Dated 2018-12-15
12
Nov
2017

Checkered History of Muharram Bans

Why government puts curbs on a ritual that lies at the root of a community’s religious beliefs.

Every Ashura, mourners turn out in large numbers to pay their respect to Hussain and other Karbala martyrs, only to be met with an all-out might by the state. Photo:- Qazi Aqeel

As soon as the Muharram moon is sighted, a pall of gloom descends upon the followers of Ahlul Bayt (Prophet Muhammad’s family). In Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shias commemorate the death of Imam Hussain, ‘prince of martyrs’, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, by taking out processions and organizing majalis – religious sittings – accompanied by recitation of Quranic verses and prayers.
On the 10th of Muharram, Hussain, along with his family and companions, was killed in the plains of Karbala and the day came to be known as Ashura. Hussain’s fault? He refused to swear allegiance to the caliph of the day, Yazid Ibn Muawiya, a corrupt, tyrannical Ummayad ruler.
On Ashura, Shias all over the world converge at city centers and town squares to take out processions, affirming their stand against oppression and tyranny.
One such procession was taken out this year in the city centre of London. It attracted great attention, for it featured hundreds of Muslims carrying anti-ISIS and anti-terrorism posters, marching through the main streets of London.
In Kashmir, though, Ashura processions were again banned as part of a State policy that has been in place for the last 26 years, though the history of Muharram related bans dates farther back. An attempt to take out a procession through the Srinagar city centre was foiled when the mourners were baton-charged and tear-gassed by police. While the Muharram mourners were being beaten and chased away, a few hundred metres ahead, an effigy of the Ravana was being burnt as part of Dussehra rituals, with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as chief guest.
For the last 28 years, ever since the ban on Muharram processions came into effect again, such repression has been a routine. Whenever Shias of Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir try to take out processions on the 8th and 10th of Muharram, they are always met with might.
Muharram processions in Srinagar have a history of being banned since the 19th Century Sikh rule in Kashmir. According to Hakim Imtiyaz Hussain, retired Justice of the JK High Court and author of a recently published book on the history of Shias of Kashmir, Ashura processions in Kashmir were started by Mirza Muhamad Ali of Namchabal, Khanqah-e-Maula, Srinagar, during the Sikh period.
“In the beginning, only a silent procession was taken out in which there was no noha or marsiya recitation,” Hussain said. “It was only in 1919 A.D. that nohas and marsiyas were recited loudly in the processions.” Marsiya, an elegy, is recited in the memory of Hussain and other Karbala martyrs and nohas are its sub-parts.
In the Dogra period, Ashura processions were not allowed during the day. It was due to the efforts of Aga Sayyid Hussain Jalali, a Shia nobleman and landlord who was later nominated to legislative assembly by the Maharaja, that Dogra kings were persuaded to allow the processions.
“It was also because of the solidarity the Sunni fraternity showed that the processions were ultimately taken out from Namchibal to Zadibal,” said Hakim Imtiyaz Hussain.
Senior journalist and Editor Kashmir Observer, Sajjad Haider, recalls an interesting anecdote associated with the event. He says that the stooges of the Dogra maharaja placed shards of glass on the road near Islamia College to thwart the procession, but Aga Sayyid Hussain Jalali called on the Shias to walk upon the glass. “As the mourners were barefooted, they were reluctant to walk upon the glass, but Aga made it clear that it was now or never. That’s how people overcame the barrier and took out the procession,” Haider said.
Although it is the Shias who consider taking out processions in Muharram as their religious duty, Sunni Muslims in Kashmir also have a history of taking part in Muharram rituals “In 1932, a joint procession by Shias and Sunnis was taken out in Srinagar,” said Hussain.
With the end of the Dogra rule, when the National Conference came to power, a single procession of Ashura was taken out from Zadibal to Hassanabad. “Again, a large number of Sunni Muslims took part in it. Workers from the National Conference and the Congress oversaw the rally. This routine continued for two years, during which processions were taken out by Shia Federation,” Hussain said.
In 1978, then chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, persuaded two factions of the Shia sect to lead the Ashura procession alternately.
“It was decided that the management of the procession was to remain alternately in the hands of two Shia associations. The route for the Ashura procession was chosen from Abi Guzar to Zadibal. The procession passed through the main parts of Downtown, like Rajouri Kadal and Khanqah,” Hussain said.
This continued until the onset of militancy in Kashmir, when the government again put a ban on the processions. Today, the processions are restricted to an area within 2 kms and mainly the Shias take part in them.

READ  Child Sexual Abuse

One such procession was taken out this year in the city centre of London. It attracted great attention, for it featured hundreds of Muslims carrying anti-ISIS and anti-terrorism posters, marching through the main streets of London.

