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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Patharughat Revisited

The date was January 28, 1894. On this day, one of the dark chapters of the Assamese history occurred when the Patharughat massacre took place. History is replete with many accounts of unsung heroes and here Patharughat is just another example. The incident where about 140 farmers were massacred by the bullets of the British government is a burning example of the sacrifices that the peasants of the state have made for the love of justice and equality.

Patharughat, which is in Darrang district, has become a symbol of tyranny and oppression where the oppressed and exploited had to go down to the might of imperialist bullets. The British, who came to Assam with the treaty of Yandaboo, set about changing the socio-economic patterns of the state which caused remarkable upheavals in the lives of the common people. The people of Darrang had used to enjoy various rebates and exemptions under the Koch and Ahom rulers. This was discontinued by the British regime which went about setting up a new administrative system. Land taxes were revised and the rates were increased to the utter displeasure of the farmers. Land surveys were periodically conducted by the British regime and each time the land tax was arbitrarily increased. This literally broke the back of the farmers. A sense of anger and suspicion rose among the general people against the British. A final expression of the discontent was put forward by the people when they unanimously decided to resist these tax increases at the office of the Tehsildar of Patharughat.

In 1868, seven years after the Phulguri Uprising of Nogaon, a huge public of thousands gathered at the Tehsildar’s office in Patharughat to express their grievances. Fearing violence, a huge force under A.C. Comber, the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang was dispatched from Tezpur to control the crowd. When the authorities refused to pay any heed to the grievances of the people, the huge crowd got infuriated and proceeded to set fire to the Dak Bungalow which was housing the Britishers. Scuffle with the police forces followed which further infuriated the crowd. But the situation was controlled by the leaders as they did not want any sort of violence to happen. This was followed by twenty five incident free years, and the Britishers thought that the tides of discontent had settled down. They were wrong.

When in 1893, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Wilkinson Ward, tried to raise the taxes, the flares of revolt sprang up again. A huge Raijmel (public meeting) was organized at Patharughat on January 26, 1894, where it was decided that taxes would not be paid till an acceptable solution was reached for the tax problem. The Tehsildar Bhabani Charan Bhattacharya requested the crowd to wait till January 28, when the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang, Anderson, would be available for proper hearings. Meanwhile the news of the Patharughat Raijmel reached the ears of the high authorities who decided that Anderson would be accompanied by Darrang’s SP, Barrington, and the SDO of Mangaldoi, Ramson, and a huge armed force.

January 28 was a normal weekly market day. People had began to throng to the open field in front of the Dak Bungalow and by noon a crowd of about a thousand had gathered there. At noon, the trio of White Sahibs entered the field along with their armed guards and was greeted by slogans. The Tehsildar and his staff waited outside being reduced to silent onlookers of the incident. When Anderson blatantly refused to lower the taxes saying that they did not have the authority to change the taxes raised by the Queen of England, the crowd got infuriated. As the White Sahibs made way to the Dak Bungalow, the crowd lost patience and proceeded towards them in total anger. Angry shouts and protests were raised in the air but to no avail. Arguments and counter arguments were made but the situation got hotter by every passing minute. Finally as the crowd proceeded, they were blocked by the security personals from doing so which resulted in a skirmish. As the scuffle began to get out of hand, Barrington ordered his forces to lathi charge. This made the crowd go wild with anger and they started to hit back at the forces with whatever tools, clods or sticks they had. A Thoga Baidya of Biahpara or Fukolu Sheikh of Athiabari managed to hit the head of the Police Superintendent and wounded him. This enraged the DC and he ordered for firing. Triggers were pressed and the people who were in the front of the crowd fell down in minutes. But this did not deter the people in the behind and they continued marching forward. The people fearlessly took the bullets into their chests and fell down to their martyrdom.

