SRINAGAR: Thousands of Shiite Muslims marched through Indian-administered Kashmir’s largest city on Thursday for a major religious procession permitted in the restive territory for the first time since a ban was imposed decades ago.
The Islamic calendar is currently in the month of Muharram, the holiest time for Shiites across the world when large processions mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein in the seventh century.
But authorities in Kashmir had banned the traditional ceremony in 1990, the year after an indpenedece movement began in the Indian-occupied valley.
Since imposing direct rule on the territory four years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been eager to claim improved security in the territory after decades.
Top police officers and administrators walked alongside mourners who marched through the streets of Srinagar beating their chests and waving flags, following several rounds of negotiations between officials and clerics to allow the march to proceed.
Some small Muharram processions have been permitted in Kashmir since the 1990 ban but often ended violently, with mourners shouting slogans demanding independence and government forces dispersing crowds with tear gas and pellet-gun fire.
Shiite Muslims are a minority in mostly Sunni Kashmir but authorities believe they account for at least 10 percent of the region’s population of nearly 14 million.
This year’s procession was by far the largest in a generation and the first time many of those who joined were allowed to participate.
Authorities allowed the procession on condition that mourners would not use “anti-national slogans or propaganda” or display any references to rebel groups and “banned organisations”.
Decades of unrest
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Kashmir since the launch of independence struggle from India in 1989.
They demand independence or a merger with Azad Kashmir as India has at least half a million troops permanently stationed around Kashmir to quell freedom movement.
Modi’s government revoked the territory’s constitutional guarantees of limited authority in 2019.
Indian tourists have since flocked to the region, cinema halls reopened in Srinagar last year after being shuttered for decades, and in May the city hosted a G20 meeting ahead of a September summit of world leaders in New Delhi.
But the authorities have dramatically curtailed civil liberties in a clampdown on freedom movement, with ongoing restrictions on journalists, public protests and religious worship.
The region’s chief cleric has been confined to house arrest since 2019 and prayers at Srinagar’s main mosque remain subject to restrictions on congregation size.
Mansoor Abbas Ansari, a Shiite leader and one of the organisers of Thursday’s procession, demanded the release of detained religious leaders and called for an end to the capping of congregations at prayer services.
“Only then will the government’s claims of peace be proved,” he told reporters.
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