Valley of the shadows. First the victims of British imperialism, then of India's "secular" ruling elite, Kashmir's Muslims have long endured oppression. Today, as conflict in their land continues to claim thousands, the Kashmiris themselves remain largely

Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, rights and the history of Kashmir

Mridu Rai <em>Hurst & Comp

In early 1922, E M Forster returned to England after eight months in India, where he had met many educated Muslims enraged by the British-led destruction of the Ottoman empire. In a magazine article later that year, he tried to explain to British readers why a Muslim might think that the Crusades were still in progress: "He can observe what he has lost in North Africa and in Central Asia during the last 20 years." He described how imperialism helps create a fundamentalist backlash:

Islam is more than a religion, and both its opponents and supporters have wronged it by their hard legalistic insistence on the Faith. It is an attitude towards life which has produced durable and exquisite civilisations, an attitude threatened by Europe's remorseless crusade today.

These words have a particular resonance now, even if Forster's nuanced reading of history cannot be of much use to present-day imperialists, who prefer to explain violence directed at western interests with the simple words: "They hate us." This explanation satisfies even many liberal intellectuals. They hate us because of who we are: modern peoples enjoying freedom and democracy and having a rather better time, economically and sexually, than anyone has ever had. The assumption of superiority justifies bombing remote, unknown peoples into freedom and democracy; it helps isolate those who reject altruism of this sort as crazy fundamentalists and terrorists. The verbal opposition of "freedom" with "terrorism" also makes acts of utter ruthlessness - such as "whacking" Iraq mostly because it can be whacked - seem like necessary humanitarian interventions.

The supposed antithesis between the words "secularism" and "communalism" has served a similarly diverse ideological purpose in independent India. "Communalism" is the word often used by the government and mainstream media to describe, and stigmatise, the ethnic and religious minorities that demand political and economic concessions from the Hindu-dominated, centralised Indian state. By claiming to be secular and the def-ender of national integrity, the Indian ruling elite can seem to occupy a moral high ground and thereby make respectable their brutal crackdowns on disaffected minorities, which apparently have to be saved from themselves.

Much writing about India, and not just by nationalist historians, assumes that people who call themselves secular are really secular (and good) whereas those opposed to them are religious fundamentalists (and bad). According to this view, the Congress party led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi was secular and progressive, and the agitation for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims was motivated by atavistic "communal" passions. Similarly, given that India is now secular, the Muslim-led insurgency in India-ruled Kashmir can only be misguided and, furthermore, a tool of nasty fundamentalists in Pakistan.

This is moralising rather than intellectual inquiry. It refuses to concede that Gandhi and Nehru could not prevent many Muslims from seeing, often accurately, the Congress as a Hindu party; and that the demand for Pakistan was at least partly grounded in valid Muslim anxieties about a Hindu-dominated India. It fails to see, too, that corrupt or unrepresentative ruling elites in post-colonial states routinely use the rhetoric of secularism and nationalism to legitimise themselves.

Mridu Rai and Chitralekha Zutshi, the authors of these two studies of pre-1947 Kashmir, belong to a new generation of scholars that has found intellectual freedom in moving away from the pieties of Indian nationalism. Instead of simply accepting religious and regional identities at face value, they seek to describe how they are forged, used and transformed in the heat of political battle. They begin, appropriately, in the 19th century, supposedly a time of modernisation and secularisation, but when, as C A Bayly writes in his magisterial Birth of the Modern World (1780-1914), "almost everywhere the world religions sharpened and clarified their identities".

European imperialism was the main impetus for the modernisation of religion, even in the distant valley of Kashmir. In 1846, the British East India Company finally defeated its last great opponents in India, the Sikhs. But the Sikh kingdom of Punjab, though close to Afghanistan and Russia, and strategically important, was too large for the company to control effectively, and so the British chose to hand over parts of it, including the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir and Buddhist-dominated Ladakh, to an ambitious Hindu chieftain. Money was exchanged: Maharaja Gulab Singh paid the British 75 lakh rupees (less than £100,000 at current rates) for 222,797 square kilometres of what came to be called the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Many Kashmiri nationalists still remember this real-estate scam with rage and anguish.

As Mridu Rai describes it, the British had empowered Gulab Singh for geopolitical reasons of their own. With no other right to rule, Singh's upstart Dogra dynasty sought legitimacy by claiming to be part of a grand Hindu tradition. Jammu and Kashmir turned quickly from a state ruled by a Hindu into a Hindu state in which Muslims, who formed 95 per cent of the population in the valley, felt increasingly marginalised and insecure.

The British were paranoid about Afghan and Russian ambitions in the region, and they did little to restrain their satraps in Kashmir until the famine of 1877-79 which, it is estimated, wiped out three-fifths of the valley's population. News of Muslim suffering - including a report of Hindus drowning boatloads of famine-stricken Muslims in a lake - disturbed the British enough into speaking of the obligations rulers had to their subjects. Sir Walter Lawrence, a British civil servant deputed to Kashmir in 1889, brought attention to the pitiful condition of Muslim peasants. His report helped create a public space where a few educated Kashmiri Muslims could speak of the grievances of their community: the fact, for instance, that in 1910, there were only 15 educated Muslim males, compared to 453 for Hindu males, per thousand of population in the valley.

Through a policy of discrimination, the Hindu rulers had already identified the Muslims as a separate community. Not surprisingly, the public space that emerged in Kashmir in the early 20th century was segregated along religious lines. As Rai puts it, since the "denial of the rights of the majority was deeply rooted in the religious nature of the state that presided over them", the Muslims, when demanding those rights, often used the language of religion. This explains, too, how many Muslims in Kashmir, previously known for its Sufi-inflected Islam, arrived, in the words of Forster, at a "hard legalistic insistence on the Faith".

Chitralekha Zutshi uncovers the many ways and contexts in which Kashmiri Muslims ex-pressed their regional and religious identity during the decades leading up to 1947, when the Hindu maharajah of Kashmir acceded controversially to the newly independent state of India. In the process, she brings to light a variety of literary and political texts. The Muslims of early modern Kashmir, who have remained an obscure mass of victims, emerge as sensitive observers and active makers of their destiny.

However, they had limited room for manoeuvre, tied as they were to political events and discourse in India. Zutshi shows persuasively how Sheikh Abdullah, a popular leader of Kashmir Muslims against the Hindu maharajah, ended up allying himself with the Hindu-dominated Congress party and its rhetoric of secularism in independent India. A secular nationalist platform was better able to accommodate regional and religious diversity within Jammu and Kashmir, and so it was a convenient means to achieve power. It also helped maintain a moral advantage over political opponents, who could be discredited as rank "communalists".

But Abdullah's expedient secularism subordinated Kashmir to a distant power in Delhi; and it denied citizenship rights to Kashmiri Muslims while asking them to give up their loyalty to their regional and religious groupings. No wonder that most Kashmiris resented this bargain and that Sheikh Abdullah became a hated figure among the young, educated Muslims who began the anti-India insurgency in 1989.

Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have died in the past decade and a half. Yet there still seem to be only two parties in the problem that is called Kashmir: the Indian and Pakistani establishments, whose fits of nationalist frenzy occasionally provoke the rest of the world's concern. Not much is known about the Kashmiris themselves. Who are they? What do they want? These new books provide the fullest answers yet to such questions; and they do so partly by resisting the modern ideologies of secularism and nationalism, which are arguably more potent than any religious fundamentalism in south Asia.

Pankaj Mishra's An End to Suffering: the Buddha in the world will be published by Picador in October

This article first appeared in the 30 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bush, the working class hero