As the rounds of bullets continued to come, the peasants fell down. While some died on the spot, others were seriously injured with their heads cracked, bellies burst, hands and limbs torn apart and blood stained bodies lying everywhere. The dead bodies were not even aloud to be attended to leaving them to be devoured by dogs and vultures. Nobody then knew how many had died and the number of bodies that were rotting away. Finally the bullets did manage to disperse a greater portion of the crowd away but a huge damage had been done. Later it came out in the limelight that about 140 people had been killed and more than 150 had been injured.

This incident is a watermark in the history of peasant uprisings in India. Patharughat’s significance after all these years lies in the fact that though the oppressors have gone away, the conditions of our peasants still remain deplorable. It is still noteworthy that in a country where farmers have made considerable contributions to the freedom struggle, they are still subjected to injustice and hardships of all kinds. If their lands are taken away for some constructive purpose by the government then the required compensation is not paid. Or even today many of them commit suicide due to the burdens of debt and penury. And all this constantly reminds as to whether the blood of the peasant martyrs of many Patharughats have gone wasted in the hope of a better future. More than 100 years have passed since the Patharughat massacre. But the farmers of this nation still continue to lead a dissatisfied life.

Sadly, today Patharughat has remained as one of the many incidents that have got lost in oblivion among the pages of history. This glorious incident of martyrdom is hardly remembered by many people or even finds proper mention in any history textbook. Patharughat’s tragedy lies in the fact that the people of Assam do not remember them properly leave alone the Indian nation. And this is in stark contrast to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 in Punjab which received huge publicity. The memory of these martyrs must remain forever in the hearts of the people and just erecting a martyrs’ monument is just not enough for the proper honour for these heroes.

Let us all remember the martyrs of Patharughat and strive to make sure that no farmer ever faces any injustice in our free democracy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Martyr Of Love

I remember reading about Sarmad back when I was in college among the many books on Sufi culture and saints. There he was mentioned as one of the most influential Sufi saints of Delhi from the Mughal era. But what interested me the most was the fact that somewhere it was mentioned about him being a homosexual. A Muslim saint being a homosexual was interesting enough for me. But sadly, I could not find much information about him back then.

My search for Sarmad’s story made me pose various questions to many of my Muslim friends, who either knew too little about him or never knew him at all. Most were scandalized with the very thought of a Muslim Pir being a gay!

Homosexuality among Sufi saints is nothing new. There have been numerous records of Sufi saints having love affairs with ‘young beardless lads.’ In India, the most well known among them are Shah Hussain from Lahore and Ras Khan from Brindawan. Homosexuality, which is a heinous crime in Islamic Shariat law, was seen by these Sufis as a means to rebel against the strict rules and dogmas of the Ullemas. Most of these Sufis are known as the ‘Malamatiyas’ or the blameworthy who discard the laws of the shariat and show their own liberalized way of achieving union with God. Love, for them, was the ultimate means of achieving this. And here homosexuality acted as no bar for them.

The quest for Sarmad’s story finally took me to his Dargah in Old Delhi. Situated in front of the imposing Jama Masjid near the Meena Bazar, the small monastery largely remains unnoticed by the many visitors who visit the great mosque daily. The monastery, is one where Sarmad shares his resting place beside that of another famous Sufi saint Khwaja Harey Bharey (the evergreen one). Harey Bharey was Sarmad’s preceptor and his tomb was where Sarmad had settled down when he first came to Delhi.

The unique feature of this Dargah acting as a dual shrine for Sarmad and Harey Bharey is the colour of the wall which is green on Harey Bharey’s side and blood red on Sarmad’s side. This is to depict Sarmad’s martyrdom due to which he has been given the title of ‘Shaheed’ or martyr. Red ceramic tiles lined his side of the flooring and red threads hung by his grave which are tied to the railings by devotees hoping for their wishes to be granted. Incense sticks and candles continuously burn on the side while qawwali singers vent out numbers in praise of their Pir as the evening sets in. Sarmad’s story and his eventual martyrdom reflect his rebellion against the shariat and his imposing stand on the simple message of love that he represented.

