Playing With Fire

Government allows Muharram procession in Srinagar in a bid to reach out to the Shia community

Mohammad Asif Khan

All is well in the valley of Kashmir. The government has been insisting since the revocation of Articles 370 and 35A. And to prove that normalcy has returned to the blighted territory, staged managed events are being frequently organised. While a few months ago the G20 tourism meeting was held in Srinagar, in the last week of July the government allowed the Muharram procession to pass through its traditional route after a gap of over 30 years.

J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha attends the Muharram procession in Srinagar
J&K Lt Governor Manoj Sinha attends the Muharram procession in Srinagar

What is more, J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha himself participated in the Zuljanah procession on the 10th day of Muharram at the Bota Kadal area of downtown Srinagar to mark Youm-e-Ashura. After he paid his tributes to Hazrat Imam Hussain, the procession wound its way from Bota Kadal to Zadibal in the old city. Earlier, on the eighth day of Muharram, the office of the Lt Governor, in a statement, had said, “I bow to the martyrs of Karbala and recall (the) sacrifices of Imam Hussain and his ideals. Today is a historic occasion for Shia brethren in (the) Kashmir valley as after 34 years, the eighth Muharram procession is taking place on the traditional route.”

This permission, however, came with strings attached. In an interview to Al Jazeera, Kashmiri Shia leader Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi said, “The administration put out certain conditions over the procession. And one of the conditions was not to speak about the situation or against the establishment. For me, this doesn’t serve the purpose of a procession,” because according to him, Muharram itself is the commemoration of the battle for truth and justice.

In 1989, when violent insurgency started in Kashmir, the government had imposed a ban on the Muharram procession from the traditional route, which went through the volatile old city. Even though other and smaller processions took place, they often had to face restrictions by the state administration, including the police.

Interestingly, Shias are approximately 10 per cent of the total Muslim population in Kashmir, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, who are viewed as spearheading the separatist movement. Hence, the historic Jamia Masjid, regarded as a Sunni stronghold because prayers used to be held by the Kashmiri Mirwaiz (a Sunni religious leader), remains shut, and the current Mirwaiz, Umar Farooq, under house arrest. Despite frequent demands and appeals for allowing prayers in the grand mosque, the government has consistently refused permission. During the month of Ramzan, there was speculation that the mosque would be opened for Friday prayers, but except for one Friday, it remained closed.

According to Suhail Bhatt, a Kashmiri Shia Muslim, “The government is trying to project Shia Kashmiris as loyal citizens of India in order to create a rift between the two sects, when the truth is that both Shias and Sunnis in Kashmir suffered equally in the last three decades.”

Meanwhile, welcoming the government’s decision to allow the Muharram procession, National Conference leader Omar Abdullah said, “We welcome this decision. At the same time, we hope that the government takes other steps as well. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq is a religious leader, and he should be released. Prayers should be allowed at Jamia Masjid without any curbs and Eid prayer should be allowed at Eidgah.”

The government has been making an outreach towards Shia Kashmiris. In 2021 also, authorities allowed Shias to carry out the Muharram procession. However, the permission was quickly revoked, with the J&K police forcefully dispersing Shia processionists using batons, tear gas shells and pellet guns, resulting in at least two dozen injuries. The government seems to have had greater success this year.



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