallya also said he hoped to restart a Zainakote-based pharmaceuticals plant his group had shut down in 1989.

Egged on by inaccurate — or malicious — media accounts which claimed that Mr. Mallya planned to open a brewery, Opposition politicians moved in for the kill. People’s Democratic Party vice-president Iftikhar Ansari claimed that the National Conference patron and former Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, wished to usher in “wine production in Jammu and Kashmir.” “The people won’t tolerate this,” he went on, “for, the production of liquor in Kashmir is both anti-social and anti-religious.”

Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Bashir-ud-Din, for his part, issued an edict declaring the cultivation of hops “against our religion and culture.” “We have to nip the evil in the bud,” the cleric declared. He demanded that the J&K government reject the project, warning of a “rebellion by the young people here.” Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis president Shaukat Ahmad Shah, similarly, said the people of the State would fight the project “tooth and nail,” asserting that they did not want “development at the cost of our faith.”

Islamist politicians soon joined in. Tehreek-e-Hurriyat chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s principal lieutenant, Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai, cast Mr. Mallya’s proposals as an Indian conspiracy. “It is to defunct [sic.] and destabilise the intellectual acumen of our young generation,” he said, “and make them forget their cause of achieving the right to self-determination.” Dukhtaran-e-Millat chairperson Asiya Andrabi, similarly, described Mr. Mallya’s plans as an “attempt to make Kashmir a hub of evil.”

Mr. Sagar’s assault on Mr. Khajuria was an effort to salvage the National Conference’s religious credentials: other legislators had, it bears noting, sworn their oaths in the goddesses’ name without arousing his ire. Experience suggests, though, that competitive communalism will be of little use in damming up the chauvinist tide.

Faith and hatred were the pillars on which Islamists’ communal campaign this summer were built. Both pillars were erected on foundations built years earlier — a process of construction which, like the ongoing campaign in J&K, was little noticed at the time.

Questions of piety


Ever since the onset of the long jihad, questions of piety — the use of alcohol, for example, or women’s’ chastity — have occupied political centre stage. Years before the shrine war, Islamists in Kashmir began to argue that secularisation of culture constituted a civilisational threat. In an article published in May 2006, for example, Ms Andrabi attacked “young Muslim girls who have lost their identity of Islam and are presenting the look of a Bollywood actress.”

Later that year, the Islamists leveraged the uncovering of a prostitution racket in Srinagar to argue that secularism and modernity undermined Kashmir’s religious character. Pro-secessionist scholar Hamida Nayeem even argued that the prostitution scandal pointed “unequivocally towards a policy-based state patronage” (emphasis added).

The J&K government sought to secure its own religious credentials by allowing the Islamist campaign to forge ahead. The Islamists protesting the scandal were allowed to gather at the home of the alleged prostitution-ring madam Sabina Bulla and raze it to the ground. Mobs also attacked the homes of politicians charged with having used her services. In the past, attacks on couples celebrating Valentine’s Day, or young women dressed in trousers, were similarly tolerated. Put simply, the Islamists were allowed to emerge as the sole, legitimate custodians of cultural and religious identity.

By the summer of 2007, the Islamists were able to use this status to further their agenda. They claimed that the rape and murder of a teenager was part of a project to undermine Kashmir’s religious identity. Addressing a June 24, 2007 rally at the town of Langate, Mr. Geelani said the rape had been carried out by some of the “hundreds of thousands of non-state subjects who had been pushed into Kashmir under a long-term plan to crush the Kashmiris.” He claimed that “the majority of these non-state subjects are professional criminals and should be driven out of Kashmir.”

Even though a police investigation later gave the lie to these claims — two local men and two migrant workers were charged with killing the youngster — the campaign of hate did not end. Mr. Geelani’s political ally, Hilal Ahmad War, asked non-Kashmiri workers to leave the region, warning that they would otherwise be “forcibly evicted.” Mr. War claimed that the migrants were threatening “our economy, our daughters and our future generations.” He even alleged that migrant workers were spreading “various diseases, including AIDS.”

Mr. Geelani later used these ideas to give life to the shrine land crisis. In a June 12, 2008 speech, he asserted that the land-use rights granted to the SASB were part of a covert enterprise code-named Operation Yatra, which was “devised on the lines of Israel’s strategy of settlement in Palestine.” The Shrine Board, he went on, was “pursuing a similar method to settle Hindus here.”

Gathering storm


Now, the storm clouds are gathering again. Last week, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, sought to cash in on the resurgent hatred, charging New Delhi with “interference in our religious affairs.” “We are not against Hindus,” the leader of the secessionist coalition argued, “but the state machinery is put at the beck and call of pilgrims during the Amarnath and Vaishno Devi pilgrimages. Muslims, however, only get batons and bullets.”

Since then tensions have been brewing. On January 18, for example, the police were compelled to use teargas to quell protests in Srinagar’s Idgah area, which broke out after a group of young people claimed to have found Central Reserve Police Force personnel playing cards in the historic Ali Masjid area.

Elsewhere in the State, too, signs of trouble are evident. Last month, clerics passed a fatwa declaring the operation of a pig farm by Sikh residents of Batuhuni-Muradpur village in the communally-fragile district of Rajouri a crime against Islam. Mufti Nazir Ahmed Qasmi, who heads the Bandipora-based Dar-ul-Uloom Rahimia, pronounced the operation of the pig farm as “an intolerable act for Muslims.” “If the government fails to close it,” he said, “the ulema [religious scholars] will decide our further course of action.”

Srinagar-based newspaper Rising Kashmir reported local residents’ claims that the “pigs were pushed into the houses of Muslims to hurt their sentiments.” One villager, Safia Begum, said the “pigs are wandering near water tanks and our homes. They are making us impure.” “We are ready to sacrifice our lives,” schoolteacher Abdul Gani added, “but will not live among pigs.”

Like the Congress-PDP government which preceded it, the National Conference-Congress government has responded to the brewing crisis by appeasing chauvinists, not confronting them. In an effort to ward off the Mirwaiz’s allegations, for example, Union Water Resources Minister and State Congress chief Saifuddin Soz has written to the Governor seeking further Kashmiri Muslim representation on the Shrine Board.

Doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results, goes an old saying, is a form of insanity. It is a maxim the new Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, might do well to consider.

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