In Kashmir, closed mosque honors India’s right to religious freedom

Jamia Masjid, the great mosque of Srinagar dominate its neighborhood with an imposing main gate and massive turrets. It can hold 33,000 worshipers, and on special occasions over the years hundreds of thousands of Muslims have filled the streets and neighboring roads to offer prayers from the mosque.

But Indian authorities see the mosque as a trouble spot – a nerve center for protests and clashes challenging India’s sovereignty over the dispute. Kashmir area.

For Kashmiri Muslims, it is a sacred site for Friday prayers and a place where they can speak out for political rights.

In this bitter dispute, mosques in Kashmir’s main city have largely remained closed for the past two years. The mosque’s chief priest was confined to his home almost non-stop the entire time, and the mosque’s main gate is locked and barricaded with corrugated iron on Fridays.

The closure of the mosque, revered by Kashmir’s largely Muslim population, further angered them.

Bashir Ahmed, 65, a retired government employee who has offered prayers at mosques for more than five decades, said: “It always feels like something is missing in my life. there.

Indian authorities declined to comment on the mosque’s restrictions despite repeated queries from the Associated Press. In the past, officials said the government was forced to close the mosque because its management committee was unable to stop anti-India protests on the premises.

The closure of the 600-year-old mosque comes amid a crackdown that began in 2019 after the government stripped Kashmir of its long-standing semi-autonomous status.

Over the past two years, several other mosques and temples in the area – also closed for months due to security crackdowns and the ensuing pandemic – have been allowed to offer religious services.

Jamia Masjid remains off-limits for worshipers to pray on Friday – the main day of congregational worship in Islam. Authorities allowed the mosque to remain open for the remaining six days, but only a few hundred worshipers gather there on those occasions, compared with the tens of thousands that typically gather on Fridays.

“This is the central mosque where our ancestors, scholars and spiritual gurus prayed and meditated during the day,” said Altaf Ahmad Bhat, one of the grand mosque officials. many centuries.

He dismissed the law and order reasons cited by the authorities as “absurd”, adding that discussions of social, economic and political issues affecting Muslims were a core religious function of any major mosque.

The great mosque is mainly for the obligatory Friday prayers of the congregation and special services. Compulsory daily prayers are usually held at smaller mosques in the vicinity.

For Muslims in the area, the closure of the mosque brings back painful memories of the past. In 1819, the Sikh rulers closed it down for 21 years. For the past 15 years, it has been subject to periodic bans and lockdowns by successive Indian governments.

But the current restrictions are the most severe since the region was split between India and Pakistan after the two nations gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Both claim Himalayan entire territory.

The Indian government initially struggled with public peaceful protests seeking a unified Kashmir, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent entity. But a crackdown on dissent led to Kashmir erupting into an armed insurgency against India in 1989. India has described the insurgency as terrorism. sponsored by Pakistan, an allegation that Pakistan denies.

Indian forces largely crushed the uprising about 10 years ago, although popular demands for “Azadi” or freedom are still deeply ingrained in the Kashmiri psyche.

The region has transitioned from armed struggle to unarmed insurgency, with tens of thousands of civilians taking to the streets to protest against Indian rule, often resulting in deadly clashes between residents hurling stones and stones. Indian army. The Grand Mosque and surrounding areas in central Srinagar emerged as the center of these protests.

Lectures at the Jamia Masjid often refer to the long simmering conflict, with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chief priest and one of the region’s top separatist leaders, delivering speeches. fire highlights the political struggle of Kashmir.

Authorities regularly control and ban prayer at mosques for a long time. According to official data, the mosque was closed for at least 250 days in 2008, 2010 and 2016 combined.

Armed conflict once again increased after the Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 and won landslide re-election in 2019. The Hindu nationalist government of Mr. Modi Bharatiya Janata’s Party-led party has stood firm against the separatists. declaration of Pakistan and Kashmiri amid increased attacks by Hindus against minorities in India, deepening frustration among Muslims in Kashmir.

Soon after, a new wave of insurgency revived Kashmir’s militias and challenged India’s dominance with guns and effective use of social media. India responded with sometimes deadly counterinsurgency operations.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India’s constitution, allowing citizens to follow and freely practice their religion. The constitution also says that the state will not “discriminate, patronize or interfere in the profession of any religion.”

But even before the current security operation in Kashmir, experts say conditions for India’s Muslims under Modi have worsened.

In Kashmir, the crackdown on the most revered mosque has exacerbated these fears.

“Jamia Masjid represents the religious soul of Kashmiri Muslims and has remained at the center of social and political rights claims since its founding six centuries ago,” said Zareef Ahmed Zareef, a poet and an oral historian said. “The closure is an attack on our faith.”

On special occasions like the last Friday of the fasting month of Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of devotees pray in mosques, filling the neighborhood’s winding streets and roads.

For the past two years, such scenes have remained missing. Muslims say the gag game is undermining their constitutional right to religious freedom.

Ahmed, the worshiper, on a recent Saturday afternoon sat inside the mosque, a wooden and brick architectural wonder with 378 wooden pillars. He said he had never seen a mosque closed and deserted for such a long time.

“I feel deprived and violated,” Ahmed said as he raised his hand in supplication. “We have endured extreme mental suffering.”

Many Kashmiri Muslims have long said that New Delhi restricts their religious freedom on the grounds of law and order while promoting and sponsoring the annual Hindu pilgrimage to an ice cave. price in the Himalayas that hundreds of thousands of Hindus from all over India visit.

The Amarnath pilgrimage lasted nearly two months, although it has been canceled in the past two years due to the pandemic.

On a recent Friday, when the mosque was still closed, its vast bazaar, a vibrant and bustling neighborhood, took on an empty air.

Babull, a mentally challenged man in his 40s who lives in and around the grand mosque, whirls around the neighborhood. He warned store owners of the impending danger from police raids on the place, as they had done in the past.

Nearby, a group of Indian tourists squirmed to take selfies against the backdrop of the mosque’s fenced and locked main gate.

Kashmiri onlookers watched them in silence.


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Associated Press religious coverage is supported by Lilly Endowment through The Conversation. US AP is solely responsible for this content. In Kashmir, closed mosque honors India’s right to religious freedom


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