“For a long time now, there’s been a rising tide of rebellion against Western paramountcy,” declared Bernard Lewis, thirty years ago in an article in Atlantic Magazine, titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. He was referring to a spate of developments unfolding in large swaths of West Asia, which had become new theatres of violence in the backdrop of the raging Cold War. This “rebellion”, Mr. Lewis believed, was a “war against modernity” that sourced “its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties” of the Muslims.
For years, the US bankrolled a repressive autocrat in Iran to the exclusion of a wider political constituency favoring democratization. In Afghanistan, it sponsored an armed guerrilla movement that halted the country’s chaotic, slow but steady march towards modernization under Communist dispensation. America’s unremitting military and diplomatic support for Israel led to Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, causing the downfall of Gamal Abdel Naseer, under whose centralised rule the country had relatively prospered. But now, these countries were being torn apart by insurgencies and consumed by political torpor.
Yet Mr. Lewis, in his seminal work, framed the trajectory of events in a different vein, glossing over the messy cascade of political tumult spanning decades and foregrounding religious beliefs of the disruptive forces in these countries, whose rise US-backed interventions had facilitated, as a principle reason for violence and turmoil.
The “Muslim rage” came handy for a succeeding corps of political scientists, tied as they were to the Western establishments embroiled in disastrous foreign military interventions abroad, to furnish moral justifications for wars that upended societies and led to hundreds and thousands of deaths.
In the run-up to abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy and during the months after it, there has been a sudden spurt of articles and other material, often routed through individuals, directly or indirectly holding the levers of power, that’s been vitiating both the nature of discourse on Kashmir and efforts to promote ethical understanding of the conflict. Just like that of Mr. Lewis, this commentary is also hobbled by a wide variety of omissions, historical amnesia, and rush to deduce the same ham-handed conclusions that Mr. Lewis was criticised for.
Take for example an op-ed published in the Indian Express titled “Kashmir’s future is tied to India” last month. The author, a serving member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) who has served in Kashmir, defends annulment of Article 370 as a necessary condition for the “complete integration” of J-K with India, although how voiding a legal mechanism that governed India’s relationship with J-K in the context of the 1947 accession predicated on assurances of maximum autonomy, achieves that objective is not explained.
Further, the causes that animate support for political unrest and armed insurgency in Kashmir are explained under the rubric of “radicalization” reinforced by the “mosque-madrasa” network. “Many of these mosques host hard-line preachers from UP [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar, who have spread a strand of jihadi Islam that was not a part of the cultural fabric of the Valley,” the article reads.
Even if one ignores the dog-whistle implied in the article, it’s hard to skip the patently wrong information that’s being laundered.
It dehumanizes Kashmiris, takes away their agency and projects exaggerated notions of an essentialised Muslim community that will march into a predestined path once they get to grips with their religion.
In 2018, J-K police’s intelligence wing filed a comprehensive 74-page report based on an elaborate study of “156 local youths of the Valley who have joined militancy between 2010 and 2015”. The report concluded that “nobody [of all the individuals it examined] had studied in a full-time Madrasa. 74 per cent had never visited Darsgah or Madrasa for any formal education.”
Further, the study observed that “[a] majority of these militants are government school read, negating the general perception that madrasas are beds of radicalisation.”
The Express op-ed also blamed “Valley” for engineering a demographic change by expelling Pandits. But it did not explain what constituted “Valley”. If the author meant Kashmiri Muslims in general, then the charge is really sweeping in nature. The Supreme Court in 2017 declined to open a fresh probe into the killings of Kashmiri Pandits which led to their exodus on the grounds that, “no fruitful purpose would emerge, as evidence is unlikely to be available at this late juncture.” The decision was rightfully criticized for being insensitive but in absence of any official investigation that identifies the perpetrators of the Pandit exodus, it’s hard to understand what entitled the author to make this sweeping accusation.
Last year, at a hearing on Kashmir at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US, an Indian origin panelist likened the violence orchestrated by insurgent groups in Kashmir with that of the Islamic State. The choice of vocabulary is consequential. Another serving IPS officer, posted in Kashmir, has used a similar phrase to describe the “brutalities unleashed by terrorists”.
