PHOTOS: Ramadan in Besieged Kashmir

Contradictory glimpses of a sometimes quiet, sometimes tense Ramadan in the region

Text by Majid Maqbool, photos by Umer Asif

The besieged Jammu & Kashmir region, the scenic ‘heaven’ that has been disputed between India and Pakistan since independence in 1947, concluded the holy month of Ramadan – called Ramazan here, on May 24 – under unprecedented restrictions and a near total lockdown, partly because of the Indian government’s decision to send in additional troops after voiding the region’s special status last August, but partly because of the Covid-19 virus, which has infected 1569 of the region’s people so far and taken the lives of 21.

The festivity of holy month is missing. Roads and lanes wear a deserted look across all districts in Kashmir with people confined to their homes, maintaining social distancing, venturing out briefly while wearing masks only to buy essentials. Serenity is occasionally interspersed with jarring violence and tragedy.

Government forces patrol the streets and enforce a strict lockdown that is indistinguishable from the Covid pandemic.  The local economy, already under duress due to previous year’s shutdown when the special status of the region was revoked, is on a ventilator. All tourist destinations, the region’s lifeblood, are closed as domestic air and road traffic remain suspended for two months. The shikaras along the banks of Dal Lake are sitting idle. There are no domestic or international tourists in sight. 

“Ramadan was the reunion time for our family settled across the globe. We used to synchronize our holidays around the Ramadan time so that the whole family could spend the Eid-ul-Fitr together in Kashmir. But the pandemic has put a spanner in the works this time forcing us to be content with seeing each other only over video calls,” said Asif Amin Tibet Baqual, a Srinagar city resident who runs an advertising agency.

For Mehreen Alam, a resident of central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, who’s a Kashmiri Pashtun, this Ramazan has been different and bereft of festivities for her closely knit community.

“Usually the Ramadan is very joyous and about togetherness but this year has been different. Mosques are mostly empty, markets are deserted and people are confined to their homes,” she says, adding that as a Kashmiri Pashtun, their typical Ramadan is very different from how it’s observed by the rest of people in Kashmir.

The men from her community break their fast normally in the mosques. “We make large Tandoori bread for Iftar during Ramadan that are baked in big clay ovens. One oven is shared by at least three families and women gather in the oven sheds in the evening. The oven sheds don't have more than one family using them,” she says. “But this Ramazan all that is suspended and people are staying back at their homes, hoping for this pandemic to end.”

The roads are blocked with concertina wire. All mosques and shrines, which would otherwise remain abuzz with devotees, are either closed or witness a few devotees. The sounds and festivities of Ramadan are missing. The drum beaters, locally called Sahar Khans, are not coming out and moving around in the neighborhoods to wake the faithful for their predawn meals and to observe the fast.

Umer Asif is a young freelance photojournalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital. He set out to record life during Ramadan in which families tried to observe the holy month indoors even as government forces engaged in encounters with militants in which scores of houses were also destroyed. Here is his record, in film.

In the absence of drum beaters kept off the streets by the lockdown, a man from guru bazar in the old city area of Srinagar beats a used container to wake up the faithful for pre-dawn meals to observe the fast.

A man rows his boat up a quiet canal in Dal Lake

Kashmiri villagers stand on the rubble of a house destroyed by government forces in an encounter with local militants in Beighpora village, about 45 kms south of Srinagar, on May 6. Riyaz Naikoo, a leading commander of a local militant group, was killed along with another militant.

Kashmiri Muslim women protest the destruction of houses by government forces in an encounter with two local militants in Nawa Kadel area of Srinagar city.  

Government forces patrol the Nawa Kadel area of Srinagar city on May 19

Two men fish from a deserted pier across from houseboats void of tourists on Dal Lake

People attend funeral prayers of 12-year-old Basim Aijaz. The 7th standard student succumbed to his injuries in a local hospital after he was injured when a house collapsed after being damaged in an encounter in which two local militants were killed.

Locals living around Dal Lake ferry aid for needy families in Srinagar

A father helps his children learn to ride a cycle on a quiet street in the Rajbagh area of Srinagar.  

A family having Sehri (pre-dawn meals) in Chotta Bazar area of  Srinagar during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

A chemist breaks his fast at the end of the day at his shop in Srinagar.