Gulzar Bhat left carpet weaving and opted for carving out a niche of his own from the surging ‘faith business’. In a society preoccupied with the devastating strife, Bhat created a cult that, police say, did many dirty things. As the dirty linen slipped under his feet, Shams Irfan visited the cult epicentre, its members, victims and the sleuths investigating the nasty ring to profile the making of Kashmir’s Osho.
For obvious reasons, she can’t be named. Let us call her Ms A. Almost a year back, Ms A was invited by a distant friend to attend a sermon that was to be delivered by forty-year-old ‘Syed’ Gulzar Ahmad ‘Reshi’, a self-styled darvesh who claims to be ‘divine’. Hailing from a small hamlet in south Kashmir, Ms A had recently appeared in Class 10 examination. She went along with her distant friend to kill time.
After the sermon was over, Ms A claimed she was overwhelmed by what Gulzar said. She decided to follow Gulzar for “spiritual benediction”. “I liked his sermons. It made sense to me initially,” she said.
Later, Ms A came to know that her distant friend was actually one of Gulzar’s over-ground workers entrusted with the job of finding like-minded and “suitable” girls, preferably from economically weaker sections of the society, to join his course designed to “purify” souls.
Next day, she told her family that she wants to join Gulzar’s Shamsabad based Fatimah-al-Zahra (RA) Institute, named after Prophet Mohammad’s (SAW) daughter Fatimah (The Shining One) to learn “pure Islam”.
Started in 2011, the institute run and maintained by Gulzar and his disciples offer two months “crash course” for young girls in “morality” and “Sufi Islam”.
After successfully convincing her family, Ms A left for Shamsabad, a small nondescript village in Budgam district, famous for its walnuts, and enrolled herself at the residential seminary exclusive for girls.
Ms A, along with a group of “religious” teachers known among students as ‘madams’, and around 70 to 80 girl students were putting up at Gulzar’s ancestral six-room, double-storied mud and brick house. The house was one of the four buildings in a sprawling complex spread on eight kanal of land.
No male was allowed to enter the building except Gulzar, whose room was on the first floor adjacent to a big spacious hall where most of the girl students were lodged. The “maintenance” of Gulzar’s room was done by a “chosen few” madams close to him.
Once there, Ms A was delighted to find many like-minded girls. They were from different districts of Kashmir valley. Within no time, Ms A rose through ranks and became one of Gulzar’s “favourite” disciples. After a few days of her stay, she came to know that her mentor’s real name is Gulzar Ahmad Bhat, who was born in a farmer’s family and till a few decades back earned his living by weaving carpets.
Gulzar’s rise to “fame” has been instant and spectacular. Within a decade, Gulzar commanded a following of around ten thousand people, mostly unmarried young women who helped him live lavishly. His rise was driven by his oratory skills, his choice of the audience that comprised economically vulnerable people who were ignorant about faith people, and his managerial skills.
During her initial days at the institute, one of Gulzar’s female followers who also took care of the mess told Ms A that if her mentor ever asked for any favour of any kind, she should not hesitate to “oblige”.
“She told me that serving your mentor is like serving God,” she remembered her advise.
After completing two months “crash course”, when Ms A was preparing to leave, she was called by Gulzar and told that she has been chosen by the divine to carry forward the “mission of the faithful.”
She jumped with joy and immediately accepted his offer. She was promoted to the status of ‘madam’. There were 20 other madams who taught around 80 students at his seminary.
“Now I realize how foolish that decision was,” rued Ms A in an interview with Kashmir Life.
Soon, Ms A began teaching new recruits sent from different districts through a well-organized network of on-ground workers known as Amir’s who would promise them free lodging, food and clothes, apart from religious sermons by “reverend Sufi saint” Gulzar.
One evening, Ms A was summoned by a lady named Baby who is a senior madam and part of Gulzar’s “mission” over the last ten years. Baby told her that their mentor and “Saint”, Gulzar, has chosen Ms A for a “secret” that was “revealed” to him by “divine powers”. Till now Ms A had never been inside Gulzar’s room, referred to as “Hujr-e-Khaas”– the Special Room.
Before sending in Ms A, Baby, in a commanding voice, told her the path of “spirituality” passes through our mentor. “She told me that whatever he tells you is actually a “divine command”. Baby told me that our bodies are scarred with sins. They will burn in fire eternally, if not redeemed by a pious saint,” A said. After a brief pause, Baby added in a low voice, “Only he (Gulzar) can redeem you.”
The baby then accompanied Ms A to “Hujr-e-Khas” and softly pushed her inside.
The room was furnished with an expensive carpet and fine silk curtains. Gulzar was sitting in a corner hidden by a harmonium and a hubble-bubble. His eyes were closed. A large cupboard on his right was half open, revealing an expensive music system. There was a king size bed which was decorated with artificial flowers.
“It seemed as if the room was decorated for someone’s wedding night,” said Ms A.
