Mirwaiz’s Release Means BJP Needs To Contend With More Grey Areas Than Expected

Mirwaiz’s domain lies between the spiritual as well as the temporal, making it tougher for the govt to diminish him.

7 min read
Hindi Female

It was in the year 1899 when the institution of Mirwaiz (the chief preacher) in Kashmir vaulted into widespread public prominence. The impetus came with the setting up of Anjuman Nusrat-ul-Islam – a social organisation that navigated within the tighter strictures of J&K’s Dogra monarchy, to become the lead "provider of the needs of the Muslim poor” in the erstwhile princely State.

Those were the headier times in J&K when Muslim opposition in Kashmir to the Hindu monarchy was just building up. Anjuman was among the major camps around which the nascent political activities had begun to coalesce.

But while his rivals who would eventually form the National Conference led by Sheikh Abdullah took a confrontational path to politics (exemplified by his 'Quit Kashmir’ movement against the regime), Mirwaiz’s approach was rather conciliatory. 

Unlike Abdullah, Mirwaiz did not call for overturning the monarchy but stressed on the means to uplift the conditions of Muslims under its auspices. His moderate ways were reciprocated by the Royal Court that started the practice of turning over "unclaimed dead bodies of impoverished Muslims to the Anjuman (along with) the amount required for burials paid for by the durbar,” Historian Mridu Rai writes.

Over the following decades, the style and diction of Mirwaiz in Kashmir would continue to hew closely to this approach, calibrated to the shifting exigencies of the circumstances, rather than being principally driven by the power politics in sharp contrast to sometimes "incendiary” politics of Abdullah who frequently courted arrests by his actions such as his alleged decision to review accession with India in 1953, or his 1965 meeting in Algiers with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, whose views supportive of Kashmir’s "right to self-determination” he had "welcomed”.


‘Dialogue at the Cost of Suffering’

This keen sense of realism was on display on 22 August ie, Friday last week when Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the top religious leader in Kashmir was released from his house arrest for the first time in four years.

He was put under confinement as part of a crackdown on the regional leaders in the run-up to the revocation of Article 370. Mirwaiz’s influence in Kashmir sits astride both the religion as well as politics. He is also the leader of the Hurriyat Conference, a group of 24 parties seeking settlement of the political dispute in J&K, and therefore, exercises significant influence over the public. His memory is closely associated with the civil agitations of 2008 and 2010 when he steered a prolonged strike programme against the government.

The reports of his release on Friday had already reached the public, and a trickle of worshippers arriving at the 14th-century Jamia Masjid in Srinagar swelled into a sea of crowd. His supporters had lined up out the mosque’s gates and garlanded him as he disembarked from the vehicle. The worshippers hurled sweets at him as he seated himself on the pulpit.

The release of Mirwaiz had been one of the pressing demands from the Kashmiri civil society. Over the last four years, the religious functions at the mosque, from whose pulpit, all previous Mirwaizs have historically preached, were subject to many restrictions particularly such as congregational morning prayers on Eid.

"The institution of the Mirwaiz believes in outreach. It believes in dialogue and reason. It is incumbent upon the Mirwaiz, referred to as Naib-e Rasool (Deputy to the Prophet), to convey the truth to power and people, and play his role in the interest of people and peace,” he told the worshippers during the sermon. "History is witness to the fact that the Mirwaiz has always propagated dialogue and accord, even at the cost of personal loss and suffering.”


The Assassination of Moulvi Farooq

His reference to the assassination episode of his father Moulvi Farooq, continues to animate his personal and political legacy. Farooq was shot dead by the militants in May 1990 in Kashmir allegedly for his refusal to support violence even as he continued to call for Kashmir’s freedom from India.

That was, perhaps, the first assassination of a big political leader as the region became enmeshed in a violent insurgency. His killing had sent shockwaves rippling through the highest echelons of the Indian government, with the former Prime Minister VP Singh paying tributes to him and calling him a highly “respected religious leader.”

His killing put pressure on the Union government to replace the then Governor of J&K – Jagmohan Malhotra, precipitating a national-level crisis.

“In Rajya Sabha, things got so bad that Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Chairman of the House, actually wept as Congress (I) members disrupted proceedings, and naturally, all possibilities of debate by shouting slogans like ‘Kashmir Bachao, Desh Bachao,” Journalist Tavleen Singh who covered Kashmir extensively in the 1990s writes in her book Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors. 

