Deadly Foes, Inseparable Partners: Reflections on Symbiotic Religious Chauvinisms
Yoginder Sikand, August 16, 2008

For the last several years I have been travelling widely in Jammu and Kashmir, meeting people from different walks of life. My primary purpose has been to seek to understand changing community identities and the role of religion in fashioning them. In the course of my journeys, I have been struck by the fact that various religions are interpreted and understood by their adherents in remarkably diverse ways that completely belie the simplistic notions of 'Hindus', 'Muslims' or 'Buddhists' as homogenous, seamless entities.

Since I passionately believe in peaceful coexistence between people of different faiths (or of no faith at all), I have been particularly interested in exploring theological possibilities contained within people's diverse understandings of religion that can be used as resources to combat the politics of hatred and division in the name of religion. And in the course of my several journeys across Jammu and Kashmir I have discovered such resources aplenty, articulated in different ways by 'ordinary' folk and that continue to flourish and sustain hopes for resisting the onslaught of communalism despite often
brutal attempts to quash them.

Yet, I have also been struck by the ways in which religion, in Jammu and Kashmir as elsewhere, can be, and has been, used as a tool to promote political agendas that pit communities against each other, belying what I presume should be the true role of religion. It is such understandings of religion and religion-based community identities that are propelling the current strife in Jammu and in the Kashmir Valley.

*

Some years ago, while travelling in the Doda district, I was introduced to a firebrand self-styled Islamist, leader of a lesser-known pro-Pakistan political outfit. He was bed-ridden, and was later to die in a few months' time, but yet the self-righteous and sternly cantankerous man spoke with irrepressible passion. 'The Kashmir dispute is both religious as well as political', he insisted. 'In Islam, the two cannot be separated'. He quoted the poet Iqbal as saying that politics without religion would lead to 'Genghis Khan-style tyranny'. He added that somewhat the same claim was also made by Gandhi. He was in no doubt that the only true and long-term solution to the manifold woes of the world lay in everybody accepting Islam (that is, Islam of his particular version) or else agreeing willingly to live under what he called a global 'Islamic state'. That, too, was the solution to the Kashmir dispute, he averred.

He had, he went on to say, been an ardent leftist in his youth, but later, after pouring through the voluminous works of Syed Abul Ala Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, he had 'mended his ways' and now believed that the rest of his whole life should be spent working for the establishment of an 'Islamic state', of the sort that Maududi dreamt of, in Kashmir, even if this meant using force to expel the Indians from his land. For that he had been forced to endure long spells in various Indian jails.

The Prophet Muhammad, I interrupted him to point out, worked entirely peacefully spreading his message in Mecca for several years, and it was only later, when he was forced to shift to Medina and was faced with attacks by his Meccan opponents, that he allowed his followers to take up arms. Further, he had not used armed force to set up his political dispensation in Medina. Did that, then, indicate, I suggested, that using force to establish the sort of state that he wanted in Kashmir might not have sanction in Islam?

'No, no', he shot back angrily. 'Unless one has political power, one cannot establish peace, one cannot enforce any ideology'. Hence, he went on, taking to arms to establish what he called an 'Islamic state' in Kashmir was entirely valid.

I was aware that many other Kashmiri Muslim scholars, as indeed several Muslim scholars elsewhere, had an entirely different answer. Armed jihad, that is struggle for a holy cause, they would insist, is only possible when Muslims are oppressed or if they are denied their religious freedoms. And also perhaps only if the potential good that could come out of this course was greater than the harm caused by it. Some of them would argue that this was not the case in Jammu and Kashmir. And so, I ventured to ask, although the ongoing movement in Kashmir could be called a political struggle, perhaps it did not merit the label of a jihad?

'It is a jihad', he thundered. 'Our religious freedoms have been snatched from us by the Indian government.'

But mosques and madrasas and Muslim organizations, such as his own, were free to function, I pointed how. How, then, could he say that the Kashmiri Muslims were being denied their religious rights?

He thought for a moment, nursing the gaping wound on his foot. Then, stroking his beard thoughtfully, he replied, 'Islamic schools in Kashmir are forced to use the NCERT syllabus, which has anti-Muslim contents. And, sometimes, we have not been allowed to hold our rallies.'

His first charge, I knew, was entirely bogus, and, if there was truth in his second allegation, it was not because his outfit was Muslim, because scores of other Muslim groups, including those engaged in peaceful missionary work, were not under any sort of ban.

As a hardened self-styled Islamist, this man was vociferous in his denunciation of Sufism, the dominant form of Islam in the region that had helped create a unique cultural tradition that brought Muslims, Hindus and others closer together. He refused to relent even when I pointed out that it was principally through the agency of the Sufis that Islam had spread in Kashmir and over much of the rest of South Asia. 'Sufism is definitely anti-Islamic', he spat. 'It led to the decline of the spirit of jihad and thus caused the downfall of the Muslims from the political heights that they once occupied'. Clearly, he saw himself as the leader of an elite vanguard with a special mission, to 'cleanse' his Muslims of what he saw as the remnants of their 'pagan' past. 'Only five per cent of the Kashmiri Muslims are true Muslims. The rest are under the spell of Sufism and many are still Hindu at heart. The Sufis only changed peoples' names, but not their character in the proper Islamic direction', he spluttered.

