Rejoinder: The Jama’at and political Islam in Kashmir

On 28 February, the Indian government banned the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir. On 2 March, workers of the People’s Democratic Party staged protests against the ban in Srinagar. WASEEM ANDRABI/HINDUSTAN TIMES /GETTY IMAGES
17 July, 2019

On 6 April, The Caravan published an article titled, “Keeping the Faith: How the Jama’at chronicles the failure of mainstream politics in Kashmir,” by the research scholar Basharat Ali. A little over a month earlier, the Indian government had banned the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir, an Islamist socio-political organisation that has been present in the region since 1952. Ali traced the history of the Jama’at in the wake of the ban—the third imposed by the Indian government in the organisation’s history. He argued that all three bans came at points when “pro-India mainstream political parties in Kashmir were at their weakest and the Indian government was confronted with an upsurge in the Kashmiri resistance movement.”

Published below is a rejoinder to the piece by Shahid Lone, a writer and research scholar. It is followed by Ali’s response.

The article, “Keeping the Faith,” contributed to the existing broad-based literature on the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir despite its surface analysis. Apparently, it attempted to contextualise the ban on an organisation whose popularity, the article concedes, “supersedes that of any political group in Kashmir today.” However, I believe that the article, in its orientation and details, highlights what is important, but hides what is crucial. In the process, the distinct history and character of the Jama’at became a serious casualty.

Given that the Jama’at leadership is behind bars and cannot respond to any misrepresentation of their organisation and its history, I expected extra caution by the author and The Caravan in their analysis. A skimmed reading of primary sources, or at least a thorough reading of secondary sources, would have helped in an appropriate analysis. Besides, The Caravan is an opinion maker for Indian readers, and specific omissions could be misleading. This brief rejoinder highlights a few such glaring omissions and factual inaccuracies in the article.

The article, after an elegiac cadence, makes a bizarre claim that the Jama’at advocates the creation of an autonomous state of Kashmir governed by Islamic law. This is a flawed assertion ascribed to the Jama’at because it considers Kashmir an unfinished agenda of partition. Through its official journals, Azaan and Moomin, and in multiple resolutions passed by its advisory council, the Jama’at has insisted that Kashmir is a disputed territory. The Jama’at wants the implementation of the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions or tripartite talks between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir to resolve the dispute.

In fact, this is the same rationale that led to the separation of the Jama’at-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir from its parent organisations—the Jama’at-e-Islami Pakistan and the Jama’at-e-Islami Hind, which the article ignores. On the contrary, the historian Alastair Lamb, noted in his book Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy that Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a former union minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet, believed that the National Conference leader Sheikh Abdullah was responsible for Kashmir’s political drift “towards the creation of what might be called a mini-Pakistan, an autonomous (if not fully independent) state which was in its essentials Islamic.”

In its bid to analyse the Jama’at’s history in relation to local political parties, The Caravan’s April article ignores the fact that the Jama’at was born as an extension of the Islamic revivalist movements that challenged the secularisation thesis across the globe. The underlying innuendo of this territorial dislocation of the Jama’at reflects a reductionist view—possibly stemming from a limited observation—and restricts the Jama’at’s popularity to the National Conference’s politics.

The article further states that the Jama’at challenged Sufism in Kashmir, which is also factually incorrect, because well-known Sufis had founded the Jama’at in Kashmir. The scholar SS Hussain wrote in Faces of Resurgent Kashmir that Moulana Saad Ud Din, the founder of the Jama’at in Kashmir, himself was a descendant of a reputed Sufi family. “Instead of confronting tradition he used it for the promotion of his ideology,” Hussain wrote.“He didn’t forbid people from participating in Sufi rituals.” Hussain further noted that Saad Ud Din translated Sufi texts and popularised them. The Jama’at corrected the Sufi practices that were antithetical to its own principles. In fact, scholars who identified with the Sufi tradition later vindicated these changes adopted by the Jama’at. The author Asadullah Aafaqi wrote in his book Hayat e Sheikh-ul-Alam that the antithetical practices were also previously criticised by the greatest figure of the Sufi tradition in Kashmir, Sheikh Noor Ud Din, in his magnum opus, Kalame Sheikh-ul-Alam.

