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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dastgeer Sahib shrine, mosque perish in fire

·        69 injured in clashes at Khanyar; Police, Fire Service under attack; fire tender torched

·        Structures perish fully but all Tabarukaat saved

·        Khanyar disturbed, Valley shocked but maintains calm

·        Govt tightlipped on cause of fire, short-circuit ruled out by residents, Div Comm holding probe

·        Biq questions: Where was Police security? Where was the shrine’s fire tender? Why fire brigade reached late by an hour and without water?

Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

SRINAGAR, Jun 25: The Police-protected 207-year-old Dastgeer Sahib shrine gutted today, alongwith its adjoining mosque, in a devastating fire in Khanyar area of this capital city, bringing a pall of gloom on entire Kashmir valley. Amid emotional scenes, groups of devotees clashed with Police and torched a fire tender even as 39 civilians and 30 Policemen sustained injuries. With the authorities being tightlipped over the cause of fire and the residents ruling out short-circuit theory in absence of power supply, Divisional Commissioner was directed by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah from London to hold a detailed inquiry into the circumstances that led to devastation of one of Kashmir’s most venerated shrines inspite of Police protection.

Resident eyewitness Syed Ayatullah told Early Times that within a minute of his purchasing a vernacular newspaper at the entrance of the shrine at 06:25 a.m. he heard people inside the building screaming. “Soon the smoke began billowing out and the leaping flames engulfed the shrine fully. However, the Wakf Board men rushed straight to the balcony over the main hall of the devotees and they evacuated all the Tabarukaat, including the relic and the historic manuscript of the holy Quran in calligraphy of Khat-e-Koofi believed to have been penned by Hazrat Imam Ali in 6th century AD”, Ayatullah said.

According to the eyewitness, the mysterious fire originated from the devotees’ hall and the sanctum sanctorum and it spread quickly to the whole profusely painted wooden building. He said that the shrine gutted fully alongwith its adjoining mosque and Zanana Khana. An under-construction building coming up on the same premises was also damaged due to the blaze and fire fighting.

Ayatullah, as also other residents and devotees, claimed that the fire brigade reached the spot “nearly an hour after the fire started”. “As they came empty, they began asking us about the location the fire hydrants and other sources of water”, said Ayatullah and his neighbours. “Surprisingly, the fire tender, that remains always attached for safety of the shrine, was also nowhere around today”. Some others, claiming to be eyewitnesses, said that the angry youth and the outraged devotees resorted to beating up of some fire and Police personnel. An Inspector’s uniform was torn into shreds. In the ensuing clashes, as many as 30 Policemen and 39 civilians sustained injuries. They included Deputy Commandant of the Shiraz Cinema camp of CRPF and Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) Khanyar.

Officiating Director General of Police, K Rajendra Kumar, was quoted by a local news agency to have confirmed that 69 people---30 Policemen and 39 civilians---sustained injuries in today’s ding dong clashes at Khanyar.

Residents, as well as Sajjadah Nasheen of the shrine, Syed Khalid Masood Geelani, maintained that the cause of the fire was “mysterious” as, according to them, there was no possibly of the most common cause: short-circuit. “There was no electric supply that time around in Khanyar”, they maintained.

However, the authorities chose to remain tightlipped with regard to cause of the fire till late tonight. Addressing a hurriedly arranged news conference, Minister of Law and Rural Development, Ali Mohammad Sagar, who also happens to be the ruling National Conference’s MLA from Khanyar, said that a committee of experts headed by Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir (Dr Asgar Hassan Samoon) would hold an exhaustive inquiry and submit report to the government within a week.

Conspiracy theory
Sagar declined to comment on whether there could be a conspiracy behind the gutting of the historic shrine. “You know it better than me”, he retorted. In response to another question, he claimed that the fire brigade reached the spot “within 8 to 10 minutes”. When asked why there were no fire extinguishers inside the fully wooden heritage building, Sagar said: “This question can be answered after the report of the probe becomes available to us”.

Convener of the Kashmir chapter of INTACH and former Director General of Tourism, Mohammad Saleem Beg, confirmed to Early Times that no fire extinguishers had been installed, either by Wakf Board or by any other organisation, at the Khanyar shrine. He said that Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had lately installed the fire extinction system at the equally venerated shrine of Amir-e-Kabir Mir Syed Ali Hamadani at Khanqua-e-Mou’la in Fateh Kadal area of downtown Srinagar. These, he said, were installed outside on the premises when some of the devotees resisted to the fitting inside the Shah-e-Hamadaan shrine.

Saleem Beg said that INTACH had fortunately digitalized architectural plans, sections and elevations of the Dastgeer Sahib shrine in 2010. “If we are associated with the reconstruction, I’m sure we can create an identical shrine complex”, Beg said. He was later today called to participate in a high level meeting that was held under Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s instructions from London.

