Srinagar Police on Friday fired tear smoke shells and resorted to cane charge to foil attempts by Shia Muslim mourners to take out traditional Muharram procession in civil lines areas of Srinagar.
Muharram processions in the civil lines area of the city are banned since 1990, with government citing ' security considerations' as the reason.
Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Shia constituent of the Hurriyat Conference, had vowed to take out the procession from Gurubazar to Dalgate on Friday (8th Muharram) as according to it the ban on Alam Sahreef procession was unwarranted and an attempt to suppress Shia communities right to mourn the martyrs of Karbala.
Though the authorities allow small Alam and Zuljinah processions in Shia dominated areas of the old city and villages it has constantly curbed any attempt by the community to resume past practice of marching through the major thoroughfares of the city on 8th and 10th of Muharram.
The 8th Muharram procession was the largest being taken out traditionally in Srinagar and has been banned since 1990 with the onset of militancy.
On Friday entire stretch of traditional Muharram procession was sealed off with barbed wires and heavy deployment of gun totting police and paramilitary men.
Restrictions under Section 144 CRPC were clamped on a vast area spanning over the jurisdiction of the eight police stations of the Srinagar city from early on Friday.
However soon after Friday prayers groups of black clad Shia mourners, chanting Labayk Ya Hussain appeared on different points on the 5 kilometer stretch from Guru Bazar to Dalgate.
Soon armed police swung into action and resorted to intense cane charge and tear smoke shelling on the mourners.
Sporadic clashes broke out as a result of the police action.
Scores of mourners were dragged to waiting police vehicles and locked up in various police stations.
Eyewitnesses said first major attempt was made at Jehangir Chowk where hundreds of mourners and tried to march towards Dalgate.
Police intervention led to scuffles and later into clashes.
Scores of mourners were detained.
Soon afterwards another procession emerged from Abi Guzar area but police intervened here too and arrested many as they reached the Pratap Park.
Soon entire area from Batmaloo to Dalgate turned into a battle zone.
Earlier the district administration had imposed restrictions in the areas falling under police stations of Karan Nagar, Kothi Bagh, RM Bagh, Maisuma, Batamaloo, Shergari and Shaheed Gunj and Kralkhud to prevent 8th Muharram procession which used to be taken out from Gurubazar near Shaheed Gunj to Dalgate befor the ban was imposed on it with the onset of militancy.
The successive state governments have disallowed major Muharram processions in Srinagar since 1990 for unknown reasons. Well placed sources however disclose that there is a fear among security brass that these processions might morph into pro-Azadi demonstrations.
Authorities allow only smaller mourning congregations in downtown Srinagar and on the city outskirts.
On Wednesday in a bizarre statement the state administration said that "there is no ban on the Muharram processions in Kashmir".
"Reacting to the news report, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Baseer Khan said it has been already made clear at various levels that all the traditional Muharram processions would be allowed as per the past practice for which requisite arrangements have already been made by the administration," a government handout had said.
However, only a day later the authorities on Thursday night announced restrictions on the procession route.
On Jan 17, 2008, J&K High Court had issued a notice to the state government seeking its objections on a petition filed by Ittihadul Muslimeen, a religio-political outfit representing Shia Muslims of state. But government failed to communicate the ban order to them. The petition sought to quash the ban, calling it a flagrant violation of international law and denial of religious rights. On December 5, 2009, High Court again issued notice to the state government directing it to file objections, but to no avail. The government informed the court that processionists must seek prior permission from authorities, which we did, but the ban was still not lifted. After four years of legal battle, we finally realized that the whole exercise was futile, because they were never interested in listening to our pleas, Masroor Abbas Ansari, President, Ittihadul Muslimeen, who had filed the petition, said.
Many here argue that if the State and Central Governments ensure successful culmination of annual Amarnath Yatra, which is much bigger in scale as devout Hindus throng Kashmir from all across India for the purpose, why then does the government ban a religious procession of local Muslims.
While the state provides all support for the Amarnath Yatra, which it shouldand Kashmiris have always supported and welcomed the Yatrait has consistently curbed the right to assemble of the local population, says Mirza Waheed, a noted Kashmir author and writer.
Khurram Parvez, Programme Coordinator, Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, questions the secular credentials of a state that does not allow people the freedom to practice their religion and participate in religious activities: On one hand, state patronises, organises, partially sponsors Yatra for Hindus of India and on the other hand, it curbs and criminalises the religious programmes of Muslims like Muharram processions. Yet the government has the audacity to call itself secular.
Zafar Meraj, veteran journalist calls it blatant discrimination: Government claims the ban is owing to security reasons but what about similar processions taken out in various parts of Kashmir and some old-city localities? If it can provide security to annual Amarnath yatra that attracts lakhs of Hindu pilgrims every year, why not Muharram processions that have never been under any kind of threat?
The contrast cannot get any starker, says Waheed. The state wants to develop infrastructure to facilitate and possibly expand the Amarnath Yatra at potentially disastrous cost to the environment and at the same time, it has for nearly 20 years now, not allowed people to take out the historic processions of Muharram.
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