Moderate Face Of Kashmir Survives Ugly Conflict
29 June 2004
Srinagar: When Mehvish Bhat returned to Kashmir at the height of an insurgency against Indian rule, she realised with dismay there was nowhere to get her hair done, her nails manicured or her skin properly looked after. Her response was to open Srinagar's only beauty parlour. 'It was like a taboo here,' she recalls. 'Initially, we didn't see any response. I had to go and get girls to come. The girls had so many skin problems.' The girls themselves were enthusiastic, even if their parents were cautious, she says. But the real problem came from Muslim militants fighting a 'holy war' against Indian rule and trying to impose a strict interpretation of Islam on the Kashmir valley. 'We received letters and threatening calls. A lot of times people with guns came and told us to close,' she said. Mehvish resisted those threats, even after militants burst into another salon just down the road in 2000, shooting and wounding two people. Today the Afreen beauty parlour remains a modest undertaking, easily missed up a flight of stairs in the narrow streets of central Srinagar. But it is a symbol of Mehvish's determination to give the women of Kashmir the chance to look after themselves. And a symbol that moderate values are still just about alive in Kashmir despite the dreadful polarisation of civil war. 'Our religion doesn't say you can't take care of yourself,' she said, her maroon lipstick, red nails and beautifully shaped eyebrows the salon's best advertisement. 'No religion stops you being hygienic.' A GENTLE WAY OF LIFE Today Kashmir is famous as one of the world's most dangerous places, a potential nuclear flashpoint that has twice brought India and Pakistan to war. Its beautiful Himalayan peaks stand guard over an ugly war between the Indian army and Muslim rebels, both sides blamed for gruesome crimes against civilians. But there was a time when Kashmir was better known as the heart of Sufi Islam in the subcontinent, a gentle place more famous for its poets and its writers than its gunmen. Everything started going wrong after 1947, when the princely state became a bone of contention between newly independent India and Pakistan. In 1989 things began to spiral downwards when local Muslims rose up against the perceived injustices of Indian rule. Kashmiri rebels were joined by Pakistanis and Afghans, carrying with them the idea of a 'jihad' or holy war. As poison filled the air, more than 200,000 Hindus fled the valley which had been their home for centuries. In the early 1990s, jihadis began trying to impose their vision of Islam on the Kashmir valley. Many women who refused to cover themselves in the all-enveloping burqa were shot in the legs or had acid thrown in their faces. Yet these were ideas which the people of Kashmir, even the Muslims, have mostly rejected. Today, women walk the streets of Srinagar with a scarf tied around their hair but seldom with their faces veiled. Despite the troubles, many Kashmiris are proud of that fact. Some say the secret lies in their sufi faith, a mystical form of Islam often thought of as more liberal than the more demanding Sunni Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia. Others find something common to both Hindus and Muslims from the valley, a consensual approach, a temperament rooted in Kashmir's history of multiple faiths and peaceful conversions. 'Ideologically the people of Kashmir are more tolerant, accommodative and moderate people,' said Professor Noor Ahmed Baba of the University of Kashmir. 'We don't like violence for the sake of violence. We are a peace-loving people.' As he sits on the shores of Srinagar's idyllic Lake Dal, roses blooming in his garden, it is easy to be seduced by Baba's vision of a tolerant and moderate Kashmir. Outside the reality is less tranquil. Fifteen years into the rebellion, half a dozen people still die every day at the hands of one side or the other. A TROUBLED PRIEST Mirwais Umar Farooq is Kashmir's chief priest, a charming and erudite 31-year-old and a potent symbol of moderate Islam and moderate opposition to Indian rule. But he is worried about how society is changing after 15 years of war. 'There is degradation, moral corruption, moral bankruptcy, there are no morals in our society,' he said. 'Kashmir is at the crossroads today.' Everywhere he looks, Farooq sees crime, intolerance and a breakdown of society and the sense of community. At the same time, a whole new generation of young people are turning away from moderate Islam and towards 'harder' versions of the faith, he said. 'They are trying to get everything out of religion,' he said. 'It is very dangerous. They are frustrated, they don't know what to do, so they turn religion in a very hard way. They don't seem to understand the niceties of religion.' Farooq's concerns are understandable, even more so after his uncle was killed in a grenade attack on his house last month blamed on militants angry at the family's moderate stance. Less high-profile, Mehvish says she is left alone by the militants these days. In her modest salon she dreams of the day Kashmir can once again find a more tolerant future. 'Kashmiris are very broad minded,' she says. 'Had this not happened, we would have been more Westernised than any other country.'