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    South Asia
     Jul 8, 2008

Islamism shakes Kashmir
By Sreeram Chaulia

After two decades of calm in large-scale popular movements, Indian-administered Kashmir recently witnessed mass demonstrations and protests against the state government's decision to transfer forest land to facilitate a Hindu pilgrimage.

The decision of the Jammu and Kashmir authorities to grant 40 hectares of uninhabited jungle tract to the Amarnath Shrine Board triggered a furor in the Kashmir Valley and brought life to a standstill for nearly two weeks, a throwback to the 1988-1989 insurrection against Indian rule. So forceful was the clamor that the state government had to eventually rescind the transfer order.

The anti-land transfer agitation fed on important new trends in Jammu and Kashmir. Firstly, the state has been enjoying a rare respite from terrorist violence initiated by Pakistan-sponsored jihadi outfits like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad. The internal political turmoil in Pakistan, pitting a military presidency against a democratically elected parliament, and the challenge posed to Pakistan's security by the US war on the Taliban, left the jihadis in Kashmir confused and rudderless.

The capability of terrorists to attack Indian military personnel and pro-India civilians in Kashmir was intact, but the power struggle in Islamabad created uncertainty about whether or not the jihadis could rely on Pakistan's undying support to wrest Kashmir from India.

The anti-land transfer movement can be seen as filling the "liberation" space that had sunk into a vacuum due to the gradual rusting of the jihadi guns. The alienation of ordinary Muslim Kashmiris from the Indian government did not subside with the decline of terrorist violence by "freedom fighters". It was waiting for an opportune symbolic issue to explode, and the Amarnath land transfer issue emerged as the perfect cause.

It is worth recalling that symbolism playing on the religious fears of Kashmiri Muslims has a history of inciting unrest. In 1963, the disappearance of a strand of hair believed to belong to the head of the Prophet Mohammad kicked off a major storm in the Kashmir Valley. Likewise, the razing of the shrine of Kashmir's patron saint in 1995 by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen stirred a massive commotion among Kashmiri Muslims suspicious of the shenanigans of "Hindu India".

A second way of analyzing the upsurge in Jammu and Kashmir is to run it through the prism of democratic politics in the state. The decision to grant the land to the Hindu shrine was made by the Congress party-run state government in the run-up to provincial elections scheduled for October. Since the territory of Jammu & Kashmir includes Hindu-majority, Buddhist-majority and Muslim-majority areas, the land transfer decision could have been aimed at winning Hindu votes from the Jammu area for the Congress.

The vehement reaction to the transfer by the People's Democratic Party and the National Conference was, in turn, geared towards beefing up their own electoral prospects among the valley's Muslims. These parties are, in theory, wedded to the Indian constitution and its democratic processes, but they have to show their "pro-Islam" credentials to be electorally relevant in the Kashmir Valley. The land transfer issue was ripe for exploitation by these political opportunists who benefit from perks and privileges as people's representatives within the Indian polity but commiserate with jihadi secessionists.

The irony of the anti-land transfer movement is that its very raison d'etre is spurious. The forest land was clearly given to the Amarnath temple for erecting temporary shelters and conveniences for Hindu pilgrims who flock annually to the Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva. It was in no way a violation of the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir, which blocks citizens of the rest of India from acquiring property in the state. The makeshift structures planned by the Amarnath temple staff on the transferred land were meant purely for the pilgrimage season.

That a temporary land transfer for a Hindu pilgrimage could be painted by separatist politicians as a devious plot of the Indian government to alter the demography of Kashmir shows how communalized Islam has become in the valley. This is the third and most potent explanation for the movement that rocked Jammu and Kashmir. While alienation of Muslims amid a lull in terrorist violence and machinations of democratic politics partially account for the crisis, neither of these could galvanize the public without the wholesale Islamization of Kashmir, a land ironically mythologized as a cradle of eclectic Sufism. The same drivers of Taliban-style enforcement of strict moral codes on Kashmiris, especially women, are at the forefront in the anti-land transfer movement.

So mainstreamed is the influence of intolerant Islamist ideology in Kashmir that there is barely a squeal of anguish regarding restoration of properties of nearly half-a-million Kashmiri Hindus ("Pandits"), who were hounded out of the valley by terrorists in 1988-1989. The restitution of Hindu properties that were destroyed and taken over is a genuine grievance for which Islamists show no sympathy. Islamists have also never condemned terrorist attacks that, over the years, have killed dozens of Hindu pilgrims whose simple ambition in life was to pay their respects to a supernatural phenomenon in Amarnath.

While the reality on the ground is that the demography of the Kashmir Valley has been forcibly redrawn through the killing of Hindus, the mass movement that erupted in June was based on fictitious claims of the land transfer being a diabolical conspiracy for Hindus to deluge the valley. There is little evidence to prove that India's Kashmir policy mimics Chinese internal colonization solutions that have changed the population profile of Tibet in favor of Han Chinese. While the Tibetan upheavals this year against Chinese high-handedness had a legitimate basis, the anti-land transfer ruckus in Kashmir rests on concocted charges.

The most perverse sign of bigoted Islamism running the roost in the Kashmir Valley is a report that shrines are being built to glorify jihadi groups as a retort to the Amarnath temple imbroglio. The first-ever shrine to the Lashkar-e-Toiba has just been inaugurated in a village near the town of Ganderbal in memory of two Pakistani holy warriors who died fighting the Indian army. According to The Hindu, local businesspersons who erected this monument declared, "Here was India conspiring to seize our land and hand it over to infidels [Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath temple], and here were these two foreigners who had given their lives to save Islam in Kashmir."

The agenda of "saving Islam" from alleged threats is growing stronger in Jammu and Kashmir, even though its Muslims enjoy constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. Terrorist violence in Kashmir may wax and wane and state-level elections may come and go every five years, but the seeds of Islamist hatred continue to sprout and augur ill for peace. The liberation of Kashmir from jihadi mentality remains an uphill task.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, New York.

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