Kashmir's new Islamist movement

Leaders of the protests see street violence as a crucible in which a new generation of jihadists is being forged.

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:53 pm IST

Published - September 16, 2010 11:57 pm IST

Protesters burn logs of wood used as roadblock during late night protests, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on Wednesday.

Protesters burn logs of wood used as roadblock during late night protests, on the outskirts of Srinagar, on Wednesday.

Last week, on the Monday before Eid, Mohammad Shafi Wani opened his grocery store in Srinagar's Karan Nagar neighbourhood. Each of his gestures —rolling up the shutter, dusting off the shelves, opening the long-locked cash till — was an act of defiance, perhaps even suicidal rashness.

Kashmir's Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, the anti-India Islamist coalition spearheading the protests that have claimed more than 80 lives in clashes with police this year, had decreed that shops would remain shut until 2:00 pm; Wani had opened for business at mid-day. “Get lost,” a local resident recalls Wani saying to two young men who showed up to warn him, “I'm not having a bunch of kids telling me what I can do.” The boys left — but returned with reinforcements. Wani ended up in hospital; the police watched him being beaten but did nothing.

Early this week, the Tehreek decreed that day would henceforth be night. It ordered that businesses and factories work through the hours of darkness to make up for the time spent protesting. Many fear that September 21, when the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat has called on volunteers to march on military outposts, will see horrific violence. That is precisely what the New Islamists seek: for them, Kashmir's streets are the crucible in which a new generation of jihadists, who will wage a this-time successful war for independence, are being forged.

Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani's Rudad-i-Qafas , or ‘Records of Jail,' an 800-page, two-volume reflection on politics and life written while he was incarcerated at New Delhi, Jammu and Allahabad from 1990-1992, gives some insight into the ideological underpinning of the street rebellion.

In a 2004 appraisal of the Rudad-i-Qafas , scholar Yoginder Sikand pointed to Mr. Geelani's concerns that the independence movement in Jammu and Kashmir had “actually gone out of the control of the political leadership and into the hands of militant youth who, though fired by a passionate sense of zeal, have little understanding of the problem as well as the uphill task of resolving it.” He argued that “the youth ought to have entered the movement under the leadership of a truly Islamic and honest political leadership.” Instead, Kashmir's young jihadists had acted “unfettered by any authority above them as if they have ‘sworn not to accept any political leadership at all'.”

“They have,” he concluded, “apparently miscalculated the enormity of the demands of the struggle and the strength of the power they are fighting against, fondly imagining that their goal would be achieved in no time.”

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, in the years that followed the publication of the Rudad-i-Qafas , threw its resources behind the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen — led, in the main, by figures drawn from the Jamaat-e-Islami. But as the conflict dragged, the Jamaat sensed defeat — and drew back. In 1997, the then Jamaat chief G.M. Bhat called for an end to the “gun culture.” Three years later, dissident Hizb commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire. Although the ceasefire fell apart, the Jamaat itself continued to marginalise Mr. Geelani. In May 2003, Jamaat moderates led by Bhat's successor, Syed Nasir Ahmad Kashani, retired Mr. Geelani as their political representative. In January 2004, the Jamaat's Majlis-e-Shoora, or central consultative council, went public with a commitment to a “democratic and constitutional struggle.”

Mr. Geelani, cast out from the mainstream of the Jamaat, set about building a new political movement; the kind of political movement he believed had led to the failure of the jihad.

Like others in the Jamaat-e-Islami, Mr. Geelani had long believed India posed an existential threat to Islam in Kashmir. In the Rudad-e-Qafas , he castigated India for its failure to hold a plebiscite on Jammu and Kashmir's future; its violations of the democratic process; and its use of the armed force after 1989-1990. But he underlined the growth of Hindu communalism from the mid-1980s, seeing it as an enterprise to erase Islam. Mr. Geelani even found evidence of this enterprise in prison: the ‘martyrdom' of Muslim prisoners' beards at the hands of jailers and their being refused permission to pray. “Cultural hegemony,” he concluded, “is a logical culmination of political supremacy.”

From 2003, Mr. Geelani turned to a new group of lieutenants to fight India's growing “political supremacy”: among them lawyer Mian Abdul Qayoom, activists like Mehrajuddin Kalwal and Jamaat apparatchiks like Mohammad Ashraf Sehrai. It was Massrat Alam Bhat, however, who was to become the most important figure in the new Islamic coalition.

