Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have released a top cleric and pro-freedom leader and allowed him to lead the congregational Friday prayers after more than four years of house detention.
An emotional Mirwaiz Umar Farooq on Friday led the prayers at the disputed region’s main mosque in Srinagar city amid heavy security and a warm welcome by the community.
“My dear people, I am meeting you after four-and-a-half years. Since August 4, 2019, the authorities did not allow me to go out of my home,” said Mirwaiz, or the chief sermoniser, as he is known in the region.
Mirwaiz, who is also the chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), the region’s main separatist group that advocates for dialogue between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, had been under house arrest since August 4, 2019 – a day before India’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its limited autonomy and divided the region into two federally-governed territories.
The August 5, 2019 move was followed by an unprecedented security clampdown and arrest of thousands of people, including pro-India politicians, top separatist leaders, lawyers and common Kashmiris to preempt popular demonstrations against New Delhi’s move.
“All my rights and liberties were curtailed,” Farooq said on the years under detention.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan since their independence from British rule in 1947.
Both the South Asian nuclear powers claim the region in its entirety but control parts of it. They have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the Kashmir issue as bilateral ties remain frozen since 2019.
After the 2019 move, the Jamia Masjid in Srinagar was also barred from holding Friday prayers for months.
There were teary eyes in the congregation on Friday as Mirwaiz ascended the mosque’s pulpit. The 50-year-old also cried as he greeted the people, including dozens of women.
Dozens of people lined up at the mosque’s entrance to welcome him with garlands.
Mirwaiz said the past four years were the toughest for him since his father Mirwaiz Farooq Shah’s assassination in 1990 when an armed rebellion against the Indian rule was at its peak.
“Since August 2019, I am aware it has not been easy on you. There have been assaults on our identity,” he said. “With God’s will, I can lead the prayers at the historic mosque with all of you. I can’t express my emotions in words.
“This is the time for patience. Perhaps no one is ready to listen to us and there is no space for us. We have to be patient to keep faith in God,” he said.
The 600-year-old Jamia Mosque holds historical and religious significance in Indian-administered Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region.
For decades, the grand mosque in Srinagar’s Nowhatta area was a political nerve centre that witnessed numerous anti-India protests.
In the past four years, however, strict curbs were placed on people’s movement around the mosque, resulting in a climate of fear on Fridays and lack of political sloganeering.
On Friday, the mosque was surrounded by a large contingent of police and paramilitary officials. Men were made to stand in a queue and frisked before being allowed to attend the prayers.
Many Kashmiris at the mosque told Al Jazeera they were happy to see the Mirwaiz free.
“I also came for the Friday prayers for the first time in four years. The special occasion was that we could finally see our scholar and hear him,” 32-year-old Mehak Khan said, accompanied by her two daughters.
In his sermon, Mirwaiz said Kashmir is a human issue for its residents and not a territorial war.
“On Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says this is not the era for war. He is right and we have always believed and participated in efforts of a resolution and have rejected violence,” he said.
The separatist leader demanded the release of the Kashmiris imprisoned during the 2019 crackdown. “Thousands are in jail including traders, journalists and human rights activists. We want to see them free.”
Mirwaiz demanded a peaceful solution to the Kashmir issue to end the suffering of the people of Kashmir.
An Indian police official, on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media, told Al Jazeera that after assessing the security situation and taking other factors into consideration, it was decided to allow the pro-freedom leader to lead Friday prayers.
“The semblance of normalcy was vividly clear as no law and order disturbance had occurred. People deserve appreciation for siding with peace,” the official said.
The region’s pro-India parties also welcomed Mirwaiz’s release.
“Finally Mirwaiz Umer Farooq will walk a free man after years,” former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti wrote on X, formerly Twitter.