The Saturday morning of the past week (for me and perhaps for thousands of others) was the saddest Saturdays of the past 134 days of agony and pain. It was soul tormenting headline in the newspapers about congregational prayers not allowed in the Jamia Masjid for the 19th week that set my every nerve ending on fire. This place of worship is not just a marvel of Kashmiri architecture and grandeur for the Muslims of Jammu and Kashmir but a symbol of their identity- it has been so for the past seven hundred years. From eight century when a Syrian Hamam son of Sam built first Masjid in the Kingdom of Kashmir, hundreds of Masjid of great architectural beauty were constructed in our land. Nevertheless, the Jamia Masjid, at Nowhatta built in the fourteenth century like a jugular vein runs through the history and narrative of the Muslims of the state- more particularly of Kashmir.
The "lockdown" of the Jamia Masjid and denying for the past 19 weeks the Muslims of Kashmir to offer obligatory prayers in it is curbing their religious liberty and refusing them freedom to worship. It raises a host of questions for the powers that be and calls for an answer from them. The placement of armored cars and positioning of hundreds of troops around the place of worship in the land of saints and rishis is not only unethical and against the religious ethos of the land but also violates the law of the land and the UN Declarations.
The powers that matter in Jammu and Kashmir, perhaps know that the latching of any place of worship is against the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Universal Declaration). The Article 18 of which talking about freedom of religion clearly mentions about liberty of manifesting of religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.' The Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Civil and Political Covenant), has similar provisions. The 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to see people allowed to practice their religion without curbs and curtailments. Article six of this declaration clearly upholds assembling of people for worship and teaching of religion and belief at these places.
These Declarations are of special significance to Jammu and Kashmir. Nonetheless before discussing their importance to the State let us look at the stopping people from offering prayers in the Jamia Masjid in its historical perspective. It is for the first time when prayer-goers have been prevented from entering into the Jamia Masjid for 19 weeks during over past hundred, and fifty years. It did not happen in 1865 when people had risen against the discriminatory and brutal tax system of the Maharaja. It did not happen during the 1924 labor movement when thousands of Muslim laborers had launched a massive agitation against the discriminatory wage system and corruption. Muslim laborers were paid lesser wages than those professing the religion of the rulers. In 1924, when Muslims of Kashmir had protested against the Viceroy of India Lord Reading and raised black flags on Khanqah-e-Moula neither the Jamia Masjid nor the Khanquah was locked. The people throughout the route of river procession had raised slogans against the bigoted government.
In 1931, the Jamia Masjid was at the center of the storm. Large processions had brought the bodies of 22 Martyrs of 13 July, to Jamia Masjid. Notwithstanding, the government having declared Martial Law in Kashmir, it chose reconciliatory approach to coercive methods to resolve the issue of burial of the martyrs. Maharaja Hari Singh, despite his hauteur immediately sent his minister-in-waiting along with top military brass to the Jamia Masjid – and settled the issue of martyrs burial amicably. Despite Martial Law tens of thousands participated in the funeral procession of the martyrs.
From 1931 to 1947, the Jamia Masjid and the Muslim Park outer compound of the Masjid (today a shanty market) was one of the epicenters of the struggle against the autocratic rule. But, there is no history of the Maharaja banning offering of Friday prayers in the Masjid. In 1942, Quaid Azam Jinnah addressed a mammoth gathering in the park. Not to say of preventing prayer-goers from entering into the Masjid, the government did not stop the Muslim Conference from having its conventions on the grounds of the Muslim Park.
In 1964, Holy Relic Movement and during the 1965 Students Movement, the outer compounds of the Jamia Masjid, like those of the Hazratbal and Khanqah-I-Moula were major centers of political struggle and student activism, but Sadiq led Congress government never stopped people from offering the Friday and other prayers. Sadiq like many other successors to his government drew all his strength from New Delhi and at their behest played havoc with the autonomy of the State but never dared to fiddle with the religious freedom of the people – a dangerous powder keg.
Coming to the United Nations Declarations on religious freedom and observing the religious practice mentioned above, these Declarations are more significant for Jammu and Kashmir. Despite all denials, the Kashmir Dispute continues to be on the United Nations Agenda. The UN General Assembly and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) continue to talk about it. In the annual meeting of the General Assembly 2016, it did resonate for a few days and engaged India and Pakistan in a war of attrition. In his opening statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council referred to human rights violations in Kashmir and asked for allowing the teams to visit both the sides of the LOC. Preventing people from observing religious practices under UN declaration are counted as human rights violations. Looking at four-month long "lockdown" of the Jamia Masjid in this perspective, it has the potential of causing international attention.