India's crackdown hits religious freedom in disputed Kashmir

Mohammed Yasin Bangi reads the Quran inside his home in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Nov 19, 2019. PHOTO: AP
In a photo taken on Nov 10, an Indian policeman stands guard as Kashmiri Muslims pray at the Hazratbal shrine, on the occasion of the Prophet's birth anniversary in Srinagar, India. PHOTO: AP

SRINAGAR, INDIA (AP) - For years, Ms Romi Jan's mornings would begin with the plaintive call to prayer that rang out from the central mosque in disputed Kashmir's largest city. The voice soothed her soul and made her feel closer to God.

Not anymore. For nearly four months now, the voice that would call out five times a day from the minarets of the Jamia Masjid and echo across Srinagar has been silent, a result of India's ongoing security operations in this Muslim-majority region.

"The mosque closure is a relentless agony for me and my family," Ms Jan said. "I can't tolerate it, but I am helpless."

Kashmir is already one of the most militarised places in the world. But last summer, India began pouring more troops into its side of the area, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

It implemented a security lockdown in which it pressed harsh curbs on civil rights, arrested thousands of people, blocked Internet and phone service, and shuttered important mosques.

All of this was laying the groundwork for the Hindu nationalist-led government's Aug 5 decision to strip Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and remove its statehood, moves it knew would be met with fury by Kashmiri Muslims, most of whom want independence or unification with Pakistan.

The government said the restrictions were needed to head off anti-India protests and violence.

While some of the conditions have since been eased, some mosques and Muslim shrines in the region either remain shuttered or have had their access limited. Muslims say this is undermining their constitutional right to religious freedom and only deepening anti-India sentiment.

The centuries-old Jamia Masjid, made of brick and wood, is one of the oldest in this city of 1.2 million, where 96 per cent of people are Muslim. When it's open, thousands of people congregate there for prayers.

Ms Jan would take her two children there every day and sit inside the compound while they would play.

"I would forget all my miseries there," she said.

Now, when her kids ask why they can't go to the mosque, she draws a blank face.

"I open my window of the house which faces the mosque and show my kids the soldiers that are stationed outside it," Ms Jan said.

That it's a target for the authorities is neither surprising nor new. Friday sermons at the mosque mainly revolve around the Kashmir conflict, and its surrounding neighbourhoods are often where stone-throwing protesters clash with government forces as part of an ongoing anti-India rebellion.

The authorities have banned prayers at the mosque for extended periods during unrest in 2008, 2010 and 2016. Official data show the mosque was closed at least 250 days in those three years combined.

Mr Mohammed Yasin Bangi, the 70-year-old whose voice has called out the prayers at the mosque for the last 55 years, said the current restrictions are the worst he has seen.

"During earlier restrictions, we would be sometimes allowed to offer evening prayers. But not even once during this time round," he said.

"The closure of the mosque has robbed me of my peace. I've been subjected to spiritual torture."

A top police officer in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy, said the authorities decided the mosque could reopen last month for Friday prayers, but mosque officials refused.

A mosque official speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals said they refused because the authorities sought assurances that there would be no protests or speeches against Indian rule.

Mr Rohit Kansal, Kashmir's chief government spokesman, declined to comment. Officials from the Home Ministry in New Delhi, which oversees internal security in the country, did not respond to requests for comment.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India's Constitution, allowing citizens to follow and freely practise religion.

Syed Mohammed Tayib Kamili talks to devotees at Khanqah Naqshband, a revered shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Nov 20, 2019. PHOTO: AP

The Constitution also says the state will not "discriminate, patronise or meddle in the profession of any religion".

But even before the current security operation in Kashmir, experts say conditions for India's Muslims have been growing worse under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide re-election in May.

In June, the US State Department said in a report that religious freedom in India continued a downward trend in the year 2018. India's foreign ministry rejected the report.

In August, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation raised concerns about India's lockdown in Kashmir and called for the authorities to ensure that Kashmiri Muslims could exercise their religious rights.

The ongoing restrictions in Kashmir have also included gatherings at Muslim shrines and religious festivals.

In August, worshippers were told to host the prayers for the festival of Eid-al-Adha inside small neighbourhood mosques rather than in the large outdoor gatherings that are normal.

In September, the authorities banned the annual Muharram processions that mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Last month, during the yearly celebration of the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad, the authorities blocked all roads leading to Dargah Hazratbal, the region's most revered Muslim shrine.

Only a few hundred devotees were allowed to pray there - far fewer than the tens of thousands the event has been known to draw.

Such restrictions are particularly galling to Kashmiri Muslims because 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 Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Professor Sheikh Showkat, who teaches international law and human rights at the Central University of Kashmir, warned that such a duality in policy sent a clear message that the government no longer remains impartial toward different religions and further alienates the people of Kashmir.

"It no way augers well for any peace," he said. "Whether it triggers further radicalisation or not, it definitely infuriates people about the safety and security of their faith. It can also snowball into a mass mobilisation against the state."

Mr Syed Mohammed Tayib Kamili has been leading annual prayers at Kashmir's Khanqah Naqashband shrine since 1976. Indian authorities stopped last month's gathering from taking place.

The decision, which was met with anti-India protests, was the first time the prayers had not been held in the shrine's 399-year history, Mr Kamili said.

"They have not only violated the Constitution," he said, "but also invited wrath of the divine power."

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