COVID-19: How Doomsday Fears Led Kashmiris to A Shrine At Midnight
Superstitions and doomsday rumours made several Kashmiris congregate at 12 am to evade COVID-19.
When the night began to embrace Kashmir in its deep, mysterious and lately conspiratorial hug on Wednesday, 25 March, there was a knock.
My sister, pale, harrowed, stuttering in an ominous tone, appeared at the door: They are assembling at the shrine, she said.
I live on a hillock in the town of Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani in central Kashmir, who is known equally popularly among Muslims and Pandits and across the broader world of historians who have studied Sufism and Central Asia as Alamdar-e-Kashmir, one of the pioneers of Islam in the Himalayan region.
I am extremely fortunate to have found a home on a hill which faces the majestic shrine, burnt to ashes twice in its history but having emerged stronger from every such setback.
Sister had not yet finished when the sounds of distant conversations in the main market near the shrine, and nearly half dozen mosques surrounding it, started turning into a collective roar.
There was no conspiracy now, after all. Conversations soon morphed into roaring chants of Quranic verses. And as if on cue, one after another, muezzins in mosques started issuing calls for prayer (At midnight? Seriously?).
‘But What About Lockdown?’
Why would people defy all the government orders and assemble outside the shrine in the dead of the night? Especially when the threat of coronavirus is looming on our heads like a sword? What was with this urge to commit mass suicide?
Like every true Kashmiri, I turned to social media. Similar, harrowing reports of midnight azaans and gatherings were being flashed from other parts of the Valley.
It all started coming back.
‘The Doomsday Rumour’
For many days, there were rumours of shapes of different religious personalities and places, depending on which ideology you subscribed to, having been witnessed in the sky. Many ‘news’ reports suggested a speeding meteorite was approaching the earth and it was going to be the doomsday. Some said there were actually four meteorites, as if to multiply the scale of fear.
The WhatsApp university was also churning out garbage. The Dajjal (The Doomsday Trumpeter) , Imam Mehdi, anti-Christ, call him whatever you may, has been finally spotted in Srinagar! An asteroid has ‘hit a mosque’ in Budgam and this was going to be the end. A group of people under umbrellas singing ‘Bella Ciao’ somewhere on Planet Earth were peddled as Italy’s leadership, “defeated” and hopeless in view of COVID-19, turning to God for help.
A maulvi in Pakistan had decreed all Muslims across the world to issue the call for prayer in their respective mosques at 10:30 pm on Wednesday to fight the virus. He didn’t say whether the call was to be issued according to Pakistan Standard Time, International Standard Time or local time.
The temperature was rising in the Valley for some days now. Now was the time for the volcano to erupt.
Soon enough, hundreds of people, women among them, were screaming, crying, at the top of their lungs, begging for mercy from our Creator outside the shrine.
Health professionals tell us the best way to stay safe from the coronavirus is to stay home, and report if you have symptoms.
‘Trust the God but Tie Your Camel’
A popular story of our Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) narrates that a bedouin once let a camel free in the desert and when his logic was questioned, he replied that he had complete (read blind) faith in God.
“Trust the God but tie your camel,” replied the Prophet.
Why, then, were we letting loose our camels? What explained this collective disregard in our town for our own safety? Was there a religious sanction to it, and, for God’s sake, why midnight?
One in four Kashmiris suffer from stress-related disorders. I have two and half of them at home. How was this midnight madness going to play on them?
As I kept assuring my terrorised family (my aunt almost fainted) that this was nothing but an outpouring of collective grief by people lately coerced into silence, the sirens of police cars whizzing past the road along the hill stopped outside the shrine.
A video shows a group of police personnel walking towards the gathering of hundreds, men and women, young and elderly, milling around the shrine, when a congregator hurls at them a kangri, the traditional charcoal-powered fire-pots used by Kashmiris in winters.
For the next few minutes, I tried consoling my family as the deafening sounds of exploding teargas shells and AK-47 shots rent the cold air.
Soon an eerie calm returned to the town. It was finally over.
I woke up today to the news of Kashmir reporting its first COVID-19 casualty, a resident of Srinagar.
Our neighbour has been taken away on suspicion of having contracted the virus from him. They are part of the same chain of men who were reportedly infected at a religious gathering in the national capital or, perhaps, elsewhere.
An unconfirmed and undated audio purportedly by the doctor who treated the Srinagar casualty paints a scary picture of the suspected magnitude of the infection in Kashmir.
The doctor is heard claiming the dead man recently boasted to a gathering that their creed was immune to the virus.
Now J&K government has admitted to lapses. An official communication reveals that the patient with COVID-19 symptoms was allowed to go home by doctors, despite disclosing his illness and shady travel history.
I don’t know what to believe and what not.
‘No Cure For Stupidity’
The last night’s episode illustrates that while there might be a cure for coronavirus soon, there is no cure for stupidity. Education was supposed to bring enlightenment but many of us continue to believe in superstitions, half truths and WhatsApp forwards.
The holy saint in our town will most certainly be ashamed of how we sullied his name in the name of religion.
I can only hope that our neighbour’s test is negative. I hope he didn’t spread it to other townspeople. I also hope the second line of infected persons didn’t spread it to others.
Am I hoping for too much? I hope not.
(Jehangir Ali is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @gaamuk. This is a personal blog. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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