By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
For the last several years I have been travelling widely in Jammu and Kashmir and meeting people from different walks of life. My primary purpose has been to seek to understand changing community identities in the region and the role of religion in fashioning them. In the course of my journeys, I have been struck by the fact that various religions are interpreted and understood by their adherents in remarkably diverse ways that completely belie the simplistic notions of ‘Hindus’, ‘Muslims’ or ‘Buddhists’ as homogenous, seamless, easily-definable entities.
Since I passionately believe in peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths (or of no faith at all), I have been particularly interested in exploring theological possibilities contained within people’s diverse understandings of religion that can be used as resources to combat the politics of hatred and division in the name of religion. In the course of my several journeys across Jammu and Kashmir I have discovered such resources aplenty, articulated in different ways by ‘ordinary’ folk, that continue to flourish and that also sustain hopes for resisting the onslaught of communal conflict despite often brutal attempts to quash them. Yet, I have also been struck by the ways in which religion, in Jammu and Kashmir as elsewhere, is routinely used as a tool to promote political agendas that pit communities against each other.
Some years ago, while travelling in the Doda district in the Jammu Division, I was introduced to a firebrand Islamist, leader of a lesser-known pro-Pakistan political outfit. He was bed-ridden, and was later to die in a few months’ time, but the self-righteous and sternly cantankerous man spoke with irrepressible passion. ‘The Kashmir dispute is both religious as well as political,’ he insisted. ‘In Islam, the two cannot be separated’. He quoted the poet Iqbal as declaring that politics without religion would lead to ‘Genghis Khan-style tyranny’, and added that somewhat the same claim was also made by Gandhi. He was in no doubt that the only true and long-term solution to the manifold woes of the world lay in everybody accepting Islam (that is, his particular version of it) or else agreeing willingly to live under what he called a global ‘Islamic state’. That, too, was the solution to the Kashmir dispute, he averred.
The man had, he went on to confess, been an ardent leftist in his youth, but later, after pouring through the voluminous works of Syed Abul Ala Maududi, founder of the principal South Asian Islamist outfit, the Jamaat-i Islami, he had ‘mended his ways’ and now believed that the rest of his whole life should be spent working for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state’, of the sort that Maududi dreamt of, in Kashmir, even if this meant waging war to expel the Indians from his land. For that he had been forced to endure long spells in various Indian jails.
The Prophet Muhammad, I interrupted him to point out, worked entirely peacefully spreading his message in Mecca for several years, and it was only later, when he was forced to shift to Medina and was faced with brutal attacks by his Meccan opponents, that he allowed his followers to take up arms. Further, he had not used armed force to set up his political dispensation in Medina. Did that, then, indicate, I suggested, that using force to establish the sort of state that he wanted in Kashmir might not have sanction in Islam?
‘No, no,’ he angrily shot back. ‘Unless one has political power, one cannot establish peace, nor can one enforce any ideology.’ Hence, he went on, taking to arms to establish what he called an ‘Islamic state’ in Kashmir was entirely valid and Islamically justified.
I was aware that many other Kashmiri Muslim scholars, as indeed several Muslim scholars elsewhere, had an entirely different answer. Armed jihad, that is physical struggle in what they regard as God’s path, they would insist, is only possible when Muslims are oppressed on account of their religion or if they are denied their religious freedoms. And also perhaps only if the potential good that could come out of this course was greater than the damage it would inevitable provoke. Some of them would argue that this was definitely not the case in Jammu and Kashmir. And so, I ventured to ask, although the ongoing movement in Kashmir could be called a political struggle, perhaps it did not merit the label of a jihad?
‘It is a jihad,’ the man thundered. ‘Our religious freedoms have been snatched from us by the Indian government.’
But mosques and madrasas, as well as Muslim organizations such as his own, were free to function, I pointed how. How, then, could he say that the Kashmiri Muslims were being denied their religious rights?
The man thought for a moment, nursing a gaping wound on his foot. Then, stroking his beard thoughtfully, he replied, ‘Islamic schools in Kashmir are forced to use the Government-approved syllabus, which has anti-Muslim content. And, sometimes, we have been denied permission to hold our rallies.’
His first charge, I knew, was entirely bogus, and, if there was truth in his second allegation it was not because his outfit was Muslim, because scores of other Muslim groups, including those engaged in peaceful missionary work, were not under any sort of ban.
As a hardened self-styled Islamist, this man was vociferous in his denunciation of Sufism, the dominant form of Islam in the region that had helped create a unique cultural tradition that brought Muslims, Hindus and others closer together in a broadly shared cultural universe. He refused to relent even when I pointed out that it was principally through the agency of the Sufis that Islam had spread in Kashmir and over much of the rest of South Asia. ‘Sufism is definitely anti-Islamic,’ he spat. ‘It led to the decline of the spirit of jihad and thus caused the downfall of the Muslims from the political heights that they once occupied.’ Clearly, the man saw himself as the leader of an elite vanguard with a special mission to ‘cleanse’ his fellow Muslims of what he saw as the remnants of their ‘pagan’ past. ‘Only five per cent of the Kashmiri Muslims are true Muslims. The rest are under the spell of Sufism, and many are still Hindu at heart. The Sufis only changed peoples’ names, but not their character in the proper Islamic direction,’ he spluttered.
