Chak 95 North, Sargodha. It’s Tuesday, about ten days after the bloody incident at the shrine of a self-proclaimed faith healer Pir Ali Muhammad Gujjar which is now sealed with yellow ribbons. A few policemen are seen collecting further evidences after the terrifying murder of 20 people by the custodian of the shrine on two consecutive nights of March 31 and April 1.
According to the police, Abdul Waheed, the custodian of the shrine and a man in his 50s, has confessed before the police of having killed 20 devotees, including four women, fearing they were planning to remove him from his position. The horrible tragedy may well be revenge by the custodian of the shrine, killing the blindly trusting devotees in the name of faith, or he could just be mentally unstable. Whatever the case was, it is now widely reported that Waheed was in the habit of using violence to ‘heal’ or ‘cure’ the devotees.
Work began on this opulent structure of the tomb, painted in white and sky blue, after March 12, 2015, the day when Pir Ali Muhammad died and was buried there.
Built on private land amidst agriculture fields and brick kilns, almost 10 kilometres away from city of Sargodha, the shrine of the self-proclaimed faith healer attracts people from villages far and near. The land of the shrine and construction of the tomb was mainly supported by Gulzar Gujjar, a devotee of Ali Muhammad who owned two brick kilns near the shrine. He is also among those who were killed.
According to police investigations, Abdul Waheed, along with his three aides, separately called these victims on their phones and directed them to come to the shrine. They also invited Muhammad Asif, the only son of Pir Ali Muhammad, a day earlier, before the major carnage. “On Friday night, he killed Muhammad Asif and two others and the rest were invited on Saturday night and killed,” the police say.
“That night on Saturday, sitting on purpose-built small cemented-podium decorated with two red and green colour flags close to the tomb, Abdul Waheed called these victims one by one; asked them to take their clothes off; ordered his aides to burn the clothes and then beat the victims with clubs and knives to death without any resistance,” Shamshair Joya, the local police station officer (SHO) tells TNS, borrowing from statements of Waheed and his aides. “After each death, they would drag the body from the podium to a nearby mud house in the shrine premises.”
“When we reached the spot it was late Saturday night. We saw a pile of dead naked bodies in the compound of that mud house. These bodies were brutally killed and in very bad shape,” the SHO adds. The police only came to know about it on the second night.
During the visit to the shrine, this scribe saw bloodstains and different-coloured pieces of torn and burnt clothes still lying on the crime scene.
“We have still not properly recovered,” says Abdul Rasheed, the shocked uncle of a young victim Muhammad Hussain and a friend of Gulzar Gujjar while sitting on a charpoy in the latter’s house. Abdul Rasheed is among the first few who came to know about this horrible incident on Saturday night, following which they informed the police.
“We initially heard that someone was being beaten there. We went there and saw some people being beaten and we called the police. We saw this pile of naked bodies with our own eyes only after the police came,” says Rasheed, lamenting if they had knowledge of this brutality and death earlier, they would have eliminated Abdul Waheed and his aides to avoid any further damage.
Yet, he clarified, “we have been the followers of Pir Ali Muhammad for the last 15 years and have not been taught any violence.” He mentions the killer also removed the eyes of two persons including the son of Pir Ali Muhammad after the torture “that shattered us”.
Ali Muhammad’s shrine is the latest and fourth in this small village with an estimated population of nearly 4-5,000 in rural areas of Sargodha, central Punjab. Most of the villagers belong to the Sunni Barelvi faith and they are into agriculture or labour.
Ali Muhammad originally belonged to Channan Ki Barh, a village, in Faisalabad and was the son of a lawyer. He later moved to Islamabad where he used to run a milk shop before becoming a full disciple of another Sufi Baboo Sarkar in Azad Kashmir. He remained in Islamabad throughout his career of a faith healer but died while he was briefly staying at his disciple Abdul Waheed’s place in Green Town, Lahore.
“Ali Muhammad agreed to the request of Gulzar Gujjar, his old devotee, to get buried in Chak 95 (North) where he has many devotees and disciples in the surroundings while he was alive. That is why Gulzar allocated a piece of land for his grave and promised to build a shrine,” Maqbool Hussain, another devotee living in the same village tells TNS. “Abdul Waheed was consensually made the custodian of the shrine and he used to visit the place almost every week from Lahore.” Those who agreed to him becoming the custodian included Gulzar Gujjar.
Following his arrest, Abdul Waheed is giving different statements to the police. For example, he has said he was afraid he would be poisoned by these victims. He also says that “this is his method to purge the people of their sins by hitting them with sticks and getting them reborn after death”. He is reported to have said that if let free, he would bring these people back to life.
“There is possibility that he intoxicated these victims before torturing them but we are waiting for the forensic reports,” says Zulfiqar Hameed, regional police officer (RPO Sargodha), who supervised the initial investigations. He says he may be changing statements merely “to prove himself mentally unstable”, which is not right. “This is a straight case of a heinous crime in the name of faith that shows our social attitudes. Strangely, the devotees did not want any case lodged against the custodian but we have to do it.”
He says initial investigations have shown the row of succession as the possible cause of this incident. The killer feared the victims were conspiring to poison him. “Abdul Waheed also took the victim Asif, the son of Pir Ali Muhammad, to his village near Nankana Sahib a couple of days ago before the occurrence of the crime and threatened him that he was planning to remove him as the custodian by planning his murder,” says Hameed. Waheed feared some devotees might remove him replacing him with son. The fear that he would be poisoned culminated into these brutal murders after subjecting those trusted devotees to severe torture.
Some villagers believe something fishy was going on between Abdul Waheed and some devotees about those who were giving more respect to Pir Ali Muhammad’s son. Also, there were reports of some disagreements between these two groups which led to the postponement of the Urs (formal death anniversary celebrations) of Pir Ali Muhammad this March 12.
“We want nothing but an exemplary punishment for this killer who shattered our faith and killed innocent people. He deserves no mercy because he has also misused faith,” Rasheed expresses.
The killings at the shrine have once again brought to the fore this issue of fake pirs and how they exploit people in both rural and urban areas. Dr Saad Bashir Malik, a Lahore-based psychiatrist, says that going to shrine to seek solace is “like a double edged sword in a country with huge population and less education and mental health services. On the positive side, by going to shrines people try to share or end their grief and psychologically feel better. It is kind of psychotherapy for them to escape from the real life”.
On the contrary, he says, “the dark side is the ongoing abuse and exploitation on these shrines. There is physical, sexual and emotional exploitation on shrines and gradually these people become victims of this exploitation and they become tool of corruption, amid the monopoly of pirs involved in this business.”
He says “the devotees are totally submissive — just like a dead person”.
“The solution lies in promoting better mental health services but, unfortunately, the state does not give a damn here,” says Dr Saad Bashir Malik.
Unregistered shrines across the country are another bane. Following the tragedy, the Punjab government through Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department has directed to list all unregistered shrines. “Presently, the number of shrines under Auqaf administration is not more than 522 across the province,” says Punjab Minister for Auqaf and Religious Affairs Zaeem Hussain Qadri.
Other shrines number in thousands, says Qadri. “At the moment there is no system of counting shrines and every shrine other than under Auqaf administration is considered private. The Auqaf department takes over only those shrines where a dispute over succession or custodianship arises. And if some crime or unlawful things is happening at any shrine, it is the responsibility of local law enforcement agencies to look into.”