Of Shrines and Blackmail

Of Shrines and Blackmail

Hostage politics is not restricted to men or captive school children. Shrines have also become a part of the politics of hostages, especially in the Kashmir valley. Get into a Shrine, threaten to burn it, place your explosives or incendiaries all along the building- a charge near the dead saint's tomb or the sacred relic- encircle the building with mines and the militant starts feeling that he is in the driver's seat.

The Hazratbal mosque.
The Hazratbal mosque.

In a country where Akbar went barefoot to Salim Chisti to ask for the boon of a son, the importance of saints and Peers, and the respect they are held in, is obviously out of proportion. Indian faith makes no distinction between a live saint and a dead one. In fact, after the saint's death, the Shrine gets more importance and acts as a lightning conductor for religious fervour in the area around. The sick, the childless and the blind flock to it. Shrines become centres of mass faith. And if something happens to them, become epicentres of emotional earthquakes. If Shrines are taken over by terrorist groups, the upheaval and the fears they arouse among the masses can be better imagined than described.

It is then that the State steps in. It cannot afford not to act. It cannot be seen immobile or paralyzed or even hostage to other hostages- men, relics, shrines. The troops will cordon the place off (the enemy radio will clamour that the troops have laid siege). The ingress and egress (awful sounding words) to and fro from the building would have to be controlled. Other restrictions follow. You don't want massive crowds collecting at the place. It could be dangerous for the crowds. Bullets could start flying after all. A process leading to some sort of curfew regulation gets initiated. The situation, bewilderingly, gets translated into a sort of siege.

Guns are loaded. Targets get zeroed and each side stakes out its territory. Each side lays down its bottom line, marks out its 'yellow lines' and minimum thresholds. Bunkers get sand-bagged. Defences turn up around the shrine. Wireless sets get crackling. The men in uniform start calling Police Headquarters, BSF Headquarters, Corps Headquarters and even Delhi.The terrorists start calling Muzaffrabad, Islamabad and perhaps some fanatic fringe outfit in Afghanistan. We are in business, Pal. The party has just begun, government going absolutely hysterical.The Pakistanis even hinted that the whole crisis had been engineered by India to destabilise the newly formed government of Benazir Bhutto! On the other hand, there was pressure from right wing parties in India who thought that government was not being stringent enough with the militants. The Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Mr. Hammid-al-Gabid, a yes-man of Pakistan (on all things Indian), asked India to refrain from "desecrating the mosque and stop intimidation against those who frequent the mosque for prayers". But there was not one word against the militants who had occupied the shrine and whose purpose would have been served had the Indian forces gone into Hazratbal to flush out the militants and had the building and the relic got damaged in the process.


It may be recalled that in November1979, at the start of the 15th century of the Muslim calendar, the Wahabi preacher, Otaiba, with 250 of his armed followers, entered the sacred Kaaba and gained control over the mosque. The stand-off lasted for two weeks. The followers of Otaiba wanted to install him as a Mehdi. French Paratroopers were called in and the whole incident ended in a blood-bath with over 200 rebels, pilgrims, hostages and security personnel dying in the gun fight. Not one of the radicals was tried and yet not one of them is alive. They were obviously executed later. Not a word was said by the OIC then, though hysterical mobs in Pakistan, for reasons best known to themselves, burnt the American embassy.

The terrorists at Hazratbal.
The terrorists at Hazratbal.

In Hazratbal, the militants had barred the entry of the keeper of the sacred relics, the Imam of the mosque. They literally held an Arms Exhibition in Hazratbal and later set fire to a part of the premises by setting off an explosion. The offices of the Auqaf and the guard barracks were gutted and two firemen, who went to douse the fire, were bashed up. Despite this, the forces kept their cool and even allowed 35 kgs of meat a day, along with rice, drinking water etc., to be taken to the militants.


As the Governor, Gen. (retd) K.V. Krishna Rao stated, after the crisis was over and the surrendered terrorists had been interrogated, the authorities had unearthed a Pakistani plan to cause damage to shrines in Kashmir with a view to foment large scale violence in the valley. In pursuance of this objective, the militants had started setting on fire historical Muslim shrines one after the other. The Governor added that "The attempt to cause damage to the holy relic (at Hazratbal) was a part of the same plan, but we were able to thwart it effectively by taking timely measures".

Through great restraint, the Hazratbal crisis was resolved and eventually, through Army pressure, the militants surrendered. Two convicts were jailed and others were bailed out by various Courts. Not a single shot was fired by the security forces despite great provocation. What is even more praiseworthy is the fact that the people near the Shrine maintained peace and tranquillity throughout, and spurned attempts by the militants to rouse their sentiments.

