Enduring religion in the Kashmir conflict
Enduring religion in the Kashmir conflict

The Kashmir conflict gets a religious hue because of the dominating framework of secularized Christianity as well as the Islamic challenges to it. Both frameworks prevent solving the conflict and appear to reinforce patterns of violence and their denial.

That the conflict over Kashmir is religious seems self-evident to most people who care to talk about it. Opposing sides fundamentally agree the conflict has a religious character. US President Trump may have summed it up when he said, “Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have Hindus and you have the Muslims and I wouldn’t say they get along so great.” In what sense it is a religious conflict needs better, more careful consideration, however.

            Those against India’s move to amend Articles 35A and 370 of its constitution to integrate Jammu and Kashmir within its constitutional order might argue that India is currently run by a Hindu nationalist government and that the constitutional move is an imposition of illegitimate Hindu majoritarianism. The move denies the self-determination rights of a majority of Kashmiris, who are Muslims. Those for it might say that the various minority religious blocs (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Shias) haven’t enjoyed even handed governance, with a few Sunni Muslim families having mismanaged the region by distributing the lion’s share of benefits to their Sunni clientele, and encouraged the establishment of Muslim secessionism, which some wish to achieve through terrorism, and upon which Pakistan has built its jihadist terror network.

            The Kashmir conflict can of course be given a geopolitical hue beyond Pakistani interests by bringing in the Western, Chinese and Russian role in it. Despite the contingent facts that constantly shift the geopolitical ground, which India’s move complicates further, a religious underpinning is nevertheless detectable in how the conflict is viewed. Some structural stability therefore characterizes accounts of the conflict as basically religious in the academic, political and media discussions.

            Although the conflict around Kashmir is conditioned by its embedding in the norms of international law, a certain cloudiness exists about how international law can address it. Is it part of India’s territory? Does this territory extend not only to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh but also to the so-called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan? What about the Kashmiris’ right of self-determination? Why is Kashmir described as a ‘disputed’ territory, ‘occupied’ or ‘administered’ by India? Even though the author has his view about them, this article is not meant to answer such questions. Rather, they underline the point that the international law status of Kashmir appears clouded by uncertainty and confusion, while just about the only thing that seems certain is that the Kashmir conflict is religious. The religious structuring of international law may itself condition the perception that the Kashmir conflict too is religious. In other words, religion produces the idea that the conflict is religious. This article explores that route and suggests that the religious structuring of the conflict is what may be preventing solving it.

The Western backdrop

One aspect of the answer to why the conflict acquires a religious character lies in how the Christian notion of a religious community became secularized (i.e. spread in a non-religious guise) into the prevalent common sense ideas of nation-states and minorities. Nation-states are the primary actor in international regime today. At the base of the idea of the nation-state is the notion that arises from the Protestant Reformation: a group with its distinct religion or confession constitutes a community. Obviously, not all religious groups became nations much less got identified with states. In those that did, though, the minorities were conceptualized as those who did not subscribe to the dominant religious confession.

            With the rise of toleration, also generated by the political theology of the Reformation, the state had to assume a neutral, agnostic position with regard to the specific beliefs of its population, members of which were free to entertain them privately. In addition, the notion of nationhood got secularized further through ‘invented traditions’, abstracting some customs to constitute core elements of a nation. Today, the dominant way of conceptualizing differences between cultures is to point to differences in their beliefs and norms. The prototypical instance of this generic, secularized way of conceptualizing culture is nevertheless religion.

            This conception of nationhood spread through the world and became a key determinant of the constitution of nation-states emerging from the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. It was given sanction at the end of the First World War by another American President Woodrow Wilson’s concept of self-determination. Its influence was such that countries in Asia and Africa that were not subject to outright colonialism emulated its pattern, and it provided the model for the emerging decolonized states. It was revivified when the Soviet empire receded into oblivion. Minorities multiplied all the while.

            Amidst the received European ideas of religion and groupness, and its peculiar brand of toleration, British colonialism in India had been constituting various communities. The foundations of this approach had been laid prior to outright colonialism, when the invention of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as religions took off. The Europeans’ Christian background compelled them to find religions in a culture that has none. Hinduism became constructed as a caste-ridden religion in which priestcraft held sway. It was immoral since its priests purveyed false doctrines as though they were true. Hindu rule thus exemplified Oriental despotism or tyranny. Neither did Hinduism respect the political theology separating religion from the public sphere. Hindu nationalism is its contemporary avatar, and the spectre of Oriental despotism looms large. This explains too why minorities are presumptively considered unsafe in India. Their religious freedoms are perennially threatened. As a given within theories about India, no level of fact-checking disturbs this presumption.

