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Kashmir: From Sufi to Salafi

November 4, 2012 by  
Filed under internal security

I haven’t found more information in an article on Kashmir than this one; never before. If you have the stamina to absorb and understand the real problem which afflicts Kashmir today, one to which most people are blind because of the lack of background knowledge, then please read this slowly, and then re-read it again. 

-Editor

Dastergeer-Sahib-shrine

The Dastageer Sahib shrine in Srinagar caught fire last June. Its destruction led to tensions with the Salafis.

The jihadi campaign in Kashmir appears to be on its last legs, but it has left behind a troubling legacy in the shape of a rising Salafism that is in conflict with the state’s centuries-old Sufi traditions.

BY TARIQ MIR
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ABID BHAT
ILLUSTRATION BY KARTHIKEYAN R

One sunny afternoon in April last year, Maulvi Showkat Ahmed Shah, controversial head of Jamiat-e-ahle Hadith, local moniker for hardline Salafis in Jammu and Kashmir, was walking along a crowded bazaar of Islamic bookstores, automobile spare parts, barbecue and electrical goods in an old and dilapidated locality of Srinagar, the capital.

The drains overflowing with human waste, mounds of garbage and a jumble of tightly crammed box-like houses with rusty tin roofs were as wretched as the snow-topped ridges of the Himalayas surrounding it were majestic. Its maze of narrow alleys was the place where nearly 50 people were killed in January 1990 when state troops fired on demonstrators demanding that Indians leave Kashmir.

More than two decades later, the sense of siege was still strong. Sandbagged bunkers, loops of barbed wire and armoured vehicles mounted with machine guns ringed the neighbourhood as if it was a prison camp.

On this Friday, as he had done for nearly ten years, Shah, a wiry and mild-mannered man in the mid-fifties, wearing a frizzy beard, fur cap and long tunic over baggy trousers strode past the soldiers, stopping on occasion to shake hands with deferential traders shutting their businesses for his Friday sermon. As loudspeakers atop the minarets of mosques in the area hummed with the voices of worshippers at prayer, Shah, leaving his two armed guards behind, turned into an alleyway towards the back door of a Salafi mosque, a route he had always followed.

A bicycle placed near the door didn’t seem to trouble him, much less warn him of impending danger. As he took his first step into the doorway, a heavy explosion from a remote-controlled bomb rigged to the bicycle knocked him down, shrapnel shredding his body. Shah, a survivor of earlier assassination bids, died on the way to a city hospital.

For the natives of Kashmir, no strangers to bloodshed, the murder of the head of a growing religious movement was a step too far, an “unholy deed” made all the more unconscionable by the spilling of blood at the mosque door on the Muslim Sabbath.

Condemnation of the murder was fast and wide. In an atmosphere of anger and suspicion, the authorities—already besieged by allegations of complicity in the killing—announced the arrests of six men, estranged comrades of Shah in the Salafi movement. According to police, the detained men, in collaboration with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani jihadi group active in Kashmir for the last two decades and blamed for the Mumbai carnage in 2008, plotted the murder of the cleric. Lashkar, whose cadres follow Salafi Islam, said its own probe found “the killers within us” murdered Shah. Many viewed this not as a public apology or admission of guilt but a blunt warning that betrayal of the Islamist struggle in Kashmir would be met with force.

Shah, a scion of one of the notable Salafi families in Kashmir, was in the eyes of some Salafis responsible for an act of unforgivable perfidy: he forswore his loyalty to the fight for liberating Kashmir from “idolatrous” India, and made peace. He changed from fiery Salafi orator and jihadi commander in the early 1990s to head, ten years later, of a more than one-million-strong group aiming to cut its ties to the resistance.

“ Shah, a scion of one of the notable Salafi families in Kashmir, was in the eyes of some Salafis responsible for an act of unforgivable perfidy: he forswore his loyalty to the fight for liberating Kashmir from India, and made peace. He changed from fiery Salafi orator and jihadi commander in the early 1990s to head, ten years later, of a more than one-million-strong group aiming to cut its ties to the resistance.”

