Closed mosque in Kashmir belies India's religious freedom

SRINAGAR (India) -- Jamia Masjid is the grand mosque in Srinagar. It dominates its area with an imposing main gate, massive turrets, and a large entrance. It can accommodate 33,000 worshippers. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Muslims have flocked to the streets and lanes nearby to offer prayers from the mosque.

Closed mosque in Kashmir belies India's religious freedom

Indian authorities view the mosque as a trouble spot - a nerve center that encourages protests and clashes against India's sovereignty in the disputed Kashmir region.

It is sacred for Kashmiri Muslims to pray Friday prayers there and for them to speak out for their political rights.

The main mosque of Kashmir has been closed in the past two year due to this bitter dispute. The chief priest of the mosque has been held in his home nearly non-stop for two years. On Fridays, the main gate to the mosque is locked and covered with corrugated iron sheets.

The anger of Kashmir's majority Muslim population has intensified since the closure of the mosque.

Bashir Ahmed (65), a retired employee of the government who has been praying at the mosque for over 50 years, said, "There is a constant sense that something is missing from my life."

Despite repeated requests from The Associated Press, Indian authorities declined to comment on restrictions placed upon the mosque. Officials have stated that the government had to close the mosque due to anti-Indian protests.

After the government removed Kashmir from its semiautonomous status, the clampdown began in 2019. The 600-year-old mosque was shut down.

Some of the other shrines and mosques in the region, which were also closed for several months because of security measures and the subsequent pandemic, have been permitted to offer religious services over the past two-years.

Jamia Masjid remains open to Muslims for Friday prayers, which is the main day of Islamic congregational worship. The mosque is allowed to be open for six more days. However, only a handful of worshippers gather there on those occasions as opposed to the hundreds that gathered on Fridays.

Altaf Ahmad Bhat (one of the officials at this grand mosque) said, "This is where our ancestors and scholars have prayed, meditated, and for centuries, this is the central mosque."

He called the law-and order reasons given by authorities "absurd" and said that discussions on social, economic, and political issues affecting Muslims were a core function of any grand mosque.

The grand mosque is reserved for Friday congregational prayers and special services. Obligatory daily prayers are typically held in smaller mosques within the neighborhood.

The mosque's closing brings back painful memories for the Muslims of the region. It was closed for 21 years by Sikh rulers in 1819. It has been locked down by successive Indian governments for 15 years.

The current restrictions are most severe because the area was once divided between India (now Pakistan) and British colonialism (in 1947). Both countries claim the Himalayan territory.

Initial protests by peaceful Kashmiris for a united state were met with resistance from the Indian government. In 1989, Kashmir erupted into an armed rebellion against India after the Indian government cracked down on dissent. India has accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism and has denied this charge.

Although the Indian forces were able to largely crush the rebellion around 10 years ago, popular demands for freedom ("Azadi") remained deeply rooted in the Kashmiri psyche.

The transition from the armed struggle was to unarmed rebellions took place in the region. Tens of thousands of people protested Indian rule and often led to violent clashes between stone-throwing residents of the area and Indian troops. These protests were centered on the grand mosque and its surroundings in Srinagar's heart.

Jamia Masjid sermons would frequently address the simmering conflict. Mirwaiz Farooq, chief priest and one the top separatist leaders in the region, would give fiery speeches to highlight Kashmir's political struggle.

Authorities have often imposed severe restrictions on prayer at the mosque, often banning them from praying for long periods. Official data shows that the mosque was closed at least 250 times in 2008, 2010, and 2016, respectively.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to power in 2014, the armed conflict grew again and Modi won a landslide win in 2019. Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led government stanced more strongly against Pakistani separatists. This was in response to rising attacks from Hindu hard-liners on minorities in India. This further exacerbated the frustrations of Kashmiri Muslims.

Soon, a new wave rebels revived Kashmiri militancy and challenged India’s rule with guns and the effective use of social media. India responded with deadly counterinsurgency operations.

India's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which allows citizens to freely and openly practice their religion. The constitution states that the state will not discriminate, patronize, or interfere in any religion's practice.

Experts say that conditions for India's Muslims have deteriorated even before Modi's current security operation in Kashmir.

These fears have been exacerbated by the recent clampdown on Kashmir's most sacred mosque.

Zareef Ahmed Zareef a poet and oral historian said that Jamia Masjid is the heart of Kashmiri Muslims' faith. He stated that it has been at the center for demands for political and social rights since its founding six centuries ago. Its closing is an attack against our faith.

On special occasions, such as the Friday of Ramadan's fasting month, thousands of Muslims pray in the mosque, filling the streets and lanes of the neighborhood.

These scenes have been missing for the past two years. Muslims claim that the gag violates their constitutional right of religious freedom.

Ahmed, the worshipper, was seen sitting inside the mosque on Saturday afternoon. It is a wood-brick architectural wonder with 378 wooden columns. Ahmed said that he had never seen the mosque closed and desolate for so long.

Ahmed said, "I feel deprived" and raised his hands in prayer. "We have been subjected o extreme spiritual suffering."

Many Kashmiri Muslims believe that New Delhi restricts their religious freedom under the pretext law and order. However, New Delhi promotes and supports the annual Hindu pilgrimage into an icy Himalayan cave where hundreds of thousands of Hindus travel from all over India.

Although the Amarnath pilgrimage takes approximately two months, it was cancelled for the past two years because of the pandemic.

A Friday night, the mosque was closed and its bustling market, which is a vibrant, busy neighborhood, took on a deserted appearance.

Babull, a man with mental disabilities in his 40s, wandered around the area. As they had done in the past, he warned shopkeepers about the danger posed by police raiding the area.

A group of Indian tourists were also nearby, snapping selfies against the background of the locked main gate and barricaded mosque.

They were silently observed by Kashmiri observers.

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