From J&K | On the Wings of Prayer

Dispossessed and disheartened Kashmiri people continue to hope for divine intervention

Gowhar GeelaniGowhar Geelani

On a chilly evening of November 15, my uncle and I went to visit the shrine of Hazrat Khawaja Abdul Rahim Qadri, locally known as Rah Baba Sahib, to attend a special gathering there. Rah Baba Sahib bears allegiance to the Qadiriyya Silsila (Sufi order). The shrine built in memory of Abdul Qadir Gilani or Jilani, a revered saint and scholar from Iran’s Gilan province, is situated in Srinagar’s downtown area. A much bigger one, built in remembrance of ‘Dastgeer Sahib’ or ‘Gous-ul-Azam’ Abdul Qadir Gilani, is located in Srinagar’s Khanyar locality. Unlike ‘Ameer-e-Kabeer’ Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani—a scholar, poet and saint of the Kubrawiya order who came to Kashmir along with his spiritual companions and disciples—Abdul Qadir Jilani never visited Kashmir during his lifetime. Kashmir is often referred to as an alcove of Sufi saints.

Meanwhile, a group of dedicated elderly and young men, and kids had gathered inside the Rah Baba Sahib shrine. They had formed a sort of a ring, resembling a players’ huddle during a crisis situation with the hope of scripting a miraculous win on a sports field. They were reciting Kalimat. With moist eyes, the devotees and disciples were raising their hands up in the air while saying Dua. Even in this simple ritualistic act, Kashmir’s collective dispossession was discernible. Women devotees were present inside another section. The shrine has mosque attached, which has two stories (one to be used during the summer, another during winters). Inside the shrine the women have their reserved place.

My uncle has a grip over the Persian language and poetry. Many from Kashmir’s older generations are well-versed with Persian, Urdu and their mother tongue, Kashmiri. At one point in time, Persian was Kashmir’s official court language. It was later replaced by Urdu. It is another matter that many more languages have since been added to the region’s official languages’ list, especially after the events of 5 August 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost remnants of its semi-autonomy, special status, and statehood.

With profound interest in culture, heritage, architectural grammar and Sufism, my uncle’s desire was that I accompanied him for recording portions of Naatiya Kalam rendition in Persian during the mawlid gathering at the Rah Baba Sahib shrine on the 9th of Rabi’ al Thani (Hijri calendar). On 11 Rabi’ al Thani, the annual Urs of Abdul Qadir Gilani is observed. Since I am not dexterous at handling electronic gadgets, I had requested a tech-savvy friend of mine to do the recordings. Unfortunately, he got stuck somewhere and couldn’t attend.

As I began recording selective recitations, a notification popped up on the mobile phone screen: ‘An encounter between militants and government forces personnel has started in Srinagar’s Hyderpora area.’

I did not disturb my uncle. I did not tell him anything about the incident. He was engrossed in spiritual contemplation. At the end of the congregation around the Isha (night) prayer, we left for home.

As an aside, I prefer visiting shrines located in downtown Srinagar usually during early mornings. Some of the shrines and temples are architectural marvels. I find innumerable benefits in doing so. One, the exercise is cathartic; two, it humbles you and connects one to the roots; three, sometimes such visits result in heritage walks with friends through slender downtown alleys; and four, one also gets to relish the winter delicacy, Harissa. That is an icing on the cake!

Casually, while driving, I informed my uncle that some untoward incident had taken place in Hyderpora. He did not ask any questions for he was still meditating. The streets, however, wore a deserted look. He noticed too but ignored. Without much reflection, we thought that it could be a result of freezing temperatures during the late autumn evenings. Perhaps, people wanted to be home early to escape the hazards of nippy weather. At any rate, there is no concept of night life in Kashmir since 1989. There is darkness, though.

On the Wings of Prayer

As more details emerged from the Hyderpora’s alleged gunfight, a staged one according to key eyewitnesses and the victim families, it was clear that something was amiss. The controversial shootout brought back the haunting memories of similar ‘staged gunfights’, or the ‘fake encounters’ as they are referred to, like the ones in south Kashmir’s Pathribal (March 2000; five civilians were killed and passed off as ‘foreign mercenaries’) in Anantnag; Chittibandi in north Kashmir’s Bandipora (February 2004; six civilians were killed); in parts of central and north Kashmir’s Ganderbal and Bandipora districts respectively (five civilians were killed and dubbed ‘foreign militants’); north Kashmir’s Machil (April 2010; three civilians from Nadihal in Baramulla were killed in frontier district of Kupwara); and Amshipora in south Kashmir’s Shopian district (July 2020; three civilians from Rajouri were killed in south Kashmir).

In most of these cases, including the more recent ones (Hyderpora and Amshipora), bodies of some civilians were first exhumed and later returned to the families for burial. This is one way of confessing to the crime of killing civilians.