Furthermore, the article states that political Islam is “represented in Kashmir primarily by the Jama’at,” but Kashmir’s history argues otherwise. Historically, Islam in Kashmir has never been apolitical, Hussain wrote in his book. The first preacher of Islam in Kashmir was Syed Ali Hamdani, a scholar from the Kubravi Silisala, a Sufi order, and a great statesman. Coming from the Sufi order, he wrote a magnificent treatise on Islamic politics. Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom, another towering figure in the region’s Sufi tradition, was instrumental in getting Kashmir annexed to the Mughal Empire. According to Aafaqi, the Kashmiri saint Sheikh Noor Ud Din frequently confronted the ruling regime, and fought against the feudal lords and clergy while drawing his resistance from Islam.

Ian Copland, a historian and academic, has noted that Kashmir has been “Islamized” since 1930 and was never apolitical in religious terms. The author FM Hussain noted that Abdul Qadeer, too, was an activist of the pan-Islamic movement of Jamal-ud-din Afghani—a philosopher whose impact on Islamic political thought is still unmatched. In 1931, Qadeer delivered a famous speech that led to a people’s revolt against the ruling regime. Hussain further wrote that the impact of faith on politics in Kashmir could be gauged from a speech by Abdullah, in which he referred to Qadeer. “Be prepared to be sacrificed for the sake of Islam,” Abdullah said. “Be prepared to be sacrificed for the sake of the helpless prisoner, Abdul Qadeer Khan, raise subscriptions from his defense.” According to Lamb, even Abdullah saw his real base of power as Islamic. In Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, Lamb noted, “There can be no doubt of the powerful presence of the Islamic factor … perhaps the major fault of the British at the time of the Transfer of Power was to ignore it.” Their accounts indicate that Kashmir witnessed the acme of political Islam in the 1930s.

The co-existence of different religions is among Islam’s basic tenets—it is one that the Sufi tradition follows, but it is not specific to it, as The Caravan’s April article projects. In his book, What Happened to Governance in Kashmir, the scholar AA Wani wrote, “The Jamat has never indulged in Hindu-Muslim hatred. In fact, when, for the first time after 1947 some ugly anti-Hindu incidents took place in a part of south Kashmir in 1986, the Jamat-i-Islami demonstrated the essence of Islam in practice by protecting and sheltering the terror-strickenHindus.” Wani further quoted a Times of India report from April 1986, which stated, “Curiously, while accusations were raised against some members of secular parties, we find no evidence of the involvement of Jamaat.”

It is also pertinent to mention that Kashmiriyat is not a representation of Sufi traditions but a proxy for Indian nationalism, which was reinforced and reproduced by conflict managers and anti-Kashmir elements to serve their purpose of divide and rule in Kashmir. In a paper published by the Columbia Undergraduate Journal of South Asian Studies, the research scholar Karan Arakotaram noted that “Kashmiriyat is an artificial, asymmetrical construction advanced by nationalist elites.” He added that the National Conference and Abdullah had “raised the pitch of the Kashmiri ethnic identity, Kashmiriyat, to such heights that the religious edge of that identity had been subdued.”

The Caravan’s April article further accuses the Jama’at of a “deep-rooted” opposition to Abdullah on land reforms at a point when the Jama’at was insignificant and apolitical. Surely, an accusation with such conviction merits a credible reference, but the same is missing in the article.

It is disingenuous to say that the Jama’at was “never able to make significant inroads” into the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, as the article claims. Attributing such an inability on the part of the Jama’at in electoral politics misleads readers. Paul Staniland, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, identified an important aspect of the region’s politics in an article he wrote that was published by the university’s policy-research organisation, the Pearson Institute. In Kashmir, Staniland wrote, the “local politics is carefully controlled and manipulated” by India. The journalist Tavleen Singh echoes a similar point in her book, Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors.

