Kashmir police arrest graffiti artist over Palestinian mural News of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Srinagar, India-administered Kashmir – Police in Indian-administered Kashmir have arrested at least 20 people, including an outspoken religious leader praying for Palestine and a graffiti artist in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The family of 32-year-old Mudassir Gul, an artist based in Srinagar’s main city, has accused regional authorities of censoring freedom of expression as an artist.

“Why is he being detained? What did he do? Has the government banned the industry here? Asked his sister Mujmil Ferdous.

“When the whole world is waking up against Israel’s atrocities, we can’t talk, we can’t practice art; What kind of democracy do we live in? Can’t we apologize for Palestine? Ferdous told Al Jazeera.

Kashmiris took to the streets after Jamaat prayers in support of Palestine and hoisted their flags in solidarity against the deadly Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip and demonstrating a brutal crackdown on Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and Israel.

At least 144 Palestinians, including more than 40 children, have been killed in solidarity protests around the world.

Can’t we express our sorrow for Palestine?

The arrested artist’s sister Muzmil Firdaus

However, security forces in Kashmir, one of the world’s largest military forces, moved quickly to quell the protests, citing anti-India sentiment in the region. In August 2019, India’s Hindu nationalist government imposed a security lockdown to stop protests by removing the region’s limited autonomy.

Gul’s family said a group of young men approached him on Friday to draw graffiti. “It simply came to our notice then. They have made it clear to him that it is not against India or that any such slogan will be raised, ”Ferdous said.

The 32-year-old artist was arrested and made to insult the graffiti that showed a woman waving her head while waving a Palestinian flag. The graffiti “We are Palestine” was widely shared through social media.

“He is an artist. We are shocked that he has been detained for doing his job. We do not want the government to ruin his life. Painting is his livelihood,” Ferdous told Al Jazeera.

The family said Gul Gul was suffering from health problems and could not be detained for long amid the outbreak of COVD-19.

‘Detained for praying’

Among the 20 arrested was a religious leader named Sarjan Barkati from Shopian district in south Kashmir. In one family he was arrested after chanting slogans and praying for the Palestinians, his family said.

Barkati was arrested in 2014 while protesting against the assassination of popular rebel commander Burhan Wani by Indian forces. Thousands of people have been killed in decades of armed rebellion against Indian rule.

The region has witnessed protests and support for Palestinians through art and writing for years. In some parts of the old city of Srinagar, graffiti depicting Palestinian support can still be seen on shop shutters, streets and walls.

Since the abolition of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2016, the region has been under intense state pressure to quell protests. Even as Kashmir has been unusually quiet for the past year and a half, tensions have led to a number of protests in recent months.

“We know there is a lot of anger among the people. “Our past observations suggest that it needs a trigger to get out, and it could be anything but a trigger,” a police official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

“Even these solidarity demonstrations could lead to bigger protests for the separatists. That is why we do not want to take another chance this time, ”he said, referring to pro-independence leaders as separatists.

Insurgent groups and pro-independence leaders in Kashmir want independence from India or integration with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of arming insurgents – Islamabad denies such allegations.

‘O oppressed Palestinians’

Shabroza Jan, 30, the wife of the arrested Shopian religious leader, told Al Jazeera that her husband had been arrested for praying for solidarity.

“He did nothing wrong. He only prayed for them (Palestine). Police took him out of the house on Saturday morning. We tried to meet him but we were not allowed, ”he said.

The video, shot inside a Shopian mosque, shows Barkati praying for Palestine and chanting slogans such as “O oppressed Palestinians, we are with you.”

Police officials told Al Jazeera that they would not allow any such protests in the area.

Even this solidarity protest could trigger larger separatist protests.

Kashmir police officer

Another senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera: “We will not hold such protests and will not use rogue and pro-independence elements as an excuse for people to take to the streets at this stage.”

Earlier, police in a statement warned against any street protests and said they were keeping a close eye on elements who were “trying to use the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disrupt public peace and order in the Kashmir Valley.”

“It will not allow the disguise of public anger to lead to violence, lawlessness and chaos on the streets of Kashmir,” police said in a statement.

Sheikh Shawkat Hussain, a political analyst in the region, said: “Kashmiris have always supported Palestine since the issue was raised.

“Although they (Kashmiri) themselves were involved in a similar situation. But they also understood the pain of subjugation and made them more sensitive to the Palestinian issue than to other parts of the subcontinent, “Hussein said.

Hussein said India had been more vocal on the Palestinian issue since independence from British rule in 1949.

“It simply came to our notice then [Prime Minister] Indira Gandhi said that they started getting closer to Israel and now the ruling government has joined hands with Israel, “he added, adding that the Kashmir government fears that a similar coup could take place here.

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