Deconstructing Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

In his Eid ul Fitr message earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, who is known to weigh his words carefully, spoke of the “many wounds inflicted on the body of Muslim world” and urged the Ummah to “express its disdain for the oppressors”. Interestingly, he singled out Bahrain, Yemen and Kashmir, and said the Muslim world should “openly support” people in these countries.

The statement was, much to the chagrin of mandarins in New Delhi, welcomed in Kashmir. The octogenarian resistance leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani hailed the statement as “timely and pragmatic’, while his Hurriyat counterpart Mirwaiz Umar Farooq expressed his gratitude to Iran for supporting the “just freedom struggle” of the people of Kashmir.

The succinctly-worded statement generated a palpable buzz on social networking sites, where young and thoughtful netizens weighed its pros and cons.

What truly defines the new internet-savvy Kashmiri generation is its political awareness and activism, able to distinguish between a faithful friend and a flattering foe, between a trusted ally and a scheming adversary.

Was Tehran trying to send a stern message to New Delhi which has lately been sucking up to Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu or was Ayatollah Khamenei merely reiterating and reaffirming what his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini said quite unequivocally decades ago? Why did he club Kashmir with Bahrain and Yemen and why didn’t he also mention Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar and Pakistan? Who are the “oppressors” he was referring to and what did he mean by “open support”? Should the statement be seen as an open endorsement of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination or does it primarily address the issue of humanitarian crisis in Kashmir?

Barely a week after Eid ul Fitr, Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir again, this time while addressing an important meeting of top judiciary officials in Tehran. Reaffirming his country’s support to Kashmir, he asked his country’s judiciary to support the “oppressed figures and people of the world, like Sheikh Zakzaky (of Nigeria), and the Muslims in Myanmar and Kashmir”.

Was Tehran trying to send a stern message to New Delhi which has lately been sucking up to Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu or was Ayatollah Khamenei merely reiterating and reaffirming what his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini said quite unequivocally decades ago?

Iran’s supreme leader generally speaks with clarity and precision. He does not beat around the bush neither does he make polemical arguments to reap paltry political dividends. So it is essential to deconstruct his statements and put them into context.

A former Indian diplomat, writing in Quint, said Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir to warn India against cozying up to the U.S. or hostile neighbors in the Middle East. A very simplistic way of reading the statement. There is no denying that the growing proximity between India and Israel would not be viewed favorably in Tehran but to suggest that it provoked Iran’s supreme leader to issue a statement on Kashmir would be too naïve.

Ayatollah Khamenei has often issued statements of support and solidarity with the people of Kashmir and he mentions the “just struggle” of Palestinians and Kashmiris in every Friday sermon. His plain-speaking has many a times put a spanner in Indo-Iran relations.

For instance, in November 2010, on the occasion of Eid ul Zuha, he made a passionate appeal to the Muslim community to support the “struggle” in Kashmir and put it in the same category as Afghanistan and Palestine. New Delhi took strong exception to his statement, which had come barely three months after Iran’s foreign ministry denounced the military crackdown on peaceful protests in Kashmir, and summoned the Iranian envoy to lodge a formal protest.

India subsequently voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), almost five years after it had reported Iran to the UN Security Council for alleged violations of its NPT obligations. Ironically, Iran is a signatory of NPT while India has refused to sign the treaty.

Mentioning something twice in two weeks, in two important speeches, with great emphasis, is significant. So, does it denote a shift in Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir, as some analysts wondered? Iran’s official position on Kashmir, clearly spelt out by Ayatollah Khomeini, has been consistent since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Iranian revolution, who traces his roots to Kashmir, once made it categorically clear to a visiting Indian delegation that the ties between the two countries would not improve until the bloodletting in Kashmir continued. His successor has followed the same line on Kashmir, which is reflected by his statements and Friday sermons.

Mentioning something twice in two weeks, in two important speeches, with great emphasis, is significant. So, does it denote a shift in Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir, as some analysts wondered?

