Tuesday, 17 March 2009
The attack at Rahman Baba's shrine is an attempt to destroy the Pashtun heritage
By Rahimullah Yusufzai: The News On Sunday
Two Pashto language poets are household names among the Pashtuns whether they live in Afghanistan, Pakistan or anywhere else in the world. One is the warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak and the other Rahman Baba. The former may sometimes arouse tribal animosity on account of his feuds with rival tribes but the latter is loved by every Pashtun.
It was, therefore, natural for the Pashtun to be outraged when they came to know about the recent bombing of the shrine of their most beloved poet. It was something unimaginable. The attack was seen as an attempt to destroy the Pashtun heritage. As someone commented, the enemies of the Pashtuns weren't even willing to spare their long dead heroes.
The 16th century sufi poet's original name was Abdur Rahman. But he is held in so much reverence that he is universally known as Rahman Baba. The Pashtuns, and many other ethnic groups, reserve the title Baba for their religious, spiritual and literary figures. Babas are supposed to be old and wise men who preach peace and work for love, harmony and tolerance.
Rahman Baba's shrine is located in a cemetery not far from Bahadur Killay, the suburban Peshawar village where he was born in 1653. He died in 1711 and is buried in Hazarkhwani village, sited three kilometres from the city near the chaotic Ring Road. Before Peshawar's haphazard expansion on all sides, his grave and the graveyard were located in the midst of a vast and green rural landscape. His mausoleum, with its gleaming white dome that is visible from afar, is still a bit removed from the main roads and not easy to approach. Poets and writers, along with his innumerable devotees, often complain that the shrine's location is lonely and off the beaten track. They want a wide approach road to be built to enable his fans to visit his grave more often.
The mausoleum, which had become a landmark owing to its impressive height and façade, suffered extensive damage in the bombing. Engineers have declared the building dangerous and recommended its reconstruction. The ANP-PPP coalition government in the NWFP, which has come under strong criticism for its failure to provide security to the people, has already allocated Rs15 million for the reconstruction. Increased security measures have been announced for the shrine and a police post would be set up for the purpose. The security was lax at the time of the attack but nobody has been held responsible or punished for the lapse. One reason for the inadequate security was obviously the thought that nobody would attack and desecrate the grave and mausoleum of the most beloved Pashto poet.
The ease with which the four or five attackers sneaked into the mausoleum from a rear door after smashing the windowpanes explains the laxity of the security at the place. Dawn hadn't broken yet and the few caretakers were apparently asleep or not even at the site of the mausoleum. They could have been at the nearby mosque or at their homes. The miscreants had enough time planting explosives to the four pillars that support the huge building. Two bombs were also buried on the right and left side of the grave of Rahman Baba, a man of God who never harmed anyone in his life. The bomb placed to the right of the grave didn't explode or it would have cause extensive damage. The five explosive devices placed in the pillars and the bomb planted to the left of the grave exploded simultaneously around 5.07 am and the explosions were heard all over Peshawar. Cracks appeared in the gigantic structure and the damaged pillars seem unable to support the building. It may collapse anytime but this hasn't deterred Rahman Baba's devotees, along with those hungry for a photo-session and publicity, from going inside to place wreaths, chaddars and candles, on his grave.
Thousands of people have visited the shrine since its bombing. Many were seen weeping and wiping off their tears. Every visitor cursed the attackers. Most refused to believe that a Pashtun could do this to the mausoleum of Rahman Baba. Militants were the usual prime suspects but their motives appeared unclear. When the shrine of Bahadur Baba, a respected religious and spiritual figure, was attacked with missiles a day after the bombing of Rahman Baba's mausoleum, it was felt that this was a calculated move to desecrate the graves of saints and poets loved by the Pashtuns and was, therefore, an attempt to provoke them. Other shrines too have been desecrated in recent years.
Pirs, faith healers and magicians have also been attacked and harmed in parts of the NWFP. A few were killed and others forced to give up the profession. Many faith-healers, who dealt in "taveez" (amulets) offering cure and good luck to clients, in Swat and rest of Malakand division were warned by the militants to stop their business or face the consequences. All of them complied after making public announcements and placing paid advertisements in the local newspapers.
Villagers from Hazarkhwani, Bahadur Killay and other nearby villages held a demonstration to protest the attack on Rahman Baba's mausoleum. His fame had made his native village and the neighbourhood famous and proud. The bombing provoked every dweller of these ancient villages angry and triggered the spontaneous demonstration.
The caretaker of Rahman Baba's mausoleum, Gohar Ali, received a threatening phone call from an unknown person two days before the attack. The caller threatened an attack if female visitors weren't stopped from entering the shrine. According to Gohar Ali, the shrine was partitioned for male and female visitors in a way that they couldn't see each other. He argued that it was impossible to stop the women from visiting the shrine as most came to the cemetery to pray at the graves of their relatives buried there. No extra security measures were put in place after the threats. The attackers, who according to most accounts were militants, thus found it easy to act upon their threats and bomb the mausoleum.
The work on the Rahman Baba mausoleum complex was completed in 1994. It included the mausoleum, mosque, a little used library and a cafeteria. The project cost Rs 110 million but there wasn't any proper funding for the upkeep of the mausoleum. Mir Afzal Khan, the late chief minister of NWFP, had approved the project at the time and laid its foundation stone. Former President Farooq Leghari inaugurated the complex.
According to Hidayatullah Khan, Nazim of the Hazarkhwani union council where the mausoleum is located and an active member of the Rahman Baba Adabi Jirga, residents of the area were bearing expenses of the maintenance and expansion of the shrine and serving voluntarily as its "khadims" (servants). The jirga held literary sittings at the mausoleum, which came alive on Thursday evenings as devotees and poets, writers and fans of Rahman Baba visited the place. The annual gatherings at the shrine were big events. However, the shrine remained deserted most of the year. It was one such night when the attackers found it easy to bomb the mausoleum and hurt the feelings of the Pashtuns.