Neglecting The Essence

Kashmir has slowly been losing its essence – influences and heritage that inform its faith and culture – to callousness and exigencies of conflict management and politics. Destruction of Dastgeer’s shrine is a reminder that a people are identified by what they care to nurture and preserve. A Kashmir Life report.

The burning Shrine[Photo: Bilal Bahadur]
The burning Shrine[Photo: Bilal Bahadur]

As leaping flames engulfed the shrine of Dastgeer Sahab in Khanyar and every effort was failing to control it, there was a group of wailing women carrying copies of Quran as the last resort. It rained a bit and then stopped. By then, everything was over. The fire that was tracked at around 6.20 am had engulfed the entire Devdaar-wooded and heavily varnished shrine along with the new and old mosques. A huge crowd in the premises was mourning, crying, and weeping.

A treasure that was part of Kashmir’s identity was lost. A spontaneous strike paralysed Kashmir and then curfew took over. Fearing trouble, the government imposed curfew restrictions in most of the old city for many days. At a number of places, there were clashes between angry men and the contingents of police. Police, this time, avoided using firearms. Any casualty would have created a larger crisis, a senior officer admitted.

For all these days, debate raged around the shrines dominating the public discourse across Kashmir. The blaze came at a time when the traditional clergy was busy in asserting its authority and contesting every space available around. It coincided with the beginning of 39-days Amarnath Yatra and followed a raging wave of protests in Bandipore-Gurez belt over an alleged case of desecration of Quran. As the shrine went up in flames, everybody is seeking answers – whodunit? If vox populi is any indication the suspect are many.

Managing crowds apart, the police prevented even the devout from visiting the gutted shrine. While it was keen to escort people like Dr Karan Singh and Ms Mehbooba Mufti to the shrine, the police looked the other way when Shabir Shah – the only separatist leader who had visited the spot, was insulted, humiliated and ruthlessly beaten apparently to send a message to the ‘separatist brotherhood’ that they should not attempt visiting Khanyar. “Then, it was mob controlling things not us,” said a senior police officer. “Had anybody come that time he would have met the same treatment.”

The investigations, a senior police officer said, were already in progress. “We have sent the required samples for forensic examination and our teams have already recorded the entire sequence of statements from the witnesses.” Already, a special investigation team is (SIT) in place and the real progress will show up once the curfew restrictions are lifted and normality is resumed. For most of the last week, police were actually identifying and arresting the stone pelters within the city. More than 40 were detained.

Police, according to well-placed sources, are looking at two issues – how the fire started and if there was any problem in fighting it? Witnesses are talking about the fire emerging from three different places and the fire engines driving to the spot without water.

Given the serious efforts being made by ‘vested interests’ to divide the society on sectarian lines, a mischief can never be ruled out. But preliminary investigations by the police in the shrine destruction case suggest that the shrine’s electrification part was not being maintained well. There has been a problem with the wiring just a fortnight back. Revelations by the electric department suggest that two lines supplied electricity to the shrine – one special and another regular. While the regular line that also feeds the locality was put off, the special line was live. The fire has started from a dome that is usually locked the keys to which remain with the custodian.

A preliminary investigation, according to Kashmir Police Chief S M Sahai suggests an accidental fire. “We are looking at all the angles of the case and as of now nothing has been ruled out,” Sahai was quoted saying. A number of people have been questioned but no arrests have been made.

On the firefighting front, there are no responses to the allegations that a firefighting machine usually parked outside the shrine was missing. Nobody disputes the arrival of a fire engine that started working immediately. The first firefighter, Abdul Majid who was carrying the pipe and managing the fire (he said it was a manageable fire) has offered a chilling detail of how the ‘pipewas snatched from him by a mob’ that swelled later and how he was beaten up. It was the same fireman who helped pull out the relics from the shrine vault.

“We have two incidents – the first is about a Sikh firefighter being asked not to work and the second is objection to the use of water from the Brari Nambal lagoon,” a senior officer said. “The mobs do not know that every fire fighting machine has only 75000 liters storage capacity and once the pumping starts, it does sustain for a long time.” Usually all localities have hydrant wherefrom the firefighters pump out water to meet emergencies. Khanyar has none!

Dasgeer Sahib[Photo: Bilal Bahadur]
Dasgeer Sahib[Photo: Bilal Bahadur]

As machines remained parked almost idle, there was massive overreaction. A number of firemen were beaten up and at least two machines were badly damaged. As firefighters failed to control the conflagration, youth did everything they could in stopping it. Scores of them were driven to hospital where some of them are still being treated for burn injuries.

Unlike the Buddhist and Hindu Kashmir, most of the Muslim shrines are brick and wooden pagoda style structures. Khanyar shrine is not the first to be destroyed in a conflagration. Apart from Chrar-e-Sharief shrine that was destroyed after a protracted stand off between militants and the army in 1995, Baba Reshi in Gulmarg, Khanqah in Tral and much earlier one in Islamabad were destroyed in similar circumstances.

Shrines built by preachers centuries ago are fundamental to the history and identity of contemporary Kashmir. Given the nature of their building and the materials used, careful interventions are required for preserving them. Off late, the state government has started accessing the central government funds for preservation of heritage buildings that include some shrines. But given how implementation is carried out, it seems preservation is barely the priority.

The government had more than Rs 49 Cr for preservation of the Khanyar shrine. While nearly two-third of the funds will go to the mandatory acquiring of built up structures around the shrine – 115 houses and 132 shops – and rehabilitating them elsewhere, the government invested the balance amount in creating a replica of the shrine. It created a situation that the new concrete and mortar twin constructions were dominating the main shrine. Opposition to the idea was dismissed by arguing that the shrine needs more space. Nobody realised that the shrine gets huge crowds for one day in a year and if the same wisdom applies on the Kabba then Mecca will cease to exist.