During a conversation with Singh who met Moulvi Farooq months before his killing, the latter admitted that militants were unhappy with him over his opposition to the kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed, former Union Home Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s daughter who was abducted by the militants in 1990.

“What Maulvi Farooq never achieved in life he managed in death. He became an Indian and a patriot…and great social leader,” Singh writes. “Had he been around, he would have laughed uproariously to hear the latter description from Jagmohan himself.”


Closure to Older Wounds

Earlier this year in May, (almost 33 years later) the Special Investigation Agency (SIA) in J&K arrested Zahoor Bhat and Javaid Bhat, two residents of Srinagar. Police said the duo was behind the killing of the senior Mirwaiz and had been absconding. It said that five people were involved in the conspiracy of which two were killed during the gunfights with the forces already. The fifth one was arrested in 1991 and is serving a life sentence.

With the arrest of Moulvi Farooq’s assassins, the government brought closure to one of the major incidents of bloodshed that defined the turbulent decades of the 1990s. 

The senior Mirwaiz took up the mantle of Kashmir’s top religious leader at the age of 22 in April 1962. Moulvi Farooq’s political career began with steering the massive protests that erupted against the theft of a Holy Relic, associated with Islam’s Prophet, from the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar. The protests also reflected a growing anger against the strong-arm tactics of the then-J&K government headed by Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad. 

He directed the political agitation under the banner of the 'Action Committee'. As BN Mullick, the Former Director of IB, who was firefighting the situation in Kashmir on Delhi’s behalf, recalls in his memoirs, “The people remained seated on the ice with snow falling from the top, hearing the speeches of the Action Committee members for hours at a stretch. A vehicle, to be able to come out on the public roads, had to carry a black flag given by the Action Committee,” he writes. "All military vehicles had been taken off the road rather than hoisting the black flags. The Ministers were virtual prisoners confined to their houses with police guards protecting them. It was the Action Committee which was ruling the city.”

Although Mullick’s account of the 1960s characterises the members of the Committee as "pro-Pakistan” saboteurs, the developments that unfolded over the next decades show adherence to a brand of politics that was not entirely rigid against the changing demands of time.

In 1977, when the Janata Party ascended to power in Delhi and sought to mobilise political support in J&K — aware as it was of the mounting anti-Abdullah sentiment — it was Mirwaiz Moulvi Farooq who agreed to implicitly lend a helping hand. According to a report in the Indian Express of 16 April 1977, Mirwaiz suggested that “he would not raise the issue of the right of self-determination on which he had harped often in the past”.


The New Grey Areas

Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, his son, is perhaps, cognisant that he is the inheritor of this complex and mixed legacy. What the massive show of support on Friday suggests that Mirwaiz has been successfully able to commandeer the leadership vacuum in Kashmir in a manner that very few other leaders have since 2019. This may have probably turned the Union government a bit more wary.

Over the past few years, political space in Kashmir has turned increasingly fragmented with the emergence of new political formations, especially those that are supposedly conciliatory to August 2019 changes.

Even if there were no “disruptive slogans” after Friday prayers (for which the police arrested 10 youths), the very act of whipping up such a scale of enthusiasm among worshippers nevertheless is a very powerful demonstration of political influence.

Unlike other major mainstream political leaders, whose ambitions to claw back to power have been frustrated by a slew of measures (chief among them being the act of demoting J&K State to UT status), Mirwaiz draws his political strength from his century-old legacy as well as his standing as a top religious leader.

The application of his political power is independent of his considerations to the electoral calculus — something that the Union government has been able to complicate by calibrating things to its own liking in recent years. The Delimitation exercise is one example.

Mirwaiz’s domain remains a fusion between the spiritual as well as the temporal, making it tougher for the Union government to diminish him in the way it has undermined the mainstream leaders. Chiefly from PDP and NC — except for incarcerating him indefinitely which, after Mirwaiz went to the Jammu, Kashmir & Ladakh High Court, appears to have become a liability.

It probably means that with Mirwaiz set free, the Union government led by BJP, which has tried to ruthlessly impose its own black-and-white view of politics in Kashmir over the last four years, may have to contend with more grey areas than it had made the allowances for.

(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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