Shah was sitting astride a divide that few in Kashmir’s bloody history have succeeded in navigating. The explosive combination of politics and a militant Islam that he encouraged fuelled a radical movement infused with jihad, intolerance, radicalism and a contemptuous disregard for Kashmir’s nearly 700-yearold tradition of Sufi Islam, whose practices are offensive to the puritans.

The introduction of the Salafi school in Kashmir goes back nearly a hundred years but such was the belief in the local traditions of Sufi Islam that the puritans remained on the remote fringes of Kashmir’s religious and cultural life. That began to change as the insurgency gathered force from 1989. A struggle for a separate homeland featuring mass protests, acts of sabotage, hit and run attacks against military units and Kashmiri Pandits was met with force.

Soon, hordes of Pakistan-trained jihadi groups, fresh from their success against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, hijacked the local sentiment for aazadi (freedom), transforming the struggle into a continuation of their holy war for an Islamic caliphate. Local Islamists like Maulvi Showkat helped, playing on the fears of the people on how the massive army presence was fast erasing Kashmir’s Muslim identity, and how their only hope lay in joining the holy war for establishing a universal community of believers. They found wide acceptance for this kind of radical Islam, unheard of before in Kashmir.

For decades now, Kashmiris have harboured this existential fear of becoming culturally homogenised into a larger India, a fear that stemmed from its lost political autonomy that successive governments in New Delhi undermined after it joined India at Partition.

By 2002 and the years that followed, New Delhi through a combination of force and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to stop its covert support of jihadis in Kashmir, had quelled the insurgency, killing and arresting many. But militant Islam took root in the cultural landscape. Shah, sensing the change and eager to preserve the theological creed of his sect focused on preaching conservative values, building hundreds of madarsas and mosques, setting up social welfare centres but stopping short of rebuilding ties to the jihadi groups. All this was possible thanks to the petrodollars that Saudi Arabia, the home of Salafi Islam, was pouring into Kashmir while New Delhi looked the other way.

The material assistance was complemented by training hundreds of young men in the Islamist discourse in many universities of Saudi Arabia and sending tons of free Islamist literature. All this while a suspicion that Shah was a pawn in the hands of Indian security agencies was gaining ground, a political transgression which was reason enough for Salafi extremists to plot his assassination.

The rise of this doctrinaire sect has raised a host of questions. Is Kashmir making a cultural shift toward a more hardline Islam at a time when the larger region is so convulsed by Islamic radicalism? What will become of its cultural traditions that for centuries have defined Kashmir’s unique identity in the region? Has the Central government’s refusal to offer political concessions brightened the appeal of militant Islam? How might unorganised believers of Sufi Islam wrestle with foreign cultural practices in an age of satellite television, free media and travel? Or will Sufism soften this hard faith as well, serving as a lesson to the larger region riven by Islamic extremism?

“ Is Kashmir making a cultural shift toward a more hardline Islam? What will become of its cultural traditions that for centuries have defined Kashmir’s unique identity in the region? How might unorganised believers of Sufi Islam wrestle with foreign cultural practices in an age of satellite television, free media and travel? Or will Sufism soften this hard faith as well.”

Noorbagh is a suburb in the northeastern corner of Srinagar—a few miles from where Shah was killed—spread out along the willowy banks of the Jhelum. A narrow, broken alley leads to the gates of an outsize Salafi mosque with a large dome and minaret soaring over the rooftops of houses whose open windows look on its fenced-in compound. The structure, grey and all concrete, is among nearly 700 places of worship Salafis have built in neighbourhoods like Noorbagh all over Kashmir.

In a typical old Kashmiri neighbourhood, your association with a particular mosque was scarcely a measure of your sectarian belief.

But that was before the Salafis.

