Footprints: Battle for interfaith harmony in Islamkot

Footprints: Battle for interfaith harmony in Islamkot

ISLAMKOT: Two guards stand right outside the Sant Nenuram ashram in Islamkot, Tharparkar, as former nazim of the area Ghansham Das leads me and a group of elders from the area inside the gates of the sanctuary. Spread over a 10-acre plot with temples and resting places constructed side-by-side, the ashram is a 45-kilometre drive away from the district headquarters Mithi. There are a few people around, some busy in prayer and others making use of the afternoon by taking a nap on a podium besides the main veranda.

The former nazim looks anxious as he starts giving out details of a recent incident at the ashram that made the headlines. On Jan 9, three men — two from Kunri and one from Islamkot — broke through the back door of the ashram after midnight. The three — Ashfaq Bhatti, Arbab Kapri and Sattar Bajeer — were arrested by police after being caught on a CCTV camera inside the temple.

Leading us inside a small temple where a statue of Sant Nenuram is kept behind a glass door with a chador around its shoulders, Das points out that, “the men came after this silver statue”. Though, he says, what he knows is based on the initial statement the police got from the suspects, “it seems like a possible alibi”.

“The glass door is hidden behind the nazrana trunk which they broke open when they couldn’t find the lock of the door, and stole Rs23,533 which is the total sum given to us by the police,” he adds.

Usually, after a day of serving food and water to around 300 people, the doors of the ashram are closed around11:30pm. The first people to witness the broken locks of the nazrana trunks were the usual worshippers who get in around 5am every day. Later, another worshipper recovered a wrench from the water basket after he used it to fetch water from the nearby well. Both instances were shared with the patron of the ashram, Kaka Khushal Das, who informed the police.

Another elder from around the area, Veerji Mal, was informed who then called the local MPA, Mahesh Malani, adds one of the devotees. All of this helped in gaining the timely attention of authorities, who Das says, “needed to be informed before the situation escalated, as the area has a sizeable yet balanced population of Hindus and Muslims of up to 100,000 people”.

The quick response from the caretakers of the ashram and the ministers around the area is the result of an incident that occurred in 2010. Das recalled how “a man from the Bajeer caste from nearby Niyaari village had gotten inside the ashram and vandalised the property. He was arrested soon after local politicians made a lot of hue and cry. The police kept him with them after getting a 14-day remand. Eventually, he was pronounced mentally unstable by the court and let off”.

Soon after the incident, Das installed CCTV cameras while the government sent two guards to ensure security at the ashram. The CCTV cameras, which can be seen on top of various doorways of the ashram, stand out in contrast to the old structure of the building.

Keeping the earlier incident of vandalism in mind, politicians were quick to respond this time around, says Das, 77, who is among the oldest patrons. He was sleeping when the men broke in. “They came from the back door and we know one of them. He used to be a mechanic. We haven’t said anything against anyone and keep to ourselves. We have always had good relations with our Muslims neighbours. However, there are a few reckless people in every community,” he adds.

Though the men have been taken away for the time being and patrons of the ashram hope that they’ll be produced in court for a proper conviction, there is discomfort in the way they speak about the incident. “Such instances make one uncomfortable preaching something the majority does not agree with,” says Das. “We are doing exactly the same thing for the past many years and I hope it continues,” he adds.

Sant Nenuram preached interfaith harmony and as a result majority of his devotees at the annual congregation in September are Muslims, says Kaka Khushal Das. Every day after people are fed inside its premises, those with nowhere to go can sleep on a podium next to the main gates.

Has the recent incident made them raise their guard? “We welcome people of all faiths and don’t want incidents such as the one that occurred recently to dictate our behaviour,” adds Das.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2016

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