Leading Kashmiri activist and politician Mohammed Ashraf Khan, more widely known as Sehrai, died this month while in prison. For decades, Sehrai fought for merging what is called Jammu and Kashmir, currently a part of India, with Pakistan.
Sehrai spent most of his life fighting for Kashmiri separatism. He was a member of Jama’at Islami (founded by Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi) a political party dedicated to societal reform based on Islamic doctrine. Sehrai was also head of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which is a conglomerate of 26 political parties and social groups who oppose India’s claim to Kashmir, calling for a referendum on the status of Kashmir, and supporting assimilation with Pakistan.
Prison was familiar to Sehrai, having first been taken by the Indian authorities in 1965. This was during a wave of arrests following the Hazratbal relic theft and the subsequent protests against India by Kashmiris.
Sehrai and Life in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir
The circumstances surrounding Sehrai’s death give a sense of the type of oppression Kashmiris are facing from the Indian government. Sehrai was arrested a year ago, just after offering Salat al-Janazah for his son, who fought for the group Hizbul Mujahideen and was killed in a gunfight in Srinagar in May 2019.
Under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act of 1978, which was how and why Sehrai was held, authorities can arrest anyone over the age of 16 and hold them without trial for two years.
The Public Safety Act also allows authorities to use lethal force on gatherings in the name of law and order. It has come under scrutiny not only for what it expressly allows, but for the fact that the Indian government admits that application of the law is also subject to their personal opinions and preferences.
As of last August, it was reported that India had jailed so many people in Kashmir that they were running out of space in prisons. Such conditions perhaps provide some clues as to why Sehrai told his family that he was not receiving proper medical care (he was suffering from a number of illnesses at the time). His son has said the cause of death was COVID, which can easily spread in crowded prisons and is deadly for older, already medically compromised people like Sehrai.
May Allah grant him mercy and peace.
The BJP’s Anti-Muslim Kashmiri Policies
The overcrowded prisons are no surprise. As with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the Indian government has no problem treating Kashmiris as second-class citizens.
This is particularly the case with the fascist-like rule of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Baharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In October 2019, by presidential declaration, Modi abrogated Articles 370 and 35A (present since 1954 ) of the Indian Constitution, which allowed Kashmir special status and administrative rights, like the ability to draft their own constitution and keep outsiders from purchasing property. Questions remain as to the legality of Modi’s actions.
Removing these articles altogether had been a campaign promise of Modi’s, one written about in his party’s 2019 manifesto:
Interesting that BJP is so concerned about discrimination toward non-permanent residents and women. Concern appears to be applied on a case-by-case basis.
It’s pretty clear why a Hindu nationalist party would want to prevent a Muslim-majority population from maintaining governance of their region. It’s the same reason why they stripped Muslims of their citizenship in the same year they abrogated Article 370. They don’t need Muslims tainting their Hindu state, nor do they want Muslims’ faith informing their politics—precisely what parties like Jama’at Islami have tried to put front and center. And why wouldn’t they? Unlike Hinduism, Islam provides believers with a clear ‘aqidah and system for their lives and society. Islam is also clear about neither accepting oppression nor oppressing others. A caste system essentially allows for this.
Hindu First Approach: The Erasure of Muslims in India
Modi and the BJP have sought to rewrite history to fit a “Hindu first” narrative, working to demonstrate to the population that all Indians descended from Hindus—that this is their common ancestry. The Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS, est. 1925), a strong and key supporter of Modi (who is a member of it) and the BJP, have spearheaded this effort.
RSS has actually been pushing such a Hindutva—Hindu nationalist— agenda since its founding, and while their power has ebbed and flowed throughout the decades, declining in the 1950 until 1964 (it’s likely not a coincidence that that was when Nehru was prime minister). With the BJP now in power and RSS-member Modi at its helm, Hindutva has easily become part of government policy.
As described in a Reuter’s report on the policy:
When Reuters asked Modi for a comment related to this report, he did not respond.
The BJP is happy to contradict this ‘historical’ stance when it suits them. An example is their accusation in in 2019 that an opposing candidate, Rahul Gandhi, had Muslim ancestry. Wasn’t their point that everyone was a Hindu first?
To add insult to injury, the Indian government appears not to even know what, exactly, being Hindu means. From a 1966 ruling (case number 1966 SCR (3) 242) of the Indian Supreme Court, it was written in the ruling:
“Unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim an[y] one prophet; it does no[t] worship any one God; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.”
Not much has changed in regards to the government’s inability to define Hinduism.
