Shrine attack in Srinagar
Syed Hussain, caretaker of Masjid Imam Ali in Botakadal area of Srinagar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan for The Kashmir Walla

Zaigham Murtaza was playing the mobile game PUBG when a sudden flash at around 1 am on Saturday caught his eye. A petrol bomb had been hurled at the Astana Babul Hawa’ij Imam Musa Kazim shrine across the street from his home in Srinagar. “Luckily I had not drawn the curtains of my window,” said the 24-year-old college student.

Mr. Murtaza said that he saw a man, who wore a balaclava over his face, climb over the gate and enter the shrine complex. The intruder had first thrown a petrol bomb from outside the gate when Mr. Murtaza got up to check. “I shouted at the man from my window,” said Mr. Murtaza. The intruder, however, did not react in panic but climbed up and left the premises. The bomb had landed beside the shrine’s entrance door, on a motorcycle which had caught fire.

In the shrine’s security camera footage, reviewed by The Kashmir Walla, a man wearing black clothes, hand gloves, and a balaclava is seen pulling an object out of his backpack and presumably stopped when he heard Murtaza shout. The masked man is then seen calmly retreating from the shrine complex and jumping back over the gate to escape. 

The shrine in Srinagar’s Chattabal neighbourhood is home to one of the oldest manuscripts of the Quran in Kashmir, believed to be a work of calligraphy by Imam Musa Al-Kazim, a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. The attack on the shrine marks the fourth such incident over the span of four weeks targeting religious places – including a Hindu temple – in different parts of Srinagar.  

Successive attacks

On the night of 19 May, multiple petrol bombs were hurled on a mosque in Srinagar’s Botakadal neighbourhood. That same night, the grave of Syed Jaffar, a revered religious figure, close to the mosque, was also attacked with a petrol bomb.

Four days before the incident at Botakadal, on 15 May, a petrol bomb was also hurled at the Az-Zahra Islamic Centre, an Imambara that hosts religious congregations of the Shia community, in the Habba Kadal neighbourhood. 

According to Maulana Masroor Abbas Ansari, a religious leader and head of the Jammu and Kashmir Anjuman Ittehadul Muslimeen, a group that is part of the Mirwaiz Umar Farooq led All Parties Hurriyat Conference, “the residents in the area decided not to approach the police.”

The attackers are still unidentified but residents agree that this is an attempt to fan divisions between the minority Shia community and the majority Sunni community. “The pattern of these attacks shows coordination. The aim is clearly to create discord among the religious communities,” observed Mr. Ansari. “There may be more such attacks soon.”

In a similar attack on a religious place, two petrol bombs were hurled at the Amar Koul Temple in the sparsely-populated Badamwari neighbourhood of the city on the evening of 17 May. 

Sanjay Kaul, the caretaker of the temple, and his family were in their home inside the shrine complex when they heard two loud bangs. A petrol bomb was thrown at the entry gate of the temple while another at the window of their family room on the building’s first floor. Both the gate and the window were shut, and the temple complex didn’t catch fire. “I saw two or three men around the age of 20-25 running away,” Mr. Kaul said. 

The temple is dedicated to the god Narayana and also houses idols of Shiva and Ganesh. It is managed by the Shri Durganag Trust of Jammu and Kashmir, which had appointed Mr. Kaul about eight years ago to look after the temple. Had the window been open when the petrol bomb was thrown at it, his home could have been severely damaged. But fortunately, he said, “we keep our windows shut all the time”. 

In the past, he added, a few sporadic incidents have taken place targetting the temple. The police suspect this incident could have been carried out by “drug addicts” in the area.

Similar techniques?

In each of the attacks, the offenders hurled the petrol bombs at night. The targeted buildings are located in densely-populated areas of downtown Srinagar and local residents fear that a fire could have quickly spread in the neighborhoods.

Had Mr. Murtaza not spotted the attacker, he would have thrown another petrol bomb at the Astana Babul Hawa’ij Imam Musa Kazim, the shrine’s caretaker Syed Fida Hussain said. He and his brother live in two separate houses inside the shrine premises, a motorcycle belonging to his brother was damaged in the attack. “The man was probably aiming for the [wooden] entrance door,” said Mr. Syed Fida Hussain. “That’s why he jumped over the gate and came inside after he missed the mark the first time.”

Unlike the shrine at Chattabal, the mosque in Botakadal does not have a boundary wall. On the morning of 20 May, when Syed Hussain, the mosque’s caretaker, unlocked its entrance door to give the azaan for the dawn prayers, he said he started coughing due to the smoke that had filled the building. 

The window pane facing the main road had burnt, along with the curtains. While the iron rods on the window were intact, parts of the window glass had shattered, and lay on the ground along with shards of green glass bottles and pieces of charred fabric. Mr. Ali believes six petrol bombs were hurled at the mosque window the previous night.

A lorry driver who had been transporting goods in the area around midnight to get around the COVID-19 lockdown saw the mosque windows had caught flame, and doused it with the water from the taps installed close by for ablutions, say the residents of the area. Meanwhile, the sacred garment covering the nearby grave, which was also attacked that night, was burnt down entirely.

Ghosts of sectarian strife

The police have registered three First Information Reports at separate police stations for the attacks on the Chattabal shrine, the mosque and the grave in Botakadal, and the temple in Badamwari each. The incident at Habba Kadal’s Az-Zahra Islamic Centre was not reported to the police. 

The caretaker of the Chattabal shrine complex had installed a security camera at the entrance door after an attempted robbery a few months ago. The police have reviewed the footage from the night of the attack. They have also obtained footage from a private security camera installed at a furniture factory across the road from the Botakadal mosque for the night it was attacked.

Senior Superintendent of Police Haseeb Mughal told The Kashmir Walla that there seemed to be no coordination or links between these three incidents and suspects “mischief” by individuals with drug addiction. “We have increased surveillance in these areas, and the investigation is on,” he added.

There have been few incidents of discord between the Sunni and Shia communities in the past. Many residents, however, consider these attacks to be a ploy by “agencies”—a euphemism for various intelligence agencies operating in Kashmir—to foment sectarian strife. 

Sunni leaders including the Mirwaiz, who heads one of the two key factions of the Hurriyat, have condemned the attack. The attack on the Chattabal shrine “was meant to divide Sunnis and Shias, but it ended up bringing us closer together,” said Mr. Murtaza.

The morning after the petrol bomb attack on the mosque in Botakadal, a crowd of indignant residents had gathered at the mosque. “Some of them wanted to take out a procession but I stopped them,” said the mosque’s caretaker, Mr. Ali.

Apart from anger, fear too has swept the community. Mr. Ali said that local residents have suggested fencing the premises with a metal chain link. “Other people are suggesting we fix iron sheets on the windows,” said Mr. Ali. “But how can we do that to a place of worship?”

Another local resident added that the matter did not escalate because of the lockdown in place to curb the coronavirus pandemic. “Otherwise there could have been tensions between Sunnis and Shias,” cautioned the resident, wishing anonymity.

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