Over the past few weeks, communal tension has been simmering in Pirana, a village located not far from Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The matter involves a 600-year-old dargah (shrine) of Imam Shah Baba, a figure revered by Muslims, Hindus and others for centuries. Trouble began when the trust that oversees the upkeep of the shrine suddenly decided to build a wall between the shrine and a mosque next to it, virtually cutting off smooth passage between the two.
The trust authorities claim they did this only after getting permission from the District Collector, though this claim is dismissed by the local minority community given how a court case is underway and the matter pertaining to land is sub-judice. Thus, this building of a wall was viewed by the minority Muslim community as a deliberate act of aggression, and thus as a mark of peaceful protest, and also apprehending possible attacks, many families migrated en masse out of the village. Nearly 500 of them were detained, though released later. Now an eerie calm prevails in Pirana, but the underlying tension cannot be ignored. Brief history of the communal unrest in Pirana
In wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, slogans like “Ayodhya toh jhanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baki hai,” were chanted with impunity by Hindutva extremists who hoped to “reclaim” places of worship of the minority community. Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and SabrangIndia’s predecessor Communalism Combat had kept a sharp eye on such instances and we later came into possession of a list of such potential sites that included the Kashi Vishwanath – Gyanvapi mosque complex, Mathura Krishna Janmabhoomi – Shahi Idgah complex and Baba Baudhangiri dargah among others. Which is why our team became increasingly vigilant and when we heard about trouble brewing in Pirana in Gujarat, CJP swung into action.
On November 3, 2011, CJP led several peace activists and human rights defenders to raise concerns surrounding the Pirana Dargah being on the agenda of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). That year, the VHP had planned to hold a three day Dharm Prasar Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarta Sammelan (or a conclave of volunteers working to spread religion) starting November 5, 2011, a day before Bakr Eid. Local news reports had begun carrying confirmation of the event, and that those attending will be staying in the premises of the Dargah. That the Hindutva stage was often used to spread communal tension, the timing of this gathering was reported as a cause of concern.
The CJP responded quickly to the developing situation, and wrote to Dr. Kamla Beniwal, then Governor of Gujarat alerting her about the “unnecessary and provocative attempts to provoke communal tension within the state of Gujarat” and that concern had been expressed both by local residents and the religious head of the Pirana Darga.” CJP feared that VHP’s intention to hold the gathering “will be used as an occasion to utter hate speech and generate tension.” CJP further said, “The fact that the festival of Bakr Eid falls on November 6-7 makes these intentions of the VHP all the more worrisome and suspicious. It appears as not a coincidence that the timing of the VHP’s three day convention after years of silence comes at a time when efforts of the victims of 2002 and legal rights groups to get justice for the state sponsored violence of 2002.”
The letter, signed by human rights defender and peace activists Teesta Setalvad, J.S.Bandukwala, Senior Advocate B .A. Desai, Mallika Sarabhai, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Irfan Engineer, Fr. Cedric Prakash, Hanif Lakdawala, Sophia khan, Sukla Sen, Amita Buch, Ashoke Chatterjee, Adv Kamayani Bali Mahabal, and M K Raina, urged the Governor to act and “ensure that the permission for this is revoked, failing which strict undertakings are taken from the organisers to ensure civilised and peaceful conduct of the proceedings.”
Similar letters seeking urgent actions were sent to Chittaranjan Singh then Director General of Police (DGP) of Gujarat, alerting him to the brewing situation as “the record of these organisations in their yatras to Ayodhya and back has been full of belligerence and anger on trains. Their behaviour in Pirana is not likely to be different.” The timing of the VHP’s three day convention after years of silence “comes at a time when efforts of the victims of 2002 and legal rights groups to get justice for the state sponsored violence of 2002” stated CJP, illustrating that it was anything but a coincidence.
On November 4, 2011, the CJP also wrote to Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, the then Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) urging the premier watchdog for the protection of Human Rights in the country, to “issue a Guideline/Directive to the Police/State Government in the first instance ensure that the permission for this three-day convention is revoked, failing which strict undertakings are taken from the organisers to ensure civilised and peaceful conduct of the proceedings. Observers may be delegated to this end by the National Human Rights Commission. Special platoons of the RAF etc may need to be deployed,” adding that it was “a sensitive time for both Muslims and Hindus.”