It must be noted that through September-October 1993 and especially while the confrontation lasted at Hazratbal, numerous attempts were made by Pakistan-trained Tanzeems to damage various Shrines. On September 21, a Mosque in the vicinity of the historical Maqdoom Shaheb Shrine was gutted in a fire caused by the militants. Four days later, an attempt was made at night to set ablaze the famous and historical Naqshband Sahib's shrine in downtown Srinagar. On September 27, the local Mosque at Kangan was saved by the efforts of the Fire Brigade when militants had set fire to three houses adjacent to it. On October 3, an attempt was made on the old Asara-e-Sharief mosque in downtown Srinagar. On October 23 at Sopore, an attempt was made to damage the Jamia Masjid when militants set alight a cluster of seven Muslim shops around the Jamia Masjid. On the same day at Anantnag, they attempted to break open the cash chest of a popular Muslim shrine, Reshimol Sahib but were foiled by the police guards. On November 3, an attempl was made to set on fire the famous Maqdoom Shaheb shrine. This too was foiled by the police guards.

The irony of it is that all this is being done by militants, some of them mercenaries, who all the time have Islam on their lips, and who are always masquerading as 'Mujahids' or crusaders in an 'Islamic cause'.


For Pakistan, Hazratbal was a letdown. If something had happened to the relic or the Shrine, the Valley would have burnt. Pakistan could have she crocodile tears and beaten its breast like a professional mourner in Geneva, in New York and in other conceivable international fora. The quiet arrangement by which the Hazratbal stand-off was terminated with no explosions or pyrotechnics, was certainly not to Pakistan's taste. The Charar-e-Sharief Shrine was definitely an attraction for the warped masterminds of Pakistani intelligence. It was a Shrine holy to both Muslims and Hindus. Sheikh Nooruddin, after all, was arguably the greatest mystic-saint of Kashmir.



Nothing could better exemplify the composite culture of Kashmir than the life of Sheikh Naruddin himself. TheSheikh was born as Nund Reshi or Sahazanand in 1377 AD. His ancestors came from Kishtwar and had migrated to the Valley. His father, Salar Sanz, a pious man, came under the spiritual influence of Sufi Saint. Yasman Reshi who arranged his marriage to Sadra Maji. For three days, the infant Nund is said to have refused to be breast-fed. The third day, the Yogini, Lal Ded (a very well known saint) entered the house and put the child's mouth to her own breast.While leaving, she is said to have called the infant her spiritual heir.

While personifying the Hindu-Muslim culture of the Valley, Nund, later named Naruddin, 'the light of faith', fully believed in the immanence and transcendence of God, hoped for a society based on moral values and preached against indulgence. All his life he wore a coarse pheran. Within two days of his death in 1438 at Charar, nine lakh people are said to have gathered at the Shrine, including the King, Sultan Zainul Abdin.

He preached against communal hatred and wrote: "We belong to the same parents. Then why this difference? Let Hindus and Muslims together worship God alone. We came to this world like partners. We should haveshared our joys and sorrows together."

Hence Charar was a Shrine marked out by the ISI. It's destruction, the ISI thought, would not only cause an upheaval in the Valley but also effectively burn down a monument to the composite culture of the Valley.


In the bitter end of 1994-95, militants had started sneaking into Charar-e- Sharief on their way back from the higher reaches of Yusmarg. By the third week of January, a sizeable number of militants were reported in the town. There was talk of as many as two hundred militants in the area. A Pak mercenary called Mast Gul, trained in Afghanistan, was a part of the militant team. People sensed a stand-off and the villagers nearby started migrating, apprehending the heavy presence of militants in the area. By March, BSF personnel were being fired upon by the militants. On March 7, the Army and the BSF, who had had enough of it by now, threw a cordon round Charar so that the militants were denied re-inforcements. Some prominent features around the town were taken over by the security forces.

People started leaving the town especially when they learnt that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being fabricated by the militants. The people of the area, as also local militants were enraged when members of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the Pak/Afghan outfit, walked into the Shrine without taking off their footwear.

In fact the locals were apprehensive regarding the fate of the shrine. According to the Statesman of February 8, 1995 the HuA reached an understanding with the locals that they would cease to take shelter in the Shrine once the weather conditions permitted them to re-occupy their secret camps in the high regions and the forest areas.

Chrar-e-Sharief after the arson.
Chrar-e-Sharief after the arson.
Chrar-e-Sharief after the arson.

By the end of March, even local militants could guess that the mercenary HuA, under instructions from their Pak mentors, were upto no good and started distancing themselves from these Pakistani mercenaries.

