Mosques (And A Show) Fill Vacuum In Kashmir

During a recent anti-militancy operation by security forces, 15 houses were destroyed at the Nowakadal neighbourhood in Srinagar. Nineteen families were rendered homeless amid a pandemic. The destruction of homes triggered both outrage and empathy. Locals appealed for rehabilitation of the affected families. A reputed Srinagar-based NGO and a civil society group were requested to collect donations. Both declined! Subsequently, the local mosque committee asked people to deposit donations with them. Within few days, the mosque collected over Rs 3 crore, enough to rehabilitate the sufferers. Eventually, the mosque put out an appeal asking people stop sending donations.

This is just one example of how mosques are filling a vacuum in Kashmir and providing social infrastructure which the government, political and civil society groups have failed to do. After almost every anti-militancy operation or encounter in residential areas, houses are being destroyed as collateral damage and people are rendered homeless. Mosque managements are coming in, raising donations for rehabilitation.

August 5, 2019 (when the central government changed the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir) was a turning point. The clampdown which followed effectively stopped all social, political, cultural and even academic activities. The only social spaces left in Kashmir are mosques. Politics and political parties are buried. Since the provisions of the Article 370 were scrapped and the state was turned into two union territories, there has not been a single public meeting by any political party. While most of the arrested leaders have been released, the parties have lost their moorings, political narrative and standpoint. Post-August 5, only the King's party was allowed to move around - but it hardly had any social connect.

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Schools have been shut in Kashmir for the last 10 months. (File)

The gag on political parties, commentators and journalists is part of a plan to remove the abolished state constitution and Article 370 from public memory. The outbreak of COVID-19 has made the job easier. But the consequences are far more serious than anything anyone could have imagined.

Some of the major mosques and shrines were shut after August 5 and Imams were cajoled to help the government maintain peace. But neighbourhood mosques kept serving as social spaces to help the needy during the lockdown and the longest communication blackout in the Valley.

The first thing militancy achieved in Kashmir was to shut social spaces. Entertainment, cinemas, bars and every mainstream political, social and cultural entities were closed. Only religious or politico-religious groups were allowed to stay at the hustings. Ironically, the consequences of what happened in 1990 and 2019 are almost the same.

While mosques have acquired centre-stage, in the absence of any other social space available to people, the Turkish serial "Resurrection: Ertugrul" is capturing the imagination of the young and old. Ertugrul was the father of Usman, founder of the Ottoman Empire. He leads a small tribe to triumph after fighting internal and external enemies. The messaging is about unflinching faith in God and that if you have a goal and the will, nothing can come in your way. If the social syllabus in the 1990s induced Arabic influences in Kashmir, it's the cultural connect with Turkey today. Ertugrul is making waves. Newborns are being named Ertugrul Gazi. The serial has already broken records on YouTube.

Many still remember how it was the screening of a movie on the Libyan freedom fighter Omar al-Mukhtar, called the "Lion of the Desert", that triggered an upheaval before militancy actually erupted in Kashmir. Soon after the screening of the movie at Srinagar's Regal Cinema, people pulled down hoardings of Kashmir's own "lion" (Shere-e-Kashmir) Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the man who stood by secular India and rejected the two-nation theory based on religious identity in 1947.

Ironically, erasing the Sheikh's memory has been part of the Post-August 5 order. His memory and the politics he stood for was also a primary target of militants. Even his grave was on their hit list.

Schools have been shut in Kashmir for the last 10 months. Barring less than 10 days in March, lakhs of children in Kashmir have not been to school since August 5. A friend's 14-year-old son Ali who is a  budding musician in a leading Srinagar school has learned two new things during this off-school period. A perfect Quran recitation, leads Namaz at his home during the month of Ramzan and playing the theme music of Ertugrul on the rubab.

Just a year ago, boys like him had Shah Faesal (the 2010 IAS topper) as an inspiration. The  celebrated bureaucrat who joined mainstream politics to bring about social change in Kashmir was just released from 10-month long detention. While his resignation as an IAS officer has still not been formally accepted by the government, he was jailed and charged under the draconian Public Safety Act by his former colleagues.

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Shah Faesal was detained at Delhi airport on August 14 as he was about to fly abroad.

Shah Faesal was one of the prominent faces of local bureaucracy that people easily related to and identified themselves with. Now, that has been replaced by non-local officers. From the district level to the secretariat, local officers have been sidelined. Most of the districts have police superintendents and collectors who can't speak or understand Kashmiri, the predominant spoken language in Jammu and Kashmir.

After two years of direct central rule, babudom is running the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. The centre is hoping the bureaucracy will untie the Gordian knot in Kashmir which politicians have failed to do. On the ground, the reverse is happening. The only symbol of government and control on the streets is the constant presence and dominance of security forces. All development and social infrastructure has gone for a toss.

The pressure cooker-like situation in Kashmir has left only one venting point for people: Mosques. "Ertugrul" is just reinforcing the idea.

(Nazir Masoodi is NDTV's Srinagar Bureau Chief)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same