Why is Pirana in the news again?
Pirana, in Daskroi taluka of Ahmedabad district lies just 25 km away from Ahmedabad city, and is best known for the revered shrine of Sufi saint Imam Shah Baba. It is visited by devotees from both communities and is a symbol of peace. However, as is the case when agencies and institutions fail to act when citizens and peace activists raise urgent alerts of possible communal unrest, those letters sent by CJP now seem like a timely warning by peace activists working on restoring communal harmony was ignored.
Over a decade later, the shrine is in the news again as hundreds of residents of Pirana village protested on Sunday, January 30, 2022, after a wall was constructed on the premises of Imamshah Baba Sanstha Trust. This wall had replaced a wire fence/ partition. According to a report in Indian Express, the Aslali police, within whose jurisdiction the area falls, detained 133 protesters, including 64 women. Videos of the protest began circulating and also that of the ‘transformation’ of the dargah of Pir Imam Shah Baba, the premises of which contain a mosque, a tomb of the Pir and a graveyard.
Shockingly, some recent videos of the dargah showed a custodian claiming it was a temple and that no graves had been broken or desecrated when the wall was being put up. The shrine is managed by a trust which reportedly has many Hindus and some Muslims, the land itself is valued at crores.
Local journalist Sahal Qureshi visited the dargah and spoke to one Harshad Patel a member of the trust, on camera who claimed that this was a temple and “not a dargah”. Patel is heard and seen on the video claiming that the structure was a temple of “nishkalanknad bhagwan” who was soon to “emerge in his 10th avatar”. He said, “Sadguru maharaj had prophesied the 10th avatar and this was a temple to him.” Patel claimed that the wall was built to replace a wire fence that had broken down. He claimed the construction was done on “permission given by the collector”. He said the trust was all Hindu and did not even have any Muslim trustee. “This is trust land, there is no dargah entry, this is the temple entry,” said Patel. He emphasised that this is only a temple and said if anyone “wanted to visit the Dargah they can go from the village route.” Patel said there was no pending matter in court.
The IE meanwhile reported that protest was carried out by Pirana village residents, mostly Saiyed Muslims, who alleged that the construction of the wall cuts off access to the dargah from the mosque and graveyard on the premises and will also “change the nature of the shrine”. The area had a deployment of police as well as fire personnel ordered by the district administration. According to news report, “As per a communication from the additional district magistrate to the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Daskroi on January 28, the Trust’s committee on January 25 passed a resolution by a majority approval of eight of the 11 members, deciding ‘to build a paved wall in place of the dilapidated wire fence’.” It also instructed that “deputy collector and SDM Daskroi will have to ensure law and order is maintained during the (renovation) work in coordination with the local police.” Before and after images of the “renovation” underway showed the name of the Imamshah Baba Sanstha Trust replaced with that of “Satpanth Prerna Peeth Pirana”.
The trust has 11 members according to IE, they are: Gyaneshwar Maharaj (chairperson), Devjibhai Karsanbhai Bhavani, Somjibhai Harjibhai Parsiya, Pravinbhai Rajabhai Jadhwani, Ambalalbhai Shamjibhai Ramjiyani, Vinaybhai Ranchhodbhai Patel, Harshadbhai Jasvantbhai Patel, Parshottambhai Vasrambhai Patel, Saiyed Nazir Hussain, Saiyed Nadimahmed and Saiyed Sirajhussein. Reportedly the proposal to erect a wall was opposed by the Saiyeds and Sirajhussein Saiyed, told the media that meeting’s agenda “did not mention replacing the wired fence with the wall.”
One Saiyed Qursha Banu, who claimed to be a descendant of the Sufi saint himself, told local news reporters that the dargah is over 500 years old and was visited by “18 communities” and it was a symbol of unity. “There are graves inside, and the wall is being raised between the dargah and masjid, to separate them. We protested and they detained our children, men and women. We requested the collector and government to give us justice.”
