It’s been an eventful week in the Kashmir Valley, and not in a good way. First, there was the interview of former Chief Minister and Jammu and Kashmir National Conference chairman Farooq Abdullah where he said that the people of the Valley would “rather have Chinese coming in” than Indian rule. But when Farooq thinks he speaks for the people, he is mistaken. Others have long ‘spoken’ for the Kashmiris, and in a very violent way indeed. And this was apparent in the second incident — the killing of courageous lawyer-activist Babar Qadri, in front of his family. That is a message that would have been received and understood by all those who deviate from the path, politicians included.
While people discuss separatist-versus-mainstream politics, active on the ground is an organisation that has been there since the 1950s. The Jamaat-e-Islami has grown a lot lately, and wields influence in Kashmir and on foreign shores far more than the tub-thumping politicians.
Who was Babar Qadri?
The tragedy in Babar Qadri’s killing is that he had anticipated both the attack and its source. That was not at all evident in the Facebook posts that blamed his killing on the state, in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference choosing to call it a ‘witch hunt’ by government agencies, and in a story by The New York Times that obliquely blamed state forces. Worse, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra chose to revile Babar Qadri as a “Pakistani agent”.
In this plethora of veiled and entirely opposite charges, few chose to reference the lawyer’s own social media page, where he frustrated a Pakistani television anchor’s attempt to showcase Kashmiri Muslims as being targeted by the state, by pointing out that what was at stake was an undemocratic system, not any one religion. Nor did foreign journalists take note of his very public fight with Mian Abdul Qayoom, president of the J&K High Court Bar Association (HCBA), a key aide to S.A.S. Geelani and a long-term member of Jamaat-e-Islami. Qadri had launched a virtual battle against his continuance in the HCBA that is openly separatist. Worse, he alleged that Qayoom used militant threats to end any challenge to his dominance.
This battle was what led to him being seen in the Valley as working for the ‘agencies’, despite the fact that he had been virtually removed from mainstream TV channels due to his rants against India. His video also confirmed that he feared for his life from this organisation and its associates. But in Kashmir, as always, facts are the first casualty.
Rise of Jamaat-e-Islami (J&K)
The J&K HCBA, under 20 years of Qayoom’s tutelage, has become a centre of separatist activity. It does not accept that Kashmir is an integral part of India, and is dominated by members of Jamaat-e-Islami. Unsurprisingly, the High Court has repeatedly quashed cases against senior Jamaat members, including its spokesman Zahid Ali. The Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir functions separately from the Jamaat-e-Islami (Hind), having broken away from it in the 1950s following a disagreement. With a disciplined cadre-based organisation, it has considerable clout in the Valley and has grown over the years through both genuine social activity, a madrasa network, and schools under the Falah-e-Aam Trust, which has some 1,00,000 students and some 10,000 staff members. That buys a lot of clout.
Although initially its leadership was not supportive of militancy, this soon changed as members of its student wing joined the Hizbul Mujahideen, including sons of its former Emirs, Sheikh Ghulam Hassan and Hakeem Ghulam Nabi. As the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) emerged in Pakistan with its own Jamaat cadres, the identification with Islamabad’s objectives was complete.
In 2018, a report by the J&K Police said that of the 156 people who joined militancy between 2010 and 2015, about 23 per cent had Jamaat-e-Islami leanings. What was to only be apparent later, was its contribution to radicalisation and street violence, as it supported the ‘soft separatism’ of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) under Mehbooba Mufti, signifying the shift back to politics. It encouraged the use of the pen and ink symbol of the earlier Muslim United Front, the party that had helmed in the fateful 1987 elections.
Mufti established her credentials by her conservative sartorial selections and visiting houses of slain militants. But the alliance proved expensive. To many observers, it was a case of the tail wagging the dog, with the Jamaat increasing its demands particularly after the explosive events following the killing of Burhan Wani. At the time, violence patterns indicated maximum trouble and stone pelting in Jamaat-dominated areas.
Meanwhile, the Jamaat enjoyed the best of relations with the influential Pakistani branch, but its reach was sullied by its unsavoury links in selling seats meant for Kashmiris in Pakistani medical colleges. This was exposed following the dramatic resignation of S.A.S. Geelani as Hurriyat faction chief, who chose to call out his fellow leaders for corruption.
What is less known, however, is the Jamaat’s extensive links on foreign shores. In the United States, these links ensure that the Kashmir ‘cause’ is kept alive, through a complex network of NGOs such as the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and a plethora of other organisations like ‘Stand with Kashmir’ – which mobilises across universities and think tanks, and the 18-member InterAction, which includes the HHRD (Helping Hand for Relief and Development), a branch of the larger Jamaat and one that actually ran an event with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan.
Then there are charities such as Muslim Aid (started by a Jamaat member from Bangladesh), which have access to funds from diverse sources, all of which have links to terrorists in Kashmir. What is worrying is that this web of funding stretches into India, with Muslim Aid for instance, active in areas such as Hyderabad.
It is this organisation that was finally banned by the Narendra Modi government early last year, pulling in its Amir Hamid Fayaz, senior leaders, and many of its lower lieutenants. The majority, however, went into hiding, which partly accounted for the drastic drop in street violence. That the Jamaat-e-Islami (J&K) probably had a hand in the killing of Babar Qadri will never be openly acknowledged, which makes investigation difficult, nor that it probably had a hand in other assassinations like that of noted journalist Shujaat Bukhari.
But the fact that even Farooq Abdullah – whose family is hated by the Jamaat-e-Islami for its purge earlier – chose to oppose the ban on the organisation shows the extent of the conspiracy of silence. Some cautious condemnation has begun from within, while resistance against the theory of ‘unknown gunmen’ – which is ‘Kashmirspeak’ for militants – has also begun. Now it remains for the Special Investigation Team to pinpoint the perpetrators, both in the Valley and their funders from other parts of India, even while encouraging its social and charity side to continue its work. The hijacking of the Jamaat in Kashmir has to be reversed.
It took a US Congressman, Jim Banks, to state upfront that much of the violence in Kashmir was related to the Jamaat. This reality needs to be exposed to the full by the Kashmiris themselves. Meanwhile, local politicians, long accused of sleeping with the enemy, will find it easier to put out welcome mats for the Chinese. That’s far less dangerous and may not merit that bullet in the head.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction about Mehbooba Mufti winning the 2008 J&K assembly election. It was NC that had won the election. The error is regretted.