The man's amazing ignorance of Sufism and the role of Sufis in Kashmir was staggering, but I kept that point to myself.

It was not that his bitter outpourings came as a total shock, for I had heard about his ideological fervour, and he had turned out to be exactly as I had expected. But what particularly intrigued me was how this ardent advocate of Islamist-style politics was also a covert Hindutva sympathizer, although in a rather convoluted way. That began to dawn on me when I asked him that if he insisted that Muslim-majority Kashmir should be turned into an 'Islamic state', how could he deny Hindus in Hindu-majority India to declare India as a 'Hindu state'?

'They have all the right to do so', pat came the reply. I was aghast, but he went on nevertheless. 'Any religion, even Hinduism, is better than secularism, which is tantamount to disregarding religion altogether', he explained. 'And, hence, a Hindu state is definitely better than a secular one.' Interestingly, the same question had once been put to his ideological mentor, Syed Maududi, who had answered in exactly the same way.

The man went on to qualify his statement. 'Unlike Islam, all other religions are incomplete', he argued. 'They do not have a full system (nizam) to govern all the affairs of state. Hence, if Hindus try out Hindu Raj in India and they find that it does not work, we Muslims are there to supply them an ideology that does.'

*

But even more bizarre and frightening was another man I met while on the same trip to the Doda district: a short, dark, pot-bellied, pink-robed self-styled sadhu, who had set himself up as the mahant or head of a small temple that blared ear-splitting religious music and discourses from dawn to nightfall. Like many other such heads of temples in Doda, this man was from a village in eastern Uttar Pradesh and an ardent advocate of the RSS. He had studied till the tenth grade and then, so he claimed, had gone off to a centre for sadhus in Ayodhya, shifting to Doda a decade or so ago.

Our conversation revolved around the issue of Hindu-Muslim relations in Doda. 'Hindus and Muslims can never be friends. They are polar opposites and have nothing in common', he demurred. 'Muslims' he went on, spinning his own peculiar theory of Muslim genetics, 'are demonic by nature (asur pravatti)'. Hence, he claimed, 'they can never live at peace with Hindus'. That message he subtly passed on to the Hindus who visited his temple. 'I tell them that they should remain firmly wedded to their religion and have as little as possible to do with the Muslims', he said. He looked at me to see if I approved, and must have been disappointed. 'Hindus and Muslims can never live together', he went on nevertheless. 'Let all Muslims be packed off to Pakistan and India should declare itself a Hindu state' was his solution to what he believed were the irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims.

Just as the self-appointed Islamist mentioned above considered most Kashmiri Muslims, who remained associated with the Sufi tradition, as hardly Muslim at all, and, hence, in urgent need of his intervention, so, too, did this self-styled Hindu god-man believe that the Hindus of Doda were 'half-Muslim' and 'improper Hindus' and so in need of his guidance. 'They eat meat and marry with their close relatives, like Muslims do', he spluttered in disgust. 'They visit the shrine of Shah Fariduddin, and they eat in Muslims' homes.' All that, he insisted, was completely 'un-Hindu'.

Like the self-styled Islamist, this man believed that there was nothing good in any religion but his own. 'Only the Hindu religion has produced sants and mahatmas', he claimed. 'The few Muslims who achieved that status, like Kabir and Rahim, did so only after becoming Hindu.' 'There's nothing at all good in the Muslim religion', he went on. 'If a Muslim so much as touches me, I must take a bath immediately to purify myself. Even if Muslims do good deeds, their impurity remains and cannot be rubbed off', he thundered.

I interrupted to ask him if he had come to that conclusion after studying Islam. Somewhat reluctantly, he admitted that he had no knowledge about the Muslim faith, but then came up at once with an ingenuous excuse for his ignorance. 'Our Hindu dharmashastras contain all the truths, so what is the need to look elsewhere?', he shot back.

This man, who saw himself as the salvation of the Hindus of the region, was also an unabashed supporter of the caste system. Not surprisingly, for he was, as he put it, a 'shuddh Brahmin'. 'The caste system has been made by God', he averred. 'The dharmashastras say that a Brahmin is even superior to the gods. No matter how low a Brahmin may be in terms of character, he still remains worthy of worship. He is like a cow that may feed on garbage but should still be prayed to', he announced. Conversely, he rambled on, 'A Shudra, no matter how pious and capable, must accept his servile status and serve the upper castes. He is not worthy of respect. He is like a donkey which, even if bedecked with jewels, remains a donkey and cannot be transformed into a stallion.'

I wanted to burst out! I wanted to throw up! I wanted to flee! I was appalled at this disgusting display of ignorance and bigotry, but I restrained myself, just as I had when I had met the self-styled Islamist, with whom this man seemed to have much in common. Inveterate foes of each other they may have posed themselves as, but yet, at a very fundamental level, they were united in their desperate need for each other to justify their own existence, speaking the same language of hatred and bigotry, and seeing the world through the same deadening and dehumanizing lens.