Article published in Newsline.
The sajjada nashin of Dargah Ghousia Sharif holds court in his ancestral village of Ranipur, in Khairpur district. Seated under a neem tree in the courtyard of Dastageer House, Pir Bagan Shah Jeelani is approached by mureeds, or spiritual disciples. They touch his feet, kiss his hand and deposit nazarano – an offering, or gift – in return for his prayers and goodwill. He summons his son, Syed Suraj Shah, who is present in an air-conditioned inner sanctum of the hall of audience. The Pir’s nephew, Syed Wahab Shah Jeelani, chooses to seat himself at a distance, on the edge of the dastarkhaan, with the mureeds. This despite the Pir’s insistence that he sit closer to him. Wahab is the son of the Pir’s deceased older half-brother, Syed Abdul Razzaq Shah Jeelani, popularly known as Abu Saeen.
Due to the afternoon heat, the court has few attendees. Bagan Shah examines one of the gifts he has received – an embroidered wallet. Dastageer House, built in 1955, was also a gift from a mureed. Dastageer is Persian for ‘helping hand.’ It was a title given to an ancestor by his disciples. The silence is broken by the occasional joke cracked by the Pir. At other times, there is the feisty remark made by a mureed: “What can we say to you Pirs?” The conversation usually hinges on wild boar hunting and the saint’s slavish devotion to the sport. Occasionally, it deviates towards politics and criticism of the province’s ruling dispensation.
Bagan Shah gets about 30 visitors on a weekday and over a hundred on weekends. Even when there are no guests, he sits there, in the company of khalifas, says his son. Khalifas are a notch above mureeds. They are the personal attendants of the Pirs. On Eid, the Pir is carried to the dargah in a palanquin by sheedis (an ethnic group of African descent). They are hereditary attendants who have served in the family for generations. The Jeelanis belong to the Qadiri Sufi order, which derives its name from Pir Abdul Qadir Jilani of Baghdad. However, there is very little that is Sufi-like about Sindh’s Pirs.
A few houses down the street, the Pir’s softspoken cousin, Syed Fazal Ali Shah Jeelani, a PPP MNA, holds a different kind of court. He meets hundreds of constituents daily. Fazal Shah is son of the late Syed Abdul Qadir Shah Jeelani, a veteran politician. In the 2018 election, Fazal, who keeps his distance from the media, defeated Pir Sadruddin Shah Rashdi, the brother of Pir Pagaro, by a margin of over 20,000 votes. It is the stuff of Jeelani folklore. The environment in his autaq is fast-paced and businesslike, filled with handshakes and smiles and a constant flow of visitors.
Fazal does not belong to the gaddi nashin branch of the family. But he carries the political flag and thus wields greater influence than the Pir. During the Colonial period, however, it was the gaddi nashin who were politically powerful, according to former IG Sindh, Aftab Nabi. “The British patronised the gaddi nashin who showed promise – so long as they towed their line – and put them in government,” he says.
The seating arrangement in Pir Bagan Shah’s kutchery is a reflection of the social hierarchy, much like a durbar. His power, meanwhile, depends on his ability to secure the cooperation of his mureeds. In MNA Fazal Shah’s autaq, on the other hand, there is free seating. Here, it is political favour, political allegiances and electoral victory that carry more weight.
Ranipur’s Ghousia Dargah – the family graveyard – is believed to be the burial place of Pir Ahmed Shah Jeelani, who migrated to Sindh from Baghdad in the late eighteenth century. His brother, Muhammad Shah, meanwhile, is believed to be buried in the neighbouring town of Gambat. The Pirs of Ranipur and Gambat are related, but enjoy separate spiritual followings. Saleh Shah is the current sajjada nashin of Gambat Dargah and lives mostly in Karachi.
The dark, narrow bazaar that leads to Ghousia Dargah is covered by a patchwork of cloth that blocks out the sun. Few females can be found on the streets of Ranipur. Inside the shrine, however, they outnumber the men.
The dargah draws mureeds from across the country, including Balochistan. Many take up permanent residence in the musafirkhanas (traveller’s lodges) run by the pirs, with all expenses covered. Sajjad Haider stands still as a statue, palms pressed together, in the pose of a meditating Buddha. His long, white hair is styled in a bob. He has been blind for 12 years and performed a pilgrimage, or ziyarat, to the site in the hope of regaining his lost vision. But the shrine, it seems, is receptive only to power.