Kashmir’s eruption into an armed uprising in 1990 followed by decades of political subterfuge, installations of puppet regimes, detention of popular leaders, and finally a rigged election. There’s a corpus of scholarly work that puts the rise in militancy in a historical perspective. More recently, Vanessa Chishti, professor of history at Jindal Global University, poignantly narrates how civil disturbance in Kashmir was powered by a complex concatenation of history that took a century to gestate, unfold, and burst onto Kashmir’s political arena in form of insurgency supported by Pakistan.
The militants of the 1990s, besides engaging with Indian forces, would target alleged informers, settle old scores by taking out business rivals and members of religious minorities. Plenty of them also defected to the Indian side and perpetrated crueler acts, some of them indescribable, against fellow Kashmiris who mobilised for a political settlement. In 2012, Jezza Neumann, Bafta-winning British documentary maker, directed a film, Kashmir’s Torture Trail, featuring Qalandar Khatana who accused his interrogators at PAPA–II of slicing flesh off his waist and forcing him to eat chunks from it.
Using the phrase “ISIS-level/style” – with all the imagery the term evokes – as a short-hand to describe this complex terrain of violence is not just lazy but downright inaccurate. It’s a dog-whistle that appeals to universal abhorrence of the Islamic State group. But more mischievously, it conflates two different expressions of violent political outbursts sparked by vastly different historical timelines.
As historian Tarek Osman has demonstrated in his book, Islamism: From The Fall to Ottoman Empire to Rise of ISIS, it’s very problematic to de-contextualize groups like the Islamic State from the larger political-social conditions enabled by the cumulative effect of the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), Iran Iraq War (1980), Gulf war (1990), occupation of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq invasion (2003), failed Arab spring (2011) and finally Bashar al-Assad’s political machinations in Syria.
Using the phrase “ISIS-level/style” – with all the imagery the term evokes – as a short-hand to describe this complex terrain of violence is not just lazy but downright inaccurate.
Brookings’s scholar Shadi Hamid has, in his book Islamic Exceptionalism, dwelled on the security and strategic imperatives that fuelled Islamic State’s ostentatious displays of extreme brutality. “After a country collapses and descends into a state of nature with warring factions and rampant criminal activity, any group that hopes to reconstitute order must assume a monopoly over the use of force,” he writes. “This means roundly defeating any pretenders to the throne and, in an already brutal war zone, requires yet more brutality. There’s little doubt that leaders of IS see savagery as religiously justified and even mandated, but such savagery also serves a number of organizational interests.”
The militant groups in Kashmir have lacked those imperatives. It was the turbulent phase of the 1990s that opened a front for Islamist groups to make inroads in Kashmir where they attempted to blend in with the regional political movement predating partition. Scholars have always emphasized a difference between the use of Islam as an idiom of political expression and political Islamism which historians, including more recently Paul Thomas Chamberlin, identify as an offspring of Cold War politics.
As Kashmiri scholar, Altaf Hussain writes, in The Making of Modern Kashmir, “Muslims were lacking political consciousness and couldn’t have been mobilized on complex political-economic grounds.” Hence religion was an effective instrument and an organizing principle around which Kashmiri Muslims cohered.
Sheikh Abdullah and other members of the Reading Room Party and later Muslim Conference would always permeate their speeches with verses from Quran as thousands raised their hands in supplication. Mr. Abdullah capitalized on British led Glancy Commission – whose mandate was to investigate the Kashmiri Muslim grievances against the Dogra state – as a stepping stone for his political career. The Party’s political efforts culminated in creation of a 75-seat legislative assembly called Praja Sabha, authorization of free press and liberty to form political parties. Thus, basic elements of representative democracy were established under the clarion call of “Islam in danger.”
The Reading Room refashioned itself into the Conference at Srinagar’s Pathar Masjid, whose pulpit Mr. Abdullah expressly exploited for political ends. As Kashmiri scholar Muhammad Tahir explains, “Idiom of religion allowed political expression in the absence of political space which was tightly controlled by the state.”