The government has actually been demolishing the heritage structures and constructing them afresh. That is partly true with the Khawaja Sahab shrine and with the house of Ghani Kashmir, the famous Kashmiri poet of Persian. People allege that arbitrary demolition and reconstruction of heritage in the name of preservation is a nexus between policy makers and contractors.

In case of 14th century monument, the Khanqah, a devotee suggested he would change its ceiling and the shrine management board granted the request. It is a crime that the Board permitted.

All the major shrines including Srinagar’s Jamia Majid would require relocation the people living around it so that chances of an accidental fire are minimised. “Priorities need to be clear,” said Salim Beg, former DG Tourism who heads INTACH in the state. “We should prevent fires rather than make firefighting a priority.”

Beg has been associated with the reconstruction process of the shrine by the government that ignored his pleas over the years that all the shrines need to be audited for fire safety systems. Deploying firefighters outside shrines will not help unless it has no assured source of water.

All the shrines across Kashmir house hundreds of relics (see a separate story) and some of them may not be available with other Muslim societies. They need to be protected within and outside these shrines. Cleric Gulam Rasool Hami has already demanded that the Waqf Board must construct a separate museum for the relics which are not displayed at the respective shrines. “Let this museum come up within the premises of the Hazratbal shrine,” he said. Syed Khalid Geelani, custodian of the Khanyar shrine was lucky that he along with some local youth and policemen rushed to the first floor and pulled out most of the relics to safety well before the leaping flames could devour them. “It is priceless,” cried a devout while watched custodian unfolding a relic – a copy of Quran believed to be handwritten by Prophet’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali. “Every single relic that the shrine had is safe and we will display them at the most appropriate time,” Geelani said.

However, Nazir Ahmad, an employee of the Waqf Board who is posted at the shrine told reporters that not every relic was saved. “I along with another employee ran to open the safe (donation boxes),” Nazir was quoted saying. “Then we ran to upper side of the complex,trying to save old copies of holy Quran, which were stacked in around 60 jute sacks. Unfortunately, we could save only five to six sacks”.

Priceless relics stuffed in jute sacks!

The way the custodian of the shrine was handling the hand-written sheets of Quran while displaying it highlight the need for these extremely fragile relics to be handled with much more care. Kashmir has already lost the relics at Chrare-e-Sharief, Baba Reshi and more recently in Tral when Khanqah-e-Faiz Panah was destroyed in a devastating fire on December 6, 1997.

Incredible interior of Khanyar Shrine
Incredible interior of Khanyar Shrine[Photo: Bilal Bahadur]

But many suggest that nothing will change unless two major policy decisions are taken – demonopolise the shrine management from the custodian families and depoliticize the Waqf Board and ensure professional upkeep for best preservation.

A hierarchical family system has been at the center of shrine management in Kashmir. At the resource pyramid is the sajada nisheen – the person who occupies the space that once belonged to the pir. Then, there are mujawirs. They are descendants of the erstwhile khudam (servants) or disciples of the pir. They have a rightful claim over certain spots in the shrine where devotees donate money. In certain cases, if a particular spot – usually a window, belongs to particular clan, its ownership changes on daily basis under the peculiar anwari system. In cases where claimants are unmanageable, the window is auctioned on seasonal basis and the booty is shared. Though of the section of professional Kaurshis (Persian word for shoe-keepers) has ceased to exist, there is the family of nishandez, the identifiers and the displayers of the relics.

As most of the money collected has been consistently going to fund the life of these families, this monopoly needs to be done away with if the resources need to be diverted to the social development of the society.

Eversince Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah founded the Muslim Auqaf Trust in 1973 during his “22 years of political wilderness”, the custodian institution of shrines and some of the mosques has all along been considered as NC’s “energy centre”. After militancy erupted, the Hurriyat Conference installed a Board on it, but when Dr Farooq Abdullah bounced back to power, he restored the status quo. In 2002, Mufti Sayeed’s government took it over and devoured its symbolic autonomy and made it state controlled Board. Though a number of rackets became public especially about the Waqf funding of some politicians, it prevented the Board from growing any further. Finally, the routine resumed as the incumbent government took over. Decisions on its behalf continue to be taken by the political bosses.

Suggestions have been made for de-monopolisation of the shrines from the families strictly on the pattern of what was done while creating Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDB) and the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). The traditional beneficiaries should get a one-time settlement and they should go home. This will prevent the dichotomy that exists in managing the shrines – the local beneficiaries and the Waqf Board. Unless the dual control ends, it will continue to add to the confusion and drain the resources unproductively.

SMVBD and SASB are fairly younger shrine management organisations. While SMVBD has revolutionised Katra and is proud owner of a world-class university and a five star cancer hospital, the SASB has also the potential of becoming an impressive Hindu institution within a few years.

Even the most impressive instance is the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah shrine of Rajouri that contributes by example and is perhaps one of the best managed shrines of the region. Policy intervention is also required in de-politicising the Waqf Board. It needs to be managed by professionals and experts that will be entrusted with the management of all the revenue generating shrines across Kashmir. For the current crisis, the Board needs to be made accountable and to prevent similar situations in future, and must reconstituted to have experts from diverse fields in it.

Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani has asked the unionist politicians to stop using the Board income for their politics. “Time has come when these politicians should render account of every penny,” Geelani said. “People should rise to the occasion and free the Waqf assets from the possession of these politicians.”

The Board, insiders say, can generate Rs 100 crore a year, if politics does not interfere in its functioning it has Rs 10,000 Cr worth assets.


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