Indian authorities regularly lock down Srinagar’s iconic Jamia Masjid, like they did during Eid this year, to prevent any congregation that could lead to demonstrations. The BJP government, and now Indian armed forces, are trying to “rein in” Kashmir’s Islamic institutions. Photo: ZUMA Wire / IMAGO
Indian authorities regularly lock down Srinagar’s iconic Jamia Masjid, like they did during Eid this year, to prevent any congregation that could lead to demonstrations. The BJP government, and now Indian armed forces, are trying to “rein in” Kashmir’s Islamic institutions. Photo: ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

Kashmir’s religious institutions are the Modi government’s latest battlefront

The Modi government and the BJP’s systematic push for control over mosques and madrassas in India-administered Kashmir is spilling over into communal conduct by the Indian armed forces

Maknoon Wani is a former journalist who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford). His research looks at technology policy and digital governance, and he has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, internet shutdowns and online hate speech in India. He tweets @maknoonwani.

On 24 June, residents of a village in Pulwama district in India-administered Kashmir alleged that a group of Indian army personnel entered a mosque at dawn and interrupted the azaan, then forced the worshippers to chant "Jai Shri Ram", a Hindutva war cry synonymous with anti-Muslim violence in India. Witnesses also alleged that the soldiers thrashed and detained several villagers during what was described as a mock counterinsurgency drill. While there were reports of senior army officers apologising to the villagers later, the incident was not formally acknowledged by the army or the Bharatiya Janata Party-led national government – which, since Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of statehood in 2019, has direct administration of the territory. However, three former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir swiftly condemned the actions of the army personnel.
India's armed forces have often been accused of torture and extra-judicial killings in Kashmir, but this incident, and the official silence around it, marked a new and distinct form of systemic coercion happening in the Muslim-majority region. The incident was downplayed in many circles as a one-off, but many others realised that it must be condemned to check the possible communalisation of the Indian armed forces. The sobering truth is that other similar incidents have happened in recent years, and they are symptomatic of a sharp rise in communal bias within the Indian military. 
In 2018, Bipin Rawat, the army chief at the time, mentioned the All India United Democratic Front, a party representing Muslims in Assam, to link it with an allegedly fast-growing Muslim population and a supposed "planned" influx of Bangladeshi immigrants in the northeastern Indian state. A few years later, in 2020, army men assaulted several civilians on the outskirts of Srinagar and forced them to chant "Jai Shri Ram". Since the Hindu-nationalist BJP took power in India in 2014, rhetoric around Islamic radicalisation as the root cause of the Kashmir conflict has been propagated relentlessly. This discourse has gained currency across India's political spectrum, and now seemingly within the armed forces too, enabling a series of government tactics to try and "rein in" the region's Muslim religious institutions – mosques, madrassas and shrines – ostensibly to prevent their "misuse" by militants and "anti-national" forces.
Minding God 
Mosques and madrassas have long been monitored in Kashmir, and certainly since the BJP government arrived. Their managing bodies, called waqf committees, usually comprise neighbourhood elders and senior citizens who also look after community graveyards. The local administration and police often invite waqf members for events and informal talks. However, security agencies have increasingly grown suspicious of these bodies' functioning. A report in April last year quoted government officials as saying that militants were using mosques and madrassas to take shelter and "indoctrinate young minds". In 2020, the Special Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force accused militants of using mosques to launch attacks and asked mosque committees to prevent this. These concerns, whether genuine or not, were front-loaded in the government's narrative against militancy, which reinforced its argument of Islamic radicalisation. In that sense, Indian armed forces in the disputed region and the Hindu right across India have consolidated their views vis-a-vis Muslim religious institutions. Mosques and madrassas in several BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh and Assam, have also faced systematic attacks with the same underlying justification.

India's armed forces have often been accused of torture and extra-judicial killings in Kashmir, but the army's violent intrusion into a local mosque in June marked a new and distinct form of systemic coercion in the Muslim-majority region.

The BJP's strategy today for Kashmir's madrassas, mosques and shrines is neither limited to surveillance, as was the case earlier, nor does it go so far as shutting them down completely. It is rather a long-drawn-out plan to install its own people in the waqf committees, centralise the management of these institutions and so strengthen its socio-political control of the territory. 
One of the early indicators of this strategy was a revealing assessment report prepared by India's ministry of home affairs in 2017. It suggested that "controlling" madrassas and mosques, as well as print and television media, was needed for managing the "Kashmir narrative". The report, with detailed "actionable points", was sent to Ajit Doval, India's national-security advisor, who has overseen Jammu and Kashmir's security architecture since the BJP came to power. The abrogation in 2019 of Kashmir's limited autonomy under the Indian constitution, part and parcel of the end of Jammu and Kashmir's statehood, finally paved the way to formally implementing this control. 

The restructuring of the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board under the BJP leader Darakshan Andrabi is not only meant to increase the profitability of the board's assets but also to extend control over mosques that are run by independent waqf committees.

A change in the constitutional status of the territory also led to the reconstitution of the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board and brought it under the ambit of the central Waqf Act (1995). To tighten the ruling administration's grip over the institution, the senior BJP leader Darakhshan Andrabi was appointed as the board's head in March 2022. Within months, the board passed an order to ban "unethical practices" in shrines and disallow mujavirs – unofficial caretakers who have been a permanent feature of Muslim shrines in Kashmir – from collecting donations. In August 2023, the board said that old imams and muezzins will be replaced with "young" and "degree-holding" individuals through a new recruitment process involving interviews, in a move likely aimed at installing pro-BJP and pro-state actors in these institutions. 
Take over and transform
"Waqf" refers to a commitment made by a Muslim to permanently dedicate their property for purposes that are considered virtuous, religious or charitable according to Islamic law. The Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board oversees the administration and finances of Islamic institutions and properties in the region. Government officials say that around 31,000 properties come under its purview, but only a tenth of these are directly controlled by it. The rest – local graveyards, mosques and other properties – are managed by locals. The board has historically been a political institution and has faced allegations of corruption and mismanagement; its properties are arguably underutilised and under-monetised due to political interference. 
Soon after the BJP leader Darakhshan Andrabi (centre) was appointed the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board, the body banned "unethical practices" in Muslim shrines and disallowed mujavirs, or traditional caretakers, from collecting donations. Photo: NurPhoto / IMAGO
Soon after the BJP leader Darakhshan Andrabi (centre) was appointed the head of the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board, the body banned "unethical practices" in Muslim shrines and disallowed mujavirs, or traditional caretakers, from collecting donations. Photo: NurPhoto / IMAGO
The BJP is now capitalising on these points to solidify its control over local shrines. It has used this critique of the waqf board as an opportunity to widen the institution's jurisdiction to include more mosques and shrines across Kashmir. This restructuring of the board is not only meant to increase the profitability of its assets, which include plenty of prime real estate, but also to extend its control to mosques that are run by independent waqf committees. This includes Srinagar's historic Jamia Masjid, which is headed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a veteran separatist leader. Mirwaiz was only recently released from four years of house arrest, with certain conditions: "I cannot utter my sentiments," he said during a Friday sermon on the day of his release. Authorities regularly lock down the Jamia Masjid to prevent any congregation that could lead to demonstrations. The government now plans to completely seize control of the mosque through the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board. Andrabi, in an interview published this April, said that the board will not allow the use of mosques for "terror" – a pointed reference to Mirwaiz's pro-freedom politics. Subsequently, Eid prayers were not allowed in the Jamia Masjid this year, or at Srinagar's prominent Eidgah, a large ground designated for Eid prayers. 

The BJP's strategy today for Kashmir's madrassas, mosques and shrines is to install its own people in the waqf committees, centralise the management of these institutions and so strengthen the ruling Indian government's socio-political control.

The extension of the waqf board's authority is not limited to taking control of prominent mosques. In a bid to centralise its power, the board's chief has also announced that it will take administrative control of properties which are not notified by the waqf board, based on "complaints" by the public. The board also declared that local waqf committees have no legal standing under the Waqf Act. Clearly, the BJP-led board aims to seize smaller mosques and shrines across Kashmir that were built by locals and are maintained by independent waqf committees. Such a move will give the BJP unprecedented access and control over Kashmiri society. "I would not be surprised if ten years down the line the sermons to be preached in mosques are coming from Delhi," a senior Kashmiri journalist told me, asking not to be named for fear of repercussions from the administration. 
The takeover has already started. Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulama Jammu and Kashmir, a consortium of 40 social and religious organisations, has accused the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board of forcibly acquiring control of local mosques and shrines. Its statement, published in June, said the board was "coercing takeover" of "local masjid committees, shrines and religious learning centers", and also condemned the arrest of religious clerics across Kashmir. Most of these clerics were arrested for "provoking" the public, even though they barely touched upon political issues during their sermons, and they were charged under the draconian Public Safety Act, which allows detention without trial for up to two years. The absence of actual wrongdoing may have prompted the use of the PSA, as opposed to pursuing a normal judicial prosecution that would require clear evidence of those detained having broken the law. This all-encompassing crackdown on clerics, from across various Islamic schools of thought, was the first step towards the BJP's takeover-and-transform strategy, which is ultimately aimed at changing the very nature of Kashmir's Muslim religious institutions and using them in favour of the state. 

The Modi administration's attempt to take institutional control of mosques and shrines in India-administered Kashmir is meant to head off any resistance from these otherwise independent institutions.

Beyond political and military reasons, there are also ideological motives driving the BJP's religious politics in Kashmir. With its Hindutva orientation, it views Islam as a faith alien to India and fundamentally different from what it considers India's "native" culture and religion. Arguably, the Hindu nationalist party's communal politics at the national level is shaping its security policies in Kashmir. Its promotion of the divisive film The Kashmir Files was also meant to push the same argument and club the Kashmir issue with its national politics. The army's intrusion into the mosque in Pulwama is a trickle-down effect of the BJP's relentless demonisation of Kashmiri Muslims, and of Islam more broadly. The Modi administration's attempt to take institutional control of mosques and shrines is meant to head off any resistance from these otherwise independent institutions, and to create an absolute power structure that serves the government's political and ideological interests.
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