Analysis: Will playing off the Quran destruction story discredit separatist struggle?
By Jason Overdorf
September 14, 2010
NEW DELHI, India — Hatred at India has been fueling violence in Kashmir all summer long. But it was an act of desecration against the Quran, thousands of miles away, that ultimately sparked the bloodiest day of Kashmir's summer.
Following reports that a protester tore pages out of the Muslim holy book in front of the White House on Sept. 11, at least 17 people died in violence across Kashmir — a sequence of events that exposed the faultlines criss-crossing this conflict. A political dispute over geography and self-determination, it cannot seem to escape getting enmeshed in the global struggle between the West and fundamentalist Islam — whatever the motivations of the primary players.
"There's a whole [dimension of] state politics that's just circulated around radical Islamism," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, a conservative think tank. "[Leveraging issues like these] is a very dangerous game."
On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met with top administration and military officials to discuss possible moves to quiet the escalating unrest in Kashmir — including, reportedly, a climbdown on the hated law that allows the military to search homes, make arrests and shoot to kill civilians.
But any significant peace offerings Singh might have announced were stymied by an outpouring of anger in Kashmir, sparked by exaggerated Iranian reports of the desecration of the Quran in the U.S. and fueled by long-harbored frustrations over the military occupation of the disputed region.
Police shot and killed protesters who defied a curfew and took to the streets, in some cases attacking government installations and in one instance allegedly burning down a Christian school. According to local reports, the police alleged that politicians affiliated with the separatist Tehreek-e-Hurriyat party used the Quran story to encourage the violence.
"If this wasn't the basis for frustration and anger, then you would have had something else," said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. "It was inevitable in that there's such an angry mood, and the government's handling of it has been so inept. Any event that you could latch onto becomes one that you utilize to the best of your ability."
The danger in latching onto the Quran desecration is twofold. There is, of course, the danger of further radicalization of a population already incensed by decades of military occupation and thousands of cases of human rights violations — which could eventually lead to a resumption of an armed struggle for independence.
But there is also the danger that mixing too much religion into the fight will erode international sympathy and allow the government of India to dismiss the political dimensions of the separatist cause, which Kashmiris have been espousing for decades.
It's an idea that already has currency in New Delhi, where the separatist movement has been cast as a clandestine operation launched and funded from Pakistan.
"This is a pan-Islamicist movement," Sahni said in an interview with GlobalPost. "From the very outset ... the mobilization has been on the basis of pan-Islamism and radical Islam."
According to historian Ramachandra Guha, author of "India After Gandhi," fundamentalists co-opted the freedom struggle in Kashmir within a year after militancy began in 1989. The rallying cry changed swiftly from azaadi (freedom) to jihad (holy war).
Radicals pushed the local population to adopt the austere practices of fundamentalist Islam, shuttering cinema halls, banning smoking and drinking and ordering women to cover themselves from head to toe. But they didn't do it alone. The abuses of the Indian army pushed the local population to rally behind the separatists.
However, on the ground in Kashmir, observers say that the government of India is using the Quran desecration story to discredit the political struggle.
The present demands of the separatists do not have any religious character, and the ongoing cycle of protests has been raging for three months, during which Indian security forces have killed some 80 civilians. The separatists have demanded that India acknowledge that the dispute over Kashmir is an international one, begin the process of complete demilitarization, release political prisoners, end the killing and arrests of protesters, and prosecute the security personnel responsible for killing civilians.
"The Kashmir movement is an indigenous movement," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a prominent separatist leader. "It's anger against state repression. India has tried its level best to try to link these protests to Lashkar-e-Taiba or Pakistan or even Al Qaeda, but that's not the fact."
Ordinary Kashmiris themselves reject the tag of radicalism, claiming that the valley's syncretic tradition of Islam, steeped in the spiritualism of the sufis, is alive and well. But there's a sense, also, that the army cannot remain in control indefinitely, and the government cannot continue to suppress political protests, without that changing.
"By and large, people in Kashmir are not of violent temperament, and have not been associated too much with [pan-Islamist] concerns outside," said Noor Ahmad Baba, a professor at Kashmir University. "But if this situation continues, maybe it can gradually develop."
On Wednesday, Singh will head an all-party meet to discuss the government's options in Kashmir. But it appears he won't have room for any meaningful maneuvers. The escalation of violence has made a substantial dilution of the army's powers politically impossible, even as Singh's opponents in the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party clamor for taking a tough stance.
For the first time in a decade, Srinagar airport has been closed to commercial flights. A stringent curfew is in effect, with police under orders to shoot violators on sight. And the most hard-line separatists in Kashmir have announced an 11-day protest schedule, which will violate the curfew and inevitably result in more people killed by police bullets.
Meanwhile, as the big wigs pay lip service to addressing concerns about human rights violations in New Delhi, the security forces in Srinagar seem bound and determined to protect their own.
When a video surfaced on Facebook and YouTube last week that allegedly showed police officers parading a group of youths naked as punishment, there wasn't a murmur of outrage from official channels. Instead, a reminder was issued that it could not be ascertained from the video whether the footage was genuine.
Then, a spokesman for the Jammu and Kashmir police told the local press that they would be filing suit against Facebook and YouTube. And now, police have issued a press note alleging that "some miscreants are making repeated attempts to upload morphed pictures on Youtube against security forces to incite people" (sic). "With the latest missive in the battle for hearts and minds comes a reminder that uploading such pictures is punishable with a jail term of three years."
"Now the government is starting to crack down on people writing on Facebook ," said Farooq. "If the newer generation is becoming radicalized, it's because India is shrinking the space that's allowed to them."
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