Ninety-six years after his death, Sai Baba of Shirdi is entwined in a web of controversy over his saintly status. A diktat from Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati Shankaracharya urges Hindu temples not to install Sai Baba idols. Recently, a controversy erupted over the shifting of a Sai Baba idol from a temple in Surat. However, a Muslim in Ahmedabad, who runs a temple of Sai Baba, rubbishes the challenges to his divinity.
Ahmedabad has over a dozen Sai Baba temples. But the one at the busy Lal Darwaza area in the centre of the city, founded about 12 years ago by Iqbal Shaikh, draws attention because of the fact that a Muslim has been running it. Because idolatry and Islam are poles apart. “I had been getting divine hints for a long time to set up a Sai Baba temple,” says Shaikh, who runs and owns the temple bustling with devotees through out the day.
The temple gets a stream of devotees every day, who bow in reverence and do not leave it before taking the holy water. Aarti is conducted four times during the day by two priests who have been brought from the Chitrakoot region. Shaikh has installed a white marble, 1008-kg idol of Sai Baba in the sanctum sanctorum. A Hanuman idol also adorns the temple.
“Sai Baba had been sending me signals that a temple should be built here where people should come and seek blessings…. I firmly believe in his message of sabka malik ek, the most significant message for believers,” Shaikh said. “What troubles me is the current vitiated atmosphere against Sai Baba by the people supported by Swami Swaroopanandji…. it is known that Sai Baba is mentioned in the Shiva Purana as ansh (part) of Shiva as the most prominent of the 18 anshas. I have conveyed this to the Shankaracharya, but am yet to get a reply,” he said, showing the communication on his smartphone.
Shaikh, a Class V pass, displays keen business sense behind the temple. He says the temple has saved his land from being vacated by AMC which wanted to bulldoze the structure that housed a music cassette and CD shop that he ran earlier. He plans to form a trust to run the temple on “scientific basis”. “Of course, all trustees will be my family members,” he clarifies. “The AMC had planned the demolition of the temple to displace me, but after I showed the proof of ownership from the revenue records, they no longer come to trouble me,” he says, showing copies of ownership records. “Removal is not possible because the place is a private land owned by me and secondly it is a temple which is not built on illegally possessed land, but on my own land,” he says.
Shaikh says that he had taken AMC to court in 1995 for land-grabbing. The land was purchased by his father in his name in 1963. He has the documents which he produced in court. AMC officials, on their part, say the dispute is yet to be decided in court and that till then there will be no action.
The recent row over removing Sai Baba idol has not affected Shaikh a bit. Nor have the many “threat calls” deterred him. “I do get calls warning me of dire consequences, some even abuse me, but I am not afraid,” he said. Apart from Shankaracharya or saffron brigade, he keeps getting threats from Muslims for running a temple. “But mine is not a Hindu temple. It is just a temple for Sai Baba where I have also put idols of other gods,” he said.
Shaikh has donned many hats in the past. He used to run a newspaper and sell audio cassettes and CDs (mostly devotional) from the place where the temple is being run now. “I have also contested the State Assembly elections thrice and Lok Sabha elections twice in the past as an Independent candidate. I used to bring out a newspaper called National Today that I have shut down now,” he said.