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Kashmir: The Autumn of the Jihad? PDF Print
Written by Praveen Swami   
Tuesday, 19 February 2008 00:00

BELOW the ice carpet in the Kashmir Valley, the first stirrings of the political life that will blossom this summer have begun. Last week, Sheikh Mohammad Hassan, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Jamaat-e-Islami, the political formation that gave birth to the Hizb ul-Mujahideen, announced that his organisation would not participate in secessionist campaigns calling for a boycott of the Assembly elections scheduled for later this year.

Hassan’s language was startling. “Elections,” he said, “do not have any impact on the status of the Kashmir issue. If people cast their votes in the elections, it does not mean that they have given up their freedom struggle or accepted India’s domination of Jammu and Kashmir.” “I am at variance,” he said, “with leaders and organisations who over-emphasise the election boycott campaign.” Among these leaders is the Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, of whose hard line Tehrik-e-Hurriyat secessionist coalition the Jamaat is a part.

Coming just days after the Pakistan-based United Jihad Council announced that it would not kill election participants — 69 activists were shot dead in 1996, and 99 in 2002 — the Jamaat declaration has been little reported, and even less understood. It could, however, prove critical to political life in the State.

All this past year, the Jamaat has been seeking to return to its roots: organising rallies against moral corruption and Western cultural influences but studiously avoiding polemic on the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.

Ideologically affiliated to but institutionally distinct from its counterparts in India and Pakistan, the Jamaat was founded by Saaduddin Tarabali. A theologian and school science teacher who was among Islamist ideologue Maulana Abdul Ala Maududi’s associates, Saaduddin’s central concern was freeing Islam in Jammu and Kashmir of the syncretic folk practices he believed had corrupted the essence of the faith.

In a 1945 inaugural speech to the Jamaat cadre, Saaduddin railed against “the sad state of Islam in this land today.” “Our state is such that leave alone making an unbeliever a Muslim,” he said, “no true Muslim can be fully satisfied with us.” Only after this was achieved, in Saaduddin’s view, the party of Islam would be able to place before the world “a broad Islamic revolutionary programme.”

For decades, under Saaduddin’s watchful eye, the Jamaat participated in mainstream political life, endorsing candidates to the Jammu and Kashmir legislature who swore allegiance to India’s Constitution. Speaking for the emerging Muslim middle-class — the petty bourgeoisie, orchard owners and bureaucrats — the Jamaat insisted that Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir was contested, but stayed clear of violent movements intended to overthrow it. In the mid-1970s, though, that began to change, with fateful consequences.




Understanding the Jamaat-e-Islami’s hijacking by the jihadist agenda needs engagement with the political climate of the period. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wielded something resembling political omnipotence in Jammu and Kashmir during the period, a status acquired by the decisive military defeat of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war. “Her progress on the Dal Lake by boat was propelled by turbaned oarsmen,” historian Victoria Schofield has recorded of Indira Gandhi’s October 1975 visit to Srinagar, “in a manner reminiscent of the visits of Mughal emperors.”

Indira Gandhi’s visit followed the conclusion of a political deal with Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. In essence, Abdullah was anointed sole spokesman for the State, in return for unquestioning support both for the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Indian Union, and Congress’ rule in New Delhi.

Abdullah’s political enemies soon felt the lash. During the Emergency, his Hindu-communalist adversaries in Jammu and the Jamaat both faced proscription. This had Sheikh Abdullah’s enthusiastic support. In one speech, he had described the Islamist organisation’s schools as “the real source for spreading communal poison.”

In March 1977, though, Indira Gandhi withdrew the Emergency and called general elections. She was defeated. Now wearing the halo of political martyrdom, the Jamaat sought to capitalise on the new situation. It allied itself with the Janata Party both at the national level, and in Jammu and Kashmir, where elections were held that year.

Incendiary communalism was used to take on the Jamaat. A vote for the party, it was claimed, was a vote for the Jana Sangh whose “hands were still red with the blood of Muslims.” Mirza Afzal Beg, Abdullah’s key deputy, would often unpackage a green handkerchief with Pakistani rock salt — as opposed to Indian sea salt — contained in it, signalling support for that country. National Conference cadre administered oaths on the Koran to potential voters, while clerics were imported from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to campaign in Muslim-majority areas of Jammu.