In their world the purity of the faith cannot be tainted by impure polytheistic practices of Sufi Islam, so only a separate place of worship can secure this puritan sensibility.

One warm Friday last fall, the three floors of the mosque were packed with mostly young worshippers of varied social backgrounds.They awaited in silence the arrival of Abdul Lateef al-Kindi, Kashmir’s Salafi poster boy. A plump and priggish man of 46, al-Kindi has a thick salt-and-pepper beard, and a reputation for controversy with his deeply polarising views. His popularity comes from having lived and studied in Saudi Arabia for 18 years, where he earned a PhD in Islamic studies.

Like many graduates of the Islamic University of Medina, he goes by his nickname, al–Kindi. It’s a growing trend; young Salafis in Kashmir adopt an Arabic-sounding moniker to show their proximity to Islam’s birthplace. Al-Kindi is the lone doctor of divinity, but about 200 other graduates from the university help him reinforce the puritan creed. They not only preach in their mosques but are also schooling a new generation of students in a narrow interpretation of the faith at a madarsa in Srinagar.
In days gone by, religious instruction was invested in a hereditary pir, a religious figure endowed with holiness, either by his lineage traced to the Prophet Muhammad or because of his interpretations of the religious text. In the new socio-religious order, though, al-Kindi is instructing his followers to interpret the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet for themselves. This, in the view of many, is shaping new attitudes that challenge the traditional and is making the ground fertile for sectarian divisions.

A mile or so north of al-Kindi’s mosque an ugly brawl broke out in Palpora in October last year. A few families who had adopted Salafi ways in recent years were beginning to assert the primacy of their creed in the locality. Young men bustling with the zeal of new converts and encouraged by their clerics were questioning the authenticity of certain traditions followed by the majority of worshippers of the Hanafi school, a tradition compatible with Sufi Islam. The irony lay in the fact that that a few years earlier, these Salafis saw nothing wrong in the practices they were railing against now.

Police stepped in to defuse tensions and many separatist leaders went to the area to restore calm.
The Salafis broke away from the community, setting up a makeshift mosque in a nearby apple orchard.

Al-Kindi strides past the rows of men to the recess in the front wall, mounting the pulpit behind the carved lectern. He loses no time laying out his vision of Islam for Kashmir: a total break with the past is a religious imperative to build a pious society of believers evoking the spirit of Islam observed 14 centuries ago in the Prophet’s time.

The Salafi worldview that the centuries-old Kashmiri tradition of venerating the tombs and relics of saints is outside the pale of Islam, belonging instead to Greek and Hindu mythologies, is the sort of iconoclasm that is typical of a Salafi in Kashmir. To become a “real Muslim” both the body and the soul have to be cleansed of the sins of the past before it is imbued with the true and pure faith. It matters little that traditions are intertwined in the tapestry of social and cultural life.

The exquisitely built mausoleums and shrines were not just a place of contemplation, they served as centres of craftsmanship and community centres in times of economic trouble, a sanctuary in times of political persecution. More importantly, they were monuments to the memory of the saints whose spiritual powers had healed people in distress and formed the bonds of brotherhood.

Al-Kindi’s sermon is a measure of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour that a Salafi cleric can violate. It’s all right to ridicule the local tradition of visiting the mausoleum of a saint, whip worshippers into a frenzy over Western aggression in Muslim lands, decry the acceptance of Western values, and blast Palestinians for living like Jews.

Yet he isn’t willing to take talk of home. He cleverly skirts the problems in his backyard, as if life is but a long dream in Kashmir. A few months earlier the head of their movement was killed in a bomb explosion by his cohorts; less than a year before, more than 100 young men died in demonstrations against the security forces, when troops fired at stone-throwing protestors in a six-month-long standoff in the summer of 2010.

A few of the dead came from the area where al-Kindi delivers his Friday sermon. For many Salafi adherents it is like an act of treachery—talking about everything under the sun but remaining silent on Kashmir’s travails.

