For the first time, an Indian Muslim party outside Kashmir has voiced an opinion on the state’s issues. But is there more to this than meets the eye?
In its 90-year-old history, the Jamiatul Ulema-i-Hind has battled countless crises. It faced the fury of the Raj when its members opposed British imperialism in the early 20th century. When the Muslim League, in the 1940s, drummed up the demand for Pakistan, the JUH unambiguously declared that Muslims’ destiny lay in secular India, not in parochial Pakistan. As a religious organisation comprising mainly clerics from the Deoband seminary, JUH has not treated nationalism as an article of faith. Yet, like any other mainline Muslim body outside Jammu & Kashmir, it has all these years remained silent on the Kashmir issue.
Last month it created history. The largest organisation of ulema in India, the Jamiat surprised many with two massive conferences on Kashmir — at Deoband on October 10 and Delhi on October 31. The conferences, especially the October 31 one, couldn’t have been timed more intelligently. Exactly a week before the Jamiat’s leader Maulana Mahmood Madni declared from the podium at Delhi’s Ram Lila Maidan that “Kashmir is an integral part of India”, author-activist Arundhati Roy had dropped a bombshell. At an October 24 seminar in Delhi, provocatively titled ‘Azadi: The only way’, Roy, who shared the platform with Hurriyat hawk Syed Ali Shah Geelani, had said: “Kashmir is not an integral part of India. That is a historical fact.” Predictably, it landed the writer in the soup, with the demand for charging her with sedition reaching a crescendo.
Bearded, bespectacled Madni is no match for the articulate, argumentative Roy. Yet, his constituency of Muslim religious leaders can impact and change the narrative of debate in the troubled Valley. The maulvis of Deoband neither have the mandate nor the sophistry of the Centre-appointed interlocutors in Kashmir. But they may change a long and widely held belief: “Muslims in the rest of the country are aloof from the problems in Kashmir.”
Perhaps Madni articulated this changed mindset when, while reading out the 11-point resolution at the Delhi conference, he remarked: “We don’t think the interests of Kashmiri people are separate from the interests of Indian Muslims.” As he explains, “People always asked us why we were silent on what was happening in the Valley. We may have been but there is concern – our conferences have proved that we are concerned about the condition there and sincerely want the legitimate grievances of the Kashmiri people to be addressed within the framework of the Indian Constitution.”
The separatists may, as always, reject this suggestion of a constitutional solution but the Jamiat’s initiative is nevertheless is a significant break from the past, which has excited India’s civil society. “It is a historic step,” says noted human rights activist Swami Agnivesh, who was among those who addressed JUH’s conferences. Agnivesh claims that he persuaded the Jamiat leaders to reframe their Delhi resolution which earlier said, “The Muslims of India share the grief and anguish of the Kashmiris.” Recalls Agnivesh, “Instead of Muslims of India, I told them to say ‘citizens of India’. Kashmir is the concern of everyone, not just Muslims.”
So why did Muslims, and the JUH particularly, take so long to show concern for the colossal loss of lives in Kashmir? The question is important because a section of separatists, led by Geelani, has maintained that an independent “Islamic” Kashmir is their ultimate goal. This ideology needed and needs to be refuted first by Muslims themselves. Yet, barring a few scholars and activists, Indian Muslims in general kept mum on the ‘K’ word. “Muslims were afraid that if they spoke out on human rights violations in the Valley, they would be blamed for sympathising with their co-religionists. Even if they want Kashmir to remain with India, nobody approached them before to say it loudly and collectively,” explains Kamal Farooqui, member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. “The Jamiat’s initiative to engage Indian Muslims in the Kashmir issue is salutary.”
There are, however, a few sceptics, among them Hasan Kamal, editor of the Urdu daily Sahafat. Kamal maintains that Madni, who entered the Rajya Sabha with the backing of Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, wants a re-nomination to the Upper House and is now not sure if Singh will back him again. “The massive conferences are Madni’s way of showing parties in Delhi, especially the Congress, that he has mass appeal and that he deserves another term in the Rajya Sabha,” says Kamal, who
maintains that since Kashmiris have never identified themselves with Muslims in the rest of India, it is imprudent for Muslim leaders to speak on their behalf.
Kamal also argues that if Kashmiris were concerned about the repercussions of Kashmir’s azadi for Muslims in India, they would give up the demand and try to reconcile with the changed reality. The reality is a promised plebiscite that may well remain a chimera – but a solution within the Indian Constitution, with more autonomy, will help them become part of an emerging India story.