The Indian state has deployed many strategies to counter the 28-year-old Kashmir insurgency. One of them has been to call this insurgency everything other than what it actually is. When thousands of Kashmiris went for arms training to the part of Kashmir under Pakistani control, and lakhs rallied behind them on the streets of the Valley, New Delhi called this “cross-border terrorism”.

From about 10,000 to 15,000 militants at one point in time, militancy is now run by about 100 youths, mostly Kashmiris. But a resurgent street now complements this residual presence more strongly than ever. Currently, the state is confronted by a new wave of civilian protests coupled with a generation of youth so desperate to pick up arms that they snatch rifles from soldiers and policemen and run to the nearest forest where a small band of militants awaits them. The state and a sizeable section of the Indian media have been trying to explain away this phenomenon by obsessively referring to the so-called radicalisation of Kashmiri youth over the years.

But radicalised by what? The growing influence of “radical Islam” (read Wahhabism or Salafism and the Jamaat-e-Islami) and groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, a prolonged exposure to violence, the erosion of Kashmiriyat (a dubious recent invention), have all been offered as the causes. A few who have the scruples but cannot breach the sacrosanct nationalistic line call it “anger”. All these labels pre-suppose that a Kashmiri is incapable of articulating any political position unless worked upon by external influences or some behavioural maladjustment that triggers anger.

No theory has more forcefully and consistently been pushed as the one that maintains that the “weakening of Sufi Islam” and the “spread of Wahhabism” has radicalised the youth to the extent that all they seem to do is to participate in anti-India protests, post so-called seditious posts on Facebook, support the Pakistani cricket team, throw stones, pick up arms or come in between militants and soldiers during a gunfight.

A brief history

Nothing but ignorance of religious movements in Kashmir informs this line of thinking (or unthinking). The Ahle-Hadith or Salafi movement in the Kashmir Valley is 120 years old. The first Ahle-Hadith mosque was established in Srinagar in 1897. The founder of the movement, Anwar Shah Shopiani, a native of Shopian district in the Valley, had been influenced by the Salafi movement in the then undivided Punjab. Hence, more than a Saudi-funded ideological import, the Ahle-Hadith movement was inspired by similar strains in India and such Indian Ahle-Hadith scholars as Moulana Sonaullah Amritsari, Abdul Qasim Banarasi, Abdul Aziz Rahimabadi besides earlier reformers like Shah Waliullah Dehlavi and Syed Ahmad Barelvi.

Mourners shout pro-freedom and anti-India slogans during the funeral procession of Junaid Ahmad, 12, in downtown Srinagar last October. The boy was hit by a shower of pellets outside his home. Photo credit: AFP.

Another founding Ahle-Hadith leader, Sayed Hussain Shah, whose father was a caretaker of a shrine in Srinagar, received his education in Amritsar. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deobandi school, which are also associated with political Islam, developed in India.

The Ahle-Hadith movement in Kashmir has thus seen the Dogra monarchy, the anti-monarchy Quit Kashmir movement, Partition, the genesis of the Kashmir dispute, the plebiscite movement led by Sheikh Abdullah, the rise of the separatist Muslim United Front, three wars over Kashmir, the armed insurgency of the 1990s, and the formation of the Hurriyat Conference. During these turbulent 12 decades, the only time the Ahle-Hadith leaders participated in any of these events in a major way was when the largest Ahle Hadith organisation, Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith, became one of nearly two-dozen constituents of the undivided Hurriyat in the mid ’90s. However, after the Hurriyat split, the Jamiat did not join either of the factions. Along with the Jamaat-e-Islami it had attempted to unite the two, but its leaders abandoned even those efforts after the assassination of its president Moulvi Showkat by militants.

Although it is widely believed that the militant outfit Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen was the armed wing of the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith, the latter never owned up to it, and neither did other organisations associated with the Ahle-Hadith movement.

The radicalisation narrative

None of the first-rung leaders of the Hurriyat Conference is a Wahhabi. The second rung too has not more than three or four leaders from the Ahle-Hadith. (Interestingly, Javed Mustafa Mir, a legislator of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party is from the Ahle Hadith.) Not a single militant in the recent past has emerged out of any Ahle-Hadith madrassa in the Valley. There is a single Salafi theology school in Srinagar, which is perhaps the only religious institution that had been cleared by the government for foreign funding.

The man who galvanised last year’s uprising in four southern districts of Kashmir was Sarjan Barkati, a Sufi preacher. He is still in jail. That is why many people who are active in the resistance privately begrudge the political inertness of the Kashmiri Ahle-Hadith whose counterparts in West Asia are synonymous with political Islam. Many observers therefore believe that creating an Islamist bogey in Kashmir is the unconscious desire of the State, if not part of the counterinsurgency project. It serves the Indian state to dismiss pro-freedom demonstrations and stone throwing by schoolgirls as an outcome of radicalisation, preferably religious, instead of having to acknowledge it as an act craving political change.

Photo credit: Danish Ismail/Reuters.

By 1990, when the armed insurgency started in Kashmir, about 550 of the total 750 Ahle-Hadith mosques affiliated with the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith had already been set up across Jammu and Kashmir. Srinagar alone had more than 30 by then. Both the Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith and Jamaat-e-Islami actually were at their zenith before the insurgency started. Their religious programmes got significantly curtailed because of the situation and also because of persecution. Dozens of Jamaat men were killed by government forces and the government-sponsored Ikhwan militia, forcing hundreds of families to migrate to Srinagar from rural areas.

Referring to former US President Bill Clinton’s foreword to Nelson Mandela’s book, The Long Walk to Freedom, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman Yasin Malik, said: “Clinton recalls that when he asked Mandela why the ANC [African National Congress] resorted to violent means, the African leader told him ‘that the nature of the struggle is not decided by the oppressed people but by the oppressor’.”

Malik, whose organisation gave up arms in 1994, added: “In 2008 Kashmir made a transition to a peaceful struggle. How did the state respond? Since then we have been shouldering the coffins of our youth.”

He continued: “The majority of the militants who have been killed in recent times had been forced to pick up arms when the state agencies went after them and turned the lives of their families a hell for the sin of having resisted peacefully during 2008 or 2010.”

Uncomfortable truths

The findings of the Commission of Inquiry instituted by the state government into the 2010 uprising casualties – more than 120 people, mostly youths were killed during street protests – were not made public. None of the scores of inquiries into the killing of civilian protesters ordered by state governments in the past have seen the light of day. Why? Because the uncomfortable truths they unraveled will first deal a blow to the radicalisation theory and other state narratives.

Also, when a section of the Indian media tried to read too much into the waving of Islamic State flags by a couple of masked youths, K Rajendra Kumar, who was then the state police chief, and Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti dismissed reports of the Islamic State’s presence in Kashmir. Militants and Hurriyat Conference chief Syed Ali Geelani have repeatedly said that groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have no role in the Kashmir movement.

Sheikh Showkat, who teaches law at the Central University of Kashmir, says there is nothing new in Kashmiri leaders drawing inspiration from Islam. “But does their act delegitimise the political struggle of the people?” he asked.

Referring to a wave of anti-minority incidents in India, Malik said: “I find it laughable that a state which is sliding into fascism and looks the other way at the murder of minorities calls us radicals.”

The writer is a Kashmiri journalist.