While the 1966 ruling took an approach to say that the lack of a clear definition of Hindu allows for more tolerance for faiths to live together because there is no strict Hindu dogma, we see now that the opposite is also true. The BJP and RSS can implement their fascist policies under the confused cloud that is their understanding of Hinduism.
The potential for intolerance and ethnic inequity in Hinduism seems to stem from Hinduism itself. This is in large part because, as the 1966 ruling points out, there is little clarity as to what Hinduism actually is. When describing conversions of Muslims to Hinduism, academics Sikand and Katju write that unlike conversion to Islam, in which converts are immediately accepted as Muslims once they embrace the (clear) Islamic creed,
“Hinduism…lacks a set of fundamental tenets binding upon all its followers…Hence, ‘conversion’ to Hinduism occurred as the result of a long process involving not the acceptance of any particular religious doctrine but, rather, the imbibing of Brahminical cultural norms legitimizing the caste system.”
Sikand and Katju also describe that converting Muslims was oftentimes less about convincing them of Hinduism and more about a “strong anti-Muslim passion” held by the Hindus working to convert them. This was evidenced by requiring that converts agree to abandon certain Islamic practices (e.g. marriage, burial) but not teaching them about Hindu notions of spirituality.
This divisive strategy is explained well in an article in Foreign Policy:
“This religious polarization follows a simple logic. Hindus make up 80 percent of India’s electorate, and if they can be persuaded to set aside their multiple other identities—caste, class, region, food, language—and vote as Hindus alone, then a party can stay in power for as long as it likes.”
It is important to keep in mind the BJP’s prejudiced motivations and inconsistent, hypocritical policies when thinking of their actions in Kashmir. Along with more obvious tactical reasons for wanting a region with lakes, tourism, and agriculture, the current government (and Modi more generally) has been clear about how they view non-Hindu lives.
What is remarkable about the BJP’s strategy is that it is not new. During British colonial rule, in the early twentieth century specifically, the British began to allow a moderate level of self-governance amongst the population. They allotted this proportionally, that is based on the number of people in each respective cultural/religious group. For upper caste Hindus who were numerically a minority (making up 6 percent of the population at that time), this posed an opportunity:
“In order to corner the benefits of the British-instituted reforms, this minority group felt it imperative to enhance the Hindu numerical strength. The only way it could do so was by incorporating into the Hindu fold the untouchables [Dalits], the aboriginals and other non-Hindu groups. The conversion of these non-Hindus, therefore, clearly represented a political strategy to employ the power of an artificially constructed ‘Hindu majority community’ to bolster the fortunes of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu minority.”
They also note an early twentieth century missionary strategy of the “revivalist neo-Hindu” group Arya Samaj (est. 1875 by the Gujarati brahmin Dayananda Saraswati). The strategy should now sound familiar:
“…a crucial component of the Arya Samaj missionary strategy was first to construct an artificial history of these groups as being descendants of ‘upper’ caste Hindu kshatriya warriors who were forcibly converted to Islam.”
We can thus understand the BJP’s policies and embracing of Hinduism as the unifier of Indians as part of a legacy of Hindu nationalism that has worked to marginalize non-Hindus in India. This is relevant when discussing the situation of Muslims in Kashmir because it provides further evidence as to why the government has chosen, now, to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A.How we got here
It’s important to recall that British colonialism has a lot to do with the problems in Kashmir today. Of course, the caste system that Hinduism allows and the current government’s embracing of Hindu nationalism is also a great part of the problem. But the effects of British colonialism, with its maharajas and efforts to take as much as possible from the lands and people with little regard to them, can be felt in the many parts of Kashmir and the Subcontinent until present day.
After British seized the Sikh Empire (which included Kashmir) in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1466), they needed to find a way to pay for the costly war and handle the large territory they had just acquired. They sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, a Dogra Hindu who had not spoken against the British during the war, for 7.5 million rupees. He became the maharaja of Kashmir. This arrangement allowed for substantial British control, as mahrajas still had to answer to the British. What this arrangement also did, is allow for the further marginalizing of the, “if not outright exclusion, of the elementary rights of the people of Kashmir.” The population even during that time was majority Muslim.
Around the time of Partition, the maharaja of Kashmir at that time, Hari Singh, was unsure of which state—Pakistan or India—Kashmir should go and was considering trying to become an independent state. Pressure mounted from all sides, including Pakistan and India. Having a Muslim majority, Pakistan had this claim for wanting Kashmir. From October to November 1947, Muslims were massacred by some local Kashmiri Hindus and Sikhs. They were aided in part by the maharaja and the RSS—the same RSS of which Modi is a member. Violence at this time was not simply on one side—there was, for example, also a massacre of Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjabi district of Rawalpindi in March 1947.