VM Tarkunde, a former judge of the Bombay high court, wrote in the March 1990 issue of the journal the Radical Humanist that Kashmiris were denied “the right of self-determination by India on irrelevant grounds.” Tarkunde added that the government of India “had no confidence in the people of Kashmir” and that ”this was evident from the fact that every election in Jammu and Kashmir, except the one in 1977, was rigged at the instance of the Indian Government.” Similarly, Wani wrote that the announcement of every election would usher in mass arrests of Jama’at members and sympathisers.

The author ignores the statements of the Jama’at leadership, and instead quotes the Muslim United Front leader Abdul Ghani Bhat on the 1987 elections to argue that the motive of contesting in the polls was to “educate and engage youth.” However, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the separatist leader and a former member of the Jama’at, refuted these claims in his autobiography Wular Kinarey. He wrote that the 1987 assembly elections was not an exercise in youth engagement, and that it was an endeavour to empower the MUF to “challenge the accession” of Kashmir to the Indian union “on the floor of the house.” Syed Salahuddin, the MUF candidate who went on to head the Hizbul Mujahideen, has also refuted Bhat’s argument and made no bones about the purpose behind fighting elections. In a March 2015 interview, Salahuddin explicitly said that if the MUF had won the elections, they would have tabled a resolution for the right to self-determination. To reduce the MUF’s agenda in the 1987 elections to youth engagement is to blur history.

Yet another allegation that The Caravan’s April article levels, without evidence, is that the Jama’at has distanced itself from “the politics of self-determination altogether.” This is in flagrant disregard to the regular press statements of Jamaat, in which it continues to advocate the right to self-determination. It is rare for the Jama’at’s official mouthpiece, Moomin, to publish any issue without mentioning and reiterating this demand. In fact, every district-level congregation of the Jama’at concludes with the secretary general’s speech, in which the right to self-determination has remained a pivotal issue. In his maiden speech before the Jama’at’s house of representative, the newly elected head of the Jama’at, Hameed Fayaz, also reiterated this stand. Unfortunately, brushing these facts under the carpet presents a concocted history to the readers.

While, the article attempts to reduce the Jama’at to social services and educational activism, it paradoxically argues that the reason to ban the Jama’at is to curb its resistance to electoral politics. In fact, the ban on Jama’at is a symbol of repression—it is also the continuation of the Indian diplomat Brij Kumar Nehru’s vision to “wipe out Jama’at from Kashmir.” While Delhi derides resistance, it loathes the Islamic identity of Kashmiris. It is pertinent to mention for readers that the Jama’at has always preferred a democratic solution for Kashmir, but India’s failure to honour democracy and live up to the values of freedom has resulted in an ultra-marathon of oppression in Kashmir.

Basharat Ali’s response:

The response to my essay by a fellow research scholar is welcome so far as it adds to the collective understanding of the subject. The respondent has almost assumed a representative character by emphasising that “the Jama’at leadership is behind bars and cannot respond to any misrepresentation.” The truth is that we are both outsiders to the Jama’at and therefore should not be constrained by its doctrinaire principles, and as such must approach the subject objectively and without any sentimentality.

There are two overriding points of criticism running through the rejoinder to which I would like to respond. The first one is that I have “distorted” the history of the Jama’at by making some “glaring omissions.” The beauty of history—any history—lies in the fact that it is just like photography. Each historian gets to choose not only his frame but a frame of reference too. The selection is conscious and not because the author is interested only in a “surface analysis” and has not done a thorough study of the primary or secondary sources—something the respondent will not be accused of by me. The selection of facts, as with frames, is done based on individual biases and all frames are equally truthful and equally distorted. There is no one true history—all histories are distortions for some and truthful for others. Note that the bias must not be seen in a negative light but as a positive tool in any type of scholarship in social sciences. As the historian EH Carr wrote in What is History? “The best historian is the historian with the best bias.” Now the question emerges, how do we judge a historians bias? Carr noted that the “bias of the historian can be judged by the hypothesis which he adopts.”