            The relations of the newly invented Indian religions inter se and with Islam (and Christianity) were inevitably described as antagonistic given the dominant conceptualizing of differences as constituted by mutually incompatible, rival beliefs and norms. The foundations of Hindu and Muslim antagonism, above which agnostically stood the colonial state, were laid out and deepened. Hindu-Muslim conflict is said to have been far worse in those territories controlled outright by the British Raj, as opposed to the territories of the princely states, suggesting that the colonial British secular state exacerbated conflict, and giving the lie to its ability to resolve it. The nation-state story got played out with British backing in the partition of India, premised on Muslims requiring a separate homeland. Just as the new European nation-states were meant to ensure the protection of kin minorities in neighbouring states, so too Pakistan was conceived as the kin state of Muslims across the border in independent India, claiming the right to intervene in case their freedoms were not protected.

            Let us bring together some elements of the prevailing paradigm as they pertain to Kashmir. Communities and nations share a religion or a culture. These units are antagonistic because of their incompatible beliefs and norms. Muslims and Hindus could not coexist, as President Trump recently reminded us. Kashmir, being a kingdom with a majority of Muslims, ought to have acceded to Pakistan. It did not do so despite attempts by the British to ensure that would happen. A putative Muslim nation (or part of one) that could not coexist with India’s majority Hindu population was thus stuck. This is especially so in a state where secularism seems to be giving way to Hindu nationalism and evading the fundamentals of religious neutrality. This is pretty much reflective of the conceptualization of Kashmir conflict among Western elites and their opposition to, or ambivalence about, accepting the Modi government’s constitutional move.

Islam’s relevance

So much for the role of Christianity and its secularized variants in helping explain the beliefs underlying contemporary thinking about the Kashmir conflict. The Kashmir conflict gets a religious hue in a second sense, which relates to the role played by Islam. As the dominant culture, the West stretched the norms of its international order globally, with its theories and ideas of nation-states and minorities. In the era of relative Western decline, challenges arise to that international order, and the ‘protective belt’ surrounding it diminishes. Alternatives make a play, among them coming from the Islamic world, attractive to some Muslim-dominant states, Muslim scholars and Muslims at large.

            Islam had developed its own doctrines about law, conquest, conquered and enslaved peoples, and so on. Writers have referred to as-siyyar, the Islamic international law, considered part of the broader Islamic law, the Sharia. In challenging the Western international order, Muslim-dominant states and Muslim thinkers have to reckon with the fact that that structure already exists. Their options include manoeuvring within its boundaries, riding on concepts accepted within international law while smuggling in Islamic content, navigating around it, or explicitly developing norms outside the constraints of the existing international order. These options have their analogues in domestic legal systems of secular states where Muslim minorities try to find room for expressions of the Sharia. One result of coordinating these various options was the creation and activity of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, latterly renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). With 57 Member States, it is the largest grouping of countries after the United Nations.

            If Muslims wish to Islamize the doctrines of international law, they could have recourse to the inherited corpus of Islamic norm-building and activity belonging to an earlier era of empires, prior to the contemporary notion of the nation-state, with its secular citizenry which enjoys human rights. They cannot find within these Islamic doctrines the equality of citizens or human rights. Rather Islamic norms asserted the supremacy of Muslims over dominated populations subjecting them to unequal taxation, forced conversion to Islam, predation on their property, and even greater misogyny than Muslim women were subjected to. Such practices were normal in the Muslim-dominant world where they are still very much in evidence. Muslim-dominant countries meanwhile continue to produce large numbers of refugees, as Kashmir too is likely to if it were to become (part of) a Sharia state. The ironic result of Muslims advocating Sharia states is that many are only too eager to flee them, as are other citizens, for whom life rapidly becomes intolerable.

            Islamic praxis inflected in the conquest and colonial domination of India happened over a period of centuries. Being pagan, the Indian population was subjected to sub-human treatment inferior than that reserved for those designated as peoples of the book. That Hindus found occasional mention among those peoples of the book makes for a rather ineffectual plea in mitigation. Records produced by Muslim historians of India indicate that during conquests, mass murder of pagans was common, those not murdered ­­­— often women and children — were enslaved and sold off or were forcibly converted to Islam, and Brahmins were made the specific targets of atrocities. Temples were looted and destroyed and the remains of the murtis were laid out to be trodden on. Such actions point to a distinct paranoia regarding idolatry. Justified in the name of Islamic jihad as morally noteworthy, they appear to have been unexceptional. The names of conquerors and rulers who had fought the Islamic jihad replaced traditional names, and continue to be given to children. Kashmir too became the site for atrocities, destruction and forced Islamization, a process that has continued up to today.

            Islamic claims about India, including Kashmir, rest on the right of conquest exercised in the past by Muslims whom the British had displaced. The Mughal dynasty was abolished after the British defeated the Indian Mutiny. Ceding power to a Hindu-majority India augmented Muslim territorial losses when the Ottoman Empire had already been vanquished in stages by Western powers and, in some cases, power transferred to non-Muslims. The creation of Pakistan, which its ideologues contemplated as necessarily including Kashmir, cannot satisfy Islam’s claimed historical right of dominion over India. Islamic powers never underwent a process of decolonization as western empires did. No acknowledgement, much less compensatory gesture, of centuries-long Islamic atrocities has taken place. Attempts to revive an Islamic international law remain configured by this legacy and its ping ponging between unacknowledged atrocities and their justification. The fashionistas of contemporary postcolonialism and decoloniality stop at dar ul-Islam.

