Facing persecution back home in Pakistan, members of the minority Ahmadiyya sect have sought refuge in their founder’s birthplace in Qadian, Punjab. The Hindu reports on the community’s long struggle to preserve their religious freedom
Tayyab Ali, 92, lies on a rusty cot in a large house with a courtyard full of plants. Clad in an off-white kurta, he peers intently through thick glasses as he says, “I moved here in 1946 to protect our heritage. I am still doing the same thing.”
Tayyab Ali Bengali, as he likes to be called, had migrated from what is now Bangladesh. He was one of the 313 Ahmadiyyas who, at the time of the Partition, had chosen to stay back in Qadian in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district. It was here that the sect’s founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, had established a religious community in 1889.
The Ahmadiyyas believe that their founder was the “promised messiah” of the Muslims, meant to propagate the teachings of Prophet Mohammad. But the majority Sunni Muslims believe the Prophet to be the last messiah. This fundamental difference in religious belief has meant that the Ahmadiyyas are a persecuted minority in every Islamic state.
In Pakistan, where over 4 million Ahmadiyyas reside, an ordinance passed by the government in 1984 declared them as “non-Muslims”. It also made it a criminal offence for members of this community to practise Islam or claim to be Muslims.
As for the Ahmadiyyas, they call themselves a “revival movement in Islam”, one that rejects “terrorism” and believes in the “jihad of the pen” as opposed to a “jihad of the sword”.
Mr. Ali is proud to be a ‘Darvesh’, the title given to each of the 313 who chose to stay in India after the 1947 Partition, leaving their families in Pakistan. He recalls attending a few sermons given by Ahmadiyya leaders in 1945, after which he decided to join the sect. He moved to Qadian the following year.
“My parents were Sunnis. They stopped me but I didn’t listen to them. After Partition, my father sent me a money order and asked me to come back. But I sent the money order back,” he says. He last travelled to see his family over 50 years ago, in what was then East Pakistan, but returned in four days. “The environment was hostile. My parents didn’t treat me well. I came back,” he recalls. In India, he says, he wakes up for fajr, the first of the five prayers through the day, rests, eats, and goes to watch kids play football in the evening.
The only tough time, he recalls, was the year following Partition. “We lived like prisoners, with a bare minimum of food, for over a year. We couldn’t get out of Qadian. A year later, I started playing football and volleyball, and that became a reason for me to get out of Qadian sometimes for tournaments,” Mr. Ali says.
India’s Ahmadiyya population is about 1.5 lakh, About 6,000 of them live in Qadian in a settlement spread across 1,500 acres. It has a residential colony, two mosques, State board-affiliated schools for both girls and boys, a religious college, a few manufacturing units, including a chapatti-making unit, playgrounds, community halls, and religious monuments.
Modelled as a self-sustaining township of sorts, the community enjoys its own administration, known as the ‘Secretariat’, with separate departments for expenditure, construction, audit, general affairs, information technology, waseehat and jaidaat. All the department heads are appointed by the ‘Khalifa’, or fifth successor of the founder, Mirza Masroor Ahmad. The Khalifa is based in London, which has now become the headquarters of the community.
“Most of the money to run the community comes from donations by our members across the country. A significant part of it is generated by a system wherein those who pledge allegiance to the community donate 10% of their property and monthly salary to the administration,” says Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat’s (AMJ) spokesperson Tariq Ahmed. Many members of the community live in houses owned by the sect, pay a nominal rent, and work at the Secretariat.
Nasir Waheed, who handles accounts at the Secretariat, says that he gets a salary of just ₹7,000 a month but is grateful for the peaceful life. “My children study in the community school where the fees are low. And because I work for the community, there are a lot of benefits,” he says, adding that his father was a Darvesh. “He worked for free in the initial years and started with a salary of ₹5”.
Mr. Waheed’s wife, Swalehah Waheed (37), says the women are mostly occupied in religious programmes scheduled through the year. The entire settlement is divided into 13 sub-areas, each headed by a woman who is responsible for the ‘religious guidance’ of the women of her subdivision. “They give us books of our Khalifa to read and there are regular discussions around it. Every now and then, religious programmes are organised where women and minor girls share what they have read,” says Ms. Waheed, who has a master’s degree in political science from Panjab University.
While there are many like Ms. Waheed, there are also women like Tahira Maqbool. Ms. Maqbool is now an Indian citizen but was a Pakistani until two years ago. The 34-year-old mother of three recalls life back “home” in Faisalabad and the pain of living there.
“I was born in Faisalabad and stayed there till I got married in 2003. It’ll always be home because I’ve spent my childhood there. But in Pakistan we are treated worse than animals,” she says. Recalling an incident, she describes how her brother was once stopped on the street for particular reason, slapped around, and asked to change his faith.
Tehmida (29), also a Pakistani born and brought up in Karachi, got married in India in 2013. She, too, has experienced persecution. “I was a bright student in college and my teachers loved me. But the day they came to know that I was an Ahmadiyya, their attitude towards me changed completely. They even asked me to leave the college. I said I’ll only leave if you make a formal complaint.”
Unfortunately, for the married Pakistani women in Qadian, the ordeal doesn’t end even after they leave their home country. In India, life without citizenship is not easy either.
“Sometimes, I feel like a prisoner because I have to renew my visa every year. I got married here and my four-year-old son is also an Indian. But I can’t leave Qadian. To travel out of this town, I need a No Objection Certificate from the Indian government. This remains a huge problem,” says Ms. Tehmida, adding that her friends from Pakistan often ask her if she has visited Mumbai or the Taj Mahal. “What could I say?”
Slow citizenship process
Tears roll down the eyes of Ms. Maqbool as she recalls the time her father passed away, in April 2012. She could not go and see him one last time as she had submitted her passport to the Indian government as part of her citizenship application process. “It is a very slow process,” she says. “I received the citizenship certificate only in April 2016.”
Rukaiyya Khalam (52), from Pakistan’s Rabwah, has a similar story. She came to India in 1994 and started her citizenship process right then. “My mother passed away in 1996. But there is a requirement that in order to get citizenship, I should not leave India for seven years after I come here. So I didn’t go. Now, more than 20 years later, I am still not an Indian national,” she says.
Ms. Tehmida, however, is happy in one respect. “I am free to practise my beliefs the way I want”.
Mr. Ahmed, too, dwells on the relief in being able to freely call oneself a Muslim.
In September, the Pakistani government had removed Princeton economist Atif Mian, an Ahmadiyya, from the newly set up Economic Advisory Council because of opposition from the Sunni majority. “In Pakistan, we can’t keep the Koran. We can’t celebrate Id. We can’t publish any of our books or periodicals. We can’t greet with Assalamu alaikum. There is not a single month when our people are not martyred. How would they accept one of us in the national Economic Advisory Council? India and most of the 211 other countries where our people live are extremely tolerant in this matter as compared to Pakistan,” he says.
Members of the community say that they can lead a normal life In India, like any other Muslim, so long as they don’t show that they’re Ahmadiyya.
Mansoor Ahmad, a local who often visits his relatives in Delhi, says that his nieces and nephews go to a private college and none of their friends really care what community they are from. “But it’s not always like this. There have been instances when hardliners in Ludhiana have created a ruckus because of our presence during religious programmes. But even on those occasions things never escalated to violence,” he says.