India’s crackdown hits religious freedom in disputed Kashmir

International

In this Nov. 8, 2019 photo, a lock is seen on the entrance gate of grand Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. The centuries-old Jamia Masjid in Srinagar city, apart from hosting the largest Muslim gatherings in disputed Kashmir, is also one of the nerve centers of anti-India protests. Thousands of people congregate here for prayers and Friday sermons at the mosque mainly revolve around the Kashmir conflict. But more than three months have passed and mosque gates continue to remain locked. Following India’s unilateral decision to strip the disputed region’s semiautonomous status in early August, authorities have not allowed any prayers at the mosque as part of their ongoing security clampdown. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

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SRINAGAR, India (AP) — For years, 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, the voice that called out five times a day from the minarets of the Jamia Masjid and echoed 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,” Jan said. “I can’t tolerate it, but I am helpless.”

The portion of divided Kashmir that India controls was already one of the most militarized places in the world before the government last summer began pouring in more troops. It imposed a security lockdown in which it shuttered important mosques, harshly curbed civil rights, arrested thousands of people, blocked internet and phone service.

The moves preceded 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 them want independence or unification with Pakistan, which administers the other part of Kashmir though both claim it entirely. The government said the restrictions were needed to head off anti-India protests and violence.

While some of the conditions have been eased, some mosques and Muslim shrines 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% of people are Muslim. When it’s open, thousands of people congregate there for prayers.

Romi 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,” Romi said.

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

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.

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 around,” 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 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 authorities sought assurances that there would be no protests or speeches against Indian rule.

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 practice religion. The constitution also says the state will not “discriminate, patronize 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 U.S. 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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation raised concerns about India’s lockdown in Kashmir and called for 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, worshipers were told to host the prayers for the festival of Eid-al-Adha inside small neighborhood mosques rather than in the large outdoor gatherings that are normal. In September, 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, 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.

Authorities on Monday allowed thousands of people to gather at a Sufi shine in downtown Srinagar for an annual celebration.

Restrictions on such gatherings 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 patronizing an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Sheikh Showkat, a professor of 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 radicalization or not, it definitely infuriates people about the safety and security of their faith. It can also snowball into a mass mobilization against the state.”

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, Kamili said.

“They have not only violated constitution,” he said, “but also invited wrath of the divine power.”

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Associated Press writer Sheikh Saaliq contributed to this report.

Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at twitter.com/hussain_aijaz

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