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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Explained: Behind row over Pakistan ‘gurdwara conversion’, a video and a dispute that began in 1880s

The Indian Express explains origin of the gurdwara and the controversy that has now erupted, having its roots in the pre-Partition dispute.

Written by Divya Goyal | Ludhiana | Updated: July 30, 2020 1:47:33 pm
gurdwara mosque, pakistan gurdwara conversion mosque, Pakistan gurdwara Shahidi Asthan, Bhai Taru Singh ji, indian express The structures of Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan (left) and Darbar Hazrat Kaku Shah Chisti (right) in Naulakha Bazaar of Lahore. (Photo: Dalvir Singh Pannu)

India, earlier this week, lodged a strong protest with Pakistan High Commission over attempts being made to convert Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan in Naulakha Bazar of Lahore into a mosque. Political parties in Punjab and the SGPC too raised objection. The reactions came after a video was shared on social media in which a man from Lahore could be heard claiming that the gurdwara site belonged to a mosque and it was ‘grabbed’ by the Sikh community. The Indian Express explains origin of the gurdwara and the controversy that has now erupted, having its roots in the pre-Partition dispute.

Who was Bhai Taru Singh?

According to the Encyclopedia of Sikhism published by the Punjabi University, Patiala, Bhai Taru Singh was a pious Sandhu Jatt from village Puhla (now in Amritsar), who tilled his land and spent his earning in helping Sikhs fighting against the Mughals. It is believed then Lahore governor Zakariya Khan got Taru Singh arrested and asked him to opt between Islam or death. When Taru Singh refused to convert, he was brutally tortured and scalped.

It is believed that he died on July 1, 1745 at the age of 25. At the spot where he is believed to have been tortured, currently stands the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Bhai Taru Singh (Shaheedi Asthan). It is believed that Zakariya fell ill and died after apologizing to Taru Singh, who died a few days after being scalped.

What is the history behind the complex where the gurdwara stands?

The Shaheed Ganj complex in Naulakha Bazar where the gurdwara stands is associated with four ‘historical’ shrines. These include the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Bhai Taru Singh (Shaheedi Asthan), Shaheed Ganj mosque (now non-existent), Darbar Hazrat Shah Kaku Chisti (dargah) and Gurdwara Shahid Ganj Singh Singhnian, which stands at some distance from the complex.

It is believed that the mosque, which was allegedly closed after the British took over and Sikh community won a court case, was built during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan by one of his cooks and completed in early 1720s. “Subsequently, a public square and the area around the mosque was allegedly used by the Mughals to persecute and punish the Sikhs and people from other communities who would refuse to convert. They were publicly executed. Taru Singh was also persecuted here,” says Shahid Shabbir, a historian working on the Sikh history in Pakistan.

The gurdwara came up in the 1760s after the Bhangi Misl Sikh army conquered Lahore and it is said that the prayers at the mosque were stopped after Sikhs took over. Later the gurdwara, it is believed, also received a large jagir (land to maintain its expenses) during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign. It is, however, unclear when exactly the dargah came up.

A separate Gurdwara Singh Singhnian also stands at some distance, commemorating martyrdom of Sikh men and women who were martyred during Mughal rule in the 18th century.

gurdwara mosque, pakistan gurdwara conversion mosque, Pakistan gurdwara Shahidi Asthan, Bhai Taru Singh ji, indian express Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Singh Singhnian. (Photo: Dalvir Singh Pannu)

So where exactly was the mosque?

Even the historians are unsure of where exactly the mosque stood and their assertions contradict each other.

Pakistan-based historian Shahid Shabbir claims that mosque structure was next to the the Gurdwara Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan. “There is clear evidence in the form of photographs of a mosque being demolished in 1935 at the spot behind Shaheedi Asthan. The domes of both structures are visible in them. Currently, the five arches of the mosque are in ruins,” he claims.

However, Dalvir Singh Pannu, author of ‘The Sikh Heritage: Beyond Borders’ believes that the mosque was next to Gurdwara Singh Singhnian and had no relation to Shaheedi Asthan. “The matter is sub-judice still and controversial but according to my research, the mosque was next to Gurdwara Singh Singhnian and was taken over by Sikhs after they won the case. It was not even a mosque and there is no proof if any prayers were held there. The mosque apparently never had any link to Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan,” he claims.

But Shabbir contradicts him. “At that time, all these structures were a part of one big complex and Gurdwara Singh Singhnian did not even have a building. It was renovated much later. Later after the British came, the roads were built and the entire area was reorganized. The mosque was adjacent to Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan only and was demolished by the Sikhs after winning the case,” he says.

Imran William, another historian contradicts both of them. “There is no documentary proof anywhere that a mosque existed at all. The five-arched structure next to Bhai Taru Singh Shaheedi Asthan was claimed to be a mosque but it was never proved. There is even a question mark on the historical value of the Darbar Hazrat Kaku Chisti. It came up later in a structure which was originally a part of gurdwara.”

