x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Sikhs rebuild mosque destroyed during Partition

Local Muslims 'overwhelmed with gratitude' after UK-based businessman [pays for reconstruction of mosque in Punjab village.

Sikh and Muslim community leaders assemble at the Rehmani mosque in Sarwarpur, India, on May 22, the day it re-opened.
Sikh and Muslim community leaders assemble at the Rehmani mosque in Sarwarpur, India, on May 22, the day it re-opened.

KOLKATA // The rebuilding of a mosque by Sikhs, 63 years after it was demolished during Partition riots in 1947, has been hailed by social activists and religious leaders across India as a rare display of harmony in a country torn by frequent communal violence. The chief Muslim cleric of Punjab, Maolana Habibur Rahman Sani Ludhianvi, said the total reconstruction of the Rehmani mosque in Sarwarpur village, which lay flattened for more than six decades until it was rebuilt in May, had left local Muslims overwhelmed with gratitude.

"The building of this mosque by the Sikh community will serve as a good lesson for those communal leaders who often trigger riots in the country in the name of religion," Maolana Ludhianvi said. "In fact, because of excellent co-operation by the Sikhs, in the past few years in Punjab we have been able to resurrect nearly 20 mosques which had been lying in virtual ruins or had been turned to gurdwaras or had been occupied by illegal settlers for decades."

The veteran Sikh journalist Khushwant Singh wrote in his Hindustan Times newspaper column last month that his heart "swelled with pride" at what members of his Sikh community had done for their Muslim neighbours. "I am sure our Bapu [Mohandas] Gandhi in heaven will be showering his blessings on the [Sikh] villagers of Sarwarpur", where the mosque was rebuilt, Mr Singh wrote. Shabnam Hashmi, co-ordinator of the New Delhi-based rights group Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad), which works with victims of communal violence, said the Sikh building of mosques for Muslims was "heart-warming" news in a country where religious, caste and ethnic divisions have burst into huge, violent riots that have killed thousands.

Ms Hashmi said: "A country that has seen the communal riots in Gujarat where within less than a week over 250 mosques and Muslim shrines were demolished by the Hindu right-wing groups in 2002, the news coming from Sarwarpur resumes our hope and faith that there is still sanity, brotherhood and humanity left in at least some people around us." When British India was partitioned into the modern states of India and Pakistan in August 1947, catastrophic communal riots broke out in several parts of India, killing at least one million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims and displacing 15 million. Punjab was one of the hardest hit states.

In British India, Muslims constituted more than 70 per cent of the state's population. Now Muslims constitute only 1.5 per cent of its population. In the months after Partition, thousands of mosques were vandalised or converted into gurdwaras or residences by non-Muslims. Properties in Sarwarpur, as elsewhere, were occupied by Sikhs and Hindus. Over the ensuing decades, some Punjabi Muslim families moved in and settled in the now Sikh-majority village, located in Ludhiana district. But because of their poverty and small numbers, the Muslims could not rebuild the mosque. Out of the village's population of 1,200, about 70 are Muslim.

But two years ago, a wealthy Sikh family in Sarwarpur, moved by the fact that Muslims had nowhere to worship in the village, decided to rebuild the old mosque, using the original foundation, for the 11 Muslim families and some other migrant farm labourers in the village. A native of Sarwarpur, Sajjan Singh Ghuman, who is now a businessman based in Birmingham, England, funded the entire project. "For the village's majority population of Sikhs we had a gurdwara. But the village Muslims had to trudge 10km to Samrala town to offer Friday and Eid prayers. We knew they wanted to get a mosque in the village," said Mr Ghuman's brother, Joga Singh, a wealthy farmer in Sarwarpur.

"On behalf of Sarwarpur Sikhs I approached my brother and he immediately agreed to fund the mosque. Muslims had a mosque here and it got lost in the riots. So, by returning the mosque to the Muslims we feel we have performed our duty, which had been long overdue." Men from 300 Sikh and 11 Muslim families joined with construction workers to rebuild the mosque at the site where the original structure was razed in 1947.

On May 22, the mosque was officially handed over to Maolana Ludhianvi by an executive member of the Sikh religious body Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, which is responsible for the maintenance of Sikh religious sites in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh states. "Muslims raised the 'Allah-o-Akbar' slogan and offered the first prayer in the mosque since Partition under the leadership of the Shahi Imam who congratulated the Sikhs for their noble gesture and said that the Sikh people have proved with their magnanimous behaviour their tolerance and brotherhood, which has no match in the country," reported the Milli Gazette, a Delhi-based English-language newspaper that reports on issues concerning Indian Muslims.

Mohammad Tufail, 80, the eldest Muslim resident of Sarwarpur, said the construction of the mosque was a "dream come true". "Mohammad Jameel, a 32-year-old day labourer, said: "If our Sikh brothers did not come forward, we could have possibly never got a mosque in our village ? They are like our real brothers." foreign.desk@thenational.ae