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How Ajmal Kasab took to radical Islam

January 05, 2009 14:02 IST
Faridkot of Ajmal 'Qasai' (Kasab) fame is a mere ten miles from my ancestral village in tehsil Depalpur, Punjab. Before the 21-year-old went on his killing spree in Mumbai, Faridkot was known only because it is one of many thus named towns and villages celebrating and honouring the great Chishti sufi, Sheikh-al-Islam, Fariduddin Masud Ganj-e-Shakar (1173-1266) known in Pakistan, northern India and as far as Afghanistan and Central Asia, as Baba Farid.

The saint's followers or murids spread throughout the Punjab and beyond across north India. Everywhere, they named their settlements Faridkot. Now one such Faridkot is on Google Earth as the home of the sole surviving terrorist of India's 9/11, as many Indians see it. How this came to pass is a story of countless impoverished Pakistanis who have taken to jihad and radical Islam as a way of claiming an identity and a livelihood in a state that has failed to provide both in sixty years of independence.

This Punjab, where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, appeared to me peaceful, bucolic, unconcerned with caste or creed and at one with its ancient spirit. But then I was a child of privilege. My father, tracing his lineage to the 16th century Qadiri sufi Daud Bandagi Kirmani, whose Akbar Shahi tomb still dominates the pinnacle of our village, Shergarh, farmed land in the area owned by his family for generations. Immersed in his culture and history, my father took my siblings and me on tours of this ancient part of the Punjab.

We went to Pakpattan, Ajjodhan of antiquity, the land of the Joiya tribe, on the banks of the Sutlej. Pakpattan has been known for nearly a thousand years for its most famous resident, Hazrat Baba Farid, whose tomb is the locus of the town and all the countryside surrounding it. Local lore has it that Taimur, on a rampage through north India, visited Pakpattan in 1398 and spared the town and its inhabitants out of respect for Baba Farid's shrine. Hundreds of years after his death, Baba Farid's poetry was incorporated into the Guru Granth Sahib and Sikhism considers him to be one of its fifteen bhagats...

We visited Depalpur, a seat of Aryan civilisation and a town continuously inhabited for two millennia. It was famously conquered by Alexander and even today, after a good monsoon, villagers dig up old Greek coins. We visited the intact Hindu temples of Depalpur and the townspeople took ownership of the buildings, preserving them by putting them to use.

We visited Hujrah Shah Muqeem, another town of the area made famous for its Sufi preacher of peace and brotherhood. We visited Haveli Bhuman Shah, a town named after the elaborate and richly decorated homes of Hindu banias or Kiraarh, as they are still known. The havelis had new inhabitants and if age and wear had taken their toll, the frescoes were not defaced in my childhood; the residents showed them off to us proudly.

This, my Punjab, was not to remain the placid idyll it appeared to be on the surface. Powerful social and political forces were at work to alter the landscape. Unlike in Indian Punjab, where the state carried out a decent land reform, Pakistan undertook a later and half-baked exercise in the '60s and '70s.

Many powerful landowners were able to circumvent the reforms. The land stayed with the 'landlords' and the poor remained poor even if standards of living improved somewhat. More importantly, opportunity and mobility became available to only the few in rural Punjab who could get a decent education.

The Qasais of Faridkot were not amongst the lucky ones. Amir Qasai, Ajmal's father, sold pakoras in the chowk on a rehri or cart. He could not educate his sons or marry off his daughter.

In the 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had been the great white hope of people such as the Qasais of Faridkot. But he delivered much less than promised; all he gave them in the end was a voice, a consciousness. And finally, he gave his life for the 'awam', the people, or so it seemed to them when he was executed by General Zia-ul Haq in 1979.

The people of Faridkot remembered Bhutto and venerated him as they did the Sufis buried in their ancient land. They made their way to the Urs or death anniversaries of their Sufi murshids every year, celebrating the saints' union with the Beloved, and they gave Bhutto's daughter Benazir their votes whenever they had the chance. But she too could do nothing for them; it's not that she didn't want to, they believed throughout the '80s and part of the '90s, it's because she couldn't.

The powerful organs of the State were never going to share their clout with civilian politicians again, not after they had done away with Bhutto. Never again, they knew, would the awam get a real stab at power.

The people of Faridkot began to look again to the local landowners in order to survive. They began to vote for whoever offered them the jobs, water, schools, roads that they craved. And when that too failed, they began to look to the mosque. They began to take heart from the message that came blaring down from the pulpit every Friday.

"There is suffering everywhere in the world. Your brethren in Kashmir, whose right to be in Pakistan as a Muslim majority area has been thwarted for decades, need to be liberated. Pray for their liberation. Your brethren in Bosnia, who are being killed in a genocide by Crusaders, need to be liberated. Pray for their liberation." The message from the pulpit was reinforced by the call of Jihadists to action. They spread this message all across the Punjab, most notably in the province's poorest districts where previously Bhutto's PPP (Pakistan People Party) had won with landslides. The jihadists were flush with funds, arms, strength and support of the State.

With poverty having driven young Ajmal from his home, he was easy prey for these jihadists. He was already on his way as a petty thief when they got him. Life as a jihadist gave Ajmal a livelihood, money for his family (they were able to marry off his sister Ruqaiya), respect, a sense of belonging and importantly, independence from the local landowner. No longer would he or his father have to go and sit at Mian Manzoor Wattoo's feet, waiting for hours in his dera, for petty favours. No longer would they be herded at election time to the Pakistan People's Party booth or to the Muslim League's stall to cast their vote in line with the current allegiance of their overlord. No longer would they be bullied or their votes bought.

The Qasais had powerful patrons who in turn were patronised by the most powerful in the land; villagers say Ajmal Qasai's cocky gait when he occasionally returned to Faridkot with gifts for his mother was a thing to see. It so tempted the other urchins of the village. It so impressed all the weary old men. But his mother's heart would sink when he'd say 'I am going to liberate Kashmir'.

They say she broke down and went to pieces the minute she saw that famous CCTV photo grab of him in his blue Versace T-shirt and the killing machine in his hand. In the end, Ajmal Qasai (he calls himself Qasab, a fancy, high Urdu label for butchers, sealing the upward mobility he acquired as a jihadist) could not bite the poison pill and do away with the evidence.

No wonder Hafiz Saeed, amir of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, refused to call him a 'mujahid' when asked on a recent television interview. Ajmal's story is as much the story of hopeless poverty as of State failure as of recalcitrant regional hegemony as of misplaced concreteness.

The column first appeared in The Friday Times, published from Lahore, Pakistan. Jugnu Mohsin is its managing editor and publisher. Published with her kind courtesy and persmission.

Jugnu Mohsin