Tuesday, 30 June 2015

DEFINING A SYNCRETIC, INDIAN CULTURAL IDENTITY FOR KASHMIR IS NOT UN-ISLAMIC





The famous social scientist Benedict Anderson once described nations as “imagined communities”, for, at the end of the day, we are all humans, and nationalism is a sense of identity that has been created. However, given that administering countries also takes the form of provincial demarcations, which itself becomes a cause of vociferous debate (take Telangana, for instance) and there are centralization-decentralization debates, it is impossible to practically imagine a world without borders. Hence, nation-states, being the inevitable reality that they are, are compelled to define their identity, and this is not to suggest that nationalism is necessarily at loggerheads with humanism, just like having special affection for one’s near relatives doesn’t make one inhuman.



In our subcontinent, Pakistan was created based on the notion that Muslims are a different nation from the Hindus, having a totally distinct and separate culture, and though Jinnah may not have had any theocratic aspirations, he was well aware of the fact that many of those supporting his Pakistan “tehreek” did, and the outcome was eventually a theocratic constitution. In the process of defining its “separateness” from “Hindu” India, Pakistan felt compelled to carve out its own uniquely Muslim identity, which meant a proximity to the Arab world. Thus, Pakistani history textbooks celebrate the invasion of Sindh by an Arab, Mohammed bin Qasim. Many Pakistanis even wish to be seen as Arabs, as a Pakistani classmate of mine in an LSE course once told me! Especially after the separation of East Pakistan in 1971, Pakistanis tried to divorce their history from Hindu and to an extent, even Persian influences (‘Khuda Hafiz’ came to be increasingly replaced by ‘Allah Hafiz’ and Pakistani Shias’ loyalty to Pakistan is doubted, with suspicion of them identifying more with Iran than Pakistan), and Arabize themselves, which has even meant geopolitical proximity to Saudi Arabia, which as per a Wikileaks cable, boasted of being a participant, not just an observer, in Pakistan. Such has been Saudi Arabia’s cultural and political control over Pakistan that the latter found it difficult to refuse help to the former for an imperialist war in Yemen (which has faced Saudi aerial bombings, indeed not very different from the Israeli aerial bombings in Gaza).



Moreover, the conception of a theocracy meant that the clergy could define who was a true Muslim and who was not, and so, that led to sectarian tensions among Muslims, and those with the Taliban brand of the sharia have now raised their head in Pakistan too, with their version of Islam, and in spite of all the emphasis on Islam, the Bengalis of East Pakistan apart, the Sindhis and Mohajirs, both Muslims, are still up in arms against each other, owing to linguistic differences in Karachi. The non-Muslim minorities are also quite often subjected to an automatic ‘otherization’ when Pakistan is defined as a country for Muslims.



Now, what does all this mean for Kashmir? Kashmiri Muslims certainly have their just grievances against the Indian state, when it comes to the human rights violations by security personnel, most of which have gone unpunished (though hundreds of soldiers have been convicted, perhaps the latest example being the Machil fake encounter verdict, and while not in the least undermining the pain of the victims, legal protective covers are given to soldiers in militarized conflict zones across the globe, failing which soldiers may fear shooting down genuine militants for fear of facing murder charges in court subsequently, and there can be many false complaints to hamper their working). However, the genuine issue of criminal justice has been conflated with a secessionist ideology, which had violently manifested itself before the all-pervasive military presence in the valley. While the alleged rigging of elections by the Indian state served as a trigger, the militancy clearly had theofascist undertones imported from across the border, which in turn had come from Saudi Arabia (by the way, the Arab world itself had a very different approach during the Golden Age of Islam, with ‘heretic’ intellectuals having complete freedom to articulate their views) and became more popular with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The attacks on radio stations and cinema halls in the valley were clear manifestations of that mindset, and this fanatical, xenophobic outlook is still being echoed by the likes of Asiya Andrabi, who doesn’t want the cinema halls to come up again in the valley. Yes, there have been excesses and other human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian security forces (and while two wrongs don’t make something right, Pakistan-supporters would do well to note that even as per Pakistani official records, the Pakistani defence forces don’t have an exemplary human rights record in Balochistan or the erstwhile East Pakistan), but many of the gun-trotting ‘freedom fighters’ in Kashmir have fared no better with their own people, shooting them down on mere suspicion of being “mukhbirs” (even old, bed-ridden people like cleric Maulana Masoodi and poet Abdul Sattar Ranjoor were not spared) and running extortion rackets. Human rights violations by soldiers cannot alone justify secessionist aspirations, given that those aspirations preceded the same, nor can the rigging of elections forever remain a valid reason if that’s stopped. 



