Feature: Closure of historic Jamia Masjid in Srinagar suggests ‘All Is Not Well’ in Kashmir, say politicians

Jehangir Ali

Authorities disallowed the Jumat-ul-Vida congregational prayers at the historic Jamia Masjid in Srinagar on Friday, April 14, prompting accusations by the Hurriyat that the closure of the mosque “belies” claims of normalcy in “Naya Kashmir”.

Eyewitnesses said that a J&K Police vehicle was parked at the shrine’s main gate, which was locked, on Friday morning, and the police personnel turned away worshippers who wanted to enter the mosque for offering the Jumat-ul-Vida prayers.

Jumat-ul-Vida is the last Friday of the ongoing Islamic month of Ramazan when Muslims are called upon by Islamic tenets to offer afternoon prayers in large congregations, which is believed to multiply the rewards for the worshipper.

When J&K was a state, thousands of people participated in prayers at Jamia Masjid, Kashmir’s biggest mosque located in Nowhatta locality of Srinagar which used to host some of the largest congregations on Jumat-ul-Vida and other auspicious Muslim festivals.

However, after Article 370 was read down, the mosque has often remained closed on the days of Islamic festivals as the administration fears that allowing congregational prayers at the mosque, which is the pulpit of Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leads to potential law and order problems which could spiral out of control.

An undercover deputy superintendent of police was lynched by a mob outside the mosque in 2017.

Although the traffic in Nowhatta was plying normally on Friday and many worshippers and locals, including women and children, flocked to the road outside the mosque in anticipation of the congregational prayers, there was palpable tension in the area.

A paramilitary CRPF vehicle was also doing rounds around the mosque, purportedly to keep an eye on any potential law and order problem in the area which has remained a hotbed of separatist sentiment in Kashmir.

With the police personnel standing guard at the locked gates of the mosque, a sense of anguish and disappointment was writ large on the faces of worshippers who had come from different corners of Kashmir to offer the prayers.

A middle-aged man, who had come from a village in Budgam, some 20 km away, on a bicycle, said that he was looking forward to attending the congregational prayers. “But the police personnel had closed the gates. They didn’t allow anyone to go in. It is sad that the mosque is closed on such an auspicious day,” he said, wishing to remain anonymous.

“People from all corners of Kashmir come to offer prayers here but look how they are being made to suffer. All four gates of the mosque are closed. The administration is saying that all is well in Kashmir but why are they preventing us from offering prayers here,” a man on a motorcycle told reporters outside the mosque.

In a video that went viral on social media, a middle-aged woman could be seen breaking down near the locked main gate when journalists purportedly asked for her reaction to the closure of the mosque. “What can I say?” she said, struggling to control her tears. “They have closed down the mosque. It used to be a day of Eid (meaning festivities) for poor people. I don’t want to say anything more,” she said, walking away from the cameras.

The Wire couldn’t verify the authenticity of the video immediately.

According to locals, the congregational afternoon prayers were offered peacefully at the mosque on the first three Fridays of Ramazan. “The prayers were held in a peaceful atmosphere and there was absolutely no sloganeering or protests. So this decision of closing the mosque comes as a surprise,” said an official of Anjuman-e-Auqaf Jamia, the managing body of the mosque.

On Thursday, April 13, the Jamia also hosted Aaqa Ehsan Bayat Hamdani, a renowned Quran reciter, on behalf of the Iran Cultural House in New Delhi, an affiliate of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hamdani performed a soul-stirring Quranic recitation following afternoon prayers at the mosque which was attended by several hundreds of worshippers and he was later felicitated by the Auqaf.

“If the government wants to ban the prayers, it should make an announcement in advance so that people, especially elderly who come from far-off places, are not put to inconvenience,” said Manzoor Ahmad, a resident of Srinagar’s Chanpora locality who had to return disappointed from the mosque.

National Conference President Dr. Farooq Abdullah also condemned the closure of the mosque, saying that the ban implies that “all is not well in Kashmir.” He also called on the government to release Mirwaiz Umar Farooq from house detention.

There was no official statement on the decision to disallow prayers at the mosque. The Wire tried to reach officials of the civil and police administration, including Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, V.K. Budhuri, for their comments on the issue. This report will be updated if and when they did respond.

National Conference vice president Omar Abdullah tweeted: “We are constantly treated to claims of normalcy in J&K, and yet the administration betrays its own claims when it resorts to locking up one of our holiest mosques thus denying people the chance to offer prayers on the last Friday of Ramazan.”

Meanwhile, a resolution of Jammu and Kashmir Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulema, a conglomerate of Islamic scholars and priests in Kashmir, condemned the “prolonged, illegal and arbitrary detention of” Mirwaiz. The resolution, which was read out in various mosques and shrines of Kashmir, called on the administration to release the Hurriyat chief “in view of important Islamic events like Shab-e-Qadr and Eid-ul-Fitr so that he can fulfill his religious  duties.” The Wire

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