Alexander Evans, a Research Associate at King's College London, is a regular commentator on Kashmir for BBC World Television, Reuters, AFP, and others, and is the author of numerous articles on contemporary politics in Jammu and Kashmir.

What, if anything, is belief-based about the Kashmir conflict? Many people suggest that Hindus and Muslims are exploiting religion, but that the issue is basically a political one.

My own view is that most of the conflict in Kashmir is actually a conflict over real estate and over symbolism, and religion doesn't play a great part in it. But that's probably unfair for me to say in totality because the only people who have been fighting Indian rule have been Muslims.

Obviously the temple situation is an issue in India as a whole. In one case, Hindu nationalists are insisting that a temple be built on the site of a mosque that was razed during Hindu-Muslim riots. Do shrines or sacred spaces play a role in Kashmir specifically?

Kashmir has always had a fairly good track record of Hindu-Muslim relations,particularly in the fabled Kashmir valley, the beautiful part of the state.Muslims will, in a sense, often engage in Hindu practices. Examples relateto marriage ceremonies, where they do the same things Hindus do. They'recultural things, not necessarily things that would indicate a willingness toembrace Hinduism as a whole.

Many Hindus also attend Muslim shrines, such as the Sufi shrines in Kashmir,like Chrar-i-Sharif. Particular forms of Islam have emerged in the last fewhundred years in the Kashmir valley that are quite syncretic, and that manypeople of a fundamentalist persuasion would describe as heretical. Thosetraditions have survived even through violence. You still see Hindu familiesvisiting Muslim shrines, and Muslims engaging in activities that would notbe considered orthodox for Muslims.

Hindu nationalists see the temple-mosque issues as an affront to the Hinduintegrity of India. There's been a sustained campaign by Hindu nationalistsgoing back to 1950s arguing that Muslims have sought to undermine HinduIndia--with its strong roots, old roots. They see the activity of militantsin Kashmir as one sign of that attempt to undo India. It's not a veryaccurate perception, but it's very powerful.

Do the two groups hold any saints in common?

Yes. For example, there's a woman saint called Lalla-Ded. Again, it's not orthodox behavior. The group would be considered modernizing Muslims, and equally a group of modernizing Hindus would reject this behavior. They'd consider it inaccurate, a corruption of religion.

Recently there was a news report of Kashmiri Muslims joining Kashmiri Hindus in praying for peace.

It's quite possible. Sometimes people want to eulogize [shared Hindu-Muslim traditions] and turn it into a parable about how great relations are between the two different communities. One has to be careful, because it isn't that great and things deteriorated quite rapidly in the 1990s.

Some Hindu nationalists complain of Indian government subsidies for other faith groups, claiming it pays for Muslims' trips to Mecca, etc.

There have been issues about government involvement in religion right back to the 1950s, and even before that, when a Hindu prince ruled the state. For example, the maharajah of Kashmir banned the eating of pork in the state.

More recently, in the 1980s, there was a dispute over whether Muslim government employees should have access to prayer rooms in the State secretariat in Jammu, the second city of Kashmir. The prayer rooms are located in a government building. It's quite controversial, the question of whether the government should allow a prayer room in a government building.

There have also been complaints about the lack of a uniform civil code--for example, relating to Muslim marriage laws.

That's an all-India issue, not specific to Kashmir. There have been issues over whether India should recognize different communities and their separate legal traditions. Or whether it should not be offering distinctive rights to different faith-based communities, but impose a uniform civil code.

There's a continuing debate between nationalist Hindus, traditional, somewhat left-leaning secularists from the Congress party, and leaders of minority communities, both Christian and Muslim, and Sikh to a lesser extent, over what secularism entails in the modern state. Does it involve the state taking a distant role towards faiths? Does it involve the state endorsing a majority faith? Or does it involve the state ceding special rights, or what are perceived as special rights, to separate communities?

I think the conflict in Kashmir is much more driven by militancy and the policing--by violence--of different communities. Extremist Muslim militants have engaged in massacres of Hindus in more religiously mixed areas. The Kashmir valley is predominantly Muslim, but it used to have a population of 160,000-180,000 Hindus, and almost all of them have left. They blame ethnic cleansing for their departure. Some people would argue that they left because they were frightened as a group; they weren't necessarily forced out of their houses. But there are very few Hindus left in the Kashmir valley, maybe 3,000-5,000. The Christian community is tiny, perhaps fifty to a few hundred families. The Sikh community, which used to number 30,000-50,000, by the early 1990s had also dwindled in the face of a massacre of Sikhs in March 2000 and a subsequent massacre. And don't forget the Buddhists living in Ladakh. They want to stay with India, but want more autonomy.

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