As soon as the Muharram moon is sighted, a pall of gloom falls on Shia Muslims as they begin the 14-day commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who along with his family was killed in the plains of Karbala 1400 years ago.
Millions of Shia Muslims worldwide take out processions, hold gatherings and give away neyaz (charity) to mourn and for the love of Imam Hussain. While the event is marked with these rituals, it is also seen as the period that helps in spiritual ascension and the imbibing of revolutionary attitude among the masses through Imam Hussain’s teachings and sacrifice.
It is no surprise that many renowned personalities like Charles Dickens, Mohandas Gandhi, Reynold Alleyne Nicholson, Edward Gibbon, and others have professed to have been inspired by Imam Hussain’s magnanimity. For Muslims, the event is a time to reflect, converge, and to take a pledge to rise against injustice and oppression of people anywhere in the world, irrespective of their identities. The sermons and elegies delivered every year focus on the principle of resisting injustice.
It is also a highly emotional time for Muslims, who await the occasion to reaffirm their faith and beliefs. Srinagar resident, Ubaid Hussain, 22, is one such azadar, as Muslims who mourn Imam Hussain’s killing are called. For Mr. Ubaid, the month of Muharram is a time to attend majlis, mourning processions and at the same time strengthen his Iman (faith). “I pledge to myself to be a better Muslim and at the same time a better person who follows the teachings and life of Imam Hussain,” said the resident of Srinagar’s Lal Bazar.
However, Mr. Ubaid who counts days to the first day of Muharram is disappointed this year. “The government is not allowing the processions under the garb of COVID , which is a complete farce,” he said. “They had [intended to] facilitate Yatras [Hindu pilgrrimages] here but have disallowed Muslim rituals, we were not even allowed to celebrate Eid. And Jamia Masjid was thrown open after remaining closed for months.”
Many like Mr. Ubaid see this repression of Muslim religious and cultural activities as “a direct interference into our religion.”
This is the second Muharram that Muslims of the Valley are observing under strict curbs. Last year following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy, the government had imposed strict restrictions during Muharram and the subsequent religious occasions, including two consecutive Eids. The restrictions and suppression of Muslims was the harshest during the month of Muharram.
Journalists who covered the tenth day of Muharram, have said that the curfew was the harshest in their careers. “Usually there are restrictions [on movement] but on that day [10th of Muharram], the restrictions were intensified,” observed Xuhaib Maqbool, a photojournalist. “The city was closed, Zadibal was under total siege and there was a night curfew as well.”
Muharram processions in Kashmir have been banned since the 1990s, even as other religious festivals and rituals are allowed, if not also facilitated by the government. Authorities fear that the processions can turn into pro-freedom and anti-India rallies. Hence, the event has been restricted to the vicinity of the Shia dominated Zadibal area which houses a historic Imam Bargah and a shrine. The Shia Muslims of Srinagar converge in Zadibal every Muharram.
However, since last year, the processions that were taken out in the interiors of Shia dominated areas of Srinagar have also been banned. “For the first time in my life I saw curfew in our area, which is in the interiors of Lal Bazar and almost a kilometer into the main road,” said Mr. Ubaid, and added that the same has happened this year as well. “There were [paramilitary] troops outside my house, it was the second time in my life that they had been stationed in our mohalla, my father says the sight was very common in the nineties though when curfews and crackdowns were a routine.”
The importance of these processions can be gauged by the fact that across the Muslim World, particularly in strife-torn parts of the Arab world, mourners take out processions despite the threat of suicide bombings and attacks by extremists who have killed thousands.
Many Kashmiri Muslims were expecting to observe a full-fledged Muharram this year after being tear-gassed and roughed up last year. However, mourners are faced with government repression in the form of severe restrictions, tear-gassing processions, and the use of metal pellets, fired from shotguns, against peaceful mourners that have injured several mourners this Muharram.
Talking to The Kashmir Walla, a group of residents from Alamgari Bazar said that after last year’s “double blow” they were expecting to carry out their religious rituals this year. “First they abrogated the Article-370, last year, and then they disallowed us from observing Muharram if that was not enough they fired pellets in Zadibal injuring almost everyone from the community,” said Javaid Hussain. “Everyone’s relative was injured, and there was chaos on tenth Muharram in Zadibal.”
The situation has not been any different this year either and according to reports, hundreds of mourners have been detained. Seven people were booked under the anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, for allegedly shouting pro-freedom slogans during a procession. The police have resorted to tear gas shelling and baton charging mourners while strict restrictions have been imposed in the Shia dominated areas to stem all processions.
This has led to the fear among the community that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government is trying to ban the processions permanently. “The government banned the procession last year, and are doing the same this year under the garb of COVID-19,” said Rashid Maqbool, a researcher and journalist. “The real reason is that they want to stifle any dissenting voice, as these processions have the potential to turn into one. No doubt we are battling a different kind of challenge, still, the processions or the gatherings could have been managed in a better following SOPs and had government devised plans.”
Mr. Maqbool further said: “Why was not the government allowing the processions in the last thirty years? What was done last year amounts to repression, it is a denial of the religious right, COVID  is a feasible reason to ban, but why is the government not facilitating the processions?”
The sentiment is echoed by other people from the community too who see the ruling party in the central government as explicitly anti-Muslim. “They have allowed Rath Yatra but do not allow Muharram processions,” said a resident of Baghwanpora area, who did not want to be named fearing reprisals from the authorities. “What kind of absurdity is this? It is clear that the BJP government is hell-bent on suppressing Muslims.”
Their fear has been further strengthened by a series of government actions and orders during Narendra Modi’s second term as prime minister–be it the abrogation of J-K’s semi-autonomy and the subsequent imposition of a plethora of new laws in Kashmir, including but not limited to the domicile law that is seen as a push for a demographic change; the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act that threatens to render India’s Muslims stateless; the anti-Muslim pogrom in New Delhi.