The Pedagogy of Sectarianism

It didn’t shake a table when a Sikh posing as a ‘devout Muslim’ led prayers at the fateful Jamia Mosque in central Kashmir’s Sendbal village for two days. The divisive politics of sectarianism is now changing the religious landscape of Sendbal which will have larger ramifications in Kashmir known for its pluralistic tradition and religious tolerance. Sameer Yasir reports.

Locals in Sendbal carrying the coffin of Shabir for burial.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in May 1989, a tall, thin man in his early twenties, sporting a long beard appeared at Sendbal Jamia Mosque in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal. The mosque, which is situated on the banks of a small tributary, used to be a small tin shed standing on wooden pillars decorated by artwork which were showing signs of decay. The mysterious man led the prayers for two consecutive days without anyone asking him who he was. Donning a long Kurta Pajama, most villagers assumed that the bearded man was a saint, and even invited him to their homes.

After staying for two days in the village, the man started collecting rice and alms from people from every household of Sendbal. The generous people of Sendbal didn’t turn him away. It was a mere coincidence that a young boy saw the “saint” opening his long turban which revealed his unusually long hair. Within minutes, the ‘saint’ was caught and dragged out of the village. The man, who had lead prayers at the mosque, was, in fact, a Sikh. That was Sendbal devoid of any sectarian religious strife.

“It was a simple village without any grouping or ideological divide. People were most simple in their outlook towards life. But the last decade has changed the village. Modern education and different ways of preaching Islam has divided the village on sectarian lines,” says Ghulam Hassan Lone, a teacher in a neighbouring village.

Today, as the changing religious landscape of Kashmir is dividing the people on the basis of their affiliation with different thoughts of Islam, Sendbal holds a monolithic blot on its face for being the first village in Kashmir valley where a twenty-year-old boy, a first-year student of Arts at Degree College Ganderbal, was killed in violence that erupted between two groups on Aug 6. Many people were injured in the clash carrying the potential to further divide the conflict ridden valley.

Sendbal today is clearly a divided house, demarcated not only by the violence that erupted in the minds of its religious and social activists but also in the blurred lines, which have been drawn by their urge to uphold the religious pluralities of their varied understanding of Islamic thought. On Aug 6, when Shabir Ahmad Bhat, who was also a Jamaat-i-Islami activist, was preparing to go to the mosque, his father saw him leaving the house. He was a “bright boy,” as his teachers referred to him. The accumulation of both education and religious teachings had made Shabir an “example to follow” in his college and village.

Sandbal has nothing different and unusual from other villages of Kashmir. In fact, it is following, as one political analyst put it, “the path of others.” Its silent roads and bylanes present a stark reality of modern Kashmir where faith has come to symbolize traits of a new war. A clash which is fought in the minds of its followers. A trajectory which is not the only contemporary in the valley but also a curse for its residents.

The streets of Sendal present a bleak look these days. The policemen are now guarding the village and the fateful mosque which was locked down by the state administration last week. A senior police official says that they had an apprehension that the situation might take a wrong turn, “So we had to deploy the police in the entire area,” the official said.

People in Sendbal are closely monitored and their credentials are checked at various points. It is for the first time in Kashmir that the police had to remain deployed even after seven days of an incident to prevent further clashes between two groups of the same faith. But the atmosphere in the whole village is tense and there is an eerie silence broken only by the fast, roaring vehicles passing through the village.

On August 6 at around 1:45 pm, Ghulam Nabi Bhat was coming back from his work in his farm when he saw his son Shabir enter the house. He had comeback from college and was about to leave for the mosque. “He did his ablution in the house and left,” Bhat says. “I followed him. He went inside almost five minutes ahead of me. That was the time when they locked the door from inside and killed him. He (the Sarpanch who has been arrested along with others) slapped him first and they all pounced upon two people who were offering prayers other then the sarpanchs group. In the ensuing scuffle, Shabir was repeatedly clubbed with a mace by the supporters of Sarpanch.”

A local of Sendbal, Noor Muhammad had suffered injuries in the clash

It was sheer chance that the loudspeaker of the mosque was on and the locals heard screams emanating from it. Everyone rushed towards the mosque. Shabir’s father and other villagers broke open the gate and found an elderly man in his seventies, Noor Mohammad, lying on the floor; his head bleeding profusely with the blood drenching his head. Shabir was seen on the other side of the mosque. “We rushed him to the hospital but died on the way. I don’t know much about the religion but he was educated himself and wanted to learn more and educate others to bring change,” Bhat says.

As the body was bought back from the hospital, almost twenty thousand people gathered from the neighboring villages and attended Shabir’s funeral. Everyone who knew Shabir remembered him as a shy boy but a staunch believer in the faith, ‘a change agent’, as one of his friends called him. People were aghast and sought revenge for Shabir’s killing. Sensing trouble, the district administration swung into action and arrested the sarpach and his accomplices. More than fifteen people were taken into custody, the mosque was locked down and Sendbal changed, forever.