If the respondent had carefully read my essay, there are a few clear hypotheses I adopt. The first one concerning the Jama’at in Jammu and Kashmir is that since its inception and throughout its evolution to the present day, it has often made strategic choices that appear to have compromised its core ideology in order to fit into the political landscape of the place. There are others concerning the Indian state’s timing and purpose of banning the Jama’at, but they are irrelevant to this rejoinder.

Now that my bias is clear, I would choose to highlight only the relevant facts. But history is not mathematics that we have a set target and we pick a method that guarantees the solution that we seek. The rejoinder does this in order to present the Jama’at as the only party in Kashmir resisting India’s rule, and consequently as a victim of the Indian state’s repression. The respondent quotes Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s autobiography, as noted in a Kashmir Life report, to argue that the MUF’s decision to contest the 1987 elections “was not an exercise in youth engagement.” However, the same report also quotes another section of Geelani’s autobiography, in which he distanced himself from the background of the creation of MUF. He wrote, “By the time I was out (of jail), MUF was born. I have no contribution in its constitution”.

In social sciences, we study actors in relation to other actors to examine how the politics of individual groups is influenced and informed by developments and processes within, between, and outside of each group involved in the politics of contention, and not alone by their ideology or state repression. Thus, the Jama’at cannot be studied alone from its historical and ideological vantage point but in a relational field where it is continuously evolving and transforming to fit into the changing political landscape of Kashmir. Some call it realpolitik, others can call it hypocrisy, but none of the two positions distorts the history of the Jama’at or monopolises it. Syed Salahudin’s interpretation that a win in the 1987 elections would have allowed them to table a resolution for the right to self-determination is as right as Abdul Ghani Bhat’s interpretation. By seeing these significant historical events in such a unidimensional way, the respondent reveals that he has failed to understand my argument about the Jama’at distancing itself from the politics of self-determination. For the respondent’s clarity, this was written only in the context of the response from the Jama’at to the third ban imposed on the party early this year.

Interestingly enough, the respondent does not have any issues with any of the arguments I have made in my essay, except for one which makes for his second point of criticism—that political Islam in Kashmir cannot be attributed primarily to the Jama’at. The rejoinder states that the Jama’at in Jammu and Kashmir has a “distinct” history and cannot be studied in relation with the politics of the place but only as part of the Islamic revivalist movements. It argues that “Islam in Kashmir has never been apolitical.” This stems from a gross misreading of political Islam as a project and a lack of a nuanced understanding of the rich historical relationship of Islam and politics.

Political Islam is not a generic label for any political activity in Muslim history. Twentieth century political Islam offers a comprehensive political alternative, not just to liberal capitalism, but also to Western modernity altogether. Political Islam became codified with the writings of the Islamic theologian and philosopher Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi and others. The respondent, however, appears to have confused political Islam with Mysticism—which did not emphasise on the creation of an Islamic state—and also with Sheikh Abdullah’s use of Islam for political mobilisation towards a modern secular state. Thus, to imply that the political disposition of revered Sufis such as Syed Ali Hamdani and Sheikh Noor Ud Din is indicative of political Islam is a reflection of the author’s deep misunderstanding of both their politics and the notion of political Islam as a modern project.

The response refutes my assertion that the Jama’at challenged Sufism in Kashmir by arguing that they only “corrected the Sufi practices that were antithetical to its own principles.” But by noting that it was “corrected,” the respondent effectively concedes that it was challenged. The author also quotes Ian Copland to argue that “Kashmir witnessed the acme of political Islam in the 1930s.” However, Copland’s argument is the opposite. He argued that the region-based political movements do not axiomatically arise out of religious affiliations of a community but need certain intervening “temporal” factors for coherent mobilisation.

