Almost all disaffected Kashmiris are Muslims, and their opponents are almost all Hindus, but that does not mean the Kashmiri struggle for independence is entirely fueled by religious passions. The leading indigenous pro-independence movements, including the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), believe in militancy but are against the entry of militant Islamic "jihadi" groups from Pakistan into the region.
Abdul Ghani Lone, the highly respected figure in the APHC who was assassinated May 21, time and again criticized the involvement of "jihadi" groups in Kashmir. On January 4, 2001, he told the Kashmir Times that the Pakistan-based jihadis "are not for azadi [independence of sovereign Kashmir]. They are for international jihad and they have their own global agenda."
That is the position of most members of the APHC, the 23-party conglomerate that is spearheading azadi. For these activists the demand for Kashmiri sovereignty has little to do with Islamic precepts, nor do they follow orders from religious leaders operating out of mosques, whether in India or in Pakistan.
Newspapers from the Kashmir valley like the Kashmir Times, Greater Kashmir, and the Kashmir Monitor carry news items and sympathetic interviews demonstrating that important Kashmiri militants are against terrorism. They also publish at length the many atrocities committed by the Indian security forces in Kashmir. For example, the Kashmir Monitor has looked at how the army conducts "late night sweeps" only to "brutalize" innocent people.
It is widely speculated that Mr. Lone's assassination was the handiwork of jihadi mercenaries operating in the Kashmir valley. Even the normally non-committal Times of India commented June 22 that the government of India had been lax in providing security to Lone even though it was clear that he was being targeted by extremists.
On June 27, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, the APHC's single theologian of substance, told the Times of India, "Today Lone sahab was a victim, tomorrow it could be someone else, even me." Farooq has made it clear that he too finds the jihadis very objectionable.
The vast majority of news reports on Kashmir are about terrorist attacks, failed peace talks, and the Pakistan connection. Almost every day there is something gruesome to report.
Also in March, a little known terrorist group calling itself the Lashkar e Jabbar shot into brief prominence when it warned women in Kashmir that acid would be thrown at them if they did not wear the head-to-toe burqa. In addition, it admonished parents to guard their daughters closely and make sure that they did not mingle with strangers. The Hindustan Times, which has a strong readership base in Delhi and has traditionally been associated with the conservative mercantile class, gave this news item a lot of attention, accompanying the story with a boxed column entitled "Jabbar's Jabs."
When militants take over mosques, no matter how insignificant or remote they may be, national newspapers are always very interested. Such incidents give credence to the popular belief that the Kashmiri movement is principally religious in character. The presence of militants in a mosque in distant Shangus village earned space in national dailies. When jihadi militants captured a mosque in Redbug village in March, the Tribune and the Indian Express reported that they had huge amounts of arms and ammunition with them. The fact that such confrontations always involve jihadi supporters of the Kashmiri cause needs to be highlighted.
To the extent that they editorialize about Kashmir at all, most mainstream Indian newspapers and journals do not emphasize the fact that the overwhelming majority of APHC members are not motivated by religion. That would be tantamount to admitting that India's vaunted secularism-designed to enlist the patriotic commitment of citizens of all faiths-had failed. The response in the rest of India to Kashmiri militancy has been jingoistic, as if flag waving and clichéd nationalistic slogans could satisfy the longstanding and deeply felt desire for self-determination in the valley.
The Tribune, a Punjab-based daily, harps frequently on the grievances of Kashmiri Hindus, both those who have become refugees and those who have chosen to stay. A year ago, for example, it told the story of a Hindu shopkeeper who refused to leave his home in a village in Kashmir though most others had fled because "my roots keep beckoning me all the time." On March 3, the paper argued that "any move that treats these remaining Pandits [Hindu Kashmiris] in the valley as disposable pawns in a political game is shamefully reprehensible."
While other dailies do not go so far, they generally support the National Conference party, which is formally in power in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This spring both the Times of India and the Hindu, a major daily based in Chennai, criticized the Indian government for not taking the National Conference more seriously.
In fact, the National Conference, which supports greater autonomy rather than independence, enjoys little credibility in Kashmir even though its membership is almost entirely Muslim. All other major political groups support independence.
While there is no major Indian publication that favors a sovereign Kashmir, a few are willing to permit its advocates a chance to express themselves. The Hindu in particular stands out for fair treatment of members of the JKLF and moderate elements in the APHC.
Thus, only the Hindu carried an interview with the JKFP's Shabir Shah condemning the March attack on Raghunath temple. And after 27 slum dwellers were killed in Jammu July 13, apparently by jihadi militants, only the Hindu carried condemnations of the attack by APHC leaders. When a number of those leaders were arrested, the Hindu was likewise alone in reporting that it was because they had sought to stage a march protesting the killings. Other Indian papers merely reported that the men had defied the government.
