In soft focus
Shiv Kumar reports on a shrine under contest by fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims
JAGTAR Singh is the peculiar one out in the sea of humanity clambering uphill to the dargah of Haji Abdur Rehman Shah Malang. His deep red turban bobbing above the uncovered heads of the pilgrims struggling up the Malang Hill, 2,596 feet above sea-level marks him out this pleasant morning.
"I am here to thank Baba," the middle-aged transporter speaks softly above the din. Business has been good this year and Singh has joined the congregation cutting across caste and creed in gratitude. Hindus and Muslims throng this hill-top shrine as do Parsis, Christians and Sikhs every February to celebrate the urs of the Baba.
The 13-kilometre long drive from the railway station at Kalyan outside Mumbai is the first indicator of trouble beneath the pastoral calm. Road signs en route have ugly blotches of tar clumsily defacing the word ‘Haji’ betraying the handiwork of Hindutva forces. Hundreds of devotees like Singh who are trudging up the hill do not seem to mind though. The long winding path uphill is paved with granite, Cuddapah stones and even white bathroom tiles – tokens of gratitude.
Ten rupees get me 20 packets of peanuts for the monkeys who wait to be fed during the 80-minute climb. Local entrepreneurs have put up tiny stalls at every turn to sell freshly crushed sugarcane juice.
Past the two smaller mazaars where devotees of pirsaab must stop to pay their obeisance, scores of devout Muslims bow before the Hindu Brahmin priest who oversees worship at the dargah. "I am the 14th generation priest to serve this shrine," says Kumar Ketkar, a trained lawyer.
Today, the first day of the urs, a palanquin symbolising the spirit of pirsaab has just been brought from Ketkar’s ancestral home below the hill in traditional Hindu style. After the rituals spread over several hours, Ketkar and other trustees of the shrine are being greeted by scores of devotees. Many of the local Muslims respectfully touch Ketkar’s feet and seek his blessings.
"The celebrations peak on the final day of the urs, the full moon night during the Hindu month of Magh which is also the 13th day of the month of Chand in the Islamic calendar," says Ketkar. In most years this day falls in the month of February. The celebrations will end with another palanquin procession bearing chadors and sandalwood paste from the dargah in the reverse direction. Seven groups of local fakirs belong to different jamaats elect a leader from among themselves to complete the rituals. Before they leave, Hindu and Muslim devotees usually visit the nearby Maruti Mandir and a mosque respectively.
The Ketkar family’s association with the Haji Malang dargah goes back to 1780 when the British laid siege to fort nearby then in the possession of the Peshwa rulers. The Peshwas held out for six long months forcing the British to withdraw. "My ancestor Kashinath Pant Ketkar issued a proclamation ascribing the victory to the pirsaab," says Ketkar. Since then local Hindus and Muslims have worshipped together here.
According to lore, Haji Abdur Rehman Shah was a 13th century mystic from Yemen who settled down here to preach. The local ruler, King Nall, is said to have offered his daughter to the pir as a disciple. The mazaars of the pir and Ma Fatima, lie side by side.
The façade of communal harmony are however punctured by groups of fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims locked in fierce contest for control of the shrine. "Amar Parvat was the original name of the place because rishis gave diksha to Lord Amarnath here," says Dinesh Deshmukh who heads the Thane unit of the Hindu Manch, an umbrella body of different Hindutva groups. "What they call the mazaars are basically small mounts that have come up around gifts given by the gurus to their disciples," says Deshmukh.
Haji Malang’s believers however contest Deshmukh’s claim. "We don’t subscribe to their ideology or their stories as we have written records and parchments dating back several centuries substantiating our claims," says Ketkar.
"Under Section 43 of the Waqf Act, 1993, all dargahs, mosques and kabrasthans automatically come under the Waqf Board," says Nasir Khan, a trustee of the shrine. With the Maharashtra government deciding to implement the new Waqf Act from 2003, even the Waqf Board is pressing for taking over the administration of the dargah from the Charity Commissioner.
According to Dr M A Aziz, Chairman, Waqf Board and Member of Maharashtra’s Legislative Council, little of the rituals at the dargah will change. "We accept Kumar Ketkar as the hereditary trustee. He won’t have any excuse not to work under the Waqf Board," says Dr Aziz.
The Hindutva bodies are raising the future of the Maruti Mandir nearby as a political issue. "Will the Waqf Board also take control of the temple. Isn’t it also part of the complex," asks Deshmukh. The Waqf Board has however decided to let Hindu organisations take charge of the temple. "The Waqf Board will not manage the temple," says Dr Aziz.
With the trustees now taking to personal attacks against one another, devotees of the pirsaab are hoping that the Maharashtra government take direct control of the shrine. "The government should enact a special law like the one for the Shirdi Sai baba and Ajmer Sharif shrines," says Ketkar.
(Part of a series on `Communal Polarisation and Threat to Shared Traditions in India’ supported by the National Foundation for India)
now and again
WHEN it comes to taking up a just cause, Mumbai-based activist and lawyer Flavia Agnes is never the one to lag behind. But what is more important is the fact that Flavia champions a cause really well. These days she is oft quoted as she has been fighting a case on behalf of the dance bar girls of Mumbai.
Flavia founded Majlis, an organization that supports women’s access to the legal system (including marital disputes, domestic violence, economic rights and property settlements), directs campaigns against the inadequacies of the courts, conducts paralegal training for grassroots activists and engages in research and publication of women’s issues in Indian law.
What is most significant is the fact that Flavia married after high school was a battered mother of three. Way back in the Seventies she came to a women’s group in Mumbai for support. It took her a long time to break free of the marriage and the domestic violence within it. Once she did, she penned a very moving autobiography called My story…Our Story of Rebuilding Broken Lives. The story was widely translated into different languages including Punjabi. A decade ago a play based on her life story was presented in Punjabi all over Punjab with Paramjit Tewari as director.
POET and prose writer Reema Anand felt that film was the medium that was needed if she had to take her message to a larger audience. And a message she always has for she picks up humanistic causes.
After doing a course in filmmaking, she first made a film based on the biography of Bhagat Puran Singh of Pingalwara called His Sacred Burden. After that it was a film called From Paris to Tapovan, based on a a social work project by Bhagwant Singh Dilawari. Living in Delhi with a psyche firmly rooted in Chandigarh and Punjab, this daughter of the soil has now built a very fine case for granting amnesty to Punjab militants and soldiers who deserted the army following Operation Bluestar of 1984. Called Lest It Be Repeated, the 17-minute documentary has been researched by her younger sister Inderdeep Thapar.