India congratulates itself for its tolerance of different religions. While India truly is a home to some of the biggest religious groups on the planet, it is losing its credibility on treating different religious groups equally.
The current imbroglio in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is a clear fight between Hindus and Muslims though our media, politicians and analysts would like to describe it as political situation that has gone out of control. The pent up hatreds are coming into the foreground. That is causing a dent in the image of India’s tolerance.
For many years now, millions of Hindus from all over India have thronged to Amarnath in Kashmir to pay visit to their gods, and for most part, their visits were peaceful, though Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim region. Now, a new controversy has been created when a certain tract of land was allocated for taking care of visiting Hindu pilgrims. Kashmiri Muslims opposed such a move by raising the objection that it would lead to permanent settlement in the region thereby leading to change in demographics of the region – which is sacrosanct in that state since Indian Independence. The government acquiesced to roll back the decision on allocation of the land. I am not sure if such an allocation was right and if the roll back was wise. But what followed next was quite idiotic – very characteristic of modern but religious India.
Hindus in Jammu took umbrage at this roll back and came onto streets to protest- defying curfews and targeting minority Muslim population in Jammu region. These protestors include ordinary people, housewives, college girls, school children, the middle class and poor- not exactly the political goons as you may want to believe. Some protestors who defied the curfew died in police firing. One of the TV reporters commented, ‘Kuch Paane ke liye, Kuch Khone Padtha hain’, clearly showing his sympathy to Hindus. What he meant was, to gain something one has to lose something. Little did he know that he was actually voicing opinions of many Hindus in India who think it is time to get to streets to fight for Hindu dignity which they believe they have lost to Muslims for many years now – starting with Ghazni’s raids into India more than thousand years ago!
That ‘losing something’ involved death of few protestors in Jammu. ‘Gaining something’ involved the pride of Hindus.
To push Kashmiri Muslims into a corner, to stifle them, so that they learn their lessons, so that they dare not defy the might of Indian Hindus ever again, these protestors in Jammu defied curfew to completely block the roads going to Srinagar. This economic blockage of Kashmir Valley was justified by Hindus as a necessary measure to bring the government to its knees. One leader of Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti says :
We knew that unless Kashmiris are made to feel the pinch, the government will not pay attention.
Very soon, the Kashmiri Muslims started to feel the pinch. There was shortage of medical supplies and other essentials in the valley.
Kashmiri Muslims could not even sell their apple produce to earn their living. Meanwhile, Hindu Jammu was gleaming in pride that they have made Kashmiri Muslims suffer. One Samiti convener has this to say :
People in Jammu too are suffering as a result of the blockade, but no one is worried about us. As always the interests of Kashmiris are paramount.
The hypocrisy is not lost. First, you go ahead and create an economic blockade thereby inflicting pain onto others. Then, you sympathize with yourself saying that you too have suffered because of the blockade which you created in the first place.
Kashmiris look towards Pakistan
This event alone has done more harm to Indian cause in Kashmir than the last twenty years of army rule there. In a poll that was conducted by Indian Express in 87% favored independence, and only 3% wanted to merge with Pakistan, less that those who favored staying with India at 7%.
Now, this economic blockade showed Kashmiri Muslims where Indian Hindus really stand. If needed, they are ready to starve them and cut them off to subjugate them. The frustrated Kashmiri Muslims, who were deprived of medicines, and who had to put off their weddings because of shortage of supplies, took to streets. Since India was not ready to let them earn their living, they looked towards Pakistan, and marched towards Muzaffarabad in POK or Azad Kashmir to sell their produce. That meant defying India. Naturally, they were stopped by Indian Army resulting in killing of few marchers. After that, more and more Kashmiri Muslims thronged streets in Kashmir Valley defying curfew orders resulting in more killings. One couldn’t help but notice many Pakistani Flags being waved on TV.
If there was any trace of goodwill that India garnered, it was flushed down in one go.
