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In a historic gesture, Sikhs return mosque to Muslims

The mosque had been in disrepair for long. Now it has been restored by a group of Sikhs and Muslims in a unique manifestation of India's multi-religious society, 
says Zafarul-Islam Khan

Muslims offering prayers in the Guru's Mosque while Sikhs watch them

New Delhi, April 6: A new chapter was inked in the Western Indian state of Punjab last week. While large-scale bloodshed continues in Gujarat and several other parts of the country over the issue of the proposed Ram temple construction at the site of the now demolished Babri Masjid amid extremist demands to surrender "thousands" of other mosques, a historical mosque was returned to Muslims by the Sikh community. For the last fifty four years since Partition of the country this mosque, known as "Guru ki Maseet" (Guru's Mosque) was being used as a gurdwara (temple) by the Sikh community. The mosque is picturesquely situated on a hill overlooking a curve on the banks of the mighty Beas river in Punjab's Gurdaspur district.

Maulana Hamid Husain Qasmi, the imam of the Jama Masjid in Amristsar, the largest city of the state, was specially called to lead the first prayers in the mosque on March 23. The mosque was constructed by Guru (Sikh religious leader) Hargobind Singh 370 years ago. According to Sikh tradition, the Guru had converted the house of a dead Muslim into a masjid and set up a langar (common kitchen) for the poor. Their tradition records an encounter between Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, and some Muslims which ended with the declaration that "if Hindus are the left hand, then Muslims are the right, and we all believe in the one true God."

A “memorandum of understanding” (MoU) has been signed by the Nihangs, the Sikh caretakers of the mosque, and the Punjab Waqf Board. Dr Mohammad Rizwanul Haque, Punjab Waqf Board Administrator, described the MoU as an international event which would pave the way for strengthening communal harmony in the country. 

Ms Gurmeet Rai, director of the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), who was honoured with an international award by UNESCO for the conservation of the historical Krishan Temple at Kishankot village and who has been in the forefront of the campaign for the restoration of the mosque to Muslims said that though as per the MoU, the Taruna Dal, a sect of Nihangs, has agreed to conserve “Guru ki Maseet” as a traditional mosque by allowing Muslims to perform prayers there, yet the Waqf Board requested the Nihangs to continue as caretakers. 

For many years, this mosque has been maintained by the Nihangs as it was abandoned at the time of the Partition. Dr Haque said he remembered that the late Baba Kirtan Singh, the Nihang chief of the Taruna Dal, had signed an MoU at Baba Bakala on February 8 last year. He said it was the desire of the Baba that Muslims must perform their prayers at the mosque which was gifted to them. As per the wishes of Baba Kirtan Singh, five saplings were planted in the names of the Sikh Gurus. 

The mosque had been in disrepair for long. Now it has been restored by a group of Sikhs and Muslims in a unique manifestation of India's multi-religious society. Sikhs offered their labour, Muslim masons repaired the walls and an all-woman team of restorers led by Ms Gurmeet Rai lent its expertise. 

In 1997, a survey team of the CRCI came to the town and inspected the mosque. Recognizing the value of the building, the group began to undertake the restoration of the mosque as part of the UNESCO and UNDP-UNV’s "Culture of Peace" programme, and with additional financial support from the US-based Sikh Foundation. A neighbour donated a piece of land and further property was purchased by CRCI.

Finally the work of restoration of this 370-year-old mosque built by Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, was completed on March 23 in the town named after him, Sri Hargobindpur, halfway between Jalandhar and the Sikh's holy city of Amritsar, in India's western province of Punjab. The "Guru Ki Maseet" was built in 1630 after the Guru Hargobind's battle with Jalandhar's ruler, Abdullah Khan. Legend has it that the mythical Hindu god Vishwakarma came down to earth in a human form to build this sacred town.