However, the tension was simmering since April between the Jamaat-i-Islami cadres and Hanifi sect who were supported by the village Sarpanch, Muhammad Subhan Wani, a National conference activist. Jamaat-i-Islami organization falls within the purview of Hanifi school of thought but the association of Sarpanch with a mainstream political party had polarized the opinion along sectarian lines. In fact, Jamaat and National Conference have a history of skirmishes which have sometimes turned violent in Kashmir. In Sendbal, the bone of contention was a seminary run by Farooq Ahmad Hajam, an MA in the Arabic language from a nearby village, who used lead the prayers at the same mosque for more than five years. Farooq had taught the Quran and Hadith to everyone who wanted to learn. Armed with scriptural knowledge, he had been successful in his teachings given the number of people who attended his seminary. Even the daughter of the present Imam who belongs to Hanafi sect was a student at his seminary. It was run from the second floor of the Jamia mosque, Sandbal.

The Hanafi sect was averse to the presence of Farooq at the mosque and he was often accused of disconnecting the loudspeaker of the mosque. Subsequently, the Sarpach, Subhan, removed the Imam and locked down the second floor of the mosque on April 2 where the seminary was run. Following the closure of Farooq’s seminary, there were clashes between two communities. “We asked the people why they had closed the seminary but they responded with violence. On top of that, they got a case registered against us in Kher Bhivani police station alleging that we had misbehaved with women from their area,” says Nisar Ahmad, who was a victim of the April clash.

In the complaint, Sarpach Muhammad Subhan had named seven people. Among them was Shabir, the deceased. Ironically the present imam of the mosque was the witness to the case against the seven people which became a reason for the Jamaat cadre not to offer prayers behind him. Shabir’s father says they continued offering prayers at the same mosque, “But it was after the Hanafi sect had finished their prayers,” he said.

It was a bizarre arrangement in a state like Kashmir which is known for its pluralistic tradition and religious tolerance, “There was something brewing up inside the two groups but we did not realize it until the Aug 6 incident happened,” says a resident of Sandbal. The Sarpanch Mohd Subhan Wani is lodged in jail now but he was allegedly very active in polarizing his cadre against the others.

But even before the clashes in April, there was more politics to the enmity between the two groups. The Sarpanch reportedly opposed anything that the Jamaatis proposed due to his association with National Conference. For this reason, not even a single vote had been cast in his favour by Jamaatis during the municipal elections. Most people had refrained from voting despite Sarpanch’s repeated appeals, angering him further.

Lying on a mattress at his home, Noor Mohammad who was also injured in the scuffle in which Shabir was killed says, “There were almost thirty people inside the mosque. We took the decision to offer prayers after they had finished because they abused the previous Imam and the present Imam lied to the police that we misbehaved with the women.”

“The person who wanted to change the village and its outlook towards Islam is no more. He was the most obedient among the children of a labourer father. What have they got by killing him?” he asks. “The efforts of the previous Imam had bought so much change that today there are fifteen people who can lead the prayers in the mosque.”

After the removal of Imam Farooq Ahmad, the seminary was run from the houses of Jamaat activists and not from a single house. “Since the numbers of students had increased, it was run in many houses. They held regular classes to educate and enlighten the poor villagers. Anyone from school going kids to college students would come to learn. Despite the odds, we never let the madrasa to suffer. But they never liked it,” a friend of deceased Shabir says.

The piousness and the knowledge accumulated at the seminary led the Jamaat cadres to question the prevailing social and religious practices in the village. The clarity brought by the newfound knowledge led them to question the ways in which religion was practiced by hundreds of villagers.

“That was the reason Shabir was killed and we became the main enemies of the Sarpanch and his goons,” says a Jamaat activist of Sendbal. In Srinagar, the Jamaat-e-Islami accused the ruling National Conference of opening old rivalries. While trying to paint the killing with a political color, angry Jamaat accused the NC of resorting to old tactics of persecution of Jamaat cadre.

In fact, this is not the first time that two groups have clashed with each other. “In 1979 there was an unprecedented attack against Jamaat workers in Ganderbal,” said a Jamaat spokesman Zahid Ali. “After days of rioting and attacks, NC workers zeroed in on Arwani village in Ganderbal and plundered the entire village.”

Ironically, the death of Shabir happened 24 hours after a joint resolution was passed on August 5 by the imams of the divergent school of thoughts to weed out the divisive sectarian politics from Kashmir. On the other hand, the gruesome killing of Shabir carries an all-together different meaning for Islamic scholars like Ajaz Ahmad Lone. “The more the knowledge about the true sense of Islam will be disseminated, the more will the people start questioning the traditional beliefs. That challenge to the traditional following in places like Sendbal will always create a divide and conflict among groups which follow different sects,” he says.

What happened in Sandbal on Aug 6 might be the traits of what the future holds for an already politically fragile society like Kashmir which used to be abode and melting point of ideas. Such trends might see a completely different thought of violent political Islam.

Was the divide created to submerse the other sect, or is there more to it than meets the eye? If religious scholars are to be believed, Kashmir might see worse violence soon. Because the propagation and preaching of Islam is not confined to individuals, it always has an external facet attached to it which plays an important role in its orientation. In fact, given the fragile nature of the Kashmiri society, every sect of Islam tries to become achieve hegemony. Decades ago, who would have thought that a village, which didn’t shake a table that a Sikh had led prayers at their mosque, will murder their own son to claim religious superiority?


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