This is the chaos, service in large part of the British Raj, upon which the various part of present-day Kashmir rests.
Kashmir in Crisis
“India needs Kahmir’s land. They do not need its people”
–Kashmiri Muslim living in Jammu and Kashmir union territory
Following the news of the abrogation of Article 370 back in 2019, thousands of Kashmiris were arrested on “vague charges” and the Indian government pulled an old trick and ordered an internet shutdown that saw Kashmir’s already vulnerable economy come crashing down. It was apparently the world’s longest internet blackout.
Now in Jammu and Kashmir, non-locals can buy property in municipal areas. Furthermore, with government permission, they can purchase agricultural land and use it for industry rather than agriculture (explained here). That is significant and telling for this reason: the nearby Hindu-majority regions of Uttarakhand and Kimachal Pradash, non-locals cannot by agricultural land.
The real estate industry was happy for this change, hoping that projects would be undertaken “with the picturesque Kashmir Valley emerging as a favoured second-home destination.”
The concerns of Kashmiri Muslims seem to be far from many Indians’ minds. Not only have Kashmiris’ special rights been taken away from them, but the government now has more power over that land of Kashmir and its people.
The somewhat ambiguous and arbitrary new rules about land transfers demonstrate that:
“…the rules state that agricultural land can be transferred with the government’s approval. According to the rules, no sale, gift, exchange, or mortgage of any land will be valid in favour of a person who is not an agriculturist, unless the government or an officer authorised by it in this behalf may grant permission for the same.
“This means that once permission is granted, an agriculturist can sell, gift or mortgage his land to a non-agriculturist, provided nothing bars the lease of that land under the provisions of any law.”
Cycles of Violence, Endless Impunity, and Economic Despair
As is the case in Palestine, the conflict in Kashmir is ongoing, with fights between the authorities and the population, and between the authorities and militant groups, take place on a near daily basis. Civilians are often caught in the crossfire. This is the true tragedy of Kashmir. Civilians have also been the target of some of the militant separatist groups, as was the case in 2006, during the Srinagar bombings.
There have also been cases of civilians being used as human shields by the Indian army:
Reports vary, but as an example, in the first half of 2020, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society reports that there were 229 killings—32 civilians, 143 militants, and 54 armed forces personnel.
Children have also borne the brunt of the conflict in Kashmir:
In 2019 by the Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group Jaish-e-Mohammad, killed 40 paramilitary police officers in a bombing in Kashmir.
It is reported that secret talks took place between Pakistan and India back in January of this year in Dubai. While the Indian and Pakistani governments are declining to comment, a Pakistani defense analyst told Reuters that she thinks that was not the only meeting between the two governments, surmising that they have likely also met in Thailand and London. Little but this is known about the meetings.
While New Dehli’s concern about militancy is unsurprising, just as the clashes between them and the groups are expected—indeed that is the goal of the groups—what is more surprising and concerning is the Indian response, particularly under the BJP (although there is a history of harshness predating their current hold on power).
Three main areas of concern typically arise when governments respond to militancy: how, why, and to what extent they react. For example, after 9/11, the US legitimized torture practices like waterboarding on captives, some of whom were not held on any particular charge. As discussed previously, the War on Terror more generally has been the US’s raison d’être—their cause and way to legitimize intervention in, for example, resource-rich Africa and oil-rich Iraq.
When we recall the Hindutva ideology upon which the BJP stands and the strategic and economic reasons for wanting the land of Kashmir, then we can understand that the Indian government will have no qualms with doing virtually whatever is deemed necessary to maintain governance and ownership over the land.
Furthermore, for as much as the government says that they must maintain control and protect India from terrorists, the torture being used predates the rise in militancy in late 1980s/early 1990s:
“The use of torture in Kashmir can be traced back to a longer history of authoritarian state practices and the repression of political struggle opposing Indian control in the region, and this precedes the onset of armed insurgency in the late 1980s. Apart from the humiliating practices of collective ill-treatment, more ‘orthodox’ torture techniques such as blind-folding, beatings, stress positions, burning with clothing iron and stuffing hot potatoes into the mouth were routinely used as a mode of ‘interrogation’ and coercing ‘confessions’ about anti-India, ‘Pro-Pakistan’ and other anti-establishment political activities, as well as punishing political dissent from the earliest days of the Emergency Administration in Kashmir since 1947.”