In the case of Hyderpora’s contentious gunfight, the J&K administration buckled under unprecedented protests by the victim families. Their unique demonstration and creative form or resistance, which included a candle light vigil and late night sit-in in bone-chilling weather condition, forced the administration to hand over mortal remains of two civilians—Mohammad Altaf Bhat and Dr Mudasir Gul—to their families after three days.

What has changed in Kashmir?

One way of attempting to answer this question is to know this simple fact: People in Kashmir seldom demand punishment to the erring personnel. The idea of justice is reduced to the return of mortal remains. Getting back a body for dignified funeral in ancestral graveyard is considered an achievement. The disgraceful act of corpse stealing has become a new normal in ‘naya’ Kashmir.

In such situations, a typical response from the powers that be is to buy time and tire out the families.

“I want to assure people that those found involved (in any misconduct during the Hyderpora shootout) won’t be spared. Things will be clearer and I would be able to talk more on this issue in next three-four days,” Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha said during a Gurupurab function in Jammu. He also ordered a time-bound magisterial probe into the incident: “A magisterial inquiry by officer of (the) ADM (Additional District Magistrate)-rank has been ordered in Hyderpora encounter. Government will take suitable action as soon as report is submitted in a time-bound manner. JK admin reiterates commitment of protecting lives of innocent civilians and it will ensure there is no injustice.”


Khurshid Ahmad Shah, ADM, is conducting the ‘inquiry’. He has been tasked to submit his report within a period of 15 days. What will be the fate of this inquiry? In the eyes of the victim families, ordering such probes is hogwash.

Even Unionists like the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) know the fate of magisterial probes in Kashmir. Whilst in power, they too have ordered many such inquiries themselves without any relief to the victims. The unpalatable truth is that since 2008, successive governments in J&K have ordered as many as 108 magisterial probes whenever civilians have been killed in actions by government forces personnel. Sadly, not a single report has been made public thus far. Worse, not a single government forces personal has been convicted till date.

When it comes to Kashmir, impunity continues to be the name of the game.

The powerful have turned Kashmir into a valley of versions. There is disdain for truth. The truth has been held captive since long. Words like accountability, transparency and prosecution have been deleted from Kashmir’s lexicon. The only narrative that has to prevail here is the narrative of the powerful. Like monopoly over violence, the hand-picked administrators and bureaucrats control the narratives in all spaces.

Another way of understanding Kashmir’s ground realities is to know that asking questions is not what the doctor ordered. Late Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, a noted Urdu language poet, wrote beautiful poems. In one of his poignant poems, his words Kyun Bhi Kehna Jurm Hai/ Kaise Bhi Kehna Jurm Hai (To ask why, is a crime/ To ask how, is a crime, too) aptly sum up the helplessness of Kashmiris.

Apart from the metaphors used in poetic verses, there are innumerable examples of peoples’ dispossession from history and also from the Holocaust literature.

Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and survivor of the Holocaust, recorded the horrors of violence in his book If This Is A Man. Levi wrote of life in the Nazi death camps without bitterness. At Auschwitz, he was denied water to drink. “Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Warum?’ I asked him in my poor German. ‘Hier ist kein warum’ (There is no why here), he replied, pushing me inside with a shove,” the survivor noted.

In Kashmir too, asking questions is a risky affair.

On 5 August 2019, Jammu and Kashmir lost its limited semi-autonomy. With an ideological and civilizational view on the Muslim-majority Kashmir region, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began its mission to erase Kashmir’s individual and collective memories. This tectonic shift on Kashmir’s unpredictable political landscape meant that censorship was institutionalised, media gagged, civil liberties suspended, and politics made redundant.

In March 2020, ministry of home affairs informed both houses of the Parliament that, between 5 August 2019, and 29 February 2020, the government of India arrested ‘7,357 individuals’ in Jammu and Kashmir. At the time, the Srinagar-based human rights body Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) estimated the number of those detained in excess of 13,000. Those kept in detention included three former chief ministers.

After discrediting pro-Delhi politicians in J&K—largely seen as ‘collaborators’ or ‘daily wagers’ by the ordinary folks in Kashmir—the BJP invested in creating a new political elite. The saffron party initially pampered Altaf Bukhari, a businessman-turned-politician and a former cabinet minister in the PDP-BJP coalition government. He heads a newly-formed Apni Party. In the eyes of ordinary Kashmiri, it is a loose congregation of stooges and turncoats. Many of its key members are PDP dissenters. They have joined the bandwagon either under coercion or due to greed. The case is no different for the party headed by Sajad Lone, considered by many as Delhi’s poster boy and BJP’s sweetheart.

