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The judiciary should go strictly by law while dealing with religious disputes. If this happens, there will be fewer controversies and no section of the society will feel let down barring those who have no faith in a judicial system. This issue has come to the fore in recent times in India as right-wing Hindu groups keep making claim after claim on Islamic religious shrines.
It will be interesting in this context to see how the judiciary in Pakistan resolved a knotty issue involving Muslims and Sikhs over a place of worship the former insisted had been a mosque and which the latter claimed was a gurdwara.
The story has been related in some detail by Lahore-based academic-cum-freelance journalist Haroon Khalid in his gripping book, Walking with Nanak, in which the author tells us the saga of Nanak as he trekked vast areas, spending invaluable time in the part of Punjab that now lies in Pakistan.
A long time back, in the then West Punjab (now in Pakistan), there was a mosque in Naulakha Bazar. Sitting in it, the Qazi would announce punishment to criminals. This is also where Sikhs were punished on the orders of the governor of Lahore, Moin-ul-Mulk, also known as Meer Manu.
According to the book, thousands of Sikhs – yes, thousands of innocent men, women and children – were slaughtered and thrown into a well on the orders of the governor.
The mosque was small and was never used as a place of worship. When Maharaja Ranjit Singh took control of Punjab, the Sikhs took over the mosque, placed the Guru Granth Sahib inside it and converted it into a gurudwara. The Muslims could do nothing about it.
Let Khalid tell the rest of the story in his own words, as related to him by his mentor, Iqbal Qaiser.
“It was during the British era that this issue first came to light. The Muslims filed an application in court that this was a mosque and that it should be returned to them. The Muslims argued that the Court should look at the architecture of the building to judge that this was indeed a mosque. The Sikhs on the other hand argued that this had been a mosque once and that now it had become a gurudwara.”
“The Lahore High Court, where the case was presented, asked if there was anyone alive who could testify that he had seen that building used as a mosque. Naturally, there was no one. So the court decided in favour of the Sikhs. After the judgment, the Sikhs who had control over the gurudwara decided to raze the building because they thought that it was because of the architecture of the building that this issue has come to the forefront.”
“The building was demolished. This led to rioting between Muslims and Sikhs. It was actually the British who were responsible for these riots. It goes back to their policy of divide and rule. Even Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal got involved as they tried pacifying the Muslims. Nothing emerged out of the protest and the gurdwara remained a gurdwara.”
“After Partition, when the Auqaf Department was created, this issue of the gurdwara was raised yet again. This time, people believed that since the Sikhs had migrated (to India) and the gurudwara had been abandoned, the court would allot it to the Muslims but that did not happen. The Lahore High Court declared once again that this would remain a gurdwara. (This was around 1957-58.)
“The issue about the property of this gurdwara or mosque was raised once again in the late 1980s. Some petitioners appeared in the court and asked the judgment to be reviewed. This time the judge ordered that he would convert this gurdwara into a mosque if the petitioners brought forth even one person who had prayed at the mosque. This did not happen and the status of the gurdwara remained as is.”
In about 1994-95, the Kar Sewa Committee of England asked the Pakistan government for permission to renovate the gurdwara. The government was reluctant initially but eventually gave permission.
When it was mentioned in the newspapers that the Gurudwara Shaheed Ganj was being reconstructed, some local Muslims tried once again to create an issue. This time they wanted the local people living around the gurdwara to get involved and halt the construction of this shrine.
“There was a man named Rana who was an ironsmith outside the gurdwara. He was a wise man. He told his fellow businessmen that the construction of the gurdwara would help them. He told the traders that the gurdwara would attract foreign pilgrims and it would be beneficial for everyone… With his efforts, the local businessmen and trade of Naulakha Bazaar became stakeholders in the construction of the shrine and in this way this gurdwara was eventually constructed in 2004.”
M.R. Narayan Swamy is a veteran journalist.