A Breach Of Religious Freedom

Muharram processions remain banned in Srinagar since 1990. If, as the government argues, the situation has improved considerably, surely the people have a case for revocation of the ban?


We are in Muharram, the month of bereavement and remembrance. In 680 AD, around 1500 years ago, Husain (as)—the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)—was martyred along with his family and friends in the desert plains of Karbala in Iraq by the armies of tyrant ruler Yazeed. Every year, around this time, massive processions are taken out across the world to pay rich tributes to the 72 martyrs of Karbala.

Reciting soul-stirring elegies and hymns, participants wear black dresses and badges, beating their chests in a spirit of devotion. They carry replicas of Husain’s mausoleum in Karbala, and parade the streets. Big banners and hoardings are put up on every street, alley and pathway, mainly in areas where Muslims live. However, in some countries, its appeal cuts across the religious and ideological divide, because Husain’s uprising in Karbala was not a religious tussle, a political war or a petty struggle for power. It was a confrontation between right and might, between the forces of truth and falsehood. In many countries, the Muharram commemorations have been effectively used as a psychological weapon and mechanism to mobilize masses against evil, injustice and repression.

Essence of Muharram

Muharram, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely an event or episode in history, revolving around a grief-centric ritual. It is a philosophy, a concept, and a movement, that will always have contemporary significance, in every time and age. The threat of injustice and tyranny will always have contemporary significance. Muslims of the world commonly observe and commemorate Husain’s sacrifice each year, remembering his redemptive suffering for the greater good of humankind. Even 1500 years on, these annual commemorations have not lost their significance, but on the contrary have become even more powerful and potent. Mahmoud Ayoub writes in his book Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Ashura in Twelver Shi’ism, ‘in the ritualistic moment, serial time becomes the bridge connecting primordial time and its special history with the timeless eternity of the future. The eternal fulfillment of time becomes the goal of human time and history.”

These annual commemorations help the campaigners of justice and truth re-organise their life around the principles exemplified by Husain, in Karbala. It strengthens their ability and resolve to rise up against autocracy, despotism and treachery. Husain’s uprising and sacrifice promote the enjoining of good. It teaches that notwithstanding the exiguousness of power and numbers, if your stand is right, victory will always be yours. Urdu poet Mohammad Ali Jauhar aptly encapsulates it in these words:

Qatl e Husain asl mein marg Yazeed hai,
Islam zinda hota hai har Karbala ke baad

(The murder of Husain is actually the end of [his killer] Yazeed,
Islam is refreshed by the blood of the martyrs of Karbala)

Muharram Processions Across the World

In the next few days, till the tenth of Muharram, which this year falls on November 25, these processions would be carried out in all parts of the world. Biggest processions are taken out in Tehran, Karbala, London, Sydney, New York, Moscow, Toronto, Karachi, Dhaka, Lucknow etc. In U.S., the biggest procession starts from Park Avenue and culminates in front of the Pakistani Consulate. In Toronto, the procession leaves from Queen’s Park and ends at High Court entrance. In London, thousands of mourners assemble in Central London Marble Arch Hyde Park and take part in the procession. In Iran, millions participate in Muharram processions in all major cities like Tehran, Masshad and Isfahan. In Trinidad and Tobago, it is popular as ‘Hosay’ and not even Sunnis and Hindus participate in these processions, but also Afro-Trinidadians. In eastern Saudi Arabian city Qatif, Muharram means lot of activity and palpable buzz. In Nigeria, large processions are taken out in Katsina state in northern Nigeria. In Pakistan, major processions are taken out in Karachi. In India, major processions are carried out in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Lucknow, and Kargil. “These processions are held across the world to send out a clear message that injustice and tyranny ultimately vanishes and truth and justice prevails,” says Syed Raza, a Kashmiri poet, whose soul-stirring nauhas (elegies) are recited in Muharram processions in Kashmir.

The Ban in Kashmir

In Kashmir, the story is different and grim, and remains unchanged for the last two decades. The government’s ban on Muharram processions (Muharram 8 and 10) in Srinagar city is in place since 1990, when the armed rebellion against India gained momentum. Despite the clampdown and curfew-like restrictions imposed by authorities, thousands of young devotees carry out processions and are subjected to brutal police action. They are thrashed, manhandled, cane charged, and some are even sent to custody. Some of the senior Shia leaders are put under house arrest to prevent them from leading these processions.

