Maulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah dreamt of freedom but was anti-Pakistan and conservative Islam, reports Zahid Rafiq
EVERY FRIDAY, hundreds used to throng Kashmir’s oldest Ahl-e- Hadith mosque in Maisuma, Srinagar. On 8 April, they stopped at the entrance, jostling for a look at a burnt bicycle and broken glass. These were the remains of the day. At 12.15 pm, Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (JAH) president and Islamic scholar Maulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah was killed by an IED rigged in a bag on the bicycle. The low-intensity bomb was intended to kill Shah alone but the blast resonated across the state’s political landscape.
Shah was a moderate heading the JAH, the Salafi school of thought in Islam. He led the prayers every Friday. “He was just crossing the threshold when the blast happened. He was lying there in a pool of blood,” says Yasmeena, an eyewitness.
When separatist leaders Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq addressed the mourners, it was the first time that India was not mentioned at a Kashmiri funeral. Instead, both said that the killer had no right to call himself a Muslim and this was an attack on the azadi movement.
“We won’t remain silent. Shah sahab has always worked for sectarian and political unity,” Mirwaiz said. “Since 1990, there have been deliberate attempts to deprive our nation of intellectuals, doctors and professors. There is a conspiracy to render the movement leaderless.”
Meanwhile, Malik pledged to expose the killers. “His death has broken our back and Kashmiris will not remain silent spectators,” he said. “Anyone who kills a scholar on the doorsteps of a mosque, can he call himself a Muslim? This type of an act is not allowed by Islam even if it’s for jihad.”
JAH has more than 15 lakh members in the Valley and it is the only religious organisation whose following is spread across Jammu & Kashmir — in mainstream political parties, police, judiciary and bureaucracy. JAH has 1,200 mosques in the state (814 in Kashmir alone).
Shah was a controversial figure, especially after he denounced stone-pelting and cited Quranic references to justify his stand. Other religious leaders accused him of quoting the holy book out of context. He was seen as being close to the governor and senior police officers.
Shah was the first JAH chief who was political. Before his time, the JAH refrained from politics, concentrating only on propagating the Salafi order. Shah’s political ideology was that of freedom and he was a close ally of the JKLF and Yasin Malik.
Shah was lauded by many as a Sufi heading a Wahabi group, unmindful of differences and working for peace. He was seen as a non-sectarian religious leader mourning with Shias during Muharram and making efforts to unite the separatists.
The JAH had two factions with strong friction between them. But most of all, it was the slogan of azadi that was not liked by many and not certainly by those who saw a strong religious outfit not speaking for Pakistan as detrimental to their interests. “Pakistan killed him. They got him killed. No one else did,” said a close friend.
Shah’s death might not have an immediate impact. But it will mark a shift in the political dynamics in the long run.
Zahid Rafiq is a Correspondent with Tehelka
Maulvi’s last interview
‘Violence hurts our struggle for azadi ’
Three weeks before his death, the maulvi spoke to Gie Goris about Kashmir’s future
THE ATMOSPHERE of early spring, with all its promises and expectations, was shattered when Maulvi Showkat Ahmad Shah was killed in a bomb explosion in Srinagar on 8 April. I met Shah three weeks before his abrupt death. He appeared to me as a perfect blend of a religiously and morally conservative maulvi with a progressive and nonviolent political leader. That is probably why he had to die. But it is also why the world should continue to listen to him, even when he is silenced.
Anyone who visited Shah found himself to be a guest in the most profound and rich meaning of that word, in line with Kashmiri traditions. I came to ask him about the — seemingly relaxed — situation in Kashmir and about possible connections between the struggle and other conflicts in the region. His two armed guards made a far too friendly impression to upset me. Three weeks later, it is clear both the maulvi and I were undeservedly carefree.
Shah’s long beard immediately classified him in the range of pious men for Muslims. For those outside the realm of the Ummah, his appearance provoked just as simultaneously suspicions about fundamentalism, extremism and terrorism. Shah knew that, and he could still muster a smile about it. At the same time, he found it hard to stomach that New Delhi kept rejecting his proposals to start a university in Srinagar. “What we want to do,” he stressed, “is to upgrade the level of knowledge in the Valley about agriculture, horticulture, architecture, medicine and theology. What is the problem with that?”
