Sufism On, Extremism Gone



Quite a few years back, it was politically fashionable to talk about “Kashmiriyat” – the simplistic assumption that Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir have coexisted peacefully for centuries (without any particular emphasis on the social and economic compulsions that forced such coexistence).

The government would issue radio and TV ads asking people to be nice towards their neighbours, because that constitutes “Kashmiriyat”. While “social rot” has, indeed, occurred in Kashmir due to the prolonged conflict, the solution does not lie in the imposition of a morally and politically loaded “Kashmiriyat” on a deeply alienated people, but in dignified conflict resolution and in their social and economic rehabilitation.

After vigorously pursuing the “Kashmiriyat” propaganda for a few years and realizing that, for many Muslims, the nation-state and ethnicity are both secondary to religion, a lot of “energy” is now being invested into the invention of a history of Sufism – a supposedly moderate brand of Islam (the lack of nuance is theirs, not mine). While it is okay to spread Sufism for the sake of it, doing so with the intention of turning Kashmiris into a docile race again (one might ask when Kashmiris had turned violent en masse in the first place) is an over-simplification of the entire problem of extremism, which, for many people, is synonymous with the Kashmir issue itself. Well, first of all the government needs to differentiate between political and religious extremism: its failure to do so in 1989 led to the worsening of the situation. Political extremism (including secular insurgency) found takers because the political space for genuine dissent had been crushed violently for about forty years. Religious extremism can be easily attributed to Pak-backed elements but it must be borne in mind that Pakistan had started backing infiltrators long before a popular insurgency helped such extremist militancy gain a wide support base here. Even Sheikh Abdullah had used religion as the mobilizing element in the 1930s because all other channels of dissent had been choked. For the rest of the discussion, I’ll use extremism to mean religious extremism unless specified otherwise.

Having said that, growing religious extremism is a reality in Kashmir today but it has followed a different trajectory than what the Sufi propagandists seem to suggest. Extremism in Kashmir did not arise because of any lack of Sufi orders- we still have plenty of them. In fact, even centuries after the spread of Islam in Kashmir, it was said that Kashmiri Muslims are “lax” in religious matters or “nominal” Muslims. Many of the recent puritanic Islamic trends can be attributed to the influence of schools such as the Deoband from mainland India (besides the direct influence of Saudi-style Islam). Deoband, however, is deeply committed to Indian values and culture which becomes amply clear from their recent Fatwa asking Muslim men to restrict the number of wives to just one, as it fits the Indian ethos better. Deoband has existed in India for a long time and has never had any secessionist tendencies. On the contrary, they have played an excellent role in encouraging Indian Muslims to claim and contribute to their motherland, India. Why, then, do religious hardliners in Kashmir set alarm bells ringing? Isn’t it because a genuine problem, an unresolved dispute exists rather than a lack of Sufi propaganda? Anyone, even an irreverent, can easily turn secessionist in Kashmir, thanks to India’s Kashmir policy.

The failure of education system in Kashmir and elsewhere in India has forced the Government of India to fund “madrassas”, which many liberals would describe as centres of indoctrination, so as to leverage their grassroots influence and outreach even in remote areas. Rather than spending on Sufi propaganda and madrassas the MHRD would do well to strengthen the state’s own educational system and focus on producing well-equipped, unbiased and free-thinking individuals.

Another problem with such Sufi propaganda is that it is based on the deeply flawed assumption that every Sufi is a modern, outgoing, liberal person (and probably that every Wahabi is a terrorist). Pakistani Muslims are deeply critical of Sufi Muslims in this part of Kashmir because of their faith in saints, stones and shrines. My American friend describes such “Sufi” practices as deeply ignorant and illiterate and “non shrine-going” puritanical Islam as more spiritual and modern! These conflicting views on Sufism do not even constitute a paradox- they result quite simply from lack of nuance. However, when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as Islam and something as volatile as Kashmir, you better be nuanced.

I have heard people making statements such as “In Kashmir and in Sufism, lies the hope for a peaceful world”. Such utopian assumptions are based on the flawed assumption that Sufis are modern, peace-loving, docile and other sects are probably more militant in nature. This, however, is not true. In Kashmir, people were never pitted against one another as Wahabis, Sufis, Ahmedis and Shias- all Kashmiris stood together against injustice, even Sikhs and a few Pandits stood them by. As part of a conspiracy to break this very unity, a few state sponsored elements are trying to create a rift where there exists none! Quite recently, the Carvaan-e-Islami, a movement of aetiqadis (shrine going Muslims), had to publicly distance itself from any government patronage and vowed their support to Kashmir’s freedom movement. Indian liberal Muslims, however, have failed to speak up for Kashmir because they fear that Kashmir is a problem of religious fanaticism. This over-simplification of Kashmir as a problem of extremism and the simplistic assumption that Sufism is the answer to the same is laughable, yet dangerous state policy.

Renovating Sufi shrines and funding Sufi propaganda with the intention of breaking the unity of Kashmiris and pitting people against one another will not solve the Kashmir issue- even though I’m not suggesting that anybody wants it solved. The government has no business trying to water down or enhance people’s faith; it will serve no purpose because people, even many Kashmiri Pandits, favoured independent status for Kashmir when there was little or no religious extremism. Religious extremism cannot be forced upon the people of Kashmir as such attempts have failed in the past. At the same time, various sects were never at war with one another, either politically or ideologically. By creating the stereotype of a “pro-India, peaceful, modern Sufi” the average shrine-going Kashmiri Muslim is now being pitted against all other Kashmiri Muslims. Is this the groundwork for another Fatwa declaring Sufis as non-Muslim?

(Shehla Rashid is a Kashmiri, a woman and a researcher/writer in that order. Contact:


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