Islamic issue

The new Hizbul commander's call to fight for Islam over Kashmir is cause for alarm

Disgusted with corruption and unresponsive governments, many Kashmiri youth are easily convinced that divinely sanctioned systems would be better.

A video by Hizbul Mujahideen commander Zakir Rashid Bhat urging Kashmiri youth to fight for Islam’s supremacy rather than a new nation-state, which was widely reported last week, should give us pause. This is not the dominant sentiment in Kashmir, but the speech does give a glimpse into how a significant proportion of Kashmiri students and other teenagers now think. This is precisely the age group that was on the streets for close to four months last year, following the killing of Burhan Wani – Bhat’s predecessor as Hizbul Mujahideen commander – by security forces on July 8.

Such ideas have seeped into young minds through a barrage of messages via social media, on SMS, through televangelists and the discourse of some clerics. In most cases, for the youngsters that imbibe them, these ideas are not carefully thought through. They are rooted in a belief that Muslims are oppressed and degraded on a global scale. Bhat’s speech reflects a contemporary reinvention of ideas that can be traced to the 19th-century poet, Hali and political activist, Jamaluddin Afghani, more than the 18th-century Saudi zealot, Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, founder of the ultra-conservative Wahhabism movement.

Many youngsters believe that Muslims are in bad shape because they have strayed from the true and narrow path shown by Allah through the Quran. Ergo, strictly following what is perceived as pure Islam and eschewing corruptions would bring a golden age. Of course, that means that they must force all those around them to do the same, so that their entire society may be purged. It’s easy to take that two steps further, to make it a global agenda.

Destabilising Pakistan too

This sort of thinking that leans towards a pan-Islamist state or caliphate is dangerous for the stability of nation-states such as Pakistan and Bangladesh as for India. It is easy to forget that Pakistan jailed Jamaat-e-Islami founder Maulana Maududi during the 1950s – the phase in which Maududi was pan-Islamist and argued against a republican nation state.

Hizbul Mujahideen has had close links with Jamaat-e-Islami since 1990. Pakistan played with fire by switching its backing from the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, which claimed to be nationalist, to the overtly Islamist Hizbul Mujahideen in January that year, through the Jamaat. Pakistan’s deployment of militants from Lashkar-e-Toiba and the largely Afghan Harkat-ul Mujahideen in Kashmir too was a dangerous ploy. Luckily (at least from a liberal perspective), the gunmen of none of those groups made much of an impact on Kashmiri society or thinking. Most Kashmiris thought of them as foreigners right until the previous phase of militancy ended around 2005.

Indeed, the bitter fruits of several such decisions of the 1980s and 1990s have hit Pakistan over the past decade or so. Over the past couple of years, that country has sought to leap over this growing domestic challenge through another kind of global linkage – by turning a large swathe of Pakistan over as an economic corridor for China and Russia to reach the Arabian Sea.

Which way that will turn out is another story.

Narrow vision

More pertinent is the fact that exclusivist, narrow-vision ideas have been absorbed into Kashmiri society. During interactions and surveys among school and college students across the Valley over the past few years, I have discovered a positive correlation between a younger age demographic and the absorption of such ideas. They are more common among today’s teenagers than among young adults – and are, generally, least commonly accepted among older Kashmiris.

It is important to keep in mind that Islam – and hence a system of justice and administration based on Islamic principles – is morally privileged. To many Kashmiri students, Shariat law seems to signify an end to pervasive corruption, self-centred ethics, and maladministration. For one survey, answering different questions in the same questionnaire, many more students wrote that they would prefer Shariat law than agreed that a person should be stoned for adultery or have hands cut off for theft. They viewed shariat as a divinely sanctioned law, which would enforce responsive, corruption-free governance, but they did not necessarily want a very harsh punitive code.

In the same survey, conducted near the beginning of this decade, many students wrote that laws should be based on Shariat and also be democratic. Bhat’s video speech is one among several indicators that democracy has become less popular since then.

The elections of 2008 and of 2014 both raised hopes, which were then dashed. This is a sharp contrast to the 2002 elections, when there was little hope (only disgust with the incumbent regime) but unexpected satisfaction with the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed-led government.

By contrast, the elections of 2014 led to the horrified realisation that people, particularly in the South Kashmir centres of current unrest, had in effect voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party to come to power in the state – where it is an ally of the Mehbooba Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party. Controversies over a beef ban and the special status accorded to the state under the Constitution accentuated that horror during 2015. The emergence on Saturday of Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh will no doubt push Kashmiri youth farther into blinkered identity-based tropes.

Some shrill television anchors described Bhat’s speech as having been dictated by Pakistan. They do not want to see the extent to which the speech is bad news for Pakistan – and China and Russia too! For, Bhat not only urged youth to fight for Muslim domination, he described nationalism and democracy as haraam (unacceptable).

Extremist leadership

Those anchors also trained their verbal fire at leaders of Kashmir’s freedom movement, such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani. They miss the wood for the trees. Today’s so-called radicalised teenagers have little regard for Geelani or any other leader of the freedom movement.

When the Valley rose in revolt in 2008, many bands of youth turned up at the homes of these so-called leaders, asking that they lead their demonstrations against the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine board – the issue that sparked the uprising that year. In 2016, young people did not even approach the leaders who are the face of Kashmir’s freedom struggle. During a campus chat last year, students at Pulwama Degree College only named the Prophet as their hero, refusing to name any contemporary figure.

The Hurriyat leaders remained safely ensconsed behind security inside their homes last year - under so-called house arrest. That of course only ceded ground to young men like Bhat to dictate the nature, agenda and objectives of the movement. This is only one of the many counterproductive tactics and strategies of the police and the state government that has sent the situation in Kashmir into a vicious cycle of destruction.

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