Also, as for the legitimacy of India’s claim over Kashmir, the hurdle in the plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir came not from India, which had already promised the Kashmiris a plebiscite, but Pakistan, which, in violation of the 1948 UN resolution, refused to withdraw its troops from the part of the erstwhile princely state it had occupied in the 1947-48 war following the Pashtun tribal raid, which, as per the resolution, was a precursor to the plebiscite. (And while I know that some would start citing Christopher Snedden’s book, the facts cited in that book do not match its conclusions, something I have written about previously.) Nehru had, in fact, gone on record even later to say that he was willing to follow the UN resolution (i.e. conduct the plebiscite) in the whole of the erstwhile princely state if Pakistan complied with the precondition of withdrawing its troops, as you can see in this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7wn0ZRhyq0&feature=share (please watch 1:58 onwards). Now, it must be mentioned that many Kashmiri separatists who haven’t read the UN resolution and just know that it calls for a plebiscite often invoke the UN resolution, but when made to realize that the resolution is not exactly what they claim it to be, their entire stance changes to ridiculing international law itself being irrelevant and a conspiracy of Western powers, a stance diametrically opposite to the one they took before learning of what the resolution entailed! 



However, if they support self-determination as an absolute right, which is to say that any part of any country should be unilaterally allowed to secede at will, would they support any household declaring itself as a separate country and not paying taxes, desiring to have diplomatic relations with their country, or any district of the hypothetical independent Jammu and Kashmir they envisage to secede at will? Pray, quite the contrary, their leaders do not wish to give Jammu and Ladakh that right in the independent country they envisage! And speaking of Pakistanis and even pro-Pakistan Kashmiris, given the secessionist voices in Sindh (and no, it is no use ascribing them to outsiders in a baseless fashion, the way some chauvinistic Indian nationalists try to portray all Kashmiri separatists as a fringe minority of Kashmiri Muslims, on ISI payrolls, citing the very many Kashmiri Muslims willing to join the Indian security forces and civil services) and the secessionist or pro-Afghanistan voices in Khyber Pakhtoonwa, are they willing to conduct plebiscites in these provinces?



Thus, the issue of Kashmiri separatism has had to base itself on apparently stronger foundations, and those foundations are of either supporting the “idea of Pakistan” (which was historically supported by the beneficiaries of the un-Islamic zamindari system, rejected by Hazrat Umar bin Khattab, which still persists in Pakistan but is abolished in India) as against the “idea of India”, with Muslim-majority Kashmir fitting in with the former, or an entire conception of a Kashmiri culture divorced from South Asia, linking the same with Central Asia, and both these try to write off Kashmir’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage (though Kashmir’s heritage even after the advent of Islam includes Urdu, a South Asian language, certainly not Central Asian, though Urdu should not be allowed to extinguish the Kashmiri language!), but Kashmir shares the same foundations of Vedic culture with much internal and external dialectics as the rest of India does. I know that some reading this would jump at the idea of defining Indian cultural nationalism based on Vedic culture, which they would hold as not being inclusive of the religious minorities and responsible for caste discrimination and patriarchy. Their critiques of the Hindu scriptures may or may not be valid depending on the context and every such matter is debatable, as is with texts of other religions. I am not personally averse to such debates and I, for one, am not suggesting ‘culture’ as a clearly defined entity to be frozen in a static mould, but rather, an evolutionary entity open to internal and external dialectics, as also layering of external influences that can enrich the same, which is why I believe in a composite conception of Indian culture, of which Vedic culture is a base, not a puritan narrative of culture antagonistic to other influences, refusing to accept that scientific or artistic creativity can exist in other civilizations (of course it did, and does!), though at the same time, the achievements of ancient India in diverse spheres such as economics, polity, mathematics, astronomy, metallurgy and literature, must be acknowledged. Furthermore, I may point out that as per my understanding and that of many others, what we know as Hinduism is open to such dialectics, holding the truth to be like a mountain that can be viewed from different sides by different people, even in the context of the most fundamental theological debates like the existence of God, as the beautiful Nasadia hymn from the Rigveda demonstrates. On the issue of caste too, there is much that is contentious vis-à-vis the actual position of the Hindu scriptures. 