“There is no documentary proof anywhere that a mosque existed at all. The five-arched structure next to Gurdwara Shaeedi Asthan was claimed to be a mosque but it was never proved.”

All three historians, however, agreed on one point. “The man in the video claiming that he will take back the mosque land himself doesn’t know where the mosque was and which land he is talking about.”

A senior Sikh official from Pakistan told The Indian Express, “There is no architectural evidence of any mosque now. The Darbar structure is historical but it wasn’t originally a Darbar. It was part of gurdwara and has been converted into a Darbar in past some years only. There used to be a thara (slab) at the spot of Gurdwara Singh Singhania Singhnian where the Mughals executed Sikh women and children. If at all, the mosque was near it. The gurdwara building came up later but no one can pinpoint where exactly the mosque was.”

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What was the dispute between Sikh and Muslim community members over the mosque?

Historians say that the dispute between Muslims and Sikhs started in 1880s during the British rule.

Sikh community started protesting and objecting over the existence of a mosque near the spot where Bhai Taru Singh was martyred and soon the matter reached the court. “The court ruled in the favor of Sikh community. The mosque was demolished on July 7, 1935 in the presence of British officials. It also led to communal tension in Lahore. The photographs of British officials and Sikh protesters standing at the site when walls and dome of the mosque were brought down were published in leading dailies,” says Shahid Shabbir.

What is the latest controversy over the gurdwara?

Recently, a video surfaced on social media in which a local from Lahore, identified as Sohail Butt Attari, sitting at the complex, could be heard passing remarks while conversing with his friend, who was allegedly shooting the video.

Butt can be purportedly heard passing remarks, referring to one Sikh person and claiming land belongs to the mosque, saying: ‘Pakistan saada mulk, saade masjid utey apna kabza saabit karde. Ikk saboot deyo saanu, assi dassde haan saboot hunda ki hai. Pakistan baneya. 20 lakh Musalman ne jaanan dittiyan. Saada mulk Pakistan musalman da. 600 saal da record iss jagah da saada bole. Ehna ney ohdo vi badmaashi kitti tey hun 2020 vich vi badmaashi laare hai. (Pakistan is our country, they are trying to prove that the land of mosque belongs to them. Give one single evidence. We will tell them what the evidence is. Pakistan came into existence after 20 lakh Muslims gave their lives. Pakistan is the country of Muslims. 600-year old land records say this land was ours. These people created mischief then also and in 2020 they are doing same).

As the video went viral, there were allegations that Pakistan was planning to convert the gurdwara into a mosque.

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What does the Sikh community claim?

Dalvir Singh Pannu further says, “The dispute started in 1880s when the mahants started grabbing properties of Gurdwara Shaheedi Asthan and Gurdwara Shahid Ganj Singh Singhnian. Later as the dispute progressed, a word came up in the documents which said a ‘mosque’ also existed at the spot but it was actually found to be ‘Shaheed Ganj Dharamsala’ and it was only structured like a mosque. A case was filed in the High Court but the Muslim community had no evidence to prove that structure was a mosque.

The court also ruled in the favor in Sikh community and its judgement said that even if the place was used for Muslim community prayers since 1722, it wasn’t used as a mosque after 1762 when Sikhs took control over it. So even if we don’t get into whether it was a mosque or not, it was under the Sikh control since 1762 and the court ruled in favor of Sikh community. Legally, the case was won by Sikhs.”

What is the claim of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) in Pakistan? What action has been taken by it?

The ETPB has claimed that it was an ‘individual act’ by a person to derail Muslim-Sikh harmony in Pakistan and the body has shot off a letter to DIG Lahore demanding an action against him. It has also claimed that the man wanted to grab a plot situated in Landa Bazar, Lahore.

“Sohail Butt Attari, a local resident of Lahore…so called focal person of Darbar Hazrat Shah Kaku Chisti, has tried to defame Pakistan by uploading a fake propaganda video against Sikh community of Pakistan. After the success of Kartarpur Corridor project and appreciation of Pakistan at international level, multiple conspiracies are being hatched to malign Pakistan at international level. Sohail Butt and his associates are conspiring to provoke people against historical gurdwara and occupy the attached vacant plot situated in Landa Bazar, Lahore,” reads a letter written by Sanaullah Khan, secretary, ETPB, to DIG Lahore. Imran Gondal, deputy secretary shrines, ETBP, told The Indian Express that “it was an individual act by a person who has been arrested by Lahore police last night. ETBP makes it very clear that there will be no tampering or any change at the site of Gurdwara Shaheedi Asthan. It will remain the way it has been for years.”

What is PSGPC saying on the matter?

Satwant Singh, president, Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (PSGPC), said, “The man has been arrested and he has no supporters. He only wanted to derail Sikh-Muslim harmony in Pakistan. The annual prayers at the historical gurdwara will continue and ETPB has assured Sikh community that the site will not be tampered with in any case.”

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