Another woman identified as Saiyed Parvez also added that there were holy graves in the shrine’s premises. She asked, “People come here and worship in their own ways. This is a dargah. Harshad Patel says this is a mandir. Tell me, do temples have a grave of an auliya?” She further said, “We never objected to Hindus worshipping the saint in their own way. Let it continue. This is a symbol of peace. But they [committee] half blocked the way 10 years ago. And now the wall will make it impossible for the villagers [and others] to reach the dargah. These are steps taken to completely convert it to a mandir!” Her words directly connect the current issue to the matter raised by CJP 10 years ago!
Now, SDM Daskroi KB Patel told the media that it was “a simple work of replacing wired fence with a wall that is happening, with district collector’s permission…Three of the trustees had opposed the construction of the wall but the work had majority permission of trustees and from a safety point of view, permission of Collector was also taken to proceed with the resolution passed.” Patel claimed that permission of the Collector was taken and police were deployed “owing to the sensitive nature of the place where a law and order issue happened in 2003.”
Police told the media that intermittent protests have happened in the village “for the past three-four months with Saiyeds opposing the renovation work on the dargah premises but nothing untoward has happened… The protesters said they will go to the collector’s office to give a representation but there were some elements creating nuisance by making videos and giving live updates (which is why we detained them).”
Changing History: What does the future hold for Pirana?
“The Satpanthis are people who believe in Imamshah Baba; they can practice any religion. The Saiyyeds are the direct descendants,” explained Azhar Saiyyed, who is also a descendant and lives in Pirana. He told SabrangIndia, “The conflict is between Satpanthis and Saiyyeds. The Kutchi Patels, here they are all identified / represented as Satpanthis.” However they have reportedly been under pressure and many have been told not to go to Pirana Dargah as they are Hindus. “To protect themselves they are representing the dargah as a mandir,” says Saiyyed adding that the wall between the dargah and graveyard is now 25 feet high so visitors can’t see the graveyard. He further elaborates the cause of concern saying,“The big gate proclaims it as Nishkalanki Narayan Bhagwan nu Mandir. Then there are hoardings and signs that say this, nowhere does it say Dargah or Roza Sanstha.”
Saiyyed recalls the timeline of the matter as follows:
1993: Villagers were prevented from entering the dargah. They went to court, the court ordered in their favour that they should not be restricted from visiting. The stay order is still valid.
2003: The wire fencing was done again and an open FIR was registered after an altercation, anyone could be picked up for questioning against it. The villagers sat on a hunger strike in 2010 to remove the fencing. The collector called the villagers and the committee members and ordered a status quo that any changes will need a collector’s order. “It stood for 11 years! We had gone to court again citing the 1993 stay order against the fencing. The court case is still pending,” Saiyyed recalled.
2020: The Imamshah Baba Roza Sanstha asked the collector to grant permission for repairs of the terrace; they were allowed but were told not to change the basic fundamental structure and carry out repairs.
July 16, 2021: Three graves were allegedly “broken” on the Northern side of the dargah and a platform was constructed on them.
July 23, 2021: The wall construction began. The villagers called the police who called for a peace meeting.
July 24, 2021: More graves were broken, allegedly by the Satpanthis.
July 27, 2022: An official meeting is called and word given that no more graves to be broken. The Deputy Collectors and officials were present and told that broken graves will be repaired. The one foot high wall was to be merged with the soon to be repaired flooring. This undertaking was given in writing.
January 25, 2022: The Imamshah Baba Roza Sanstha passes a resolution at 5.30 P.M. They take it to the Tehsildar office after that.
January 26, 2022: Republic Day is a public holiday however, the Daskroi Mamlatdar (Tehsildar) Axar P. Vyas allegedly allowed construction.
January 30, 2022: The wall construction begins again, and upset families, including the Sufi’s descendants decide to move en masse from the village. “Videos of our procession went viral and police detained us after 6 kms. Late at night community leaders came to the police station and asked us to stop protesting and take legal action. We agreed,” says Saiyyed.
The community is now planning to move the high court in the matter.