2019: A Year With No Religious Gatherings in Indian side of Kashmir

The streak of visiting Hazratbal to offer 12 consecutive pre-dawn prayers was broken. Wasim Rashid (29) could not make it to the shrine that remains the centre of attraction for thousands of people during Rabi-ul-Awal. It is the  third Islamic month which marks the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad. In the Indian side of Kashmir, Hazratbal hosts Moi-e-Muqqadas—the strand from the Prophet’s beard. 

Muheet Ul Islam and Junaid Dar

On 31 October 2019, Rashid started the pre-dawn journey from his home towards Hazratbal. He returned heart-broken as Indian forces stopped him from moving ahead in the Rainawari area of Srinagar. “Forces told me that I cannot go ahead without giving any reason,” Rashid said. “I explained to them that I had been offering Fajar [first prayer of the day] at Hazratbal during this holy month since my adulthood but they were least bothered about my faith,” he added.

The next morning Rashid left his home a bit early with an aim to avoid pre-dawn troop deployment at Rainawari, however that did not work. The troops stopped him once again and recognized him immediately after he repeated his narrative. “This time a miracle happened as one of the policemen told me to continue my journey,” Rashid said, adding, “I was happy but in one way or the other I was sad too because my streak of offering 12 back to back morning prayers at Hazratbal in Rabi-ul-Awal was broken.”

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Muslims on 10 November 2019 celebrated the 1481th birthday of Prophet Mohammad. People in different parts of the world on this occasion took out rallies, organized seminars and thronged different holy sites so as to get a glimpse at the relics of the beloved Prophet. Hazaratbal wore a deserted look.

People of the world’s highest militarised zone could not assemble at Hazratbal. This was because authorities had imposed restrictions. Mawlid celebrations were confined to small gatherings in the local mosques.

Indian authorities thought that the mass gathering at Hazratbal and other mosques and shrines may turn into an anti-India protest rally. The government of India had stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status on August 5 of that year.

Two weeks later, Hazratbal was no different. The area witnessed a complete shutdown like other parts of the disputed territory. A senior citizen, who identified himself as, Sharif-u-Din, claimed that for 11 days, prior to Mawlid, government forces did not allow them to recite the prayer call, Azaan, on loudspeakers. “During those days no one understood whether or not the shrine was open for prayers,” he said. “On the day of Mawlid people from the neighborhood were allowed to enter inside the shrine and the rest were sent back by the troops,” Din said.

People, Din said, were upset due to the ban on attending the gathering at the shrine and termed it as an “attack on the religious freedom of Muslim community”. “The way I see those curbs on the occasion of Mawlid is an attack on Islam,” he said. “This particular shrine does not entertain political activities but focuses purely on Islam and the teachings of our beloved Prophet,” he added after a small pause.

Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its special status when the people of the disputed region were preparing for Eid. People were allowed to do shopping prior to the festival but no one was allowed to move outside on the significant day as a strict curfew was imposed.

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Indian authorities gave relaxation from the backbreaking curfew in Kashmir so that they can purchase essential commodities. Strict restrictions were re-imposed in Muharram, the first month of Islamic calendar. 

Muharram is considered as one of most sacred months in Islam for many reasons. One of those being that it marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain —the grandson of Prophet Mohammad 10th Muharram, also known as Ashura

Sunni Muslims on this day organise seminars to pay tributes to the people who sacrificed their lives in Karbala for the growth of Islam. Shia Muslims observe mourning by taking out big processions.

Mourning processions have been banned in Kashmir Valley since militancy erupted in the region. The mourners, however, are allowed to assemble in the Zadibal area of Srinagar under tight security to perform their rituals. 

In 2019 such scenes were missing. 

Kashmir is known as the Valley of Saints and has a rich spiritual past. The region hosts many shrines named after several Sufi saints at every nook and corner. Noted Scholar and a Historian, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, claims that the influence of Sufism in Kashmir started with the advent of Islam from Central Asia. It started with the arrival of Syed Sharif-ud-Din Abdur Rehman, locally known as Bulbul Shah, back in the 14th century along with the caravan of his followers.

Islamic scholars who arrived from different regions of Central Asia, Zareef said, spread the message of oneness and humanity. “The message of oneness and humanity was known as Sufism. People in Kashmir loved the message and they embraced Islam without any compulsion,” he added.

The mission of spreading the teaching of Prophet Mohammad was carried forward by the followers of the Sufis after their death or departure. People constructed shrines, at the burial spots or at the places where these Sufis used to worship. Thi was in order to remember their contribution for the expansion of Islam in Kashmir valley.