It paid off: the National Conference won 47 out of 75 seats in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, a decisive majority. Moreover, it secured over 46 per cent of the popular vote. By contrast, the Jamaat-e-Islami could secure just 1 of the 19 seats it contested, and received only 3.59 per cent of the State-wide vote.

But Abdullah’s victory came at a price: the party had opened the gates for the large-scale use of religion in mass politics, a weapon that others would also learn to use. Slowly, the Jamaat began its transfiguration into a platform for the nascent jihad. The vehicle for this transformation was its student wing, the Islami Jamaat-e-Tulba. Formed in 1977, the IJT was to develop transnational linkages with neoconservative Islamist groups and, in much the same manner and much the same time as the Students Islamic Movement of India elsewhere.

At the outset, the IJT reached out to Saudi Arabia-based neoconservative patronage networks for help. In 1979, the IJT was granted membership of the World Organisation of Muslim Youth, a Saudi-funded body which financed many Islamist groups that later turned to terrorism. The next year, the IJT organised a conference in Srinagar, which was attended by dignitaries from across West Asia including the Imam of the mosques of Mecca and Medina, Abdullah bin-Sabil.

By the end of the decade, the IJT had formally committed itself to an armed struggle against the Indian state. Its president, Sheikh Tajamul Husain, told journalists in Srinagar that Kashmiris did not consider themselves Indian and forces stationed there were an “army of occupation.” Husain also called for the establishment of an Islamic state, through the medium of a revolution. A year later, in 1981, Husain reiterated his call to followers to “throw out” the Indian “occupation.”

If the IJT’s defiance of the established Jamaat doctrine was not punished, it was with good reason. Where traditional Jamaat politics had failed to help the party expand outside its petty bourgeois and orchard-owning bases, as demonstrated in the 1977 election results, the new discourse of the IJT offered the prospect of emerging as the principal voice of anti-India sentiment in Jammu and Kashmir. It was bait ambitious Jamaat leaders couldn’t turn down.

Nevertheless, many Jamaat leaders looked with alarm at the rise of the jihad in 1989. Still a member of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, Geelani participated in an August 19, 1989 meeting called by Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to consider responses to the growing violence. “I was the only participant who suggested resolving issues through dialogue,” he admitted at a press conference last year —a startling position for a politician now counted as the political voice of the Lashkar-e-Taiba to have taken.

Clearly, Geelani still felt solutions could be found within existing political structures. The IJT radicals, however, did not feel so — and they, not the Jamaat patriarchs, would shape events for the next decade.

But in time, the wheel turned. By the mid-1990s, much of the Jamaat rank-and-file had wearied of the jihad. In 1997, G.M. Bhat, the then-Amir of the Jamaat, came out of jail, gave an interview calling for an end to “gun culture,” and set about distancing the organisation from the Hizb. Geelani was incensed but the tide was against him.

Bhat continued to strengthen the moderates, slowly sidelining Geelani. In the build-up to the 2002 Assembly elections, Geelani found himself dependent on Islamists outside the Jamaat, like Nayeem Khan’s Kashmir Front and Shakeel Bakshi’s Islamic Students’ League. In May 2003, Jamaat moderates led by Bhat’s successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Geelani as their political representative. Then, in January 2004, the Jamaat’s Majlis-e-Shoora, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to “democratic and constitutional struggle”— a language that startled many.

Hardliners — of whom Geelani is but the most visible — have long critiqued this political about-turn. Writing in 2006, the Islamist commentator Sheikh Showkat Husain argued against the Jamaat’s disengagement from the Kashmir jihad, insisting that the “fate of Islamic movements cannot be divorced from fate of Muslim ummah [community of believers] and its various segments, be they in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya or Kashmir.” “If Jamaat and other Islamic movements keep aloof from these issues and the state of affairs of the ummah,” he wrote, “they will do it at their own expense. It will lead them nowhere except to marginalisation.”

Believing the jihad has reached a dead-end, the Jamaat has evidently decided to take the chance. Its success or failure will be a critical element in shaping the political future of Jammu and Kashmir.

Last Updated on Friday, 17 September 2010 18:14


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