Islam, rather than being a personal faith of submission to Allah to make peace with oneself and others, is now being largely seen as a basis of sociopolitical identity (the Muslim ummah) and a basis for an exclusionary legal system (the Islamic sharia). That leads to an attempt at redefining one’s history and culture. Is it possible to be a good Muslim and support pluralistic, secular democracy, especially in a country with another majority religion, simultaneously? Is it possible to be a good Muslim and celebrate one’s pre-Islamic heritage (as many Iranian, Egyptian, Indonesian and even Indian Muslims do) that one doesn’t have in common with Muslims in other parts of the world? The Kashmir issue fundamentally does have a lot to do with these questions, which is why it has ideologically sustained itself in good measure for much longer than the secessionist movements in Assam and Punjab, where there were also excesses by both the rebels as also the security forces (as is almost inevitably the case with armed uprisings globally), but the ideological underpinnings there were not so complicated.



As I see it, with the rise of the Boko Haram and the ISIS, Muslims across the globe are in a situation more than ever before to reinterpret their faith. In this regard, I have made my own study of Islamic theology, and have my ideas to offer. While I don’t subscribe to organized religion myself, I do think of religion to be a historical vehicle of ideas in many different spheres, and I do understand a rationale behind believing in some supernatural force governing the natural order and one that we can possibly reach out to. While some may indeed ask what business do I, a non-Muslim, have in interpreting the Islamic texts, my counter-question would be - how do Muslims expect others to embrace or at least not misunderstand their faith otherwise?



First, coming to the sharia, it is not one of the five pillars of Islam that defines being a truly practising Muslim, and given that there is absolutely no consensus on what the sharia entails or how it is to be applied today in a world with modern technology, among Muslims themselves, and trying to impose any version of it has led to the bloodshed we are witnessing in Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is an idea that is not imperative, and there are interpretations of Islam that match a modern conception of human rights laid out in the UDHR. Rather than the state imposing what is supposedly Islamic, why not let the decision of who is a true believer be left solely to Allah?



The global pan-Muslim (Muslim “ummah”) line of thinking is also anachronistic, and I can prove my case on this point, even employing Islamic theology as a valid touchstone, and even the idea of having to delink oneself from one’s non-Islamic heritage is not Islamic. Those time and again talking of a Muslim ummah or global pan-Muslim fraternity cite the following verse of the Quran-



“The believers are to live as nothing else but brothers.” (49:10)



However, during Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, Islam was largely confined to the Arab world and Muslims were under threat, since Islam had emerged as a challenge to the existing social order; thus, in that context, the emphasis on a religion-based fraternity meant something else (even Buddhism, which was a challenge to the existing order, emphasized the ‘sangh’, and even Christianity talks of a community of believers). However, with the passage of time, and especially now with the rise of nation-states (accommodating people of multiple religions) with a defined sovereignty that ought to be respected on one hand and global human rights activism (there were people of diverse faiths and nationalities, including people of Israeli origin, aboard the Gaza Flotilla) on the other, the concept hardly remains relevant in the same form, but this mindset leads to a US attack in Iraq for oil to be seen as an attack on Islam (though people have complete freedom to embrace Islam as their faith in the United States), but US interventions in Christian-majority Congo and Nicaragua or even Buddhist-majority Vietnam are overlooked, and the political fault-lines among Muslims (such as between Pakistan and Afghanistan), are just conveniently ignored. In fact, the fundamental message in the Quran is one of humanism. Verse 49:13, which comes after verse 49:10 (and later verses in the same chapter are believed to supersede earlier ones), illustrates this spirit and is stated hereunder-



