Identity and Existence

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by Khursheed Wani

A common refrain in Kashmir is that even domestic feuds have their origins in the unresolved political issue of Kashmir! The more the settlement of Kashmir is delayed, the more discreet become the conflicts within the Kashmiri society. Interestingly, the conflicts take a back seat when there is a massive mobilization of people and momentarily it appears that the conflict is likely to be put in resolution mode.

Imam Hai leading Friday prayers at Jamia Masjid Srinagar in a file picture.

The major conflict within Kashmir society erupted during the despotic feudal rule before the partition when India and Pakistan were conceptualized for creation. The Muslims had an affinity towards Pakistan while the Hindu and Sikh minorities nursed a desire to join India. With the support of prominent Muslim leader Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah, a major portion of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to but not merged with the Union of India in 1947. Sheikh Abdullah renamed his party Muslim Conference as National Conference in 1939 pronouncing his inclination towards the Hindu majority India.

J&K’s accession created a new political psychology in the state. The Muslims remained a majority in the state but in the context of majority Hindu population in India, they were counted as minorities. On the contrary, the Hindus of the state (especially Pandits of Valley) though being in minority (1981 census records 1.29 lac Hindus in Valley) were simultaneously boasting to be part of the overall country’s majority. The simultaneous minority-majority identity was the basis of a conflict between Kashmir’s Hindus and Muslims deeply rooted in their respective religious identity.

The conflict was seldom violent but it showed up at every level in the society. Majority of Muslims identified themselves with pro-Pakistan sentiment while the Hindus celebrated the Union with India. Incidents like an uproar over the conversion of a Pandit lady Parveshwari to marry a Muslim man and low-level conflicts on cricket matches between India and Pakistan continued to bring the inherent conflict to fore until 1989 when Pandits chose to leave the Valley en masse. The eruption of armed insurgency in Kashmir brought the identities of the people and their existential predicaments to fore to influence their decisions to stay put (to resist) or leave. Pandits chose the latter and were encouraged by the state authorities at that time in the wake of acute threat perception.

The minuscule Sikh population of the Valley, interestingly, chose to remain neutral. Sikhs did not follow Pandits and stayed put in Valley in their own clusters from Tral to Baramulla. In the backdrop of Khalistan movement in Punjab that dominated in the 1980s, the Sikhs of the valley could not fully identify themselves with India. The incidents like Chattisinghpora (massacre of 35 men from Sikh community by unidentified gunmen) did trigger the identity issue with Sikh community but they did not leave the ground. However, over the past three decades, a lot of Sikh families have raised assets in Jammu and spend a sizeable time, especially in winters, there.

Muslims of the entire state, especially living in insurgency-hit Kashmir may be divided on many counts from cast, creed, location, sect to language but they have invariably shown unity to demonstrate their ‘collective existence’ and identity. Interestingly, the conscience on identity is now driven by knowledge and ground realities rather than being under the spell of a towering leader or a group of leaders.

Since 1931, safeguarding the identity and existence was entrusted to a leader and that was one of the main reasons for meagre public resistance to the arrival of Indian troops in Kashmir on October 26, 1947.  It took many years to the people and the leader himself to realize that the identity of the majority was unsafe despite the realities of accession being linked to the special status of the state guaranteed under the Indian Constitution. Ironically, the first major exhibit of the people on their existence and identity crisis post-1947 was over the deposition and subsequent arrest of Prime Minister Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah on August 9, 1953.

The historic public uprising against the theft of the holy relic of Prophet Muhammad PBUH from Hazratbal shrine during the winter of 1964 was essentially the people’s reaction to the threats to their religious identity. The incident is still shrouded in mystery but the fallout is obvious. The Muslims of the Valley collectively reacted to a situation, perpetuated a massive resistance movement until the relic was restored to its original place.

The politics of Kashmir changed for all times to come in 1989 after the outbreak of anti-India armed movement. It was shortly after the controversial 1987 assembly elections when people in large numbers had lent their support to Muslim United Front (MUF). The Front did not get the reins of the state. It is widely believed that the elections were rigged to keep the MUF out of power whose assertion was on the Muslim identity and existence.

The unprecedented support to public movement and armed insurgency in 1989 resulted in a complete breakdown of state authority and the intelligence network in Kashmir. It was only after a brutal anti-insurgency campaign that the state regained the modicum of authority. The state reaction was indiscriminate and it triggered a reinforced consciousness among the people on their existence and identity. The subsequent years are a testimony.

Among the three massive mass unrests in Kashmir in 2008, 2010 and 2016, I consider the 2008 revolt the most powerful, organized and deep-rooted into the consciousness of people. It was a statement that despite near-death of armed insurgency, the political assertiveness of the people has not been surrendered. It was a potent reaction to the assault on identity and existence as the state had formally given a large swathe of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, an autonomous body invariably headed by Hindu Governor of the state. The Muslims have been watching as to how the Amarnath shrine became the focus and the annual pilgrimage not only extended from a fortnight to two months but the arrival of pilgrims from mainland India increased exponentially.

During 2008, the state was divided on communal lines. An economic blockade was enforced on Kashmir Valley and Muslim majority parts of Jammu. This triggered an unprecedented reaction when a call to march towards Muzaffarabad was made by the separatist leaders. The march actually took place. Thousands of people started from Srinagar to ‘dismantle’ the hurdles and re-establish the linkages with the separated part of Kashmir. The march was foiled with the use of extreme force. One leader of the march Sheikh Abdul Aziz was killed during the campaign.

Pellet injured in the SMHS hospital during 2016 unrest. KL image: Bilal Bahadur

The common thread between 2008, 2010 and 2016 unrests is the overwhelming unity of the people. The above-the-surface chinks are visible in the society but when it comes to assertiveness on the issues of existence and identity, the people are by and large seen united. The voices of this unity are feeble but they definitely come from the remotest parts of the state like Kargil, Gurez, Tangdhar, Rajouri, Doda, Banihal and Poonch areas. The people living in these areas have the issues of existence and identity more complicated in the backdrop of their location and demography.

The unrest in Kashmir in 2016 and post-Burhan Wani scenario is an indicator that the questions of existence and identity have percolated deep into the psyche of people. The numbers of militants may be very low but their supporters are phenomenally in large numbers. The huge convergence of people at the encounter sites and funerals of militants is a function of this psyche.

There were serious efforts to isolate the “trouble”. First, it was told that it was limited to a few urban bases in Kashmir, then it spread to the countryside. It was told to be limited to Kashmir, then it appeared in Jammu. It was told to be a particular sect, and then all sects were involved. It was termed to be limited to plains, and then mountain people joined. Compartmentalizing the “conflict” escalated it in the literal sense.

This scenario reflects the need to initiate a political dialogue involving the stakeholders of Kashmir issue. The existence and identity issue must be the focal point of any dialogue process. The false discourses created on dividing and sub-dividing the society have no longevity and have not sustained on crucial occasions. The real solution would emerge from a genuine and sustained dialogue process. The more it is delayed, the more situations would be complicated to handle.

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