The Imamate of Resistance
By Tavseef Mairaj
On that cold gray February afternoon in 2011, the sexagenarian old woman pleaded before the Special Superintendent of Police – who had come to the village to review the cases of youth that had been registered for their participation in protests the previous summer – to have the case against her son withdrawn. This ‘forgiveness’ majlis was held in the Hanafi eidgah (Kashmiri for the place where the special open-air Eid prayers take place) of the village, which lay about a 5-minutes walk from the Ahle-hadith eidgah of the village, just next to the village martyr’s graveyard – where the uncle of that woman’s son and the father of his future wife lay buried. Ahle-hadiths are a relatively new entrant to the spectrum of Muslim schools of thought in Kashmir; in the village under consideration they just finished building their second mosque last year. The village hasn’t had much of fame in the turbulent history of the place except the famous cricket ground on its periphery of which the martyr’s graveyard forms a part and the fatal crash of a ‘fighter jet’ in the mid 70s in the paddy fields that had had people from far away places and media-persons flocking to the village – a lore that children of the village continue to listen to from their parents and grandparents with great curiosity.
This mid-winter sojourn of a high-ranking government official to this village had made people of all confessions attend a congregation at the same place; the Hanafis and Ahle-hadiths converging in the same eidgah. The only other time when both the parties collectively converge at the same place is when someone’s funeral prayers are being said; on the occasion of Eid, special Eid prayers are said separately at the two Eidgahs. In November the previous year, on the occasion of Eid-ul-Azha, the Imam of the Hanafi eidgah had, in addition to deliberating on the importance of sacrifice and odes to Prophets Abraham and Ismael, delivered a fiery speech against the government of the time for the killing of over a 100 protestors in the streets of Kashmir in that summer. In this speech, the Imam allegedly had referred to the chief minister of the time as ‘Omar Singh’. This old woman, who happened to be the mother of the Imam had taken the walk from one end of the village—on the banks of the river Jehlum near the mausoleum-shrine of Zind Shah – where she lived to this end where the eidgah lay to have this crime of his son atoned.
It was as recently as January that year that the Imam was at his vocal best on the occasion of the worus (Kashmiri for festival commemorating the birth of a saint) of Zind Shah. Long before he was appointed as the Imam of the grand mosque of the village, he was already being counted among the most respected young men of the village and by far the most educated – a masters degree in Arabic – and eloquent, and used to sing paeans to God and the Prophet on all religious occasions including on Zind Shah’s worus. His claim to fame, however, particularly among the young women of the village, was a program on Radio Kashmir in which he had spoken about the ‘Role of Women in the Development of Muslim Societies’, while representing his college. The mausoleum of the saint Zind Shah lies – around a kilometer away from the now-abandoned village temple that lies at the confluence of Jehlum and its tributary, Romush—on the village side of the embankment that acts as a protective bund whenever the levels in the neighboring Jehlum river rise. In 2014 however, water overflew the embankment and entered the village for the first time in decades forcing the whole village to flee. The shrine complex in which the mausoleum is interred acted, due to its high foundation from the level of the top of the embankment, as a refuge to many a families during the horrific night in which the village was submerged.
The ascension of a young man in his late twenties to the position of Imam of the main mosque of the village had the youth flocking to the mosque as never before. In the backdrop of three non-violent uprisings against Indian rule in succession in three years, the youth of the village looked upon the new Imam not just a someone who led them in prayers 5 times daily but as someone to ask in political and social matters. Adding to his credentials was the fact that he had spent considerable time outside Kashmir in India during his college days and was hence more exposed to India than any of the youth in the village. A regular feature of the Imam’s itinerary in this village happened to be the attendance at, in addition to marriage ceremonies and funerals, small feasts called khatm shareef organized to pray by way of reciting the whole Qur’an for the ancestors of a household. In such feasts, in addition to the Imam, some close relatives and friends of the family are also invited.
It was at one such feast at the home of a village elder who happened to be the vice-president of the mosque and uncle of the previous Imam – who had moved out of the village – in the February of 2010, that Imam came face to face with a low ranking police officer who was also invited. At the end of the meal, as the dastarkhaan (Kashmiri for the special tablecloth used when people eat sitting on the floor) was being taken away, a teenaged boy who was among the 3 people sharing the platter with the Imam talked about Zahid Farooq who had been murdered by Indian paramilitary Border Security Force (BSF) the previous week. Upon hearing this, the policeman who had shared the meal in the neighboring quartet remarked that it was ‘certain agencies’ that were at work and that even the police didn’t know why the Indian paramilitaries commit such acts – randomly killing civilians who are not even taking part in protests. He advised the teenager to not to discuss such things in public places as it could place his life in danger. At this point, the Imam remarked without seeing the policeman in the eye, in an overt reference to the just completed round of Qur’an recitation in which he and the policeman had equally taken part, “We owe our will to resist and to speak against tyranny to the religion of Islam as much as the oppressors owe their will to oppress to their greed of power and domination, don’t you think?”. A pensive silence fell over the room that was broken by the entry of the house-owner’s 3 year old grand-daughter who claimed that the semolina dessert – locally called, phirin – had been prepared and that she had just tasted it in the kitchen.
The teenager later that day noted this statement of the Imam in his notebook – in English and in Kashmiri written in Latin script – and decided that he had become a fan of the new Imam. He didn’t share it on his Facebook account though despite a strong urge to do so. Posting it would mean another session of ‘don’t-do-that-unless-you-want-to-get-arrested’ from his parents who got the information whenever he posted anything seditious. That day onwards he went to the main mosque of the village for Friday prayers to hear the sermon from his now favorite Imam and religiously joined in the question-answer round that followed the mid-day Zuhr prayers and continued till the late afternoon Asr prayers. It was during one of these question-answer rounds that one young man in his twenties asked the Imam about his experiences in India—about his visits to Aligarh where some of his friends used to study at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) – and whether Kashmiris should still go to Indian universities for studies with so much insecurity. The Imam told the group about three Kashmiri students of AMU that had left for home on an ill-fated December afternoon in 1992 but could never see its light, “Kashmiris did not stop going to India to study even after Farhat Razak, Javid Andrabi, and Rafiq Sofi were murdered on their way home on board the train Faizabad 31223 by Kar Sevaks on the 8th of December 1992, did we? If people throw rocks at us, we don’t respond with blind resentment but with justice even in our resistance. For that is what the Prophet taught us!” For most of the people in the group, the story of Javid Andrabi (of a neighboring village) and the other two students was a new found chapter in an inherited history full of such tragic chapters and hence something that would take time to sink in. The muezzin’s call to Asr prayers broke the lull and a teenager was found whispering, asking the Imam if it was needed of him to take ablutions for the prayers again given that his eyes were by now moist.
Tavseef Mairaj is a Kashmiri, who is currently a Graduate Student Researcher at the Hamburg University of Technology in Germany.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.