“O mankind, indeed we have created you from one pair of male and female and made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” 



The above verse, while emphasizing human unity, also acknowledges nature’s law of diversity that makes the world beautiful, explaining the multiplicity of nations and tribes (without any religious connotation). This verse makes it clear that embracing Islam should not come in the way of being loyal to your nation, which may comprise a non-Muslim majority or minority, nor does following Islam imply a need to delink yourself from the non-Islamic cultural aspects of your nation. Moreover, the term ‘ummah’ appears in the Quran only twice and has been used to refer to nations, without any religious connotation, and it was also used in the constitution of Medina drafted by Prophet Muhammad to connote a nation where Muslims and non-Muslims coexisted harmoniously. Prophet Muhammad united the warring Arab tribes to live together peacefully, and his philosophy wasn’t one of separatism.



In this connection, I’d like to quote some excerpts from Tariq Ramadan’s book ‘The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad’-



“Abdullah ibn Judan, the chief of the Taym tribe and a member of one of the two great alliances of Meccan tribes (known as the People of the Perfume), decided to invite to his home all those who wanted to put an end to the conflicts and establish a pact of honor and justice that would bind the tribes beyond alliances based merely on tribal, political, or commercial interests.



Chiefs and members of numerous tribes this pledged that it was their collective duty to intervene in conflicts and side with the oppressed against the oppressors, whoever they might be and whatever alliances might link them to other tribes. This alliance, known as hilf al-fudul (the Pact of the Virtuous), was special in that it placed respect for the principles of justice and support of the oppressed above all other considerations of kinship or power. Young Muhammad, like Abu Bakr, who was to become his lifelong friend, took part in that historic meeting.



Long after Revelation has begun, Muhammad was to remember the terms of that pact and say: ‘I was present in Abdullah ibn Judan’s house when a pact was concluded, so excellent that I would not exchange my part in it even for a herd of red camels; and if now, in Islam, I was asked to take part in it, I would be glad to accept.’ Not only did the Prophet stress the excellence of the terms of the pact as opposed to the perverted tribal alliances prevailing at the time, but he added that even as the bearer of the message of Islam - even as a Muslim - he still accepted its substance and would not hesitate to participate again. That statement is of particular significance for Muslims, and at least three major teachings can be derived from it. We have seen that the Prophet had been advised to make good use of his past, but here the reflection goes even further: Muhammad acknowledges a pact that was established before the beginning of Revelation and which pledges to defend justice imperatively and to oppose the oppression of those who were destitute and powerless. This implies acknowledging that the act of laying out those principles is prior to and transcends belonging to Islam, because in fact Islam and its message came to confirm the substance of a treaty that human conscience had already independently formulated. Here, the Prophet clearly acknowledges the validity of a principle of justice and defense of the oppressed stipulated in a pact of the pre-Islamic era.”



“From the very start, the Prophet did not conceive the content of his message as the expression of pure otherness versus what the Arabs or the other societies of his time were producing. Islam does not establish a closed universe of reference but rather relies on a set of universal principles that can coincide with the fundamentals and values of other beliefs and religious traditions (those produced by a polytheistic society such as that of Mecca at the time). Islam is a message of justice that entails resisting oppression and protecting the dignity of the oppressed and the poor, and Muslims must recognize the moral value of a law or contract stipulating the requirement, whoever its authors and whatever the society, Muslim or not. Far from building an allegiance to Islam in which recognition and loyalty are exclusive to the community of faith, the Prophet strove to develop the believer’s conscience through adherence to principles transcending closed allegiances in the name of a primary loyalty to universal principles themselves. The last message brings nothing new to the affirmation of the principles of human dignity, justice, and equality: it merely recalls and confirms them. As regards moral values, the same intuition is present when the Prophet speaks of the qualities of individuals before and in Islam: ‘The best among you [as to their human and moral qualities] during the era before Islam [al-jahiliyyah] are the best in Islam, provided they understand it [Islam].’ The moral value of a human being reaches far beyond belonging to a particular universe of reference; within Islam, it requires added knowledge and understanding in order to grasp properly what Islam confirms (the principle of justice) and what it demands should be reformed.”



