A Battle for the Soul of Pakistan


Sehwan: Women and children in the courtyard. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Wrote this in one go about the suicide attack at Sehwan Sharif that claimed over 80 lives. Sick at heart but not giving up. Thanks to friends around the world, especially in India for their messages of solidarity, to the Wire for publishing it so fast and editor Siddharth Varadarajan for the photos used with the Wire piece. We had gone to Sehwan together, along with Nandini Sundar and Aslam Khwaja. Extracts from my article:

I wonder if the bangle sellers outside the shrine are alive. I still have some chunky glass bangles I bought, bargaining more for the sake of it than to save money.

Did the woman bouncing a little girl on her shoulders, chanting and dancing to an inner beat before the drums sounded, go back last Thursday? Did they survive the blast? 

… These Sufi dargahs are a symbol of the region’s syncretic culture – the unique blend of Islam with local cultures. It was the Sufi philosopher-poets’ teachings of peace and love that led to the spread of Islam in the sub-continent. It is what today’s hard-line Islamists who draw their stark puritan ideology from Wahhabi teachings, are trying to counter.


A faqir in the inner courtyard immersed in prayer as a little girl passes by. Photo: Beena Sarwar

Over the past few years, massive madrassas have cropped up throughout the province, funded by Saudis and other sources. These huge buildings look threatening and unfamiliar in a landscape where the traditional mosques have delicate minarets and people of all religions and sects have lived together peacefully for centuries.

In Sehwan last April, dressed in red, a red clip tying her dark hair back, the little girl I saw on her mother’s shoulders looked bemused as dusk fell and the dhamal – the dance that sends devotees into a trance – picked up. Over the din of the chanting and the drumbeats, she gazed sleepily over the crush of people around as she held on to her mother’s dupatta-covered head.

The woman waved her right arm overhead in a circular clockwise motion, clutching the handle of a tin mug and crumpled tissue paper, her forefinger extended to signify ‘the one’ – the highest power. All around them, hundreds of others were in a similar trance, heads down, eyes closed, arms overhead, forefingers extended in submission and homage to the Almighty.


A little girl plays with a cellphone as women read verses from the Quran in the inner chamber of Lal Shahbaz Qaladar’s shrine. Photo: Beena Sarwar

This must have been the scene when a suicide bomber chose this past Thursday to strike the dargah of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar after evening prayers. Perhaps he was already seated in a corner before the crowds filled the outer courtyard over which towers the golden dome that characterises this shrine.

Hindus, Christians and Sikhs also frequent dargahs and tie bits of thread to wooden or marbled lattices and pillars at these shrines. But the vast majority of those found there identify themselves as Muslims, expressing their faith in a manner that is uniquely South Asian. Most are poor working class people who lead hard lives – farmers and labourers, with few material possessions.

Many are women, for whom these shrines provide space for self-expression that mainstream culture denies them. Here they can lose themselves in a dhamal. This is where, despite the crowds, they have the luxury of being able to concentrate on thoughts that the rigour of their daily lives doesn’t leave room for. The dargah is a kind of confessional where you can be yourself without being judged.

But social media and orthodox militancy are closing these traditionally non-judgmental spaces. Cell phone cameras are shattering the privacy of the dargah. And militants who see these spaces as heretical have, since 2009, been targeting them…. Read more

2 Responses

  1. Pakistan has never been a sovereign nation-state, for which was carved out from the mainland India to serve the ruthless global agenda of the powers-that-be. Its going to face the worst crisis in a tug-of-war between the USA and China as the former cant afford to accept Pakistan too much love-affair with the later and more and more internal chaos and commotion will be the order of the day till it is dissolved as it is now!


  2. Attn Beena Sarwar Good write up and and very timely response. Lots of respects and regards iqbalalavi

    On Sat, Feb 18, 2017 at 3:41 AM, Journeys to democracy wrote:


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