Tale of a fictitious pir and a reverent donkey

The ‘shrine’ at Choon was constructed by the army under the Operation Sadhbhavna launched in 1998,— as a part of its WHAM (winning hearts and minds) doctrine across Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Defence Ministry has given the army around Rs 300 crore under this Operation for various ‘developmental’ activities across Kashmir.

 

 

Nayeem Rather

North west from the Budgam town, a macadamized road winds uphill towards a tiny village with a rather queer name and an equally queer story. As you move up, an endless spread of mustard fields follow you. It is a visual delight. Then the tarmac comes to an abrupt end. From here a dirt track takes off which snakes through a meadow and ends at this oddly named village Choon.

A couple of newly built concrete houses in the village overlook a ‘shrine’ — decrepit and deserted. Shrines in Kashmir invite reverential looks from the passersby. But not this one. No votive threads tied to the ‘shrine’ walls and windows either, an otherwise defining feature of shrines in Kashmir.

“This is a hoax shrine. It was constructed by the Indian army on a whim of a superstition,” says Mohammad Suhail, a nearby shopkeeper.

The ‘shrine’ goes by an eerie name: Kan Czet Shah Military Astan – meaning “the military shrine of the ear-chopped Shah.” The name serves both as a literary pun of sorts and a parody on the absurd politics of this place. The ‘shrine’ is neither the burial place of any saint or Pir, nor is it sacred in anyway. The ‘shrine’ was built in 2005 by a counterinsurgency brigade of the Indian army which too goes by a rather weird name — Kilo Force. The purpose: to ward off evil spirits away from the camp.

For villagers of Choon and adjoining villages the story of the ‘shrine’s’ construction is a rural legend. Villagers recall this story with as much amusement as if it all happened yesterday.

Villagers say one dark fogy winter night of 2005 a donkey strayed into a military camp at Choon. It roamed inside the camp, went near the barracks and made strange braying sounds. This alerted the army men inside the camp, but they couldn’t make out what it was. When they went looking outside, they didn’t find anything. The donkey had already made its way out of the camp. The soldiers took it for an evil spirit that had come to haunt the soldiers.

Next day, a Major of the army came to the village and summoned the village elders. He demanded an explanation from the villagers about the ‘evil spirits’ his soldiers had heard making strange sounds. “He wanted to know everything about the place on which the camp stood,” recalls a villager of Choon..

“The Major came to me terrified and told me that this place is haunted and that they have seen a strange animal with legs of a human and head of a mule,” says Abdul Gani Mir, 78, whose house was closest to the camp.

Gani knew that it was a braying stray donkey which the army had mistaken for an evil spirit. “But at that time I didn’t tell the Major about it.”

The donkey had been left there by labourers from a nearby brick kiln. “I had seen it in the day grazing near the camp. In the night it had entered the camp,” says Gani. Gani says he tried to explain to the army that it was merely a donkey “but they were in no mood to listen.” The army claimed that the ‘evil spirit’ emerges from the nearby thorny bush by the roadside every night and enters the camp making strange sounds and sobs and wails.

The locals told the army that there is nothing worrying about the bush, but in vain. “The army wanted to know the history of the place. They wanted to know everything about the bush,” says Mohammad Maqbool, a local.
To rid themselves of the incessant pestering by the army, the villagers concocted a story. Gani being old and hence reliable was assigned to sell it to the Major.

“I knew that it was just folklore. It was pure yarn. No such Pir ever lived here. But I anyway told the story to the army,” says Gani.

Like other villagers, Gani had heard this fictitious story from village elders back in his childhood days. A Pir, this lore goes, used to wander near the bush. The Pir would chop off the ear of anyone who would pass by the bush, earning him the sobriquet — Kan Czet Shah. For many years, says the folklore, he severed ears of a thousand passersby. Then one day, goes the story, a giant came calling by the bush looking for the Pir. A fight broke off. The giant got the better of the Pir and chopped off both his ears.

It is said that the giant ate both the ears of the Pir. But the Pir wasn’t to give up. To avenge his mutilation, the Pir now roams around the bush and hates anyone disturbing him. Gani reeled off this story to the army with all the credibility he could summon. It worked.

Next day the army cleaned the place of the garbage they had dumped there and started construction. “We were amazed at their superstition and joked about it,” says Ghulam Qadir, 65, a local.

The army completed the construction of the ‘shrine’ in three days and hoisted the Indian national flag there and wrapped sheets of green cloth around the ‘shrine’.

“They even made a symbolic tombstone and lit it up with candles and incense sticks to earn goodwill of the ‘Pir’,” adds Gani.

The locals say that only the army men used to visit the ‘shrine’ and kneel before the ‘grave’. “They would put sweets on its two step stairs and bandage it with green and saffron votive threads,” recollects Gani.

The army used to frequent the shrine on the Holi and Diwali and sometimes even on Eid. “It looked as if it was a temple for them. No local Muslim ever visited the ‘shrine’ because we knew it was all a hoax,” says Aijaz Ahmed, a local villager.

“Maybe the army wanted to win our hearts by worshiping at a Muslim ‘shrine’. But in the end they felt humiliated as no one cared about it; instead people have been joking at the stupidity of the army,” adds Aijaz.

The ‘shrine’ at Choon was constructed by the army under the Operation Sadhbhavna launched in 1998,— as a part of its WHAM (winning hearts and minds) doctrine across Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Defence Ministry has given the army around Rs 300 crore under this Operation for various ‘developmental’ activities across Kashmir.

The army also aims at using this Operation to make a ‘heart to heart’ connection with the people of the state particularly the youth. Over the past decade the army has built schools, shrines, mosques, organized sports events and trips for Kashmiri students outside the state, facilitated Hajj pilgrimages besides other measures that army feels will win over the local population to accepting Indian rule in the state.

Operation Sadhbhavna is the replica of similar soft counterinsurgency tactics employed worldwide by occupying armies. The British used this tactic under the Templar Model (named after British General Sir Gerard Templar) to contain the insurgency movement in Malay in 1946. The British used similar tactics in the colonies, including India, they occupied before Second World War. The French used it in Algeria and elsewhere. The Italians also did the same during their occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1934. The Americans have recently utilized this ‘winning-hearts-and-minds’ soft power technique in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Taking cue from these former colonizers, the Indian army began to use such soft counterinsurgency approaches extensively in the conflict ridden areas of North-East India and Kashmir in particular. But there is hardly any instance of this WHAM soft power military doctrine having succeeded in any territory occupied against the will of the people.
The army has till now spent Rs 55 lakhs solely on the renovation and construction of the shrines and mosques in Kashmir. The shrine of Ayatollah Agha Syed Mehdi in Budgam features on top with over Rs 18 lakh spent on it.

Beyond 2007 there is no data available on spending by the army for constructing and renovating mosques and shrines in Kashmir. In the past, these activities have been looked at by Kashmiris with skepticism and suspicion.

In 2007, the ‘grand mufti’ of Kashmir, Mufti Bashir-ud-Din, issued a decree against accepting money from the army after news surfaced that army is constructing shrines in Kashmir. The Mufti termed these activities “un-Islamic.”

Back in Choon, soldiers continued to visit and maintain the ‘shrine’ till 2008 when there was an uprising in Kashmir and the army camp there was relocated.

Today the deserted structure awaits the reverent donkey that made the eerie braying sounds at the army camp. Villagers say the donkey is long dead.

Meanwhile, the fictitious Pir and his bête-noir, the giant, continue to live in Choon’s folklore.

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