After more than three decades, thousands of Shia Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir took part in a procession to mark the eighth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
Dressed in customary black, the mourners beat their chests and chanted elegies as they walked through the heart of the region’s main city of Srinagar on Thursday morning amid a heavy security arrangement.
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Muharram is one of Islam’s holiest months when Muslims across the world take out processions to mourn the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali al-Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who died in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala, which is in present-day Iraq.
Thursday’s procession was held for the first time in 34 years after authorities in India’s only Muslim-majority region banned it in 1989 when a popular rebellion against New Delhi’s rule began in the Kashmir Valley.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan, which rule over parts of it since their independence from British rule in 1947.
The two nuclear powers have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the territory. India accuses Pakistan of backing an armed rebellion in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Islamabad denies the allegation, saying it only provides diplomatic support to the rebellion movement that seeks to either merge with Pakistan or form an independent nation.
Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and thousands disappeared in the decades-old conflict.
The situation has worsened since 2019 when India’s Hindu nationalist government scrapped Indian-administered Kashmir’s partial autonomy and brought it under New Delhi’s direct control.
The move was followed by an unprecedented security clampdown which saw thousands of Kashmiris imprisoned and civil rights curtailed.
In its order on Wednesday evening allowing the Muharram procession, the Indian authorities asked the participants to not “indulge in any anti-national or anti-establishment speeches or sloganeering or propaganda”.
The order prohibited all activity “prejudicial to security and sovereignty of the State” and said the participants “should not disrespect any national symbol or emblem”.
“They [processionists] shall not hoist any flag depicting provocative slogans or text and/or photos of terror outfits, logos of banned organisations at both national and international level,” it said.
The region’s police on Thursday said the 5km (3-mile) procession that started from Guru Bazar, passed through the Lalchowk city centre and ended at Dal Gate “simply shows our commitment to a peaceful and prosperous future” of the disputed region.
Earlier this week, Shia community leaders met the region’s administrative head Manoj Sinha to demand the restoration of the traditional Muharram procession in Srinagar.
Since 1990, smaller processions were held which were restricted to the mainly Shia neighbourhoods of the city. The mourners who defied restrictions were either detained or their procession foiled by the police.
While many in Indian-administered Kashmir welcomed the restoration of the procession, some Shia leaders criticised it as yet another attempt by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “to project normalcy” in the region after freedom of expression and other rights have been curtailed.
Aga Syed Ruhullah Mehdi, a Shia community leader and politician, told Al Jazeera that by putting conditions on the procession, the authorities have taken the soul away from it.
“The administration put out certain conditions over the procession. And one of the conditions was not to speak about the situation or against the establishment. For me, this doesn’t serve the purpose of a procession of this nature,” Mehdi said, adding that the event stands for truth and justice.
Mehdi said the procession was a “smokescreen to the world that normalcy has returned to the place” and that it “only serves the optics of the regime” in New Delhi.
“You put a bar on observers not to speak about justice and the situation they are otherwise subjected to. It takes away the soul from the processions like this. For me, it is a soulless procession,” he said.
“Eid prayers were not allowed. Human rights and political rights of the people have been curtailed to a level where we feel we are second-class citizens of this country.”
Shia Muslims form nearly 10 percent of the region’s 14 million population.
Saturday is Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram which marks the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark and the day Musa (Moses) was saved from the pharaoh of Egypt by God.
Prophet Muhammad used to fast on Ashura, a common tradition commemorated by Sunni Muslims.
On Ashura, Muslims in Srinagar used to hold a bigger procession that would start from Abi Guzar area in the heart of the city and move to Zadibal, a Shia-dominated locality 7km (4 miles) away.
The Ashura procession also used to pass through Sunni areas in a show of unity among the communities.
But there is no clarity yet on whether authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir would allow another procession on Saturday.