NEW DELHI: Kashmiri communities are raising concerns over alleged attempts to “undermine the Muslim identity” in the valley after a clip showing Muslim students in public schools reciting a Hindu hymn sparked controversy among religious and political leaders in the region.
New Delhi revoked the constitutional semi-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, its portion of the region contested by India and Pakistan, into two federally governed territories in 2019.
The abrogation of its autonomy, which was followed by a total communications blackout, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, the detention of hundreds of local political leaders and the deployment of thousands of additional troops, has since compounded fears that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to alter the Muslim-majority region.
When Muslim students earlier this month were instructed to recite a Hindu hymn as part of preparations to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi on Oct. 2, a clip of the activity triggered new concerns among communities in the valley, such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulema Jammu and Kashmir, a collective of 30 religious and educational bodies in the region.
“MMU appeals to the government and concerned authorities to immediately withdraw its orders and stop these practices in schools and educational institutions, which deeply hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims and cause them grief,” they said in a statement.
The collective issued the statement after a meeting was held over the weekend “in the wake of unfortunate attempts being made to undermine the Muslim identity of Kashmir.”
Mohd Ashraf Rather, chief education officer of the region’s Kulgam district, told Arab News on Sunday that the hymn was practiced in school “because it is an all-faith prayer” and had been part of a “one-day activity” ahead of Gandhi’s birthday celebrations.
“This is the same hymn that Mahatma Gandhi used to sing and the prayer invokes both Ishwar (Hindu address to God) and Allah,” Rather said.
The Hindu hymn controversy appears to be part of a “deliberate” plan, said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, who has been held under house arrest since August 2019.
“It is becoming clear that there seems to be a deliberate plan to push our young generation through state-run educational institutions towards apostasy, to wean them away from Islamic beliefs and identity, to speed their so-called ‘integration’ with the Hindu majoritarian idea of India,” Farooq told Arab News.
Though recitations of Hindu hymns are not something new in Kashmir, the questions raised in the valley were triggered by concerns over the intention of the ruling BJP party, the region’s political leader Ghulam Mir of the Apni Party, told Arab News.
“Prayers can be performed in any language but the important thing is to look at the intention. If the intention is an ulterior motive, then anyone can raise an objection,” Mir said.
“Earlier also people used to recite Hindu hymns, but that time (the) intention was different, but the majoritarian politics of the BJP looks like (being) against Muslims — their profile is anti-Muslim so whatever they do, Muslims feel it’s against them.”
Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of Kashmir’s oldest political party, National Conference, urged the government to provide an explanation.
“The government needs to come out with clarification. What is the intent behind it?” Dar told Arab News.
“There is a serious attempt to hurt the sentiments of the majority community of Kashmir. There is an attempt to provoke the people,” he added.
Mohammed Yousuf Tarigami, a senior leader and convenor of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration — a political alliance between several regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir campaigning to restore its special autonomous status — stressed the importance of secular education in Kashmir.
“Any encroachment compromising the secular spirit of the constitution is dangerous,” Tarigami said. “Whatever is happening in Kashmir is part of the program to ‘Hindunize’ education and this will provoke and promote other varieties of extremism.”
Dr. Hina Bhat, a local leader and spokesperson for the BJP based in Srinagar, told Arab News the hymn is not controversial.
“What is controversial about the hymns?” Bhat asked. “They should stop politicizing the issue where kids are not allowed to grow in an open space.”
Kapil Kak, former Indian air marshal and member of the Forum for Human Rights in Jammu and Kashmir, said “there should be no changes” in the patterns of prayers and school songs in Kashmir.
“The issue can turn into a potential trouble spot. Kashmiris have been very patient; they have gone through multiple types of assaults on their identity for the last three years but they have borne it.”