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Why are India & Pak silent about the case of the 'missing' Nizamuddin clerics?

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 22 March 2017, 19:13 IST
(Arun Sharma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

On their return to India, after remaining ‘missing’ in Pakistan for over three days, Syed Asif Ali Nizami, the head priest of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah, and his nephew Nazim Nizami called on Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.

In an extraordinary gesture, she and the two Ministers of State for External Affairs General V K Singh (Retd.) and MJ Akbar received them together.

The MEA did not issue any statement or comment on the meeting though it did release a photograph of the clerics and the ministers. This absence of a statement is equally extraordinary if not strange especially in the background of the full and energetic efforts made by Sushma Swaraj to ensure that Syed Asif Ali Nizami and Nazim Nizami returned safely and swiftly to India. 

Why has the MEA acted so? Was it enough to just publicise a photograph even if a picture is worth a thousand words? Before answers are sought to these questions a background and account of this episode is essential.

Keeping tradition alive

The Nizamuddin Dargah is the resting place of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a venerated 13th-14th century Sufi saint. It is part of the important shrines of the Sufi Chisti order in the Indian sub-continent, the most prominent being the Dargah of Khwaja Moin-ud- din Chisti at Ajmer. The other shrines include the Dargah at Pakpattan in Pakistan of Baba Farid, the spiritual guide of Nizamuddin.

The caretakers of these dargahs, who seek to keep sufi traditions alive, keep in contact with each other. This includes visits to the dargahs of saints of other sufi orders. Sufis of the Chisti order particularly have deep respect for Daata Ganj Bakhsh, whose Dargah is at Lahore.

The two clerics went to Karachi on 8 March. While Asif Nizami, who is 82, was visiting Pakistan after about 25 years to meet his 90-year-old sister, his nephew, 66-year-old Nazim Nizami, is a more regular visitor.

From Karachi the two went to Pakpattan and to Lahore to pay obeisance at the shrines of Baba Farid and Datta Ganj Bakhsh. When they were returning to Karachi from Lahore, Nazim Nizami was detained at the airport. Asif Nizami was permitted to take the flight and reached Karachi. He was picked up at the airport and taken to an unknown place.

After they returned to Karachi three days later, Pakistani newspapers carried a report that the two had gone to interior areas of Sindh where connectivity was poor. Hence, they were out of touch with their families. 

This was denied by the clerics on their return to India. They pointed out that they did not have visas for these areas so there was no question of their going there. They also said that those who took them asked them about their documents and purpose of their visit. The clerics have downplayed the way they were treated.

An intelligence operation

Clearly the two were picked up in a well thought out intelligence operation, which would have received high-level clearance. To put maximum psychological pressure on the two, they were detained in two separate cities. Besides, no consideration was given to their advanced ages.

Interestingly, two days after they were taken into custody, the widely circulated Pakistan Urdu daily Ummat carried a report seeking to raise doubts about the bonafides of the two clerics. It claimed that that the head of the Datta Ganj Bakhsh shrine denied any knowledge of their visit, as did a senior member of the Nizami family in Karachi. Thus their activities aroused suspicions.

The Ummat report also said that they kept themselves confined to the Lines Area of Karachi where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has influence. All in all, the Ummat report was part of a smear campaign against the two clerics.

This attempt to tarnish their reputations took place despite the fact that it is clear that the Pakistan High Commission would know of all senior clerics of the Nizamuddin Dargah as many senior Pakistani political personalities who visit Delhi visit the dargah.

That is exactly why the visas that the clerics had been given exempted them from reporting to the police. Such visas are given to only a few private persons.

Ending contact

The harsh handling of the clerics sent a message that the Pakistani agencies do not favour contacts between sufi dargahs in India and Pakistan.

They especially would not be willing for gifts to be exchanged between them. As Pakistani Islam is adopting harder and more austere forms of the faith the influence of the sufis is declining especially in the establishment. This made it easier for them to take such action against the Nizamuddin clerics for any perceived technical infringement of Pakistani laws or rules.

This action is also a signal to India, which has projected the sufi traditions of Indian Islam as an antidote to fundamentalism and terrorism.

In a stirring speech to the World Sufi Forum in March last year Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded Sufism as the “light of hope” at a time “when the dark shadow of violence is becoming longer”.

In a clear reference to Pakistan he recalled that Maulana Azad and others had opposed partition on the basis of religion. He also said, “When the spiritual love of Sufism not the violent force of terrorism flows across the border, the region will be the paradise on earth that Amir Khusrau spoke about”. 

The intention was obvious and would not have been taken lightly in Pakistan especially as one of the participants of the widely attended conference was Dewan Ahmed Masood Chisti from the Baba Farid Dargah in Pakpattan.

Deafening silence

There has been no official comment from Pakistan though its Foreign Ministry had earlier acknowledged that India had approached it to locate the missing clerics. Obviously from the time they were picked up to the time of their release, the two countries were in diplomatic contact over the clerics. Sushma Swaraj also spoke to Sartaj Aziz, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy adviser. Neither country has revealed details of these interactions.

The absence of an official comment from MEA after Asif and Nazim Nizami met Sushma Swaraj gives rise to a suspicion that an understanding was reached that India would refrain from criticising Pakistani behaviour and Pakistan would not try them on any trumped up charge. There is little doubt that the Dargah people both in India and Pakistan would have also wanted the matter to be handled in a manner that would take it out of public focus soon. However, their views cannot alone determine MEA’s approach.

It would be appropriate for MEA to clear the air on this matter. Silence or reticence will only reinforce the prejudices of the Pakistani agencies, which shouldn’t be allowed.

First published: 22 March 2017, 18:49 IST