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Righteousness, religion, and right-wing politics

Praveen Swami

The protests seen in Srinagar after the uncovering of a prostitution ring illustrate complex cultural anxieties — not just anger over a single crime.

"LONG LIVE Pakistan," chanted the hundreds of young men who, armed with axes and crowbars, had gathered to demolish Sabina Hamid Bulla's home in downtown Srinagar on May 5, "we want freedom!"

Watched by television audiences across India, the protests Srinagar has witnessed this past fortnight after the uncovering of Ms. Bulla's prostitution ring have all the elements so beloved of prime-time news: sex, scandal, and sleaze in high places. Despite the saturation coverage, though, the political content of the protests has not been subjected to serious examination. Who, for one, participated in the protests? And why the violence and the anti-India polemic?

Last month, residents of Srinagar complained to the police about two 30-second pornographic video clips, which had been circulating from mobile phone to mobile phone. A 16-year-old girl was then detained. In an unsigned statement to the police, the girl said Ms. Bulla supplied her and 43 other women with drugs and cash for having sex with two State Ministers, both affiliated to the Congress, a Border Security Force officer, ten policemen, and several well-known businessmen.

Given that the girl is a minor, the charge against the men she has named is unambiguous: rape. Central Bureau of Investigations officials — who took charge of the case before the street protests began — have a tough mission. They will have to persuade the girl to repeat her charges in court. Then, corroboration will have to be found for the charges. Given the influence of the alleged rapists, neither task will be easy.

A heinous crime? Without dispute. But the young men who brought down Ms. Bulla's home did not just chant slogans against the rapists. Instead, they claimed Ms. Bulla represented a larger Indian conspiracy to corrupt womanhood in Kashmir. One articulation of this position, widely held on the Right, has come from the scholar Hameeda Nayeem, who in a recent article made the extraordinary claim that the evidence points "unequivocally towards a policy-based state patronage [of prostitution]."

What underpins this paranoiac understanding of events? For an answer, we must turn to the class basis of anti-India mobilisation in Jammu and Kashmir. Old city areas such as Srinagar's Ban Mohalla or Batmaloo, the catchments for the May 5 mob, are home to the city's petty bourgeoisie — to the bazaar trading class, which had neither the educational skills nor capital to benefit from Jammu and Kashmir's changing post-Independence economy. Many of the men who joined the ongoing jihad came from this social group.

Soon, this class found allies in the new elites thrown up by post-Independence development. Empowered by economic growth and education, groups such as orchard owners, large traders, and elements of the legal and State bureaucracy gained wealth and influence. However, political power was denied to them because of the peasant foundations of Kashmir's politics. Islam and tradition became weapons through which the new class alliance asserted its right to speak for all of Kashmir.

The politics of virtue

Righteousness, religion, and right-wing politics frequently intersected in the course of this class alliance's struggle for power. The 1989 protests leading up to the proscription of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses — a book that, fittingly enough, interrogates our ideas of virtue — is perhaps the best known instance. One person was killed during the rioting, and at least five dozen injured.

To understand the multiple struggles contained within the protests in Srinagar, though, we must reach further into the past.

In May 1973, a student in Anantnag was appalled by an image he saw while leafing though an old encyclopaedia stored in the local library. Arthur Mee's Book of Knowledge depicted the Archangel Gabriel dictating the text of the Quran to Muhammed, a violation of Islamic edicts prohibiting the representation of the Prophet through graven images. When clerics in Anantnag learned of the picture, however, it was denounced as blasphemous. College students in Anantnag went on strike, and the protests soon spread to Srinagar.

Protestors demanded that the author of the encyclopaedia be hanged. It was "a vain demand," Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's biographer Katherine Frank has wryly noted, "since Arthur Mee had died in England in 1943." The Government of India banned sales of the encyclopaedia, which was also a futile gesture since it was no longer in print. However, the protests continued, and the police eventually opened fire to disperse the violent crowds, leading to four fatalities.

