SRINAGAR: A lock is seen on one of the gates of the grand Jamia Masjid. More than three months have passed since the gates of the centuries-old mosque were locked.—AP
SRINAGAR: A lock is seen on one of the gates of the grand Jamia Masjid. More than three months have passed since the gates of the centuries-old mosque were locked.—AP

SRINAGAR: For years Romi Jan’s mornings would begin with the call to prayer that rang out from the central mosque in occupied Kashmir’s largest city. The voice soothed her soul and made her feel closer to God.

Not anymore. For nearly four months now, the voice that would call out five times a day from the minarets of the Jamia Masjid and echo across Srinagar has been silent, a result of India’s ongoing security operations in this disputed region.

“The mosque closure is a relentless agony for me and my family,” Jan said. “I can’t tolerate it, but I am helpless.”

Already one of the most militarised places in the world, last summer India began pouring more troops into occupied Kashmir. It implemented a security lockdown in which it pressed harsh curbs on civil rights, arrested thousands of people, blocked internet and phone service, and shuttered important mosques.

All of this was laying the groundwork for the Hindu nationalist-led government’s Aug 5 decision to strip held Kashmir of its semiautonomous status and remove its statehood, moves it knew would be met with fury by Kashmiris, most of whom want independence or unification with Pakistan. The Indian government said the restrictions were needed to head off anti-India protests and violence.

While some of the conditions have since been eased some mosques and shrines in the disputed region 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 per cent 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 neighbourhoods are often where stone-throwing protesters clash with government forces as part of an ongoing anti-India rebellion.

Authorities banned pra­yers at the mosque for exten­ded periods during unrest in 2008, 2010 and 2016.

Mohammad 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 were the worst he had seen. “During earlier restrictions, we would be sometimes allowed to offer evening prayers, but not even once during this time around,” he said.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2019