(I have walked from Karbala to Syria barefoot. I am tired now, O father, of having been taken from city to city)
– A couplet from a Kaeshurmarsiya describing the lament of Lady Zainab addressed to her father Imam Ali.
The snow crunched under our winter boots and the Chillai Kalan wind bit our noses, as we held on to the pheran sleeve of our father, making our way to the Imambare. The cry of lament was one of urgency; the air laden with grief, the marsiya an invitation to spend the night of Ashura in prayers and mourning. My earliest memories of Muharram are of the nights of Ashura which then mostly coincided with the harsh winter period. It reminds me of the kangir that my mother carried between her feet in the car, and of her emptying all utensils of food and water telling us that no food will be cooked till Sham-e-Gareeban is over. The rituals of grief have remained the same over the years, only the seasons have changed and our need to hold on to our father has ceased to be.
On the 10th night of Muharram, only the sick and immobile stay home. Everyone else heads out to the Imambaras for a night-long collective mourning ceremony in honour of the martyrs of Karbala. Inside, men and women sit in their places, separated by a beautiful wooden panjri, through the pattern of which children try to spot their fathers throughout the night. Mothers hold sleepy children close to their chest as they cry over Ali Asgar, the six-month-old martyr of Karbala. The Majlis starts with an aalim stressing on the values of Karbala, of the need to turn towards Allah and stay steadfast on the path of Islam following the example of Imam Hussain a.s and his companions. The zaakir takes up the thread and begins reciting a marsiya, elegies detailing the hardships that befell the family of the Prophet (pbuh). The men join in a chorus and the women, in a low voice, among themselves. Tears, sobs and grief envelope the night as mourners reject any comfort for the doomed night.
Occasionally in winter nights, a cup of nun chai is served, the pyale almost overflowing, along with a warm chochwor or kulche, an offering for the mourners. I have always felt the warmth of the tea warming up my body as someone calls the Azan e Ali Akbar, the last call to prayer by the son of Imam Hussain on the dawn of the 10th day of Muharram. The warmth is almost immediately replaced by a chill by the knowledge that the night has ended just like it did for the martyrs of Karbala, who wouldn’t hear another call for prayer. The wails are the most painful at this point as people live the moment that marked the beginning of a brutal onslaught on the Prophet’s family.
1990’s. ‘Ya Abbas! Ya Abbas’.
The powerful invocation of Imam Hussain’s half brother’s name rips apart the silent night to shreds. The name is symbolic of loyalty, courage, love and sacrifice. Every majlis culminates with these chants before a dua is said. That night, the chants emanating from an old mud house filled with mourners came to an abrupt halt as olive uniform clad soldiers barged into the house. ‘Kon hai abass? Kahan chupaya hai? Batao kyun bula rahe the usko?’ a clueless soldier asks my father as his men beat the mourners to a pulp. Thirty years later, the story is one of my father’s favourites, and he laughs every time he tells us how they helplessly tried to explain to the soldiers who Abbas was and why they were screaming his name in the middle of the night. Laughing, as she always does, whenever my father tells a story, my mother quips in and tells me how after their marriage, my father had been picked up with other men by the Indian armed forces. They were taken to a deserted house that belonged to a pandit and now served as a makeshift investigation/torture centre. My mother’s smile disappears as she recalls the night she spent crying, a new bride wondering if her husband would ever come back. My father came back, covered in bruises after being beaten all night in a cramped room filled with men who were picked up from their homes during a cordon. ‘Trath peynakh. Naev gaer phetravhas’, my mom curses the army men for destroying the brand new golden wristed watch my mother had gifted my father.
These stories of loss, grief and everyday humiliation were kept from us. They only made their way into conversations once we were old enough to experience some of these on our own. Up until then, the stories were wrapped carefully in a deliberate silence, an attempt perhaps to spare us the horrifying details of humiliation a Kashmiri faced. Maybe our parents didn’t know that we had clear memories of the nights when soldiers would trot right into our house, in the middle of the night, inquiring about our father’s identity in his own home. The prized document in any Kashmiri household, my father’s identity card would save him almost always from disappearing into the dark unknown.
