Shrine Narrative in Kashmir

The Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir. Image source: Wikipedia

Shrine politics have given the legitimacy to names like Sher-i-Kashmir among Muslims and Rajaji, Pandit Ji among Hindus.


Kashmir, baptized as a fortunate landscape with immense natural beauty, is a paradise on earth. Because of its multilayered diversity of indigenous identities and local ethos, this land of noble souls for centuries created a unique type of social fabric in Kashmir. This land turned sacred because of the noble deeds and social activism of its spiritual leaders who individually and at a transcendent level tried to make it into a more than a mundane territory for human beings. Hence, a peer waer (abode of mystics)! The shrines visible almost in every nook and cranny of the valley are reminiscent of those high deeds and imperishable values that went into its making. Shrines have played its role from the very beginning and, in fact, continue to do so. Although Kashmir witnessed many ups and downs in last hundred years of its history, shrines continue to remain a significant reminder of our collective endeavor to affirm our faith in a set of values that seem axiomatic every passing day.

The institutionalization of shrines in Jammu and Kashmir remains one of the primary concerns of the rulers of the state. The battle to monopolize and institutionalize these shrines appeared from last century. Chitralhkha Zutshi, one of the leading authorities on the history of modern Kashmir, states that shrines provide legitimacy to the rulers and their agents who gained influence over management. The unfortunate part of this story starts when politicians or clergy control and dominate the public sentiments. They assume the role of God’s hangmen instead of his servants. If one despot and tyrant dies another with a new name and renewed ferocity takes his place, and the process goes on. The fact is that shrine politics have given the legitimacy to names like Sher-i-Kashmir among Muslims and Rajaji, Pandit Ji among Hindus.

The career of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah from local school teacher to Sher-e-Kashmir was nourished by none other than the shrines of Kashmir. The spiritual realm of shrines was successfully manipulated by wily politicians to reap the political harvest. Sheikh Abdullah started his political journey from one of the famous shrine i.e., Hazratbal. The same Abdullah when he was dethroned from the chair from 1953 till his agreement with New Delhi in 1975 used Hazratbal again to reclaim legitimacy for his political decisions after serving in prison for two decades. Shrines in Jammu and Kashmir were used as political institutions in pre-1947 phase as well as in post-1947. Not only Muslims used to do politics to grab power and used their ideology on people, but Hindus did the same by using various religious festivals and shrines to keep their ideological narratives alive. Shrines, as Zutshi claimed, are the institutions that allowed rulers to assume the position of the divine figures and became as holy saints. Even those people who do not support the shrine culture in Jammu and Kashmir use these shrines to score brownie points on a political front.
To justify their political motives, the elites especially the politician from both the communities, i.e., Muslim and Non-Muslim used these shrines to defend and promote their narratives in the state. These shrines which have an intense sentimental attachment with the masses were successfully used to make political gains from both the sides. The hate speeches against one another during the religious festivals created by and large disequilibrium in the society.

The disputed politics of the state played its role in shaping functions of these shrines. The central as well state governments always find it easy to espouse a narrative of Sufism to establish corrupt politicians and clergy for their selfish interests. The struggle for justice and freedom was and is still being projected as an alien demand and is liked with the radicalization of this political movement. However, when same rulers who practiced Machiavellian political methods perceive a threat to their autocratic rule, they start to endorse the Sufi and Reshi culture of the state. It is an irony that those who used these shrines on communal lines to grab land, territory, and power, etc. are now giving lectures and sermons of peace, love, affection, and tolerance.
Although there are boards, who govern these shrines, e.g., Shrine Board for Hindus and Muslim Wakf Board for Muslims. But after observing on technical as well as on practical grounds, these boards are nothing but only the Institutions who use public money for their personal use without any checks and balances from their lords who nominated them to their respective defacto positions. Unfortunately, Shrine Board elites do politics to grab more power and money. In fact, the grim story is that these bodies always looted and plundered the wealth, although some stories like- to serve the pilgrimage tourists and those who invest in establishing educational Institute like Mata Vishnu Dive University- are pleasant exceptions. The corrupt and incapable elitism in Muslim Waqf Board failed to create any such institution in Kashmir even though its revenues run in cores.

The Sufi and Reshi shrines were once lauded as the epitomes of peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence. But with the passage of time and changing dynamics of state politics, they have been used as tools to reignite religious bigotry and hatred by the politicians and parties with mere political ends. In common parlance, these Sufis and their shrines represent non-political and inherently peaceful Islam that shaped our cultural ethos (Kashmiriyat). Ironically, however, these shrines are used by the brutal regimes to further their ulterior ambitions and to seek legitimacy for the status quo. It makes me recall neo Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s Concept of Hegemony, where the civil society which he calls structure of legitimization play a formidable role in manufacturing the consent which Marx calls False consciousness. The closeness between the civil societies which also includes the religious places with the Superstructure largely determines the thinking of the masses and that too have to bear upon the public opinion. These shrines and the politics behind have suppressed the common people of Kashmir with the consent and created a state of hegemony, where no one challenges their authority to be it legitimate or illegitimate. Need is to depoliticize shrines.