Sarmad is perhaps the most famous Malamatiya Sufi saint of his time. Very little is known about his early life. Some say that he was an Armenian. While some claim that he was a Jew who later converted to Islam. Sarmad’s life gets a clearer picture from the time he came to India and landed in the port of Thatta in Gujarat along with a band of Sufi saints on a merchant ship. From here onwards, Sarmad’s life took the eventual course for which he is remembered today.

At Thatta in a musical concert, Sarmad happened to see the youthful Abhay Chand, who was the son of a rich Hindu trader. It was love at first sight for Sarmad and Abhay. Abhay Chand’s melodious voice which he rendered at a ghazal pierced the tender heart of Sarmad so much that he never recovered from the feeling of love. Sarmad began to attend the concert daily not caring that the ship on which he came had sailed away. Abhay Chand also responded to his love with equal devotion and soon the two began to live together at Sarmad’s place. Soon gossips started to abound in Thatta about the two men living in unnatural conditions. Soon Abhay Chand’s parents took him away and confined him in his house. The pain of separation was too much for Sarmad who tore of his cloths and began to roam the streets of Thatta in a state of frenzy seeking his beloved Abhay Chand. From that day on, he was to live in a state of total nudity for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, Abhay Chand’s conditions were no better and at last his parents gave in to their sons wish and let him reunite with Sarmad. But they were ostracized by the people of Thatta and so they moved to Lahore. Here they stayed for thirteen years where Sarmad composed some of his most moving verses on love and God. Abhay Chand would sing these verses in his melodious voice and Sarmad would break into a dance of ecstasy. For Sarmad, his love for Abhay Chand was a means to realizing God, for Sarmad believed that God manifested in all his living beings and so he could not be separated from his beloved. Sarmad’s search for God in all of his creations blurred the lines of caste and creeds drawn by men. This he clearly explains in this beautiful verse:

“Who is the lover, beloved, idol and idol-maker but You?

Who is the beloved of the Kaaba, the temple and the mosque?

Come to the garden and see the unity in the array of colours.

In all of this, who is the lover, the beloved, the flower and the thorn?”

From Lahore, the couple migrated to Golcunda in south from where, after a few years, they migrated to Agra in the north. In 1657, they came to Delhi and settled down at the Dargah of Khwaja Harey Bharey. Here Sarmad began to have a large following and the whole city of Shahjahanabad would move at his single instruction. Among his followers was Dara Shikoh, the Mughal crown prince and son of Emperor Shah Jahan. After Dara was killed and Aurangzeb usurped the throne, he set about killing all of Dara’s close associates and soon his attention turned towards Sarmad. Sarmad’s popularity disturbed him and he feared Sarmad might someday incite the people to rebel against him.

Once as Aurangzeb went to the Jama Masjid to offer his Friday prayers, he spotted Sarmad sitting in the nude in the street. When he rebuked Sarmad for violating the shariat law by being naked, Sarmad asked him to cover him with a blanket lying nearby. When Aurangzeb picked up the blanket, the story goes that the heads of all the men he had killed during his ascent to the throne rolled out of it. To this, Sarmad said to the Emperor, “Should I hide your sins or my nakedness?” Sarmad’s fearless attitude was too much for Aurangzeb who soon called upon his chief Qazi, Mullah Qawi, and plotted to do away with Sarmad.

Sarmad was dragged to the Qazi’s court where he was accused of defying the shariat by living naked. Sarmad had befitting replies to all of the Qazi’s accusations and this frustrated him even more. To make him relent, the Qazi had Abhay Chand flogged in front of Sarmad. The whip lashed Abhay Chand’s body, but miraculously, the pain was inflicted on Sarmad. Sarmad cried out, “The God who does not let me see my beloved is like an iron cage that smothers the spirit and bruises the heart.” For the Qazi, Islam was a set of stern and inflexible laws. For Sarmad it was nothing but a message of love. The Qazi demanded that Sarmad recite the kalima shahada, the Islamic creed of confession of the faith- “La Ilaha Il Allaha, Muhammad-ur Rasul Allah” (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messanger of Allah) in order to prove that he was a true Muslim. Sarmad refused to go beyond “La Ilaha” (There is no God) as he had still not found the end of his search for God. This enraged the Qazi who passed a death sentence against him. And so Sarmad was dragged through the streets of Delhi and promptly beheaded.