Before these statements, Iran’s supreme leader had on several occasions raised the issue of Kashmir. In May 1990, Ayatollah Khamenei said Kashmir cause is about “truth and justice” and those who silence them “have an unjust cause”. In September 1994, he said the “issue of Kashmir is the issue of humanity” since people of the region are “subjected to oppression and tyranny”. In April 2001, he called for the political settlement of Kashmir as per the wishes of the people.

More recently, he brought up Kashmir in a conversation with Slovenian president Borut Pahor in November 2016, basically referring to West’s interest in “keeping wounds open”.  “The Americans do not have a plan for uprooting Daesh (ISIS). Like the English who have kept the wound of Kashmir open since the era of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent,” he said. I don’t think any leader in the Arab world has championed the cause of Kashmir as vigorously as he has.

Like his mentor Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei has deep love and affection for the people of Kashmir. He had visited Kashmir valley in 1980, soon after the Islamic revolution in Iran, and delivered a historic lecture at Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, in which he emphasized the importance of Muslim unity and brotherhood. He also joined congregational prayers led by late Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. His official website has a detailed account by late Qalbi Hussain Rizvi of his visit to Srinagar.

Yes, there have been moments when Kashmiris felt betrayed by Iran. A story that is often recounted goes back to March 1994 when Iran under Hashemi Rafsanjani backed out of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) resolution on Kashmir at UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, which could have led to economic sanctions on India.

Recently, when Rafsanjani passed away and we looked at his political legacy, I had this deep urge to know why he killed that important resolution on Kashmir in 1994. I spoke to some senior journalists and political observers in Iran and they made interesting revelations, which essentially suggested that then Indian PM Narasimha Rao had assured Rafsanjani that human rights abuses in Kashmir would be stopped immediately and a referendum would be held in accordance with the wishes of Kashmiris, if Iran withdrew from the resolution. Rafsanjani had been conned without him knowing it.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s latest statements on Kashmir are a reminder that Iran will never abandon Kashmir, a journalist friend in Tehran told me recently. It should not be seen as a knee-jerk reaction but reassertion of Iran’s stated position on Kashmir.

The timing of the statements, soon after Modi’s honeymoon with Trump and before his rendezvous with Netanyahu, is likely to get people thinking. Modi is the first Indian head of state to visit Israel since the partition of British India. Netanyahu termed his visit as “historic” and said India-Israel ties are on a “constant upswing”.

But, the Iran’s supreme leader’s Eid statement on Kashmir should not be linked to growing India-Israel relations. Iran’s stated position on Kashmir is clear and time-tested.


Brief history of Azadari: From Karbala to Kashmir

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

It’s that time of year again when the campaigners of truth and justice, cutting across ethno-sectarian and ideological lines, rally to pay homage to the ‘master of the martyrs’, a 7th century revolutionary historical figure who redefined the ideas of resistance and resilience on the desert plains of Karbala (Iraq) 1400 years ago. The uprising and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), the beloved grandson of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), in 61 hijri (680 AD) arguably has no parallel in the annals of history. To invoke poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal (ra), “he watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, uprooted the despotism and awakened the slumbering Muslim nation”.

Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) uprising against Yazid ibn Muawiya was not a struggle for power or one-upmanship; it was a confrontation between truth and falsehood, just and unjust, blood and sword. In the battle of Karbala, blood triumphed over the sword. Hussain (as) and 71 companions fought against Yazid and his 30,000 strong army. Hussain (as) had made it clear that he will not pledge allegiance to a despot like Yazid. In Maqtal al-Hussain by Al-Khwarizmi Hanafi, it is mentioned that when Waleed ibn Uqbah, the governor of Medina, summoned Imam Hussain (as) to swear allegiance to Yazid, he refused. “A person like me cannot give the pledge of allegiance to a person like him,” Hussain (as) said.

