Kashmir’s unheard majority navigating identity, Islamism

When analysts, commentators, and Kashmir experts write that abrogating Article 370 and converting J&K into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh was fraught and that statehood should be restored, native Kashmiris like me wonder what is next.

| Updated: 22 December, 2023 4:32 pm IST

Recently noted author and Indian journalist David Devdas who has written extensively on Kashmir penned a column emphasising that both measures – doing away with the state, and creating two union territories—were fraught. The lived experience of us Kashmiris is something no analyst, expert, surveyor, author or reporter can capture unless he or she has ties to the land, or blood relations and has gone through the drudgery and misery of living in a war zone, caught between the might of the Indian state and the desperate jihadi tactics of Islamists as well as their overground supporters. At best a compassionate and empathetic approach can be tried and yet that wouldn’t come close to being born, brought up, growing amidst the rhythms of life and seasons of the Valley, marrying, bringing up kids, and dying amidst the ethos of a tribal culture that was insulated from the rest of the world for centuries.

Yes, travelers have come to the Valley, from the ancient Silk Road, even soldiers, and merchants, from Central Asia bringing trade, ideas, crafts, religion, and mingling with the DNA. Western Great Game spies, adventurers, explorers, cartographers, British officers, and Resident Commissioners have visited and settled in Kashmir. Documenting, observing, collecting data, administering, or governing the Valley is very different from having to suffer the local racism, communalism, hospitality, generosity, prejudice, bias, or brotherhood/sisterhood from one’s compatriots. A traveler will always be received generously and showered with great hospitality; Kashmir is famous for it. V. S. Naipaul did spend a good time in the famous houseboats of the Dal Lake while writing and researching for his ‘Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples’ book.

But once the people come to know you are of Kashmiri stock, despite one’s dusky complexion, Indian features, mainland mannerisms, and the multi-lingual colloquialism one may have picked up over the decades, the judgment starts. It’s not just judgment but a full trial court among the relatives and the mohalla who are judge, jury, and many times executioner too. The verdict is often takfiri-ism – labeled not Muslim enough, and hence ‘wajib ul qatl’ (justified for murder). Once it is established you have parents of Muslim heritage, the lens of Islam is applied, and ticking the check boxes starts. Failing to meet the criteria results in more than ostracism or ‘othering’.

In the heady years of the ‘Azadi tehreek’ it meant outright persecution. The space for rationality, reasoning, humanism, free-thinking, and Indic identification shrunk so much, that secular, rational, peace-loving, nationalist Kashmiris of Muslim heritage saw themselves marginalised, without incentives for holding up the tricolour, bulldozed by academicians and religious scholars intellectualising terror and barbarism. The hapless silent majority’s only options were to elect mutism, go into self-imposed exile, and migrate to the mainland, uprooted from their land and becoming ideological refugees in their own country.

The forced exodus of secular, rational Muslims was very different from the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits. The terror pogrom against Kashmir’s minority community started with targeted high and low-profile assassinations, hit lists, extortions, kidnappings, and executions which continued for decades. In contrast, the shrinking of rational space for Kashmiri Muslims is still in place, three decades later, even after the abrogation of Article 370 and a lessening of the Pakistan-sponsored Islamic Jihad. The Islamised Kashmir media in Press Enclave, Srinagar is still making u-turns regarding the ‘Azadi tehreek’ rightfully termed as the ‘unfinished business of Partition’.

So when analysts, commentators, and Kashmir experts write that abrogating Article 370 and converting J&K into two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh was fraught and that statehood should be restored, native Kashmiris like me wonder what is next. The ambiguity of identity, affiliation, citizenship, and ethnicity that Muslims the world over suffer from is not unique to Kashmiri Muslims. The concept of ummah in Islam doesn’t allow Muslims globally to uphold the land or nation foremost than religion or faith. Hence, there is always a sufficiently imagined Pakistanis in a lot of Muslim minds, insufficiently rationalised and drawn out in reality.

Abrogating the ‘special status’, accepting the Instrument of Accession as final, and finally allowing a chance for the region’s linguistic and ethnic groups a chance to integrate with a common progressive vision should have been hailed by the same ‘experts’ and ‘Kashmir Whisperers’ in the corridors of power. That they are going all out to bring back the enablers of the ecosystem which sustained the ‘Intifada factory’ and abroad-based conflict entrepreneurs (ABCEs) takes me back to Gandhi’s zeal for rallying behind the Ali brothers for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate (the Khilafat movement).

Elite Muslim families be it from Kashmir or Uttar Pradesh (former United Provinces, the birthplace of the idea of Pakistan) have always fooled the ‘useful idiots’ from Hindu or Anglo heritage, especially the Left-leaning. Their Islamism cloaked as inclusivity, progressive movements, Urdu poetry, nostalgia for Mughal rule and the ever-present supremacy of Islam makes them chameleon-like, with U-turns about former stances, dealing with the powers-to-be (even if it is the Hindutva-leaning BJP) and biding time, watching the changing geopolitics of West Asia.

As victims of this Islamism, which we native Jammuites, Kashmiris, and Ladakhis – all Pandits, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Dogras, Valmikis, North-west Frontier Province refugees, Baltis, Sina, and agnostics, etc. are quite familiar with, the restoration of statehood or elections too soon is alarming for us. It means the old wheeling-dealing, outreach, and “Dulat Doctrine” orchestrated by the Muslim League 2.0, and the ‘useful idiots’ are back. This is even before electoral politics has tested the new faces of the Kashmiri youth and the old deadwood of NC, PDP, etc are gone.

David Devdas’ stupendous research on Kashmir is appreciated as is his compiling those questionnaires from the scores of Kashmiri youth that went into the making of his book, ‘The Rage of a Generation’. They gave excellent insights into the psyche and minds of the youth of Kashmiri after the “year of beginnings and endings” as Devdas terms 2007.

Dear David, I too have been compiling testimonies, stories, questionnaires, anecdotes, and data from the unheard silent majority of the Muslim world, mainly Kashmir Valley, mainland India, and high and low-profile Muslim heritage voices from around the world. The silent majority may seem like a minority considering, the ‘rage’, and the loud screeches of the Islamist azadistas are heard more. But they do exist, they have lived experiences, and nobody reaches out to them to hear their side of the story or document the travesties that Sharia laws and the lack of freethinking space in Muslim culture have done to them.

But they are a vote bank and hopefully, the powers to be will listen to their ‘silence’ or elected mutism and not take your advice for restoration of statehood or elections yet.

Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based columnist and writer who focuses on Indian Muslim issues

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