FOR a city of 1.6 million people, Islamabad has 827 mosques, some of which come with madressahs and shrines of a varying degrees of religious and political importance. ‘Islamabad the beautiful,’ as it is referred to by its residents, is now getting a new addition to this collection — the grave-turned-‘shrine’ of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who 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 the settlement, the road is dusty and dishevelled. Approximately 25 minutes from Kohsar Market, where Taseer was tragically gunned down, there is an alarming array of pro-Qadri slogans etched onto the walls of this locality. A sharp left turn off the main road takes you straight to the compound where the killer is buried.

Despite being under construction, the ‘monument’ is occupied even at 9am on a Saturday by at least a dozen men. The attendees appear relaxed, perched next to the rose petal-covered grave. There is a shop near the construction 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 iron, bricks, cement, stone or cash and earn yourself a place in the eternal heaven.”

Qadri’s own house is not far from his grave. “Quite often, his son makes an appearance and sings naats,” says Bilal, a bystander 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,” Bilal adds as we walk through the courtyard towards the construction.

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 construction, where the elders are seated, are given a coloured receipt to keep for their records. It is chilling, the sense that Qadri’s grave 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 led to the governor’s murder.

It has hardly been a year since Qadri’s execution yet the process of his ‘canonisation’ is almost complete. While the outcry against his trial and execution and the subsequent expansion of his grave might bewilder many of us, in the hearts and minds of his sympathisers Qadri’s status is beyond question.

Mehmood Khan, indistinguishably plain in attire, is one of dozens who have come to pay their respects. 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, referring to this place of burial.

Already, the stories circulating around the location 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 to go in despite the law of the land.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2016