Politicians Preying On South Kashmir Tragedy

13 June 2009
The Hindu


Shopian: No one remembers, any longer, just who threw the first stone. But more than a fortnight after the mysterious death of two women in Shopian set off searing street violence across southern Kashmir and Srinagar, there is still no sign that the last one is about to be cast. Fear of setting off renewed rioting led the Kashmir Division’s top bureaucrat, Masud Samoon, to turn back 2 km short of the affluent apple-industry hub on Saturday. Mobs have attempted to attack Justice Muzaffar Jan, who is holding a judicial enquiry into the deaths. And People’s Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti was almost lynched during a recent visit. Beneath the primal rage which is apparently driving the violence lie cold-blooded power struggles: a war for leadership of Kashmir’s Islamist movement; the struggle for space between Islamists and pro-India political parties; and, in turn, the battles of the National Conference, People’s Democratic Party and the Congress against each other. Secessionist surge An Islamist cleric almost unknown outside his home town appears to be winning the fight. Maulana Tariq Ahmad has emerged as the principal voice of the protests in south Kashmir. Like other Islamists in Jammu and Kashmir, Maulana Ahmad claims the deaths in Shopian were state-sponsored murders: crimes intended to degrade and eventually destroy Islam in Kashmir. Ahmad comes from an impeccable Islamist lineage. His father-in-law, Mohammad Shafi Ahrar, is among south Kashmir’s best-known Jamaat-e-Islami leaders. Mr. Ahrar’s father, Ghulam Ahmad Ahrar, was, along with schoolteacher Saaduddin Tarabali, a co-founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir. Shopian’s Pir-caste families, who claim unbroken descent from Prophet Mohammad, played a key role in the formation and growth of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Jammu and Kashmir. The organisation’s chroniclers trace its formation to a meeting held at Shopian’s Badami Bagh in 1942. Alarmed by the National Conference’s radical socialism, Shopian’s orchard-owning elite Pir families turned in ever-growing numbers to the Jamaat’s neo-fundamentalist message. Having failed to secure power through electoral means, the Jamaat backed the Hizb ul-Mujahideen at the start of the long jihad in the State. It turned out to be a bad investment. By 2001, the Hizb ul-Mujahideen had been decimated. Many Jamaat centrists sought to distance the organisation from jihadists, and built bridges with the PDP. Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani, among the first to join Tarabali and Ahrar, resisted this tide. Last summer, he succeeded in forging a mass movement out of the communal anxieties unleashed by the grant of land-use rights to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. Mr. Geelani argued that the land-use rights would pave the way for the eviction of Kashmir’s Muslims form their lands. Maulana Tariq was among the key lieutenants who helped Mr. Geelani’s Tehreek-i-Hurriyat breathe life into the moribund Islamist movement. Last year, though, Kashmir residents shattered the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat’s hopes by defying Mr. Geelani’s calls for a boycott of elections to the Legislative Assembly. Now, though, the Shopian deaths have offered Mr. Geelani and his hardline followers an opportunity to hit back. Political feuds Without a little help from their enemies, though, the Islamist effort might not have succeeded. Eyewitnesses say the first wave of rioting in Shopian was set off by National Conference workers linked to local party leader Shabbir Ahmad Kullai. During the run-up to the 2002 Assembly elections, the PDP used its connections with the Hizb ul-Mujahideen to destroy the National Conference’s apparatus in southern Kashmir. Mr. Kullai himself was marched to the village mosque at Bangam on August 3, 2002, and compelled to proclaim his renunciation of politics. Soon afterwards he, along with his family, left for Srinagar. Last year, Mr. Kullai contested from Shopian. He again found himself outmanoeuvred by the PDP, because the party had successfully used the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board violence to secure the support of the Jamaat. National Conference activists, party insiders admit, hoped to use the rage unleashed by the women’s deaths to divide the PDP-Jamaat constituency. Party cadre tacitly backed Maulana Ahmad’s protests; the administration, in turn, chose not to arrest the Tehreek-i-Hurriyat leadership. Early this month, Ms. Mehbooba sought to contain the damage to the PDP’s position in south Kashmir by joining in the Shopian protests. She travelled to Shopian on June 3, only to find herself under attack from supporters of both Maulana Ahmad and the National Conference. She was later forced to take refuge in a police station after elements of the crowd turned on her National Conference cadre, say PDP supporters in Shopian. Now, no party can afford to back down. “We expect the police to apprehend the culprits,” says Mohammad Shafiq Khan, a mosque leader who is part of a committee coordinating protests in the town, “We will not stop our protests until they are arrested.” Given the ambiguous forensic evidence, and the lack of credible eyewitness testimony, it is improbable any arrests will be made soon, which means Shopian could remain volatile for days, even weeks, to come.