In the summer of 1999, I visited Poonch-Rajouri sector of Jammu and Kashmir. There is a place called Thana Mandi midway between Poonch and Rajouri. I do not recall which district that was but remember the place for its scenic beauty, and often making headlines for subversive activities by the ultras coming over from Pakistan. It’s pretty close to the Line of Control.
This was the time when the Kargil war had just ended and infiltration by Pakistan-backed militants had shifted southward. The assignment from the newspaper was to cover both the firing from beyond the Line of Control and from within. We had to cover both the forward infantry battalions and the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units combing the hinterland, and also interact with the civilian population. In the course of this visit, I was taken to this beautiful shrine Shahdra Sharief about four kilometres out of Thana Mandi town.
The Shahzada Nashin (the high priest) of the Sufi shrine received us well and gave us very sweet tea to drink. When I mentioned to him that it was impossible to finish that huge cup, he smiled and said, “Kashmir mein chai, namkeen roti ke saath peete hain” (In Kashmir one drinks tea with salted bread). Next, I dipped the bread in steaming tea and the bite was more than invigorating.
There at the shrine I met two Muslim brothers, both jawans with Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI), who had come to the mazar for thanksgiving having come back alive from the just concluded war. To me this was quite a learning experience, the two brothers sounded so different from the Srinagar-bred Kashmiri folks we keep bumping into.
The shrine keeper too did not sound like a sympathiser for the gun-toting militants. He, however, felt hapless when they intruded into his hospice. He felt threatened not just by their guns but the conservative Islamic philosophy they preached. These militants abhorred prayers at Sufi shrines and disliked music in any form. Their dictum ran counter to Kashmiri temper.
Kashmiriyat, as learnt at the feet of the Shahzada Nashin of Shahdra Sharief, is about religious and social harmony and brotherhood. It goes beyond what is preached by the liberal theorists, who restrict the definition to maintaining just the special Constitutional status of the state. Poonch-Rajouri, in those days continued to have a good mix of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. To me, it retained Kashmiriyat -- the centuries-old indigenous secularism of Kashmir.
The Valley by then, unfortunately, had been cleansed of its Hindu population. In fact, it was cleaned way back in 1989. The call for Azadi in 1989, which was driven by the desire for an Islamic state, certainly was not in sync with the larger meaning of Kashmiriyat. Even the current spate of violence in the state is a threat to Kashmiriyat, as it is an off shoot of the conflict between the conservative and liberal schools of Islam.
Earlier this year in June, when well-known Qawaal Amjad Sabri was gunned down in Karachi in Pakistan, it clearly indicated conflict between two very different understandings of Islam. Wahhabi/Salafi fundamentalism, preached by Madrasas run by likes of Hafiz Sayeed, has taught not only an entire generation of Pakistanis but also Kashmiri Muslims to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam. When Sabri was gunned down, a thought occurred to me whether the Shahzada Nashin of Shahdra Sharief at Thana Mandi was survived nearly three-decade-long onslaught of Islamists in the serene vale.
Sufism has remained popular among the believers of Quran living in the shadow of Hindukush range, from Sindh, Punjab, Pakhtunkhwa, and Kashmir, since long before international boundaries made these geographical identities part of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The entire region is dotted with abodes of Sufi saints who spread the message of good will and believed in promotion of fusion of cultures through poetry, music, and dance forms. These practices are anathemas to the Wahabis, who charge Sufi practitioners of promoting idolatry, something which Islam prohibits.
The spread of Wahabi school in the Valley is visible in the growing influence of the Hurriyat Conference and Jamiat-e-Islami leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s appeal to the ageing patriarch of the separatist movement to give the “daughter of Kashmir” a chance only seconds the proposition that the current crisis is propelled by ferment being witnessed across the Islamic world including the rise of Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
It’s unlikely that a Geelani would ever want to give any chance to any daughter espousing cause of Kashmiriyat, leave aside a Mehbooba Mufti or an Omar Abdullah. The issue in Kashmir today is not violation of human rights or use of pellet guns. The challenge is to save the syncretic culture of Kashmir – Kashmiriyat. This has to be realised by the political parties of the state who swear by Kashmiriyat. They have to see through the larger Islamist plan aided and abetted by Pakistani military and now even openly by the political leadership.
Mehbooba Mufti has done well to show clarity in dealing with the issue by repeatedly reiterating that it was just five percent of people who were responsible for the violence and 95 percent of Kashmiris wanted dialogue to end their woes. Mehbooba’s aggression at the joint press conference with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Srinagar surprised many but to the larger audience she succeeded in making clear that there was no space for mourning the death of a terrorist. She also asserted authority in claiming that she was the representative of the Kashmiri people.
Instead that Kashmir has to be saved, the buzz should be that Kashmiriyat must be saved. And the initiative for this could only come from Srinagar-bred Kashmiris, who are witness to the rise of Islamist craving for power behind the thin veil of Azadi.
(Sidharth Mishra is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. Views expressed are personal.)