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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 33, August 1, 2009

Conscience and Charar-e-Sharief

Wednesday 5 August 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Now that Kashmir is once again experiencing a traumatic period, we reproduce one of the most moving pieces of N.C. on a visit to Charar-e-Sharief after its destruction.

One month to date after the destruction of the shrine and mosque at Charar-e-Sharief, a team of journalists reached the township. As one looked round the ghastly devastation of rows of burnt houses with their walls standing as mute witnesses to the crime, spontaneously it came to one’s lips: if you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

As one slowly climbed the stone slabs at the threshold of the complex, one could almost sense that on those stones have fallen for six hundred years thousands upon thousands of footsteps of devotees, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh, who came to pray at the shrine of Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani—Nund Rishi to Hindus and Sikhs. The saint was honoured as Alam-Dari Kashmir, and was called “Param Guru” in the hallowed days of harmony among communities that lived in the Kashmir Valley.

With the hapless crowd of those rendered homeless by the fire that destroyed the Kasba and finally the shrine itself, one could not help breaking down by the agony all round—the agony of the hundreds rendered destitute through no fault of their own, as also the agony that has engulfed the whole of this picturesque Valley. Throughout the one-hour drive back to Srinagar, one could not help pondering over the searing misfortune that has befallen upon the entire State of Jammu and Kashmir and for which the entire nation is responsible. That guilt can’t be covered up by finding alibis in Pakistan or elsewhere.

From the beginning of the period of Ramzan, the Army had cordoned off the Charar-e-Sharief and held the cordon for sixtyfive long days from March 7. Nearly three quarters of the local population quit the township as it was brought within the firing line from both sides. On May 8, many of the houses were set on fire. Three days later, in the night of May 10/May 11, as the time for celebration on the morrow was about to begin, horror struck the people that the sacred shrine of six hundred years was put to flame.

That was the moment for tears such as angels weep. For with that act of vandalism, the very ethos of our Republic was violated, as the shrine of Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani, Nund Rishi symbolised what this great subcontinent had stood out for in History—the symbol of brotherhood and harmony.

Who was the culprit whose hand committed this act of unholy profanity? The official version given in special briefings was that Must Gul, the Afghan chief of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, and his gang were taking shelter at the shrine; that they set fire to the Kasba on May 8 and two days later, torched the shrine and escaped. An ideological gloss was sought to be put on it by adding that Must Gul had entered the shrine with his boots on and assaulted the head priest there, and thereby wanted to destroy the symbol of Kashmiriyat and assert the primacy of Islamic fundamentalism. The Army had put pickets round the township to keep a watch and could not move in when the houses were set on fire because of the firing by Must Gul’s men, and so by the time it could make the breakthrough, the shrine had been turned to ashes and Must Gul and his men escaped.

This version is totally contradicted by the entire populace of the township and a large number of people outside, who all hold the Army responsible for it. According to the residents of Charar-e-Sharief, the Army laid siege to the township two months earlier, right at the onset of the fasting month of Ramzan. And they asked the people to move out. Fearing that there would be an armed clash between the Army and the militants, most of the residents moved out of the siege and took shelter in nearby places, some even coming to Srinagar. Then on May 8, the Army did a clean-up operation by setting the empty houses on fire, planning thereby to encircle the militants in and around the shrine and then force them to surrender. And when there was no response to the surrender call, on the night before the festive day of Id, a helicopter dropped incendiaries that burnt down the shrine. Must Gul and his men escaped.

The Army refutation of this version of the residents is that it has no night-landing helipad in the neighbourhood. What is intriguing is that during the critical days, there was no publicity by the government about the alleged recording of Must Gul’s speech. When the Army had laid siege to Charar-e-Sharief for 65 days—which was widely publicised—its objective as announced was to save the shrine and catch the militants. On both these counts, it failed. If after laying siege for two months, it could not catch Must Gul, that was by no means a very impressive record, though the Chief of the Army Staff in a subsequent statement pompously declared that there was nothing for the Army to be ashamed about.

It is also worth noting that after the first report of houses having been gutted at Charar reached Srinagar, one of the Opposition leaders, Yasin Malik, rushed there, but was arrested on the way and brought back. The same happened to Shabbir Shah and Abdul Gani Lone of the Hurriyat Conference. Even the local leaders of the place like G.M. Hubi of the People’s Conference, and Abdul Qayyum, the Janata Dal MLA of Charar whose house had been gutted, were kept away.

The local people showed us empty mortar shells and empty cases of other ammunitions with Indian markings picked up at the spot. Another journalist reported that a mortar shell and a khaki coloured small parachute with Indian Ordnance markings had been recovered from the spot. And General Rao, the Governor’s remark was that “the Army could have fired flares and smoke bombs to cover its advance into the township”. Could not some of them hit the mosque and the shrine which were of wooden structure and combustible? A strange blanket of silence has been maintained by the authorities on this score.

It is difficult to understand how the govern-ment does not realise that there are hardly any takers for the official version of the destruction of the Charar. A leading figure in the Congress told this writer that he felt that the Army was responsible for the destruction of the shrine. As for Must Gul, he was known to have been in the Valley for the past four years, and the authorities are not unaware of it.

What was heart-rending was the total apathy and mismanagement in relief and rehabilitation work at Charar-e-Sharief. The journalists’ team had gone there with government clearance and stayed at the spot for more than two hours. Hundreds thronged there to tell us of their woes, most of them had received little of relief and less of rehabilitation help, despite all the publicity about relief and rehabilitation from the Prime Minister downward. The Imam of the shrine himself was deprived of any such relief though he is without a roof over his head. No tents could be seen, not even any temporary shades. People are living in the open: soon the scorching sun will be followed by rains and then the winter snow. The authorities at Srinagar denied the charge of paucity of relief and rehabilitation and insisted on having a relief officer there, though he was invisible to us during our stay there.

The tragedy of Charar-e-Sharief is a matter of national shame. This is no hyperbole but the measured utterance of a senior officer holding very important responsibilities. It is the height of folly and dishonesty on the part of the government not to have initiated a highest-level investigation into the entire happening. One can understand why the government should be fighting shy of such an enquiry as many other dirty skeletons might come tumbling out of its cupboard. For the affairs of Kashmir in the last few years, when revealed, may turn out to be the most horrendous scandal of our times. If the government fails to wake up, it is the bounden duty for conscience-stricken citizens of the country—there are quite a large number of them—to come forward and set up a people’s tribunal to go into the Charar-e-Sharief calamity. And with it must come from all sections of our people generous donations for the reconstruction of the sacred shrine which was the place of worship not of one community but of all three—Muslim, Hindu and Sikh—a sangam indeed.

Today, Charar-e-Sharief stands as the challenge to our conscience.

(Mainstream, June 17, 1995)

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