The chains of Pirana

Print edition : September 10, 2004

A Gujarat village that follows a Sufi-inspired faith, a blend of Islam and Hinduism, is in danger of being swamped by Hindu fundamentalism.

in Pirana


PIR IMAM SHAH BAWA's devotees are chained at the feet. They close their eyes and pray fervently while walking towards the Sufi saint's tomb, the Hajrat Pir Imam Shah Bawa Roza, in Pirana village, outside Ahmedabad. If the chain disentangles in the first few steps, it means that your prayer will be granted soon. If not, it is a sign that it will take some time. Today, the Pir's followers are entangled in a dispute that could threaten the existence of their faith.

Residents of Pirana still follow Imam Shah Bawa's teachings of love and harmony, a Sufi-inspired amalgam of Islam and Hinduism. But powerful religious heads close to the Sangh Parivar are trying to communalise their belief, reducing it to little more than a sect of Hinduism.

Dholia, the "bedroom" of Imam, redecorated with pictures of Hindu gods.-

In the heat of the conflict, the Koran, handwritten by the Pir, which used to lie near his tomb, mysteriously disappeared. Pir Imam Shah Bawa is believed to have founded the Satpanth (true path) faith around 600 years ago. He taught tolerance and the universality of religions.

The sect is an offshoot of Ismaili teachings, a liberal branch of Shiite Islam followed by the Aga Khani Khojas, and it attracted devotees from religions other than Hunduism and Islam too. All 18 communities living in Pirana village, belonging to different castes and religions, are devotees of Imam Shah Bawa.

The shrine also attracts followers from different parts of India. Hindu followers, called `Satpanthis', comprise 85 per cent of the sect. Several of them are from the Kutchi Patel community. Muslim followers, called `Saiyeds', are considered to be the saint's direct descendents. The Pir's devotees did not define themselves as Hindu or Muslim until they were forced to do so by the British Census in the mid-19th century. The pressure of Islamic reforms and the rise of Hindu revivalist groups also made them adopt clearly defined religious identities.

A barbed wire fence put up by the Satpanthi dargah administation to separate the Pir's tomb from the masjid.-

After the death of the saint, a shrine was built over Imam Shah Bawa's tomb. Within the complex, they also built a Dholia at the spot where he used to sleep, a mosque and a graveyard. Until 1931, the complex was a private property belonging to the Saiyeds, and was administrated by the head of the Satpanthis called `Kaka', according to an article by researcher Dominique Sila-Khan. Some Satpanthis filed a case against the then Kaka Ramji Laxman (a Kutchi Patel) for misusing funds.

The court ordered that a public trust be set up to manage the property. The trust was to consist of seven Satpanthi and three Saiyed representatives elected every five years. But elections to the trust have not been held for the past 15 years. A conflict between the Satpanthis and the Saiyeds emerged when the last religious leader Karsan Das Kaka tried to Hinduise the belief. The dispute has resulted in a spate of legal battles.

IN the late 1980s, the Kaka made several changes to the literature, rituals and prayers, removing any hint of Islamic influence. When this writer visited the shrine, the guide appointed by the trust made it a point to keep telling her, "This is a Hindu samadhi mandir. It has no connection with Islam." "Our prayers had words like Om as well as Rehman and Rahim."

"The shrine administration has taken out the Islamic words. They are destroying the meaning of the philosophy," said Bharat Patel, a carpenter who lives in Pirana. He is also a Satpanthi, but resents the hijacking of the sect by a few powerful Kutchi Patels. "They are like a gang. It has become very political. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the police are with them. Anyone who questions them is taken to the police station. There is no meaning to the Satpanth anymore. It has become very casteist. In the gurukul, they only look after the children of Kutchi Patels, not others. I used to go to the shrine everyday. But since they have destroyed it all, I don't go there. We don't get any respect," says Bharat Patel.

In the post-Babri Masjid demolition fervour, the VHP allied with Karsan Kaka and the trustees to arrange a huge Sadhu Sammelan inside the dargah complex in 1993. They pledged to `re-convert' to Hinduism and change the shrine into a temple. The dargah was re-named `Prerna Pith' or `samadhi mandir'.

The graveyard within the Pir Imam Shah Bawa dargah complex. Muslim devotees say that coconut trees have been planted at the spot to prevent them from using it as a burial site.-

The Kaka discarded his old title and re-appointed himself `Maharaj' and `Acharya'. The trust cut off water and electricity supply to the masjid, saying that it was not part of the dargah complex. The `Om' symbol was painted all over the shrine. The Dholia was renovated with pictures of Hindu gods. The communal violence of 2002 further emboldened the VHP. Led by Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi, an accused in the Naroda Patiya massacre (the worst mass murder in Gujarat), they stopped the traditional Tazia procession from the masjid to the dargah on the day of Moharram in January 2003.

Both Hindu and Muslim devotees participate in this procession. A barbed wire fence was built separating the masjid from the dargah. Two entrances to the dargah were sealed off. "In our village, there is no discrimination. Only they are creating it within the shrine," said Chandrakant Patel, a Pirana resident from the Kutchi Patel community. "We used to pray at both the masjid and the dargah. After they put up the fence, it has become difficult to walk across and pray in both. They blocked the route of the Tazia procession. Hindus and Muslims have not done Tazia for two years. They are doing this to harass us. They want to cut off the Saiyeds totally and gain full control."

Two copies of the Koran placed near the Pir's tomb mysteriously disappeared. One of them was handwritten by Imam Shah Bawa. Other Islamic books lying near the tomb were also removed. A wooden box with silver used during the Moharram procession also disappeared. Framed copies of a farman, a document from King Aurangzeb donating 45 acres of land and money to the trust, also vanished. The original copy of this document is written on a silver plate, which is in the trust's possession. The 50-year-old tomb of Saiyed Taskdukhusain, a trustee, located near the dargah, was demolished completely.

The religious head of Satpanthis, Nanakdas Kaka, who calls himself Guru Maharaj Jagatguru Satpanth Acharya.-

Ironically, Saiyeds in Pirana who filed a case against the disappearance of these treasures were arrested for looting and sent to the Sabarmati Central Jail. What did they loot? Prasad from the temple - jaggery, sugar and coconuts. Every day, offerings from the dargah are supposed to be given to the Saiyeds. It is an old custom. But in 1998, the administration stopped the practice, in a move to further isolate the Saiyeds.

After an argument, they got the Saiyeds arrested for armed robbery. The present religious head, known as Nanakdas Kaka, who calls himself Guru Maharaj Jagatguru Satpant Acharya, denied that the missing documents or monuments ever existed. He told Frontline that the Satpanthi faith was a `Vedic religion', which had followers from various communities. When this writer asked him whether the shrine was a dargah or a mandir, he said, "Muslim followers call it dargah. It is a difference in language. But all donations are given by Hindus, not Muslims."

The dargah administration is adamant about discarding its 600-year-old history. But many devotees would not let them forget the past. It would take a miracle to free the chains now binding Imam Shah Bawa's followers.