Nonetheless, for several months a complete siege was laid across the Kashmir Valley. The region’s snow-capped peaks and dales and streams lay trussed. Civil liberties went for a toss. Access to all forms of communication was denied. The internet services were shut down to control counter-narratives on social media platforms. Concertina wires became the fastest growing vegetation. That is not to say that all was hunky dory before 5 August 2019.

No one was allowed to ask why. There is no ‘why’ here. There is no ‘how’ here.

When I began writing this piece, I asked myself a question: Why do I write? Will anything be achieved? In fact, many writers grapple with rules of the imagination. And perhaps also with a seemingly simple question: ‘Why I write?’

Eric Blair, who used George Orwell as nom de plume, answered this question in his widely-read essay, Why I Write. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, attempted to answer the same question in his award-winning book, Night. Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize for Night.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on 10 December 1986, besides many other important things, Wiesel said how he “tried to keep memory alive”, and tried “to fight those who would forget”. “…We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant…,” he said.

Why do you write? Why do we write? Why I write?

Is it because human beings are political animals, and, therefore, have capacity to think and act independently? Is it what Hannah Arendt described as ‘The Freedom to be Free’? Is it the human urge to make oneself heard, and be counted? Is it a moral responsibility to keep a record of the ordeal, preserve memory for posterity, and survive to tell the tale? And to fight the forces who are hell-bent upon erasing your memories?

Journalists like me are storytellers. They are not the story. Besides other compelling factors, it is a professional predicament to narrate the stories of the masses; of the dispossessed. Of a journalist (not a stenographer) it is expected that (s)he will speak truth to power whenever possible and necessary, and will reflect the ground realities in reports, commentaries, analyses and opinion pieces.

But is it that easy to tell stories in conflict-ridden places when storytellers become a story themselves?

In Kashmir, journalism is an act of courage. Here, survival is an act of resistance. Journalism is a profession which carries incredible risks. Kashmiri journalists have been the among the world’s bravest scribes.

In post-August 5 Kashmir, journalism was criminalized. Censorship was institutionalized. Silence normalized. Like undeclared curfews, criminalization of dissent became a new normalcy symbol. Journalism has never been a cakewalk in Kashmir, though.

In 1904, the Dogra Maharaja, Pratap Singh had declined permission to Munshi Muhammad Din Fouq to publish a newspaper from Srinagar. The gag was not limited to declining the permission for a newspaper. The Maharaja also framed rules in such a manner that even consideration of such requests was disallowed. For about 30 years newspapers were not published in Kashmir. Dilnaz Boga, an Indian research scholar and journalist, in her paper A History of the State-Media Link in Kashmir, with the help of archival evidence talks about ‘the imbalance of power and the influence of the state on the Fourth Estate after India’s independence in 1947.’

Journalism is not a crime; people keep repeating this clichéd expression. But the powerful regimes across the globe do possess power to criminalize all forms of expressions, including journalism. In Kashmir, the signs of the Orwellian State have always been visible. True, there was subtleness before May 2014. There were some unwritten rules, too. Some lines were never crossed. Not anymore.

The BJP uses various institutions to distort, contain and kill the Kashmir story. The saffron party weaves new narratives based on its own understanding of history and civilization. It understands the power of the media. The one who controls the media controls the narrative. It is often the powerful who controls the narrative.

After revoking J&K’s semi-autonomy in 2019, the BJP-led government introduced a draconian Media Policy 2020. The policy empowers a bureaucrat or a clerk in the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR) to initiate legal action against a reporter, journalist, editor, owner and proprietor of media outlets after declaring any news item as ‘fake’, ‘seditious’ or ‘anti-national’. Many well-known Kashmiri journalists, including a 26-year-old female photojournalist, have been summoned to police stations to explain their stories and pressurized to reveal their sources. Background checks of scribes by an investigating agency have become a new routine. Intrusion in privacy is business as usual. Many journalists have been included in a long ‘No Fly List’. Formal cases have been registered against reporters for discharging their professional duties.

With Narendra Modi’s ascendancy to power in 2014, the nuance disappeared in thin air. A message was telegraphed to the people of Kashmir, in particular, that things won’t be the same again. Was this message conveyed with a Hindutva mindset to inflict a sense of defeat in the hearts and minds of Kashmiris?

India’s Left-wing intellectual Brinda Karat is of the view that “The threat to India as a secular, democratic republic arises not from external forces but from those who rule India today, namely the joint regime of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (Delhi’s Agony, Brinda Karat)

Expectedly, India’s global standing as a parliamentary democracy came under question while its rankings in global press freedom and global hunger indexes crashed down. The decline has been gradual. An international analysis rated India as only ‘partly free’; while another said that India was now an ‘electoral autocracy’. One senior Kashmiri editor pointed out that ‘the Indian state is in rage.’ A noted academic quipped: ‘When there is an avalanche do not try to be a hero.’

