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 relate to marriage ceremonies, where they do the same things Hindus do. They're cultural things, not necessarily things that would indicate a willingness to embrace 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 few hundred years in the Kashmir valley that are quite syncretic, and that many people of a fundamentalist persuasion would describe as heretical. Those traditions have survived even through violence. You still see Hindu families visiting Muslim shrines, and Muslims engaging in activities that would not be considered orthodox for Muslims.

Hindu nationalists see the temple-mosque issues as an affront to the Hindu integrity of India. There's been a sustained campaign by Hindu nationalists going back to 1950s arguing that Muslims have sought to undermine Hindu India--with its strong roots, old roots. They see the activity of militants in Kashmir as one sign of that attempt to undo India. It's not a very accurate 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.

But equally there have been massacres of Muslims in Jammu region, the southern part of Kashmir. In Jammu, you've got a much more even mix of religions. You've got areas where you have 50-50 or 60-40 Hindu-Muslim populations. In these areas, there's been a lot more communal violence. There's been deliberate targeting of another faith group to persuade members of that faith group to leave the area. And reprisal attacks.

All of these have been blamed on sectarianism, on religious fundamentalism on both sides. But sometimes the real motivation has been property disputes, land disputes, wedding disputes--disputes between families. The general rubric "here's another instance of religious violence" doesn't always apply.

India wants to position itself as a secular and diverse nation.

Absolutely. To India, Kashmir is desperately important because it symbolizes Indian secularism. It's the only Muslim majority state in India.

Do Indian Muslims who do not live in Kashmir feel that way?

Yes, pretty much. One of the arguments India deploys against the separation of Kashmir from India is that if Kashmir left, then what would happen to the remaining Muslims living in India? Might they then be faced with communal violence, might India unravel?

Do you think that's possible?

I personally don't find that a very persuasive argument. But it's an argument that's widely held in Delhi. In Pakistan, Kashmir is important because it's a Muslim majority province, it's seen as the unfinished business of partition. There's a widespread belief in Pakistan that Kashmiris (and this may or may not be borne out by what Kashmiris actually want) have been denied their rights to self-determination, that as Muslims that majority would choose to join Pakistan.

One shouldn't see religion, especially Islam, as the problem in Kashmir. Political Islam was certainly being used by militant groups in the late 1980s and the situation has been, in the late 1990s, hijacked by extreme Muslim groups. But there is still a fairly strong tradition of good intercommunal relations.

Meaning good interfaith relations?

Yes, interfaith. Quite a lot of intermingling. Obviously it's come under very strong challenge in the 1990s. Here's an interesting example: there are Shi'a Muslims in Kargil. These Shi'a Muslims on the Indian side of the line of control save up their money to send their kids to go study in Iran or Iraq. The post-revolutionary Iranian state has given a lot of money to Kargil to build mosques and religious schools. And yet there hasn't been a single militant volunteer from the Shi'as of Kargil. Not one of them has joined a militant group.

Even the Shi'a militant group--there is basically one Shi'a militant group in Kashmir--hasn't had a single volunteer from Kargil. It's a case study that runs against the prevailing wisdom, which is that religion inflames conflict--that particularly money associated with religious activities, schools, and training, would then lead to some forms of political violence. The Kargil example really belies that.

But there has been a breakdown in interfaith relations in Kashmir in the 1990s, in part because minorities have been forced out of the valley, and there's an increasing tendency to associate only with those of the same faith group. The real breakdown has been in education. In the early 1980s, if you were a Muslim boy and went to school in Kashmir, there would probably be at least one or two Hindus, and maybe one Sikh, in your class. And that's not happening anymore.

That's the real question: The next generation and the tolerance of interfaith relations in Kashmir.

Historically, before the present violence, there were only three incidents of communal violence in Kashmir: 1931, 1967, and 1986. Which, if you compare to the rest of South Asia, is a tremendous record. In 1947, when a lot of the rest if India was aflame with communal massacres, the Kashmir valley stayed remarkably calm. There was fighting, but it was between armed forces, not between communities.

But the education point is a real issue. Right now, Hindu kids from Kashmir will probably be going to schools in either refugee camps or in exclusively Hindu communities away from the valley. By the same token, Muslim kids in the valley will go to schools where it's very unlikely there will be Hindus. So they'll probably grow up with stereotypes about Hindus. That helps extremists on both sides, who I still think are the minority of the general population. But it helps them demonize the other faith group.

There's a Hindu temple in Kashmir, and the caretaker is a Muslim. His son was one of the most notorious militants of the 1990s. Despite the fact that the violence makes the headlines, and most people focus on the breakdown of relations, there is some basis for interfaith harmony in Kashmir. But it's under threat and there are questions about how to reconstruct it in the future.

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