For a city of 1.6 million people, Islamabad has 827 mosques, some of which come with madrassahs and shrines of a varying degree of religious and political importance. “Islamabad the beautiful” is getting a new addition to this collection – the grave-turned-shrine of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who brutally gunned down then Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011.
In the early hours of the morning I am headed to Bhara Kahu, a small town on the outskirts of Islamabad which is Qadri’s ancestral village.
Driving up through Bhara Kahu, the road is dusty and disheveled. Approximately 25 minutes from Kohsar Market, where Taseer was tragically gunned down, there is an alarming array of pro-Qadri slogans etched onto walls of this serene locality. A sharp left turn off the main road takes you straight to the compound where the killer is buried.
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Despite being under-construction, it is occupied even at 9AM on a Saturday by at least a dozen men. The attendees appear relaxed, perched next to his rose petal-covered grave. There is a shop outside the shrine that sells flowers and flaunts a meek collection of photographs of the assassin. At the counter in the shop, lies a note. It reads, “Donate tee iron, bricks, cement, grinded stone or cash and earn yourself a place in the eternal heaven.”
Qadri’s own house is not far from the shrine. “Quite often, his son makes an appearance and sings naats,” says Bilal, a by-stander at the shop. His reverence is disturbing.
Adorned in rose petals, the assassin’s grave is a step lower than the cement structure being erected around it.
“To pray at his grave is a guaranteed way to have it answered, for Qadri has earned a place at the side of the Prophet (PBUH) through his sacrifice,” he added, as we walked through the courtyard into the shrine.
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Bilal’s belief is linked to the miracle of intercession granted to saints (awliya) in the popular imagination of the subcontinent. It is what makes going to their mausoleums (ziyarat) such a widespread phenomenon.
Conceived by his father and other close relatives, the 'Mumtaz Qadri Shaheed Foundation' supervises the construction of the shrine, which is still in its infancy. It is said that on the first day after his funeral, Rs80 million came in the form of donations, with a steady stream continuing since. Visitors who give donations at the desk beside the shrine, where the elders are seated, are given a coloured receipt to keep for record.
It is chilling; the sense that Qadri’s shrine is becoming more than a place of burial to some. That it is believed to be a haven for those who subscribe to the ideology that lead to the governor’s murder.
It has hardly been a year since his execution yet the process of his canonisation is utterly complete. While the outcry against his trial and execution and the subsequent construction of this shrine might bewilder some of us, in the hearts and minds of his sympathisers Qadri’s saintly status is beyond question.
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Mehmood Khan, indistinguishably plain in attire, is one of dozens who had come to pay their respect. He proudly claims, “I was lucky to be standing in the first row of the [Qadri's] funeral, as cars had blocked the roads for miles around. I even have a jar of dirt from his grave, which I keep safe in my house.”
“It gets much busier towards evening, when people who come from places like Faisalabad or Gujranwala arrive,” Mehmood adds.
Already, the stories circulating around the shrine are acquiring an air of myth. The legacy of Qadri, a man who was buried a convicted murderer, will survive. As things stand, it will get more deeply entrenched in the cultural kaleidoscope that is Pakistan. It is a mirror to a dark reality; a sign of the direction society can choose despite the law of the land.
Photographs by the author.