Pandemic casts pall over Muharram in occupied Kashmir


For Nasir Hussain, observing the month of Muharram, which marks the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson in the battle of Karbala, is an article of faith.

But as the coronavirus spreads in occupied Kashmir, he and his extended family prefer to commemorate the holy days inside their home in the region’s main city.

“We have to survive this epidemic to keep the mission of Imam Hussain alive,” said Nasir, a business executive, explaining that the virus has not stopped them from mourning but only from going to community congregational halls.

A Kashmiri man cycles past religious banners and flags erected by Shia Muslims to commemorate Muharram on a deserted street on the outskirts of Srinagar on August 25. — AP
A Kashmiri man cycles past religious banners and flags erected by Shia Muslims to commemorate Muharram on a deserted street on the outskirts of Srinagar on August 25. — AP

Kashmiri Shia Muslims beat their chest during commemoration of Muharram inside a residential house in Srinagar on August 22. — AP
Kashmiri Shia Muslims beat their chest during commemoration of Muharram inside a residential house in Srinagar on August 22. — AP

On a recent humid August night, Nasir’s family sat in the brightly lit drawing room at their residence at Srinagar’s sprawling Dal Lake, attentively listening to a religious broadcast on cable TV.

The preacher narrated the events at Karbala, the seventh century battle in present-day Iraq as Nasir’s family occasionally cried. They beat their chests and chanted religious slogans, part of the ritual to remember Imam Hussain and his 72 fallen companions.

“For us, Imam Hussain represents the pinnacle of love, sacrifice and fighting for justice and freedom,” Nasir said. “Our hearts melt when Muharram arrives.”

Kashmiri Shia Muslims pray as they commemorate Muharram inside their house in Srinagar on August 23. — AP
Kashmiri Shia Muslims pray as they commemorate Muharram inside their house in Srinagar on August 23. — AP

Muharram is among the holiest days for Shia Muslims across the world and includes large processions of mourners beating their chests while reciting elegies and chanting slogans to denounce the slaughter of Imam Hussain and his companions.

The mourning reaches its peak on Ashura, the tenth day of the month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

This year, most of the faithful residents in occupied Kashmir are following the advice of religious scholars and health experts to restrict ceremonies to their homes.

There is also a three-decade ban imposed by the government on the main Muharram processions in the centre of Srinagar, in place since an armed insurgency erupted against Indian rule.

On Thursday, authorities reiterated that strict restrictions would continue on all religious processions and gatherings across the valley.

Zakir Tasaduk Hussain speaks during a ceremony to commemorate Muharram inside a residential house in the interiors of Dal Lake in Srinagar on August 23. — AP
Zakir Tasaduk Hussain speaks during a ceremony to commemorate Muharram inside a residential house in the interiors of Dal Lake in Srinagar on August 23. — AP

Such measures are particularly galling to Kashmiri Muslims. They have long complained that the government curbs their religious freedom on the pretext of law and order while promoting and patronising an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Himalayan Amarnath Shrine in the region that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even as virus restrictions continue, the ritual of multi-course community meals during the month-long ceremonies has taken a different shape. While some are donating money spent on Muharram feasts to charities, many are distributing food packets door-to-door in their neighbourhoods.

In some localities, people wearing masks gather in small groups late in the evening for Muharram rituals while maintaining physical distance.

Kashmiri Shia Muslim women beat their chest during commemoration of Muharram inside a shrine in Srinagar on August 22. — AP
Kashmiri Shia Muslim women beat their chest during commemoration of Muharram inside a shrine in Srinagar on August 22. — AP

Last week, seven women sat in a circle inside an old shrine in downtown Srinagar and wailed in mourning. Black banners, some calligraphed with Islamic slogans, were draped on buildings and hung across streets.

Some residents believe that even if they fall sick, a Muharram mourning will cure them. A few large outdoor processions still occurred and morphed into protests, with mourners calling for an end to Indian rule.

Kashmiri Shia Muslims take part in a ceremony to commemorate Muharram inside a park in Srinagar on August 25. — AP
Kashmiri Shia Muslims take part in a ceremony to commemorate Muharram inside a park in Srinagar on August 25. — AP

On Wednesday, government forces fired tear gas in the outskirts of Srinagar to chase away members of a procession who chanted, “We want freedom” and “Oppressors, leave our Kashmir”.

A day earlier, police charged at least seven people under an anti-terror law for raising anti-India slogans during another religious procession. Officials said at least 200 people were detained in Srinagar this week for participating in Muharram processions.

Conditions have worsened in occupied Kashmir since August last year, when New Delhi stripped the region of its statehood and semi-autonomy, setting off widespread anger and economic ruin under a harsh security clampdown.

Kashmiri Shia Muslims beat their chest as they watch a religious broadcast on cable television to commemorate Muharram inside their house in the interiors of Dal Lake in Srinagar on August 24. — AP
Kashmiri Shia Muslims beat their chest as they watch a religious broadcast on cable television to commemorate Muharram inside their house in the interiors of Dal Lake in Srinagar on August 24. — AP

Amid a communications blockade, authorities disallowed worshipers to pray at some mosques and limited devotees visiting revered shrines for months.

Such restrictions have largely been lifted, but authorities have cited the virus lockdown as a reason for banning this year’s general Muharram gatherings.

Nasir, the business executive, said Muharram constantly reminds humanity “not to compromise with tyrants and tyranny.”

“It teaches us what Imam Hussain said: No to humiliation,” he said.


Header image: A religious symbol and the mud from Karbala is placed in a plate inside a house during the month of Muharram in Srinagar on August 25. — AP


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