In the holy month of Ramzan, at least two issues stirred up controversy in Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir. Mind you, a Muslim majority region does not necessarily mean Muslim-dominated, especially after the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), hankering after power, shed its “soft-separatist image” to ultimately wed ultra-nationalism of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March last year, and then had a second stamp of approval to the PDP-BJP partnership this year in March by the current Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti after the demise of her father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed.
The first issue is in relation to an Abaya (a long & loose cloak worn by women in this part of the world) when one Science teacher, wearing an Abaya, was asked by the management of Srinagar’s Delhi Public School (DPS) to ‘choose between your dress and job’.
The second issue is why a ban on sale and consumption of liquor, according to the PDP-BJP government, wouldn’t work in Jammu & Kashmir, as it did in the Indian states of Gujarat and Bihar for instance?
Minister for Finance in the PDP-led coalition government, Dr. Haseeb Drabu while speaking during the Zero Hour in the Jammu & Kashmir legislative council, recently stated: “There is a demand for banning liquor but I believe that the issue needs to be addressed on the basis of freedom of choice”.
In short, the first issue is related to “choice of an individual to dress” while the latter about an individual’s “right to drink”.
Let us first address the first issue.
Why would the school management, in this case the DPS, issue a diktat to a teacher that she cannot wear the dress of her choice? How should her wearing an Abaya or not wearing it contribute to “quality education” which the DPS promises to impart to its students?
Even a developed country like France received a lot of flak for banning burqa. Meanwhile, in Jammu and Kashmir you have Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians living together for centuries.
Naeem Akhtar, Minister for Education in Jammu & Kashmir Government, stepped in to say on the floor of the J&K Assembly that “We are not France”. Akhtar, who is also the spokesperson of the PDP-BJP coalition government, was responding to a question by Independent MLA Engineer Abdur Rashid on the issue during Zero Hour in the Assembly, not so long ago. “We live in a multi-religious, multi-cultural set-up. We have a secular fabric [and] no force on any such issue will be accepted. We are not France,” he said.
J&K’s Education minister was referring to France’s controversial ban on headscarves, burqas, turbans and other religious symbols in public schools. Meanwhile, the 29-year old teacher was forced to resign. But the DPS students stood by her and demanded an apology from the school administration while boycotting the routine classes and scheduled exams briefly. The protesting students also demanded recall of their teacher.
According to media reports, the DPS principal had sent a message to the teacher which directed her not to wear Abaya. She was categorically told that “Islamic dress is not allowed on the school premises”. Another matter whether Abaya is an “Islamic dress” or not. Worse, the school authorities came up with a weak defence, saying that the school is “following rules” and that the school law says “no female teacher can wear Abaya inside the campus during working hours”.
If the DPS argument is that “faith and education can’t go together” then we must ask two simple questions: Would the DPS administration also bar a Sikh teacher from wearing his turban (Pagdi) or sporting beard? Would the school management also stop a Hindu teacher, draped in a Sari or with a bindi marked on her forehead, from entering the classroom?
If the answer to both these questions is “YES”, we have half the problem solved. The other half still remains unsolved. That other half is about choice of an individual to dress and how he/she wants to look. You cannot enforce blanket bans in multicultural, multi-religious and multi-linguistic societies.
Similarly, in some of the schools in the Kashmir Valley, wearing Burqa or Abaya is made mandatory for both teachers and students. That is also problematic.
Meanwhile, the pro-Azaadi camp in Kashmir predictably rejected the DPS school management’s action and called it “interference in religious affairs”.
“Jammu and Kashmir is a Muslim-majority region and to raise objections on wearing of an Islamic dress here could have serious consequences,” senior pro-Pakistan leader Syed Ali Geelani said. He also demanded an apology from the DPS authorities.
Now let’s come to the second issue regarding government’s decision to rule out a ban on sale and consumption of alcohol.
Finance minister Dr Drabu while speaking during the Zero Hour in the J&K legislative council recently ruled out a ban on liquor, asserting that “as a state policy, we cannot enforce our decision on others, there is a freedom of choice and let the people decide what they want to do”. He argued that “vegetarians can’t ban non-vegetarian food”.
Dr. Drabu said this despite knowing fully well that alcohol consumption lacks social sanctity in Jammu and Kashmir. His statement evoked criticism from Kashmir’s clergy, civil society actors, sections of academia and the pro-Azaadi camp led the Srinagar-based head priest Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
His critics articulated that the PDP-BJP government has no problems in banning beef in Muslim-majority Kashmir but is happily “patronising sale and use of liquor” in “an alcove of Sufis and Saints”. Others said that it was important to keep in mind Jammu and Kashmir’s “socio-cultural and religious sensibilities”.
In this kind of a complex scenario, why not emulate the referendums of the West?
Have a referendum whether liquor should be banned in Kashmir. And perhaps not banned in Jammu and Ladakh? One problem in this experiment, though, is that we know beforehand that J&K is a Muslim majority region and there are chances that the decision will be in favour of the majority.
Then, what about the socio-cultural and religious sensibilities of the minority?
Try a simpler solution: ban liquor in the Kashmir Valley and have it available in the markets of Jammu and Ladakh. This solution respects the socio-cultural and religious sensibilities of the majority community and also offers a chance to individuals who don’t mind consuming liquor at the cost of their health.
Gowhar Geelani is a Srinagar-based journalist, political analyst & commentator. He served Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany) as Editor in Bonn, Chevening fellow 2015 and Munich Young Leader 2014. He regularly writes for Dawn and Catch News. Follow him on Twitter at @gowhargeelani.