Many feel it is a glaring contradiction in a movement that for years openly confronted the Centre. In return for their silence, the Salafis are free to preach their sectarian theology, benefiting from an unrestricted flow of Saudi petrodollars.

While researching this story, I kept meeting young Salafis complaining how a police official, posing as a Salafi, was being used to keep tabs on the “internal workings” of the movement. I received a telephone call myself one morning from one of the top office-bearers of Jamiat ahle-e-Hadith suggesting I meet a police officer, a Salafi follower.

On a cool October morning, I meet Mohammad Irshad, a 38-old police officer wearing a striped blue shirt and denims. He has a self-possessed manner. Clean-shaven Irshad, an oddity for a Salafi who as a trademark wear long beards, is part of the security apparatus fighting the Pakistan-supported jihadis in Kashmir. He is a self-confessed Salafi. He doesn’t see a contradiction in this; he believes that the “extremist elements” within the movement are encouraging a political confrontation but the current leadership is concentrating on preaching their puritan faith.

To him, jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba are a “perversion of the Salafi school of thought.” It was the political aspect of his beliefs that put him at odds with others in the Islamist movement.

For some Salafis, it isn’t just doctrinal primacy that is alluring, but also the chances of social mobility. Al-Kindi’s ascent is a testament to it. He was raised in a remote and poor area of southeastern Kashmir. Transport, healthcare, safe drinking water and electricity were scarce. For him it must have opened up a world of opportunities when, after madarsa in Srinagar, he was recommended by the Salafi leadership for higher religious education to Saudi Arabia.

In the five years since his return, he’s been a star attraction at large gatherings held to recruit fresh members, a permanent fixture on television discussions of Islamic theology, a popular teacher at a Salafi college in Srinagar, where nearly 200 students from low income families are studying to be clerics.

In the afternoon we drive to al-Kindi’s rented apartment in a relatively prosperous locality of big houses with fenced-in compounds, stretching along the barbed wire-topped boundary wall of a sprawling army camp smack in the centre of the city. The three-room flat is temporary accommodation for his family; he is building a house in a new suburb of Srinagar.

In Kashmir, families prefer a spacious house with a walled garden and a small kitchen garden at the back. Apartment blocks have never met with approval. But constructing even a modest house is becoming difficult as the price of real estate in Srinagar explodes. But al-Kindi is managing well.

We sit on plastic garden chairs inside his makeshift library of Islamic jurisprudence and history. A book on the Saudi royal family is displayed proudly on a shelf. Al-Kindi does not hide his admiration for the custodians of the Salafi school. I ask why the sect is gaining in popularity.

“Then, we didn’t have the support we have now,” he says fingering his two cell phones. He is referring not just to the free Saudi printed literature available to anyone who cares to read, but tools of modern technology, the Internet, mobile telephone, satellite television, popular carriers of their message for the masses. A short video clip of Tauseef-u-Rehman, a popular Salafi cleric in Pakistan—calling for the implementation of Islamic law in all Muslim societies—features on the cell phone of devotees, a perfect synthesis of religion and modern technology.

As we talk late into the afternoon, I hear children giggling in the nearby courtyard. Al-Kindi excuses himself and returns after a few moments, irritated. The neighbourhood boys were playing with his children, he complains. He shooed them away, reprimanding them for spoiling his children.

“I don’t want my children to be spoilt by outside influences. I forbade them from playing with these boys,” he exclaims.

Clearly, al-Kindi is as much a strict enforcer of the dogma among his children as among his followers. Finally, I ask why he mentioned the Palestinian political dispute with Israel in his sermon but avoided speaking about Kashmir.

“You know under how much pressure we’re working in Kashmir. You have to be careful about what you say in sermons, speeches. We have been instructed by our leadership not to talk politics.” Laying out a guideline for a devotee that makes Islam simple and easy to follow is his contribution to a society traumatised by living in a militarised zone.

