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Mumbai’s Babas thrive on misery

» Anil Laxmikant Singh, 33, beheaded his neighbour's nine-year-old son, Rahul Soni, to appease the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and solve his marital problems on the advice of Tantrik Baba Bengali alias Akram Abdul Mallik.
»  On September 10, the Mumbai Police arrested a man claiming to possess divine powers to solve problems of his clients and duping 16 people. Maulana Baba Kalimuddin Shaikh alias Usman, or Baba Usman Bangali for the clients.
»  Baba Badshah Shaikh, absconded after molesting 2-year-old Halima as she approached him to locate her missing husband.
»  One of the respectable Muslim families from South Mumbai cancelled their property deal bearing a loss of Rs. 5 lakh on Baba Khan Pir’s advice. According to Baba Pir, the said property would bring a catastrophe on them.

Got a property dispute in Mumbai? Or, maybe you just don't like somebody? Don't worry, help is at hand. You can easily call on the services of the local mafia to have matters turned to your advantage or — better still — engage a competent Baba Pir.

Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is also turning out to be the capital of Baba Pirs. All kind of solutions are provided in the form of spiritual mumbo jumbo, be it personal or social, related to career or competitors. Hundreds of believers pour in daily not only to these Baba Pirs but also to a slew of dargahs situated in Mumbai's lanes and bylanes, including the more famous Hazrat Pir Syed Ali Datar dargah.

The police said Akram Abdul Mallik had a flourishing business in Bandra, offering instant prosperity and solution to virtually every problem of a large number of mostly semi-literate and poor labourers. From Maulana Baba Kalimuddin Shaikh the police recovered a foot-long bone of an animal, a photo album, photographs of goddesses and feathers of different birds, among other things. A Nokia mobile phone, a driving licence, an HDFC Bank ATM card and a credit card were also recovered. He had a bank balance of Rs 1,61,943.

A visit to the Hazrat Pir Syed Ali Datar dargah is an eye opener. The dargah is situated near the Mumbai docks in the run-down suburb of Mazgaon. For miles, slum settlements and filthy, pot-holed streets dominate the landscape. On any day, dozens of people supposedly possessed by the devil can be seen praying for deliverance. Some sway rhythmically, as if rocked by the evil spirit. Others go berserk, roll across the floor and scream hysterically.

The dargah itself is surprisingly inconspicuous. Its main feature is the tomb of the Arabian pir [saint] Syed Ali Datar, which also contains the remains of his mother. Another tomb next to it holds the body of Syed Ali's maternal uncle. A simple edifice has been built around the tombs, decorated with garlands by the faithful.

How the dargah became known as a place for exorcism nobody seems to know, or care. Reason and common sense are not the criteria here." The power that attracts people to such healers is beyond explanation," says psychiatrist Harish Shetty. "In today's world of alienation such patients are not looking for a cure that medical practitioners are trained to provide. Instead, they want to be healed, which include both physical as well as spiritual healing."

Sami Khan, a scrap dealer, has been visiting Mira Datar with his wife Khadija since last few days. Khadija suffers from schizophrenia and often gets hysteric. Sami thinks that his rivals have put a curse on her." One of my close friends advises me to take Khadija to Baba Dargah to cure her. He talks a lot of the Baba's healing powers. No doctor was able to cure Khadija. Now I depend on the Baba's blessings to cure her," said Khan. 

Eighteen-year-old Parvin Ansari was mercilessly beaten by one of the dargah's functionaries with a broom. Her hands tied behind her back, Parvin cried for help. Her father Babu instead of coming to her rescue, shouted at her to behave. "Parvin has been haunted by an evil spirit, which makes her hysterical. Its now in the hand of Pir Syed Baba to get her rid of the evil spirit," said Babu. When asked why is she mercilessly beaten, Babu said, "No it is not Parvin who is beaten up, but that evil spirit. Otherwise, how will it get out of her body?"

It is a coincidence that these exorcists happen to be Muslims, though Islamic belief and teachings do not have any scope for such irrational practices. In fact, these are contrary to the teachings of Islam. Still a visit to any dargah in Mumbai shows both men and women performing rituals which have no sanction in Islam.

Those who imagine that they are victims of some evil spirit feel compelled to visit babas or fakirs to neutralise the jinx. Illiteracy and lack of knowledge of Islam have been the reason for the exploitation of these innocent people by witch doctors.

Tahira, a domestic worker, suffers lapse of memory due to a bout of tuberculosis and related complications. Her husband took her to a Baba Pir. She was given some water to drink and taken to a closed room and beaten up from head to toe. "After two weeks I was given the address of a local psychiatrist as my bhoot (spirit) was very strong which was not coming under control," said Tahira.

Dr Harish Shetty observes, "Mental health receives stepmotherly treatment in both private and public hospitals. Every school should have a counsellor; the cost involved is lower than even maintaining a computer, roughly 25 paise per student. And this could solve much of the problem."

There is widespread denial of the problem, which complicates matters. However, the stigma attached to mental problems is waning, feel some experts. "People today are more open to the idea of going to doctors if they have genuine problems," says psychiatrist Anjali Chabria. "This is a healthy trend and fewer people resort to faith healers. But it's yet to pick up."

When one talks about reforms in the Muslim community, none of the important organisations touch these issues. Babas and dargah functionaries are not only financially strong but also quite influential with political and mafia leaders. No one points a finger at them, fearing violent reprisal.

¯ M H Lakdawala in Mumbai

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