By Kanchan Gupta
July 8, 2012
Confront the Jamaat-e-Islami and say no to the dress code it wants to impose on women. Or else Kashmir will become India’s Swat Valley.
It has been a good summer for Jammu & Kashmir. The relative calm, call it tenuous peace if you wish, of the past year-and-a-half has held despite the best efforts of separatists funded by Pakistan to instigate violence and provoke a retaliatory crackdown by security forces. It would, however, be wrong to suggest, leave alone claim, that separatism and the terrorism it spawns relentlessly have been defeated. Such a deduction from the calm that prevails would not only be simplistic but also downright dangerous. The dragon’s teeth sown by Syed Ali Shah Geelani and his ilk over the past two decades have not been rendered infertile; they are merely lying dormant, waiting for the right season to germinate.
It’s just that many, if not most, Muslims of Kashmir Valley are loath to let Geelani and his thugs whose vocabulary is limited to hurling abuse at India and screaming “Azadi”, which is short-hand for “Pakistan Zindabad”, decide that the season is ripe now or any time soon. Last year’s winter, which dragged itself well into this year, was particularly harsh. It was made tolerable by the preceding summer’s brisk tourist trade. Not everybody is happy to survive on Pakistani charity, nor has the prosperity of those who do Islamabad’s bidding gone unnoticed.
Therefore, it’s only natural that Kashmiris who are dependent on tourism to keep body and soul together should have looked forward to a busy summer this year too. By all accounts business has been good and by the time winter sets in, more tourists are likely to have visited Kashmir Valley than last year. That would mean more honestly earned money in the pockets of Kashmiris — from hoteliers to houseboat owners to shawl merchants to everybody else down the tourism food chain. It would also mean greater reluctance to be persuaded by the separatists to take to the streets. All this, in turn, is bad news for Geelani and his cohorts. They would be rendered irrelevant — and hence become ineligible for Pakistani handouts —if there were no murderous mobs running riot over manufactured grievances. The peace dividend holds no attraction for them.
That would explain why desperate attempts are being made to disturb the calm that prevails. A freak summer fire at Dastgeer Sahib that damaged the famous wooden shrine was sought to be used by the separatists to inflame passions. Sadly for them and happily for the rest, the ploy did not work and only a handful came out to protest although nobody could figure out what exactly were they protesting against. Since then, the separatists have changed tracks and taken resort to the expedient means of scaring off tourists with the help of menacing statements. One such statement was issued this past week by the Jamaat-e-Islami whose spokesman, while demanding that tourists should comply with Shariah restrictions, sought a dress code for visitors to the Valley.
“Some tourists, mostly foreigners, are seen wandering in miniskirts and other objectionable dresses here openly, which is quite against the local ethos and culture and is not acceptable to the civil society at all,” the Jamaat spokesman said. The Jamaat’s declaration was immediately endorsed by Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq who wants us to “understand the fact that Kashmir is a society where values are most important”. Indeed, they are. Recall how acid was thrown at young Kashmiri women who defied a similar dress code and faces were blackened of women who refused to don the burqa. No such rectitude was prescribed for men, of course.
Frivolities apart, there’s something darkly and deeply sinister about the Jamaat’s attempt to impose a dress code on tourists. At one level, it is a move to enforce the writ of the Jamaatis, as they are disparagingly referred to; at another, it is meant to drive away tourists and thereby harm the interests of the local masses dependent on tourism. In other words, what is being sought is to titillate the imagination of the lowest common denominator of Kashmiri society, the rage boys of Islam who serve as the foot soldiers of the separatists, in the guise of protecting faith-based, culture-centric sensitivities. If a tourist, or a group of tourists, is set upon, the rest will leave post haste. The resultant economic loss and financial distress will serve the purpose behind this fatwa of sorts.
No less telling is the implicit worldview of the Jamaatis. The world they crave for is not splattered with colours and cultural diversity; it’s a joyless world where women are made to disappear beneath burqas and men are forced to live according to a ‘moral code’ that borders on barbaric depravity. For evidence, look at the grief that has been fetched upon the people in countries where Islamists of various shades rule the roast. They not only repudiate all that is liberating and uplifting but also destroy reminders of a different, more tolerant past, with gay abandon. In Timbuktu ancient tombs that were declared by UNESCO as world heritage have been razed to the ground in recent days. In Maldives Buddha statues preserved in the country’s only museum have been smashed. All this and more recalls the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.
It could be argued that the imposition of a dress code on tourists by Jamaatis is not comparable to Islamists running amok. But that would only serve to gloss over the fact that what is now being demanded in Kashmir Valley is the proverbial thin end of the wedge. If the Jamaatis were to succeed and have their way — notices have already been put up on houseboats and hotels asking tourists to “dress fairly” — then they would be emboldened to take the next step towards Islamisation of a land that belongs as much to Hindus as to Muslims. More worrisomely, aspiring Islamists elsewhere in the country would be encouraged to push ahead with their vile agenda. Since nobody seems to have the political will and courage to call their bluff and stand up to their bullying, it’s unlikely they will meet with much resistance.
In the absence of that resistance, time will come when Jamaatis — whatever their organisational loyalty and affiliation — will demand that women be barred from wearing “mini skirts and other objectionable dresses” anywhere in the country as it hurts Muslim sensitivities. This may sound absurd, but who would have thought Clifton women would one day have to be mindful of what they wear? A decade ago perhaps we could have said with some degree of certitude that we shall never go that way that India’s Muslims won’t take to the antediluvian ways of their coreligionists in our neighbourhood and beyond. Today we cannot say that though we can pretend to the contrary.
The Jamaat-e-Islami’s diktat should not be seen as something limited to Kashmir Valley, to be dealt with in a casual manner. The Jamaatis have floated a trial balloon. It should be rudely pricked before it floats any higher.
Kanchan Gupta is a senior journalist based in Delhi