The man’s amazing ignorance of Sufism and the role of Sufis in Kashmir was simply staggering, but I kept that point to myself. It was not that his bitter outpourings came as a total shock, for I already knew of his Wahhabi ideological fervour, and he had turned out to be exactly as I had expected. But what particularly intrigued me was how this ardent advocate of radical Islamist-style politics was also a covert Hindutva sympathizer, although in a rather convoluted way. That began to dawn on me when I asked him how, if he insisted that Muslim-majority Kashmir should be turned into an ‘Islamic state’, he could deny Hindus in Hindu-majority India to declare India a ‘Hindu state’?
‘They have all the right to do so,’ he shot back. I was aghast, but he went on nevertheless. ‘Any religion, even Hinduism, is better than secularism, which is irreligiousness and tantamount to disregarding religion altogether,’ he explained. ‘Therefore, a Hindu state is definitely better than a secular one.’ Interestingly, the same question had once been put to the man’s ideological mentor, Syed Maududi, who had answered in exactly the same fashion.
The man went on to qualify his statement. ‘Unlike Islam, all other religions are incomplete. They do not have a full system that extends to all the affairs of state. Hence, if Hindus try out Hindu Raj in India and they find that it does not work, we Muslims are there to supply them an ideology that does.’
Even more bizarre and frightening than this man—if this can at all be imagined—was a short, dark, pot-bellied, pink-robed self-styled Hindu sadhu I met while on the same trip to the Doda district. He had set himself up as the mahant or head of a temple in a small town. Like many other such heads of temples in Doda district, he was from a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh and an ardent advocate of the RSS. He had studied till the tenth grade and then, so he claimed, had gone off to a training centre for sadhus in Ayodhya, and then shifted to Doda a decade or so ago.
Our conversation revolved around the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations in Doda. ‘Hindus and Muslims can never be friends. They are polar opposites of each other and have nothing in common,’ he demurred. ‘Muslims’ he went on, spinning his own peculiar theory of communal genetics, ‘are demonic by nature.’ Hence, he claimed, ‘they can never live at peace with Hindus.’ That message he subtly passed on to the local Hindus who visited his temple. ‘I tell them that they should remain firmly wedded to their religion and have as little as possible to do with the Muslims.’ He looked at me to see if I approved, and must have been disappointed. ‘Hindus and Muslims can never live together,’ he went on, nevertheless. ‘Let all Muslims be packed off to Pakistan and India should declare itself a Hindu state,’ was his solution to what he believed were the irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims.
Just as the self-appointed Islamist mentioned above considered most Kashmiri Muslims, who remained associated with the Sufi tradition, as hardly Muslim at all, and, hence, in urgent need of his intervention, so, too, did this self-styled Hindu god-man believe that the Hindus of Doda were ‘half-Muslim’ and ‘improper Hindus’ and in desperate need of his guidance. ‘They eat meat and marry with their close relatives, like Muslims do,’ he spluttered in disgust. ‘They visit the shrine of Shah Fariduddin, a Muslim faqir, and they eat in Muslims’ homes.’ All that, he insisted, was completely ‘un-Hindu’.
Like the self-styled Islamist, this man believed that there was nothing good in any religion but his own. ‘Only the Hindu religion has produced sants and mahatmas,’ he claimed. ‘The few Muslims who achieved that status, like Kabir and Rahim, did so only after becoming Hindu. There’s nothing at all good in the Muslim religion. If a Muslim so much as touches me, I must take a bath immediately to purify myself. Even if Muslims do good deeds, their impurity remains and cannot be rubbed off,’ he thundered.
I interrupted to ask him if he had come to that conclusion after studying Islam. Somewhat reluctantly, he admitted that he had no knowledge about the Muslim faith, but then came up at once with an ingenuous excuse for his ignorance. ‘Our Hindu dharmashastras contain all the truths, so what is the need to look elsewhere?’
This man, who saw himself as the saviour of the Hindus of the region, was also an unabashed supporter of the caste system. Not surprisingly, for he was, as he put it, a ‘shuddh (pure) Brahmin’. ‘The caste system has been made by Brahma-ji himself’, he averred. ‘The dharmashastras say that a Brahmin is even superior to the gods. No matter how low a Brahmin may be in terms of character, he still remains worthy of worship. He is like a cow that may feed on garbage but should still be prayed to. A Shudra, no matter how pious and capable, must accept his servile status and willingly serve the upper castes. He is not worthy of respect. He is like a donkey which, even if bedecked with jewels, remains just a donkey and cannot be transformed into a stallion.’
I wanted to burst out! To throw up! To flee! I was appalled at this disgusting display of ignorance and bigotry, but I restrained myself, just as I had when I had met the self-styled Islamist, with whom this man seemed to have much in common. Inveterate foes of each other they may have posed themselves as, but, yet, at a very fundamental level they were united in their desperate need for each other to justify their own existence, speaking the same language of bigotry, and seeing the world through the same deadening and dehumanizing lens of hate.