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Published in the 16-31 July 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review
Christian mission in Kashmir
By Yoginder Sikand

Book: Wadi-i Kashmir Mai Isaiyat Ka Farogh Aur Uske Makruh Aza‘im: Ek Tafsili-o Tahqiqi Ja’iza (‘The Spread of Christianity in Kashmir and Its Unholy Designs: A Detailed Survey’) (Urdu)
Editor: Muhammad Saeed ur-Rahman Shams
Publisher: Shaikh Mohammad Usman & Sons, Madina Chowk, Gaukadal, Srinagar, Kashmir 
Year: 2004. Price: Rs.10. Pages: 46

Two years ago a flood of reports suddenly appeared in the Indian press revealing an alarming number of conversions of Muslims to Christianity in Kashmir. Figures of the number of such converts in the past ten years varied greatly, with some putting the total as high as 20,000. In the absence of any detailed research on the subject it is difficult to make a reasonable estimate, but the number is sizeable enough to have caused considerable consternation as well as soul-searching among Muslim religious authorities in Kashmir, as this booklet reveals.

This booklet consists of three articles written on the subject of Muslim conversions to Christianity, with an introduction by the Mirwaiz of Kashmir, Maulvi Muhammad Umar Faruq, head of the Muttahida Majlis-i ‘Ulama of Jammu and Kashmir (MMUJK), a recently-established association of Kashmiri ‘ulama that is involved in seeking to counter the threat of Christian evangelism in the region. The articles provide interesting glimpses into the social, economic and political factors behind the spate of conversions, the methods used by Christian missionaries to win converts as well as the responses of Kashmiri Muslim religious organisations. 

In his brief introductory note, Mirwaiz Umar Faruq describes the work of the Christian missionary groups in Kashmir as a major threat, suggesting that the missionaries use material inducements to win converts, and hence claiming that their work can hardly be said to be sincere. He refers, in this regard, to the work of the MMUJK, and suggests that it undertakes a range of activities and programmes to promote Islamic awareness among the Kashmiri public, protect Muslim identity and thereby counter the Christian evangelical challenge.
Two articles included in the booklet echo much the same views, and do not go beyond the level of generalities, thus providing little understanding of the exact process and factors for the conversions in Kashmir. In his article, the noted Pakistani Deobandi scholar Muhammad Taqi Usmani describes the Christian evangelical project as little less than a cheap gimmick, accusing the missionaries of using money, and promises of jobs and education to lure unsuspecting, and largely poor, Muslims into the Christian fold. In this the Maulana is probably correct, and this may well be true for some, or even most, Christian missionary groups. Yet, whatever their motives, this ought not to be used as an argument to altogether deny the important contributions that some Christian institutions and dedicated activists are making in helping the suffering and the needy. What, one must ask, are the Muslim counterparts of the Christian missionaries doing for the poor, and the victims of the unceasing violence?

The third article, by the Kashmiri Deobandi scholar Maulvi Muhammad Mir Qasmi, is the book’s saving grace, being well-argued and informative. Titled ‘Kashmir Main Kitney Musalman Isai Bane?’ (‘How Many Muslims Have Become Christians in Kashmir?’), it provides a fairly detailed account of the working of various Christian missionary outfits in the Valley. Qasmi provides varying estimates of the number of Muslim converts to Christianity in Kashmir in the last ten years, from 12,000, as claimed by the Srinagar-based newspaper ‘Greater Kashmir’, to 20,000, a figure cited by the Kashmiri Urdu paper al-Safa. He then goes on to provide a broad historical overview of the Christian missionary presence in Kashmir, starting with the first European missionary, Robert Clarke, as early as in 1854. Clarke was followed by several other missionaries, Catholic as well as Protestant, some of whom set up educational institutions catering to the Kashmiri elite, in the hope of winning them to Christianity.