Religious processions were being taken out in Kashmir since 1527 when Sultan Muhammad Shah was the ruler. Shia Muslims (minority), with help and cooperation of Sunni Muslims (majority), used to take out two major processions, one from Namchbal to Imambara Zadibal and other one from Alamgiri Bazar to Khushalsar. In 1977, at the request of the then Chief Minister Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah, it was decided to take out a joint procession from Abi Guzar to Zadibal. “However,” says Hakeem Imtiyaz Husain, “in 1989, the then governor of J&K imposed a ban on the procession, as part of the sweeping measures to deal with the political unrest. Notwithstanding the repeated pleas by the people of Kashmir, the ban still stands.” Hakeem, retired jurist and writer, is presently working on a book that chronicles the history of Shias in Kashmir.

Legal battle

On Jan 17, 2008, J&K High Court had issued a notice to the state government seeking its objections on a petition filed by Ittihadul Muslimeen, a religio-political outfit representing Shia Muslims of state. But government failed to communicate the ban order to them. The petition sought to quash the ban, calling it a flagrant violation of international law and denial of religious rights. On December 5, 2009, High Court again issued notice to the state government directing it to file objections, but to no avail. “The government informed the court that processionists must seek prior permission from authorities, which we did, but the ban was still not lifted. After four years of legal battle, we finally realized that the whole exercise was futile, because they were never interested in listening to our pleas,” Masroor Abbas Ansari, President, Ittihadul Muslimeen, who had filed the petition, says.

People in Kashmir demand revocation of ban on the grounds that violence has abated and situation has improved considerably. “The ban on Muharram processions, as with the ban on the July 13th procession commemorating the Martyrs of 1931, is simply undemocratic and a denial of the basic rights of Kashmiri people,” says Mirza Waheed, author of critically acclaimed novel The Collaborator, which is set in Kashmir. Waheed says the ban on Muharram processions cannot be viewed in isolation. “You have to see it in the context of the larger structure of repression in Kashmir.”

“There is not much we can do other than protest against it. We fought a legal battle and got a green signal from court but government remains unfazed. Every year, in Muharram, our volunteers hold peaceful protests. I have raised the issue in meetings with Indian government authorities and even at OIC,” says Aga Syed Hasan, separatist leader and President of J&K Anjuman e Shariee Shiaan, a constituent of Hurriyat conference.

Muharram and Amarnath Yatra

“While the state provides all support for the annual Amarnath Yatra, which it should—and Kashmiris have always supported and welcomed the Yatra—it has consistently curbed the right to assemble of the local population,” says Waheed.

Khurram Parvez, Programme Coordinator, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, questions the secular credentials of a state that does not allow people the freedom to practice their religion and participate in religious activities: “On one hand, state patronises, organises, partially sponsors Yatra for Hindus of India and on the other hand, it curbs and criminalises the religious programmes of Muslims like Muharram processions, Milad processions etc. Yet the government has the audacity to call itself secular.”

Zafar Meraj, veteran journalist and chief editor of Kashmir Monitor calls it ‘blatant discrimination’: “Government claims the ban is owing to security reasons but what about similar processions taken out in various parts of Kashmir and some old-city localities? If it can provide security to annual Amarnath yatra that attracts lakhs of Hindu pilgrims every year, why not Muharram processions that have never been under any kind of threat?”

“The contrast cannot get any starker,” says Waheed. “The state wants to develop infrastructure to facilitate and possibly expand the Amarnath Yatra — at potentially disastrous cost to the environment — and at the same time, it has for nearly 20 years now, not allowed people to take out the historic processions of Muharram and July 13.”

Brutal police action

Each year, police imposes curfew-like restrictions on Muharram 8 and 10 (which fall on November 23 and 25 this year) in parts of Srinagar city, including Lal Chowk, the nerve centre of the summer capital. Iron barricades and spools of concertina wires are put up at almost every entry point to city centre. The cops do not even allow pedestrian movement in Lal chowk, and tough restrictions are enforced in Rajouri Kadal, Gojwara, Nowhatta and some adjoining areas in old city. Senior leaders are put under house arrest to prevent them from leading the processions.

