A DISPUTE is brewing in Kashmir now over the administration’s plans for Srinagar’s historic Eidgah, a vast open land traditionally used to offer Eid prayers. While the BJP-run Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board has announced that it will build a cancer hospital on the Eidgah, the J-K administration has announced that part of the land would be used to develop a state-of-the-art playground.
Both the separatist and mainstream political outfits are seeing in it an attempt by the government to control “Muslim spaces” in the Valley and close down the Eidgah for the people.
“The government wants to take over the sacred space of Eidgah,” the Hurriyat led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has said. “For Kashmiris, this space is holy and part of their historical, cultural and spiritual heritage.”
Spread over 80 acres, the Eidgah also houses a “martyrs’ cemetery” where over 1,500 people, including militants and protesters killed mostly by security forces during the years of unrest in Kashmir, are buried.
On September 22, Waqf Board head and BJP leader Darakhshan Andrabi announced a cancer hospital to come up on Eidgah land. Andrabi said that they initially planned to build the hospital near the shrine of Sultan-ul-Arifeen Sheikh Hamza Makhdoomi at Rainawari, but the “archaeology department didn’t allow the construction of a building there”. Around 80 kanals of land (10 acres) had been earmarked for the hospital, she said. The Eidgah is spread over 650 kanals or 80 acres.
The foundation stone for the cancer hospital is likely to be laid by Union Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to the Union Territory, expected to begin on October 4.
A week after the Waqf Board’s statement, Kashmir Divisional Commissioner Pandurag Pole said the government will develop on the Eidagh a state-of-the-art playground, with facilities for cricket and football.
Incidentally, a month before that, Andrabi had said that the Eidgah was only for worship and hence could not be developed as a playground.
However, while Eidagh is used to offer congregational prayers on Eid, it is used for the rest of the year by the youth of the Old City as an unofficial playground.
Kashmir’s religious and political outfits fear that apart from a takeover of the historic Eidgah ground, the move was a bid by the administration to seize the “martyrs’ cemetery”.
In its statement, the Hurriyat said that the Eidgah was purchased by Persian saint Mir Mohammad Hamdani seven centuries ago and dedicated to the people for offering Eid prayers, and that its cemetery held remains of “over 1,000 people slain in the last 33 years”. “But now the administration in Kashmir wants to take over the sacred space of Eidgah claiming that it will build a hospital, despite the availability of space elsewhere.”
Former Chief Minister and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti said that after Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, which is routinely shut since the scrapping of special status to J&K in August 2019, the government wants to stop access of people to the Eidgah.
“For quite some time, talks about the Eidgah land are going around. Sometimes they say a cancer hospital will be developed there and sometimes they say that it will be turned into a playground,” Mufti said. “They (the Waqf and the administration) forget that this land is devoted to congregational prayers.”
Mufti said the government could build a cancer hospital and playground on Srinagar’s Tatoo ground, which remains under the control of the Army.
“If the government of India is so serious about building a cancer hospital — first of all, I think a cancer hospital shouldn’t come up in a residential area — they have the Tatoo ground land with them. That is hundreds of kanals and is lying waste. They can build a world-class playground and stadium for children there. And if they want to developed a cancer hospital, they have enough land there,” Mufti said. “Why are they after the Eidgah? Our Jamia Masjid already remains closed and now they want to close the Eidgah as well.”
The National Conference questioned the “logic” of building a cancer hospital or playground on the Eidgah. Party spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar said: “We are not against building of a cancer hospital, but why do you want to construct it in the middle of the city?… We have a cancer centre at SKIMS, less than 3 km away. This is a religious area. To convert it for any other use would be unfair.”
Congress leader and former parliamentarian Tariq Hameed Karra said the Eidgah is holy land for the Muslims of Kashmir, and closing it down was “religious transgression”. “The decision to construct an exclusive cancer hospital is welcome, but that doesn’t mean it should be done at the cost of closing down the age-old Eidgah, which is tantamount to hurting religious sentiments,” he said.
Waqf chairperson Andrabi said the fears were misplaced, and that the area of the Eidgah used for prayers would remain as it is. “We have 650 kanals (above 80 acres) of land, of which around 150 kanals (19 acres) is encroached upon,” Andrabi told The Indian Express. “The main Eidgah where prayers are held is spread over 200 kanals of land and would not be touched. We are planning a hospital on land other than that. It is Waqf property and the Waqf can decide what to do with it.”
Andrabi also assured that the “martyrs’ cemetery” would remain intact. “It was set up without our (Waqf) permission, but… we will keep it as it is,” she said. “As far as the playground is concerned, the government would develop it so that the youth can play there. All (the critics of the Waqf decision) are saying it was being used by the youth to play. The Divisional Commisisoner has said it would be developed as the people of the area wanted it. But I assure you, it will remain under Waqf control.”
On why the Waqf had shortlisted the Eidgah and not elsewhere for the hospital, Andrabi said it was because the Waqf was building the hospital on its land. “We can’t build it on Tatoo ground because it is not Waqf land,” she said.