In the summer of 2006, a group of young men gathered outside Sabina Hamid Bulla’s home in old-city Srinagar, and began to tear it down with axes and shovels. “Long live Pakistan”, they sang out cheerfully, “We want freedom”. Bulla, alleged to have been a madam who serviced top politicians, security force officials and businessmen, had become a metaphor for the corrupt dysfunction that passed for democracy in Kashmir. The young men who attacked her home wanted to sweep that order away, and build a new world from Islam and the shari’a.
Fifty kilometres away, in the small village of Safanagri, two teenagers watched as this new tide washed over the countryside. Muhammad Idris Sultan and Yawar Itoo had grown up together, playing in the fields and meadows. In 2009, large-scale clashes broke out, driven by claims – later proven false – that a police officer had raped and murdered two women. Now, the teenagers learned to throw stones at police together.
Early this month, Idris returned home for his childhood friend’s funeral. Their lives had taken very different directions. Idris worked to earn a position in Indian Army’s Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry. Yawar, who dropped out of school to join a religious seminary, joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Kashmir’s largest insurgent group—and was shot dead by the army on 2 April.
For reasons noone knows for certain, Idris left that funeral, and walked into the ranks of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, uploading a photograph that informed the world of his decision.
Deserters and Collaborators
Idris isn’t the only one to have deserted the Indian state in recent months. Zahoor Ahmad Thokar, a soldier with the 173 Battalion of the Territorial Army, joined the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen last summer. So did police constables Nasir Pandit and Ishfaq Ahmed and Syed Naved Mushtaq – the last, stealing four rifles and ammunition from his post for his weapons-strapped new organisation.
Are the storm-winds lashing Kashmir going to end up tearing apart India’s security forces there?
There’s no simple answer, but police investigations of the five cases show one thing: Even though all five men were from the south Kashmir districts of Shopian and Pulwama, none knew each other. There’s no sign, either, that any network has emerged working to win over ethnic Kashmiris in the security forces.
Indeed, the numbers of ethnic Kashmiri officers killed by terrorists by far exceeds those who have deserted.
Each of the five men also appear to have been driven by different kinds of concerns. Thokar, according to a police officer familiar with the case, said he received threats after he was suspected of passing on information on local terrorists to the army, and he joined the Hizb hoping to protect his family from harm. Both constables Ahmed and Mushtaq, the source said, were identified as jihadist sympathisers by the police after their recruitment in 2012, but were allowed to join the force as part of an effort to wean away young men hostile to the Indian state.
The Jihadist Recruitment Drive
Figures obtained by The Quint show recruitment of Kashmir residents by jihadist groups – measured by the police based on missing persons’ reports – has been rising steadily since 2013, after years of decline. The numbers began to climb soon after the People’s Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance was formed, likely driven by resentment about Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s decision to ally with Hindu nationalists.
The killing of jihadi icon Burhan Wani in 2016, which unleashed widespread street violence across southern Kashmir, saw the recruitment escalate – though it’s worth noting that the level is only back to where it was before 2006.
Instead of focussing at the small number of Kashmiris joining jihadist groups, we need to understand their context. From the 1990s on, the web of institutions that made up Kashmir’s civil society – among them, its political organisations, cultural bodies and the very structure of the family – imploded under the stresses of violence. Though formal democracy revived in 1995, it has failed to transform a dystopic polity.
Ever since 2006, when Bulla’s home in Srinagar was brought down, a new generation of young people has expressed itself through violent anti-India street protests. The young men joining the Hizb and other jihadist groups merely underline this far larger malaise.
History of Neo-Fundamentalism in Valley
The underlying crisis in Kashmir needs to be read against the slow growth, from the 1920s, of neo-fundamentalist proselytising movements. Key among them was the arrival of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, a religious order set up by the followers of Sayyid Ahmad of Rae Bareli — a mystic who died in Pakistan’s northwest, waging a jihad against Mahajara Ranjit Singh’s empire.
Led by Delhi-educated seminarian Sayyed Hussain Shah Batku, the Ahl-e-Hadith arrived in Kashmir in 1925. He denounced key practices of mainstream Islam linked to Hinduism, such as worship of shrines, the veneration of relics, and the recitation of litanies. For Ahl-e-Hadith ideologues like Siddiq Hasan Khan and Nazir Husain, the miseries of Indian Muslims were rooted in the accommodation they had made with their environment.
From the 1950s on, Jama’at-run schools entrenched a worldview that cast secular democracy as an onslaught on Kashmir and Islam. The Jama’at, scholar Yoginder Sikand has recorded, believed “a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth”.
By 1987, these social tendencies had acquired a political platform, the Muslim United Front. At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state, and that Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah was an agent of Hindu imperialism.
The 1990s saw the Islamist-led Kashmiri insurgency sweep aside a decaying political order. Beyond the slogan of “Nizam-e-Mustafa”, or god’s rule, the jihadist leadership, however, had little idea of what social order they envisioned. In his prison diaries, Rudad-i-Qafas, written in 1992-94, Kashmir’s Islamist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chastised the young jihadists who acted as though “sworn not to accept any political leadership at all”.
New Wave of Islamism
From 2006, a new generation of Islamist leaders – Masarat Alam Bhat, his colleague Asiya Andrabi, and their jailed mentor Ashiq Hussain Faktoo – heard his call. Their mobilisations have given leadership, in the main, to a generation of disenfranchised young urban men.
This youth cohort has seen families invest ever more in their education, only to find there are few secure, formal-sector jobs. They have realised that political patronage to which they have no access is needed for entrepreneurship; and find themselves unable to even earn an income at an age at which their parents had families.
It is no coincidence that much of the urban violence since 2006 has taken place in particular parts of Kashmir’s urban concentrations – the shahr-e-khaas, or old cities, neighbourhoods which made up the city’s traditional trading and artisanal hubs. Islamism, to this once-powerful class, offers the dream of redemption.
Little possibility of praxis exists outside the ranks of the Islamist movement. Through its years in opposition, the PDP campaigned not at all on public policy issues. Now, a few months into its time in power, the National Conference has returned the favour. For their part, an older generation of secessionists, represented by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, have succeeded mainly in enriching themselves.
Predictably, New Islamism – the global jihadist ideology espoused by organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – has become increasingly popular. Promising that utopia can be built from piles of corpses, New Islamism promises a liberation from a political order that resembles nothing so closely as a prison.
Kashmir needs a new, creative politics than can address the anger of young people, but there is none in sight. The choices for young people today are the nihilism of the drug addict; the faux agency of the street rioter; the certain death of the insurgent.
Idris has taken the third choice.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author. He can be reached at @praveenswami.)
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