One of his close associates who was with him since 2000 told Kashmir Life that nobody was allowed to “Hujr-e-Khas” except girls. “His disciples from Srinagar were specially kept out of that place. We had least access,” he said. At times when his managers and madams knew people from Srinagar are on the way, they would transform the bedroom into a sermon hall within few minutes.
When Ms A got inside, Gulzar opened his eyes and ordered her to sit down. “He then asked me about my background, my father’s income and family in detail,” recalled Ms A. Then he took her hand into his hands and told her in a low voice that he was about to tell her a “secret”. ‘But swear upon your God and Prophet (SAW) that whatever happens in this room will never be revealed to anybody else. I am not bound by worldly laws. I had a revelation that I should have 72 wives. And I have chosen you for my divine reunion’, Gulzar told her. “He told me that he belongs to the Sufi lineage and he gets revelations from divine power,” said Ms A.
Gulzar then started reciting something in Kashmiri and tried to invent a moral justification in anticipation of getting physical with Ms A for her “spiritual purification”.
“He told me normal marriage and reunion with a person like him who gets revelations from divine powers were two different things, that I should not mix them,” she said. “He then touched my thigh and said, ‘wherever I place my hand, it will be saved from hellfire’,” she said.
Then he offered her something to drink and told Ms A that her body needs to be purified so that she doesn’t burn in hell. “I felt under a trance. I saw everything, wanted to protest but was completely overtaken by something which I cannot describe. I was not in a state to react,” said Ms A between sobs. The “darvesh” turned on the music player, played Kashmiri songs by the famous Sufi singer Rashid Hafiz and increased the volume.
She was raped, repeatedly, while the songs played in the background.
When Ms A came out of the room, she was still dizzy and hardly managed to get into her room. “Baby came running out of her room and hugged me and said, ‘Mubarak (congrats) you are now part of the divine secret’,” she said. For the next eight months, Gulzar kept exploiting Ms A and other girls in his ‘harem’ without anyone questioning his acts.
“I didn’t react or protest as I was afraid to upset the so-called pious soul. I thought, what if he was right, maybe this is what spirituality and Sufism really means,” she said in a tone filled with innocence.
But one day, Zulaikha, a madam who was part of Gulzar’s institution since its inception after taking Ms A into confidence, asked her whether she too was exploited by Gulzar.
“She told me what Gulzar did is wrong and it is not Islam or spirituality, that he is just a pervert and we should not let him exploit ourselves like this,” she said. Then Ms A and Zulaikha secretly contacted other girls lodged in the institution and planned to expose Gulzar and his deeds. But the question was, how? They were afraid that his followers, who followed him blindly, will never believe them. “For his followers, he was next to God. He was holy who cannot do any evil. Who would have listened to our woes?” she asked.
But soon Miss A and Zulaikha managed to take into confidence three other girls – all from south Kashmir and started to plan an escape or an expose.
“They somehow came to know that we are up to something. They immediately kept us in separate rooms,” she recalls. “For next one month, they did not let us see each other. We were not allowed to talk to each other. On December 9, 2012, one of my friends called her parents and narrated the whole story,” Ms A said.
On the same day, Ms A and other girls’ parents reached Shamsabad and confronted the ‘saint’. Gulzar had anticipated trouble and he had called all his followers and ground workers from different districts to help him hush up the matter before it gets out. “They threatened us, tried to lure us with offers, but we didn’t give up,” she said.
Fearing for their safety, Ms A and her friends left the place that day and started contacting district heads of Gulzar’s cult, one by one. “The district Amir of Pulwama, said: ‘even if I see him (Gulzar) in a compromising position with one of his students, I won’t object. He is a divine soul. You are accusing him under somebody’s influence’,” she said.
Finally, Ms A and other girls approached Tahafuz-e-Khatm-e-Nabuat (Protectors of the conclusion of Prophet-hood). The cat started coming out of the bag.
Ashiq (name changed) was one of Gulzar’s closest aides since he met him in Shamsabad in 2000 on a friend’s recommendation. During their first meeting, Ashiq was highly impressed by Gulzar’s “religious knowledge” and “ability” to “explain” Holy Quran in the Kashmiri language, despite never having attended any school or religious seminary.
According to Ashiq, his former mentor Gulzar’s justification for his inability to read the Quran in Arabic was that different prophets in Islam received divine guidance in their native language. Gulzar often claimed that he was taught the Quran and its principles in his native language through “divine revelations”. He would befool people by making claims of revelations from divine powers sometimes in his dreams.
Over the years, Gulzar had won the confidence of villagers by making claims of ‘sainthood’, ‘divinity’ and sometimes even ‘prophethood’.