Further, there’s no universal, one-size-fits-all definition of either nationalism or religion. In the words of Benedict Anderson, the sense of national belonging is always “imagined”. Kashmiri conceptualization of nation-ness has happened under different circumstances, in a different milieu, and in response to a different set of political and social imperatives. And to affirm this “difference” Kashmiris have historically harnessed metaphors and motifs from their religion.
Thus, Mridu Rai in her illustrious book — Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects — demonstrates the limitations of taking secular-religious dichotomy for granted and informs why “religious sensibility has always informed political mobilization in Kashmir.”
The need for a complex understanding of the political situation in Kashmir informed by rigorous academic research has been supplanted by over-simplistic newspaper punditry discernable for the voters of the ruling party.
Yet in Kashmir more radical Islamic outlook crept in as a consequence of a 1975 accord signed between Mr. Abdullah and Indira Gandhi which blunted the former’s powers and bound up the former state of J-K more firmly with the Indian Union, complicating its resolution as per the UN-backed referendum. For 22 years, plebiscitary politics in Kashmir was monopolized by the Plebiscite Front whose objectives were fairly secular.
Mr. Abdullah’s political standing took a mortal blow and the vacuum that he left behind was occupied by confessional groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami. One decisive indicator of this is 1977 elections in which the Jamaat won only one seat in the assembly. By the late 1990s, its armed wing, the Hizbul Mujahideen, was calling the shots in Kashmir as it managed to obliterate the non-sectarian J-K Liberation Front from the arena of militancy.
In the 1920s, the Khilafat movement demanding restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate erupted in India with a lot of fanfare with Mahatma Gandhi throwing its lot behind it. At the same time in Kashmir, the caliphate’s dissolution hardly evinced any reaction, let alone calls to restore it. As historian Chitralekha Zutshi has observed in her book, Languages of Belonging, “Despite the preponderantly Muslim population, the Khilafat slogan did not seem to arouse the passions it did in other parts of British India.”
Today, however, many small-time groups like the Ansar Ghazwatul Hind and another militant module inspired by the Islamic State are placing Khilafat at the centre of their political appeal. There is a more complex interplay of politics involved than just “religious radicalization.”
Across the mass media firmament in India, the need for a complex understanding of the political situation in Kashmir informed by rigorous academic research has been supplanted by over-simplistic newspaper punditry discernable for the voters of the ruling party.
Commentators in the Indian press have even argued that the Kashmiris’ rights should be forfeited because “Kashmir’s identity today is that of an Islamic state in making.” One reporter declared that “India faces a generation (in Kashmir) which beliefs sacrificing their lives will open the doors to utopia.” Another article casually opined that “no permanent solution in Kashmir is possible as long as it remains home to only a homogenous population.”
This form of analysis does not enhance our understanding of the conflict. Instead, it dehumanizes Kashmiris, takes away their agency and projects exaggerated notions of an essentialised Muslim community that will march into a predestined path once they get to grips with their religion. Such stodgy analysis furnishes moral scaffolding for violations of the rights of Kashmiris so that they appear reasonable and justified.
In trying to ascertain the roots of “Muslim rage,” Mr. Lewis wasn’t alone in theorising his ideas. He was drawing on an established line of thought that deploys ‘knowledge production’ in the service of imperial conquests.
Orientalism, as it came to be called, had reached its apogee in the 19th century and coincided, not surprisingly, with the unprecedented European colonisation which “by 1914 had increased from 35 percent of the world’s surface to 85 percent of it.”
The genius of Orientalism lay in creating the image of an “Other”. In the words of Edward Said, “the construction of identity, for identity [which] involves establishing opposites and “others” whose actuality is subject to continuous interpretation of their differences from ‘us’.”
The complicity of European Oriental scholarship in the subjugation of lands of the near East came under rigorous academic re-examination. Ultimately, it was consigned into the intellectual wilderness from which it has had a difficult time returning – at least in the West. In South Asia, that realisation is still a long way off.
The author is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He previously reported for Times of India. His stories have appeared in The Wire, Firstpost, Caravan Magazine, and TRT World.
The story was originally appeared in our 7 – 13 September 2020 print edition.