Sources said that the high level meeting decided to lay foundation stone of the new construction at the same premises “within 48 hours”. J&K Projects Construction Corporation, according to sources, was being assigned the project in coordination with Wakf Board and INTACH. Chief Minister is also the Chairman of the Wakf Board---an autonomous organisation that manages scores of shrines in Srinagar and rest of the Valley.

Vice Chairman of Wakf Board, M Y Qadiri, said that he visited the devastated shrine complex, alongwith Sajjadah Nasheen Syed Khalid Geelani and other members of the board. “Though everybody is shocked and outraged that the shrine has perished fully despite Police protection, we are lucky that all the Tabarukaat have been evacuated and preserved”, Mr Qadiri asserted.

State of slumber
None of the officials responded to questions when Early Times struggled to know how the fire tender, that remains always present, had disappeared from the shrine today. There were also no answers to questions when mediapersons attempted to know why the fire brigade reached late and that too with emptied water storage tanks. As nobody offered any explanation, it remained shrouded in mystery whether the Police guards, deputed for protection of the shrine, were present on duty or they too had gone to home. It was only at the high level meeting in the evening that the state government decided to conduct fire audit of all the shrine buildings of heritage value. 

Historic and equally revered shrines of Chrar-e-Sharief (Sheikh-ul-Aalam Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani), Tral (Khanquah-e-Faiz Panah of Mir Syed Ali Hamadani) and Anantnag (Rishi Moul), as also some other shrines, have perished in Kashmir in other incidents of fire in the last over two decades of militancy. Even at the most revered Hazratbal, an Islamic Library had gutted in 1992.

Eminent litterateur, researcher, historian and Deputy Chairman of Legislative Council, Mohammad Yousuf Taing, said that the shrine complex that gutted today had been constructed during Afghan period by one Buzurg Shah in 1805 AD. In fact the shrine has been in place for the last 350 years when Syed Mohammad Fazal Qadiri, a devotee of the eminent Iranian-Arab Sufi saint and scholar, Sayyid Abdul Qadir Jeelani, constructed it and placed the saint’s relic and other Taburakaat for preservation in it. These included a manuscript of Quran with the calligraphy by Hazrat Imam Ali.

Papier mache master Safdar Alamgir had delicately adorned the shrine interior with a rare colourful embossing of Gul-e-Vellayat and a full treasure of paintings that took him years to complete. The Shia Muslim craftsman has immense faith in Dastgeer Sahab whose parents were direct descendants of Imam Hassan and Imam Hussain.

Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, reverentially known as Gaus-ul-Azam and Dastgeer Sahib, was born in South of Caspian Sea in Mazandaran Province of Iran on March 18th, 1077, and he passed away in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at the age of 88 years on January 15th, 1166 AD. For many years of his life, he lived in Baghdad and, on account of his unmatched contribution to propagation of Islam, he attained the sobriquet of Mohiuddin (reviver of the faith). However, he never visited India or Kashmir. His grand mausoleum is situated in Baghdad. He succeeds the spiritual chain of Junaid Baghdadi and has been one of the most revered saints among the Kashmiri Muslims for the last several centuries.

A conglomerate of Muslim clerics today called for a total shutdown in Valley on June 26th in mourning of the shrine and as a mark of protest against the government’s inability to protect the shrine. The call was later supported by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq-led faction of Hurriyat Conference.

Valley calm
A pall of gloom descended on the Valley with devastation of the shrine as television news channels carried images of the devotees in thousands weeping and wailing at Khanyar. Hordes of devout women cried in mourning. Nevertheless, there was no incident of stone pelting, violent reaction or clash with Police anywhere other than few in Khanyar. This correspondent found shops shuttered in several markets in the capital city but open in most of the areas. There were small groups of youngsters at different places but none of them picked up stones, caused disruption to traffic or enforced shutdown. Traffic and business establishments functioned smoothly in most parts of the Valley, though shops were closed in the afternoon in several towns without anybody’s call.

Today’s incident of fire occurred hours after a religious body called, Dawat-e-Islami, organized a congregation at the shrine. Footage of the late night speeches was recorded for a religious television, Madani Channel. For the last several days, Khanyar shrine was in news for the visit of a group of religious scholars from Saudi Arabia and some other Islamic countries. Amid today’s outrage, hundreds of angry youth captured a prominent separatist leader, abused him ferociously for visiting the shrine, tore his shirt into shreds and blackened his face. This kind of a bitter and violent reaction to a separatist leader’s visit was witnessed by Kashmiris for the first time since late Mirwaiz Farooq was attacked with sandals and slippers at Iddgah in 1988.


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