An eyewitness account of the devastating fire at Khanyar last Monday in which the shrine of Dastgeer Sahib was destroyed.
Early Monday morning Khanyar was suddenly in panic and wailing. Everyone was rushing towards the Dastgeer Sahib Shrine. I was among them.
It was a little past 6am when someone shouted “Dastgeer Sahib Shrine is on fire.” It was spine chilling, unbelievable. The sight of the revered shrine in flames was unfathomable, petrifying. Flames were visible at three different areas of the roof, far apart from each other. The blaze had already engulfed the minaret of the shrine at one corner, firefighters trying to douse it. Within minutes, the fire extinguishers ran out of water. This was unbearable for the astounded people assembled there, watching helplessly one of their prime centres of spirituality go up in callousness.
The mass of Dastgeer’s devotees was swelling, and shrieks of helplessness renting the air. Everyone seemed praying for a miracle. A drizzle started, and for a while it seemed that rain might save the shrine. But it was too insufficient against the fury of fire which was rapidly obscuring the two centuries old shrine.
As the two empty fire brigade vehicles parked uselessly, people turned even more restless as the shrine was fast vanishing in the ferocious blaze. For half an hour no more firefighting paraphernalia reached the spot. The two parked firefighting machines became the target of public wrath.
When two fresh firefighting machines arrived, half an hour later, they took what seemed a lifetime to start operating. Anger and helplessness was mounting as hope of saving the shrine receded fast. “Please let them extinguish the fire first, we are losing the shrine,” someone yelled. The blaze was totally out of control now.
Some youth joined the firefighting effort. ‘ya peer dastgeer’ reverberated the air. More fire brigade vehicles started arriving one by one. Dirty water from the nearby Brari Nambal was now being used to douse the fire, angering the assembled devotees further.
By now the flames reached the newly constructed adjacent structure of the shrine and the assembled people had begun speculating about sabotage.
Angry at the utter failure of the firefighting effort, some angry youth started marching towards Khanyar Police Station. Meanwhile, the police swung into action to disperse the approaching youth triggering protest and stone pelting. Youth who were already grieved with the fire struggled Dastgeer Sahib Shrine, joined the battle against the police to release their pent up feelings. They were so angry that they set on fire a firefighting vehicle that was exiting the effort. The police retaliated with more teargas, slingshots and sting balls.
This tussle continued alongside the firefighting operation. Youth, who were trying to take pictures of the disaster had to face rebuke by others fearing some of them might be police informers. As such suspicion set in, identity cards of many were being checked by the local youth.
Many youth were injured during the clashes with the police. The graveyard of Khanyar appeared to have been converted into a medical camp for first aid. One boy who had fallen from upper storey of the shrine was taken here in an unconscious state. A teenager who had sustained sting injuries on his back in the police action was also brought here for the treatment. His back looked perforated.
Throughout the day, this temporary medical camp remained abuzz with people who needed medical help. Two mini ambulances on the road were ferrying people to nearby health centers.
Now, the biggest worry that began arresting the people was the fate of the holy relics of Dastgeer Sahib. Everyone feared that they were lost in the blaze. The announcement by the custodian of the shrine that the relics were retrieved and safe worked as instant balm for the people. One of the devotees who had offered morning prayers at the shrine informed everyone around about how the shrine custodian along with some youth risked their lives to remove the relics safely earlier on when the fire started.
By noon the fire was almost completely extinguished and the shrine was reduced to smoldering rubble. The wailing women outside now responded to Islamic slogans the youth who were shouting coming out drenched from the rubble.
As some anguished leaders arrived on the scene to show solidarity they met an unpleasant welcome and harsh treatment. They had to be rescued from the threatening situation.
More people continued to throng the destroyed shrine right up to the late afternoon lamenting the colossal loss of spiritual and cultural heritage at Khanyar. A high presence of police personnel was maintained and stone pelting clashes continued up to evening in the area.
As soon as the youth began retuning to their homes, police search parties started hunting for the stone pelters. This went on till midnight with many in the lock ups.
(Compiled by Bilal Handoo)