According to Justice Hussain, Muharram processions were banned in 1946 when the government imposed Section 144 of the CrPC to prohibit public assembly in view of the Quit Kashmir Movement. Not a single procession was allowed. The ban, however, lasted only a year.
In 1989, Jagmohan, the controversial governor, put a ban on Muharram processions in Srinagar that passed through the city centre.
While the government cites security threat, many believe the likelihood of anti-India slogans and protests marking such rallies as the main reason. Chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), Yasin Malik, doesn’t agree and terms the ban as pure discrimination and interference in the religious matters of Kashmiris.
“The government’s claim of security threat is unfounded. Processions take place in the interiors of Downtown without any hindrances, which are mainly Sunni-dominated areas. If there are security issues, why doesn’t anything happen there?” asked Malik.
The JKLF leader also challenges the assertion that the processions can turn into anti-India demonstration. Citing the example of the procession on the 7th of Muharram that takes off from Kathi Darwaza, in which he participated this year, Malik points out to the fact that no anti-India protests took place.
Yasin’s assertions, however, seem to hold little water amid pro-freedom chants mixing in with pro-Hussain slogans that widely marked this year’s scuttled Muharram rallies. Many Muharram gatherings carried graffiti glorifying commander Burhan who was killed in July last year and had become the mascot for the anti-India sentiments, especially among youth.
Senior Congress leader Saifudin Soz is of the opinion that the processions should be allowed, adding that nobody has the authority to discriminate against communities, “It has been a tradition in Kashmir that both Shias and Sunnis participate in these processions, and I take the position that these should be allowed,” he said.

Some analysts believe that the politics behind the ban is to unsettle the centuries-old camaraderie between Shias and Sunnis and promote New Delhi’s assertions that Shias aren’t a part of the larger anti-India sentiment. Sajjad Haider is of the opinion that the ban came into effect because of the alarming popularity (from New Delhi’s point of view) of the Muslim United Front. He says that the year 1987 marked the turning point, as it was the first time that Sunni Muslims en-masse joined these processions. “Thousands of Muslims from south Kashmir led by Qazi Nisar joined these processions and it turned into a demonstration of the struggle for Kashmiri rights, which is the main message of remembering Karbala: to stand against falsehood and oppression,” Haider said.

READ  From Ball to Bullet and Back to His Maker

While the Muharram mourners were being beaten and chased away, a few hundred metres ahead, an effigy of the Ravana was being burnt as part of Dussehra rituals, with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti as chief guest.   

“Even today, many processions pass through the interiors of Downtown Srinagar, which is the hotbed of pro-freedom sentiments, and yet nothing untoward happens there. None of the processions faces any hurdle,” Haider said.
Talking on similar lines, chairman of the Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen, Moulana Masroor Abass Ansari, said the ban on Muharram processions is discrimination against Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir. “It has to do with the attitude of the government towards Muslims, and nothing with security,” he said.
Ansari also blamed the pro-establishment Shia clergy, without naming anyone. He said that those who take out parallel processions on Ashura in the interiors of Zadibal were committing a crime. “If they boycott once (the Zadibal procession), that would lead to something positive. But no, they have vested interests and hence keep mum on such issues. They are more interested in money that comes in the form of nazr-o-niyaz. Maybe they won’t receive much if processions from other places also are carried out,” he said.
Shia cleric and minister of state in the PDP-BJP alliance, Imran Ansari, didn’t respond to repeated phone calls.
Another Shia cleric and National Conference leader, Aga Syed Ruhullah, said that he had raised the issue in the cabinet as a minister in the previous NC-Congress coalition. “A high level meeting was held, however, agencies, after conducting exercises for a week reported that the situation wasn’t conducive, citing religious extremism among people in the marked areas as the reason,” said Ruhullah.

For the last 28 years, ever since the ban on Muharram processions came into effect again, such repression has been a routine. Whenever Shias of Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir try to take out processions on the 8th and 10th of Muharram, they are always met with might.

He had later suggested a procession from Abi Guzar to Dalgate, since that area was considered relatively safe by the agencies and providing security would have been easier as there were no lanes and by-lanes en route.
“It was almost agreed upon and then-MLA Sadiq Ali was asked to mediate between the two Shia associations. However, they didn’t give approval to it for reasons known to them,” he said.
In 2008, High Court of Jammu and Kashmir had issued a notice to the state government seeking its objections on a petition filed by Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen that sought to quash the ban, but the government failed to communicate the ban order to them. In 2009, High court again issued notice to the government to file objections, but to no avail.

%d bloggers like this: