The famed Sufi tradition and spirit of Kashmiriyat in the Valley, already ravaged by decades of insurgency, faces a new challenge. Wahhabism, an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, is making deep inroads into Kashmir due to the efforts of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, which calls itself a religious and welfare organisation.
Swelling congregations flock to about 700 mosques that the organisation, which registered itself way back in 1958, has built across the Valley. Practically every village along the picturesque, poplar-lined, 60-km stretch northwest of Srinagar towards Gulmarg has one or more Ahl-e-Hadith-funded mosques. The new mosques and their attendant madrassas make for a contrasting picture with the hundreds of dilapidated mosques built over centuries in the age-old Sufi tradition. Unlike worshippers at the older Sufi shrines, Ahl-e-Hadith mosques are overtly more conservative: women wear burqas or at least a headscarf, while the men sport beards and don skull caps; their traditional salwars end just above the ankle in accordance with Wahhabi tenets.
“Young Kashmiris are restive and disillusioned. To them, Ahl-e-Hadith is a new, more committed and determined option.”
Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Police and Central intelligence officers say Ahl-e-Hadith’s funding comes primarily from Saudi Arabia. Based on US intelligence, they believe that the House of Saud, rulers of Saudi Arabia, had in 2005 approved a $35-billion (Rs 1,75,000 crore) plan to build mosques and madrassas in South Asia. “Wahhabi groups across Jammu and Kashmir were beneficiaries of this largesse,” says a senior police officer.
Intelligence sources say Saudi charities and private donors route zakat (charity) money to J&K through illegal hawala channels. It increases during the Eid season. Whenever mosque managements are questioned about it, their explanation is that it is donation or goat-skin money. All organisations registered under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), 1976, have to submit their annual balance sheets to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). “Not one organisation registered under the FCRA in J&K accounted for money coming in from Saudi Arabia,” says a senior MHA official. However, there is no way to keep track of funds received by organisations that are not registered with MHA. Most of the organisations, which have contributed to the growth of Wahhabi and Ahl-e-Hadith movements in Kashmir, are not registered.
Sources in the Intelligence Bureau admit that they are aware of the large-scale illegal funding, but add that they cannot do much due to the sensitive internal situation. “We have taken up the issue several times with the state police but nobody wants to get into it. It suits them to ignore it,” claim sources.
Admitting massive cash inflows to the Valley, a senior state police officer says that the bulk of the illegal funds meant for Wahhabi groups and other hardline factions are physically transferred across the Line of Control and and at the trading station in Uri in the form of hard currency-both real and fake Indian currency notes-taking advantage of the barter trade being permitted between J&K and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. “Checks by customs officers are at best cursory. There are no X-ray machines and other standard international border control equipment. The army merely observes the goings-on,” he says. The officer adds that it is impossible to quantify the smuggled funds and that no agency-Central or state-has made any effort to do so.
What concerns police and intelligence officials more is the possibility of Lashkar-e-Toiba and Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen militants relying on Ahl-e-Hadith members to provide them hideouts. “Indoctrinated Wahhabis are the least likely to turn in Islamist militants to the police,” says a senior intelligence official.
“A knee-jerk response could be dangerous. The organisation is doing a lot of good work and has a considerable following.”
Scarcely visible a decade and a half ago, Ahl-e-Hadith now claims over 15 lakh members, over 16 per cent of Jammu and Kashmir’s Muslims. Besides the 700 mosques and madrassas it built, Ahl-e-Hadith is believed to have funded 150 schools, several colleges, orphanages, clinics and medical diagnostic centres. It has also proposed a Rs 200-crore Islamic university, Transworld Muslim University (TWMU), in Hyderpora, Srinagar, affiliated to leading Saudi institutions. The proposal was referred to a select committee after state Congress chief Saifuddin Soz opposed it in the Legislative Council on October 9, 2010.