Kashmiris have been described as a peaceable people inhabiting a land called Pir Vaar (the garden of saints) in a turbulent region surrounded by powerful neighbours. It was their reputation for offering little resistance to successive foreign invaders in the last nearly 450 years that became, in the view of so many natives, the bane of their existence.

An already weak sense of identity was further undermined after 1947 and union with India. For some it was the combination a of loss of identity and frustration with the political status quo that made the appeal of militant Islam hard to resist.

The mid-September breeze is refreshing. The ripening rice fields, apple, pear and walnut trees abundant with fruit form a lovely tableau of the pastoral life against the lofty ridges of the Himalayas. I’m driving to the village of Boniyar, northwestern Kashmir, on a smooth, tarred highway. It’s about ten miles short of the Line of Control. The army is everywhere, heavily fortified military camps, checkpoints, olive-green armoured vehicles, army convoys, and tall, strapping soldiers clutching automatic rifles.

Farooq Ahmad Bhat, a 29-year-old MPhil student is a former guerrilla fighter who lives in an area where for generations a moderate version of Islam flourished, a part of which was the annual commemoration of the birth anniversary of a Muslim saint. The day featured a visit to the tomb for blessings and a special meal at home for friends and relatives.

A bachelor, Bhat comes from a family that reveres mausoleums and shrines and believes them to be a part of Kashmir’s cultural history.

A stout man with an easy manner, a small beard and a head of slicked back black hair, Bhat is a rebel in many ways. He feels the mere act of visiting a mausoleum and venerating it is a sign of weak Muslim identity, which should be jettisoned for something that emphasises an Islamic identity.

His explanation, like many among the young in Kashmir, is that identifying Islam with shrines and mausoleums is portraying an image of tolerance, pacifism and meekness. This, he feels, encouraged foreign invaders to occupy Kashmir. A hard faith, in his view, is needed to save not only Kashmir’s Muslim identity but to liberate it from the “infidels”. His transformation, though, happened at the unlikeliest of the places: a high security Indian prison.

On a cold night in the winter of 2002, up a steep path to the pine forest not far from his home, soldiers laid siege to his hideaway, an abandoned shack of rotting timber and mud. He and his comrades kept firing for two hours; they were captured when their ammunition was exhausted. Bhat was tortured for two months at an interrogation centre.

“They gave electric shocks to my genitals, inserted a rod laced with the red hot chili up my backside. A big wooden roller with two people sitting on either side was rolled on my thighs and I wasn’t allowed to sleep for days,” he remembers.

Bhat feels the mere act of visiting a mausoleum and venerating it is a sign of weak Muslim identity. Identifying Islam with shrines and mausoleums is portraying an image of tolerance, pacifism and meekness. This, he feels, encouraged foreign invaders to occupy Kashmir. A hard faith, in his view, is needed to save not only Kashmir’s Muslim identity but to liberate it from the “infidels”

It was a Salafi legend in Kashmir that Pakistani jihadis captured in the first years of the campaign and lodged in high security prisons outside Kashmir, played a key role in evangelising local youth imprisoned at the same time for political activities against the government. Bhat was one such case.
After the two-month stretch at various interrogation centres, he was shifted to a prison in Jammu.

Fahadullah Rabbani, a Pakistani seized in a firefight, was held in the same prison. Rabbani—deported to Pakistan in 2009 after 16 years—already had a reputation as a pious man. A month after Bhat was brought into the prison they ran into each other while collecting their rations. Rabbani invited him to join his “lectures on Islam” which he held three times a week. Piles of Salafi literature were available inside the prison. Bhat was amazed at how prison officials would dispatch a list of books to be ordered from shops in the city whenever jihadists asked.

At first their iconoclasm infuriated Bhat but slowly Rabbani’s emphasis on Tawhid (the oneness of God), piety and Islamic brotherhood began to have an effect. Bhat began to see in Salafi doctrine a means not just of purifying Islam of its centuries-old eclectic influences but evolving a brand of Islam in Kashmir that would rid it of the taint of meekness and pacifism.

