Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in his address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 27, 2019 touched upon four key points: climate change, money laundering, Islamophobia, and the Kashmir dispute. The sequence of the issues discussed, while highlighting their significance for Pakistan, reflected a well-thought-out strategy to galvanise the world’s attention toward Kashmir — the primary focus of Khans’s speech.
Apart from highlighting the contemporary dynamics of the Kashmir dispute, Khan’s discussion on rising global Islamophobia was followed by a deconstruction of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nexus in the context of the Kashmir issue. Khan’s discourse regarding Islamophobia — focusing from the standpoint of it being in part a Western phenomenon — highlighted its impact on Muslims worldwide. It is, however, critical to understand the intertwined nature of the dynamics of contemporary Kashmir and the deep-rooted Islamophobia seemingly embedded within Indian national policies implemented by the BJP government.
Khan argued that the West’s usage of terms like “Islamic terrorism” and “radicalized Islam” has led to the marginalization of Muslims and the rise of Islamophobia affecting 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. He made clear that no religion, Islam included, supports terrorism. However, he added, contrary to popular opinion, Islamophobia is not limited to the West. Its presence in regions reaching from the Middle East to Asia has had devastating repercussions for Muslims. Islamophobia has had distinct manifestations varying across regions.
The growing global phenomenon of Islamophobia and the BJP’s Hindutva-driven ideology are two sides of the same coin. Hindutva represents an identity rooted in the superiority of the Hindus, and isolates and treats as inferior all others, particularly Muslims. By posturing Muslims as an entity that has conventionally posed a threat to the natural state of “Hinduness” in the subcontinent, Hindutva regards India as an inherently Hindu nation. Such a narrative not only otherises Muslims in India but also forms the basis for an exclusionary national narrative that focuses solely on the rights of Hindus. The doctrine of Hinduva has also provided an opportunity for the BJP leadership to use the Kashmir crisis to project a territorial threat to India’s sovereignty from the Muslim identity — serving the nationalist agenda of isolating Muslims in India.
The rise of Islamophobia in India is correlated with the growing influence of the RSS and the BJP — both inspired by Hindutva ideology. With Indian Prime Minister Modi a life member of the RSS, the BJP-led Indian government is using state structures against Muslims amid the rising tide of Islamophobia to gain political and ideological legitimacy. By capitalizing on the anti-Muslim sentiments in India, the Modi-led BJP won a landslide victory in 2019 and has fortified Hindu nationalist elements in India to encourage and perpetrate attacks against religious minorities, specifically Kashmiri Muslims.
Even though Islamophobia is often perceived as a global phenomenon, its place within the Indian context and specifically in the context of Kashmir is often missing. Islamophobic sentiment in the global arena has created space for Modi to equate the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination with terrorism. Hence, Islamophobia used as a strategic weapon by the BJP to not only push ultra-nationalist policies but to also delegitimize the Kashmiri struggle for freedom by equating it with the rhetoric of “Islamic terrorism.” The imprint of the Islamophobic narrative within rising Hindu nationalism in India, the conviction of Hindu supremacy embedded within the RSS ideology which is championed by the BJP, and the strangulation of political rights of people under the framework of “combating Islamic terrorism” are inextricable notions articulated in contemporary Kashmir.
The BJP’s move to abrogate Article 370 and 35A has been viewed by some as an attempt to bring about a demographic shift in Kashmir to create Hindu majority. This is reflective of the BJP’s arguably Islamophobic manifesto. BJP leaders also expressed their desire to resettle Hindu populations in Kashmir, a dream not too far-fetched in the absence of a special status for Kashmir and Kashmiris. This mindset of Hindutva-driven Islamophobia and Hindu supremacy has also permeated into the Hindu mainstream in India whereby under Modi’s government, cases of Muslim lynchings have dramatically risen, and hatred and violence toward Kashmiri Muslims has been exacerbated.
The mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism is also reflected in the attempts of Hindu-American lobbies which have embraced Islamophobic rhetoric in an attempt to gain influence by aligning themselves with what they perceive as the prevailing Western discourse. Hindu lobby groups in the West have provided validation to the Indian nationalist narrative, whereby the comparison of the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination with terrorism has, to some extent, garnered international acceptance and support — evidence of which is in the silence of the international community over the marginalization of Kashmiri Muslims. Indian lobbies in the West have also successfully promulgated the economic success of India under the Modi government, in an attempt to divert the international community’s attention from the prevalence of religious extremism in India and grave human rights violations in Kashmir. The Indian government’s decision to remove Kashmir’s special status, camouflaged under the slogan of bringing economic progress and development to the region, also signals the triumph of Hindutva-inspired lobbies in the West.
Amid the rising influence of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobic narratives in India, foreseeing the future for Kashmiris is not difficult; already living in fear, surrounded by chaos, and silenced through violence, once the Indian government lifts the curfew, as stressed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, there remains the fear of a bloodbath. Kashmir is one of the most militarized zones in the world, with an estimated 900,000 Indian troops stationed in the region. With the Kashmiri political leadership arrested and Kashmiri youngsters being blinded with pellets, Kashmiri youth may resort to the path of radicalism, further feeding the overarching narrative. The state of affairs in Kashmir begs the question, one hinted in Khan’s address at UNGA: Would the reaction of the international community toward the injustice faced by Kashmiris be different if it were not a Muslim community facing discrimination and violence at the hands of Indian government? Are world powers silent over the plight of Kashmiris because they value the material over the human or are they silent because the human in this situation happens to be Muslim?
Lack of discussion on the nexus of rising Islamophobia against the backdrop of rising ultranationalist sentiment in India obstructs one from holistically analyzing the Kashmir dispute and from taking steps to deconstruct growing Hindu religious nationalism in India. Speaking of only individual incidents of violence in Kashmir not only undermines the scale of the issue, but also ignores the subtleties of the dynamics of identity politics with relation to the Kashmir issue, limiting the ability to assign responsibility to political elites for using coercive state power against marginalized groups. Ultranationalist elements in India have strategically selected Kashmiris as their target to expand their power by exercising institutionalized Islamophobia against them. In response to this, the world community must recognize the presence of Islamophobic elements within growing Hindu nationalism in India and that this is a threat not only to the political dynamics of the region but Muslim communities around the world.
Fareeha Shamim holds a BA in international relations and economics with a focus in international ethics from Mount Holyoke College. She is currently serving as a research associate at the Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII).