By Saba Firdous
November 14, 2013
Fatima received a fatal injury in police action during sectarian clashes that broke out in Budgam district of Kashmir valley in July this year. According to her relatives, Fatima was looking for her grandson outside her house when she was hit on the head by a policeman. Nearly a week later Fatima succumbed. Usually the killing of a civilian by the police invokes the people’s wrath. People from all walks of life come out on the roads to protest the “brutality”; however, Fatima’s burial was a comparatively silent one. Perhaps the people were apprehensive about the implications their reactions might lead to. In a place where dying for a “cause” is routine, death on sectarian lines does not fit the usual scheme of things. Rather it raises many serious questions and puts forward some ugly challenges before society.
Fatima belonged to a Shia family. Shias are a minority among Muslims in Jammu &Kashmir.
Historically, the flourishing of the Shia sect in the Kashmir Valley is attributed to Mir Shamsuddin Araqi, a saint and religious scholar who came to Kashmir during the reign of the Chak dynasty in the later part of the 15th century. The Chak rule is considered to be the only golden period for Shias in the whole history of Kashmir. However, it was just after the downfall of the Chaks that the persecution of Shias started. After the Mughals, it was the Afghan rule in Kashmir that became a threat for the Shiite community. The hatred for this minority was visible through plunders and massacres. It was during this period that the Shia community started practicing ‘Taqiyah’ (hiding one’s religious beliefs for one’s own safety) for safeguarding their lives and honour. Since then Shiites in Kashmir have seen many highs and lows.
In the year 1947 and after, Shiites took active part in the political affairs of the State. In many instances they were at the forefront of Kashmir’s struggle for independence – a sizeable population from the community also had to suffer at the hands of the State for their pro-Pakistan leanings. Munshi Mohammad Ishaq, a Shia leader was a prominent figure of the historic Plebiscite Movement. And during the armed uprising in Kashmir in the late 80’s the Shia community also had a militant outfit Hizb-ul-Muminun (the party of the faithful). Many of this group’s ‘boys’ were either killed or arrested.
A scholar from the Shia community Ibne Muhammad (name changed) says, “The Shia community is a strong stake holder in Kashmir and we have been participating fully in the political struggle of Kashmir throughout its history.” Talking about the diversity of political thought within the community he says, “You can find a Shia presence across the political spectrum of Kashmir. There is a Shia leader in every major separatist and mainstream political party here.”
In spite of such active participation in Kashmir’s political affairs, many incidents over the last two decades, especially the sectarian violence in Pakistan, have created a serious threat perception among Shias in the Valley.
The Shia population in Kashmir lives in small pockets. In the capital city Srinagar they are mostly confined to Dal (Mir Behri), Zadibal and Shalimar areas. Budgam is the only town in the Valley where Shias form a majority.
But incidents and events over the past two decades have led to a situation where the Shia community has shrunk into small enclaves, gradually taking the shape of ghettos, a sharp contrast to earlier times when Shias and other Kashmiri minorities were scattered all along the interiors of Srinagar city. “The revival of sectarian based politics in Pakistan and Middle East, and the dramatic resurgence of anti-Shia forces there reinforced the fears of the community,” says Masroor Ansari, son of former Hurriyat president Maulvi Abbas Ansari and the current president of Ittehad ul Muslimeen, a constituent of the moderate separatist amalgam Hurriyat Conference. He further says that fears actually worsened after the entry of foreign armed militants in Kashmir in the late eighties, with some militant groups actively supported by the Pakistani Wahabi organisations, perceived by the Shia community to be influenced by anti-Shia hate propaganda.
Although there is not much representation in the legislation, a few Shia politicians including representatives from Kargil are present in the State Assembly. Besides a senior leader of the main opposition party PDP, Maulvi Iftikhaar Hussain Ansari and a young politician Aga Ruhullah who is associated with the ruling party National Conference (NC) had a cabinet rank before the recent reshuffle.
Ansari reiterates that there has been manipulation through delimitation of districts and Tehsils because of which eight Shia community majority pockets in Kashmir have now been reduced to only three. Recently, two cabinet ministers from the previous Council of Ministers, Qamar Ali Akhoon from Kargil and Aga Syed Ruhallah from Budgam, were dropped in the reshuffle. Only one member of the community, Firoz Khan from Kargil has been inducted as MoS (Minister of state). This can only be seen as a raw deal given to the Shia community, which has a population of 15 lakh in the state.
