The most intriguing aspect of Kashmir is the dynamic between the Shia and Sunni communities in the Valley. The Shias live in a state of relief and caution: relief at Article 370 being lifted, and caution that things won’t get any better for them. The Sunnis, on the other hand, nurse the fear that they have decisively lost power and things will never be the same again.
From my early school days in Tyndale Biscoe in Kashmir, I remember the only Muslim classmates who considered themselves “Indian” were the Shias and Noorbakhshias of the Nubra Valley. Of course, at the age of eight, I didn’t know what being a Shia meant.
To understand their lives and aspirations better, 34 years later, I decided it was best to go to the Shia citadel in Kashmir: Budgam. Shias account for 30-40 per cent of the district’s population.
Clearly my driver, a Sunni, was not happy with the trip. Our conversation started off with his mild accusation that Shias were disloyal to the Kashmir cause. Then, his tone rapidly started becoming more acrid as I pursued the subject. “Unhone humaare paighambar ko maara (they killed our Prophet),” he said, getting more and more bigoted as he spoke on: “they spit in the food before they offer us anything, which is why we will never eat with them.” Clearly, the fact that Prophet Muhammad died a natural death (and is believed to have been transported to heaven by a mythical winged creature) is something this gentleman has never heard of or doesn’t want to believe.
It helps to think of Budgam as a fried egg sunny side up. The yolk (city centre) is almost 90 per cent Shia, whereas the Sunnis dominate the rural white albumen. What is remarkable is that throughout this Shia-dominated yolk, not a single CRPF/police picket was spotted that day until 5 pm, which is the time for stone pelting. What you will spot, however, are hoardings of Ayatollahs (Khomeini & Khamenei), Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and, surprisingly, even former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is almost universally reviled in Tehran these days. Some animated conversations include gems like: “Nasrallah doesn’t want a theocratic state in Lebanon; he wants to make the country truly secular”; “Ahmadinejad was the only man the Americans feared so they got rid of him.”
In the Sunni albumen, however, these security pickets are regular. Striking up a casual conversation with the CRPF shows they are not worried about the yolk. “These people are very friendly; they talk to us and treat us like humans.”
Is there stone pelting in the Shia centre, then? The question yields a remarkable response: “Yes, there is. We have cooperative stone-pelting here. They tell us the time they will come out to pelt so it never gets serious.”
Where ‘Hindus’ protect Shias
I had heard of rumours of major clashes in Budgam a few days prior on Ashura (the 10th day of Muharram), which the local police officers and CRPF personnel confirmed. They also said they fired teargas. So what happened to the “cooperative pelting”?
It turns out, almost all the security forces here were unhappy with the imposition of Section 144 on the Shias, and had advised the powers-that-be that the Muharram procession should be allowed. A high-ranked officer in the security force told me, “I don’t know what they were thinking… (Article) 370 scrapping should have been sold as liberation to the Shias, and yet all you do is double down on them by doing what the Sunnis imposed.”
While this was strategic even at the soldier level, the decision was unpopular. “Yeh log hamare ko tang nahin karte, to inko juloos nikalne do, rokne me kya faida (the Shias don’t bother us, so why not just let them take out their processions. What will we gain by prohibiting them?)”
Local advice, however, clearly went unheeded and orders came (from Delhi/Srinagar) to continue with the ban on procession. As expected, the Shias took out the procession and were fired upon with teargas (but not pellets).
However, the villain, as per the Shia narrative, is a local Sunni police officer who was teargassing them from his jeep, while “the Hindus protected us”. The ‘Hindus’ is how the Shias refer to the CRPF troopers. But several CRPF troopers told me that they too had fired teargas (unhappily, they claim, but orders are orders: “Sir, jab order milta hai to karna hi padta hai”). This narrative, whether accurate or not, serves to demonstrate how the Shias of Budgam feel: the Hindus are protective and the Sunnis are tyrants.
Change that never came
The mourning processions on Ashura have been banned in Kashmir since 1990 to avoid clashes between the Shias and the Sunnis that accompanied these processions. Now, many in the Shia community say that a post-Article 370 government in Delhi has bought into this Sunni majoritarian agenda and is following the same pattern. “Humne to socha kuchh badlega, par koi farq nahin pada (we thought things will change but nothing did),” an elderly gentleman told me.
I raised this sentiment with several others and the general sense was that the Shias saw the abrogation of Article 370 as an opportunity to practise their religion freely again. A young street vendor, for instance, said that he had heard from his parents how the processions used to be open and the first hope that people imagined was “we can do this again”. To be clear, this young vendor was the only person who shared this sentiment so explicitly, but the sense of hurt and disappointment towards India is very clear.
Like everywhere else in Kashmir, the collective response among Shias in Budgam is very different from the individual. Publicly, they are with the struggle for “azadi” but in private conversations, there is a deep and all-pervasive fear of Sunni majoritarianism. The fear is that they have already been labelled “mukhbir” (informants) of the government in Delhi and the fate of Kashmiri Pandits now awaits them as well. The events surrounding the Ashura have only reinforced these fears. And while a “Hindus protected us” belief might work as a placebo for the Shia community in the short term, the continued banning of their religious expression after the abrogation of Article 370 has definitely dampened their hopes.
One can only hope that the Narendra Modi government’s Achilles heel – ignoring second and third order effects of policy – does not end up extracting a heavy price from the Kashmiri Shias.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.