Thus, Muslims in their respective countries, following their religious edicts, should be humanistic nationalists of their respective countries devoted to the truth. To defend the wrong actions of Muslims is not in line with Islam. Prophet Muhammad himself said that Muslims must stop fellow Muslims from oppressing anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. To quote the relevant Hadith (Shahi Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Hadith Number 624)-



“Narated By Anas : Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.’ People asked, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?’ The Prophet said, ‘By preventing him from oppressing others’.”



That is indeed a major reason for Kashmiri Muslims to not act like a section of jingoistic Indian nationalists who blatantly refuse to believe that there are rogue elements in the Indian security forces responsible for human rights violations against innocent civilians and call all Kashmiri Muslims talking of such human rights violations to be liars for saying something that does not sound like music to their ears, on the issue of the Kashmiri Pandits. It is ridiculous to suggest that hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits left their homes, leaving their belongings, to settle in tents on the instructions of a governor to malign Kashmiri Muslims! From Arunadhati Roy in her column ‘Land and Freedom’ (Guardian, 22 Aug 2008), to Sanjay Kak in his address in a seminar in the University of Westminster, to even Yasin Malik, in his interview accessible on the blog ‘The Kashmir’, to Basharat Peer in his acclaimed book ‘Curfewed Night’, it has been clearly pointed out even by these supporters of Kashmiri ‘freedom’ that Kashmiri Pandits were targeted for their faith and their pro-India political convictions (which they were and indeed are entitled to, if one supports a plebiscite, though as mentioned earlier, that is to happen only if Pakistan gives up POK), and the economic class struggle rationalization given as an alternative to the conspiracy theory holds no water either, given that poor Kashmiri Pandits were targeted and asked to leave too, though that treatment was not meted out to rich Kashmiri Muslims merely on account of being rich, and it is completely bizarre and baseless to label all Kashmiri Pandits as having been IB agents, nor is it fair to blame them for the favourable treatment their ancestors got from the Dogra monarchy (going further back in time, their ancestors did also indeed get a raw deal from several Muslim rulers too, and such an argument is not very different from Hindu rightists in the rest of India seeking to exact revenge against today’s Muslims citing wrongdoings by Muslim rulers historically). And if human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian security forces suffice to justify a right to secede, don’t atrocities by militants and the threats of many separatists (a Kashmiri Muslim friend of mine with pro-India political leanings did not cast his vote for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 in curfew-time, when there is a high probability of visibility, for fear of being thrashed by separatist goons) suffice to write off those aspirations by the same logic? Given that the Kashmiri Pandits are an injured minority of Kashmir, any attempt at their rehabilitation should not be laced with conditions.



Down the ages, Kashmir has been a part of the cultural construct India has been, recognized by foreigners even when India was not a uniform political entity, and while certain contemporary Kashmiri historiographers with separatist leanings have portrayed Kashmir’s invasion by Akbar as incorporating Kashmir into India (though Akbar also invaded many other kingdoms now a part of India), Kashmir was earlier part of the Mauryan empire, Kushan empire, Gupta empire and Khilji empire too. Kashmiri historiographers writing in the Persian language across the centuries acknowledged the importance of the Rajatarangini, written in Sanskrit, as a Kashmiri historical classic. As Maulana Azad, a great scholar of Islam and author of the acclaimed Tarjuman-ul-Quran, pointed out, such has been the confluence of the pre-Islamic South Asian cultures (containing what Maulana said were their very own beautiful treasures) and Islamic influences (which, as he pointed out, were further enriching, and in some ways, even reform-motivating, especially in the context of social egalitarianism) that they are totally inseparable now (most Hindus, in their daily parlance, use ‘zyada’ rather than ‘adhik’, and Muslims too use words like ‘ghar’, which is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘grih’). In the Kashmiri context, there have been political errors on both sides, but the biggest danger to Kashmir comes from redefining its own identity, and even Yasin Malik has held fundamentalist brands of Islam as being more harmful to Kashmir than the Indian state. 



