As street noises of a lazy Kashmir afternoon filtered into the hotel room, Mehraj Gulzar jolted the reporter with a controversial quote from George Bernard Shaw.
“I remember, a famous person said `Islam is the best religion but Muslims are the worst followers’,” said Gulzar.
It was his son’s birthday, and his wife was waiting for him at a relative’s to begin shopping for the evening party. But the discussion had taken a turn towards religion, and the 34-year-old had too much to say.
“I am a very proud Muslim. But yes, there are certain things, which are being projected very wrongly about every Muslim. There is a lot of politics getting into religion and everybody interprets Islam according to his requirement, the way it suits him,” Gulzar said of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. “Even our priests these days, the mullahs, they interpret Islam the way it suits them.”
Gulzar speaks with quiet, unflinching confidence that comes from years of living through both war and peace. He left Kashmir to study engineering in 1992 after his father was abducted several times during some of the worst initial years of militancy.
Then, nine years ago in May 1998, when the region was in the thick of India-Pakistan tensions after their rival nuclear tests, he returned and quietly set up a Kashmiri novelty not too far from the sandbagged airport: an information technology company.
“People here did not know anything about information technology. The main task was to educate people about what it all means – what software means, what hardware means, what a mouse means, what a keyboard means,” Gulzar said.
“It was not that just the young generation did not know about it – even the high level bureaucrats did not know about it.”
Now his company, MIT, develops computer software. It is a career graph unimaginable for Gulzar in 1989, when he was in the Xth grade and the militancy began.
“To be honest, there were occasions when I really would get angry enough to pick up arms,” Gulzar said.
Thousands of Kashmiri Muslim youth took buses to border towns and then trekked across into PoK. Many were Gulzar’s own classmates.
Someone else was travelling out as well – Kashmir’s Hindu minority, known as Pandits. Facing threats and attacks from militants and sympathisers, thousands fled with their families, leaving their homes. The militancy – based on the main demand of separatism – suddenly assumed an Islamic flavour.
“There were certain agencies here in Kashmir who wanted to give the armed struggle in Kashmir a communal look,” Gulzar said.
“The militants or people involved in the armed struggle also knew that if Pandits continued to stay in Kashmir, they are going to harm their cause very deeply.”
Pandit or Muslim teenagers grew up over the past two decades often without ever getting to see a Kashmiri of each other’s religion.
“The Pandits loved Kashmir, Kashmiriyat even more than Muslims. I think Muslims miss them even today. If you go to the neighbourhoods where they lived, they are remembered by name,” he said.
Trouble reached his doorstep as well. Gulzar’s father, an engineer with the state government, came under threat from armed groups.
“My father would often be kidnapped … we never knew which person belonged to which agency,” he said.
Soon his family feared for the son’s safety as well. He packed his bags to leave the valley.
“I remember before going to Bangalore I had this notion in mind that it is going to be very tough as far as studying in Bangalore is concerned, being a Muslim,” he said. “I was very scared and apprehensive because I would always hear stories that Muslims are being troubled outside.”
He was so concerned about fitting in that he didn’t even join the Bangalore University hostel.
“We were about four-five Muslim guys from Kashmir and decided to stay in a flat because we thought we would have our privacy and there would be nobody to trouble us,” he said. But after a year at college, he changed his mind.
“My whole impression proved to be wrong. Even today, all my friends are Hindus and Sikhs. We stayed in the hostel, we would share a common mess, and sometimes we would share a common plate also,” Gulzar said.
When he returned in 1998, violence continued in Kashmir and the economy was virtually defunct. Job opportunities were scarce and industries almost non-existent. Gulzar and a Kashmiri friend from his engineering college decided to take a leap of ambition.
“We wanted to get some latest innovative ideas to our native place,” he said. The software business began.
In the years since, much has changed for young Kashmiri Muslims, he said.
“In their heart of hearts, there is definitely political hatred towards America, Israel, etc. But the youth are becoming more career-focussed rather than politics-focussed … they are focussing on learning the latest IT courses,” he said.
Alongside, he sees Kashmiri Muslim youth leaning much more towards religion than ever before, with one of the reasons could be the Muslims’ hostility towards the West.
“It is making them more religious. When I go to a mosque now, I see that the attendance is much, much more than what it used to be previously,” he said.
Even at his dinner table, Gulzar finds himself increasingly talking about religion – something that rarely happened before.
“I don’t deny that there is a lot of injustice and a lot of politics being played with Muslims,” Gulzar said. “But the way we are dealing with these problems, if you ask me personally I don’t exactly agree with them. It’s really important for a Muslim country or a Muslim region associated with injustice to make themselves economically and technologically strong.”
But in embattled Kashmir, that is faraway dream for now.
“I would really cherish a Wipro or Infosys coming to Kashmir, but I doubt it,” he said.