On August 16, the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board issued an order banning “unethical practices” such as “forcibly” taking donations at shrines.
Such donations, the Waqf Board claimed, were extracted through “exploitative means” by people who have been “permanently occupying particular spots within the shrines for their activities”. It added that there were instances where such spots had been “outsourced or contracted out against receipt of large sums of money”. It was in possession of a “large number of complaints” against such people, the Waqf Board claimed.
The Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board is an administrative body responsible for managing the properties and finances of Islamic institutions, including Muslim shrines, in the region. The people whom it referred to in its order were “mujavirs”, or caretakers, of such shrines. Most trace their lineages to Sufi saints who brought Islam to Kashmir centuries ago. They are not officially appointed by any authority but are a permanent feature of Kashmiri shrines, offering prayers on behalf of devotees, usually in exchange for donations.
Days after the order, Waqf Board officials, along with Jammu and Kashmir police personnel, swooped down on shrines across the Valley and confiscated donation boxes installed by mujavirs.
The August 16 order is arguably the strictest action taken by the newly constituted Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board. Before August 5, 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir lost formal autonomy and was split into two Union Territories, the Waqf had been regulated by the laws of the former state.
After August 2019, the old board was dismantled and reconstituted under the central Waqf Act, 1995. Darakhshan Andrabi, a veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader, was appointed as head of the board in March.
While the waqf board claims to be cracking down on corrupt practices, others see it differently. A political commentator in Srinagar, who did not want to be identified, said the waqf’s “proactiveness” may have been well-intentioned but it could mean a tightening of government control on Muslim religious spaces in the Valley.
Two sets of donation boxes
While mujavirs have always been informal centres of power in the shrines, the donation system run by them has been somewhat institutionalised over the decades. For example, it is common to see two sets of donation boxes at shrines in Kashmir.
One set of boxes is for the Waqf Board; donations here are meant for the construction and management of the shrines. For donations made to these boxes, devotees are given receipts by waqf board officials posted at the shrines.
The other set of boxes is for mujavirs. Donations made here are locally known as “nazr-o-niyaz”, dedications. This sum is like a personal fee to the mujavir, who does not issue receipts. This donation may be used at his discretion, whether for the maintenance of the shrine or other purposes.
For years, there have been allegations that mujavirs, using the force of their religious authority, have corralled devotees into making donations.
“We haven’t stopped these people from entering the shrines or performing their religious duties,” said a waqf board official who did not want to be identified. “We just banned the practice of forcibly extorting money from the people or of these people selling their spots for a large sum of money to other people.”
He added they did not mind mujavirs receiving voluntary donations directly from devotees.
At Srinagar’s Khanqah-e-Moula – the shrine dedicated to the 14thcentury Sufi saint, Mir Syyid Ali Hamdani – around 40 mujavirs are up in arms against the Waqf Board’s order. Before August 16, two to three donation boxes for mujavirs lined the shrine, alongside about half dozen boxes for the Waqf.
“We didn’t come here yesterday – we have been here for the last 200 years,” said 82-year-old Mohammad Yaseen Zahra, a well-known mujavirs at the shrine. “This responsibility [of tending to the shrine] was handed down to us by our ancestors. We represent the legacy of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani.”
According to Zahra, the Waqf Board should have taken mujavirs into confidence before it took action against donations. “If a mujavir has made a mistake or extorted money from a devotee, he should have been identified and there should have been a case filed against him,” he protested. “But they cracked down on all of us in one go. People give to us out of reverence. We don’t force them.”
It is the rhetoric about mujavirs used to justify the order that has left Zahra aggrieved. “Waqf Board officials used highly objectionable language against us,” he said. “We were labelled thieves, criminals and dacoits. We are respectable people who believe in taking care of the shrine. What crimes have we committed?”
Another mujavir at the shrine, who did not want to be named, criticised the Waqf Board for what he saw as mismanagement of the shrine. “Can they tell us how much money they collected from here and how much they spent on it? Do they have any account books for that?” demanded the 70-year-old mujavir.
Several Waqf Board employees are deputed to look after the shrine. However, the 70-year-old claimed, most maintenance work was financed by donations made by devotees to mujavirs.
“The Waqf Board doesn’t even replace a broken bulb at the shrine,” he claimed. “It’s the devotees who do that out of their own pocket.”
Politics of the waqf
Mujavirs and the Waqf Board now trade allegations of corruption against each other.
What is now the Waqf Board was originally set up in 1940, while Jammu and Kashmir was still a princely state under the Dogra kings. The Muslim Auqaf Trust, as it was then called, was established by Sheikh Abdullah, the National Conference leader who later became Jammu and Kashmir’s first prime minister. The trust was meant to help the poor, manage charitable endowments made to Muslim institutions as well as income generate by the properties it managed.
Adfer Shah, a Kashmiri sociologist who has studied Muslim endowments and the Waqf Board, said the board has had political clout under successive governments. “The Auqaf [Waqf] has historically been used more as a political institution than an Islamic institution of philanthropy in Kashmir,” he explained.
