By Stella Paul
KULGAM/KASHMIR, India (IDN) – Travelling along the roads of South Kashmir, you are constantly greeted by pro-liberation and anti-India slogans. They are written on the tar roads, house walls, little signboards hanging from tree branches and even lamp posts.
“Go India Go Back” and “We Want Freedom” read some; others proclaim “Burhan is Alive” or “Burhan Zindabad” – in reference to Burhan Wani, a young militant gunned down by the security forces in July 2016.
But suddenly, the slogans begin to change. Signposts and walls appear adorned with messages like “Welcome” and “Love for All, Hatred for None”. That is when you know you are in a village of the Ahmadiyya community.
With a population of merely 10,000, the Ahmadiyyas are a minority community in Kashmir – a state with a population of over 12 million. While some are scattered across the state, most of the community members are concentrated in four villages of the Kulgam and Shopian district of south Kashmir: Kanipora, Shurat, Yaripora and Reashinagar.
Messages of peace, interfaith harmony and respect – written in bold and colourful hues – are a common feature in all of these villages.
And if a visitor engages in conversation with a villager, talk typically revolves around academics, employment and the global climate –,with barely any mention of the anti-India rhetoric that is omnipresent in the valley.
Integration in times of separation
Although the pro-liberation movement in Kashmir valley has lasted nearly seven decades, there have been periods of relative calm, but since the killing of Burhan Wani in July, the entire valley has been in the throes of tremendous violence, with both the security forces and militants intensifying their attacks against each other.
The unrest led to a ceaseless shutdown, ambush of army convoys, stone hurling and arson by pro-separatists and retaliatory action by the security forces, including firing of tear gas, shooting of pellets and random search and arrests. As a result, casualties have shot up, including the death of nearly one hundred civilians, while over 600 have been injured.
All through this period of turmoil, the Ahmadiyya community has maintained a rare distance from anti-state demonstrations, refusing to participate in the violent acts of protests and instead focusing on preaching love and peace – which it considers as the true teaching of Islam.
Basharat Ahmed Dar, village head of Asnoor in Kulgam, says that “the true lesson of Quran is to love everyone. This is what is preached at our mosques. This is what our children grow up hearing. This is what we also practise in real life.”
Ahmadiyya (also mentioned as ‘Ahmadiya’, ‘Amhadi’ and “Qadiayan”) is a reformist movement within Islam, founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed (1835-1908) from Qadian in India’s Punjab state.
Mirza Ghulam Ahmed claimed that he was the divine reformer and the promised Messiah awaited by Muslims. The followers of this school of thought are called Ahmadiyyas.
However, many non-Ahmadiyyas consider this as anti-Islam because, according to them, Mohammad is the last prophet and there are no other prophets or messiah after him.
So, although they speak of love and harmony, the Ahmadiyyas have been regularly persecuted by other sects. From stone pelting, vandalising their mosques and attacking them verbally and physically to labelling them ‘non-Muslims’ and denying them rights to Hajj (the annual pilgrimage to Mecca), attacks on the community have been almost without end.
In Kashmir, one such attack took place in 2012 when the grand cleric of Kashmir – Mufti Muhammad Bashir-ud-din – demanded that a special law be brought in to declare the Ahmadiyya sect as "non-Muslim". According to the grand cleric, several countries in the world – including neighbouring Pakistan – had already declared the Ahmadiyyas as non-Muslims and Kashmir should follow the suit.
More recently, in October 2015, prominent political leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq vowed to stop the Ahmadiyyas from spreading “tentacles in Kashmir”.
Ironically, Farooq – a staunch supporter of the self-determination rights of every Kahsmiri – often accuses the government of India of suppressing the voices of Kashmiri people and violating their human rights. When it comes to the Ahmadiyyas, however, he stands against the same rights for the sect.
Focus on education
But even amid the continued hostility, the Ahmadiyyas are increasingly focusing on education and professional excellence. For example, the community runs five schools in South Kashmir – each one of them known for its quality education and high academic performances. Almost every youth in the community is also studying at a college or university with several of them topping their class.
According to data provided by their religious headquarters in Qadiyan, the community has a 95 percent literacy rate (compared with the 66 percent for the entire state population). Beside doctors, university professors and highly-placed government officials, there are 300 teachers – an impressive number for a tiny community.
The community also has a grand gathering once every year in Qadiyan where youngsters are recognised for their academic and other achievements and encouraged to excel further.
“We do face discrimination. It may not always be life-threatening, but we know we are hated,” says Abdur Rahman Itu, head of Reashinagar village in Shopian district – the largest Ahmadiyya village in Kashmir.
“We know they (other communities) spit on our booklets that carry the messages of peace. But we tell our children that education is the real key to a good life. Without good education, our children will be lost and succumb to negative propaganda and destructive actions like many others do and we, as a community, are committed to avoiding that.”
Hiding their identity
Ishfaq Amin (whose real name has not been revealed for security reasons) is an officer in the state police force. Posted in Srinagar, an hour-long journey from his village in Kulgam district, Amin carries a second ID card that shows him as a teacher.
As the taxi he commutes in nears home, he takes off the government ID and hides it inside his shirt. This is the safety measure he must take, in order to avoid being identified and attacked by rebels and their supporters. According to Amin, although militants attack any army and police person, targeted killing of Ahmadiyyas in particular is a rising threat.
Several other youths from his community are also serving in the police and the armed forces. All of them conceal their professional identity to fend off attacks while not on duty. “Even when they are not wearing uniforms, they are regarded as conspirators against Kashmiris and attacked,” says Amin.
Hope amid fear
Arafat, a 14-year-old high school student in Kanipora village in Kulgam, is just another teenager who dreams of becoming a doctor someday and making his family proud. However, he is convinced that this dream can only come true if he leaves Kashmir and studies elsewhere.
“I want to go to New Delhi and study in the Aligarh Muslim University because here the air of hatred and violence is too disturbing,” Arafat told IDN. Barely a week after the interview, his policeman father was gunned down by suspected militants near his home – a grim reflection of the disturbing reality.
Arafat is not alone. In villages throughout the entire Ahmadiyya community, young people – both male and female – talk of leaving the valley and migrating to Delhi or other states, in order to study.
The elders, on the other hand, want young people to stay return and live in the valley. Barkat Ahmed, a resident of Shurat village in Kulgam, wants his son, who is currently a post-doctoral student in New Delhi, to return home in the future.
Ahmed believes that contrary to what people say, the real number of pro-separatists who indulge in violence is actually very small and, like most of the elders in his community, that peace will return to the valley one day.
“As preached by the head of our sect, our community has always held mutual respect, tolerance and true education very close to its heart,” says Barkat, hope gleaming in his eyes.
“These are the tools, not guns, that can ultimately bring peace to our trouble-torn homeland. We need our youths to be there, spreading these positive messages and contributing to the building of a just and fair future.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 January 2017]
Photo: Placards, stressing the need of education and peace adorn the frontyard of a school run by the Ahmadiyya community in Reashinagar village in Shopian district of southern Kashmir (India). Credit: Stella Paul | IDN-INPS
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