There is a strong spiritual and theological connect between Shias in J&K and Kargil with Iran. With Iranian help, Kargil Shias have set up Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, which has now become a politically influential organisation

by Avinash Mohananey

Protest demonstrations have taken place in the Shia dominated areas of the Valley and Kargil against the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike by the US on January 3. Shias constitute about 14% of the population of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because of historical reasons, Shias across the globe remain staunchly anti-US, and so is true of Kashmir. However, there is no sectarian division among Shias and Sunnis over anti-US sentiments there.

In the past, realising the strong Sunni underpinnings of the “jihadi” organisations operating from Pakistan, Shias in J&K by and large kept themselves away from these groups despite being derided by local Sunnis. At one point of time in 2014, Shias even raised pro-India slogans, when some Sunni youths carried flags of Islamic State, a staunchly anti-Shia organisation, in their neighbourhood.

There is a strong spiritual and theological connect between Shias in J&K and Kargil with Iran. Students from these places travel to Qom in Iran, which is considered largest Shia scholarship centre in the world. With Iranian help, Kargil Shias have set up Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust, which has, over a period of time, become a politically influential organisation.

As a matter of policy, Iran has stayed away from the proxy war launched by Pakistan in Kashmir and the two Shia terror groups, Pasdaran-e-Islam (guardians of Islam) and Hizbul Momineen (party of faithful), that operated in the initial years of militancy in J&K were set up by Pakistan and not by Iran. Pasdaran-e-Islam shot into infamy very soon, when it kidnapped six Israeli tourists from a houseboat on June 26, 1991.

One Israeli and two kidnappers were killed, but no hostages could be taken. Thereafter, gradually both outfits were made redundant by ISI. What is then Iran’s policy towards the Kashmir issue and what does it advise Shia leaders from there who regularly visit Iranian Embassy in Delhi? In all closed-door meetings in Delhi and Srinagar, Iranian diplomats advise prominent Shia leaders that they are better off in a democratic and secular India than those in Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

At times, they even suggest that Shia leaders remain part of India’s democratic process. In fact, Seyed Mehdi Nabizadeh, Iranian Ambassador to India, astounded all separatist leaders sharing dais with him, when he completely ignored the Kashmir issue, while highlighting importance of India-Iran relations and how the two countries were moving together.

It was during his visit to Srinagar on June 4, 2012, to observe the death anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini. Agitated Yasin Malik, chairman, JKLF, accused Iran of having changed its philosophy of Islamic revolution to support the “oppressed” people. No less aghast were Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Prof. Abdul Ghani Bhat and Maulana Abbas Ansari, the other separatist leaders present at the function.

Now, US President Donald Trump is trying to rope in India in its potential conflict with Iran by tweeting about involvement of Qassem Soleimani in the terror plot in Delhi in February 2012 in which an Israeli diplomat was targeted. However, according to reports at that time, an unknown Iranian “security entity” was suspected to be behind the attack, but Soleimani’s name did not figure. Following the US narrative on Iran is fraught with serious consequences.

Under threat of impeachment, Trump has several compulsions to open a new area of conflict to satisfy military-industrial lobby in the US to ensure smooth sailing of the move in the senate in his favour. India, going through an economic slowdown and protests on Citizenship (Amendment) Act, should not fall into the trap of the US, thereby provoking Shia sentiments.

We should not get involved in the ongoing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in several countries of West Asia. Just a look at Pakistan should tell us the consequences of such war on our soil. Too much closeness to the US and as a corollary to Saudi Arabia would also affect our independence in making foreign policy decisions. It is a testing time for Indian diplomacy.

The writer is a former IB officer, who served in Pakistan