June 2004 News

Violence In Kashmir Invades A Most Sacred Space

12 June 2004
The New York Times

Srinagar: When the worshipers at the Mirwaiz mosque in this summer capital heard gunshots on May 29, they ignored them. This was Kashmir, after all, where Islamic insurgents have been battling the Indian government for 15 years. They assumed that militants had attacked the police bunker outside. But when they finished praying, one man did not rise with the rest. 'Save me,' Maulvi Mushtaq Ahmad said slowly, and then they saw the blood. Mr. Ahmad had been in the second of two rows of about 25 men in all. As he and the others bent their foreheads to the floor - the most emotional moment of prayer, when a Muslim believes that he comes closest to God - someone fired three bullets at his back. The assailant escaped. Mr. Ahmad clung to life for more than a week, then died June 7. Even by the violent standards of the conflict here, which has left 40,000 to 80,000 people dead, the killing of an unarmed 61-year-old man at prayer seemed to set a new standard of venality. People have been killed entering or leaving mosques, said Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of the Sunni Muslims in the Kashmir Valley, and a political leader as well. No one, as far as anyone knows, had ever been killed while offering prayers to God. 'He bowed down his head to the Almighty, and then he got shot,' Mr. Farooq said. Mr. Ahmad was Mr. Farooq's cousin, but akin to his uncle. He was a retired civil servant, but his passion was politics. He had struggled for Kashmiri independence for decades, first alongside Mr. Farooq's father, Maulvi Mohammed Farooq, then, after his assassination in 1990, alongside his son. But Mr. Ahmad was not enough of a public figure to make him a target in his own right. Rather, the killing appears to have been a message to the young Mr. Farooq, who this year transgressed - at least in hard-liners' eyes - by going to New Delhi to open a dialogue with India. Kashmir, a divinely beautiful valley with a mostly Muslim population, has been at the heart of tensions between India and Pakistan since their partition in 1947. Its Hindu maharajah acceded to majority Hindu India, but Muslim-majority Pakistan felt that Kashmir belonged with it. India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, have fought two wars over Kashmir, and in 1989 Pakistan began backing an Islamist insurgency against the Indian government. But in January, India and Pakistan agreed to talks on all issues, including Kashmir. And Mr. Farooq and his moderate colleagues, who are separatists, but not militants, went to Delhi to meet senior Indian officials in what they hoped was the start of a dialogue on how to accommodate the aspirations of the Kashmiri people. The talks have yielded little of substance so far, but they were a bold move, quickly condemned by militants who oppose any negotiations with India. Mr. Farooq said that with India and Pakistan talking to each other, Kashmiris could not afford to be spectators. 'You don't get what you deserve,' he said. 'You get what you negotiate.' He argues that the time of militancy is over. In an effort to demonstrate his popular support, Mr. Farooq held a huge public rally on May 21, the anniversary of his father's death. It was attended by some 100,000 people who defied militant dictates to stay away. That show of strength, he believes, rattled those who disagreed with his willingness to be flexible. Eight days later, Mr. Ahmad, who had helped organize the rally, was shot. Less than two hours after the shooting, someone fired a rifle grenade at Mr. Farooq's house, although no one was injured. An unknown group called the Save Kashmir Movement took responsibility for both actions, saying in a statement that only the mujahedeen, or holy warriors, have the right to speak for the Kashmiris. Mr. Farooq said his uncle's killing suggested a desperation among those 'who don't want things to be resolved through dialogue, through peaceful means.' The message to him was clear, he said: 'They don't want us to talk. They don't want any dialogue.' It is not the only sign of desperation. Indian tourists - some 100,000 so far this year - have been flocking back to Kashmir. On Saturday, someone hurled a grenade into a restaurant in the resort town of Pahalgam, killing four people. A militant group claimed responsibility, saying that because Kashmir was still disputed, Indians should stay away. Maulvi Abbas Ansari, the chairman of the All Party Hurriyat Conference, a separatist grouping, said violence would not deter moderates like himself and Mr. Farooq. 'We have taken the initiative, and we will not take it back, even if we are killed,' he said. 'Fifteen years is enough. If India is talking to Pakistan, we are a basic party.' But the separatists these days are a divided lot. Some favor talking, some do not. The Hurriyat Conference has splintered into factions. Two sons of another assassinated leader, Abdul Ghani Lone, are at odds over who should inherit his political mantle. Mr. Farooq is among those struggling to hold it all together, a heavy burden for a 31- year-old. He was 16 when his father was killed, and soon after he took on the title of mirwaiz, or chief preacher. In the years since, Mr. Ahmad had been his guide to their large extended family, and the party he had helped found, the Awami Action Committee. No one has been arrested in the killing of Mr. Farooq's father, who was a moderate, and few think anyone will be arrested this time, either. The Indian and Pakistani governments condemned the attack. After Mr. Ahmad died, the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, and the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, sent condolences. 'We Kashmiris are trapped among three guns,' Mr. Ansari said. 'The militants, the occupying forces' - the Indian military - 'and unknown gunmen.' The mirwaiz himself is heavily guarded. 'There is absolute protection' for him, the state's chief minister, Mufti Muhammad Sayeed, said in an interview. Thousands turned out for the funeral on June 8, the numbness at another death broken by the murder in a mosque. 'This is absolutely wrong in Islam,' said Hilal Ahmed Tanki, a shopkeeper who was leading prayers the day Mr. Ahmad was killed, and described his last moments. Mr. Ahmad was killed in the family mosque - a humble space near the party headquarters - where he had prayed virtually every day since childhood. Muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque. At the end of prayers on May 29, two pairs of shoes lay unclaimed: those of the killer, who had fled, and those of his victim, who could not.


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