Islamism, in the Kashmiri separatist movement, was largely a subtext in the past. Mainstream identity politics used to be, at least overtly, centered on an undefined idea of Kashmiriyat. The Chaks were the last Kashmiri dynasty who had fought and defeated the Mughal rulers from Delhi like Babur and Humayun. Ultimately, Akbar resorted to deceit by inviting Yusuf Shah Chak to Delhi for talks, imprisoned him and exiled to Bihar. The last Kashmiri ruler’s grave is at Nalanda in Bihar, in a dilapidated condition. For the Chaks, Kashmir’s struggle was not about Islam but about their political authority.
Power changed hands from the Mughals to the British and then on to the Dogras. A resistance movement to the Dogra rulers took birth through the formation of the Muslim Conference in 1931 by Sheik Abdullah and Mirwaiz Yousuf Shah, the hereditary Islamic cleric of Srinagar. In 1938, however, Sheik Abdullah decided to discard the explicit Muslim identity and converted it into National Conference. The immediate reason was his suspicion that the Mirwaiz and some Jammu Muslim leaders were hand-in-glove with the Maharaja.
The National Conference under Sheik Abdullah had not displayed overt Islamist overtones although the Sheik would invoke Islam occasionally. Kashmiri separatism and independence became the bedrock of its politics. The resolution passed at its first Working Committee in June 1938 called for amending the constitution in such a manner that “all the progressive forces” can “easily become members of the Conference irrespective of their caste, creed or religion”. Two years later, the Jammu Muslims had revived the Muslim Conference and started opposing the Sheik and the National Conference.
In August 1945, when the National Conference held its annual convention at Sopore, the speakers included Jawahar Lal Nehru. Former police officer A M Watali narrates in his memoir, ‘Kashmir Intifada’ that when Nehru was being taken in a river procession in Jhelum river on boats, the Muslim Conference workers had pelted stones in protest. Many prominent Communist leaders also actively participated in that Conference. The National Conference workers used to wear badges that displayed Sheik Abdullah in the attire of Kamal Ataturk, the secular leader of Turkey after the First World War. Nehru was so convinced about the secular character of the National Conference under Sheik Abdullah that he advised local Kashmiri Pandit community to either “join the National Conference” or “bid goodbye to the country”.
Even when Sheik Abdullah launched the illegitimate Quit Kashmir campaign against the Maharaja in 1946, the arrested leaders included many prominent Hindus and Sikhs like Sham Lal Saraf, D P Dhar, Sham Lal Wath, Janki Nath Zutshi, Sardar Budh Singh, and Sant Singh Teg. Interestingly, while Jawahar Lal Nehru went to Kashmir to court arrest in support of Sheik’s illegitimate demand, Jinnah, on the other hand, strongly opposed the campaign and used the Muslim Conference against it. When Gandhi visited Srinagar in early August 1947 to persuade the Maharaja to release Sheik Abdullah, he too claimed that ‘the Sheik Saheb’ had fired the Kashmiris of the ‘predominantly Muslim’ state with ‘local patriotism’. He claimed that he could not distinguish between ‘a Kashmiri Hindu and a Kashmiri Muslim’.
In 1996, when Farooq Abdullah became the Chief Minister, he supposedly insisted on having Ashok Jaitley as his Chief Secretary. From then to till date, many good Hindu officers have been made the Chief Secretaries and DGPs by Farooq and later on by Omar Abdullah. In fact, when the Rochford-born Omar Abdullah contested for the parliament elections for the first time in 1998, media used to report about his inability to speak in Kashmiri. It was during the PDP-BJP government that three local officers were made Chief Secretaries successively.
Sadly, out of desperate political expediency, the very same mainstream leaders, forgetting their own history, are trying to inject a dangerous Islamist discourse into the state politics today. It is true that radical Islamism is growing in the Valley. Terror groups with that narrative are trying hard to gain currency. Turkey and Erdogan are increasingly finding space in this new narrative. But to exploit it for political ends by mainstream leaders is most obnoxious. The ordinary Kashmiri still largely believes in syncretism and abhors communal agendas. “Hendis te Musalmaanas” is the phrase ordinary Kashmiri uses even today while seeking the God for good health or good life. It is like praying: “God save Hindus and Muslims”.
When radical Islam dominated the Valley the last time in the 1990s, the Pandits became its victims and forced to leave the Valley. It didn’t spare the Valley Muslims either. Pakistani Jihadists like Mast Gul had burnt down the sacred shrine of Charar-e-Sherif. Even Farooq Abdullah had to stay away from the Valley and cool his heels in London. Those trying to inject that dangerous discourse into Kashmiri mainstream politics once again must remember all this and the immense harm Gilani and the Jamaat have done to the Kashmiris themselves.
People of Kashmir have seen this expediency and deception in the past. When Sheik Abdullah was jailed by Nehru for sedition in 1953 and the Constitution (Application to Jammu & Kashmir) Order, 1954 was issued a year later, the Plebiscite Front was formed by the Sheik. After selling separatism for twenty years, Mirza Afzal Beig, the chairman of the Front, became a signatory to a compromise formula worked out between Indira Gandhi and Sheik Abdullah in 1975 accepting the sovereignty of Indian Constitution over the state.
When Sheik insisted on rolling back certain changes in the Art 370, Indira Gandhi bluntly told him that “the clock can’t be turned back”. The Sheik’s son and grandson also know that the “clock won’t be turned back” now by Prime Minister Modi either. Yet they are trying to take the people of Kashmir for a ride to chase a chimera. While the Sheik had used plebiscite and secession as the chimera for his political ends, his scions are using Islam to deceive the Valley youth. The Plebiscite Front merged into NC, and Sheik Abdullah became the Chief Minister. But the separatist fire it ignited played a havoc in the 1980s and 90s. The Gupkar leaders are resorting to that dangerous game once again, this time in the name of Islam.
Philip Spratt, a British Communist intellectual, had suggested that the solution to Kashmir problem should be “tinged with morality, but more so with economy and prudence”, in which “material interests should supersede ideological ones”. Gupkaris listening?