For about two years he read from the works of the greatest Salafi Islam’s icons, Ibn Tammiyah and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and then engaged in debate with jihadists about the finer nuances of the Salafi doctrine.

Seven years after he was set free, Bhat represents the intersection of politics and religion within the Salafi movement in Kashmir, advocating an uncompromising anti-India stand and the imposition of puritan values in a place where religion was always a relaxed affair. His hard-line outlook is influenced as much by his encounter with jihadists as by the experience of government oppression.

We take a walk to a clearing on a hillside where he points out nearly 70 “unmarked graves”. Further north, more graves dot the landscape. A Kashmir-based human rights group has discovered nearly 2,000 such graves in the last few years. Some of the nearly 8,000 men who, in their words, “disappeared” in captivity might have ended in them.

“This was how India responded to our demands for political rights. By killing our innocent people,” he says. As a 10-year-old boy he watched security men bringing in the bodies of “terrorists” shot, as they said, in skirmishes at the LoC, telling the local population to bury them. The disfigured faces of the dead still haunt him.

If al-Kindi represents the side of Salafism that espouses conservative values and the Islamic spirit, Bhat exemplifies the face of political Islam within the movement. These are the two differing views fracturing the puritan agenda in Kashmir. For many followers, apart from the divisions in their ranks, it is the gradual acceptance of the extremist doctrine of takfir, (a heretical belief held by some Salafis calling for excommunication and, in extreme cases, the killing of a Muslim thought to have deviated from the path) that alarms them. It was extremists from this group that plotted the assassination of Maulvi Showkat Ahmed Shah.

Discussions in the sitting rooms of Kashmir are now are no longer just about the intractability of their dispute and the hardships of life in a militarised zone. The fear of sectarian strife breaking out is voiced as clearly.

What fuels the anxiety is a constant stream of news about the bombings of religious places by rival sectarian militias in Pakistan. Kashmir may not take that fratricidal step but the conditions that led to the violence in Pakistan are not absent from Kashmir: vocal sectarian groups with access to funds from dubious sources are engaging in mutual vilification campaigns and gaining increasing sway in matters of social importance.

Looking back on the days he spent with the Salafi priest Purra concluded that it was a dogma with no spirituality. ‘To retain our identity we have to ground our political movement in our cultural traditions and customs. It is all the more important now for us to stand united. All these ideological forces wanting to fight on our behalf have no role in this and we should not encourage them’

According to Shahid Yusuf Gilkar, a post-graduate student of linguistics in Srinagar, the conversation among his friends earlier used to be politics involving Kashmir, India and Pakistan, but in the last few years the debates are increasingly polarised on sectarian lines about which sect is theologically superior.

I have detected a wariness among locals about talking openly about this polarisation. They talk freely, though, in private about the fear that disagreements among various sects only strengthen their political opponents. But very few will speak out.

Even the local English language and regional newspapers hardly reported the public spat in Palpora. All they did was to report the statements of various religious and separatist leaders calling for people to beware of the “paid army of maulanas” inciting hatred among the people.

G N Gowhar, a 73-year-old retired judge and writer, is one of the few brave ones. “It is not just one sect but students from other seminaries, too, who are coming here and sowing discord. In this they have been helped both by India and Pakistan for many years,” he says, sitting on an overstuffed chair in his living room in Srinagar.

“Pakistan Islamised the dispute to woo the jihadis and India depicted the struggle of Kashmiris as part of a pan-Islamic movement for a caliphate to weaken Kashmir’s struggle for self-determination.” For him, protecting Kashmir’s cultural identity, its old shrines and mausoleums, is key to keeping the dream of a separate homeland alive.

For a community living in the one of the world’s most militarised zones with a political status they question, to be at odds with itself is a nightmare for a leadership that represent its aspirations for political autonomy. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, head of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, blames New Delhi for sowing division in Kashmir.