The situation has drastically changed in the last fifteen years in the state, Qasmi says. Taking advantage of the plight of the poor and the victims of the ongoing strife, he says, numerous Christian missionary groups have established their presence in the Valley. Most of them are generously financed by rightwing, fundamentalist Christian evangelical orgaisations based in America and western Europe. Qasmi provides a detailed account of various missionary organisations presently working all over Kashmir, suggesting a well-organised campaign to spread Christianity, often disguised in the garb of helping hapless Kashmiris. Some of them are engaged in some sort of social work, such as providing employment, medical assistance and education, details of which Qasmi provides, but these are clearly meant simply as an evangelical tool. 

Qasmi speaks about a carefully designed division of labour between various missionary organisations in order to make their work more effective. Thus, for instance, Frontiers works among the Gujjars of Dar, near Srinagar, Agape Mission is based among the Hanjis or house-boat owners in Srinagar, Gospel for Asia focuses on the villages along the border with Pakistan, The Goodway is active in the Patan-Magam-Tangmarg triangle, Campus Crusade for Christ works among students in Pulwama and Srinagar, Eternal Life Ministries among leprosy patients in Nagin, and Operation Agape among surrendered militants. Some missionary organisations have tried to develop culturally more acceptable forms of communication in order to make for more effective communication with prospective converts. This, for instance, is the case with the Noor-i Hayat Church, the al-Bashar Fellowship and the al-Masihi Jama‘at Fellowship, whose ‘Muslim’ names have probably been deliberately chosen in order to make them seem so.

Qasmi argues that for many Muslim converts, conversion is simply an economic choice. He writes that a sizeable number of the converts adopt Christianity simply in order to avail the educational, medical or economic assistance that missionary groups promise to provide them with. To buttress this claim he refers to a number of converts who, after joining one denomination and reaping material benefits of some sort, then choose to join another, rival Christian denomination if they are promised further material gain. For some Kashmiri converts as well as other Indian Christians employment in missionary organisations based in Kashmir also provides a good source of income, far beyond what they could otherwise expect. Such, for instance, is the case of a Manipuri missionary associated with the American-funded Operation Agape, who lives in a posh locality in Srinagar. Qasmi quotes this missionary as saying that for him his work is simply a job.
At the same time, Qasmi also admits that not all converts to Christianity choose to adopt the faith simply out of economic motives. He refers to some converts whose change of faith was motivated by genuine spiritual concern, or as a result of being impressed with the dedication and sincerity of the Christian workers that they came in touch with. Such, for instance, is the case of a certain Sarwan Khan, a resident of Poonch, whom Qasmi describes as the convenor of all Protestant groups active in Jammu and Kashmir. Qasmi writes that Khan chose to become a convert principally out of disgust at what he saw as the local Muslims’ neglect of the plight of their needy co-religionists. Qasmi refers to some other converts, mainly poor people as well as victims of the ongoing violence in Kashmir, who chose to accept Christianity because their fellow Muslims were indifferent to their misery, while the Christian workers whom they came into contact with willingly helped them.

Qasmi argues that in order to meet the missionary challenge, Muslim organisations need to get their act together and engage in constructive social work among the poor instead of simply fighting polemical battles. He outlines a broad programme for Muslim religious organisations and leaders to adopt, most importantly being promoting education, not simply Islamic but modern as well, among poor Muslims in the state who are the most vulnerable to the blandishments of the missionaries. Qasmi’s other suggestions include starting medical centres, employment generation projects, orphanages and vocational training centres to help the poor and the needy. He stresses that the Jammu and Kashmir Awqaf Board, which controls most Muslim endowments in the state, should play a leading role in this regard, given the vast resources at its command which have not been put to proper use all these years. Qasmi also recognises that in many cases the conversions reflect a growing disillusionment among many Kashmiris.

As probably the only available book on the subject, this book provides useful insights into the dynamics of Christian missionary work in a politically very sensitive part of the world, although it lacks sufficient ethnographic depth. Given the fact that the American establishment now sees right-wing Christian missionary groups as a major ally in its military involvement in the Muslim world, as exemplified most clearly in Iraq today where missionaries are working in tandem with the American occupation forces, the book points to the urgent need for more in-depth and detailed studies of the political economy of Christian missionary groups, many of them American-funded, working among Muslims today, including in Kashmir. «

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