Why did a Sikh Guru build a mosque? Had it been a dharmshala (a rest house for Hindu pilgrims), it might have been destroyed by invaders. By building a mosque, and that too by a Sikh Guru, it was ensured that people of all religions would protect it, Baba Kaladhari, a spokesman for the Sikhs, said.
Muslim and Sikhs 
comparing historical texts 
about the mosque's history

No one destroyed it, yet not too many looked after it either. The neglect began with the Subcontinent's Partition, when Muslims of the area migrated en masse to Pakistan. 'The mosque was deserted for a few weeks, no prayers were held. Then someone installed in the mosque a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, and started taking care of not just the mosque but also treating the sick, Chandigarh's Tribune newspaper quoted Mohinder Kaur as saying. She was 18 at the time of Partition in 1947 and still lives a few yards from the shrine.

For Ms Gurmeet Rai and her team, beginning restoration work wasn't easy. The Nihangs (praetorian Sikh guards), who had taken control of the mosque in the mid-1970s, weren't keen on anyone tampering with what they considered to be the Sikh Guru's own work.

'When Rai first approached them with the idea of restoration, the response of the Nihangs was very simple - take care not to damage the shrine, and do not ask us for any money.

The enthusiasm has been contagious since the work on the restoration of the mosque was initiated a year ago. The entire village, and even those from the surrounding areas, answered Rai's call for clearing the earth around the shrine. Hundreds of school children and Nihangs did the spadework. Today the mosque stands elevated. "We will now try and remove all later additions, like cement, plaster and white-wash from the brick structure, and then apply lime paste plaster, which will allow the building to breathe," Rai says.

''The performance of Muslim religious prayers in the mosque after 55 years would be recorded in history as an event when Sikhs showed so much magnanimity towards Muslims,'' said Dr Mohammed Rizwanul Haque. Last year, Waqf Board officials approached the Sikhs requesting them to hand over the mosque. The Sikhs finally agreed after a series of meetings. 

The mosque is not the lone case that was under Sikh control. After the Partition of undivided India, Muslims who were in majority in the area, left for Pakistan. Hundreds of mosques were left unattended. Now these mosques have either been destroyed by savagery of times or are under personal control of people who later occupied them. Sikh community meanwhile has been very generous in vacating such mosques when approached by any Muslim group or Punjab Waqf Board that looks after Muslim Waqf properties in three north Indian states of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana. 

In a similar event a year ago Sikhs of Chahar Mazra village in Ropar District built a mosque for their Muslim neighbours. Sant Varyam Singh, who heads Vishwa Gurumat spiritual mission in the adjacent Ratwara Saheb village, built the mosque for the Muslims of the area. The first prayers were offered on the Eid day in March last year. After the prayers there were heart-warning scenes of celebrations, exchange of Eid greetings and Muslims embracing their Sikh brethren. 

After Partition in 1947, most Muslims of this village migrated to Pakistan and only about 15 households were left in Chahar Mazra who resolved to live and die there. There was no mosque in this village. These Muslims were poor labourers who could not build a mosque for themselves and all these 53 years since 1947 they had to travel 10 to 15 kms away for offering prayers.

The Mosque during restoration

When Sant Varyam Singh built his Ashram (religious retreat) in Ratwara Saheb, he stated a movement against drunkenness in the area. During this process he came across these Muslims who helped his movement and offered their services for his Ashram. Sant Varyam Singh visited USA where Ali Faryad, an Iranian at Stratford University, offered a donation for his Asharam. But instead of using this amount for the Ashram, the Sant decided to use it for building a mosque for the Muslims of Chahar Mazra. A site was chosen and construction of the mosque started. The Sant himself laid the foundation stone of the mosque in December 1999. 

When the mosque was completed, Sant Varyam Singh left it to the Muslims when to inaugurate it. They decided that they will inaugurate it by offering Eid prayers. Captain Kanwaljeet Singh, the then Punjab finance minister, handed over the mosque to the Muslims on that day a year ago.
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