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Footprints: power of faith

Updated April 11, 2017

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Two men watch their friend take pictures of the site with his handset. —Photo by writer
Two men watch their friend take pictures of the site with his handset. —Photo by writer

SARGODHA: Built on private land amidst lush farms in a village almost 20km from Sargodha, the shrine of the self-proclaimed faith healer, Ali Mohammad Qalandar, has been attracting hordes of villagers since news broke early this month about the massacre of 16 men and four women by its custodian in a cult ritual.

“What kind of power did the shrine keeper, Abdul Waheed, have over his followers?” wondered 65-year-old Raja Abdul Jabbar. “I have never heard of such a thing: men and women stripping themselves naked, watching their religious leader brutally executing his followers, and silently waiting for their own turn.”

But Mir Ali came all the way from Jhang last Saturday to rule out the possibility of his 20-year-old son, Asif Ali, being one of those murdered. “Asif vanished from Sial Sharif a couple of weeks before this incident occurred,” he said. “When I heard of these killings, I thought I should check with police if he was also among the victims. Fortunately, he isn’t.”

A police official, who was part of the police party that reached the scene in response to a call at the police emergency helpline after midnight on April 2, said that they saw Waheed brutally beating a man with a stick in the shrine’s courtyard. “On seeing us, the suspect threatened to burn us down if we tried to approach him and his accomplices — his driver Zafar Dogar and two followers, Mohammad Asif and Kashif. For a moment, we thought he could do what he said.”

“The suspects resisted arrest,” Shamsher Joya, who led the police party, told Dawn. “We recovered three bodies from the courtyard and 15 dumped in the suspect’s residence. Another body was recovered from the fields in the morning. All were stripped off and their clothes and belongings had been burned to ashes.”

The dead included Asif Ali, son of Ali Mohammad Qalandar, and Gulzar Ahmed, a brick kiln owner and a disciple of Qalandar who donated his land for the shrine. “The killings had started a day before the police were alerted,” Joya said. “Waheed telephoned his followers one by one and tortured them as they kept arriving.”

Villagers said that Waheed, a former Election Commission of Pakistan employee, met Qalandar, who was also a government employee, in Islamabad several years back. By that time, Qalandar had established his reputation as a faith healer. “The men developed a close relationship as they shared similar religious views,” said a man who claimed to know them well but refused to give his name.

After his retirement, Qalandar was offered two acres of land in Chak 90 (North) of Sargodha by one of his followers, Gulzar Ahmed, who knew him from Islamabad and had established a kiln in the village. “Two months before his death Qalandar moved to the village where Gulzar had constructed a residence for him. Waheed also followed him there. After Qalandar died, Gulzar built the shrine and Waheed was chosen as his successor and custodian of the shrine.”

Locals say that during his visits to the shrine, Waheed used to “cleanse” his disciples of their sins by beating them with a stick. “No one minded that because such rituals are common in our rural areas. We had never received any complaint of violence,” said a police official on the condition of anonymity.

“The suspect was seemingly running his own cult,” contended Raja Arshad Abbas, an investigator in the case and in charge of Jhal Chakian police station. “Who in his right mind would commit such brutality?”

However, he refused to discuss details of the investigation. “We’re still probing and waiting for the forensic report. The report is necessary to determine whether the victims willingly accepted death or the suspect and his accomplices drugged them.”

Quoting Waheed, a police official said on the condition of anonymity that the suspect had killed his followers so that they could have a “new life. He said if released, he could resurrect them. At the same time, he said he murdered them because they were hatching a conspiracy to poison him and replace him as the custodian of the shrine.”

Such is the level of his followers’ devotion that initially, the families of his victims were not prepared to register a case against the suspect. “So we decided that one of our officials, who was part of the raiding party, should lodge it. Now, some of the victims’ families have expressed willingness to become complainants. But we don’t trust their intentions,” the anonymous police official said.

Many consider the killings premeditated. Among them is Imran Iqbal, who co-owns a nearby kiln with Gulzar Ahmed and was the one to alert the police. Waheed had called him on Saturday night. When Iqbal reached the shrine at around 8:30/9:00pm, he says he saw seven or eight people, including four women, sitting naked on the ground in front of Waheed.

“I was terribly frightened and when he asked me to sit in the queue, I couldn’t refuse. I don’t know if I saw a body. I also don’t remember how long I sat there with my eyes pinned on the ground. It was only after he started hitting one of the men — Ashfaque — that I stole off. His men followed me but I was lucky enough to escape through the fields,” he said.

He described the scene to his friends, called the police helpline at around midnight and returned to the shrine. “By the time police arrived at 2:00 in the morning, Waheed had already killed two men and as many women. During this time Waheed’s followers kept coming and we kept turning them back. My friends and I stopped at least 26 people, including women and five children, from going in.”

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2017