Gulzar had created a network of “Amirs” spread across ten districts in Kashmir who were assigned to collect donations and recommend students for the main centre at Shamsabad. He had doctors, lawyers, teachers, students and even religious heads of various villages among his followers. The financial aspect of the institution was managed by his four brothers. “There was a guy from Srinagar who was responsible for publicity. He would distribute video recordings of his sermons to local cable channels. It was his idea to publish newspaper advertisements to make Gulzar popular throughout Kashmir,” said Ashiq.
Gulzar had deliberately kept his sermons limited to subjects like interest on money, birth control and immorality. “He was careful not to touch subjects which he knew nothing of. So he kept himself limited to these three issues only,” said Ashiq.
If anybody confronted him on more complex religious matters, Gulzar would ask him politely, ‘Do you have a bank account? Do you use contraceptives? And do your women wear the veil?’
But his sermons did not impress all. Almost a decade back, people from Khan Sahab, a small hilly village some three kilometres from Shamsabad, attacked Gulzar’s house when they learnt about his “divine” claims. They offered to put him on fire and asked him to prove his claims of divinity by surviving unharmed.
“He had ordered people to touch his hands before proceeding on Haj pilgrimage. Failing so, he claimed that the pilgrimage would remain incomplete,” said a resident of Khan Sahab, who wished not to be named.
After the incident, Gulzar went into hiding for some time and made Nendwanpora his base. “He had a follower there who offered him land to construct a mosque. That mosque became his centre. He used to deliver sermons from that place only,” said Ashiq.
Gulzar never offered prayer at Shamsabad mosque after that incident. “Whenever he was at Fatimah-al-Zahra Institute, he would lock his room from inside and pray,” said Ashiq. In his travels, he would be accompanied by a cavalcade of cars which sometimes ran in hundreds.
It was the introduction of residential crash-course for girls in January 2011 that irritated Ashiq. He saw things changing fast on the campus. Gulzar kept himself surrounded by girls and showed the least interest towards his male followers. “He would play cricket with girls in his compound,” said Ashiq.
Then, on December 9, 2012, Ashiq received a phone call at midnight from Gulzar. “He was shaking with fear. He told me that some girls have accused him of sexual exploitation,” said Ashiq.
The next morning, those girls contacted Ashiq and told him about Gulzar’s sexual exploits and how he had used religion for his carnal perversion. Ashiq helped girls to file a complaint which became the basis for Gulzar’s arrest.
According to police reports, Gulzar exploited a number of girls staying at his Shamsabad residence. “He has already confessed to his crime. It is a huge scandal,” said Ghulam Geelani, SHO Khan Sahab police station. “He ran this institute without any registration. We have already raided the campus and taken documents and other things for further investigation,” said SHO.
Gulzar’s “divinity” was exposed many times after he was arrested. In the police station and later in the courtroom, he plainly accepted that he can’t recite anything beyond the first two Kalimas because he is illiterate and thus can’t read or write. While the investigating officers of J&K police believe that scores of women were victimized by Gulzar, his modus operandi has left them puzzled, “He told us that he used to withdraw at the right moment to prevent scandal. This is the reason why no cases of impregnation surfaced so far,” an investigating officer of the case told Kashmir Life.
A day after Gulzar was arrested for his carnal crimes committed on Ms A and many others at his institute, many village residents gathered in the lawns of the upcoming multi-storey institute at Shamsabad. They were protesting and hurling fire against his “illegal detention”.
“It is Awaliyas mission. People are jealous of Gulzar’s fame and divine powers,” said Mohammad Shafi Bhat, Imam, Jamia Masjid, Nendwanpora. “Girls section is completely isolated and nobody is allowed to enter the premises alone. Even our mentor (Gulzar) never entered girls section alone,” said Rosy, a girl from Magam near Tangmarg in north Kashmir.
“Those girls were immoral and when our mentor confronted them, they accused him of rape,” said another girl who hails from Uri.
Though the institute was offering “crash course” of two months, there were girls who have been there for more than two years. At least two of them were putting up in the complex with their children that might have consumed 15 million rupees, so far, and is still incomplete. Ashiq, the erstwhile confidante of Gulzar said there was an interesting unwritten rule: promote the pretty one as teachers as soon as they complete the “crash course”.
It is interesting that neither of the students could explain to Kashmir Life what the crash course was all about, what they were taught and who taught them, and what was the knowledge base of the teachers? Police said they are investigating this aspect as well. But one assignment has been done by many girls: “We were tasked to go daily to the fields that Gulzar owned and work there.” This job that they were made to do is now helping police to trace the property that Gulzar acquired.
Gulzar’s growth has been phenomenal. He was a carpet weaver till 1989. The next milestone in his life was his marriage and instant divorce that reportedly took place within a week and nobody knows why the separation was so swift.
Locals said Gulzar lost his father at a young age. They were three brothers with a sister when their widow mother re-married. They had two foster brothers. After Gulzar started claiming to be extra-terrestrial and “divine”, all the brothers joined their heads and hands and helped Gulzar grow in his peculiar “spirituality”.
(Names of the females quoted in the story were changed to protect their identity)