Why the Indian state is now scared of the Kashmiri Shia

Kashmiri Shia youth are negotiating their own space within the Kashmiri struggle.

Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri Shiite Muslims as he and others
Indian policemen detain a Kashmiri Shia Muslim as he and others attempt to stage a religious procession in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir on August 28, 2020 [AP/Mukhtar Khan]

On August 29, the 10th day of the holy month of Muharram, known as Ashoura, Indian forces fired pellets and tear gas shells to disperse hundreds of Shia Muslims participating in a traditional religious procession in Indian-administered Kashmir, seriously injuring dozens of people.

Security forces besieged Shia mourners in the Zadibal area of Srinagar, forcing them to seek shelter in residential compounds, as tear gas shells and pellets rained on them. I saw young boys hit with pellets writhing in pain on the ground, as dozens of others choked and coughed among thick clouds of tear gas, unable to help the injured or find a safe spot to catch their breath.

Officials later said at least 200 people were detained for participating in the Muharram processions, and at least seven were arrested under a draconian anti-terror law for raising anti-India slogans.

The Indian state’s decision to clamp down on this year’s Muharram procession with such force was a sign of its growing concerns over the support Kashmiri Shia started to show for the freedom and self-determination movement in the valley.

Indian authorities have long been pushing the narrative that Indian-administered Kashmir’s Sunni-led pro-freedom movement is shunned by Shia and other minority communities in the region. In recent years, however, young Shia men and women became increasingly vocal about their demand for political rights, and many of them started to openly back the resistance against Indian rule in their homeland.  

For decades, Shia in Kashmir have been commemorating Ashoura, the day that marks the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein and his companions in Karbala, with processions. The main procession that traditionally took place in the Srinagar city centre covering 9 kilometres (5.6 miles), however, was banned in the early 1990s, when an armed rebellion against the Indian rule commenced.

Since then, Muharram processions have only been allowed in Shia neighbourhoods of the city. Shia community leaders demanded the restoration of pre-1990 processions, but local authorities denied their requests, citing “security concerns”.

Since the ban, a handful of Shia made attempts to defy the Indian state’s orders and tried to hold unauthorised Muharram processions, but this limited resistance caused little alarm for the Indian authorities who were all but convinced that Kashmir’s Shia community posed no threat to their rule.   

In 2018, however, they noticed that things were starting to change. 

A poster of the young, popular Sunni rebel commander Burhan Wani appeared in one of the Muharram processions in Srinagar, leaving the Indian government and security services apprehensive. Indian troops killed Wani in an encounter in July 2016, which led to widespread protests in Kashmir that lasted for months.

For a section of the Shia youth to hail a Sunni rebel like Wani in a Muharram procession was unprecedented. Being a regular participant in these processions all my life, I had not seen anything like this before.

Seeing Wani’s face in a Muharram procession may have shocked Indian authorities, but among Shia youths, support for the struggle for self-determination had been growing for some time. 

There is no doubt that the Kashmir struggle is dominated by the Muslim population, a majority of whom are Sunni. But Shia have always played some kind of role in Kashmir’s struggles. In the 1930s, Shia leaders stood next to Sunni leaders in the anti-monarchical struggle against the Dogra rulers. 

In post-1947 political and militant assertions against Indian rule, Kashmiri Shias played a leading role, especially in 1950s and 1960s, because of which the community faced reprisal from the state. Socio-economic backwardness of many Shia areas is also attributed to that vengeance.  

During the armed rebellion of the 1990s, there were exclusively Shia rebel groups like the Hizb-al-Momineen, and Shia youths also joined other, Sunni-dominated, rebel groups. 

In recent decades, though, sectarian violence in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan influenced Kashmiri Shia’s perception of the resistance movement. They continued to take part in Kashmir’s political life – there has always been a number of Shia both in pro-freedom groups and pro-India political parties – but their involvement in the armed rebellion was reduced to almost nil by the early 2000s. 

In addition, some Shia religious leaders participated in the state elections amid boycott calls from the pro-freedom leadership. And high voter turnout in some Shia areas also led to the perception that Shia do not support “the cause”. 

Of course, Shia were not the only community in Kashmir that has voted in elections. However, a degree of sectarian bias, mixed with tactful propaganda churned out by the state machinery, strengthened the perception that Shia do not support the Kashmiri resistance. 

As with other colonial powers, India has historically gained from creating divisions across religious, sectarian, and ethnic fault lines within Kashmir – the Sunni-Shia divide being one of them. That is why the Indian state is scared of Shia’s growing support for the resistance, and has responded so brutally to the young Shia expressing pro-freedom slogans during Muharram processions. 

There are many reasons why Shia are now becoming more and more visible within the Kashmiri self-determination and freedom struggle. Social media exposed Shia youths in Kashmir to a wide variety of views and narratives on the situation in their homeland and increasing state repression accelerated their politicisation. 

Last year, for example, India removed Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and fully annexed the disputed region. It split the region into two union territories, and brought both sections directly under New Delhi’s control. The move outraged the majority of Kashmiris, including the Shia.

Even in the Ladakh region, where the Shia community – like the Sunni community – remained distant to the pro-freedom movement for years, the removal of the region’s semi-autonomous status led to rapid politicisation. People living in the Shia-majority Kargil district of Ladakh, for example, openly voiced their rejection of the abrogation of the special status and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir.

For years, the attacks by violent Sunni groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Shia communities, coupled with the Indian state’s efforts to brew sectarian divisions in Kashmir, limited Kashmiri Shia’s participation in the pro-freedom movement. This gave weight to the Indian state’s claims that Shia do not support the political struggle in Kashmir. 

However, in the face of increasing state repression and violence, young Shia have now decided to articulate their own narrative and negotiate their own space in the landscape of the Kashmiri struggle.  Muharram processions, which by their nature underline the importance of values like justice, honour and resistance, are a potent media in their hands. 

As India’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist government continues with its efforts to change the demographics of the Muslim-majority region, Shia voices for freedom are now rising. For decades, the Indian state was not bothered by the Kashmiri Shia’s mourning wails during Muharram. But with state-crafted narratives that long framed Shia as overwhelmingly pro-India and anti-freedom falling apart, and divisions within Kashmir’s Muslim communities being bridged, the state is now scared of the new, bold Shia voices calling for justice and freedom. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.