Why you should care
New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.
It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.
“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.
A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.
We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions.
Dilbag Singh, Jammu and Kashmir police chief
Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.
Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.
“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.
Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.
This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.
But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”
“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”
Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”
India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.
Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.
Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.
But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.
For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.