Through these annual Muharram commemorations, the people of conscience reaffirm their pledge to the sacrosanct principles exemplified by Hussain (as) in Karbala. It strengthens their resolve to speak truth to power, like Hussain (as) did in Karbala and his sister Zainab bint Ali (sa) did in the aftermath of Karbala. Its message is timeless and resonates even today, with tremendous clarity, inspiring truth-seekers and the advocates of human rights across the world. In Ziyarat e Ashura, we beseech Allah to “provide us an opportunity to fight for justice…” That’s the legacy of Karbala.

The tradition of azadari, commemoration of the events related to Karbala, which is essentially a universal protest of oppressed against oppression, began soon after the tragedy of Karbala when the members of Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) household, including Sayyeda Zainab (sa), Sayyeda Umme Kulsoom (sa) and Imam Zainul Abideen (as), were released from Yazid’s prison in Damascus and sent back to Medina.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina.

What is the significance of azadari? In the words of Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), a great scholar of Islam, it is the means of keeping alive the movement started by Imam Hussain (as) in the desert plains of Karbala. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people for fourteen centuries, continues today in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the purpose of Hussain’s (as) uprising is essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

“Every revolution”, says Iranian sociologist Dr. Ali Shariati, “has two visages: blood and the message. Hussain (as) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations.” That is essentially the objective of Azadari and these annual Muharram commemorations.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina. Ummul Baneen (sa), the mother of Abbas ibn Ali (as), played a pivotal role in making the practice popular in Medina by writing some heart-rending marsiyas. Those marsiyas, according to historical accounts, jolted people out of slumber and laid bare the evil machinations of Umayyad rulers. These are the women of Karbala, who toppled a powerful empire with their spoken and written word.

When Yazid was informed by Marwan bin Hakam, his close aide, about these mourning gatherings in Medina, he feared public mutiny and ordered the re-arrest of Imam Zainul Abideen (as), the ailing son of Hussain (as) and the only surviving male member of the holy household. That forced the caravan to move back to Damascus. But, notwithstanding the hegemonic diktats of Yazid and his coterie, the insurrection caused by the martyrdom of Hussain (as) and his companions was kept alive through azadari in Medina, followed by other places.

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough. The ‘messenger of Karbala’, a model of defiance against injustice and oppression, shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire with her soul-stirring marsiyas and sermons. When she confronted Yazid in his Damascus palace, there was a stunned silence. “I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone but Him and do not complain to anyone but Him,” said the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as). “You may employ your deceit and shrewd tactics, but I swear by Allah that the shame and ignominy you have earned for yourself by the treatment meted out to us cannot be erased.” That is exactly what happened as the word spread and a mighty empire of Yazid was razed to ground.

In 352 hijri, the first Muharram procession was taken out in Baghdad by then Abbasid ruler Mu’tazz Daulah. Almost 11 years later, on the occasion of Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura), a historic procession was taken out from Baghdad to Karbala. In 423 hijri, first zuljanah procession was taken out in Kufa by the members of Banu Assad clan. Many similar processions were later taken out in Baghdad, Iran and India. In India, Muharram processions were first taken out in Awadh (present day Lucknow), almost 200 years ago, under the patronship of the Nawabs of Awadh. Mirza Abul Qasim, a legendary marsiya nigaar of Kashmir, had travelled all the way to Awadh on the invitation of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. 

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa) in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough

In Hyderabad, during the reign of Nizams, both Muslims and non-Muslims would participate in these processions. From quiet ceremonies inside crammed hallways to huge street processions, azadari over a period of time became synonymous with the cry of oppressed and revolt against the oppressor.

Imam Zainul Abideen (as), as an eyewitness of Karbala, played a key role in establishing the institution of azadari and conveying the message of the martyrs. His descendants kept the tradition alive. They would invite prominent poets to write and recite elegiac poetry in the honor of the martyrs of Karbala. Once Imam Zainul Abideen (as) went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Hasham bin Abdulmalik bin Marwan, the Khalifa (ruler) of that time, was also present there. Khalifa tried hard to touch Hajrul Aswad (black stone in the eastern corner of Kaabah) but was unable to make his way through the crowd. In the meantime, a young man walked in. When he approached Hajrul Aswad, the crowd immediately dispersed. The Khalifa, who was watching the spectacle, was taken aback. He knew the young man but when someone asked him, he feigned ignorance. Furuzduq came forward and recited a beautiful poem, eulogizing the Imam and his household. The poet was immediately arrested.

