Avoidable Curbs

POLICE on Sunday detained dozens of mourners who attempted to participate in processions marking the Muslim month of Muharram. Police and paramilitary forces were deployed in strength in parts of downtown Srinagar and Lal Chowk to foil any protests. Concertina wires and barricades were erected at several places to stop the procession traditionally organized on the eighth of Muharram in areas around Lal Chowk. But mourners in some parts of the city defied the restrictions seeing these as unjustified curbs on their religious freedom.

Muharram gatherings continue to be banned in the Valley since the advent of militancy in 1989. Authorities maintain that the religious gatherings have been used for propagating separatist politics and triggering violence. In Srinagar,  the vulnerable areas like Abi Gugar, Lal Chowk, Regal Chowk, Aali Masjid, Shaheed Gunj, Guru Bazaar and Hawal are placed under tight security restrictions to foil large gatherings of people. Government justifies the extreme measures citing the possibility of violence in the city. This has been a stock government explanation for prohibiting the Muharram religious processions over the past three decades. And such explanations are generally independent of the context and the circumstances prevailing at the time. The government always invokes dire prospects of mass disturbance disregarding the prevailing calm in the Valley.

Such justifications for strict security curbs are ironically at variance with the otherwise routine parading of peace in the region in government statements. But one misses the basic point about the prevailing normalcy in the state. If Kashmir is normal it is not because of the government, but because people are cooperating with the government and are choosing to be peaceful. Yes, there is a chance that the situation could deteriorate but that often happens when the government uses disproportionately more force than the situation warrants, as was the case on Sunday.

The point is not that the government is to blame for everything but that in its overzealous effort to maintain peace, it sometimes encourages the trouble.  The disruption of religious events like Muharram prevents people in the Valley from practicing their faith which in turn engenders anger against the government, a source of violence. It is the government’s responsibility to allow Ashura procession. Of course, there should be adequate security in place but it should not be there to impede but facilitate the occasion. Would the government do this? It looks unlikely it will. But it should do this if it wants to earn the goodwill of the people, who are asking for nothing but freedom to perform their religious obligation.

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