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How Kashmiri Islam, tolerant and love-based religion, changed to hardened Sharia version

In ‘A Kashmiri Century’, Khem Lata Wakhlu writes about the human side of living in the Valley, something missed by cold political treatises on Kashmir.

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In the spring of 1979, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had been the president of his country when Bangladesh was carved out of its eastern part, was hanged. The charges against him were partly real and partly trumped up at the behest of the then President, General Zia ul Haq. Zia declared himself as the president of Pakistan in 1978, and fast-tracked the controversial trial of Bhutto.

The hanging of Bhutto created tremendous anger in the Kashmir Valley towards the military régime of that country. People came out openly to lash out at Pakistan and its president, General Zia ul Haq. Kashmiris felt that he was a cruel and inhuman fellow, considering that he got the prime minister of a country executed so brutally and brazenly. 

The people of Kashmir thereby lost faith in the Islamic military regime of Pakistan totally, and abused Zia publicly with considerable anger and contempt. People in large numbers came out in protest. Huge processions were taken out to show solidarity with the people of Pakistan, especially those who were not with the military ruler. For once in the Valley of Kashmir the people thought that their decision to merge with India was a wise step taken by the leaders at the time of independence. 

Many bizarre events came to be witnessed on the streets of Srinagar. Placards with foul words of abuse for Zia were hung on the necks of street dogs to show people’s feelings of hurt and anger towards the despicable and loathsome military rulers of Pakistan. There was deep-rooted hurt and anguish in the hearts of the people. The image in their minds of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was shattered beyond repair. 

Since Zia relied heavily on the Muslim clergy and used them to bring about the Islamization of Pakistan, the people of Kashmir began to associate local members of the Jamaat-e-Islami (all of whom were predominantly bakras) with whatever they found wrong and inappropriate with what was happening in Pakistan. 

The result was tragic. Some especially angry people took the law into their own hands and maltreated and hurt those people who were known members of the Jamaat. The houses of many were burned down, others were forced to have their heads and beards shaved off, and many others were beaten up. It is said that those party members of the Jamaat who were wronged took an oath to destroy the fabric of brotherhood, harmony, and coexistence that Kashmiri communities had experienced for hundreds of years. They pledged to grab power and rule the state according to their own whims and fancies.


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Around this period, Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise and the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran was also watched with interest in the Valley of Kashmir. Due to Khomeini’s orthodox ways and his insistence on a return to the conservative dress code and hijab for the women of that country, many felt that a shunning of ‘Western’ values was a way out of all the problems that Muslim societies were facing globally. The new leaders in Pakistan and in Iran were forcing a return to the illiberal ways of orthodox Islam, and this seems to have resonated with some of the conservative imams and mullahs in the Valley of Kashmir as well. Taking a cue from Iran (which predominantly has people following the Shia faith of Islam), some Shia imams and elders in the Valley also issued fatwas to their womenfolk to observe the Iranian dress code for women. As a result of this desire within Srinagar city and neighbouring towns to be identified with the ‘trends’ in Iran and Pakistan, all of a sudden there were hundreds of women and girls wearing headscarves while going to their schools and moving about with their friends. 

These developments also coincided with a very large influx of money from the mid-1970s onwards from charities in Saudi Arabia. The administration of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who had signed an accord with Indira Gandhi in 1975 and had thereafter assumed the position of chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was liberal in allowing funds from Islamic organizations being brought into the Valley. The quantum of funds also saw a major uptick from 1973 onwards when oil prices (as determined by the OPEC) moved up from a low $1.8–2.8 per barrel to a whopping $11 per barrel that year! This increase yielded enormous amounts of surplus funds within the Saudi regime, and a large part of the monies were systematically moved—as a means to also keep the Muslim Brotherhood within Saudi Arabia happy—to regions with sizeable Muslim populations. 

Much of the funds from Saudi Arabia came in for ‘religious’ purposes and resulted in the wanton construction of new mosques in the Valley, and the expansion and renovation of existing ones. Madrassas too sprang up, and young children from poor rural families especially were taken into these well-funded ‘Islamic schools’ for learning and propagation of the Quran. Many more Islamic institutions also sprang up all over the Valley. Orphanages received funds, Islamic literature was published in large numbers and distributed freely and widely, by proselytizers of the tabhliqi jamaat. New printing presses were set up to publish pamphlets, papers, and magazines covering Islamic themes.


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Slowly and gradually, Kashmiri Islam, which was a tolerant, mystical, and love-based version of the religion that had evolved in its own beautiful way in Kashmir and which was an amalgam of the Islamic ideas brought in from Iran, Arabia, and Central Asia, was changing into a new and hardened Sharia-dependent doctrine that left no scope for the liberal, free-thinking ideas of Kashmiris. 

The radicalization of the people in the Valley was thereby under way, with the Wahabi/Salafi brand of conservative Islam being pushed into Kashmiri Muslim societies and communities, supported and bankrolled by the streams of foreign funds coming in. Mullahs and preachers, now with significant funds at their command, were doing all that they could to have the simple people of Kashmir fall in line with their imported ideas of Islam.There were many questioning the traditional Kashmiri mentality of visiting the graves or asthans of mystics, sufi saints, and spiritual men and women. This was not the ‘real’ Islam, these propagators of the conservative version kept emphasizing. There was peer pressure used, as well as intimidation and violence to make people acquiesce. 

All this was a completely new phenomenon for the people of modern-day Kashmir. Young people, who were now ‘warriors of Islam’ and were forcing people to be compliant with the strict rules of the conservative dogma, were attracted towards this new forceful ideology because it gave them ‘power’ over others, and if anybody resisted them that person was an apostate and therefore worthy of being bullied, beaten, and intimidated. 

By the early 1980s, as Saddam Hussein too was emerging as Iraq’s brutal strongman, it was apparent that he would continue to hound the Shias and Kurds of Iraq, despite their substantially large numbers within the population. Whether it was Saddam’s ‘strongman’ image or his hostility against Israel, the West, and Shias in general, something about him resonated with a section of the Sunnis of Kashmir. His photos began to be hung in busy marketplaces, especially in the semi-rural towns of the Valley. Shia areas began to hang portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and other clerics of the Shia faith of Iran.

All these developments and a lack of an effective, credible, and a truly secular and non-communal leadership in the state of Jammu and Kashmir took the Valley down the path of terrible violence from the autumn of 1989. 

This excerpt from ‘A Kashmiri Century: Portrait of a Society in Flux’ by Khem Lata Wakhlu has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.

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