AP PHOTOS: Pandemic casts pall over Muharram in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India — For Nasir Hussain, observing the Muslim month of Muharram, which marks the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson in the battle of Karbala, is an article of faith.

But as the coronavirus spreads in Indian-controlled Kashmir, he and his extended family prefer to commemorate the holy days inside their home in the disputed region’s main city.

“We’ve to survive this epidemic to keep the mission of Imam Hossein alive,” Hussain, a business executive, said, explaining that the virus has not stopped them from mourning but only from going to community congregational halls.

On a recent humid August night, Hussain’s family sat in the brightly lit drawing room at their residence at Srinagar’s sprawling Dal Lake, attentively listening to a religious broadcast on cable TV. The preacher narrated the events at Karbala, the 7th century battle in present-day Iraq as Hussain’s family occasionally cried. They beat their chests and chanted religious slogans, part of the ritual to remember Imam Hossein and his 72 fallen companions.

“For us, Imam Hossein represents pinnacle of love, sacrifice and fighting for justice and freedom. Our hearts melt when Muharram arrives,” Hussain said.

Muharram is among the holiest days for Shiite Muslims across the world and includes large processions of mourners beating their chests while reciting elegies and chanting slogans to denounce the slaughter of Hossein and his companions. The mourning reaches its peak on Ashura, the 10th day of the month in the Islamic lunar calendar.

This year, most of the faithful residents in Kashmir are following the advice of religious scholars and health experts to restrict ceremonies to their homes.

There is also a three-decade ban imposed by the government on the main Muharram processions in the center of Srinagar, in place since an armed insurgency erupted against Indian rule. On Thursday, authorities reiterated that strict restrictions would continue on all religious processions and gatherings across the Kashmir Valley.

Such measures are particularly galling to Kashmiri Muslims. They have long complained that the government curbs their religious freedom on the pretext of law and order while promoting and patronizing an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Himalayan Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even as virus restrictions continue, the ritual of multi-course community meals during the monthlong ceremonies has taken a different shape. While some are donating money spent on Muharram feasts to charities, many are distributing food packets door-to-door in their neighborhoods.

In some localities, mask-wearing people gather in small groups in late evenings for Muharram rituals while maintaining physical distance.

Last week, seven women sat in a circle inside an old shrine in downtown Srinagar and wailed in mourning. Black banners, some calligraphed with Islamic slogans, were draped on buildings and hung across streets.

Some residents believe that even if they fall sick, a Muharram mourning will cure them.

Few large, outdoor processions still occurred and morphed into protests, with mourners calling for an end to Indian rule.

On Wednesday, government forces fired tear gas in the outskirts of Srinagar to chase away members of a procession who chanted “We want freedom” and “Oppressors, leave our Kashmir.”

A day earlier, police arrested and charged at least two people under an anti-terror law for raising anti-India slogans during another religious procession.

Conditions have worsened in Kashmir since August last year when New Delhi stripped the region of its statehood and semi-autonomy, setting off widespread anger and economic ruin under a harsh security clampdown.

Amid a communications blockade, authorities had disallowed worshipers to pray at some mosques and limited devotees visiting revered shrines for months.

Such restrictions have largely been lifted but authorities have cited the virus lockdown as a reason for banning this year’s general Muharram gatherings.

Hussain, the business executive, said Muharram constantly reminds humanity “not to compromise with tyrants and tyranny.”

“It teaches us what Imam Hossein said: No to humiliation,” he said.


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