However, despite the clampdown, thousands of mourners defy the police restrictions on Muharram 8 and 10 every year — as they indeed did today —and take out peaceful mourning processions in the main city. Each time, they are intercepted by massive contingents of fully-armed police and paramilitary personnel. The cops lob tear smoke shells, resort to baton charge and brutally manhandle the mourners who participate in these processions. “It is our right and duty to protest against the draconian ban in peaceful manner, but that does not mean it will become a law and order problem, so brute police action is unwarranted,” says Hasan, who yields considerable clout in Kashmir’s Shia community.

“It is not merely hypocritical but perverse, given that the state itself, appropriating July 13, 1931, a historic moment of resistance against the tyranny of Dogra rule, commemorates the day with official pomp while keeping the people of Kashmir under virtual siege each year,” says Waheed. “When the state bans Muharram, July 13th, Geelani’s public appearances, while making sure Amarnath Yatra gets bigger; it speaks in a language of conquest. And the message is not lost on the people of Kashmir. They see it as an imperial dictat.”

Mohammad Junaid, doctoral student in Anthropology at City University of New York says the government bans Muharram processions because of ‘old colonialist aspersions’ that such moments of solemn mourning would turn into occasions of political critique and subversion. “Remember that Muharram is observed in memory of those who spoke back to power and refused to submit. Muharram processions illuminate the utter incommensurability of power and truth, and this is precisely what those governments whose foundations are based on deception and manipulation absolutely fear,” says Junaid. His research focuses on issues of space, violence and militarisation in Kashmir.

Anti-India sentiments?

The official version that these processions stoke anti-national sentiments and pose security threat finds few takers. “It is hogwash, far from reality. It only suggests that the tall claims of government about normalcy and peace are false,” says Aga Syed Hadi, Vice-Chairman, Aaytullah Yousuf Memorial Trust, which runs hundreds of schools across Kashmir imparting Islamic education. “You see, it must be examined in the context of the state’s repression of all sentiment that it sees as anti-national,” says Waheed.

Hasan finds the argument frivolous. “Muharram teaches us to be tolerant and steadfast in the face of adversities, and it also teaches us to rise against injustice. Government cannot deny us our right to organise religious activities on such hollow and baseless pretexts.”

It is a sinister attempt to keep Muslims divided in this part of world, feels Meraj. “The ban on main Muharram procession that used to be taken from Abi Guzar in uptown, and was joined by Shias and Sunnis in large numbers speaks volumes about the gross discrimination that has been going on in Kashmir for last over decades, and is an attempt to divide the community.”

‘Official’ version

Aga Syed Mehmood, former minister and senior leader of PDP, the main opposition party in the state, says government had to ban these processions in 1990 because of the gravity of the situation. “In 1989, when I was part of government, it had decided to put curbs on these processions but we resisted the decision. As the regime fell in 1990 and the governor took over to deal with the political turmoil, the ban was announced.” However, he hastens to add that the brutalities unleashed on the peaceful processions every year are uncalled for. “Chief Minister Omar Abdullah calls for the removal of AFSPA in Srinagar, then what is the problem with a procession that is completely of religious nature?” asks Mehmood.

Tanvir Sadiq, spokesman of the ruling National Conference says the restarting of the procession like the 8th is under the active consideration of the government. “Kashmir is limping back to normalcy, and I am confident and reasonably sure that soon the processions on 8 and 10 Muharram will resume,” says Sadiq. However, he refuses to admit that mourners are subjected to brutal police action and calls it a ‘precautionary measure’. “There is no brutal police action. The government has asked the police to ensure that religious processions or mourners are not harassed, but having said that, there are times when the police in order to maintain law and order may have to take some precautionary measures.”


The unyielding stand taken by Husain in Karbala carries an eloquent message that has gripped the hearts and minds of countless generations throughout history. It gives a sense of hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. Muharram and Karbala are symbolic, cutting across the barriers of space and time. Today Karbala is Gaza, Karbala is Kashmir, Karbala is Iraq, Karbala is Afghanistan.

“Every revolution has two visages: blood and the message,” says Ali Shariati, the late Iranian sociologist and revolutionary. “Husain and his companions undertook the first mission, that of blood. The second mission is to bear the message to the whole world, to be the eloquent tongue of this flowing blood and these resting bodies among the walking dead.”

In Kashmir and elsewhere, as people pour out on streets every year in Muharram to remember the martyrs of Karbala, they do not intend to create a law and order problem. They are only carrying forward the second mission: bearing the message of blood to the world, lest it remains mute in the history and those who need this message are deprived of it.

Syed Zafar Mehdi is a New Delhi-based journalist, born and brought up in Kashmir