The shrine wars

Published : Jan 24, 1998 00:00 IST

There is a struggle going on to gain control of Kashmir's shrines, with the National Conference seeking to appropriate ground from the religious right. The long-term consequences of this can be dangerous.

THE shrine of Sultan Ahm-e-Sharief is one of Kashmir's most revered shrines. It commemorates the legendary Sufi saint Hazrat Sultan-e-Arifeen, the miracles associated with whom, in the Sufi tradition, represented a revolt against orthodoxy and oppression. The most famous of the legends concerns Sultan-e-Arifeen's pupil Mufti Dawood Khaki, who left his position as the mufti of Kashmir to join the saint. Once, the story goes, Dawood Khaki lamented his fate as a fakir's penniless follower, which meant that he could not afford to go on the Haj pilgrimage. Hazrat Sultan-e-Arifeen promptly brought before him the holy kaaba, complete with the assembled pilgrims, and Dawood Khaki completed the Haj without leaving Ahm-e-Sharief. According to another legend, a lion once tried to kill Sultan-e-Arifeen's cow. The Hazrat promptly interchanged the heads of the beasts, turning the hunter into the hunted.

Today, Ahm-e-Sharief is the site of a bitter dispute that has raged for six months over the control of the Auqaf Trust, which manages the shrine. The dispute is between Mir Niazi, a Congress(I) politician and a former affiliate of pro-India militia leader Yusuf 'Kukka' Parrey, and the local National Conference (N.C.) leadership. Niazi's control of the Auqaf Committee from 1995 mirrored the physical control that Parrey's Ikhwan ul-Muslimoon militia had over the Bandipore area during the period. New forces that have emerged in the region, which are broadly affiliated to the N.C., have now removed Niazi from the Auqaf Committee, after accusing him of embezzling Rs.3 lakhs from the Rs.15 lakhs that Ahm-e-Sharief receives as offerings each year. There are also allegations that funds meant for the construction of an extravagant, multi-crore mosque next to Ahm-e-Sharief have been misappropriated.

Ahm-e-Sharief's immediate crisis had its origins in 1989. The Auqaf Committee, which had run the shrine for the previous 20 years before that and included local-level politicians of various affiliations, was asked to clear out by the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami's armed wing, the Hizbul Mujahideen. "We were told to hand over the shrine," said Auqaf Committee member and Congress(I) politician Mohammad Afzal Tahir, "and no one was in a position to argue with guns". Although the Jamaat-e-Islami believes that worshipping relics and saints is heresy and it has traditionally been arrayed against Sufi practices, the acquisition of Ahm-e-Sharief offered the Hizbul Mujahideen a medium for the control of culture. As is the practice at shrines elsewhere in Kashmir, Friday prayer gatherings were routinely used for political propaganda. "For all politicians," said Kashmir's leading cultural scholar Abdul Rashid Nazki, "Friday gatherings at shrines and mosques have offered a captive audience and a platform which they believe accords legitimacy to what they have to say."

If political power was one outcome of Ahm-e-Sharief's status, plain cash also allegedly proved attractive to certain powerful figures. There is little sign of the Auqaf Committee's earnings having been put to any meaningful use during its three-decade existence. The approach road to the historic shrine is unpaved, and there are only rudimentary water supply and sanitation facilities at the shrine. As for the mosque that is being built (modelled on the Hazratbal structure), only a few concrete columns have come up in a period of over a year. This correspondent was denied access to the shrine's financial records, which are held by its secretary Mohammad Maqbool Wani. Wani, a former soldier, survived all three transformations in the Auqaf Committee's character. Auqaf Committee member Mohammad Yasin Baba alleged: "Members of the Committee have in the past taken loans from the revenues, but even we have not been shown the records."

The crisis at Ahm-e-Sharief also mirrors developments elsewhere in Kashmir. Although the burning down of the historic shrine at Tral last year has been attributed to an electrical short circuit, allegations have been made that the outgoing management had been worried about records that would establish wrongdoing. More broadly, the shrine wars illustrate a disturbing deployment of religion by political power. Kashmir's largest shrine management body, the Muslim Auqaf Trust (MAT), was taken over by the Hurriyat Conference in 1989. In the wake of allegations of financial improprieties, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah replaced the MAT's trustees with N.C. figures and reappointed himself its president. The N.C. had controlled the MAT since its formation in 1952, and its reassertion of authority was driven by the party's desire to deny the Hurriyat Conference political space. Farooq Abdullah has used Hazratbal as a politically important venue since taking over office; the shrine's premises are regularly used to deliver political speeches.

The MAT's political character illustrates the N.C.'s disturbing inability to engage with the lessons of the events after 1989. The Muslim Conference, which played a key role in Kashmir's anti-feudal movement, used Srinagar's Jamia Masjid as its political headquarters. After Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah broke away from it and formed the secular N.C., control of the Jamia Masjid was retained by Yusuf Shah, the current Mirwaiz Mufti Umer Farooq's grandfather. Umer Farooq, as head of the Hurriyat Conference, represents the right-wing forces in Kashmir. The N.C., for its part, shifted its core physical location, first to the historic Mujahid Manzil and then to the Hazratbal shrine. The struggle for the control of shrines after 1989 emerged from this history. Thirteen shrines have reportedly been burnt or damaged in violence since then, including Hazratbal and Chrar-e-Sharief. "It is too easy to blame the Jamaat-e-Islami alone for the damage," said Nazki. "Burning shrines offered others an opportunity to attack it as well."

The truth behind the shrine wars may never be known, but the need to reform the institutions that control them is increasingly clear. Despite the N.C. take-over of the MAT, the promised investigation into the financial fraud of the past has not taken place.

MAT vice-chairman Ghulam Nabi Kochak has made it clear that the organisation does not have the funds to rebuild the Chrar-e-Sharief shrine. This begs the question as to where the organisation's funds have been deployed. There is also controversy over the eviction of reishis, the shrine's hereditary custodians, from Chrar-e-Sharief. Meanwhile, Farooq Abdullah has announced that Chrar-e-Sharief will be rebuilt in the West Asian style, rather than on the model of its earlier structure, which incorporated Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu forms. He has also announced plans for an Islamic University in Srinagar to be established at a cost of several crores of rupees. "It is outrageous," said Nazki. "We need to put Kashmir University back in order, not waste money on institutions for mullahs (clerics)," he said. "And their plans for Chrar-e-Sharief represent cultural vandalism."

The N.C.'s projects are thinly-disguised efforts to appropriate ground from the religious right. Combating communalism by competing with its advocates on their terrain has, however, proved dangerous in the past. Although the MAT's raison d'etre was to channel religious donations to social tasks, it has built no centres of learning, hospitals or public welfare facilities; it has confined itself to a sporadic and ill-defined charitable agenda. By contrast, the Mirwaiz's separate Auqaf has established a few colleges and schools in place.

Rather than bring in legislative reform that would provide autonomy to the MAT and other Auqaf bodies, thus insulating them from political deployment of any kind, the National Conference seeks to compete with the religious right's network of institutions by setting up its own institutions.

Although the Sufi tradition commands overwhelming respect in Kashmir, its political appropriation serves only to legitimise the abuse of religion by the right. The long-term consequences of Kashmir's shrine wars are likely to be devastating.

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