Consider this case of torture in 2018:
Page 18 of report
And this one in 1992:
We can read descriptions of torture and be rightly horrified. But it’s more than horrific. Aside from the physical and emotional trauma done to the individual, such practices in Kashmir have left many young Kashmiri men unable to build productive lives. As documented, many young men are struggling to find a way out of this cycle of police brutality:
“In the absence of any law criminalizing torture and the absolute impunity that the Indian armed forces enjoy in Kashmir, torture continues unabated. Since currently the main targets of torture are the young boys labelled as ‘stone pelters,’ many of them see their future prospects as bleak. They are often caught in a whirlpool of illegal or arbitrary detentions, torture and continuous harassments, which makes some of them lose all hope.”
Again, this is not new. As in Palestine, stones have become a weapon of resistance. In Kashmir, this is also the case particularly in 2008, when ‘stone pelters’ were part of the mass uprisings against Indian governance over Kashmir.
It’s clear to Kashmiri Muslims that for as much India lays claim to the territory and wants it to be economically prosperous but not to the benefit of Kashmiris themselves. As noted by a journalist for The Hindu:
“It is not hard to see where the frustration of the educated Kashmiri youth comes from. On the one hand, they are told that they are Indian citizens but they are shut out of the narrative of India as an emerging economic power.”
Additionally, despite the Indian government’s claims that abrogating Articles 370 and 35A will help the Kashmiri economy, the evidence suggests the opposite. According to an August 2020 Deutsche Welle article, the president of Kashmir’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Sheikh Ashiq, estimated that Kashmir had lost over $5.3 billion in the past year. There are of course a number of factors at play when considering these numbers, not only the loss of Kashmir’s special administrative status and internet cuts, but also the pandemic.
“We have reached a point where we are completely broken” -Sheikh Ashiq
Kashmiri Pandits: The Kashmiri Hindus
While both India, Pakistan, and China to some degree nowadays, like to claim the land as theirs, it’s worth considering this point:
“Some armed groups in Kashmir demand accession to Pakistan; others advocate complete independence for the territory. India has cracked down on both militancy and civilian protests, which ignited with the July 2016 killing of Burhan Wani, the popular commander of the militant group Hizbul Mujahideen, by Indian security forces.”
This is a fair summary over general sentiment amongst the Muslims of Kashmir; while some may not be for a merger with Pakistan and have grown increasingly frustrated over their situation caught between the two states, there are few to none who call for remaining with India. The possible exception to that rule are the Kashmiri Pandits, who are Hindu.
Prior to 1989, relations between Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits was amicable. This, however, changed after the insurgency began in 1989. Sanjay Tickoo, a Kashmiri Pandit who still lives in Kashmir explained:
“I am not saying that [Kashmiri Pandits and Muslims] were brothers in arms, living in each other’s homes or something before 1989. Yes, there was an unmistakable tolerance and respect for each other … violence was unheard of … but it would be a lie to say something did not change when the trouble started.”
From the late 1980s until present day, Pandit numbers in Jammu and Kashmir have declined from 140,000 to somewhere between 3,400 and 2,700 (2011 estimate; most recent available). Many left out of fear. There have also been incidences of violence against them, including four massacres from 2001 to 2011. Tickoo says of the violence against Pandits:
“Over the past 20 years, we estimate that 650 Pandits were killed in the valley,” Tickoo says, adding: “The figures of 3,000 to 4,000 killings [as suggested by some Pandit organizations] is propaganda, which we reject. Not that 650 is a low number, because even one killing should be not ignored, but we must get the numbers right.”
He also distinguishes between the narrative propagated by Pandits outside of Kashmir and those inside. The group Panun Kashmir (Our Own Kashmir), for example, says 700,000 left. According to lecturer in Indian Studies at Trinity College, Dublin, Mridu Rai, however, this number is misleading because it actually represents “a much larger collection of Pandits who had departed [from Kashmir] at different times throughout the centuries.”
It is important to be aware of the Pandit’s situation because it is often brought up as a way to almost delegitimize the Muslims’ plight. Without excusing killing civilians, it is important to understand that the plight of the Pandits is also, according to some Pandits themselves, misrepresented. Acknowledging this is different than not taking what happened seriously.
