The Ink Of Karbala On The Page Of The Body

By Ali Abbas

The Significance Of Commemorating Hussain in 1992 Kashmir

During Muharram, our supplications punch the air with tears and plea to see justice. Our eulogies scream for those whose rights have been silenced. And the pulpit announces this gathering as a protest. Yet,  let us face it, we protest in the abstract, in the imagination. Once we depart from the stage, we return to our cushions and rest before the next arrival into the abstract.

But what happens when Karbala becomes a reality on your streets? What significance, then, does mourning for Hussain have?

This article deals with a protest that is cemented in reality and looks into how Kashmiri Shiites were urged to break a curfew against mourning for Hussain. And I have chosen this instance in history because it elaborates on the significance of self-flagellation as a form of protest.

I recognize the disagreements around the manifestations of self-flagellation. However, I ask that the reader appreciate the point that self-flagellation is the nucleus of Shiite language and the only differences emerge from disagreements around appropriateness.

By the end of this reading on Kashmir, though, I hope you will realize the power of the body as a language and the language it speaks to the face of oppression. After all, if this language is not a powerful threat, why is it repeatedly banned in various regions?

Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American, multiple-exile writer, states that in 1992 Kashmir transformed into Kerbala, “ Death had turned every day in Kashmir into some family’s Karbala.” Kashmir grew into a field of Husain-like resistance : the people were resisting the Yazid-like demands of the Indian government. The dystopia in Kashmir, a land betwixt and between India and Pakistan since 1947, reached an egregious level in 1990 and it erupted into a full scale uprising for self-determination.

Without entering into specifics, the residents of Kashmir saw a mendacity in India’s claims to the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. By many accounts, in a state dubbed “Indian-occupied Kashmir”, the residents wanted freedom from Indian rule and the summer capital of Srinagar became the focal point of the locals’ resistance against India’s military presence in the area. According to Ali, 70,000 protestors were marauded by the Indian army.

Apart for the plethora of political instigations, 1990 specifically saw the birth of this turbulence because religious tensions in the Indo-Pak region escalated. The demolition, by Hindu purists, of the Babri Mosque reignited the Hindu-Muslim schism. Thus, for the Hindus, tightening the grip on India’s portion of Kashmir was a display of Hindu muscle. Likewise, Muslims in the Indian-occupied Kashmir were pulsing with an energy to encounter the Indian might with their right to self-determination. Indian forces were thus weary of Muslim rebellion and they were particularly conscious of the Kashmiri Shiites.

In 1992, public azadari was banned and rituals of self-flagellation rendered illegal under a curfew. Saddam Husain had banned all forms of azadari ( public or private ) in Iraq after a Shiite uprising against him in 1991. The world, one could suppose, was weary of the political potential of any movement rallying under the banner of Karbala and the Indian forces, too, were watchful of Husain’s mourners.

This historical trajectory of governance brings us to consider how self-flagellation, as an important element of azadari, is seen by governments as a threat. What is it about this voice that institutes a threat and why has Shiite Islam adopted this language, this body?

1992 is the moment of Srinagar’s very own Ashura and Ali narrates how Kashmiri Shiites were urged by their leaders to break the curfew against the azadari in the month of June, on a day corresponding to the 10th of Muharram. Commemorating Husain before the Indian army is a powerful assault on the Indian consciousness.

Mohandas Gandhi, the father of India, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, pursued Karbala as a common denominator of truth : in his Salt March resistance against the colonial economic injustice, Gandhi likened his followers to those of Husain and there is little to deny that India was fuelled into independence by a fervor from Husain.  Ironically, Rabindranath Tagore, the author of India’s national anthem, glorifies Husain as a victory of liberation: undeniably, a performance of Husain before the Indian army speaks a language of resistance, protest and struggle and denying Kashmiri Shiites their right to a performance of Husain is to render India’s own independence an irony.

In terms of weaponry for war, I submit to you that the Kashmiris had nothing but their own bodies to use. Ali documents how Shiites were urged to “tear their skins with chains” and let “blood flow like Husain’s” : this praxis was to take place before the eyes of the champagne sipping Indian authorities and was a clear pronouncement of India as the Yazid of the time.

Such a provocative performance is, by any measure, a protest of the most radical acumen. Of course, I am not declaring this as the only form of protest. However, devaluing it, for fear of its public reception, is to mute our own voice.


  1. SubhanAllah :/ very interesting comparison made between the event of kerbala and the uprising of shiite Kashmiris.
    this really broadened my views on self-flagellation…

  2. I have a few problems with this article.

    1. You have not provided with any sources to your claims. For all I know you read these stories in a fictional novel. Facts, especially historical need to be accounted for through a higher relevant source. I feel like I’m reading a novel. Your article is based on fallacy of emotion where you are appealing to peoples emotions to sell your story

    2. I fail to understand how you can fight oppression by beating yourself to bleed. Its something else to spread the message of Imam Hussain by doing majaalis etc but during the globalization age where information spreads at an unbelievably fast pace, when the pictures of people beating themselves to bleed and cutting children’s heads from mannat reach people they will get turned off to the religion. It gives Islam a bad name. Need to think at an ummah level not at a personal level. Times are changing, why are people so scared of change?

  3. @ Khan….”cutting childrend’s heads from mannat”….where is your reference for this particular claim? and as for the reference for the article, the history written in this article is quite common and well known. I for one, have heard about it many times from my grandparents as they had to face many of these oppressions, living in the indo-pak region. Secondly, living in the west, I dont know of one single person who gets “turned off” as you put it by the display of matam.

    You would be surprised to know that non-muslims all over the world know about the tragedy of Karbala and they are quite aware of the fact that Shias cemmemorate it. I know that in many other religions such as hinduism and sikhis, they do not have any sort of celebrations in the month of muharram. As for your claim to “we need to change”, let me tell you something remarkebale…when I lived in Pakistan, on the 10th of Muharram, we use to go to one of the biggest processions on the day of ashura and every year, at the end of the procession, we use to see men, women, and children dressed in blue cloths come to the procession and do ziyaraat and matam. My family and I would always wonder who these people were, until one day, we found out from our car mechanic, that these people were christians and that they have been doing this for many years. It is the fact that azadari has not changed that has abled shias all over to present a united front on the day ashura. Think about it, thanks to all the media coverage we are able to see shias from all over the world, and we see shias doing matam and azadari in similar manners, and that shows a united bond between us.

  4. I have never heard of these stories so references would be required for me to believe anything.

    Heres the reference:
    About matam,lets me a few things clear first.

    We are talking about matam that involves bleeding.
    The status of the maraja (if you believe in such a thing) is that it should be avoided if it causes misunderstanding in religion.

    Now if you dont think it causes misunderstanding then you not looking clearly. The salafis are using things like zanjeer and qama to spread propaganda against shiism as a barbaric religion. We are responsible as an ummah for the spread of the true Islam. If it was so accepting why is it banned in the western world? Why dont we shias go outside and start doing zanjeer in downtown toronto? If a western family looks at the picture i posted above will they think “thats must be an amazing religion I have to look into it” or do they think “thats so barbaric what a crazy cult” please be rational here. We are not living in india or pakistan. Globalization affects the world now.

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