Why J&K Administration Wants to Control Public Access to Srinagar’s Eidgah
On weekends especially, the Eidgah is all abuzz with life, as people step out to escape their daily humdrum. While young men play cricket, the older women bask in the sun in their little groups
Folk songs about the sprawling 15th century Eidgah grounds in the heart of the historic old city of Srinagar, marked otherwise by its narrow winding lanes, are testimonies to people’s emotional connect with this vast public expanse spread over 80 acres.
Kashmiris have assembled at the Eidgah in times of distress, for special prayers during earthquakes, floods and famines. The Eidgah is also the site where saints Sheikh ul Alam and Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom (household names in Kashmir) delivered sermons, says Farooq Fayaz, a former professor of history at Kashmir University.
On weekends especially, the Eidgah is all abuzz with life, as young and old, men and women, the infirm and the able-bodied all step out, some to escape their daily humdrum and many to let out a collective sigh, as it were.
Some learn to ride bicycles, while others play or train on the peripheries; the boys and young men play cricket while the older women bask in the sun in their little groups and street-food vendors make brisk sales.
Gulshan Ara (60) from Fateh Kadal says time spent here is for many, especially women, a momentary escape, a thin crack of opportunity to step out of their homes in tight spaces, and enjoy the company of neighbours or kin out in the open. It also gives women a sense of security. “We don’t have too many spaces where women can meet freely and safely,” she says.
Like all good things, was it too good to last? The Bharatiya Janata Partycontrolled Waqf Board, which disallowed congregation and prayers here this year on the pretext of rainfall, has really upset residents by revealing plans to set up a cancer hospital at the Eidgah.
“The real motive of building a cancer hospital here is not to provide health services to the people but to make them forget what the Eidgah has been in their lives. It is another way of rewriting history,” says a 29-year-old resident.
The scepticism is not without reason: there are two cancer hospitals not far away from the Eidgah. Why have a third one? Besides, there are other sites that could have been considered instead of commandeering the Eidgah; a golf course spread over 300 acres caters to far fewer people. Why take over the only open space the city’s common folk have access to, people ask.
The Administration knows only too well that the Eidgah is also where folks gather to mourn and protest, and in a place like Srinagar, which is in a permanent state of unease if not unrest, cutting off access to such a space is effectively to smother dissent. It is not simply about messing with public memory.
The Eidgah has changed already, though: paramilitary forces stand guard and question people; the police and security drones hover all the time; and playing cricket here has lost its old charm, says a professor at Kashmir University, requesting anonymity. The drones make the players nervous, he says.
Darakshan Andrabi, BJP leader and chairperson of the Waqf Board is unmoved. Public resentment and concerns are of no consequence, she stoutly maintains. The land indisputably belongs to the Waqf Board, and it is within rights, she says, to use it for a hospital. She hastens to add that the hospital will come up in just one part of the Eidgah and will not affect the prayer ground or the graveyard next to it, but public trust is low, to say the least.
For decades, Friday prayers at the Eidgah were sometimes followed by impromptu protests by the youth. In 2008, these protests acquired a new dimension when public outrage spilled into the open following the transfer of 200 kanal of ecologically fragile forest land in Sonmarg to the Amarnath Shrine Board. The Eidgah became a rallying point for protestors. Hundreds of thousands of people, media reports vouch, gathered at the Eidgah in response to a call by separatists.
In the 1990s, Muharram processions were banned in the area to prevent religious events from turning into political protests and processions ending up at the Lal Chowk, the city centre. In 2019, the government disallowed Muharram processions in all parts of Srinagar, and the Eidgah was placed under constant surveillance.
In August 2019, when Article 370 was abrogated and Kashmir’s special status annulled, Friday prayers at the Jamia Masjid were disallowed for nearly a year. In 2020, over 200 Shia Muslims were arrested, a fair number of them charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) while others were shot with pellets and blinded for allegedly raising ‘azadi’ slogans in a Muharram procession.
In August this year, Jammu and Kashmir’s head cleric and the head of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was prevented from coming out of his house to offer prayers at Jamia Masjid, days after Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha claimed he was not under house arrest.
According to Anjuman-e-Auqaf, the managing committee of Jamia Masjid, the Friday congregational prayers have been disallowed more than 160 times in the past six years, reported Religion Unplugged.
To ensure a safe Amarnath Yatra, which took place after a gap of two years, the Administration deployed 40,000 additional troops. On the other hand, there is an undeclared clampdown on Kashmiri Muslims, who are being prevented from praying and gathering at Jamia Masjid and taking out Muharram processions.
An anguished Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a prominent Kashmiri poet is reminded of the “autocratic repression during the Sikh rule in the 19th century”. This is unfortunate and unjust, he says sadly. If the government is serious about constructing another cancer hospital, it should consider the army cantonment in Batwara, or in Zakura, where the CRPF has large swathes of land, he says.
“They don’t realise the historical value of the Eidgah and the emotional bond the people have with it. This will not bring Kashmiris close to India,” says Zareef.