TWMU is planned as a multi-disciplinary institution with a stated mission to “facilitate a new generation of leaders in medicine, science, technology and religion based on the ShariahÃ¢”. Ahl-e-Hadith is already engaged in setting up key faculties within its existing institutions across Srinagar. Accepting responsibility for halting the proposal, Soz was reticent about his reasons for refusing permission, since the proposal was cleared in February 2008 by then Congress Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Official sources claimed it was blocked, following intervention by J&K Governor N.N. Vohra on the advice of security agencies. Both the ruling National Conference and the Opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had supported the bill. PDP head Mehbooba Mufti cautions that any decision to scuttle the university must be preceded by a thorough investigation into Ahl-e-Hadith’s sources of finance. “A knee-jerk response could be dangerous. After all, the organisation is doing a lot of good work and has a considerable following,” she says.
|PURISTS ON THE PROWLWahhabi codes run counter to the age-old Sufi tradition.
The organisation’s rapid proliferation and increasing popularity among youth is making Kashmir’s predominantly Sufi-Hanafi community anxious. “Opportunities for better education and secure future draw young Kashmiris for whom Ahl-e-Hadith represents a new, untested alternative,” says CPI(M) legislator Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami. The conservative Jamaat-e-Islami, too, is nervous at the prospect of ceding political ground. Ahl-e-Hadith’s feisty General Secretary Abdul Rehman Bhat, 65, insists, “Delhi is unwittingly playing into the hands of separatists like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who are opposed to our university.” Hurriyat leaders Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq belatedly voiced support for the university in a joint statement in November. Non-committal on the Wahhabi proliferation, Geelani says the greatest threat to Kashmiriyat is from “the occupation forces deployed by India”. But Tarigami says Ahl-e-Hadith is contrary to the Jamaat’s ideological framework: “The Jamaat- e-Islami leadership perceives a dilution in their own brand value.”
The Jammu and Kashmir Peace Foundation (JKPF), a Hanafi organisation devoted to reviving historic Sufi shrines, believes that a sinister process of “fundamentalist indoctrination” is under way in Wahhabi madrassas and schools. Based on a district-wise count, JKPF’s Chairman Fayaz Ahmad Bhatt, 40, says nearly 7,000 mosques, including 911 in Srinagar, preach the orthodox Wahhabi brand of Islam. Kashmir’s non-Muslim minority, too, views the Wahhabi ingress as a “conspiracy to Talibanise Kashmir”. “The Taliban had also sprung from Pakistani madrassas funded by the Wahhabis,” says former Kashmir University professor Kashi Nath Pandita.
Ahl-e-Hadith leaders vigorously deny all links to Islamist extremist groups. “We are more liberal than those that criticise us,” says Bhat. He points out that former Ahl-e-Hadith president Maulana Showkat Ahmad Shah was assassinated by Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen militants outside a mosque in Srinagar’s Maisuma locality on April 8 because he opposed extremism.
Bhat talks about the Ahl-e-Hadith-run English coaching institute for adolescent girls just above his Barbarshah, Srinagar, office and the diagnostic facility and pharmacy on the floor below that offers services at concessional rates. “No one is turned away, not even CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) jawans,: he says. He also points to the Salafia Muslim Institute, the co-educational school with 800 children on Srinagar’s airport road in Parraypora. “We get strict about scarves for girls only after Class VI,” says Principal Mufti Altaf. Students are segregated by gender after Class II.
Ahl-e-Hadith has two registered charities that are eligible to receive foreign funding under FCRA. But the organisation denies receiving any Saudi money after 1996. Bhat, however, admits there are grants and scholarships for students to go for studies in Jeddah. He claims that the money spent on building new mosques and schools is raised via zakat. The total annual collection from all 700 mosques Ahl-e-Hadith claims to run across the state is around Rs 2.5 crore. Even if one were to accept Bhat’s claim that it costs them only Rs 10 lakh to build a new mosque, the organisation would have ended up spending much more in building the 350 new mosques it has since 2004 than what it gathered through zakat.
Mehbooba is not overly worried about the Wahhabis because she believes Kashmiris would never surrender their inherent freedom so easily. “Sufism is not merely a religious belief but a way of life. Women here did not take to the burqa even when militancy was at its peak,” she says. Her confidence is cold comfort, given the rapid growth of the Ahl-e-Hadith’s influence.