For the first time in the history of the Kashmir valley, authorities have barred tens of thousands of Muslim devotees from celebrating the Milad-un-Nabi, the birth anniversary of Prophet Muhammad at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. Only a limited number of devotees were allowed to pray.
Every year on 12 Rabi-ul-Awal, the third month of the Islamic calendar year, hordes of devotees gather at the Hazratbal Shrine, on the banks of Dal lake, to offer night-long prayers and get a glimpse of the relic, believed to be the hair strands of the Prophet Muhammad.
On November 10, however, several people, who were headed to offering prayers were turned away by the security forces, saying there were restrictions in place.
Senior Superintendent of Police, Srinagar, Haseeb Mughal, told Outlook that limited restrictions are in place to manage the crowd because the shrine cannot accommodate a huge gathering this year, owing to the snow.
“Both the lawns of (Hazratbal) shrine are covered in snow, there is no place to pray. A canopy, we had set up, collapsed. So, we are accommodating people inside the shrine; we cannot allow huge gathering like previous years – there would be a stampede if so many people are allowed inside the shrine,’” Mughal said.
Mughal claimed around 6,000 people offered morning prayers in the shrine but added the shrine didn't have the capacity to accommodate more than 3000-4000 people. “So we are not allowing the people beyond it,” he said.
He, however, did not rule out the conjecture that restrictions had got “something to do” with the prevailing situation in the valley.
“It has got something to do (with the current situation) so that people are not there in huge numbers. And if they are not accommodated inside, they can create a problem and law and order situation,” Mughal said.
Few locals, who spoke to Outlook, said they were turned away when they tried to reach the shrine.
“This is nothing but an attack on our religion. And this is not new to us,” said Mohammad Saleem, who lives in Alastang, few miles from the shrine.
“They did not even let us offer Khwaja Digar,” he added.
Saleem was referring to an incident on November 2.
Every year, on 3rd of the Rabi al Awal, the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar, thousands of people gather at the shrine of Khwaja Naqshband in Khwaja Bazar locality of Srinagar’s old city to offer special post-noon prayers. The tradition has been kept alive for more than 400 years. The three-day festival at the shrine ends with a special congregational prayer called Khwaja Digar.
On November 2, when Kashmir shut for 89th consecutive day, followers of the Sufi saint from various corners of Srinagar headed to the shrine to offer prayers. To their surprise, they found all the routes leading to the shrine blocked by barbed wires and manned by security forces who directed them to return to their homes. For the first time in 400 years, Khwaja Digar was not allowed.
“This is the extreme extent of zulm (oppression),” Mushtaq Ahmad Ahanger, who lives in Karan Nagar, said.
Ahanger said he offered Friday prayers on November 2 in a local mosque and immediately rushed to Khwaja Bazar. “There used to be thousands of people. You would not find a spot to pray near the shrine, such used to be the gathering. So, I thought I would reach early and secure some space near the shrine,” he said.
But, Ahanger said, he was asked to return mid-way by the security forces. “I was told no one is allowed to go beyond the check-point.”
A day before, the devotees, who frequent the shrine, were told by the police that no congregational prayers on Friday would be held -– something the devotees had never witnessed before. “We were told to lock the shrine on Friday, the day of Khwaja Digar,” a caretaker of the shrine, who wished not to be named, said.
“How can you lock a shrine? This is the place of worship. Is this the benefit of removing (Article) 370?” the caretaker asked.
When Outlook spoke to SSP Srinagar Haseeb Mughal earlier this week, he said the gathering at the shrine was not allowed, given the “current situation”.
“Under the prevailing circumstances, we cannot afford to have a huge gathering. Because ultimately, it will lead to loss of life, and violence,” Mughal said, adding the restrictions were “preventive in nature”.
Mughal said the management committee of the shrine was required to take prior permission from the police to hold the congregational prayers, which they were not granted. The permission “might not have been required in past years” but “since Section 144 (of CrPc) is in place in Srinagar, the gathering of more than four people is not allowed”.
The day when Khwaja Digar was to be offered, the police locked the gates of the shrine, another first in 400 years, the devotee said.
The ones living next to the shrine, and those who managed their way through barbed wires and check-points, were met with teargas shelling and lathi charge by the police. A video of the incident, shared by a local journalist, shows women protesting against unprecedented restrictions.
After Narendra Modi-led central government abrogated the provisions of Article 370 that granted the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status, the Valley saw unprecedented restrictions: no Friday prayers were allowed in Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid and other major mosques; Eid congregational prayers at Eidgahs – prayer grounds – were not allowed. Even on the day of Eid, curfew was imposed in several areas of the Valley to avoid large gatherings.
While the government claims that restrictions have been removed from most parts of the Valley and the situation is getting "normal", the congregational prayers at historic Jamia Masjid in the old city of Srinagar have not been allowed for 14 consecutive Fridays.
Jamia Masjid, where Kashmir’s head cleric and Hurriyat leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, delivers sermons every Friday, has been a witness to frequent protests and clashes between youth and security forces. Mirwaiz Farooq has been under house arrest since August 5, the day J&K was stripped of special status.
The SSP Srinagar once again cited the "prevailing situation" as the reason behind not allowing the prayers at the grand mosque. He adds, though, that once the situation improves, “restrictions will be lifted.”
In Kalashpora locality of Srinagar, police did not allow Eid and Friday prayers in August, fearing a large gathering might turn into a protesting crowd.
Mushtaq Ahmad, a local resident, said when police allowed Friday prayers in the shrine after a few weeks, the management was directed not to use loudspeakers. “As a result, the shrine witnessed small gatherings on Fridays,” he said.
The shrines of Hazratbal, Khwaja Naqshband, Kalashpora and the Jamia Masjid are not only holy places where the security forces have restricted the devotees from offering prayers, citing the “prevailing situation”.
The Valley is often referred to as the "land of Sufi saints". Almost every neighbourhood has a shrine of a saint of a particular Sufi order. The annual festivals, called Urs, mark the birth anniversary of a saint or some other important event in their lives. The Urs is celebrated with great fervour with people from different areas gathering and praying together.
The shrine of one of the highly revered Sufi saints, Sheikh Noor-ud-Din, is situated in the middle of almond and apple orchards in central Kashmir’s Chrar town. This year, Urs of Chrar shrine was celebrated on October 26. Until last year, the Urs used to witness tens of thousands of devotees gathering at the shrine. The entire town would witness a huge hustle-bustle and the market would be decorated with stalls selling sweets, locally-made bread, earthen pots and dry fruits.
This year, however, the security forces blocked all the main roads leading to the town, restricting the devotees from going to the shrine. Locals said the number of devotees was reduced to a few hundred.
“Only those who live nearby managed to reach the shrine. There was no activity in the market,” said Aqib, who lives a few blocks from the shrine.
Aqib said several people, who had travelled all the way from Srinagar -- some 30 km from the shrine -- to pray at the shrine, were forced to return. “The police feared the crowd might hold a protest, so they sent everyone back,” he added.
The valley is currently draped in snow and detached from the world. After three-month restrictions and shutdown, the life has come to a standstill because of the snow and administration that seems to be in deep slumber: roads are yet to be cleared of snow and electricity has not been restored completely in most of the areas.
Life has frozen.
So has Kashmir’s Sufi tradition -- something PM Modi often invokes in his speeches -- due to the "prevailing circumstances".
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