As long back as I can see, I have been struggling to navigate and get hold of the multiple identities that make up my existence. As a Kashmiri Shia woman, it took me some time to understand how these identities are distinct and yet, intricately connected, how they can clash and yet, co-exist. I thought of them as exclusive as I experienced each identity in varying forms at different times. Growing up, the identity that stood out acutely, apart from that of being a woman, was that of belonging to a school of thought where belief and faith surpassed everything else. The first thing a child born in a Shia family tastes is khaak e karbala, the soil from the sacred land, and then mourning becomes an inseparable part of a Shia’s existence. For us the two months of Muharram and Safar mean nothing but mourning, no marriages are conducted, and no happiness celebrated as we mourn for the Prophet’s family. Mourning is a very evident and expressive part of our identity. It can be an uncomfortable experience growing up because people do not know about this essential part of your identity. Back in school, I remember a dear friend, who, while sharing my lunch told me that her grandmother had cautioned her against eating with a Shia. ‘I don’t care what she thinks. She is old and doesn’t know what she’s saying’, she said as she stuffed mouthfuls of rice from my lunch into her mouth. She was one of the exceptions; mostly there were more hurtful questions about myths that should not exist in this age. When you are asked whether or not you pray or if you spit into your food before eating, you seem to drift away, you feel like you are the ‘other’, someone who doesn’t belong to ‘their’ identity. Often at home, we would talk about who had faced the most stupid sounding questions and would eventually end up laughing while that lingering sadness tugged at our hearts.
For a long time, a shadow of doubt followed my identity; the feeling of not belonging to my identity of being a Kashmiri evaporated as I got the glimpse of the bigger picture, of my home where the alam of Hussain and Abbas flew high and underneath it stood men with guns, occupiers of my land, just as they stood outside mosques and khankahs. The illusion of being the ‘other’ crumbled under the weight of breathing the same oppression filled air as everyone else did. For too long, the month of Muharram had been kept under the wraps of being apolitical, even as it remains one of the most political acts in the history of humankind. To separate Karbala from the politics of occupied lands is a disservice to the memory of martyrs, to reduce it to mourning with no action is of no consequence. Memories of Karbala evoke mourning and the mourning, in turn, manifests itself as an ideology. The understanding of Karbala in the context of the politics of our home is what has driven a clearer understanding of occupation and resistance as a response, home.
‘zillat ki zindagi se izzat ki mout behtar’
(A death with dignity is better than a life of humiliation)
The elegies recited at Muharram processions are no longer limited to Karbala. The processions reverberate with nawah written for Kashmir. An extended understanding of Karbala and the message it entails has returned into the public sphere of mourning and into our political consciousness. A sea of mourners, clad in black, beat their chests as they recall the sacrifice of Imam Hussain, alongside a picture of the militant commander Burhan Wani, a defiant, bold political statement. It is courageous, knowing the repercussions that follow a declaration of political sentiments in Kashmir. It is also an answer to questions about where the allegiances of the Kashmiri Shias lie. This has been, in part, due to the state narrative that pitches Kashmiri Shias against the Sunnis as being opposed to the resistance movement in Kashmir and in part due to the ignorance about the part played by the Shia community in the movement right from the start. Our relationship with pro-Azadi politics is not a newfound sentiment but an old affair only renewed with fresh energy.
Shias have been part of every resistance movement right from the movement against Dogras to the resistance against Indian occupation. The only thing that has now changed is the shaping of the private sentiment into a more collective public one. On a balmy autumn evening, I sat listening to Ghulam Ali Gulzar sahib, a local historian, who resides in the old locality of Hassanabad in Srinagar. My father had offered to take me to talk to him about Shia history in relation to the resistance movement in Kashmir. ‘Emis waentav soun role tehreeki manz’, said my father as they exchanged knowing smiles at the ignorance of a person who knew nothing about her own history. The conversation extended over hours Gulzar sahib mesmerized me with stories and facts about how Shia leaders had been involved historically in the Plebiscite Front, in pro-Pakistan politics and also in an armed struggle against Indian rule in the early days of the armed resistance. ‘Hizbul Momineen is what the outfit was called. It was an all Shia group’, he smiled at my visible reaction of surprise and continued. ‘There were many other boys who fought with other popular groups. I know of Shia doctors who treated injured fighters and of numerous families that sheltered them. Our involvement in the tehreek was equal’. Some years later, as I drove in a vehicle for work, the driver confided that he was a former militant. He confirmed what Gulzar Sahib had said about the involvement of Shias in the armed rebellion. As we passed through Saida Kadal, he would point out former commanders, now sitting in shops handing out groceries to customers. ‘We fought like brothers. There have been numerous times that we took refuge in Shia houses where we were always treated equally like family, fed and kept warm’. The look of longing in his eyes when he talked about his experiences explained that there had been no differences between them, not at that point in history at least and that they fought for a common cause united by a single identity.
I asked Gulzar sahab about the reason Shias felt disconnected from the movement now, he said what my father later confirmed. The changes in the geopolitics of the subcontinent forced the community into silence. As the sectarian killings in Pakistan of Shias started gaining hold, the hopes of Kashmiri Shias died a silent death. Another cause that many elderly people of my community attribute to a lull in the involvement of Shias in resistance politics with the community slipping into illiteracy and backwardness, retribution by the state for the support to the tehreek. An even worse fallout was the erasure of the history of Shias that followed and the divide between the two communities that the state planned and initiated.