Born in old-city Srinagar's Zaindar Mohalla in July 1971, Bhat studied in Srinagar's élite Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe school before joining the Sri Pratap college. He was first arrested by the Border Security Force in October 1990, on charges of serving as a lieutenant to the then-prominent jihadist Mushtaq Ahmad Bhat. He won a protracted legal battle in 1997 and began working at a cloth store owned by his grandfather, graduating the next year. From 1999, Bhat became increasingly active in the All-Parties Hurriyat Conference. He drew much of his core cadre from one-time jihadists who had been released — only to find they had neither prestige, power nor prospects.

Bhat's Muslim League Jammu Kashmir's objective, its website explains, “besides fighting Indian aggression, is to propagate Islamic teachings to fight out socialism and secularism to remove taguti [false leaders; traitors] rule and to extirpate the western ideology.”

Just two of the Muslim League's eight-point charter of objectives are, as such, concerned with the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. It seeks the “building up of public opinion about the issue of Jammu and Kashmir on [the] international front,” and promises to “organise rallies and congregations to achieve the right to self-determination.”

But the bulk of the Muslim League's objectives centres around forging a new political culture. It promises to “inculcate [a] sense of religious duties, character building and make the youth politically conscious;” to “safeguard the youths against any anti-Islamic move;” “to make aware the Muslims about the policies and plans of the aggressors and ensure that they follow the path of the Quran and the Sunnah to become one entity; to resist “misinformation campaigns against [the] Islamic system on the part of various imperialistic forces;” and, more generally, “to work for the welfare of the people.”

Now serving a life sentence for the assassination of human rights campaigner H.N. Wanchoo, imprisoned jihadist Muhammad Qasim Faktoo was key to shaping Bhat's ideological vision. Faktoo, who acquired a doctorate in Islamic studies while in prison, founded his religious beliefs on the teachings of the neo-fundamentalist Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith — not Mr. Geelani's Jamaat-e-Islami. Long an anti-India political activist, Faktoo was led into the Hizb by Mohammad Abdullah Bangroo who, many years later, presided over the assassination of the influential Srinagar cleric Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq — father of the current chairperson of the APHC, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. In 1990, Faktoo and Hilal Mir, better known by the code-name Nasir-ul-Islam, broke from the Hizb to form the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen, upset with its linkages to the Jamaat-e-Islami.

From jail, the Jammu and Kashmir Police allege, Faktoo mentored a new generation of jihadists. The police say he inspires two organisations — the al-Nasireen and the Farzandan-e-Millat — responsible for the killings of officers last August and September. The name al-Nasireen, a reference to the companions of Prophet Mohammad, is thought to draw on the nom de guerre of Faktoo's Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen co-founder. Farzandan-e-Millat, or sons of the nation, mirrors that of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, daughters of the nation, an organisation run by Faktoo's wife, Asiya Andrabi.

Ms Andrabi is the youngest child of the prominent Srinagar doctor, Sayeed Shahabuddin Andrabi. The 1962-born Ms Andrabi has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, and hoped to study further in Dalhousie. Forbidden from leaving home, she turned to religion. From 1982, she set up a network of religious schools and campaigned against obscenity in popular television programming.

Both Bhat and Andrabi played a key role in organising protests against the grant of land-use rights to the Amarnath shrine board in 2008 — a communally-charged campaign that brought tens of thousands of people to the streets. The networks used then were patiently built over years, in the course of struggles against prostitution and alcohol-use; campaigns for the enforcement of social morality targeting western cultural practices; and human rights abuses by Indian security forces.

In 1990, the Time Magazine carried an evocative account of the first uprising, the failure of which Mr. Geelani so evocatively wrote of: “‘Brave Kashmiris,' came the summons from loudspeakers in minarets throughout Srinagar, summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, ‘the time has come to lay down your lives. Come out and face the occupation forces as true soldiers of Islam.' By the thousands, Muslim separatists answered the call last week. Enraged by the detention of 400 locals accused of terrorism, they surged through the narrow alleys of the decrepit city, chanting ‘Indian dogs, go home!' and pelting the police and soldiers with stones. Security forces replied first with tear gas, then with rifle fire. By the week's end, at least 133 people had been killed, nearly doubling, to 279, the death count since the latest round of trouble in Kashmir began 18 months ago.”

Those words could also be a prophecy of what lies ahead.

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