Imam Mohammad Baqir (as), during his time, gave further impetus to the practice of azadari. He was followed by Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), who invited the famous poet Jafar Affan to recite marsiyas. During this time, Umayyads and Abbasids were busy fighting for the crown, so Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) had ample time and freedom to enlighten people about the philosophy of Imam Hussain’s uprising in Karbala.

During the time of Imam Musa Kazim (as), some changes were introduced to marsiya nigaari. He asked the poets of that time to write in their respective languages as per their own linguistic and cultural traditions.

In Kashmir, the history of annual Muharram commemorations is remarkable. People have offered blood, sweat and tears to keep the tradition of azadari alive. According to many historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran. A staunch lover of Holy Prophet (as) and his progeny, he is believed to have brought many tabarrukaat (symbols of heritage) from Karbala. Before his time, Kashmiri nauhas and marsiyas were heavily laden with Sanskrit words. The popularity of Persian nauhas in Kashmir is largely attributed to him.

According to historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran

Barely 10 years after Shah e Hamdan (ra) passed away, Syed Mohammad Madni arrived in Kashmir and settled in Ahmedpora. His contribution was commendable, so was the role played by Syed Hussain Qommi, who came from Iran and settled in Zainageer Sopore. Then came the time of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra), during which the practice of azadari became widespread in Kashmir. He came to Kashmir twice. The first time as a government-appointed envoy from Iran and second time to provide spiritual guidance to people. This was during the reign of Shahmiri dynasty when Qazi Chak was the Prime Minister. Until that time, people used to do azadari inside bungalows owned by Shia aristocrats. He built Khanqah in Zadibal where he started to hold azadari majalis (ceremonies) during the month of Muharram.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri. It was the language of Sheikh ul Alam Nooruddin Noorani. During the Chak rule, Kashmiri marsiyas gained unprecedented prominence. However, during the Afghan rule, marsiya nigaars were forced to go underground. Mourning ceremonies were organized mostly at night time and marsiyas were composed and recited clandestinely. In 1180 hijri, Khwaja Hussain Mir broke a new ground in Kashmiri marsiya nigaari. He revived the art and divided a marsiya into five parts – hamud, dumbaal, gath, kreakh, nishast.

Hakim Mohammad Azeem of Habakadal later gave a new pattern to Kashmiri marsiyas, which includes barkhaast, godich gaah, dumbaali, kreakh, patim gaah, naram and nishast. After him came Mirza Abul Qasim toward the end of Sikh rule and before Dogra rule. He built an Imambarah and used to recite Kashmiri marsiyas there. After him came Munshi Mohammad Yusuf and Munshi Mustafa, both of whom collaborated to pen down many popular Kashmiri marsiyas.

Keeping the Karbala movement alive, though, has come at a cost. The lovers of Ahlulbayt (as) in Kashmir have been persecuted by rulers and their lackeys throughout history. They were attacked and looted almost 21 times and the shrine of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra) was set ablaze at least nine times. That partly explains why mourning ceremonies were held mostly inside packed halls, at night, till the time of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. During his time, a zuljanah procession was taken in day time from Namchibal to Zadibal Imambarah, led by Mirza Mohammad Ali, and another procession from Alamgiri Bazar to Khushalsar. At his request, it was decided to take out a joint procession from Abi Guzar to Zadibal, in which both Shias and Sunnis participated.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri

In 1989, the procession was banned and the ban remains in place. Government justifies the ban saying these processions pose ‘law and order problem’, although the processions are completely peaceful in nature. This year, like every year, mourners were brutally manhandled by police personnel after they took out a Muharram procession in Dalgate Srinagar. They termed the police action as blatant breach of their religious freedom.