But as the story goes, he emerged victorious in death. Sarmad picked up his severed head much to the fright of his executioners. He started climbing the stairs of the Jama Masjid, while mocking the Emperor and his false men of God all the while. In death, Sarmad had found God, testifying to the truth of his own understanding of Islam. Just as he was about to enter the mosque, a voice called him out from the grave of Harey Bharey, and asked him to relent as he had reached the end of his journey and had united with God at last. Sarmad turned round and went to Harey Bharey’s tomb. There he was buried by the side of Harey Bharey, where they share a common Dargah today.

And the curse of Sarmad fell on Aurangzeb as the Mughal Empire gradually crumbled in front of his very eyes.

As I left the Dargah of Sarmad Shaheed and reflected on this story, I realized that Sarmad’s homosexuality was not the main fact that made him unique. What was unique about him was that he had dared to understand God in his own way against the established norms, whereby he exhibited the intellect God has bestowed upon mankind. Sarmad had made love the sole motive of his life and he finally achieved God through the means of this. He had just one message for all of us. To see God in all humans around us. For Sarmad, God manifested in the persona of Abhay Chand. For us it can be anybody or anything, whether we are gay or straight. If God is love, then it is all around us. We just have to see it.

Here what has etched in my mind is a verse of Quran which is written on a signboard on the outer wall of the Dargah. It reads, “And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah ‘dead.’ Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not.” I think nothing sums up Sarmad’s life better than this.

(Informations about Sarmad's life and extracts from his poetry have been taken from Yoginder Sikand's book 'Sacred Spaces.')

Friday, January 7, 2011


17th December was the tenth day of the month of Moharram on the Islamic calendar. And it was also the day of theTazia procession that Shia Muslims take out every year on that date. This is done to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) in the battle of Karbala by the forces of the second Omayid Caliph Yazid. Tazia is a re-enactment as well as an act of remembrance of the sufferings that Hussain suffered during his martyrdom. It is an act of extreme devotion that seems highly barbaric to most non-Muslims and Sunni Muslims alike. But if one goes to the depths of its meaning and logic, then nothing but respect comes out of one’s heart for these mourners. Although I myself don’t relate much to this bloodshed, I have all the respect for these devotees who show a form of devotion which we ourselves cannot dare to profess.

I had witnessed a Tazia procession when I first came to Delhi six years ago. Obviously it was a nerve-wrecking experience for me then. So when my two photographer friends, Zubair and Jaun, who are Shias, invited me to come along with them for photographing a Tazia procession, I just couldn’t refuse it. I desperately wanted to overcome my demons to fearlessly watch the streams of blood flow away at a Tazia procession. So I picked up my camera and shot off with my friends to the Shia dominated area of Bara Bazar at Kashmere Gate to face my demons again.

Walking through the narrow lanes of Bara Bazar gives you a distinct feel that you are walking in the Ballimaran area of Old Delhi. But once we heard the thumping sound of the Maatam (mourning) from a little distance, I was shaken out of my hangover of the distinctly Sunni dominated Ballimaran. And in no time we were confronted by a crowd of men and women thumping their chests in perfect rhythm to the chants of the mourning. Shouts of “Ya Hassan! Ya Hussain!” roared through the bylanes as the crowd continued with their chest beating. As we waded through the crowd we soon discovered that leading the crowd were a group of bare bodied men covered in blood, who were flagellating themselves with razor sharp blades and knives attached to the chains in their hands. This was the scene I had been dreading for the past six years. And now it was in front of me. My hands began to shake and I feared I may drop down my camera. My friend Zubair, who is from Kashmir, asked me, “Are you ok? It seems like you’ve seen a ghost!” His question almost came as a sarcastic comment for me making me angry for a moment. As if I attend Tazia processions everyday! But I instantly gathered my courage and started clicking away on my shutterbug.

