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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Hanging by a hair

When Kashmir was plunged in crisis because of a holy relic’s disappearance

Written by Inder Malhotra |
August 9, 2010 5:23:07 am

In the midst of the current,often burning,upheaval in Kashmir,it would be instructive to recall the last crisis of similar though not identical magnitude. Late one evening in the last week of December 1963,newspaper offices in Delhi received telegrams from their Srinagar correspondents (that was the fastest means of communication then) stating that a holy relic,much revered by the Kashmiri people,had disappeared from the Hazratbal shrine causing widespread resentment and anger.

The gravity of the situation sunk in,however,only the next day when reports came in that,despite the bitter cold and heavy snowfall,huge crowds from all over were converging on Hazratbal. I took the first available plane to Kashmir’s capital. The entire Delhi-based foreign press corps was on the same flight. Only after reaching Srinagar did the intensity of the popular outrage hit us. The reason was obvious. The vanished holy relic — according to the state government,it was “found missing” — was a single hair of the Prophet’s beard that Kashmiris had venerated generation after generation. They called it moo-e-muqqadas (sacred hair). Their fury was boundless. Even in normal times they could have its deedar (which means the same thing as darshan) only on fixed days in the year and that too,for a short time. Now they wept and wailed,fearing that they had lost the blessing forever,and cursed whoever they thought was behind the sacrilege. Some alleged that someone had stolen the relic,if not to destroy it,then at least to insult the Prophet of Islam. Hundreds of thousands of mourners who surrounded the Hazratbal shrine were absolutely inconsolable and refused to move away from there,as days passed without any trace of the missing relic. They greeted the state government’s reassuring noises with contempt.

Mercifully,there was no violence even though the prevalent rage was unmistakable and the situation was becoming more menacing with the passage of time.

What compounded the situation was that the state government,to say nothing of the administration,was at that time in a shambles. Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed,Kashmir’s iron-fisted chief minister for a decade,had had to leave under the Kamaraj Plan some four months earlier. He had seen to it,however,that no one with political weight succeeded him. The man he chose for the job was a virtual non-entity named Shamsuddin. The people nicknamed him “Chamchuddin”,a play on the word chamcha that in Indian political lore means a sycophant.

The consequences of this state of affairs became manifest on the day when it looked that the sleepless,tired and angry crowds were on the verge of losing patience. Noor Mohammed,deputy commissioner of Srinagar,panicked that the situation would spin out of control. It did seem as if the whole Valley was hanging by a slender thread. He approached the nearest brigade commander and asked him to “take over”. The brigadier replied that he would surely do his duty but he must have the request in writing. “Agar likh kar dena hai,” said Noor Mohammed who later became chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir,“toh mein Bakshi Sahib se poochch aaoon” (If this has be to be given in writing,then let me consult Bakshi Sahib”). The Bakshi,let it be repeated,held no official position in the state at that time!

At the very beginning of the crisis,New Delhi had sent to Srinagar a team of very competent officers headed by Home Secretary V. Vishwanathan. Its brief was to watch the situation,advise the state government only when necessary and otherwise refrain from interfering with it. Briskly and tirelessly busy entirely on his own was the intelligence czar of that era,B. N. Mullik. Luckily,on the day when the situation looked like it was blowing up,Mullik was able to announce that the holy relic had been recovered,a caretaker at Hazratbal had been arrested and,therefore,everybody could thank God and happily go home.

If he thought that he would be applauded as a hero,he was mistaken. Those who had by then assumed the leadership of the angry crowds were sceptical. The wily government must have crafted a copy of their cherished relic to hoodwink the people,they said. What the IB chief had brought must be properly verified as genuine. Shanakht (verification) was their buzzword and within minutes,it became the slogan of the masses. At this stage,Vishwanathan intervened and refused the demand. Renewed tension mounted fast.

In New Delhi,Jawaharlal Nehru,though in indifferent health in January 1964,was monitoring the situation minutely. Immediately,he sent his chief troubleshooter Lal Bahadur Shastri to Srinagar. With tremendous patience and skill Shastri negotiated with the votaries of verification and persuaded them not to insist on shanakht but told them that a “special deedar” was perfectly in order. However,the process was so arranged as to be acceptable to both sides.

At the appointed time,the crowds around Hazratbal were mammoth but disciplined. There was a hush. Maulvi Saeed Masoodi,a respected leader,took the microphone and asked the enormous audience: “Is there anyone among you who knows moo-e-muqqadas better than Miran Shah Sahib”? There was total silence. Miran Shah then came forward and held the recovered holy relic before his eyes for a full minute. The suspense during these 60 seconds would have surprised even Hitchcock. Then he bowed his head and said a low but clear voice,“it is moo-e-muqqadas”. Wild cheers greeted him. The crisis was resolved but not the underlying issue.

For months,crowds went on agitating: “Asli mujrim ko paish karo” (present the real culprit). Almost everyone knew that the imprisoned Hazratbal caretaker was a mere scapegoat. Also it was believed then and confirmed later that there was nothing ulterior behind what was planned to be a temporary and harmless removal of the holy relic. Apparently,a terminally ill lady in the Bakshi family wanted to have its deedar before dying. Unfortunately,its absence was noticed almost immediately. In his three-volume account of his years with Nehru,however,Mullik blandly states: “The Holy Relic’s recovery was an intelligence operation,never to be disclosed”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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