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SARGODHA: A day after the discovery of multiple murders at a shrine in Sargodha, sensitive questions continued to be asked about the motive and beliefs of the followers of a so-called faith healer identified as the main suspect.

Police spent a good part of Monday trying to keep a swelling crowd from reaching the Ali Muhammad Qalandar shrine. People had thronged the area to take a closer look at the spot where 20 people, including three women, were brutally murdered. Later the custodian at the shrine, Abdul Waheed, confessed to murdering them, his act spread over Friday and Saturday.

Dawn spoke to many of the villagers on Monday about the incident. Some blamed Waheed, calling him a ‘fake’ peer (spiritual leader). Others said that a middle-aged man like Waheed (55) could not kill 20 people that included young men who could have resisted - unless the unfortunate victims were under some psychological spell or had been drugged.

“I hold these mureeds - the devotees - responsible for their fate,” Muhammad Ismail, of Chak-90 North, told Dawn.

“Because of their blind following of a fake peer, these men and women had allowed him to treat them worse than slaves. Khalid Jutt, one of the victims, was my friend. When I asked him to stop seeing this dubious man (Waheed) he got angry with me and stopped seeing me instead.”

Ismail said since a police constable, a former deputy superintendent police’s son and an area influential person Muhammad Gulzar were Waheed’s disciples no one in the area dared to file a complaint against him for carrying out ‘suspicious’ activities at the shire.

“Everyone in the surrounding villages knew what method Waheed used to wash the sins of his followers. He would undress them and then hit them with a stick,” he said and recalled how Jutt did not like to discuss this strange process of healing.

Ikram Ahmed, of Chak-95 North, where the shrine is located, said: “Frankly speaking we are surprised by the reaction of the victims. There has been little mourning in the families of two victims in my area,” he said.

Could this be because of some fear?

The villagers wouldn’t comment but Ikram told Dawn that according to one inexplicable theory doing the rounds the dead were supposed to return after Waheed beat the last bit of life out of the chosen devotees.

The two acre shrine is surrounded by lush green fields. This is one of the many shrines in the area. It was built only about two years ago by a local landlord. Some eight cows and buffaloes and a few goats gifted to prime suspect Waheed by the landlord were kept in the yard. The landlord also built five rooms there to ‘facilitate’ Waheed’s occasional visits. In the most tragic twist, the landlord - Gulzar - is also among the dead.

Mohammad Kashif, who is among the four injured in the incident, said he had no idea that Waheed would hit him with a club. “Earlier, Murshad Pak (spiritual guide) used to hit on my back to wash my sins but this is for the first time he targeted the heads of his mureeds (followers),” Kashif said.

Muhammad Tauqeer, another injured, said: “Peer sahib jalal main a gaiy thay kissi baat par iss liya unhaun nay sab ko saroon main marna shuru kardia (In fact, the saint got furious and started hitting us in the head with a club)”.

Both injured were being treated at the Sargodha District Headquarters Hospital.

Falahai Insaniat Foundation worker Muhammad Mowahir told Dawn that their ambulance was the first to arrive at the scene after the police was alerted over the incident. “I saw naked bodies lying in the open and rooms. We shifted them to hospital where 19 were pronounced dead while one of the injured succumbed to her injuries later,” he said.

Regional Police Officer Zulfiqar Hameed told Dawn that a joint investigation team was being constituted to probe the matter. Mr Hameed said: “Waheed stated that he had inflicted death on his followers so that they would have a ‘new life’. At the same time he said that he killed some of them because they wanted to kill him to get succession to the shrine. He first killed Asif (a police constable) considering him a major threat.” He said it appeared all Waheed’s followers submitted themselves to him because of ‘extreme devotion’ for him.

He said initial investigation revealed that Waheed called his followers to the shrine one by one. “Once he killed one follower with the help of his two to three accomplices on the pretext of washing his sins, he called another. And this continued for two days,” Mr Hameed said.

Waheed served on a senior position at the Election Commission of Pakistan before he resigned a few years ago to solely concentrate on his activities at the shrine.

Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2017