“India wants to project that religious division is a bigger problem in Kashmir than the political problem. It’s creating chaos,” he told Friday worshippers at Jamia mosque in Srinagar earlier this year.
He said millions of rupees were being spent on promoting a particular sect. “Sufism in Kashmir has its icons and roots in Central Asia, not in India. The attempt to Indianise Kashmiri Sufism and Islam is fraught with danger and we will oppose it tooth and nail,” he said.

Al-Kindi’s rants against Sufi Islam have galvanised its devotees to show off their strength in the land of saints and mystics. Last year, hundreds of men in green turbans gathered at a park in Srinagar for a rally organised by the Barelvi school. People were bussed in from various parts of Kashmir for the gathering. The ambassador of a Central Asian country was among the speakers. Nobody knows who paid for the event.

The Barelvis represent a syncretic form of Islam closest to Kashmiri Sufism. In the last few years the Barelvis placed themselves at the vanguard of Sufi Islam in Kashmir. The doubters point to its proximity to the political establishment in New Delhi. Many believers of Sufi Islam see them as “outsiders with a hidden political agenda”.

Syed Gulzar Qalandar is a mystic who, his disciples say, has slept only on a few rare occasions in the last 20 years of self-absorbed meditation and prayer. A small, slender man with a long beard and serene face, Syed Gulzar appears all the more otherworldly in a white scarf held in place by a striking blue bandana tied around his head. He speaks with a soft voice so low one has to strain to hear him speak in reverence of the Creator and His love for the people who do good deeds and help ease the suffering of the poor and needy.

The mystic, who renounced the affairs of life at a very young age to spend time in contemplation, is the antithesis of the aggressive, priggish, and iconoclastic Salafi adherent whose bruising mockery of the mysticism Qalandar espouses—a tradition going back nearly 700 years when Islam came to Kashmir preached by saints and mystics from the Central Asia—was encouraging young and well read students into the open to defend a respected tradition. Almost a dozen young men with knitted skullcaps over long black hair that fell to their shoulders were close followers of the mystic.

Sameer Purra, a 22-year-old studying to be a doctor, is among them. Purra, a mild-mannered man who, unlike his friends, wears his hair short, grew up in an old part of Srinagar. He went to a local mosque in the neighbourhood for his prayers. There, he came under the influence of a priest who turned out to be a Salafi.

For a time Purra was fascinated by his discourse on Islamic history and the need for taking Islam back to its pure past. But he grew irritated each time the priest spoke disrespectfully about the local belief in mystics and their spiritual powers. Purra could not tolerate the tirade and decided it was time to cut off ties with the priest.

Looking back on the days he spent with the Salafi priest he concluded that it was “a dogma with no spirituality” and was apprehensive about the rise of what he described as foreign ideologies spewing sectarian hatred and intolerance.

“To retain our identity we have to ground our political movement in our cultural traditions and customs. It is all the more important now for us to stand united as a people to struggle for our political rights. All these ideological forces wanting to fight on our behalf have no role in this and we should not encourage them,” he says, reflecting a belief antithetical to Bhat’s.

The town of Chrar-i-Sharif is tucked away in the hills of southwestern Kashmir, about 20 miles from Srinagar. There’s a sweeping panorama of apple and pear orchards and maize and rice fields. A pagoda style ochre roof indicates the 15th century mausoleum of Kashmir’s patron saint, Sheikh Nur-u-din, popularly called Alamdar. It’s shining in a warm fall afternoon sun. The smell of incense hangs in the air. Men and women sit in quiet contemplation on a soft green carpet around the saint’s tomb.

For hundreds of years, people of all the faiths have made their pilgrimage here, some praying for a cure to their ills, a few seeking a blessing for a better future, a couple coming to offer thanks for a wish that came true.

The prayers are not just a display of individual faith in the spiritual powers of the saint; they are equally a renewal of the message of tolerance that the saint propagated in his teachings. It didn’t matter to the devotees that in the summer of 1995 the shrine was burned down in a firefight between jihadis, who had turned it into a sanctuary and the military, who laid siege to the mausoleum; their devotion remained the same.

