On 30 May, 1995, the notorious Pakistani terrorist, Mast Gul, set fire to the revered Sufi shrine of Sheikh Noorudin Rishi, popularly called Baba Rishi, in Charar-e- Sharif, 35 kms from Srinagar. For hundreds of years, thousands of Hindus and Muslims sought solace at this shrine. This writer has prayed at this shrine, and seen the emotions on the faces of its simple village folk.
Finding the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front that led the militancy against the government too secular and fighting for independence and not merger with Pakistan, this group was systematically marginalized by the Pakistanis and the Hizbul Mujahideen, the armed wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, propped up. This happened in the early days of militancy. Not trusting the Kashmiris to take the struggle to its logical conclusion, which for them was merging Kashmir with Pakistan, the Pakistanis gradually pumped in Afghan jihad veterans in Kashmir to fulfil their objectives. One of the targets of the jihadists was an attack on the prevailing social and religious practices of Kashmiris, like visiting shrines of revered Sufi saints. This was also because in Kashmir, Hindus as much as Muslims worshipped at these shrines for centuries, and such common practices led to a composite culture popularly called Kashmiriyat. This common culture was now under attack.
The Zia years in Pakistan witnessed the influence of the Saudi Arabian brand of Wahabism, an extreme interpretation of Islam according to which Sufis and their shrines are considered un-Islamic, and those who visit these places are idolaters. Saudi Arabia poured millions of dollars into Pakistani madrassas where this form of extreme Islam, intolerant of other interpretations, was taught to youngsters, mainly to check Shia Iran. These madrassas became jihadist factories. For instance, the al Qaeda and the Taliban are practitioners of Wahabism. In their attempt to cleanse prevailing practices in Kashmir, the jihadists tried to wreak havoc on the annual Urs celebrations at Batmol, which was met with resistance from the people. Also, there were violent clashes at Aishmuqam in South Kashmir when the jihadists attempted, yet again, to disrupt the Urs festivities for Baba Zain-ud-din Rishi. This was followed by the burning down of a part of the Sufi shrine at Baba Rishi near Tangmarg. The depredations caused by Mast Gul at Charar-e-Sharif have already been referred above. Later, there were failed attempts by the jihadists to burn down the 700 year old shrine of Baba Naqashband Sahib in Srinagar. The people of Kashmir stood firm against the many attempts by the jihadists to change their way of life, despite all their trouble and suffering.
Jihadists have now turned their attention on their benefactors in Pakistan. Analysts agree that Sufism, with its emphasis on tolerance and universal love, poses the strongest threat to the Taliban’s creed. Sufi beliefs have been popular in Pakistan for centuries. In the past, this was a way of life in the sub-continent. The Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, which has been indulging in violence against Shias and other minorities to create a sectarian divide has now turned its attention on Sufi shrines in Pakistan. Shrines in the Khyber Agency’s Landi Kotal tehsil, Gandhawa in the district of Jhal Magsi, and the shrine of Rahman Baba and Mian Umar Baba in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were attacked. The worst was the triple suicide attack on Data Darbar, a Sufi shrine in Lahore revered all over Pakistan, in which scores of innocent pilgrims were killed and injured, causing widespread condemnation. This was followed by a suicide attack at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the patron saint of Karachi, in which 10 people were killed and 70 injured. It is reported that the attack was planned to cause maximum damage, given that it was the busiest day of the week.
Will the people of Pakistan stand united against the Taliban’s onslaught on their practices and beliefs like the Kashmiris did? While the mainstream media and some leading intellectuals have condemned these attacks, the main source of the Taliban’s inspiration, the thousands of madrassas where Wahabism is drilled in young minds, remain intact. Some half-hearted attempts were made to check this menace during General Musharraf’s time under US pressure. This needs to be revisited with purpose and determination to cut the Taliban’s main source of jihadist supply. Some of this indoctrination has spread to India, thanks to the machinations of the ISI. For instance, a leading Indian Mujahideen member, currently in custody, told his interrogators that Mullah Omar was his leader, and that he would do anything for him. Recently, a professor’s hand was cut off for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet, which is an indication that this strain of radicalism is gradually spreading into the Indian hinterland.