For decades, the trust remained under the direct control of the National Conference’s top leadership, who also held political power in Kashmir. In 2003, the Peoples Democratic Party and Congress coalition government took control of the assets of the Muslim Auqaf Trust, renamed it the Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Waqf Board and passed new laws about how Waqf properties should be managed. This arrangement lasted until 2019, when the board was reconstituted under the central law.
While the Waqf Board’s “clean up” exercise might be motivated by the urge to streamline donations at the shrines, the board itself has been under a cloud for years. In Kashmir, it is dogged by allegations of mismanagement and corruption. While it runs on public money and not financed by the government, it is opaque about how these funds are spent.
Officials of the Waqf Board concede that popular opinion is not in their favour. “Political intervention”, they claim, has hamstrung the board for years. “For example, if the Waqf Board tried to increase a tenant’s rent, the tenant would use pressure from some politician to stop the rent going up,” said the Waqf Board official. “And [Waqf] officials would not be able to do anything. As a result, much of the Waqf property you see is fetching less than market rates. That needs to change.”
Given the worth of its assets, officials claim, the board ought to be earning much more than it does today. Its properties include commercial buildings, schools, shops and land. Its annual turnover is around Rs 60-70 crores, most of which is used to run various operations, said the Waqf Board official. “We run schools, orphanages, manage shrines and mosques, and also help the needy on a monthly basis. We also deal with patients suffering life-threatening diseases like cancer,” he explained.
He added that the board was planning to maximise revenue by hiking rents and leasing out property lying vacant. Besides, the Waqf Board was planning to release a “white paper” on properties and assets to ensure “transparency”, he said.
If the Waqf Board had political clout, the shrines have traditionally been central to mobilising support for Kashmiri political parties, both pro-India and separatist.
Parties such as the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party competed for the support of the influential mujavirs in election time. “They were a sort of a vote bank for political parties, that’s why they were never touched,” the Waqf Board official alleged.
Shah echoed this view. “Every baba, guru, peer sahab or sajjada nasheen has a vote bank in terms of followers,” he said. Politicians tapped into these support bases.
After the region lost statehood and formal autonomy in 2019, Delhi’s stated aim was to dismantle the old political system and fashion a new “mainstream” – as parties who take part in elections are called. One way to do that would be to chip away at the base of Kashmiri parties like the National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party. With the BJP’s Andrabi at the helm of the Waqf Board, this impression has been strengthened.
An order issued on September 19 suggests the Waqf Board is anxious to break ties between political parties and shrines. The board ordered a ban on the practice of “dastaar-bandi” (turban tying) for “influential people, particularly the Political Laders [sic]” at shrines. For years, clerics as well as mujavirs at shrines have performed the ritual for dignitaries visiting the shrines. “The leaders continue to be invited to shrines and their Dastaar Bandi is carried out on the basis of party affiliations to promote political agenda at sacred religious places,” the order claimed.
From now on, the order said, “dastaar bandi” would be allowed only to recognise “religious achievements”.
A relic of the past?
The Waqf Board is not done with the shrines yet. “For the first time, we are going to write to the government to start a high level probe over crores of rupees that had disappeared without a trace,” the official said.
He claimed the “general public have been appreciative” of the board’s action against collections by mujavirs. Certainly, there has been little criticism from sections of society which do not believe in worshipping at shrines, a Sufi religious practice.
Shah felt the institution of mujavirs was dated and had outlasted its usefulness, given that shrines are administered by the Waqf. “It was [a source of] perpetual and generational employment,” he explained.
Others, however, speak of how vital mujavirs are to maintaining shrines.“If a peer [spiritual leader, as mujavirs are frequently considered] tells his followers to take care of the painting expenses of the shrine, they do that happily,” explained Ghulam Rasool, a retired government employee from Srinagar’s downtown area.
Take Srinagar’s 216-year-old Peer Dastgeer Sahib shrine, which was gutted in a fire in 2012. While the shrine was rebuilt over the years with the government’s help and public donations, mujavirs at the shrine said they reached out to every big businessman in Kashmir for help.
“From the shrine’s flooring to vacuum cleaners, all of it has come from the donation of wealthy people in Kashmir,” said Abdul Rehman Reshi, a mujavir at the Dastgeer Sahib shrine. “It was us who reached out and pleaded with them [for help]. How can we be called looters and thieves?”
He added that on auspicious occasions, when thousands flock to the shrine, the sajjada nasheen, or hereditary caretaker, throws his doors open to feed and shelter people.
Even the central Waqf Act recognises the institution of mujavirs or khadims. However, they need to be appointed by the competent authority, in this case, the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board. According to the Waqf Board official, shrines are to be controlled directly by the executives of the board or by an appointed caretaker if the shrine’s annual revenue is less than Rs 5 lakh.
While very few shrines in Kashmir have an annual revenue of less than Rs 5 lakh, mujavirs have not been appointed to look after shrines that do fit this description.
“They [mujavirs] have no exclusive right to revenue of the shrine,” said the Waqf Board official. “Waqf means it becomes the property of every Muslim. Every Muslims collectively owns this revenue and has a right over it.”
However, while the donation boxes for mujavirs are gone, certain traditional exchanges continue at the shrines. Scroll.in saw several instances where devotees handed mujavirs money after being given “tabarruk”, an offering of food such as dates, bread or sugar lumps that is considered sacred.