Kashmiri youths wave the flags of Pakistan and Islamic State (ISIS) during clashes between protesters and Indian government forces in Srinagar. Photo: AFP

Radicalization at the hands of Islamist forces like the Islamic State and the revival of militancy in the restive north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has become a concern for not just the Indian government, but also separatists.

Around a dozen family members of Jammu and Kashmir police were abducted by militants recently, in separate incidents, in southern parts of the Kashmir Valley. The insurgents released all captives – but with a warning that they will kill family members in the future if state police do not give up their counter-insurgency operations within three days.

The militants said the abductions were a “reaction” to police attacks on their homes, including detaining and torturing their family members.

An uneasy situation has lingered in the north since the killing of Hizbul commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani in July 2016. Last month, the Indian government appointed SP Malik as state governor. Malik succeeded NN Vohra, who was largely regarded as the “People’s Governor” during his more than 10 years in power.

Malik’s appointment is of critical importance, given the intensifying conflict and the government’s plan to hold local urban council and Panchayat [village-level] polls, despite a boycott by separatists.

Unusual intolerance

The historic Jamia Masjid in the summer capital Srinagar, where senior separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq gives weekly Friday sermons to thousands, has become the focus of unusual intolerance in the past months.

After congregational Friday prayers pitched battles between protesters and Indian security forces have become an almost “weekly ritual” at the mosque in the congested town of Nowhatta. But more shocking incidents are now occurring.

On August 17, masked protesters, chanting pro-Islam slogans, stormed and vandalized the mosque. Witnesses say the protesters pulled out bricks from the 14th-century structure’s pavement to throw at police and paramilitary forces in the area.

On the preceding Friday, the same downtown area witnessed a deadly scuffle in which one person was stabbed and left “critically wounded.” Locals say the clash was over “ideological differences on Kashmir” with disagreement over “support for Islamic State or Pakistan.”

According to police records, both the assailant and victim were “chronic stone pelters” involved in several “anti-national activities and jailed numerous times in the past.” Police filed a case of physical assault but the complainants did not report the “actual reasons” behind the scuffle.

“How could you tell police that it was a case where one group supports the ISIS and the other Pakistan? That way both would end up being seen as militants. This clash had been brewing since their previous brawls inside a jail,” one local said.

In May, some local clerics challenged each other for a roadside debate on Islam at the historic Lal Chowk, Kashmir’s commercial hub. The debate ended with the clerics exchanging blows in full public gaze

The region has been a hotbed of aazadi [freedom] sentiment since the 1990s, when armed insurgency erupted in the Valley. Interestingly, even though the separatist leaders vehemently reject ISIS ideology, the terror outfit’s flag was reportedly first waved in Kashmir outside the Jamia Masjid in 2014. It was also outside the same mosque that mobs chanting pro-Islam slogans lynched police official Muhammad Ayoub Pandith in 2017.

While support for ISIS is a concern largely at the Jamia, Islamic scholars have been in news elsewhere for their fistfights.

In May, some local clerics challenged each other for a roadside debate on Islam at the historic Lal Chowk, Kashmir’s commercial hub. The debate ended with the clerics exchanging blows in full public gaze, but the police didn’t register a case. “No one came forward with a complaint … Such clashes (between Imams) have become a routine now,” a top police official told Asia Times.

Beyond the “traditional rift” between Shias and Sunnis – the two main Islamic sects at loggerheads for centuries – in Kashmir, Saudi-backed Wahabi groups often clash with Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought, headquartered in Uttar Pradesh state.

“Scholarly clashes” in the Valley range from social media wars with provocative video clips, to roadside brawls, at times witnessed even on rooftops of mosques.

Now, government officials are also being targeted for their beliefs. On August 18, Srinagar District Commissioner Syed Abid Rashid was vehemently abused for tweeting greetings on the birthday of Shah-e-Hamdan. A 14th-century saint from central Asia, Hamdan is believed to have introduced Islam in Kashmir and his shrine lies in the summer capital.

Responding to trolls, the young officer wrote: “Are you for real???Dispensing certificates of who is a Muslim & who is not? U need to learn your History & Culture, U need Moderation, U need to understand that Islam is a Religion of Understanding & Tolerance, U need to become a true follower of Islam before representing Islam! (sic)”

Fears of civil war

In October last year, soon after his appointment as the Interlocutor on Kashmir, former spymaster Dineshwar Sharma said the biggest challenge and top priority in Kashmir was to de-radicalize its youth and militants.

“I am worried about the people of Kashmir. If all this picked up, the situation will be like Yemen, Syria and Libya. People will start fighting in so many groups. So, it is very important that everybody, all of us, contribute so that suffering of Kashmiris ends,” said Sharma, an old Kashmir hand, who previously headed India’s Intelligence Bureau for two years.

In April, veteran separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani also urged religious preachers and “people not to fall prey to conspiracies aimed at dividing people to trigger a civil war in Kashmir.”

Speaking to Asia Times, Kashmir’s head priest and pro-freedom leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that ongoing incidents could drag Kashmir towards war.

“Such problems are quite natural because we’re are in a conflict… Lack of space for discussions, debates and understanding encourage a hardening of stands and radical thinking. Though the intensity [of such incidents] is coming down, it needs to be addressed and we’re are working on it,” Farooq said.

“Breach of unity shouldn’t start from the mosque and it is the job of the Ulemas [religious scholars] and mosques to address such issues. But then, we can’t overrule the fact and deny that some vested interests want voices from Kashmir to be fragmented,” said Farooq, who is also the custodian of Jamia Masjid.

“It may be very minuscule but some amount of support for ISIS is there and it’s very important that youths need to be educated about the facts,” he added.

Farooq also blamed social media for the current mess. “The negatives of social media cannot be ignored where you frame your ideology and pass sweeping statements on ‘with us or against us with no space for middle path’.”

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