A Political Struggle, Not a Religious Battle

  • Hafsa Kanjwal
  • Publish Date: Dec 19 2016 9:35PM
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  • Updated Date: Dec 19 2016 9:35PM
A Political Struggle, Not a Religious BattleFile Photo

When Burhan Wani was killed, the mainstream Indian media and the hyper nationalist Indian twitterati did not stop at any lengths to label him an Islamic radical and a terrorist, given his affiliation with Hizbul Mujahideen. The media frenzy seemed even more heightened given the sheer mass of people that attended his funeral. The strategy was simple: label them as Muslim terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, and their struggle will immediately be undermined.

 International media, however, has been careful not to utilize that type of language when narrating the tale of Burhan and the subsequent aftermath. Some have called him a rebel, while others have labeled him a militant leader. Skimming through a number of international media outlets, most have mentioned that the Kashmir issue is at the very least one of human rights, if not of greater political aspirations that have been denied. 

In a world in which any type of Muslim political action or demand is deemed along the same lines as ISIS, with equivalent paranoia, this is a small, but important victory for the Kashmir struggle, especially in light of the lethal Indian propaganda. To be sure, pro-freedom Kashmiris, including the leadership, have consistently attempted to portray the struggle as one of the denial of political aspirations and subsequent human rights violations, not a historic conflict between Hindus and Muslims, nor a religious battle.

Nonetheless, Burhan Wani, and others, did join the Hizbul Mujahideen, a religious-political outfit. They believed they were embarking on a jihad (struggle) against the Indian state. Their rhetoric incorporates religious language and symbolism. So, can we dismiss the role of religion entirely? 

While those on the right only see religion, others, mostly on the left, dismiss these factors as simply being instrumental – religion always stands for something else, and comes to symbolize something else. It is used primarily because of its ability to serve as a “rallying cry.” Take, for example, a telling quote by one observer: “It is only when you don’t leave people with any choice that they turn to God. That is when the Islamisation started.” (link: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/good-kashmiri-bad-kashmiri-the-view-of-a-jnu-student-leader/story-wmXdp8Tc3qHfff4Dh2IGNO.html) In this view, one’s religious identity is relegated to a particular private sphere, and only emerges once all other options have been spent.

This view is as simplistic as one that solely focuses on the role of religion. It does not take into account the critical role that religious identities have played in shaping Kashmir’s history. It assumes a binary between the religious and the secular, a binary that is, as many scholars have argued, not necessarily productive when attempting to understand non-Western (or even Western!) societies. An individual’s religious identity may inform how he/she sees the world; in many cases it deeply intersects with a desire to fight for justice, or defines what justice is. It is, however, not the only factor. Others include ones upbringing, life experience, educational background, and so on. 

Religion also plays an important role at the level of community.There is a history of religion being used by the state to demarcate particular rights and privileges to certain groups, while also utilizing some groups over others. The religious question is therefore shaped and reshaped by both state and non-state actors. 

Here is where the case of the new Kashmiri militancy comes into play. How do we understand the religious subjectivity of the militants? What, for them, constitutes a jihad? How do we understand the role of the state in shaping this militancy? Instead of creating binaries, can we imagine new, interactive possibilities for how political desires are shaped? 

Kashmiri Muslims are well aware of the international fears of Muslim political desires. They have attempted to be careful, emphasizing the underlying root causes of the conflict, focusing primarily on the right to self-determination. This is despite the fact that serious attempts have been made by various agencies to brand the cause as Islamic extremism or radicalism, infusing it with an ideology that is constructed with the sole purpose of delegitimizing the struggle. 

The same, of course, happened in occupied Palestine. In the post-9/11 context, however, the Palestinian solidarity movement has been able to represent its struggle in terms that have given it support from a wide variety of individuals and organizations from diverse backgrounds. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is a prime example of this development. 

That the international media has, for the most part, not fallen into the same traps as the Indian media when discussing Kashmir (although they have their own limitations in terms of not covering Kashmir and levels of self-censorship) is, at this stage, something that cannot be taken for granted. Kashmiris are now presented with an opportunity that allows them to express their political desires in ways that are inclusive and progressive, while creating new possibilities for understandings of Muslim politics. 

(Hafsa Kanjwal is a Kashmiri doctoral candidate in History and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)