Pelting stones at security personnel provoking firings and further crippling the Kashmiri economy by way of shutdowns and interrupting education is going to do no good to Kashmir. No bullets, whether from regular guns, pellet guns or sonic guns, are non-lethal, nor are even tear gas shells, and if children accompany adults in the stone-pelting protests and the security forces aim for the legs, the bullets are indeed unfortunately going to hit the shorter children in their chests and heads, and protesters’ stones and security forces’ bullets are a danger for passersby as well.



The panacea to Kashmir’s many ecological and socioeconomic problems lies in taking an active interest in public policy issues (for instance, why does J&K still not have an institutionalized right to education like the rest of India?), not in holding the economy hostage to secessionist aspirations driven either by vendetta or an exclusionary history or theology. If the cry for ‘azadi’ is given up (as is largely the case with Punjab, Assam and Mizoram, that have made peace with themselves and with India), the troops would obviously have to be withdrawn sooner or later in any case, and the AFSPA and PSA would become history (very recently, the AFSPA has been lifted from Tripura). And while the extreme fringe of the Hindu right in India is problematic, India’s secular constitutional setup, especially the judiciary that has held secularism to be a basic, inalienable feature of the constitution that cannot be amended by the parliament and has, for example, convicted hundreds of Hindu rioters in connection with anti-Muslim massacres in Gujarat in 2002, such as in the Best Bakery, Ode, Sardarpura and Naroda Patiya, and the civil society are indeed certainly strong enough to keep Indian secularism intact, notwithstanding some cyber-vocal ranters, and even Modi, whose NDA coalition won with just a 38.5% vote-share (the majority not desiring him was not unanimous on an alternative, something like a hypothetical situation in which a candidate gets three out of ten votes, while seven other candidates get a vote each, leading the candidate with just three votes to win) at a time when anti-UPA resentment was justifiably at its peak, has had to vocally echo the idea of Indian secularism. There are Indian Muslims who are prominent public figures in all walks of life, and Indian Muslims certainly do enjoy better civil liberties and security of life and property than Muslims in Pakistan and many other Muslim-majority countries, not to speak of the non-Muslim minorities in those countries. Indeed, there is much exaggeration of Muslim victimhood in India, as I have discussed at length here.



In any case, the people of Muslim-majority Kashmir are actually least threatened by the Hindu right, and have much to gain from India’s economy (in spite of being a conflict zone, J&K has still been ahead of several other Indian states, having a higher literacy rate than Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh going by the 2011 census, and J&K is ahead of Himachal Pradesh and Goa in terms of GDP currently, and if the conflict were to abate, it can do much better!) and stable democracy, especially given the fact that there are many Kashmiri Muslims living and working elsewhere in India. Yes, the Indian state needs to give Kashmiris a healing touch and apologize for its wrongs, and the Indian society is undoubtedly now much more aware of Kashmir as a people’s issue rather than it just being an Indo-Pak border conflict than ever before (indeed, Kashmiris must be allowed to enjoy some autonomy within the Indian Union if they so desire, since that was clearly a prerequisite to the accession to India), but efforts at reconciliation are not meaningful without both sides being open-minded in their approach. Fortunately, I even personally know some Kashmiri Muslims living in the valley who think along the same lines and some of them are in our organization Global Youth India as well.




The author would like to profusely thank Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Ata Hasnain of the Indian Army for his guidance and support.

Karmanye Thadani

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