Kashmir clerics, taken briefly into custody by cops over 'anti-India' sermons, decry interference in religious affairs

Ishfaq Naseem
Masrat Ahnad, Station House Officer (SHO), Pulwama Police Station, said he can’t comment on why the passport was denied to Bashir Ahmad Azim.

The road outside the stone archway of the brick and concrete mosque is usually bustling with shoppers. But on 20 March it witnessed protests against the arrest of two town imams. With authorities in the Valley moving to keep tabs on the 'anti-India' sermons in mosques, clerics are facing facing greater scrutiny by the police, detention and even arrest.

The authorities denied a passport to Bashir Ahmad Azim, head of a local Auqaf Committee of Pulwama, a religious body that manages the mosques, after at least five cases were registered against him for spurring 'anti-India' activities through his speeches at the grand mosque in Pulwama. Bashir, who crops a salt and pepper beard and bushy eyebrows, said he couldn't go on Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, after he was denied a passport.  "I applied for the passport last year," he said, sitting on the steps of the mosque. "We are being asked by the police not to give sermons or speeches in the mosques that would fan anti-India sentiment."

Masrat Ahnad, Station House Officer (SHO), Pulwama Police Station, said he can't comment on why the passport was denied to Bashir. " I am not in a position to comment as the decisions were taken by the higher authorities," he added.

Only a few miles away from the road of the grand mosque, where the vendors sell prayer beads, skull caps, perfume and incense on rope beds and plastic sheets, the house of 60-year-old imam Peerzada Mohammad Amin was surrounded by security forces on 19 March. "It was around 11 pm, when I was awakened by a thud outside. As I drew the curtain, I saw that security forces had climbed the wall of our house. One police officer came inside my home and asked me to accompany him to the police station. I couldn't understand the urgency of the raid and went with him. It was only next afternoon that I was released after the people protested," he said, sitting in a small room of Washbugh mosque, where religious books are stacked up on a steel trunk along with Quran on a book rest.

"When I asked the police why they detained me, they didn't give any clear answers and said that this was done on the orders of higher authorities," he said. Peerzada denounced the National Investigation Agency (NIA) summons to separatist leader and Hurriyat (M) chairman, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, which he claimed prompted the raid. "I asked the police: Why was I picked up at night? I had not gone into hiding. I told them they could have called my mobile and I would have come to the police station on my own. The raid was nothing but a display of excessive force. I was released next day only after protests by people in Pulwama," he said.

Peerzada said he opposed the NIA summons to Mirwaiz, as the separatist leader was the chief cleric of Kashmir. "The NIA can go about questioning people, but I opposed the summons to the institution which Mirwaiz represents," he said.

He added that the police has been calling up local clerics and asking them not to preach any anti-India sermons "but I don't attend any of such meets." "The raids have not stopped me from preaching peace. I often preach in the Friday congregations that the bloodshed in Kashmir should stop and the dispute should be resolved through a dialogue. What is wrong in that? It is in everybody's interest," he said.

Athar Nisar, a cleric who leads often prayers at Gudura, Pulwama, said the police was calling up the clerics and asking "what we preach in our sermons." "They question us about our sermons. They often ask us what we preach, especially on Fridays," he said. Outside the Gudura mosque, a wall of a house was sprayed with first name of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani, who was killed in a gunbattle with the forces in 2016, which triggered months of protests in Valley, in which at least 75 died.

Bashir said cases were registered against him after Burhan's death and added that the "questioning of imams is being done quite often now." "We have thirty mosques in Pulwama, of which Friday prayers are held at eight mosques. The local imams are being often questioned and in March, people protested the detention of two clerics, saying religious rights were being interfered with," Bashir added.

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