Shah knew what was the problem. He was aware that people in Delhi felt that a university run by the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, a Salafi sect of Sunni Islam, would contribute to what some call the Talibanisation of the Valley. “When the armed revolt started in the 1990s, the Ahl-e-Hadith called a shura to decide upon our position vis-a-vis the use of guns in the struggle for azadi,” he recalled. “Of the 323 leaders present, 321 voted against the use of guns. When guns were replaced by mass demonstrations and stone-pelting in 2008, I came out publicly against stone-pelting and called it un-Islamic. Delhi applauded, but it did not earn me a huge popularity in Kashmir. My life had been threatened twice already — once by a grenade, the other day by bullets. Since then, I am always accompanied by two armed guards. But when I want to start a university, all of a sudden I return to being a potential terrorist, a bearded fundamentalist who has to be stopped.”
The third attempt to kill Shah succeeded. In the hours after the attack, nobody claimed responsibility, but it is clear that those who planned the attack were aiming at the heart of religious tolerance in the Valley.
“Violence is not a reliable path to follow if one wants to arrive at a solution for conflicts,” Shah told me during the interview on 18 March. We were talking in his small office, while the first floor of the centre he was so proud of, bustled with people coming and going to get medical care.
“The problem with non-violence is that India fails to respond positively to the rejection of violence. When Yasin Malik and his JKLF renounced the armed struggle in 1994, the repression against them continued unabated. Every political or religious leader in Kashmir who has ventured into the realm of dialogue with Delhi, has been dumped afterwards, and left vulnerable to attacks of being a sell-out or worse. The consequence of that approach has been that extremists are strengthened and moderate voices get discredited. It is New Delhi that made Syed Ali Shah Geelani the leader he is today by destroying those who searched for solutions based on common ground.”
AN INCONVENIENT truth for Shah was that the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), one of the remaining jihadi outfits that is still involved in armed militancy in the Valley, belongs to the same sect he represented. He did not deny that fact, nor did he hide his displeasure with the LeT’s tactics. “Once I proposed to travel to Pakistan to talk with the LeT,” he said, “but Delhi denied me the permission. I think I had the necessary moral authority to explain to the LeT that their guns were hurting our interests instead of supporting them. If Delhi would have had a serious policy of granting meaningful autonomy to Kashmir, then I am sure I could have convinced them to leave us alone. The problem is: Delhi has never had any such policy.”
‘The problem with non-violence is that India fails to respond positively,’ Maulvi Shah complained
Shah was booked as a separatist religious leader. In fact, when you say that of someone in Kashmir, it is a double tautology. To start with, it is hard to find any Kashmiri who is happy with the current status of the Valley or the state within the Indian Union. Further, no religious leader seems to be willing to repeat what Sheikh Abdullah did in 1974, when the Sher-e-Kashmir signed a deal with Indira Gandhi, hoping for maximum autonomy for Kashmir.
“We have been deceived and disappointed by Delhi time and again,” sighed Shah. “We are realists who aim for progress for our people, but we need to show real change happening. When guns are replaced by non-violent demonstrations, we expect India to reciprocate by removing the troops from the streets and retreating to their barracks, at least. In reality, more than 7 lakh Indian soldiers remain in the Valley. They continue to control and irritate all of us constantly. The boys who come to the streets are shot or arrested and locked up under the draconian laws that India put in place. It is extremely difficult to remain committed to non-violence under those circumstances.”
For Shah, the enduring Kashmir conflict is at the core of a battle between India and Pakistan. “After decades of occupation by Indian troops, nobody would argue to stay with India,” the maulvi said. “And with Pakistan crumbling, threatening to be swallowed into the black hole of religious extremism, very few would choose to go with Pakistan. The struggle of both India and Pakistan is useless, but Kashmiris continue to be the victims.
“If the international community fails to act to solve the Kashmir dispute, I fear that violent fundamentalism will continue to fester. Ultimately, the religio-political violence will destroy the whole subcontinent and disturb the whole world.”
On 8 April, he exchanged his small office for a piece of land on the graveyard of martyrs in Srinagar. In other words, he will be surrounded for eternity by the victims of the violence he always fought against. “I oppose violence, not because I give up on our struggle but because it harms our struggle,” he said. One can only wish that his death will spark a debate. And hopefully, the local and national authorities will listen to the ensuing discourse, instead of staying focussed solely on the reports written by army officers.
Gie Goris is the editor-in-chief of Flemish magazine MO* and is writing a book on Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan email@example.com