            Islam has an uneasy relation to the modern notion of the nation-state and thus the norms of contemporary international law. Ideologues of an Islamic Pakistan had foreseen a state which would oversee the welfare of all Muslims not merely those who happen to be confined to the state of Pakistan. The creation of the OIC in the interests of Muslims across the globe is a further indication of an unwillingness to be bound by the territorial restriction that hedges in the nation-state. The founding documents of the OIC signify the resurfacing of the Islamic idea of Muslim peoples while declaiming the territorial nation-state idea. While its Member States declare a commitment to non-interference in each other’s affairs, they back the struggle of all Muslim peoples with a view to preserving their dignity, independence and national rights. While standing for the “national rights” of Muslim peoples, the drafters of the OIC Charter rejected the concept of nationality.

            OIC member countries have tried to prohibit the defamation of Islam via UN organs and, when that was found unacceptable, they have advocated norms against the defamation of religion. While initially found appealing by the other UN states, support has declined, given the evident attempt to foist Islamic blasphemy laws onto the rest of the world. A third track now in full swing is the formulation and spreading of norms against Islamophobia, which appears a lot like the rerun of the defamation of Islam. Given the use of secularized language it is sometimes difficult to know what is being presented. However, all three morphs are endeavours to ride on existing international law frameworks to universalize Islamic norms.

            If Islam were a scientific enterprise, anomalies and criticisms would lead to an adjustment in its basic hypotheses. The Islamophobia campaign instead helps solidify the ‘protective belt’ around Islam by making Islam and Muslims immune from criticism. Rejecting facts and evidence suppresses or deflects what might otherwise be potentially helpful means of reflection, and reinforces confirmation biases. Remarkably, though, norms against Islamophobia have been found acceptable to Western parliaments and other institutions. The UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims issued a report in November 2018 defining Islamophobia as “rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness”. The report has found assent in various local authorities, from the London Assembly to Birmingham City Council, which have passed resolutions in support of it.

            As one instance of Islamophobia, the APPG report cites accusing Muslim citizens of being more loyal to the “Ummah” (transnational Muslim community) or to their countries of origin, or to the alleged priorities of Muslims worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations. This illustration makes the present article Islamophobic merely by its pointing to a tendency within Islam to elevate the ummah as indexing a people, even though precisely the same has been discursively instantiated by Muslims in the run up to the creation of Pakistan, by officials in the current state of Pakistan, and within the aims of the OIC. One way of characterizing the illustration by the APPG is that it makes the identifying of a point of view considered legitimate when expressed by Muslims within an Islamic normative framework (“an expression of Muslimness”, presumably) into a transgressive act. The speaker’s religion therefore acts as a key determinant in characterizing a speech act as Islamophobic.

Another example of Islamophobia produced by the APPG is denying Muslim populations the right to self-determination e.g., by claiming that the existence of an independent Palestine or Kashmir is a terrorist endeavour. The claim for Muslim self-determination in Kashmir to the exclusion of other segments of its population too is a specific aim of Pakistani military, officials, and non-state actors, who advocate or use terrorism tactically. The claim is supported by segments of the Muslim population in Britain, if the letters written by British Muslim parliamentarians consequent to the Modi government’s action on Kashmir are any indication. The APPG on British Muslims and its supporters appear to suggest that the claim for Kashmiri self-determination (whatever that means) is legitimate despite being pursued by means of terrorism and that expressing the contrary is a form racism, transgressive Islamophobia.

The call for jihad in Kashmir is a great mobiliser. Muslims have produced confused, hyperbolic and violent responses to the Modi government’s move in Kashmir. This has twice manifested in violent attacks on Indian diplomatic premises in Britain and those members of the public present in or around them, exposing the UK to a breach of rules on the inviolability of diplomatic premises and personnel. Were it not for the tight controls imposed after the Indian constitutional adjustment, violence and terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir may well have got out of hand.


The Kashmir conflict gets a religious hue because of the dominating framework of secularized Christianity as well as the Islamic challenges to it. Both frameworks prevent solving the conflict and appear to reinforce patterns of violence and their denial. Rather than helping Muslims reflect on their responses, their Western and Indian supporters are reinforcing those recursive patterns by providing a false comfort blanket on grounds of their supposed toleration and sympathy for their claims. This reinforces the protective belts of the Western and Islamic frameworks of international law, simultaneously compounding the confusion produced by their hybrid working. The attempted revival of Islamic international law as a credible challenger to the Western framework can be predicted to fail. Erecting and spreading norms such as those against Islamophobia will not act as prophylactic to Muslim problems but merely compound them by forestalling their addressing. The cycle of violent responses by Muslims is in need of reflective techniques that can expose and deal with the substratum that keeps fueling it. Although it gives its colouring to it, religion hasn’t been able to produce answers to the Kashmir conflict. It may have created the problem in the first place and makes it harder, not easier, to solve.

Featured Image: Dawn

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