But overall, the tendency of the national press is to concentrate on the jihadis and overlook the significance of the APHC. The general Indian reader can only conclude that Kashmir has been overrun by Islamic militants. And Indians continue to believe that there is a silent majority in Kashmir that favors a peaceful settlement within the Indian constitution.
Differences within the APHC occasionally appear in the newspapers, as do the JKLF's differences with the others in the APHC-generally with the slant that Islamic elements have gained an edge over moderates. In fact, and to the contrary, tension now seems to be mounting between the APHC (inclusive of JKLF) and jihadi groups outside.
This is evident from the strong and immediate APHC reaction to a recent dictat issued by the United Jehadi Council in Pakistan to boycott the elections in Jammu and Kashmir coming up in October. On July 4, the Hindu reported that a group of militant APHC leaders had criticized the Council, saying that it had no business meddling in Kashmiri affairs. As usual, however, the Indian press did not see fit to comment editorially on this important statement.
In March, a member of parliament from India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allegedly declared that a famous relic in the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar was not a strand of the Prophet Muhammad's hair, as Kashmiri Muslims believe it to be, but that of a Hindu seer who migrated from Mecca. Although he later denied making the statement, police had to be called in to quell angry mobs roaming the streets of the Kashmiri capital.
The Hazratbal mosque is, moreover, attached to the shrine of Sheikh Nurrudin, a Sufi with leanings towards a devotional kind of Hinduism. Such adoration of relics and attachment to Sufism and Hindu spirituality has for centuries made the Kashmiris somewhat suspect in the eyes of many Muslims on the subcontinent. But I have yet to come across an editorial comment in the press in recent years that notes this dimension of Kashmiri religion, however briefly.
Also worth noting is the political distance between Indian and Kashmiri Muslims. In the last week of February many Indian Muslims were killed, raped, and their property destroyed by Hindu sectarian mobs in the province of Gujarat-supposedly in retaliation for the torching of a train carrying a large number of Hindu activists by Muslim militants. The killings lasted for months, and reports of various independent tribunals concur that the state government of Gujarat connived at, when it did not actively encourage, the anti-Muslim attacks.
But when a strike was called by the APHC to show solidarity with the Gujarat Muslims, the popular Kashmiri response was very lukewarm. As APHC functionary Abdul Ghani Bhatt explained it to the Indian Express March 5, "Kashmiris no longer react to things that happen in India." Bhatt went on to say that Indian Muslims "are Indian first and last, that is why they have not reacted to whatever has been happening in Kashmir over the past 12 years. We do not hold any grudges against them for that because we see them as Indians."
The forthcoming state elections in Jammu and Kashmir are very important for prospects of peace in the valley. While the Indian government's commitment to an honest result is widely doubted, it is clear that many groups within the APHC have not yet written off the possibility of participating. Interestingly, the Karachi-based journal Newsline has also given credence to the belief that perhaps this election might be fairly conducted. In an article published in its June issue, Newsline's Delhi-based commentator took note of "a perceptible change in the rejectionist stance of the ordinary Kashmiri."
Many newspapers and journals of opinion have urged the government in Delhi to make the most of the opportunity. In their view, if the government ensures a fair election this time it would undo the damage that its reputation has suffered among Kashmiris from the notoriously rigged elections of 1987, when the National Conference was declared the winner over the Muslim United Front. Indeed, it is to those elections that the rise of militancy in Kashmir today can be traced.
While the national press in India would like to believe that the majority in Kashmir wants the tensions to end happily with a reconciliation with India, they are all too aware that the government of India has not conducted elections fairly in the past. On May 19, the Hindustan Times published a boxed item under the heading "Poll of Shame" that showed how political parties opposed to the National Conference and the then ruling Congress were victimized in 1962 and 1972 as well as in 1987.
At the same time, there are right-wing Hindu groups within the country that want a division of Jammu and Kashmir into three distinct provinces: Jammu (Hindu dominated); Kashmir (largely Muslim); and the Buddhist region of Ladakh. The federal government has so far rejected this demand and so has the APHC. But the consensus between the government and the Kashmiris on this matter has not removed the suspicions that each harbors of the other.
As for the newspapers, they remain cautious about editorializing on Kashmir in any way, shape, or form. Afraid to take a wrong step, worried about getting egg on their faces should their judgment be wrong, and terrified of being accused of being anti-Indian, they keep their real opinions to themselves. In the process, the ordinary citizen ends up ill informed, if not actually disinformed.