Shrine Politics

By Javid Ahmad Ahanger

Kashmir, baptized as a fortunate landscape with enormous natural beauty, is a paradise on earth. Because of its multilayered diversity of indigenous identities and local ethos, this land of noble souls for centuries created a unique type of social fabric in Kashmir. This land turned sacred because of the noble deeds and social activism of its spiritual leaders who individually and at a transcendent level tried to make it into a more than a mundane territory for human beings. Hence, a peer waer (abode of mystics)! The shrines visible almost in every nook and cranny of the valley are reminiscent of those high deeds and imperishable values that went into its making.

A November,1949 photograph showing the Friday congregation at Hazratbal.

Shrines have played its role from the very beginning and, in fact, continue to do so. Although Kashmir witnessed many ups and downs in last hundred years of its history, shrines continue to remain a significant reminder of our collective endeavour to affirm our faith in a set of values that seem axiomatic every passing day.

The institutionalization of shrines in Jammu and Kashmir remains one of the primary concerns of the rulers of the state. The battle to monopolize and institutionalize these shrines appeared from last century. Chitralhkha Zutshi one of the leading authorities on history of modern Kashmir, states that shrines provides legitimacy to the rulers and their agents who gained influence over management. The unfortunate part of this story starts when politicians or clergy control and dominate the public sentiments. They assume the role of God’s hangmen instead of his servants. If one despot and tyrant dies another with a new name and renewed ferocity takes his place, and the process goes on. The fact is that shrine politics have given the legitimacy to names like Sher-i-Kashmir among Muslims and [Rajaji, Pandit Ji among Hindus.

Post 1953 Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah.

Shrines in Jammu and Kashmir were used as political institutions in pre-1947 phase as well as in post-1947. Not only Muslims used to do politics to grab power and used their ideology on people but Hindus did the same by using various religious festivals and shrines to keep their ideological narratives alive. Shrines, as Zutshi claimed, are the institutions that allowed rulers to assume the position of the divine figures and became as holy saints. Even those people who do not support the shrine culture in Jammu and Kashmir use these shrines to score brownie points on a political front.

Vaishno Devi Shrine Katra

In order to justify their political motives, the elites especially the politician from both the communities i.e., Muslim and Non-Muslim used these shrines to defend and promote their own narratives in the state. These shrines which have a very deep sentimental attachment with the masses were successfully used to make political gains from both the sides. The hate speeches against one another during the religious festivals created by and large disequilibrium in the society.

The Sufi and Reshi shrines were once lauded as the epitomes of peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence. But with the passage of time and changing dynamics of state politics they have been used as tools to reignite religious bigotry and hatred by the politicians and parties with mere political ends.

The disputed politics of the state played its role in shaping functions of these shrines. The central as well state governments always find it easy to espouse a narrative of Sufism in order to establish corrupt politicians and clergy for their selfish interests. The struggle for justice and freedom was and is still being projected as an alien demand and is liked with the radicalization of this political movement. However, when same rulers who practiced Machiavellian political methods perceive a threat to their autocratic rule, they start to endorse the Sufi and Reshi culture of the state. It is an irony that those who used these shrines on communal lines to grab land, territory, and power etc. are now giving lectures and sermons of peace, love, affection, and tolerance.

Jamia Masjid Srinagar (KL Image: Bilal Bhadur)

Although there are boards who govern these shrines e.g. Shrine Board for Hindus and Muslim Wakf Board for Muslims. But after observing on technical as well as on practical grounds these boards are nothing but only the Institutions who use public money to their personal use without any checks and balances from their lords who nominated them to their respective defacto positions. Unfortunately, Shrine Board elites do politics to grab more power and money. In fact, the grim story is that these bodies always looted and plundered the wealth, although some stories like- to serve the pilgrimage tourists and those who make an investment in establishing educational Institute like Mata Vishnu Dive University- are pleasant exceptions. The corrupt and incapable elitism in Muslim Waqf Board failed to create any such institution in Kashmir even though its revenues run in cores.

The Sufi and Reshi shrines were once lauded as the epitomes of peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence. But with the passage of time and changing dynamics of state politics they have been used as tools to reignite religious bigotry and hatred by the politicians and parties with mere political ends. In common parlance these Sufis and their shrines represent non-political and inherently peaceful Islam that shaped our cultural ethos (Kashmiriyat). Ironically, however, these shrines are used by the brutal regimes to further their ulterior ambitions and to seek legitimacy for the status quo. It makes me recall neo Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony, where the civil society which he calls structure of legitimization play a formidable role in manufacturing the consent which Marx call False consciousness. The closeness between the civil societies which also includes the religious places with the Superstructure largely determines the thinking of the masses and that too have bearing upon the public opinion. These shrines and the politics behind have suppressed the common people of Kashmir with consent and created a state of hegemony, where no one challenges their authority be it legitimate or illegitimate. Need is to depoliticize shrines.

(Javid Ahmad Ahangar is Doctoral Fellow Department of Political Science Aligarh Muslim University. Ideas expressed are author’s own)



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