There is a perception of discrimination among Kashmiri Shiites on other fronts as well. One of which is the ban on Muharram processions which the community considers as the denial of basic and fundamental rights. Muharram processions have been banned in Kashmir since the armed conflict began in the disputed region in 1989. Only in few Shia-dominated localities, are processions allowed. On the 8th and 10th day of Muharram, streets are blocked and people are asked not to join the processions. Peaceful Muharram processions are attacked by the police; and people taking part in them are brutally cane-charged, manhandled and whisked away in police gypsies. This denial of basic rights by the state authorities is condemned by many locals and experts as well. “The state authorities say that emotional and religious rituals could be used by separatists to stoke up anti-India sentiments”, says Dr Altaf Hussain, member of a civil society in Kashmir. “Ban on the Muharram procession is totally unacceptable. The police beat Shia Muslims ruthlessly, and for what crime? The procession used to be carried out before ban and it should be resumed now also. They (government authorities) are just using the ‘threat of attacks’ as a means to politicise the issue further,” a member of the local Shia community says. Ibne Muhammad, a local scholar from a Shia majority area in Srinagar refuses to accept the government’s security excuse as a valid argument for the ban on Muharram processions. He says, “If arrangements can be made for the annual Amaranth Yatra that lasts for two months and political rallies can be organised, for which the government makes proper security arrangements, why can’t they make it possible to review the earlier route of the Muharram procession? It barely has to cover seven kilometres and involves the city area of Srinagar district only”. Muhammad alleges prejudice in certain quarters of the establishment as a reason to continue this ban.
In Kashmir, religion plays a significant role in society. The ban on any of the religious rights of people adds to the already existing mood of conflict and unrest. “The government cannot deny the people their right to peacefully observe religious rituals just because a few senior Shia clerics happen to be separatist leaders (Maulana Abbas Ansari is former chairman of Hurriyat Conference and Aga Hasan Mosavi, president of Anjuman Sharee Shiaan, is an executive member of the Hurriyat Conference). It indeed needs to be highlighted that the ongoing separatist movement is not a Sunni movement only; the Shias play an equally catalytic role in it and perhaps that’s why the State fails to distinguish between ‘Azaadi’ and ‘Azadari’ (mourning) processions”, says Ansari condemning the ban.
Aga Ruhallah says that he has already taken up this issue with Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and that talks are on. However, nothing seems to have been done on the ground as yet.
The intolerance against the Shias in Kashmir that started decades ago is still visible today. Some people from the majority communities find it easy to attack and develop insecurity in the minds of Shias. This can be gauged through various social networking websites where hate pages against Shias are created quite often, and where the Shiites face criticism on various fronts. Counter attacks and criticism from the Shiites follow suit. In the backdrop of such vitiated atmosphere, miscreants on Facebook find it easy to drive a wedge between Shia and the Sunni communities by commenting that Shias will have to leave Kashmir like the Pandits. Reacting to it, Ruhullah says, “I would like to die in my own motherland than leave…I was the first one to embrace social media, but now I feel that it should be banned”.
Commenting on this community friction, hard-line separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani terms it as the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the Indian government. He says that India has been playing such a divide and rule policy in Kashmir by creating fissures between various communities to deviate the attention from ‘Azaadi’. “We tried to sort out such issues by calling a meeting of religious scholars from all shades, including Shia and Sunni leaders, but the authorities did not allow that meeting to happen,” adds Geelani.
Experts say that various agencies are involved in creating the split between the Shia and Sunni communities. ‘‘There are no Shia-Sunni issues in Kashmir, and can never be unless it is engineered by some agencies”, says Professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a renowned academician in Kashmir.
What adds more to the plight of Kashmiri Shias is the internal conflict and loopholes within the community itself. Such conflicts give rise to a situation where development remains far from sight. Lack of education and negligence on the part of Shiite leaders are prime reasons that this community is still underdeveloped. The socio-economic condition of the community is a sad chapter in the story of the relatively better-off and actively growing city of Srinagar.
‘‘Shia clerics have kept their community, especially the women folk uneducated”, says Dr Hussain, blaming the clerics for the under development of the community. Ansari says the government is not doing enough for the upliftment of the Shias. ‘‘Generally Shia youth are in the private sector but they don’t get paid well. They only earn 1000 to 2000 rupees per month, which is equal to nothing for a youth who has family load on his head”, Ansari adds.
Thus, the socio-political problems, the backwardness within the community and the events that have shaped the history of Kashmiri Shias on the whole, have ensured that Shias continue to live in a state of dilemma. And Fatima’s family is one among the many Shia families that live out their lives in a state of flux, and fear.
Sakina is still mentally shattered since the day she lost Fatima, her mother-in-law, who was no less than her own mother. Her eyes fail to hide the pain within her as she narrates the story of Fatima’s painful death.