Kashmir’s Tehran Tension

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As Kashmir’s historical Iran connection is being tested by the coronavirus spread, expert Kashmiri Iranians suggest against flying a few hundred students home because Tehran is capable enough to manage the mess, reports Raashid Maqbool

A scene on Tehran street

Briefing media about the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Iran’s Deputy Health Minister, Iraj Harirchi suddenly started sweating and shivering. The sight was horrible. Hours later, Iranian media confirmed that the minister has been infected by the virus, something that eventually had been contracted by Iran 23 lawmakers.

The fast-spreading virus that has killed 3300 people across the world has become a matter of serious concern around the world but its ominous spread in Iran was especially worrying for Kashmiris. China, where the virus began and has consumed most of the lives, is closer to Kashmir but the level of panic that the Iranian crisis has caused is far more serious. The reason is Kashmir’s connections with Iran. Several hundred Kashmiris are currently in Iran for educational or business purposes.

Qom, the epicentre of the deadly virus in Iran, has recorded most of the deaths in the country. It houses the second largest religious seminary of the Shia Muslim world after Najaf in Iraq. Every year hundreds of young men and women from Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh seek admission in the seminary to pursue their careers in Islamic jurisprudence. They often take their families with them.

Religious education apart, Iran has gradually emerged a favourite destination for Kashmiri students for pursuing medical science and engineering courses. The estimate suggests there are roughly five hundred Kashmiris that include students pursuing various courses, the seminary students and their families presently spread out in four big states of Iran Tehran, Qom, Isfahan and Shiraz.

Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS) has 159 Kashmiri enrolment. In a letter to the Indian ambassador in Tehran, the University authorities have confirmed this number. The authorities also expressed willingness to send the students back on Novroz vacation if New Delhi can facilitate the process of their return.

Iran-Kashmir relations are age-old. Iqbal the famous poet-philosopher popularised the sobriquet Iran-e-Sagheer (mini-Iran) which Kashmir earned in history for its cultural proximity with Persia. Family names like Hamdani, Kashani, Sabzwari, and Kirmani are very common in Kashmir. All these signify a profound Iranian connection as these are associated with the famous cities of Iran. Persian has been Kashmir’s court language till late nineteenth century till the Dogra ruler brought in Urdu.

Most of the Muslim shrines in Kashmir belong to or are associated with the saints who came from different parts of Iran and stayed here for a long time. Mazar-e-Shora, the poet’s graveyard in Dalgate, Srinagar has graves of some of the well-established poets of Iranian origin who breathed their last in Kashmir. Kashmiri’s Iran connection has been deliberated upon frequently by scholars of history and culture.

Though the Iran – Kashmir relations remained unimpressive post-1947, the 1979 revolution helped them revive as sections of youth in the eighties felt passionate about the landmark event. Recently, when Iranian General Qasim Soliemani was killed by American troops in Iraq Kashmir witnessed protests and mourning ceremonies in all the Shia majority areas. Still, streets in certain downtown Srinagar interior belts and many rural areas are adorned with the life-size portraits of the leaders of the Iranian revolution and top clerics of the country. Many people here owe open allegiance to the Supreme Leader of Iran and follow his dictates.

Off late, the knowledge-seeking Kashmiri youth has found Iran as one of the many destinations. Iranian Universities offering medical courses attract a good number of students from Kashmir. An educational NGO Ehsaas International has been helping aspiring students to get admission in Iranian Universities. Hakim Ilyas, one of its founders, said they have helped 89 students in last few years to get admission in Tehran University of Medical Sciences (TUMS) and Shiraz University. “A good number of girl students have taken admission in various Iranian Universities and number of girl aspirants from Kashmir is increasing,” Hakim said. “Given the increasing vulnerability of Kashmiri students and frequent attacks on them in mainland India, parents prefer to send their wards to countries like Iran and Turkey.”

“We took this decision of sending our daughter there because we feel the country is safe and the cultural affinity we felt there is reassuring,” Syed Mehdi, a resident of Zadibal in Srinagar whose daughter Masooma Rizvi is undergoing MBBS in TUMS said.

corona virus

KL Artwork by Malik Yasir

The news of COVID-19 in Iran has unnerved Mehdis’. “We are constantly in touch with our daughter through phone and take an almost hourly update from her,”   Masooma’s mother said. Her daughter and her Kashmiri hostel mates are in good health and they are receiving good care from the university authorities but since this issue can stretch long so they want to bring their daughter back for the time being.

“Their classes are off, examinations are postponed and they were otherwise supposed to be on holiday for upcoming Novroz festivities, therefore, we want her to come home and spend this time with us,” she said. The students, she added, are satisfied with the arrangements of the authorities there but because of being away and constant negative news flow is causing them mental agony. Many other parents share the same feeling.

Some of the relatives of Kashmiri students have also approached the External Affairs Ministry in Delhi for help. Tanveer Ahmad, a relative of a Kashmiri medical student in Iran said many relatives of these students are in touch with the officials in Delhi but so far there has been no concrete development regarding their evacuation.

Mirza Arsalan, one of the Kashmiri student from TUMS, told this correspondent that they are spending most of the time inside hostels and are getting all the necessary medical help. He said Kashmiri students are safe and no case has been reported from their University so far. “We are receiving food and all other amenities from the University officials but the only thing is that we feel bored now. Since this is holiday time in Iran we want to come back home for a while if only air space is opened.”

A Kashmiri Iranian, Syed Roohullah Rizvi said religious sites, schools, market places are mostly shut and ritual public gatherings like Friday prayers have been cancelled for the time being as a precautionary measure. Roohullah, who lives in Qom with his Kashmiri wife and kids said that there were many pilgrims from Jammu and Kashmir in the holy city of Qom who have already returned to their homes and there are hundreds of seminary student who are presently there with their families. He said all Kashmiris are safe and there is no need to panic. So far Iran has lost more than 107 to the virus as overall Coronavirus morbidity stands at 3500 or more.

“I advise Kashmiris here not to leave in this hour of crises because Iran is better prepared unlike Kashmir,” Rizvi said. “Even smaller hospitals at district and provincial levels are all prepared to take patients and many patients were discharged after they showed signs of improvement.”

The virus has mostly spread through travel; so many countries are now closing their air spaces and borders. Roohullah said that he is in constant touch with the Kashmiri students whether they are in Universities or seminary and all are safe. He said that proper protection and care has helped them stay away from the trouble’s way. “I want to tell my Kashmiri brethren that not to insist their loved ones to travel as that runs the risk of exposing them to maximum risk; we should rather focus on managing the crises by taking proper precautions while staying here.”

A Kashmir seminary student Firdous Ahmad from Dal area of Srinagar city has returned from Qom on February 26. His close relative told this reporter that he has been examined by the doctors at his home and declared him healthy. He has been told to turn up for regular weekly check-up for some more weeks. While pilgrims and students are coming back from Iran people are getting worried about the preparations of J&K authorities to tackle with any probable crises.

Dr Shafqat Khan, who has been given the charge as Nodal officer to oversee the possible crises said: “All those Kashmiris who are coming back from Iran will be first quarantined at Delhi for 14 days and then will be put under further observation for 14 more days in Kashmir.” He said the administration is fully prepared with isolation wards and other necessary preparations.

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