War on secular schools gathers pace in Kashmir

Sopore, India - “Why are you behaving like a bad boy,” reads the neat Urdu text someone chalked on to a blackboard in the Alamdar High School, just hours before it was destroyed. The whitewashed walls of the classroom have turned the same colour as the blackboard, and the stink of charred wood and paper still sits heavy in the air.

Last week, a violent mob set fire to one of north Kashmir’s most prestigious educational institutions after rumours spread that the head of its managing trust had abused the Prophet Muhammad. A computer centre, science laboratory and library were gutted after Wasim Bacha, the head of the Muslim Musafirkhana Foundation (MMF), was accused of blasphemy — notably by asking schoolchildren to sing the National Anthem.

Sopore’s top cleric later held that the allegations were untrue, and carpenters and masons have since been hard at work rebuilding the school and adjoining Sopore Law College complex — one of just three legal educational institutions in the Kashmir valley. What the workmen will not be able to brush away, however, is the growing war between religious neoconservatives and secular education in Sopore.

Battleground education

According to the MMF management, the trouble began after Ms. Bacha threatened to discipline two teachers whose performances were found inadequate. One teacher, Firdaus Malik, is alleged to have been found loitering outside the school, after absenting himself on the ground that he needed time for his Friday prayers. Another, Nasir Ahmad, was threatened with dismissal for his poor conduct of primary school history classes.

Both teachers, eyewitnesses say, made their way to the local mosque, and claimed Ms. Bacha had insulted their religion. A mob gathered outside the school, but was dispersed by the police. On Saturday, though, Mr. Malik and Mr. Ahmad mobilised supporters from mosques in Sopore. Over 4,000 people assembled outside the school, and, after taking several staff members hostage, proceeded to destroy the complex.

Opinions vary on just what underpinned the mob’s anger. “My mother is not ethnic Kashmiri,” says Ms. Bacha’s daughter, Mariam Bacha, “which made it easy for people to malign her.” Others believe that landless peasants living near the complex wished to vent their anger against the elites whose children studied in the school. Still others insist the Jamaat-e-Islami was looking for a pretext to set off a region-wide conflagration.

Whatever the truth, secular education has been a growing target of Islamists in northern Kashmir. Four months ago, the Harkat ul-Mujahideen bombed the home of Inayatullah Hajani, who runs the well-respected Shah Rasool Memorial High School. Mr. Hajani’s Bangalore-educated daughter, Baseema Hajani, was charged with apostasy after she put up portraits of Mother Teresa and Bhagat Singh in the school office.

Taliban justice?

Ms. Bacha’s Islamist critics were silenced after a religious court issued a fatwa exonerating her of blasphemy charges — the first clerical intervention of its kind in Jammu and Kashmir. Sopore’s chief religious judge, the Dar-ul-Uloom’s Mufti Muzaffar Shah, held a trial in the presence of police and administration officials. Both teachers withdrew their allegations — and were promptly arrested.

Ms. Bacha’s success in Mufti Muzaffar’s court may have been helped by her background. Her late husband, Ghulam Rasool Bacha, was a well-known figure among Sopore Islamists. He counted both Mr. Geelani as well as the All Parties Hurriyat Conference leader, Abdul Gani Butt, among his friends. Mir Shafqat Husain, one of Mr. Geelani’s key associates, is related to Ms. Bacha by marriage.

Sopore’s strong Islamist presence owes its power to a long-standing alliance between affluent orchard owners, who were threatened by the socialist policies of the National Conference, and the underclass of landless peasants living along the banks of the Jhelum river and the Wullar lake. Religion offered both classes a language with which to press their claims against a common enemy: the politically-dominant small landowning peasantry.

In recent years, though, elite Islamists have felt threatened by the growth of a new middle-class which aspires to closer linkages with the Indian Union. Education has become a key battleground. Earlier this year, the Islamist leader Asiya Andrabi lashed out at the public school system, claiming plans were in place to introduce sex education. Mr. Geelani, for his part, has initiated the construction of a Rs. 80 million Islamic institution.