Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – “Don’t click any pictures. Run away. If they find out that you are journalists, they will beat you up.”
These were the words of a local policeman posted at one of the pickets at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in Indian-administered Kashmir‘s main city of Srinagar.
The “they” he referred to was a battery of paramilitary troopers deployed around the square leading to the 600-year-old mosque.
Since August 5, when the disputed Himalayan region was stripped of its partial autonomy and put under a crippling lockdown, padlocks have been hanging from the doors of the famous mosque.
Later in October, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was formally divided into two federally-controlled “union territories”.
The lockdown also included restrictions on religious gatherings in India‘s only Muslim-majority region, with the authorities banning the entry of people into Kashmir’s important mosques, where devotees offered their prayers five times a day.
Record closure of main mosque
On Fridays, the Jama Masjid in Srinagar used to be thronged by thousands of Muslims from all over the valley.
But December 6 marked the 17th straight Friday when prayers could not take place at the mosque.
Khalid Bashir Gura, 26, who lives in Nowhatta, a neighbourhood close to the mosque, said the authorities considered congregation of Kashmiris “a threat”.
“Each time the situation worsens, the largest mosque in a Muslim-majority place is placed under curbs for months together,” Gura told Al Jazeera.
“The right to practise our religion is guaranteed by the constitution. But it is being violated in Kashmir again and again.”
Syed Ahmad Syed Naqashbandi had been leading the prayers at the Jama Masjid since 1963.
Known as “Imam-e-Hai” in the region, Naqashbandi said the blockade has been a “direct interference in our religion”.
Since August 5, the 80-year-old imam is forced to offer his prayers at a mosque five kilometres (three miles) away from the Jama Masjid.
“The bliss in praying at the Jama Masjid is hard to feel anywhere else. I miss being there,” he said.
He said the continuous presence of policemen and paramilitary forces around the grand mosque was “a threat to the people”.
“It is always because of their presence around the mosque that the problems erupt,” he said.
Syed Rahman Shams, a key member of the committee which administers the mosque, said it was not the first time the prayers were stopped there.
“In 2016, the mosque was locked for 16 straight Fridays. That record was broken this year,” he said.
Similar restrictions were imposed at the Bait-ul-Mukaram mosque in Anantnag district in southern Kashmir.
“Because of the curfew imposed after August 5, you weren’t even allowed to move out of your houses. So how could we possibly reach the mosque?” asked Imtiyaz, 21, who did not want to share his last name over fears of reprisal
Curbs on shrines in Valley
Earlier this month, the Indian authorities placed unprecedented restrictions on congregations at Dargah Hazratbal, the most venerated shrine in Kashmir.
Located on the western shore of the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, the shrine houses what many believe is a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s hair.
The hair strand is displayed to more than 50,000 visitors every year on the 12th day of the month of Rabi-ul-Awwal, the day in Islam’s lunar calendar that marks the prophet’s birthday.
On November 10, when the prophet’s birthday was celebrated this year, authorities barricaded the shrine’s entry points and allowed only the local residents to enter, sending back those who had come from far off places.
“Each year, I pay my visit to the ‘dargah’ on this day to have a glimpse of the holy relic. This year I was told to go back by the policemen who had blocked the road close to the shrine,” said Ghulam Ahmad Dar, a man in his 60s, who travelled more than 35km (22 miles) from central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
Local resident Nawaz Ahmad, 32, said since his childhood, he used to witness large gatherings at the shrine on the day. But this year, he said only a few hundred people were allowed to congregate at the shrine.
“Only the locals of the area were allowed to offer prayers and have a glimpse of the Moi-e-Muqqadas [the holy hair strand],” said Nawaz.
Sayeed Ahmad Farooqui, who leads the prayers at the shrine, was hesitant to speak about the restrictions.
“He does not want to get involved in this. His job is to go, lead the prayers and come back home,” said one of his family members.
On November 1, restrictions were tightened ahead of Khoje Digar, a special prayer offered each year at the mosque situated in the premises of Khwaja Naqashband Sahab shrine in Srinagar.
“Ever since I was a 20, I have offered prayers at Khoje Digar at Naqashband Sahab. So did my father when he was alive. This is for the first time I was forced to miss it,” said Altaf Ahmad Reshi, 38, a resident of Saida Kadal in Srinagar, about a kilometre (0.6 miles) away from the shrine.
Nearly a week before that, on October 26, curbs on religious gatherings were witnessed at Charar-i-Sharief, the famous Sufi shrine of Sheikh Noorudin Noorani in central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
Abid Nabi Baba, 32, a resident of Charar-e-Sharief, said police installed barricades and set up multiple checkpoints “5km [three miles] away” from the shrine.
“I was allowed to proceed only after they ascertained I was heading home,” said Abid. “My father tells me he had not seen such restrictions even in the 90s when militancy was at its peak.”
When questioned about the restrictions around the famous mosques and shrines in Kashmir, Srinagar’s Police Chief Haseeb Mughal said they were imposed since “the situation demanded so”.
“We were not in a position to afford huge gatherings. That could have led to violent protests and maybe even loss of life and property,” he told Al Jazeera.
Religious leaders arrested
Farooqui’s hesitation was not unfounded. Scores of Muslim religious leaders are among more than 5,000 people arrested by the government of India since August 5.
More than 600 of them, as per official figures, continue to remain behind bars, with many among them slapped with the stringent Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to arrest anyone on mere suspicion.
Allama Agha Syed Aijaz Rizvi, a 52-year-old Shia scholar, was picked up by the police on August 27 from his home in Nabidipora area of Hawal in Srinagar.
A close family member of his, who did not want to be identified, said Rizvi was accused of making “anti-national” statements during his sermon at Baba Mazar mosque in Zadibal, the Shia bastion in the city.
“They [the police] said they had a video recording of it. We never saw any video,” said the family member.
The family said security forces raided Rizvi’s home in the middle of the night “as if he was a criminal” and kept in the local police station for a few days before PSA was slapped and he was shifted to Srinagar’s Central Jail, where he remains until now.
Kashmir-based human rights activist Khurram Parvaiz told Al Jazeera that there was “nothing new” in what Kashmiris have witnessed since August 5.
He said the right to practise one’s faith, one of the fundamental rights in the Indian constitution, was being repeatedly violated in Kashmir “since 1990 and even before that”.
“The United Nations and other international organisations have condemned the government of India regarding the violation of religious freedom in Kashmir, but that hasn’t made any difference,” he said.