Current episode debunks India’s credentials
The fabric of Indian secularism is laid bare – it is seen as hollow. It is clear that this whole fight in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is religious in nature. The clichéd idea that J&K is single state is a chimera. It is clear once again that people of Kashmir feel and act quite different from people of Jammu.
The present crisis erupted because of a harbored feeling within Jammu inhabitants who felt they were being sidelined in the state – that only Kashmir gets all the attention while Jammu has to get a step-brotherly treatment, that it has pay the price for India’s obsession with its secular credentials.
BJP and Jammu people contest that the share of Jammu in legislature is lopsided favoring Kashmiris. Citing the number of voters, which is not the right way of looking at it, they come to a conclusion that indeed their percentage share in the state is less. However, this myth is exploded. It is the population that should constitute the share not the number of voters. Some people may or may not vote – for example, in Naxal regions, the voter turnout it usually less. That does not translate into less number of legislators from those regions.
Though this contention from BJP and Jammu is fabricated, it goes without saying that there are many differences between the two regions to warrant bifurcation (or trifurcation) of the state. Every episode in the last many years clearly indicates that Kashmir and Jammu are not similar in religious composition, language, ethnicity, and aspirations. Why the pretense to hold the state together instead of dividing it on the basis of religion (Hindu/Muslim) or language (Dogri/Kashmiri)? Why doesn’t India come to terms with realities and understand that aspirations of Kashmiris in the Valley are very different from those living in Jammu? Why don’t we call spade a spade?
That’s because we continue to delude ourselves that India’s identity is opposite to that of Pakistan. Since Pakistan believed a nation could be formed on the basis of religion, India believes the exact opposite – that it is home to many religions and that a religion should never be an identity to discuss autonomy. Since it negated the idea of creation of Pakistan on the basis of religion, it continued to subdue and suppress all separatist movements in Kashmir which sought autonomy on the basis of religion. India continues to believe that it is tolerant- so tolerant that no religious group would ever seek separation of either a state or nation based on religion. If such a movement exists it casts a blind eye, or gives different interpretations, or accuses neighbors of fomenting such nefarious ideas in its otherwise innocent citizens, but it never admits that religion is an identity that needs to be addressed as a group.
India lives in an illusion that its democracy and religious tolerance are inalienable and inviolable characteristics of India and that nobody can debunk or puncture these widely held principles. If any counter-evidence is produced, it rubbishes that evidence. This is no different from holding onto any ideology that blinds people from reasoning. Indians are blinded by constructions of their own superiorities, such as democracy, secularism (ingrained in Hinduism, not Constitution), and religious tolerance, and they never question these belief systems.
Kashmir exposes India’s illusions
India lost all its bonhomie it created in the last many years with just one event of Amarnath controversy. It is clear where Indian Hindus stand. When it comes to protecting their interests, which can be as trivial as allocation of extra land for their pilgrims, India can choke a population of minority religion into submission by starving them if necessary. This is not just confined to Kashmir. In Gujarat, India casts a blind eye to the government in power that targets certain community on the basis of religion.
With what comfort or dignity can Indian minority live in this country when the majority believes it can do whatever it wants with impunity to further its interests?
India’s credentials as a tolerant state are fast eroding. No political party can stand to the might of rising Hindus who are ready to back their position on the world stage as a dominant power, even if that means suppressing certain communities or religions. Time and again we are succumbing to religious demands and we don’t know how to deal with them. Our approach is ad hoc and most often the solutions are awkward and clumsy. On one hand we don’t want to recognize religious identities and groups as legitimate groups but at the same time we succumb to various irrational religious sentiments.
India needs to recognize a religious identity as a legitimate identity (like language, caste, region, etc) and that this identity forms a distinct group whose members may share similar aspirations. It then needs to address these groups’ aspirations within legal and constitutional confines by separating religion from state. Indians don’t know how to do that. Indians think that identifying a human as male or female would make the state masculine or feminine. A state can address religious groups without having to recognize it as an instrument of state and we need to just learn how to do it.
 Outlook, August 18, 2008