Thousands of people annually on special occasions, formally known as Urs, visit these shrines to purify their hearts and souls. The shrines in Kashmir during Urs reverberate with special rituals called Zikr-Azkar, an act of meditation. This is to honor the legends of Islam in the war-torn region sandwiched between India and Pakistan after the partition of 1947. India claims Jammu and Kashmir to be its own territory while Pakistan claims it to be its jugular vein. The two countries have fought two wars over the region.

In 2019, Indian Prime Minister, Narendera Modi promoted Sufism by attending the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi where he termed the life of Sufis as “the light of hope amid dark shadow of violence,” but the same ray gloomed in Kashmir.

One such shrine that witnessed the thin presence of devotees this year belongs to a local Sufi saint, Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani. He is also known by the name Alamdar-e-Kashmir which means the flag bearer of Kashmir.

Local residents of central Kashmir’s Charar-i-Sharief town, where Alamdar-i-Kashmir is laid to rest, say that 2019 Urs saw the presence of only a few dozens of devotees. “Since Alamdar-e-Kashmir is revered by every faith in Jammu and Kashmir, people irrespective of their religion throng Chari-i-Sharif on his birth anniversary,” said Amir-ud-din Shah, who leads the prayers at the grand mosque of the town.

Shah said that the preparation to honor Alamdar-e-Kashmir would begin at least a month ago so that the devotees don’t have to face difficulties. “Preparations are done by district administration themselves. They invited elders of the town for suggestions but that year no one was asked to attend the meeting,” he said.

Shah claimed it was for the first time in the history of the town that the gathering was not allowed to commemorate the revered saint.  He said that the Urs was allowed even when the shrine was destroyed during a military operation known as ‘Operation Shanti’ which was aimed to wipe out militancy in the area back in 1995. The whole shrine was reduced to rubble in the inferno which took place after the heavy exchange of gunfire. Many people including militants, army personnel and civilians were killed in the month-long operation. “I have never seen this Urs getting affected by turmoil in the past when the militancy was at its peak but this year’s case was different and devotees couldn’t visit here because of the restrictions imposed in the town,” Shah said.

Indian administered Kashmir’s economy faces multiple challenges. People belonging to middle class societies find it difficult to meet their demands due to unrest and frequent shutdowns. To overcome the losses a small section of the local businessmen see Urs as an opportunity to earn livelihood. In 2019 they claim to have been the worst victims of the decision that stopped people from visiting the shrines. 

Bilal Ahmad, a businessman, sitting cross-legged and smoking his hookah outside his shop, located on the northern bank of Dal Lake, a few meters away from Hazratbal shrine. He said that people would roam in the market full of vendors and shopkeepers and later purchase eatables, snacks and other goods before leaving for their homes. “The business during Urs days remains at its peak that even a small vendor would earn at least rupees 30000 [$400] in just three days,” he said.

The shopkeepers of different areas, where other of these Sufi shrines are located including Khojja Bazar, Makdoom Sahib and Pampore, too claimed to have suffered the losses due to Urs ban in 2019. “Hazratbal traders suffered losses worth 6 crores [$85000],” Ahmad said, adding, “Imagine the losses suffered by the businessmen surrounding the other holy place like that of Khawja Naqshband’s shrine etcetera,” he added.

Indian authorities also had disallowed Khawja Digar. This is the400-year-old practice of offering congregational post noon prayers, at a shrine established by the successors of a popular saint Mohammad Bin Mohammad, to honor him on his death anniversary.

Mohammad Bin Mohammad is famous by the name Baha-u-Din Nakshbandi and the founder of Nakshbandi Sufi order globally.  His successors who travelled Indian subcontinent settled in Kashmir and established his shrine in Kashmir. They would recite Awraad-e-Asriya, a booklet comprising verses of repentance and faith of the saint which he used to recite it with hundreds of his disciples some 700 years ago at Bukhara in Uzbekistan. 

The reporters tried to contact the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board to know the losses Mosques and Shrines suffered due to the lockdown imposed by Indian authorities in the region but no one was available for comments. The story will be updated in case the Waqf Board responds to the queries of The Daily Vox.

Editor’s Note: On August 5 2021, the Indian-side of Kashmir will witness the second anniversary of the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. To mark this anniversary, journalists Muheet Ul Islam and Junaid Dar looked at how Indian authorities stopped people from observing religious meetings and birth-death anniversary of Sufi saints in 2019.  

Muheet Ul Islam is an Indian side Kashmir based journalist and a filmmaker. He is specialised in Narrative Journalism from Central University of Kashmir. Muheet has been published in several Kashmir and India based publications. He has also contributed for TRT World, The New Arab, News Week Middle East and others. He can be followed on @bhatMuheet on twitter.

Junaid Dar is a multimedia journalist based in India administered Kashmir. He tweets at @Akhbarwoul

Featured image via Flickr