Assault on faith and culture in India-held Kashmir

Assault on faith and culture in India-held Kashmir

Gowhar Geelani

May 27, 2018

The bone-chilling videos showing blood splattered on the floor of Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid and pictures capturing the moment when tear gas shells hit the mosque’s roof are defining ones in many ways. Because they captured what happened in and outside the historic mosque last Friday, they will haunt the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) forever.

In one of the video clips, a group of women worshippers in the mosque can be seen covering their faces with a piece of cloth or veil, coughing profusely, running for cover in panic, and reciting verses from the holy Quran. The male worshippers, young as well as old, can too be seen running for their lives, with slippers and shoes in one hand and handkerchiefs in the other, and some falling on the floor in the process.

The Greater Kashmir, a daily published from Srinagar, reported that at least 50 persons, including women, were injured. Quoting a doctor at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in Srinagar, the newspaper said that “15 youths were received with pellet injuries”.

Worshippers had gathered at the mosque for the mandatory Friday prayers in the holy month of Ramazan. But what they had not anticipated was that police and paramilitary personnel deployed in large numbers outside the mosque would turn hostile to such an extent that the day would be transformed into a bloody one.

Eyewitnesses accused the government forces of indiscriminately firing pellets and tear gas shells at civilian worshippers, including women, children and elderly. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the Srinagar-based head priest and chairman of a faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, alleged in a tweet: “Heavy deployment of Govt forces around #JamaMasjid even in this holy month leading to tension & agitation. Dozens of civilians injured after forces resorted to pellet & teargas shelling! Large number of people unable to come out of the mosque. Condemn the deployment and forces action.”

Why did the government deploy troops in huge numbers outside the mosque when it had highlighted and even created hype over its own decision of “cessation of hostilities” during the holy month, which it had wrongly referred to as “Ramazan ceasefire”? Where is the respect for Ramazan when even a Friday is turned bloody by hitting youths with pellets in their eyes? Where is the respect for Islam, which the PDP invokes each time it has to score brownie points against the people of Kashmir? Why is it that the PDP-led government seems to be in love with the idea of romanticising and glamorising ugly militarisation? Is this being done deliberately with the aim of provoking impressionable young minds in order to give Kashmiri youths a bad name as “stone-throwing youths” or “Islamists”?

For many Kashmiris a visit to the historic Jamia Masjid on a Friday is no less than a pilgrimage. Those who can’t afford to travel to Makkah to perform Haj find solace in visiting shrines of Sufis and Srinagar’s central mosque on Fridays. Apart from being acts of faith, visits to the Jamia Masjid or shrines are cathartic exercises and social gatherings and provide a reason for women to go out and buy kitchen utensils and home appliances.

The attack on the Jamia Masjid is, therefore, an assault on the Kashmiris’ faith, culture, social fabric and also an infringement of their right to offer prayers freely. The brutality unleashed by the government forces is a violation of human rights, intrusion of privacy and sacrilege of a historic religious symbol.

This is why the videos and pictures showing blood stains, stampede and helplessness of worshippers at the mosque shall not be forgotten just as the picture that showed Indian Army’s notorious Major Leetul Gogoi tying Farooq Ahmad, a civilian, to the bonnet of his jeep during by-elections in central Kashmir’s Budgam district on April 9 last year. Using Ahmad as a human shield, Gogoi had shamelessly paraded him for several hours through various villages to inflict long-lasting psychological pain on the young man.

The London-based Amnesty International in a hard-hitting statement described Maj Gogoi’s act as “the use of torture and excessive force” which “must lead to prosecution in civilian courts”.

Even Indian Army’s retired Lt Gen H.S. Panag did not defend the act. In a tweet he said: “Image of a ‘stone pelter’ tied in front of a jeep as a ‘human shield’ will 4 ever [forever] haunt the Indian Army & the nation!”

Yes, it will.

Meanwhile, the police statement about the episode at the historic mosque on Friday says “700 to 800 miscreants assembled near the main gate of Jamia Masjid and again started heavy stone-pelting on the forces. However, forces showed utmost restraint and some ammunition was used to disperse the miscreants and hence minimal force was used to control the situation”.

So, according to the Jammu and Kashmir police, nearly a thousand people are “miscreants”. And in using “minimal force” they injured 50 civilians and hit 15 with pellets. This is akin to fighting a war against people and then giving them a bad name.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2018