The institution of azadari could not be obliterated by Yazid of that time and it cannot be obliterated by Yazids of today. The tyrant always seeks to hide his tyranny. The campaigners of truth and justice commemorate Karbala through azadari to keep the movement alive, so that people know who killed whom and why. When people know facts, they will hate the tyrant and his tyranny. That is precisely why sympathizers of these tyrants oppose the practice of azadari, to hide the oppression unleashed on the oppressed.

Author is a journalist who divides his time between Kashmir, Kabul and New Delhi. He tweets at @mehdizafar 

Karbala begins with Ashura

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Karbala does not end with Ashura. It begins with Ashura. Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) ordeal is over. The master of the martyrs has returned to his Lord, well pleased.

He chose death with dignity than life with humiliation. He gave blood to revive human values, to uproot despotism, to pave the ground for Islamic awakening and social reformation.

Zainab bint Ali’s (sa) ordeal has just begun. She will be paraded through the crowded markets of Kufa and Shaam, manacled and chained, along with other female members and children of the holy household. 

Zainab (sa) is no ordinary woman. She is the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) and Fatima bint Mohammad (sa). She is Fasihah (skillfully fluent), Balighah (intensely eloquent) and Alimah Ghayr Mu’allamah (who has knowledge without being taught).

Her mission is equally important, to reveal the truth, to unmask the tyrants, to be an eloquent tongue of her brother’s blood.

Martyrs gave blood and now survivors have to convey the message of that blood to future generations. Zainab’s (sa) mandate is heavier than her brother’s mandate. If blood has no message, it remains unspoken in history.

As Dr. Ali Shariati reminds us, those who died committed a Hussainic act, those who remain must perform a Zainabic act. Hussain (as) is the martyr of Karbala and Zainab (sa) is the messenger of Karbala, the savior of Karbala. We have to choose either blood or the message, to be martyr like Hussain (as) or messenger like Zainab (sa).

The caravan Hussain (as) led from Medina to Karbala was led by Zainab (sa) from Karbala to Shaam. When the caravan halted in Kufa, Zainab courageously confronted the people of Kufa who had betrayed her brother.

“O people of Kufa! Do you know whose heart you have burned, what blood you have shed, and what sanctity you have violated? You have done a monstrous deed, something for which the heavens are about to split asunder and so is the earth, and for which the mountains crumble. You have done something most defaced, duskiest, most horrible as much as the fill of the earth and of the sky.”

When the caravan reached Yazeed’s court in Damascus, Zainab (sa) stood up and spoke with the valor and eloquence of her father. Her speech shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire.

“O Yazid! I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone but Him. You may employ your deceit and trickery, but I swear by Allah the shame and disgrace you have earned by the treatment meted out to us cannot be eradicated”.

She protected the ailing son of her brother when the tents were set ablaze by the soldiers of Yazid. She consoled little children like Roqayya and Sukaina when everything that belonged to them was forcibly snatched away. Zainab was crestfallen with grief but she stood firm because the mandate given to her was heavy and she knew her responsibilities well.

Zainab wrote and recited marsiyas (poetic elegies) that jolted people out of their slumber and eventually led to the decline and fall of Yazidi empire. Today, nobody remembers Yazid, Ibn Ziyad, Umar Saad or Shimr. And everyone remembers Hussain  Abulfazl Abbas, Ali Akbar, Qasim, Asghar. Zainab is the savior of Karbala, who redefined patience and resilience.

Zainab (sa) kept alive the movement of Karbala and inspired future generations to unmask Yazids and Ibn Ziyads of their time.

Her courage, steadfastness and resilience gives sense of hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause, like the women in Kashmir, women in Yemen, women in Palestine, women in Syria, women in Afghanistan. They are the flagbearers of Zainab (sa) who have kept alive her legacy of resistance and resilience.

اسلام على قلب زینب الصبور و لسانها الشکور