Both as a political project and an ideology, political Islam gave birth to many revivalist movements in different places, but these movements cannot be conflated with or replaced by the ideology that drives them. Social and political movements driven by different ideologies are rooted in history. They are set in specific social, political and cultural contexts and respond to the local demands accordingly. They are expressions of specific social and political situations presented in the language of ideologies. If Islamic revivalism is all that mattered, why did the Jama’at in Kashmir need to establish a separate unit and part ways from the Jama’at in India? The aspiration for power and the necessary ideological compromises required to tread that path cannot be ignored.

Be it Islamist parties in West Asia or the Jama’at-e-Islami in Kashmir, they all aspire for power and use Islam as a conveyor belt to transform the society according to new principles. But they do not do so in isolation. They operate in a field where they are presented with different challenges by different actors and in most cases are repressed by the existing political establishments. It is in response to the challenges and different forms of repression that parties such as the Jama’at reorient their politics, which often pushes them to change and even make compromises on earlier positions. Remember, Maududi, the founder of Jama’at-e-Islami, was not always a fan of the idea of Pakistan or its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The Jama’at in Kashmir did not always refer to the UN resolutions for the solution of Kashmir dispute, but in fact considered UN as an illegitimate body at one point. The respondent highlights “for readers that Jamaat has always preferred democratic solution of Kashmir” but does not explicate how. Maududi, at one point in time, rejected jihad in Kashmir but later called upon the state of Pakistan to wage jihad in Kashmir for its liberation from India.

The leadership of Jama’at has always been divided on the issue of its participation in elections as much as on its participation in militancy. They lack clarity and coherence in explaining their past and present position on militancy and elections. The idea of contesting elections has not been completely shelved either. In 2015, Mohammad Abdullah Wani, who was the amir-e-jama’at—the chief of the Jama’at—at the time, told Kashmir Life that the Jama’at needs a peaceful environment to participate in elections. Moreover, when a reference is made to a “democratic solution” preferred by the Jama’at in the context of Kashmir, one could ask—a solution derived from the secular democracy that India claims to follow or the Maududian theocracy that the Jama’at aspires for? To see the Jama’at in isolation from the politics it contests and outside of the power structure within which it has evolved and operated provides a synthetic analysis and, consequently, an overly simplistic understanding of the party.

We cannot, as the respondent does, argue that the Jama’at was “merely insignificant and apolitical” at one point and attribute its electoral failures to “manipulation” by India alone at another point. The fact remains that the Jama’at was an insignificant player in the electoral politics of Kashmir and to compensate for that, it sought alliances and coalitions—not only from parties with similar objectives, but also from parties such as the Jana Sangh, the predecessor to the Bharatiya Janata Party, in order to unseat the National Conference. Altaf Hussain Para, in his recently published book on Sheikh Abdullah, The Making of Modern Kashmir, noted that the political analyst Sheikh Showkat Hussain has said that the “central government deliberately made the Jammat-i-Islami party, which was not a measure political force in the state, to win five seats in the Assembly.”

It is true, as I wrote in the piece, that the Jama’at’s popularity supersedes that of any political group in Kashmir today, but only as far as its political objectives are concerned—for instance, to merge with Pakistan. The support for Pakistan in Kashmir should not be confused with the support for the Jama’at as a party. These are two different things. The separatist leader Masrat Alam is a staunch supporter of Pakistan but is not a member of the Jama’at.

The rest of the facts highlighted in the response are important and add valuable detail to the subject. It does not, however, contribute in a substantial way, and fails to push the sympathisers, members, and student activists of the Jama’at to revisit the relationship of their party with the idea of political Islam, and with Kashmir’s political history and its future. The student activists from the Islami Jami’at-i-Tulaba—the Jama’at’s student wing—in particular, must see the ban on the Jama’at as an intellectual and political opportunity to revive and redefine these vital links. Kashmiris must not miss what is important to both the Jama’at as a political force and the larger politics of resistance in Kashmir. It is time to move beyond echo-chamber rhetoric, something that was the objective of my essay, and give up the self-righteousness that makes parties claim to be the only rightful custodians of the resistance movement in Kashmir. It is time to engage in some critical self-reflection. That shall not cost much.