In a historic event, on the 8th of Muharram, thousands of Shia mourners took to the streets of Srinagar, marking the first time in over three decades that a Muharram procession was allowed by the Jammu and Kashmir government.
This decision has been widely praised and has also reignited demands for lifting the ban on the main Ashura procession, which falls on the 10th of Muharram, observed this year on July 29.
These processions hold immense significance for Shia Muslims worldwide, as they commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was tragically killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD.
The ban on these processions dates back to the beginning of militancy in the region and has a complex historical background, entwined with the freedom struggle against Dogra rule.
The Origin of the Procession Ban
The roots of the ban on Muharram processions can be traced back to the 1920s when the Dogra rulers issued an order that these processions should conclude before sunrise, citing “Shia-Sunni tensions.” However, in 1924, Shia mourners courageously defied this order and marched during the day, with Sunnis joining them in solidarity.
This monumental procession started from the Zadibal neighborhood of old Srinagar and culminated at the Sunni shrine in Narwara. Notably, the main architects behind this procession were Khwaja Saad-ud Din Shawl, a prominent Sunni merchant, and Aga Sayyid Hussain Jalali, a Shia jagirdar.
This symbolic march became intricately linked with the Muslim freedom struggle in Kashmir against Dogra rule.
Permits and Persistence
Following petitions from Shia mourners, the Dogra rulers began issuing permits to certain individuals and families, including Haji Kaloo, a Shia businessman, the family of Shia cleric Iftikar Hussain Ansari, and the Aga family of Budgam, to conduct Muharram processions.
Traditionally, these processions started at Namchabal and ended at Zadibal in the old city of Srinagar. However, the prominent leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah pushed for the main procession on the 10th of Muharram to begin from Abi Guzar, situated at the heart of Srinagar, and pass through the old city before culminating at Zadibal.
Additionally, Sheikh Abdullah advocated for alternating leadership of the procession between the Ansari family and the Aga family of Budgam each year. As the procession traversed through the city center, it would be addressed by Abbas Ansari of the Ittehadul Muslimeen, a political rival of Iftikar Hussain Ansari.
The Ittehadul Muslimeen, known for its belief in reconciliation with Sunnis, saw a significant number of Sunni mourners joining the procession as a result. Throughout the following decades, Muharram processions continued along their traditional routes, fostering unity among diverse Muslim communities.
Ban Amidst Unrest
The ban on the main Muharram procession came into effect in 1988 when the government declined permission due to its coinciding with the death of Pakistan’s President Gen Zia-ul-Haq, resulting in protests across the Kashmir Valley.
Subsequently, the ban persisted with the onset of militancy in the region. Despite the restrictions, smaller Muharram processions continued to be held in the Shia-dominated areas of Srinagar.
Mourners, led by Abbas Ansari and his son Masroor Abbas, defied government orders and conducted processions on the 8th of Muharram from the Shaheed Gunj area of the city. However, these events were met with curfew and restrictions, leading to pro-separatist protests.
The Ittehadul Muslimeen, as part of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, feared that the processions could escalate into violent pro-Azadi (freedom) demonstrations. The ban on Muharram processions was initially imposed during the tenure of Governor Jagmohan, but successive governments, upon advice from security agencies, continued to uphold this policy.
The decision to allow the Muharram procession on the 8th of Muharram in Srinagar after more than three decades is a significant step towards acknowledging the religious and cultural rights of the Shia community. It highlights the importance of commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and symbolizes the unity among various Muslim sects in the region. While the ban on the main Ashura procession persists, the recent development may pave the way for dialogue and understanding, fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity and harmony in the region.
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Why were Muharram processions banned in Srinagar?
The ban on this day processions in Srinagar was initially imposed in the 1920s by Dogra rulers, citing “Shia-Sunni tensions.” Later, the ban was continued due to security concerns during times of unrest in the region.
What significance do Muharram processions hold for Shia Muslims?
Muharram processions are of immense significance for Shia Muslims as they commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala.
Why did the recent Muharram procession in Srinagar garner attention?
The recent Muharram procession in Srinagar gained attention as it was the first time in over three decades that the government allowed such an event, signifying a positive step towards religious and cultural inclusivity.
What role did Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah play in the Muharram processions?
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah played a significant role in advocating for the main Muharram procession to start from Abi Guzar in the center of Srinagar, fostering unity between different Muslim communities.
What impact did the ban on the main Muharram procession have on the region?
The ban on the main Muharram procession in Srinagar led to smaller processions being held in Shia-dominated areas. However, it also created unrest and tensions during times of political turmoil.