A constable in plain clothes holds his arms out to be whipped.
The Mumbai police was out in full force on Friday to mark the first day of the Urs or death anniversary of Makhdum Ali Mahimi, the man to whom the famous Mahim dargah in the central part of the city is dedicated.
Makhdum Ali Mahimi was a 14th-century Sufi scholar remarkable in many ways, but perhaps the most remarkable is that he happens to have been the patron saint of the Mumbai police since its roots as a citizen's militia in the 17th century.
Once a year on Mahimi’s Urs, thousands from around the city, not least the Mumbai police force, come to pay their respects and seek his blessings. The Mumbai police force has the privilege of laying the first chadar, or decorative tomb covering, of the Urs in Mahimi’s respect.
The Mahim police station, about 200 metres away from the dargah, has been built on the site where Mahimi is said to have lived. A green steel cupboard in the Senior Inspector's room is said to contains the saint's possessions. During the ten days of the fair held each year to honour Mahimi, the office is thrown open for devotees.
“The full Mumbai police follows Makhdumi Baba,” said Basheer Baba, 55, who is among the dargah officials overseeing the festivities. “Nobody can break that bond. There should be more chances like this of Hindu-Muslim love.”
In the rooom that holds Mahimi's possessions
An ancient tradition
On hearing that a journalist was in the vicinity, a series of constables in festive plain clothes ushered this reporter in to a small building off the main compound where the retired senior police inspector organising festivities this year, sat with his team of ten constables.
“I was in the papers today,” the inspector said, taking a small, neatly folded rectangle of paper out of his pocket. “See, that’s my name, LB Shaikh.”
Shaikh, as the Times of India said in its three-paragraph note of the procession’s timings, happened to join the police force in 1979 on the very day of Mahimi’s urs. His first posting was at the Mahim police station. This, he said, gave him a special attachment to the holy man.
“He was not a saint – he was our guide,” Shaikh said. “He was a very scholar person, a spiritual and qualified man. Police used to take advice for unsolved cases and he would help us. This is a long tradition of 500 years.”
Scholar and judge
It is in fact slightly longer than that. Mahimi is thought to have died in 1431, 584 years ago. He was born in 1372 to a family of intellectually inclined Arab immigrants called nawaits. He lived in Mahim his entire life.
Abdus Sattar Dalvi, in a brief history of the Mahim Dargah which is dedicated to Mahimi, writes:
“The figure of Makhdum Ali Mahimi has commanded respect for his unquestioned devotion to his mother, his generosity, his liberal outlook, and his achievements as a Sufi and a scholar.”
As a spiritual and intellectual person, he became a member of an unaffiliated group of Sufis called Uwaysi. He was also renowned for his scholarship, particularly for an early incisive commentary in Arabic on the Quran. Mahimi’s legal excellence, Dalvi notes, was such that Sultan Ahmad Shah of Gujarat made him a qazi for the Muslims of Thana district.
An arch declares the Mumbai police's attachment to Makhdoom Ali Mahimi.
It was perhaps this appointment that led him to be so closely linked with the Mumbai police. The East India Company formed Bombay’s first militia in 1669, soon after the Portuguese had handed over the group of seven islands to the British in dowry.
The constabulary at that time was drawn largely from conscriptions of land owners, but excluded Brahmins and Banias for a fee. Most of the early recruits were from the Bhandari community of toddy tappers, who were among the original inhabitants of Bombay.
As remained the precedent until Independence, the organising officer of the motley group was a European. It was one of these officers who was said to have worshipped the saint and sought his help for cases.
“A Portuguese sergeant at the time used to worship him and seek his advice a lot,” Shaikh said. “In that way he solved many cases. So at the time of his last illness, he said that after he died, only the police would do Makhdum Shah Baba’s seva.”
Faith runs deep
And so it is today. The Mahim police station was built in 1923 over the site of the saint's accepted abode. Among the thousands of civilians who lined up on Friday for a chance to seek his blessings, were uniformed members of the police force – traffic police in white, the main force in khaki, and even the red of the police band.
The procession on Friday began, as usual, in the afternoon from the Mahim police station. It ended at the Mahim dargah 200 metres away only at around 11 pm.
Three vans, all blaring deafening music, marked the procession lines. One, a group called Shaikh Master Brass, had as its star singer a man from Mazgaon whose claim to fame was being one of the qawwali singers in Deewani Mastani from the film Bajirao Mastani.
A woman dressed in decidedly non-festive clothes and looking as if she were on a mission clutched a decibel meter. When asked which organisation she represented, she wordlessly pointed with an air of doom at its measured 104 decibels and set off once again into the din.
Children and adults alike clambered up to line the boundary walls of residential buildings for a better view as the regular events of an urs proceeded in the centre – devotees swirling incense towards themselves, young men whirling blades to cut their backs, children getting their ears pierced.
Sania Qureishi, 8, was a tough customer. When asked what she liked best about the fair, she pursed her lips and said, “I don’t know yet. I will have to wait and see before I can decide.”
A man for Mumbai
Other places in the city also bear Mahimi’s name, notably the colloquially named JJ Flyover that was until a few years ago the longest in Mumbai. In records, it is called the Qutb-e-Kokan Makhdoom Ali Mahimi Flyover.
Nor is he just the saint of the Mumbai police force. Aspiring actor Ramesh Kumar credits his moderate success in films to him.
“I am a Hindu, but I have faith in Baba,” Kumar said. “Hum jaat ko nahi manta, kalakar hai.”
Kumar, or Junior Johny Lever, as he prefers to be known, said that he has been seeing the procession since he was a child growing up in Mahim. Two years ago, he began to perform comedy and anchor small events at the station. He also got a role as extra in two films. This he credits to the intervention of the saint who he began worshipping six years ago.
Said head constable Chandrakant Salve, “See, the way Mount Mary [in Bandra] and Siddhivinayak temple [in Prabhadevi] are both parts of Mumbai, in the same way even Makhdumi Baba is Mumbai’s only. There is no race or religion here – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, they all believe in him. So do I.”
Behind the optics of the grand gesture, though, some problems remain. Muslims form about 1% of the Maharashtra police force, lower than the national average of 4%, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. That's the kind of structural imbalance offering a chadar to the saint won't be able to remedy.