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Bomb blast at Ajmer Dargah - 2 killed

Mehtab Singh

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JAIPUR: A bomb blast ripped through the historic dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer on Thursday evening, killing two persons and injuring 17 others, three of them critically. The blast took place at Ahata-e-Noor, 20 metres from the mausoleum inside the shrine, shortly after the fast-breaking custom of Iftar.

Ahata-e-Noor, the courtyard outside the burial place of the 13th century Sufi saint, was packed to the capacity — because of the ongoing month of Ramzan — when the blast, stated to be of low intensity, occurred at 6.12 p.m.

Nearly 5,000 devotees were present in different parts of the shrine to break the fast and offer ‘Maghrib’ (evening) prayers. Panic gripped the dargah and neighbourhood when the deafening sound of the explosion was heard. Devotees scampered to vacate the dargah and rushed to the narrow alleyways. The shops in the market in front of the shrine were hurriedly closed. Police, who reached the site immediately, cordoned off the entire area.

One person died on the spot, and the other succumbed to injuries on way to the hospital. The injured were admitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital where emergency arrangements were made for their treatment.

Amid the commotion to get out and take the injured to the hospital, a crowd of angry devotees attacked policemen at the permanent police post in the Dargah Bazaar. The situation was immediately brought under control and the district administration appealed to the people to maintain calm.

Ajmer Divisional Commissioner Deepak Upreti said an extra force had been rushed to the pilgrim city even though law and order had been restored with the Dargah Bazaar shut down.

He said normality would be restored to let the people return to the shrine by Friday, when special prayers are to be offered to mark ‘Alvida Jumaa’ (last Friday of Ramzan).

The main gate of the dargah, which was closed for some time, was opened late evening and top officials visited the blast site. According to the initial reports, the blast material was stuffed inside a tiffin box with a timing device to explode just when the devotees would be breaking the fast.

While a team of forensic experts was on way to the blast site, police believed that the perpetrators of the blast wanted to cause maximum casualty by planning its time and spot. It was probably because of the crude bomb’s low intensity that the damage was not extensive.

Even as a high-level meeting of police officers was convened at the State police headquarters here to review the law and order situation and an alert was sounded across the State, a delegation of Congress, led by AICC Secretary Harendra Mirdha, left for Ajmer to meet the injured and visit the dargah.

The 13th century dargah is one of India’s most revered religious places and attracts people belonging to all religions from all over the country, especially during the week-long Urs ceremony observing the death anniversary of the Sufi saint – who is also known as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz (patron of the poor). Devotees refer to the pilgrim city as ‘Ajmer Sharif’ as a mark of respect for the Khwaja.

Muslim social groups here condemned the attack inside the dargah, saying it was clearly aimed at disturbing communal harmony in the State. Jamat-e-Islami Hind State president Mohammed Salim said the elements choosing soft targets like the dargah should be identified by a thorough probe and their conspiracy exposed.

Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil has condemned the blast at the Ajmer dargah, saying that “condemnable designs of elements inimical to the country to cause communal discord should not be allowed to succeed.â€

Appealing to the people to remain calm and face the situation bravely, Mr. Patil assured the Rajasthan government that it would be helped to provide succour to the victims of the blast and act against the culprits.

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The war against popular Islam

Praveen Swami

Islamist groups have made no secret of their loathing for the Ajmer Sharif shrine

NEW DELHI: The highest form of worship, wrote saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, is "to redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry."

Thursday's bombing of the saint's shrine at Ajmer — the third in a series of attacks on Muslim religious institutions after the 2006 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Malegaon and this summer's strike at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad — have been characterised as attempts to provoke a pan-India communal war. But the bombings also reflect another less-understood project: the war of Islamist neoconservatives against the syncretic traditions and beliefs that characterise popular Islam in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is, almost without dispute, the most venerated Sufi saint of South Asia. Born in 1141 C.E., Chishti is believed to have studied at the great seminaries of Samarkand and Bukhara before travelling to India. Ajmer emerged as an important centre of pilgrimage during the sixteenth century, after Emperor Akbar undertook a pilgrimage on foot to the saint's grave.