How does one account for the extraordinary outrage provoked by the Book of Knowledge? The protests need to be read against the slow but steady growth of the Jamaat-e-Islami from the 1950s onwards. As the scholar Yoginder Sikand has pointed out, the Jamaat-e-Islami had set up a wide network of schools to counteract what it believed was "an Indian onslaught in the cultural sphere" because of which "many young Kashmiris had begun to lose their Islamic moorings."

Sikand has recorded the Jamaat's belief that "a carefully planned Indian conspiracy was at work to destroy the Islamic identity of the Kashmiris, through Hinduising the school syllabus and spreading immorality and vice among the youth." It was even alleged that "that the government of India had dispatched a team to Andalusia, headed by the Kashmiri Pandit [politician] D.P. Dhar, to investigate how Islam was driven out of Spain and to suggest measures as to how the Spanish experiment could be repeated in Kashmir, too."

Such communal paranoia, then as now, served an express political purpose. Sikand cites one Jamaat-e-Islami insider as suggesting that its schools were "set up in order to lead a silent revolution, to keep alive the memory of Kashmiri independence and of India's brutal occupation of the State."

To Islamists across Jammu and Kashmir, the protests against the Book of Knowledge would have signalled that, notwithstanding the defeat of Pakistan in 1971, the war against India would continue apace.

By 1987, the social coalition underpinning these mobilisations had acquired a political platform, the Muslim United Front. At a March 4, 1987, rally in Srinagar, MUF candidates, clad in the white robes of the Muslim pious, declared that Islam could not survive under the authority of a secular state, and that Farooq Abdullah was an agent of Hindu imperialism. MUF leaders had initiated their campaign by protesting against the sale of liquor and violating State rules prohibiting cow slaughter.

Over the past several months, many mobilisations have drawn on this tradition. In February this year, protests broke out across much of the world over caricatures of the prophet, which were published in the Dutch newspaper Jyllands Posten. However, in Kashmir, the protests took a region-specific idiom. Protestors at All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq's demonstration against the cartoons, for example, chanted slogans in support of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, besides Pakistan.

Writing a month before the ongoing protests in the Srinagar-based newspaper Greater Kashmir, the leader of the Islamist Dukhtaran-e-Millat, Asiya Andrabi, had wondered what would happen if "Muhammed (S.A.W.) will come to know that the Muslim youth of Kashmir are busy in vulgarity, obscenity, waywardness?" She attacked "young Muslim girls who have lost their identity of Islam and are presenting the look of a Bollywood actress but not Fatima and Aisha (R.A.) [respectively, Muhammed's daughter and sister]."

The pious are now acting on Ms. Andrabi's call. On May 7, almost 200 seminary students, led by the cleric Mohammad Riyaz, marched in a procession demanding an end to "vulgarity, waywardness and immoral activities."

The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen has demanded that restaurants dismantle private cabins meant for couples, while the al-Madina Regiment, a terrorist consortium that has carried out several grenade attacks, has successfully ordered an end to cable television broadcasts.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the war against vice and the war against India have long gone together. Since 1988, Islamist terror groups have repeatedly attacked bars, stores stocking liquor, beauty parlours, and movie theatres.

Even the supposedly secular cadre of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front participated in these campaigns. Women have been ordered to abandon public performance, wear veils, and sit apart from men on buses. Defiance has, on occasion, been punished with acid — and even bullets.

Just like the rape of the 16-year-old at the centre of the political storm in Srinagar, each of these stories constitutes a horrible tragedy. None of those who have staged protests — not the men who ransacked Ms. Bulla's home, nor the erudite lawyers of the Kashmir Bar Association, which is a constituent of the Islamist faction of the APHC — has ever chosen to speak on these acts of violence. Neither, indeed, have they even once mobilised against the crimes women face each day in and outside their homes.

While the political idiom of the Kashmir protests is distinct, though, it is worth noting that their themes — sexuality, tradition, and social control — reflect region-wide anxieties. The sometimes merciless interrogation of our values by modernity has provoked protests in States as disparate as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat. At their core, the Srinagar protests compel consideration of just why it is that our societies conflate their collective honour with women's bodies.

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