In Kashmir, A Village And Its World

In Kashmir, A Village And Its World

7 February 2012
The Hindu
Praveen Swami

Budgam: Late in the summer of 1993, local legend has it, as Indian troops stormed into the village of Soibugh in search of a man who commanded the feared Hizb-ul-Mujahideen he was turned by miraculous intercession into a black rock. “No bullet will find him”, the revered local cleric, Ali Pir Haqqani, is said to have prophesied, “for his star is to shine over two countries”. “It is true,” insists college student Javed Ahmad, irate with the sceptical hearing his story receives, “ask anyone.” He is right: Muhammad Yusuf Shah didn't die, and his star did shine over both India and Pakistan. Its light has waned, though, in the village he called home. In 2008, his first wife, Taja Begum, was among thousands of residents who defied secessionist calls to boycott elections to Jammu and Kashmir's legislature. In 2010, as riots ripped through much of urban and small-town Kashmir, Soibugh was quiet. Last summer, four in five Soibugh voters turned out in local elections. Rural bourgeoisie In the years since Shah set out to build an Islamic state, his family has become an entrenched part of Kashmir's rural bourgeoisie. First-born Shakeel Ahmad Shah, works in the Soura Medical Institute's microbiology division; Javed Ahmad in the education department; Shahid Yusuf in the agriculture department; Abdul Waheed Shah is studying medicine; Mueed Yusuf, the youngest, is working towards a Master's degree in technology. The jihad commander's elder daughter, Athara Yusuf, teaches at the middle school in Budgam. The men who fought for Shah's cause, often unlike their orchard-owning commanders, aren't doing all that well: in neighbouring Wadwan, Mukhtar Ahmad and Ghulam Hasan Dar do piece work weaving shawls; Muhammad Asharf works as a carpenter; and Manzoor Illahi drives an auto-rickshaw. “Life is precious,” Mr. Illahi says of his decision not to fight on with the Hizb, “and I thought I had suffered enough. This life isn't much better, though”. In urban Kashmir, men like these have provided the organisational backbone to the urban rage that drove violence in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The police allege, for example, that Srinagar resident Abdul Qayoom Beigh, imprisoned from 1991 to 1993 on charges of helping the Hizb, mentored several young men engaged in violent clashes in 2010. His recruits were, the police say, in the main prospect-less young people from Srinagar's decaying inner city neighbourhoods. Soibugh, though, is booming: funds pumped into the Budgam area for construction of a railway line, public works like school and road construction have led to a property-market boom, growing entrepreneurialism, and a new class of contractors with wealth to pass around. Men like Mr. Illahi are outliers, condemned by their past to a life with few prospects. In 1987, then a candidate for the Jama'at-backed Muslim United Front, Shah lost an allegedly rigged election to the National Conference - leading him to cross the Line of Control to a training camp in Pakistan. Now, two of the Soibugh cluster's three sarpanchs - Ali Muhammad Wani and Abdul Gani - are perceived as having Jama'at endorsement. A large number of Jama'at cadres have also found a political home in the People's Democratic Party. Local sectarian politics - Budgam's Shi'a minority back the National Conference - has spurred on the pace of political mobilisation. The sole violence seen in recent weeks was a small verbal clash, provoked by irate villagers who claimed that the National Conference-affiliated sarpanch Fayyaz Ahmad had told officials they had terrorist links. Faith and the future Faith, rather than organised politics, seems to the guiding light of computer-student Ahmad's generation. The pietist Tabligji Jama'at, arguably the largest neo-fundamentalist proselytising organisation in the world, has struck roots - helped by the setting up of spanking-new seminaries affiliated to the great Dar-ul-Uloom at Deoband, including Maulvi Abdur Rashid's Dar-ul-Ulom Bilalia and Mufti Nazir Ahmad Qasmi's Dar-ul-Uloom Rahimia. Kashmir's Barelvi tradition, hard-hit by violence attributed to Shah's Hizb and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, is also showing signs of revival: preachers like Ghulam Rasool Hami and Abdul Rashid Dawoodi draw large audiences. The fact that the National Conference and PDP both have young leaders doesn't seem to have compensated for their lack of a coherent ideological message of change. Evidence of a tide of religiosity emerged in a recent survey of media use by young people by the New Delhi-based Institute for Research on India and International Studies: more than quarter of 61 per cent listened to religious sermons. Figures showed that violent ideas have an audience; a quarter of young people listened to jihadi speeches, for example. Less than three in a hundred respondents, though, said they wanted an Islamic state - the idea Shah was willing to die for. Later this month, Wadwan student Tufail Ahmad will set out on a 10-day tour with the Tablighi Jama'at to Bhopal. “My friends think I'm crazy,” he says wryly, “to spend Rs. 10,000 of my own money on Tabligh, instead of jeans. But this is my jihad.” “Kashmir,” Shah prophesied last month, “will soon be free.” Prophecy is a dangerous business - and there's some reason to believe Shah doesn't believe his will come true any time soon. In 2010, he married Noorjehan Baba, widow of a former Hizb fighter, at a quiet hotel ceremony in Islamabad; his family in Soibugh did not ask for passports so they could attend.