The prayers are not just a display of individual faith in the spiritual powers
of the saint; they are equally a renewal of the message of tolerance that the saint
propagated in his teachings. The belief in the spiritual powers of the saint is so strong that they expect miracles for ills for which there is no cure outside

The belief in the spiritual powers of the saint is so strong that they expect miracles for ills for which there is no cure outside. Abdul Gaffar, a 47-year-old farmer, comes from the village of Tral in southern Kashmir. Seven years before, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Doctors said it was at a stage where chemotherapy would be of no use. A neighbour pleaded with Gaffar to visit Alamdar.

“I had never been here before,” he says. But I began visiting every week, feeling some change in myself. My body, almost finished by the disease, began feeling stronger.”

Gaffar outlived the time he had been given by the doctors at a hospital in Srinagar. Two years after he began visiting the shrine, he visited the doctor again. He was stumped. Gaffar told him the story about the miracle. He said the doctor, never a believer in miracles, comes to the shrine from Srinagar to pray.
Gaffar’s miracle cure has no medical explanation. Yet his belief in the healing powers of the saint fits in with age-old practice of turning to the mausoleums in the times of personal distress and suffering.

At a time of fast moving ideas and doctrines backed by tools of modern technology, foreign donations and the encouragement of state actors, can this practice survive?

Sufi Islam’s greatest strength in Kashmir was its ability to absorb cultural influences of other traditions and retain its appeal among peoples of all faiths and sects, giving rise in time to a culture of diversity and mutual tolerance.

But there’s been little tolerance on display in the last few month of shrine and mosque burnings. Some six places of worship have been either completely or partially burnt in mysterious fires.

The most tragic was the destruction of the Dastageer sahib shrine in Srinagar, a splendid nearly 200-year-old structure of carved wood and papier mâché. Men and women mourned outside as it went up in flames.

At first, it was thought faulty wiring caused the fire but that was ruled out as power to the area had been cut off at the time. Most people believe this is an act of arson but investigations have so far have revealed nothing of the sort.

As mourners outside the burning shrine cursed the Salafis for creating an atmosphere of hate, some Salafis began posting incendiary messages on Facebook, terming the destruction of the shrine a “divine act of God”.

Sectarian tensions are no stranger to Kashmir. Sunni-Shia divisions have flared up in the past but with the intervention of community heads of either side, passions would invariably cool.

Today, however, the voices calling for tolerance and moderation are drowned out by a torrent of religious rhetoric encouraging hatred against each other.

Many feel it’s a bomb waiting to explode. Given the high levels of security prevalent here, Kashmir may not go down the path of Pakistan’s fratricidal strife. But there’s a dangerous likelihood of ever-present resentment between entrenched religious groups, one that would emasculate Kashmir politically.

Back in the narrow, twisting alleys of Gawkadal, where Maulvi Showkat was killed in a bomb explosion, the neighbourhood and the rest of Kashmir was commemorating the hanging of Maqbool Bhat in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail on February 11, 1984.

Bhat, a Kashmiri nationalist, was persecuted both in India and Pakistan for his fight for an independent homeland. Hundreds of policemen were deployed in the locality to thwart protests in a neighbourhood long used to protests against New Delhi.

Twenty-eight years after his hanging Kashmir still simmers with restlessness and hope for a better political future. This constant political ferment has made the ground in Kashmir conducive for foreign ideologies.

The demand for azaadi is unwavering but so is the commitment of the jihadis to mould this struggle into their extremist vision for a common Islamist bloc in the region. New Delhi’s refusal to concede further ground is only brightening the appeal of these ideologies.

(Tariq Mir is a Persephone Miel fellow at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, filing from Kashmir.
Abid Bhat is a photojournalist based in Srinagar. This article first appeared in Fountain Ink)

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