Kashmir has come a long way from its ‘La Sharqiya La Garbiya’ days to the present day state of affairs when Burhan Wani continues to dominate the space. But after the slain commander’s poster surfaced in a Shia Muharram procession at Rainawari on September 28, 2017, it apparently brought the rebellious role of the community caught in competitive narratives into sharp focus.
At the cusp of street slaughter and massive massacres in Kashmir, a youth sporting a black headband held a poster of the Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini somewhere in downtown Srinagar with a stark message: I have great hopes from youth, who have Koran in one hand, and arms in another.
As part of the Ayatollah’s headband horde in seething Srinagar, Rameez Hassan would regularly hit the streets before the arrival of guns and gunmen. Then a fiery youngster from Zadibal—the heartland of Shia community in Kashmir—Rameez Hassan was an embodiment of the sentiment that the Islamic revolution in Iran had somehow created in Kashmir.
The past decade saw Hassan devoutly taking part in the rally organised to welcome Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei and the Imam of Kabba in Srinagar. It was the early 1980s when Hassan and his comrades took part in that Shia-Sunni unity rally, sloganeering in loop: “La Sharqiya, La Garbiya… Islamia, Islamia” (No Eastern, No Western; Only Islamic, Only Islamic).
“As a Shia,” says Hassan, now a subdued rebel and hunched grocer in Srinagar, “your first commitment is to stand against oppression, which is a way of paying homage to Imam Hussain (A.S) and his sacrifices.”
Scores in Hassan’s commune chose being fighters than fence-sitters when the ‘war’ against the Indian State in Kashmir began during the nineties. Hizbul Moomineen—the party of the faithful—became the armed wing of Kashmiri Shias, the progeny of saint-scholar Mir Shams din Araqi who came to the Vale proselytizing en masse during the reign of Chak dynasty in the later part of 15th century.
In that party of the faithful was a Robin Williams clone from Budgam. Like the reel character, Ramzan Bhat was dead funny in his real life. His comedy would bring the experience of grief. Legend has it that he would bypass the checkpoints, cordons and crackdowns by acting as a lunatic.
During his made-up mad moments, he would hurl ember-stoked kangri at the forces and manage to walk free. “Then one day,” says Showkat Hussain, an ex-insurgent from Budgam, “Ramzan vanished—never to be heard again.”
But as the conflict staggered, Delhi gradually focused on Shias. An attempt was made, says Hussain — now an undisguised commoner in Budgam town — to rake up controversies based on development, illiteracy and lack of basic amenities “to dissuade Shias from participating in the resistance movement.” (In Srinagar, however, a noted human right activist believes that the basic reason for Shia backwardness and their “deliberate discrimination before the government machinery is their historical stand of supporting Pakistan”.)
Over the years, this ‘miserable image’ narrative has been fuelled by the debaters and policymakers in Delhi. “They often try to create pawns of us,” Hussain says, “by relentlessly saying, ‘what about Kashmiri Shias?’ All this fuss is nonsensical to say the least. We are a part of this land and we identify with its pains, politics and aspirations.”
Much of this notion, many say, has to do with the fact that 1.5 million Shias are in minority in Kashmir. But beyond this politicised narrative, when Budgam’s Ichgam went up in flames during nineties, some 104 Shia houses were reduced to ashes by the Indian armed forces for their open support to the armed rebellion. Such instances are being conveniently skipped by Delhi debaters, Hussain says.
But as the narrative—“Kashmiri Shias have nothing to with political aspirations of Kashmir”—has gained foot in the Vale over the years, a young Shia girl Essar Batol with a strong native sense decided to confront it.
“Kashmiri Shias,” says Batool, an activist-co-author of a book on Kunan Poshpora rape victims, “have always been strong opponents of Indian military occupation in Kashmir.” But in the state-backed narrative, she says, the role of Shias in K-struggle stands blurred—if not buried.
“We have Aga Syed Hassan as a prominent Shia Hurriyat leader,” she says. “And like him, there are countless others, acting cogs in the resistance wheel.” Among them is Imtiyaz Haider.