Tazia processions are a bloody affair and it is definitely not for the faint hearted. The first time spectator will definitely get the shock of his life as men flagellate themselves in the most shocking manner possible. Apart from beating themselves up with knives attached to the chains in their hands, these also furiously pinch themselves with knives over their heads making them appear like huge blobs of blood. If one carefully examines the wounds on the bodies of these men, then the reaction will be ghastly! Part of the procession are a shroud symbolizing the body of Imam Hussain and a horse whose head is covered with a shroud of cloth smeared in bloodstains of devotees. It is symbolic of the horse of Hussain when it returned from the battlefield without him.

We followed the procession to the Imam Bada (Shia Mosque) of the area where crowds of women draped in black clothing were waiting over the balconies of the building wailing their hearts out. Here the procession entered into the courtyard of the Imam Bada where the flagellation continued with a new zeal. The women who were overlooking the whole scene from the balconies above us started wailing out even more loudly and the men who were around me started to sob loudly. I could very closely see the ecstasy in the faces of the men who were the centre of attraction as they continued oozing blood out of themselves. It seemed as if they had found peace in the midst of this pain. Some of the old keepers of the mosque kept throwing water at regular intervals to wash away the blood that had covered the white marble floor of the Imam Bada. So blood heavily mixed with water was constantly flowing around our feet most of the time.

Soon the Speaker, who is normally one among the mourners, called over his microphone to start the Maatam (mourning) in a highly emotional voice. The group of men stopped beating themselves and got down on their knees that were soon followed by the entire crowd of men that had gathered in the courtyard of the Imam Bada. Soon the Speaker started reciting the passages where accounts of Hussain’s martyrdom are narrated. As the Speaker continued with his sermon in a voice that seemed it may crack at any moment out of anguish, the people around the courtyard began to wail out loudly as they listened how their beloved Imam Hussain died on the battlefield. The women wailed out madly from the balcony thumping their chests as if Hussain’s body was in front of them. Zubair put his camera into his bag, got down on his knees and joined in the mourning. My other friend who was at another corner of the building could not be seen. I continued taking pictures in the midst of all these wailing and soon realized the fact that I was the only person in the Imam Bada who was not crying then.

Frankly I was feeling out of the place as all around me were weeping inconsolably as the Speaker carried on his sermon in full emotional ecstasy. I stopped taking pictures and closed my eyes and listened carefully to the words of the Speaker. And soon images of the events started forming in my mind as the Speaker recounted the events. Hussain’s sufferings… how he was dealt 17 blows on his neck… how he had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad as he was dying… his sister Zainab’s agony on the news of his death… the death of his son Ali Asghar… his horse returning without its rider from the battlefield… vivid images were forming in my mind as the Imam carried on his sermon and the people around me wailed.

Soon the sermon was over and the Maatam too along with it. I opened my eyes and discovered that the unthinkable had happened. I had tears in my eyes. The mourning had really cast its shadow on me and I had somewhat realized the pain and anguish of the mourners who were around me. I was totally dumbstruck but felt surprisingly relived as I wiped away my tears. Suddenly it all started making sense to me and I realized that there is no reason why I should not respect these mourners. I didn’t really have all the answers to my doubts. But I didn’t want any. I somehow felt at peace.

As we made our way to the main road outside, we washed our hands at a tap on the roadside. I was trying to wash off some blood stains that had somehow got sprinkled on my hands. While I was washing them off, Zubair said, “It’s a good sign. The blood of the Tazia is holy. You’ll do good work now.” I smiled. I somehow believed him.