Chishti's order laid stress on seven principles, notably the renunciation of material goods, financial reliance on farming or alms, independence from economic patronage from the established political order, the sharing of wealth, and respect for religious differences.

Chishti's doctrine on the "highest form of worship" led to the saint often being described as the Garib Nawaz, or emperor of the poor. Several of the most famous Sufi shrines in South Asia – notably that of Fariduddin Ganj-i Shakar at Pakpattan in Pakistan, and that of Nizamuddin Awliya in New Delhi – were born of Chisti's teachings.

Over the centuries, they have come to command a massive multi-faith following, attracting Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike. For that precise reason, they have long been under attack from religious neoconservatives.

Islamist critics of Sufism have made no secret of their loathing for shrines like that at Ajmer, which they claim propagate the heresy of 'shirk' – an Arabic term commonly translated to mean polytheism, but which is also used to refer to the veneration of saints and even atheism.

South Asian terror groups associated with recent attacks on Muslim shrines — notably the Lashkar-e-Taiba — draw theological inspiration from the Salafi sect, a neoconservative tradition also sometimes referred to as Wahabbism. Salafi theologians are intensely hostile to Sufi orders like that founded by Chishti, characterising them as apostasy.

In The General Precepts of the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah, a pamphlet which propounds the Salafi doctrine, theologian Shaykh Naasir al'Aql, sharply criticises religious practices "where the dead are taken as intermediaries between a person and Allah, supplicating them and seeking the fulfilment of one's needs through them, seeking their assistance and other similar acts."

Al'Aql, whose work is often drawn on by Lashkar ideologues, argues that "every avenue that leads to shirk in the worship of Allah, or innovations in religion – it is obligatory to forbid it." Another pamphlet available on the website of the Lashkar's parent organisation, the Pakistan-based Jamaat-ud-Dawa, rails against shrines, demanding that "Muslim leaders combat and uproot this phenomenon." Just how this is to be done, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa does not say – but Lashkar cadre have left little to the imagination.

Terror groups in Jammu and Kashmir have frequently targeted regional religious institutions that draw on the same syncretic traditions as that at Ajmer. In June, 2005, for example, the Lashkar-e-Taiba was held responsible for the attempted assassination of north Kashmir mystic Ahad B'ab Sopore. Eyewitnesses said the assassination attempt, in which one person was killed and nine were injured, was carried out by Qayoom Nassar, a well-known Sopore-based Lashkar operative.

Lashkar cadre are also thought to be responsible for a May 2005 arson attack that led to the destruction of the 14th century shrine of the saint Zainuddin Wali at Ashmuqam in south Kashmir. Ashmuqam was earlier subjected to several grenade attacks, leading to disruption of festive days there for several years. A month later, Lashkar operative Bilal Magray was arrested on charges of having thrown a hand grenade at a Sufi congregation in Bijbehara, injuring 15 people. Dozens of similar attacks have taken place over the years.

In 2000, Lashkar terrorists destroyed sacramental tapestries Bafliaz residents had offered at the shrine of Sayyed Noor, one of the most venerated Sufi saints in the region. As early as June 1994, Lashkar terrorists stormed the historic Baba Reshi shrine at Tangmarg and fired on pilgrims.

Perhaps, the most prominent incident in the campaign was the October 1995 siege of the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, which houses a relic claimed to be a hair of Prophet Mohammad. The terrorists threatened to blow up the shrine unless troops, who had surrounded them, were withdrawn. A similar siege at Chrar-e-Sharif in May 1996 led to the destruction of the town's famous 700-year-old shrine. Despite these attacks, popular Islam in Jammu and Kashmir has held its own – as it is likely to do elsewhere in India, too.

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