As Muslims, we can sympathize with what happened to the Pandits in part because of what happened to Muslims at the time of Partition:
“In the wake of the partition of the subcontinent In august 1947, bloody riots broke out all over northern India in which thousands lost their lives. In several areas, Hindus forced Muslims to choose between fleeing to Pakistan, being slaughtered or else agreeing to convert to Hinduism. Under duress scores of Muslims are said to have chosen the third option”
Motilal Bhat, president of Pandit Hindu Welfare Society, made an important insight to Al-Jazeera:
“There was a strange perception at the time [late 1980s/early 1990s] which saw the KPs [Kashmiri Pandits] thinking that no matter what they would be protected by the Indian army, while the KMs [Kashmiri Muslims] thought that if anything happened to them, the entire Muslim world would come to their rescue. As we have now seen, both were shown to be wrong.”
As with Palestine, this is an ongoing conflict that is costing many lives to be lost. Unlike Palestine, though, it does not often get the same level of attention. Please do not forget the plight of our brothers and sisters in Kashmir.
- Here is a bit more history on Jama’t Islami (or Jama’at-e-Islami). Its history is significant in part because the group called for an adherence to traditional Islamic doctrine as a means for liberation, moving away from the Sufi practices that were present in the region and were seen by the Indian government as a means to maintain dominance over Kashmiris: “The Jama’at-e-Islami was founded in the early 1940s by an Islamic theologian and philosopher Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, who believed that Islam serves as a code of life to govern all aspects of the individual and collective existence of Muslims. The Jama’at, as envisioned by Maududi, seeks to establish an Islamic state governed by the law of God, and argue against a political order founded on democracy and secularism. After Partition, Maududi settled in Pakistan and the Jama’at split into two—the Jama’at-e-Islami Pakistan and the Jama’at-e-Islami Hind. In 1952, a distinct branch was officially set up in Kashmir, separated from the Indian branch, known as the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir.“In Kashmir, the Jama’at’s ideology challenged the prevailing Sufi traditions in the valley, which were credited with enabling an atmosphere of coexistence of different religions, by asserting political Islam. The Sufi traditions continue to be often represented by the Indian state through a narrative of Kashmiriyat—a supposed confluence of Sufi and Shaivite Hindu practices. This narrative was also frequently invoked to deny political Islam—represented in Kashmir primarily by the Jama’at—any space or participation in public life.“Several Kashmiri academics, such as Hameeda Nayeem, have argued that the Indian government used the narrative of Kashmiriyat to depoliticise the Sufi identity and subsume the Kashmiri nationalist movement within its own version of secularism. Central to the projection of this narrative was the National Conference, one of Kashmir’s oldest political parties, and its leader, Sheikh Abdullah. It is against this backdrop that the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir gained ground in Kashmir. Understanding the role that it has played in the valley requires revisiting the region’s complex political history.”Ali, Basharat. Keeping the Faith: How the Jama’at-e-Islami chronicles the failure of mainstream politics in Kashmir. April 6, 2019: https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/how-jamaat-e-islami-chronicles-failure-mainstream-politics-kashmir. ↑
- See Section 5 (“Are there any legal challenges being considered by India’s courts?”) of this article ↑
- Sikand, Yoginder & Katju, Majari. “Mass Conversions to Hinduism among Indian Muslims.” Economic and Political Weekly. 29(34): August 20, 1994. 2214-2219, p. 221. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4401654?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3Aa635164dcbe83081886cc33b6c012a8a&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents ↑
- Here was what is written in the 1966 court case: “Naturally it was realised by [the] Hindu religion from the verybeginning of its career that truth was many-sided and different views contained different aspects of truth which no one could fully express. This knowledge inevitably bred a spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view.” ↑
- Sikand & Majari 1994, p. 2214. ↑
- Ibid. p. 2215. ↑
- Ibid. p. 2215. ↑
- Ibid., p. 2215 ↑
- Information on the war here: Rai, Mridu. Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004Smith, David. The First Anglo-Sikh War 1845-46: The Betrayal of the Khalsa. London: Bloomsbury Press, 2019. https://www.google.de/books/edition/The_First_Anglo_Sikh_War_1845_46/fBB-DwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1 ↑
- P.182. https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/366712/1/Ilyas%2520PhD-E-Thesis.pdf ↑
- https://jkccs.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TORTURE-Indian-State%E2%80%99s-Instrument-of-Control-in-Indian-administered-Jammu-and-Kashmir.pdf p.14 ↑
- https://jkccs.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/TORTURE-Indian-State%E2%80%99s-Instrument-of-Control-in-Indian-administered-Jammu-and-Kashmir.pdf, p.17 ↑
- Sikand & Majari 1994, 2217. ↑