‘kalim’a go hai wadov shahe-madeenas ye’im sar dyut manz karbala. Mael hae’tchen baed’babin ummat beyi zindae thovun la ilaah’
(O you who recite thekalima, let us mourn the king of Madina who gave his head in the desert of Karbala; he who did the people of his grandfather a great service and helped keep alive the essence of Islam) -A couplet from a Kaeshur nawah.
Reeling under a communication blackout in the jail that is Kashmir, we awaited the month of Muharram with the same zeal and vigour as always. In August 2019, as the Indian state abrogated Article 370, it put Kashmiris under strict lockdown, with no access to any basic facility, including communication and healthcare. The feeling of losing our home became more real with each passing day; I saw my otherwise composed father getting restless just the way he would in the 90’s when the army men knocked on our door in the night. As the month of Muharram approached, the majalis began with their usual lessons on Islam and Karbala followed by marsiya and the dua that now also included a prayer for freedom. The Shia clergy had been detained, and those who were not, had been warned not to use the pulpit for making political statements. The pulpit was revolutionized; it was speaking truth to power. A cleric, Aijaz Rizvi, from downtown Srinagar was detained under the draconian Public Safety Act after he refused to comply with these orders. He reiterated what we are taught from our childhood, ‘We follow Imam Hussain a.s, we do not obfuscate the truth. Our pulpits will not be silenced’. In the days that followed, we heard police vehicles announcing curfews ahead of procession days, warning of strict action against people defying orders. The month was spent defying these orders as processions were taken out, slogans of Azadi raised, and the mourners beaten and jailed. The roadside stalls, where sharbat is handed out to mourners, became political statements as they raised banners for Kashmir and against the Indian occupation. I remember vividly struggling to breathe as the pepper gas filled the air, and the cries of ‘Ya Hussain’ became louder as the mourners took out a procession and were tear-gassed, fleeing through the fields. I could hear my mother curse the occupiers, praying for the safety of the young men who were given shelter by people in their homes. The mourning now is symbolic of the past, and nothing much has changed. Even though we have been witness to violence, being a part of these mourning rituals every year owing to bans on major processions through Srinagar city, the coming together of the Shia and Sunni communities during Muharram has ensured an increasingly violent response from the state.
Over the past few years, the distinction between identities has started to dilute, and they are merging towards a common identity of opposing oppression. The more I grow the more I realize how intricately the identity of being a Shia is connected with the identity of being a Kashmiri and how they are inseparable. A question often raised is if it is really necessary for the identity of being a Shia to be prominent alongside the sentiment of resistance. I believe it is; it is important to dismantle a narrative that pits us against each other, that demeans our existence as one single entity.
This year, as mourning processions were taken out, the action from the state was brutal. Pellet guns were used against young mourners which led to the loss of eyesight for many mourners. And yet, it is not a new phenomenon. For years, hundreds of young men have lost their eyes to pellet guns as they protested against the Indian state. The political overtones of the processions were bound to scare the state into establishing the norm for dealing with any political gathering in Kashmir. Online, there were attempts to colour the incident sectarian but the collective response by Shias and Sunnis rejected these attempts. An occupying state doesn’t consider sects other than for their own benefit, our identities mean nothing to them except for cards that can be played, to further their own narratives. And yet, our identities have dismantled these narratives bit by bit over years.
Nothing says loss and displacement like Karbala does, nothing even defines resistance against oppression as it does. The relationship between Karbala and Kashmir is an everlasting one. Karbala is a darsgah, where we draw our lessons of resistance from. As we mourn every year amidst restrictions we remind ourselves of the words of Imam Hussain,
‘Hay haat mina zila’. Far from us is humiliation.
 Sham-e-Gareeban translates to ‘an evening of strangers and homeless’. It refers to the evening of 10th Muharram when after the battle of Karbala was over, the forces of Yazid rampaged through camps of Hussain a.s, taking his family captive, and looting their belongings. The night is marked with a silent march where lights are turned off as a symbolic replication of the scene in Karbala and signify the destruction that befell the family of the Prophet (pbuh).
Essar Batool is a professional social worker and a human rights activist from Kashmir. She is a petitioner in the case against Indian Armed Forces in Kunan Poshpora mass rape case of 1990 and a co-author of the book Do you remember Kunan Poshpora? which discusses the case in detail. She works on development of expression and spaces among young women and creating spaces for dialogue based on understanding of gender among youth. Currently, she works as a freelance consultant and trainer in Kashmir. She writes about gender and occupation.