Praveen Swami

Inflamed by the Shrine Board issue, people of a village in central Kashmir build a shrine for Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists.

Bright pink plastic flowers and lurid crepe-paper wreaths adorn Jammu and Kashmir’s first shrine to the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Last month, two Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from Pakistan were shot dead in the forests next to the village of Chhatterhama, 30 kilometres from the central Kashmir town of Ganderbal. Mired in the communally-charged, region-wide agitation against land-use rights granted to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, the local community saw the terrorists as soldiers who had died for their cause.

“Here was India conspiring to seize our land and hand it over to infidels,” says local businessman Zahoor Ahmad, “and here were these two foreigners who had given their lives to save Islam in Kashmir. One of them was just 14 or 15, no older than my brother. And so, we gathered Rs.11,000 to give these martyrs the kind of burial they deserved.”

“May god’s mercy and the blessings of Mohammad always be with you; I shall always pray for you to be blessed by the eternal rest of paradise,” reads the poetic Urdu-language inscription on the gravestones, which identify the two terrorists by their code-names Abu Hurrera and Abu Saria. Both were buried at the highest point of the village graveyard, in an especially fenced-off section.

Ethnic-Kashmiri jihadists killed in Jammu and Kashmir have often been buried after elaborate funeral processions in special “martyrs’ graveyards.” However, no shrines or special memorials have ever been built to mark the death of Pakistani jihadists operating in Jammu and Kashmir. In some cases, rural communities have even refused to take responsibility for their burial.

Chhatterhama isn’t a likely location for a shrine celebrating the Lashkar’s Islamist cause. Not a single Chhatterhama resident joined the jihadist movement in Jammu and Kashmir. Its residents — most of them Shawl Bafs, or artisans who hand-embroider shawls — were supporters of the National Conference. Few would offer even ethnic-Kashmiri jihadist groups like the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen shelter or support. As a result, Chhatterhama never once saw an exchange of fire between jihadists and the police or the army.

But when the Shrine Board agitation began, the village embraced a cause it had long resisted. Local authorities and political parties had done nothing to challenge rumours spread by Islamist groups that a large-scale plot was under way to give away land to outsiders — to outsiders, moreover, hostile to Islam. As a result, the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir acquired a new legitimacy.

On June 23, one day after the terrorists’ killing, Chhatterhama villagers marched to the main crossroads at Batpora to express their outrage on the Shrine Board issue. Work on the Lashkar shrine began the same afternoon. And the following Friday, Chhatterhama observed the two terrorists’ Rasm-e-Chaharrum death-rites alongside another protest march against the Shrine Board.

Why was Chhatterhama so quick to join the Islamist cause? One reason might be the growth of neo-conservative religious groups in the area, which until recently had almost no rural reach. “Most people here used to worship at shrines,” says local Jamaat-e-Islami activist Bashir Ahmad Bhat, “and followed practices that were Hindu in origin. But my generation has learned to read, and thus discovered the true Islam.”

It is also likely that the new chauvinism has been propelled by the stresses of economic change. Shawl-Bafs have been hit hard by competition from cheap machine-embroidered shawls, often made in Ludhiana and Jalandhar. Embroidering shawls, moreover, is killing work: wages run as low as Rs. 80 a day for work which leaves many Shawl Bafs half-blind and arthritic before they turn 40.

But few young people in Chhattarhama, despite the spread of school and college education, have the kind of specialist skills needed to get new-economy jobs in the service or information-technology sectors. Even fewer have the kind of capital needed to set up independent businesses — or pay the bribes often needed to get a government job. All of these frustrations seem to have fed the anti-Shrine Board protest in Chhatterhama. Local clerics from the Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis, Jamaat-e-Islami activists and National Conference workers all saw reason to fuel the chauvinist fears which underpinned the protests, seeing in them a possibility to expand their constituency. All of them seem to have won.

Ironic twist

Have jihadists like the Lashkar also gained? The shrine in Chhatterhama would seem to suggest so — but the evidence is more ambiguous than the memorial suggests.

Notably, Lashkar ideologues most likely won’t approve of the Chhatterhama shrine. Jamaat Ahl-e-Hadis’ theological tradition — from which the Lashkar draws its legitimacy — disapproves of the veneration of shrines and relics, seeing them as heretical borrowings from Hinduism. In general, Lashkar jihadists’ graves consist of nothing more elaborate than a un-inscribed stone marker.

Indeed, Salafists — of whom the Ahl-e-Hadis are a subset — have often carried their hatred of shrine worship to great lengths. When the followers of the ultra-right Saudi Arabian cleric, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, captured the cities of Mecca and Medina in 1803-1804, they destroyed several shrines including one built over the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima Zehra.

“In Kashmir, everything eventually turns into a shrine,” says Mr. Ahmed, a wry smile on his face. “Come back here in a few years’ time, and you might just see people telling you that they have come here to pray for sons at the grave of a famous Pir [godman]”.