In such a depressing situation, it is not easy to offer any big or small form of resistance. For resistance entails a cost. That is perhaps why self-censorship too gained currency in Kashmir post-5 August 2019.

In the aftermath of J&K’s annexation, self-censorship became an instrument for survival for many in the media fraternity. For the greedy, and for those born without a spine, the altered mediascape translated into a golden opportunity. Some willingly fell in line, became an extension arm of the administration, to earn currency in the shape of lucrative government advertisements.

It was akin to mass conversion. They receive advertisements. Some are content in being embedded media entrepreneurs. For their cowardice and compliance, they are duly rewarded with cash and comfort. Such opportunists failed to draw any lessons from As Long As Sarajevo Exists, a book written by Kemal Kurspahic. As an editor-in-chief of Bosnia’s once leading newspaper, Oslobodjenje, Kurspahic had ensured that the newspaper was published every day even when the Serbian nationalist forces had laid a siege over Sarajevo in 1992. The armed attack against Bosnia was brutal.

On the Wings of Prayer

During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995 and the infamous siege of Sarajevo, Oslobodjenje was scripting history of sorts.

Kurspahic had made a bold decision. Addressing his colleagues, which included the editors, reporters and production staff, the editor-in-chief had offered neither a hike in their salary nor made any big promises. In fact, he had told his colleagues that “I cannot promise that you will be alive when the siege is over.” He did not promise promotions or awards but said this: “As long as Sarajavo exists this newspaper will publish every day.” (From As Long As Sarajevo Exists by Kemal Kurspahic).

In 1990, Kurspahic was a 46-year-old editor. His colleagues had accepted his risky offer. They were prepared to work under artillery, tank, and sniper fire. The newspaper lost some of its members in violence, but it refused to compromise on ethical journalism. The only day when Oslobodjenje did not hit the stands, Kurspahic wrote in the book’s prologue, was 14 May 1992. “It was the only day in the long siege of Sarajevo when the paper did not appear on the streets of Bosnia’s capital”.

Sadly, there is neither Oslobodjenje nor Kemal in Kashmir.

However, many individual journalists continue to show exemplary courage, comparable to Kemal Kurspahic’s, in chronicling the events unfolding at a galloping pace. Obviously then, those who make no compromises and refuse to become public relations managers of the administration continue to pay a price for telling the story.

Ordinary Kashmiris are booked under stringent and draconian laws for cheering a cricket team of their liking, for drawing graffiti, for writing a news report, or for documenting rights’ abuse. In May 2021, J&K Police arrested a Srinagar-based graffiti artist and painter, Mudasir Gul, 32, for drawing mural of a Palestinian woman and for showing solidarity with the Palestinians. After widespread condemnation, Gul was lucky to be released. On 22 November 2021, Kashmir’s leading and internationally acclaimed human rights defender Khurram Parvez was arrested by the NIA and booked under UAPA.

All the middle ground in Kashmir stands obliterated, perhaps beyond repair.

An overwhelming majority in Kashmir views the decision of 5 August 2019, as a step toward territorial control, exploitation of natural resources, social control, and control over the narratives, politics of fear, enhanced surveillance, securitization, digital apartheid, and a permanent justification in punishing them to discipline and forcibly assimilate and integrate them into the so-called mainstream. That is why Kashmir witnessed a 555-day-long internet shutdown. It was the world’s longest in any ‘democracy’, according to Access Now, a non-governmental organisation which tracks internet suspensions.

Jism par qaid hai jazbaat pe zanjeerein hain/ Fikr mehboos hai guftaar pe taazerein hain (With caged bodies and chained emotions/ Imprisoned are our thoughts, and utterances censored)

This verse from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s epic poem, Chand Roz Aur Meri Jaan (A few more days my love), encapsulates the individual and collective tragedy of ordinary Kashmiris. In the new order, survival is an act of rebellion.

Nevertheless, many in Kashmir continue to visit sacred Sufi shrines. Some devotees could be seen tying votive threads on the decorated windows near the mausoleums, planting kisses over the outside walls of the saint’s burial place, and even rubbing the walls with their right hand and then dabbing the blessing onto their faces with conviction and faith. They are convinced that altering the existing situation in Kashmir or the larger geopolitics is beyond them. That is why prayers and mawlid gatherings on Urs at the shrines like Khanqah-e-Mo’alla, Dastgeer Sahib, Makhdoom Sahib, Naqshband Sahib, Rah Bab Sahib etc offer them hope.

For some, keeping the hope alive is resilience. They are in no mood to react to provocations in anger. They want to respond maturely at the time of their own choosing. The sense is that it is brewing. It will explode.

For now, though, with veneration for the saints, many are hoping for a divine intervention!




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