It is an immaculate white building, double storeyed, with a small dome on the top. A nishan sahib (flag) on a pole next to it signifies that a community of Khalsa now occupies the precincts. All year round, Sikh pilgrims visit this gurdwara, choosing to spend a few days in the rooms facing the shrine. Every day, the Guru Granth Sahib is recited and then, following rituals, placed in a special room reserved solely for the holy scripture, the living guru.
Activities at the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj in Lahore are always low key, with just a handful of people around at any given time. But outside its walls, there is a great big rush with several workshops of ironsmiths and beyond those, a market selling all kinds of second-hand goods, Lahore’s famous Landa Bazaar.
As Sikh pilgrims walk in and out of the gurdwara, sometimes venturing into the market, the ironsmiths and other shopkeepers barely spare them a glance, having gotten used to their presence after the construction of the shrine in 2004.
The Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj – much like the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh – has a long and tumultuous history, having been a bone of contention between the city’s Sikhs and Muslims.
Mosque or gurdwara?
The gurdwara is located a little outside the walled city of Lahore, in an area called Nalaukha that is believed to have once housed the fabled palace of Prince Dara Shikoh. Shikoh served as governor of Lahore before his assassination at the hands of his younger brother Aurangzeb.
The Sikhs believe that it was at this site that hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children from the community were massacred on the orders of Mir Mannu, the governor of Lahore and representative of the Mughal Empire. Coming to power in 1764, Mir Mannu inherited a staunch anti-Sikh sentiment that had dominated Sikh-Mughal relations since the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru. Throughout his lifetime, the guru had fought several battles against Emperor Aurangzeb and lost all his sons in the struggle. After the guru, his devotee Banda Singh Bahadur took up the mantle and continued the fight. After causing much havoc, he was captured and executed. Mani Singh, the priest of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), took up the political affairs of the community after his execution.
Annoyed by the ever increasing military strength of the Sikhs, the Mughals and their governors began persecuting innocent members of the Sikh community. Not far from the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj lies the spot where Mani Singh was hacked to death by Zakarya Khan, who was Lahore’s governor a little before Mir Mannu’s time. Soon after, Mani Singh’s disciple Bhai Taru Singh, too, was scalped by the governor, once again close to the vicinity of the gurdwara.
Mir Mannu, after being appointed governor, followed his predecessors’ policy with great vengeance. Sikh traditions note that he took a vow to exterminate all Sikhs and hold him responsible for the death of over 250,000 members of the community. Most of these deaths happened at the site of the gurdwara, in what was then a vacant space facing the historical Abdullah Khan mosque, constructed by Abdullah Khan, believed to be the cook of Dara Shikoh.
After the ascension of the Sikhs in Punjab, the entire complex, including the mosque, was granted to the Sikhs and a gurdwara constructed here in memory of the innocent people killed on the orders of Mir Mannu. The Sikhs claim Mir Mannu himself allowed them to set up a gurdwara here after they agreed to help him in the conquest of Multan, at the behest of Diwan Kaura Mal who was consequently given charge of Multan by Mir Mannu.
The Muslims, however, maintain the Sikhs forcibly took over the mosque, which was functional, after they came to power in Lahore following the demise of the Mughal Empire.
When the British colonised Punjab, the Muslim community felt they could wrest control of the mosque/gurdwara by asking the new rulers to intercede. A case was filed in the Lahore High Court asking that the mosque be reinstated. But the court ruled that since no one in living memory could recall offering prayers at this mosque, it was hence a gurdwara. Two other cases were filled but they were both dismissed.
Riots and court battles
Matters came to a head in 1935 when the property was handed over to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, an Amritsar-based organisation responsible for the functioning of gurdwaras in accordance with Sikh principles. After taking control of the gurdwara, the committee decided to demolish all “un-Sikh-like deviations and non-Sikh usages” of the gurdwara, which included the remains of the mosque. Several Muslim organisations rose in protest against this desecration of the mosque, leading to the worst Sikh-Muslim riots in pre-partition Lahore. Curfew was imposed in the city. However, the British maintained that the disputed structure was a gurdwara and would remain so.
After Partition, part of the gurdwara came under the control of the Auqaf Department, a government organisation tasked with looking after abandoned Hindu and Sikh property in the country. In the late 1950s, another petition was presented in the Lahore High Court asking for the conversion of the gurdwara into a mosque. With the creation of a Muslim country, there was much hope that such a conversion was now possible. But, surprisingly, the court upheld its decision made under colonial rule. Though the property was abandoned, Muslims were barred from turning it into a mosque. Another petition was made in the late 1980s but that too was turned down.
In the 1990s, as the number of Sikh pilgrims coming into the country increased, the expatriate Sikh community in Britain took up the case of the gurdwara, asking the government of Pakistan for permission to renovate it and convert it into a functioning gurdwara. The government hesitated for a few years but permission was eventually granted.
With the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj back in the news, fresh objections to it also arose. The protestors said that if they were not given permission to construct a mosque here, they would also not allow the renovation of the gurdwara. However, the ironsmiths and shopkeepers who worked in the area supported the gurdwara renovation, recognising its economic potential, and the protests gradually fizzled out. The new building of the gurdwara was completed in 2004.
While the history of the country is rampant with tales of Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist shrines being taken over and ignored, the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj serves as a unique reminder of when the judiciary and the local community came together in its support.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail