Fortnightly Feature- The Hindu Indian onslaught and takeover of Muslim assets: Identity in crisis

On a cold winter morning, wearing a dark gray Pheran (Tradition cloak), Hafeez Qadri walks on the snow-covered road in a small village near the Sumbal region of Kashmir. As part of his daily routine, he is the first person in the morning to open the mosque before daybreak and light incense sticks. Hafeez then fires up the Hammam (under the floor heating system) and ensures the place is warm. The fire also heats the water for the comfort of the Namazees (worshippers) who will arrive shortly. In his melodious voice that resonates with peace and emotion, he gives a call for prayer.

The compound houses a 15th-century shrine of a saint who came here to preach Islam and a masjid built next to it with a library and a Darsgah (classroom) for children to learn the Quran. Hafeez is a direct descendant of the saint. “I take care of this mosque because I see it as my responsibility. My ancestors came to Kashmir around 500 years back to spread the message of peace and brought education and handicraft with them, and we have maintained this institution till today. The donations we have collected have educated boys and girls in this village. Some of them have become top professionals in their respective fields today,” Hafeez says.

The small community of people who run the affairs of the shrine collect funds to maintain and repair the building regularly, and bear the expenses of the Dargah, where orphans study and get an education in science and math. Such religious institutions are under attack from the hardline Hindutva-backed BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which has grabbed power in New Delhi. The socio-political and demographic makeup of the valley is under attack and continuously altered since the Government of India unilaterally repealed the remaining provisions of Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019, which had granted Jammu and Kashmir a semi-autonomous status. With new orders being issued every day, what is under attack is not just land laws but the cultural and religious identity of this Himalayan region. In March 2022, for the first time, a far-right Hindutva BJP leader Darakshan Andrabi was appointed as the chairperson of the J&K wakf Board by New Delhi.

The Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board oversees the assets and finances of the region’s religious organizations, notably Muslim shrines. Locals saw the action as a proclamation of Delhi’s appropriation of Muslim religious institutions. With the reorganization of the Waqf Board, the new management is out to grab not assume control of the Muslim religious institutions, but also a large consortium of properties and land owned by the Waqf all across Kashmir and Jammu.

Rashid Gadda, who runs a business of electrical supplies in Srinagar, has been served a notice. “They are telling me to vacate the premises. This building belongs to the Waqf Board. In 1983, I purchased the shop from them by paying in full. At that time, it was a trusted institution, and all owners were given papers as tenants. Per the agreement, we were only supposed to pay a small rent for maintenance.” But now the Hindu BJP-run Waqf (Muslim Trust) has been issuing notices to Muslim people calling them ‘illegal encroachers’ of their properties and asking them to vacate. “I have all the papers, but who will listen to me? Which court will give me justice?” Rashid asks. He says that even though he has all the documents, many other business owners lost original documents in the floods in 2014 that engulfed most of the occupied territory.

Until recently, the finances and affairs of religious bodies were managed by the Muslim Auqaf Trust. The leadership of the National Conference, who held political power in Kashmir, maintained direct control over this trust for many years. But the assets of the Muslim Auqaf Trust were taken over by the coalition of Peoples Democratic Party and Indian Congress coalition which passed new legislation to control the management of Waqf lands, and the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Waqf Board was created in 2003. However, small Auqaf bodies, which saw themselves as guardians of these community institutions and shrines, continued to operate. These small institutions served as the backbone of society during the turmoil of the 1990s and raised funds and provided support to the urban areas during curfews of the years of turmoil. They purchased critically needed vegetables from the farmers and transported them to the city centers to be distributed free of cost.

This arrangement was in effect until 2019, when the board underwent a reorganization in line with the policies of deprivation deployed by New Delhi in the occupied Kashmir. Declaring all local Awqaf bodies illegal, orders issued by the Waqf Board under BJP’s Darkshan Andrabi read, “it is hereby notified that all the Wakf/Auqaf Committees shall be deemed as void abinitio and any kind of interference by such local Waqf Committees be reckoned illegal and to invite action. Any communication or decision of any such local committee at any Waqf unit may not be entertained.”

The chief executive officer of the board further said, “in pursuance to Waqf Act extended to Jammu and Kashmir (UT), the new J&K Waqf Board has taken overall control of all the shrines, including other assets and properties, under the Muslim specified Waqf in entire UT. After assuming control, Andrabi started issuing countless damning orders. Its edicts specifically mentioned “Mujavirs,” or the guardians of religious sanctuaries, which functioned as community social groups. Most of these Mujavirs trace ancestry to Muslim saints and reformers who brought Islam to Kashmir centuries ago. Even though no legal authority appoints them, they are permanent in Kashmiri culture. The Waqf board then removed donation boxes from shrines, alleging that the Mujavirs were extorting money. However, the custodians or Mujavirs have called the move insulting. The Mujavirs claimed that they had been custodians of these institutions for centuries, and the Waqf board could not take them out based on such false accusations. The Mujavirs reiterated that the work is a legacy for them and existed way before the creation of the Waqf board.

Locals have not received the move well. Even pro-India politicians with little public political regard in occupied Kashmir have spoken against the assault. “The idea is to demolish our age-old traditions as we know them. Every Kashmiri knows that we pay to peers at the shrines out of our free will. The Waqf Board has pulled an allegation out of thin air and took this drastic decision without even conducting an inquiry,” a local politician quoted by Indian Media as saying.

“Donations were the major funding source for these shrines’ repairs and maintenance, which are very important to us. The Hindutva BJP aims to eradicate Muslim identity and presence in our land, and it is doing so by removing these contribution boxes in place. The Waqf board is only acting as Delhi’s puppet,” says a local who requested anonymity.

Many of these historic structures started to show cracks after the earthquake in 2005. “The Waqf board never cared about repairing the shrines. The custodians did the work by appealing for donations from people and their own pockets,” the resident says.

Back in Sumbal, Hafeez Qadri found a loose wire which had fallen to the ground due to the weight of the snow. Shaking the hands of devotees as they depart after their obligatory prayers, Hafeez makes sure the wire is fixed before he locks the gate of the compound and hangs the key on the board next to the wooden shoe rack.

“This is what they don’t want. They don’t want these places to be maintained and offer community services. They want these places to become ruins. God forbid, if another earthquake or flood comes, there will be no one to repair and maintain these places. Our donation system, which allows 19 orphans to study in the Darsgah, is also about to end. They have asked the bank to seize our account. It will stop functioning any day now,” Hafeez says as he puts on his shoes to walk back on the snow-covered road toward his house.

The BJP-run Waqf board is aggressively taking over land and properties affiliated with religious or educational institutions. Recently, they imposed a decision to build a cancer hospital on Eidgah grounds – used for Eid congregation prayers and as a martyrs’ graveyard where many of those who Indian forces have killed are buried. The people of the valley retain a powerful emotional and political emblem in their hearts for both.

Kashmiris worry that these efforts are being made to modify the perception of occupation and oppression, project a false feeling of normalcy, and foster a false sense of belonging to India. If successful, this would eventually end the dissent against Indian occupation and the landmarks that represent it.