The security forces were reported to have even offered a safe passage to Pakistan to the militants through the Suchetgarh border. But this was not accepted.

Security forces took the necessary stringent steps, like cutting off water and electricity from the town. By the middle of March, interception of coded wireless messages exhanged between the militants and their mentors in Pakistan revealed to the security forces that they had planted IEDs at the main entrance of Charar-e-Sharief. In fact, they carried out two underground blasts to test the strength of their explosives. These blasts frightened the township population. A few hours later they cut off the piped water supply to the town triggering off a mass exodus of people from the township.

Hardly a thousand persons stayed behind, out of the twenty five thousand population of the township. According to a Defence Ministry Press Release issued from Udhampur on April 4, those left in the town were either infirm or were staying back to guard their property. When the migrant families wanted to return, they were abused by the militants and not allowed to come back.

On May 9, the mercenaries started their campaign of arson by torching some houses in Badamohalla and the adjacent Fateh Khan and Ziarat mohallas. While this was taking place, radio intercepts showed the masters from across the border telling Mast Gul and company "Changa kita; Ab maza ayega" (Well done; now we will see the fun). The blaze is reported to have destroyed eight hundred houses and two hundred shops. Two nights later, the fuze was blown in the confrontation with security forces, and according to news reports, by 2:30 in the morning, the Shrine itself was set afire along with the Khanquah (hospice) adjacent to the building. The Mausoleum of Sheikh Nooruddin, better known as Alam Dar-e-Kashmir which was built by Zain-ul-Abdin Badshah (1420-1470), who was among the pall bearers of the saint, was reduced to ashes. Along with the Shrine, hundreds of houses in the Gulshanabad area were also burnt.


The criminal Harkat-ul-Ansar had used gas cylinders as incendiary devices to devastate the Shrine and the town. The last communication from Mast Gul, the Harkat leader, to his masters across the border stated "mission khatam kar diya" (mission accomplished). This meant the Shrine was truly and properly gutted. And the answer, promptly received over the wirless, said "hum thwade istaqbal ke intezar mein hain" (we are waiting to welcome you back). And what a welcome it turned out to be from the moment he stepped on to POK and Pakistani soil! He was lionised and feted, much to the embarrassment of Pakistani officials. Now why should Mast Gul suddenly become a hero? Was it merely because he had escaped or was it because his actions had resulted in the destruction of the Charar Shrine? The answer is not far to seek. He was lionised for burning the Shrine. According to the Pakistani press, Mast Gul was in Islamabad on July 30. He addressed a public meeting in Liaqat Bagh, Rawalpindi on August 4, a meeting also attended by the Pakistani Jamaat-e-lslami chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed. In his speech, the Qazi asked the Pakistan Government to declare a Jehad against India. He stated that the Foreign Office had criticised the receiptions given to Mast Gul. He attributed this to the fact that the Pakistani Foreign Office was infected by the "American virus". He blamed the Government which was trying to dissuade the people "from fighting a holy war". He also claimed that "public money is being used to fill the treasury of Asif Ali Zardari and not spent on Defence, arms and development". Mast Gul stated openly that "the youth of Azad Kashmir and Pakistan" had "joined hands with their Mujahideen brethren" to throw the occupation forces out of the Charar-e-Sharief after the arson Valley. All these clearly show the Pakistan and the Jamaat-e- Islami hand in this whole sordid drama.

Two comments, as they appeared in the Pakistan press, would suffice to prove to the hilt how Charar was burnt. According to Jang of September 23, Sardar Abdul Qayum Khan, Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, while addressing a meeting at Lahore on September 22, stated that "some Kashmiris are of the opinion that Mast Gul himself torched the Shrine and then escaped from the place." He added that the Kashmiris have also raised objections that sacrifices are being made by the people of Kashmir, but "Must Gul is hogging the publicity in Kashmir." The second statement came in an article by A.S. Yousufi in Dawn of October 10, 1995 datelined Peshwar, which derided the fact that the Jamaat-e-Islami is "consistently presenting Mast Gul before the people as a "Ghazi" who risked his life and fought several battles with the Indian Army. Mast Gul has been brandishing arms, and he was taken almost to every corner of the NWFP, so that it burns and the people hold the troops responsible for the damage. The despicable thing about this new politics of terrorism is that anything really aesthetic or sacred or vulnerable can suddenly find itself at the end of the barrel of a gun, or next to a live fuse. A knife at the throat of a child, a loaded pistol at the temple of a captive woman or an explosive device or the grave of a saint are of the same ilk.

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