By Uday Mahurkar
Balakot, one of the three places in Pakistan that Indian fighter jets targeted on February 26 to destroy the terror bases of the Maulana Masood Azhar-led Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), has a historic connection with followers of ultra Wahhabi or the extremist brand of Islam in Pakistan and India.
Balakot’s symbolic and sentimental value for terror outfits, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), has been there for almost two centuries now. Even LeT co-founder Hafiz Saeed has strong links to Balakot. At one point, Saeed used to run his charity activities for local poor Muslims in the area.
Balakot was one of the favourite breeding grounds for Wahhabism in South Asia.
Syed Ahmed Barelvi was killed in a battle with the army of the Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh in 1831. Barelvi was killed along with his lieutenant, Shahid Ismail, another Wahabi preacher who is not only revered by Wahhabis in India and Pakistan but also in Saudi Arabia because of his prolific writing, condemning the practices of not just non-Islamic religions but also moderate Sufi Islam. When the battle took place, Barelvi was leading an army of his followers known as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen and had styled himself as Amir-ul-Momin of the Wahhabis.
Significantly, both Barelvi and Ismail are known as people who played the most prominent role in laying the foundation of Wahhabi tenets in India. In fact, Barelvi is also known as ‘Syed Ahmed Barelvi Wahhabi’ in British records. He veered full-stream towards Wahhabi Islam after visiting Mecca and Medina and coming in touch with the mainstream preachers there. He became a preacher of Wahhabi tenets after coming back to India.
Ismail accepted Barelvi as his religious preceptor and eventually, the ‘Guru and Chela’ became inseparable. Surprisingly, Ismail’s teachings have also been praised by nationalist Muslims, such as Abul Kalam Azad, India’s first education minister and a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Congress president from 1939 to 1945, the most crucial years before India’s Partition and independence.
Ismail’s book Taqwiyat-ul-Iman (Strengthening of the Faith), which decries Sufism and the practices of non-Islamic religions, and is taught in all Wahhabi madrasas (seminaries of Deoband and Ahle Hadis schools in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) for the last 150 years or more is said to be one of the main reasons for the radicalisation of Muslims studying in these madrasas.
Interestingly, the Sikh army in the Balakot battle was led by Ranjit Singh’s son, Kunwar Sher Singh, who later became the Sikh emperor for a short while. It is said Barelvi was apparently killed off by the Sikh soldiers and his body was never found — the body of Ismail Dehlvi was buried in Balakot.
Ismail’s tomb can be found in Balakot even today.
The battle was fought because Barelvi, a resident of Bareilly in UP, left India for the North West-Frontier Province (now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to canvass support for the jihad that he declared against the British, and later against the Sikhs.
Barelvi’s ultimate goal was the re-establishment of Muslim rule in India, based on a puritanical Islamic order. Like all Wahhabis, he regarded Emperor Akbar’s liberal policies as the root cause for the weakening of puritanical Islam in India. However, he saw the British as enemy number one and therefore tried seeking tactical support from Hindu and Muslim rulers of that time. But he was forced to migrate to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa because he didn’t get the desired support for his jihad against the British despite his best efforts.
Significantly, he first tried to enlist the support of his friend, the famous Pathan chieftain, Amir Khan Pindari, but Amir Khan refused as he had been made Nawab of Tonk by the British to prevent him from harassing and looting the local princely rulers in Malwa and Rajasthan.
Next, he tried to seek support from Raja Hindurao Ghatge, the brother-in-law of the Maratha ruler of Gwalior, Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia, but he also refused — interestingly, he is the same Hindurao Ghatge in whose erstwhile palace the Bada Hindu Rao Hospital is housed in Delhi today.
When Barelvi reached NWFP, he was warmly welcomed by the local Pathan tribesman. In fact, they virtually accepted him as their religious pontiff and declared him their Amir-ul-Momin. Barelvi lived at a place called Sittana in NWFP. But Barelvi practiced a severe brand of Wahhabi Islam and in doing so, he inflicted heavy punishments on those who indulged in the worship of Sufi saints which is prohibited in Wahhabism and seen as an import from the Hindu tradition of guru Puja.