Invoking Religion

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By: Khursheed Wani

In next two weeks, Mehbooba Mufti is completing her first year as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. During this period she has probably set a record of quoting controversies due to her statements and speeches in public forums. Unlike her late father Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, who spoke less and incoherent, always difficult for the reporters to paraphrase, Mehbooba attained a habit of talking at length even on the sensitive religious matters.

On March 23, a video of Mehbooba Mufti speaking to party workers went viral on social media. In the undated footage Mehbooba is telling her audience that her father was a Moomin (an exalted degree of being a Muslim) despite the fact that he was not offering daily prayers, except for a special prayer offered on the day of Eid festival. “He (Mufti Sayeed) was not offering namaz, except on the day of Eid, I won’t tell a lie, but he was a Moomin,” she said.

The statement evoked a barrage of reactions and people began discussing the private affairs of the late leader in public forums only to rebut his daughter’s misplaced assertion to canonize him.

Mehbooba Mufti has every right to remember her late father, illustrate his ‘dreams and vision’ and justify his line of politics. In fact, when she prolonged delay in stepping into her father’s shoes, citing mourning and absence of the proper frame of mind, there was no objection even from her bitterest of rivals like Omar Abdullah. But her likening late Mufti to a Moomin was taken by a large number of people with a pinch of salt and pun. They say that it is an attempt to appropriate religious terminology for political gains.

Interestingly, this ‘appropriation’ happened when the chief minister is campaigning for her brother Tasaduq Hussian in southern parts of Kashmir in a subdued atmosphere.

This is not the first time that religion (read Islam) and religious terminology has been appropriated by the political class in Kashmir to meet their political ends. Late Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah began his political career from the precincts of the most revered shrines. He recited verses of a chapter of Quran (surah Ar-Rahman) to capture the attention of people who in turn elevated him to the level of prophet-hood. When late Abdullah was dethroned and arrested in August 1953, his followers again exploited the religious sentiment of the people. The Plebiscite Front used rock-salt and green handkerchief to symbolize Kashmiri Muslims’ affinity with Pakistan, a subtext of their Muslim identity. In his years of obscurity, late Sheikh Abdullah also reaffirmed his grassroots level appeal by initiating construction of revered Hazratbal shrine where the holy relic of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is preserved. He would address the people in shrines; highlight their religious beliefs to promote his politics, which was, interestingly, secular and socialist. The politics of late Abdullah and his National Conference is replete with the anecdotes of brazen misuse of religion and appropriation of its symbols and assets.

Mehbooba’s ‘moomin’ comment, her references to the religious affiliation of her maternal grandfather (birds would stop flight when my grandfather used to deliver Friday sermons, she said in assembly last year) and recitation of the verses of Quran and their meaning—is an attempt to camouflage the wrongdoings of her government, especially what was done to quell the five-month public uprising triggered by the killing of Burhan Wani. The death of close to a hundred civilians, most of them teenagers, and maiming of thousands of others by bullets, pellets and custodial torture, is arguably the direct consequence of the alliance her late father chose to make with the right wing BJP.

The Peoples Democratic Party that Mehbooba heads owes its birth to the Congress. In 1999, after parting ways with the ‘secular’ Congress, late Mufti also subtly exploited the religious symbolism to make a niche in Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, his initial focus to build an alternative to the National Conference. Interestingly, he promoted Mehbooba Mufti for the job. Mehbooba began interactions with people in abayas of green shades, covered herself from head to toe and visited most of the shrines across the Valley. The party adopted green flag and reportedly managed to get pen and inkpot as its election symbol. The symbol had a deep connection with the Muslim identity as it was the symbol of Muslim United Front in the rigged 1987 elections, which arguably became a trigger for the subsequent armed struggle in Kashmir. I remember how Mehbooba would insist journalists to highlight the green flag and the qalam-dawat symbol whenever they wrote about the newly-floated party.

Those who have watched the rise of PDP closely would remember as to how the party exploited the Kashmiri people’s affinity with Pakistan. The party had officially announced to celebrate Mehbobba Mufti’s return from a conference in Islamabad but it was called off at the last minute due to the demise of her grandmother.

Mehbooba Mufti still thinks that references to religion and scriptures may help in image makeover of her own person and the party. What she does not understand is that the public perception about her party has undergone a massive change, first after the alliance with BJP and subsequently the situation that emerged in 2016. The references to religion by PDP leaders embitter people. It is better the Mehbooba, her party or the government focuses on ‘secular’ ways like governance and development rather than invoking sensitive religious maters.

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