The one-time cop was suspended 20 years back for carrying out ‘subversive activities’. He fought the legal battle and won his posting back with big money (pending salary of Rs 35 lac) only to reject it to become the Hurriyat patriarch Syed Ali Geelani’s loyal adherent.
Mindful of such sacrifices, young Batool believes that the silence of the majority of Shias and the contempt of Sunnis who think—Shias are being disloyal to the cause—was exploited by the Indian State. “After 2008,” she says, “these notions are changing because of the growing sense in the Gen-next of being an oppressed Kashmiri and Shia at the same time.”
To own and understand their elders’ role in the Kashmir cause, the young generation is creating awareness, expressing views and working to reclaim their spaces, Batool believes. “They understand religion practically and see voicing their opinion to be much more important than to care for their safety in a place where nobody is actually safe.”
When a predominantly Shia province like Budgam boycotted polls this spring, it only smashed the long-presumed stereotype against Shias that they are chronic voters legitimising the Indian State in Kashmir, says a 22-year-old Shia boy Maisham Ali.
“That boycott only proved that the Shia community is no way ‘for’ the Indian state in Kashmir,” says Ali, turning thoughtful. “We live in a place where attempts are being made to divide Shia-Sunni—based on an argument, Shias are safer in India rather than Pakistan.”
But the perceptible occurrences in 2002, Ali says, elucidated the Indian strategy toward the Shia Islam when a Shia parliament member Ehsaan Jafri was burnt alive by “Modi-sponsored savages in Gujarat.”
Pursuing B-tech in Chandigarh, Ali asserts that he has never let his Shia identity to stop himself from “resisting the occupation.”
Before becoming victims of controlled narratives, the Shias of Kashmir were always been at the front-lines. Many grand-father figures in the community still relish the moments and memories when they happily hosted the invading Afridis from Pakistan in the fall of 1947.
“Most of us did so,” says Ghulam Hassan Bhat, a retired teacher from Budgam, “because we principally believe in the Two Nation theory, besides those fighters had come here only to liberate their ideological brothers.” But their conviction came at a cost.
In Budgam, people still recount how the government of the day slitted the throat of a pious man namely Ahmed Zawar before reducing several villages to ashes. It was a punitive action, says the octogenarian Bhat, meant for sheltering the enemy.
Some 18 years later, in 1965, when the Pakistani army disguised as Gibraltar force came in Kashmir, the Shia commune illustrated its supplementary allegiance toward Pakistan. The Shia women would be often spotted hoisting their hands high to pray for the security of Pakistan’s jets hovering in the sky.
“Despite our past struggles,” says a Srinagar-based Shia scribe, “we are often perceived and dismissed as the beneficiaries of the war with pro-India slant.”
Apparently controlled by the two influential families—Aghas and Ansaris—the Shia community, says the scribe, is mostly living in the shadow of submission, making them oblivious of their heroes.
One such hero is the valiant Munshi Mohammad Ishfaq, a prominent Plebiscite Front member and an undisputed author of the famous historical book Nidday-e- Haq (voice of truth). Many blame the interest-centric politics of the privileged few for elapsing the Shia Greats from the community’s collective memories.
“But now, the tables are turning fast,” the scribe says, “as the new generation is seeking realistic leadership and guidance on Kashmir’s political reality.”
Almost 37 years after Srinagar was reverberated with ‘La Sharqiya La Garbiya’ slogans, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei again spoke about the oppressed nation, Kashmir—and urged international support for Kashmiris.
A few months later, Burhan Wani’s poster appearance—akin to Ayatollah Khomeini’s during early nineties—apparently underlines the sway of the iconic commander over the young Shia generation.
Last summer when Burhan’s fate was sealed in a sleepy Kokernag hamlet, many Shia pockets during Muharram resounded with Shia-Sunni bhai bhai, Azadi slogans. A year later, as the Commander again re-surfaced during a Muharram procession in Rainawari, the Shia mourners say, “we are only trying to understand the lessons of Karbala in the perspective of Kashmir.”