As the 2018 election drew nearer and his position looked precarious, Fazal Shah turned to the dargah for guidance. “My entire family was politically opposed to me,” he says. While praying, he received what he believes was a message from the shrine: “Something will happen that has never happened before.” And it did. The National Assembly constituency (NA-209) that he was asked to contest from, contained, under the new delimitation, only a fraction of his native Sobhodero taluka. Instead, it included talukas that the PPP had not won in 16 years: Nara, Mirwah and Faiz Ganj. Nara, according to Aftab Nabi, is a Pagaro stronghold. But Fazal’s father owned lands there and used it as a hunting ground, according to Altaf Aseem Mangi, a former professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur. Fazal won the national and the provincial seats. He attributes his victory not to his politics but to his “spiritual belief.”
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto too turned to the shrine in 1969. On a visit to Ranipur, he had called a convention of local waderas. Mangi was at the convention and remembers what Bhutto said: “I swear by the sacred soil of Ranipur that we will fulfill our promises”. The words struck a chord with locals. “To them, it was a big deal that he acknowledged Ranipur as a sacred place,” says Mangi. It boosted their confidence and gave rise to a popular slogan: “Bhaj Pagara, achani tha Ranipur vara” (“Run Pagara! Here comes the Ranipur-wala!”). It marked the Jeelanis’ entry into politics.
Bagan Shah’s father, Miraan Saeen, was sajjada nashin at the time. He chose to make his younger half-brother, Pir Abdul Qadir Shah Jeelani, the political flag-holder of the family. And so politics became the realm of the cadet branch of the family from the outset. Under the old morality, political office was considered inferior to the gaddi. Nevertheless, Pir-power proved fruitful in electoral politics. According to Mangi, there are three reasons behind the Jeelanis’ political prowess: the PPP brand name, the pirs’ spiritual following and the dynastic element.
Political scientist Dr Sahib Khan Channa contends that the family aligned with Bhutto due to inherent differences with Pir Pagaro. Yet the Jeelanis and Pagaros were not always opposed to each other. After the hanging of Pir Sibghatullah Shah II by the British in 1943, the Ranipur Pirs were among those who attempted to ensure the safety of Syed Shah Mardan Shah II and his brother. According to Mir Mehdi Talpur (a direct descendant of Mir Ali Murad Talpur, the monarch of Khairpur State), his ancestor, Mir Ali Dino, was a member of the Regency Council at the time and exercised his influence in ensuring that Sibghatullah’s offspring were not treated harshly by the administration. “The Pirs of Ranipur were our right hand in this matter,” says Mir Mehdi.
Khandaniyat is the local equivalent of an old boys network. The Jeelanis keep up old ties with other landed families, despite political differences. Pir Bagan Shah recalls the pomp and ceremony of the kutcheries of his father, Miraan Saeen and grandfather, Ahmed Shah Jeelani. The manner in which formal greetings were exchanged between prestigious guests and the pirs was something to behold, he says. The waderas, or tribal chiefs would enter the kutchery, walk up to the sajjada nashin and attempt to touch his feet. The pir, displaying the modesty and benevolence of a host, would make every effort to dissuade them from doing so. Nevertheless, they would persist. “A single greeting would play out in this manner for up to 10 minutes,” says Bagan Shah.
Today, however, things are different. Parallel to the Pirs’ presence exists another reality: the gradual transformation of the environment that surrounds them. In the last three decades, Ranipur has grown from a sleepy, rural town into a bustling commercial centre, largely due to its location on a major artery – the National Highway. In two decades alone, the population of the Ranipur Town Committee has increased from approximately 19,000 in 1998, to 34,000 in 2017, according to census figures. The fruit stalls and teashops that once lined both sides of the highway have been replaced with an Aga Khan Laboratory, a PSO petrol station, CNG stations and branches of local banks, among other things. The town of Gambat boasts a state-of-the art Pir Abdul Qadir Shah Jeelani Institute of Medical Sciences.
Bound by the rigid customs of the gaddi or tribal chieftainship, many landowning families in the province have been slow to undergo a paradigm shift. Yet historically, pirs have been “prepared to adapt to changing circumstances or the wider context,” says Dr Sarah Ansari, author of Sufi Saints and State Power. “To maintain their influence under British rule, pir families needed to be flexible – the same conclusion would apply today,” she adds. The very system of piri-mureedi, or waderas and faislas, is “limiting,” says Dr Channa.
The younger pirs find their social environment somewhat restrictive. The Pir’s son, for instance, prefers to hold court separately from his father. He says he cannot talk freely in front of his elders and is expected to remain silent most of the time. Similarly, the Pir’s nephew, Wahab, who grew up in Karachi, feels that he has more of an identity among his peers in the city, while in Ranipur it is a question of whose son he is.
Mithal Saeen, the current Pir’s older half-brother, was the first choice as heir to the gaddi. But he died during his father’s lifetime, in the early 1990s, before he could ascend to the throne. His brother Abu Saeen, the next in line, died a few years later. Although Miraan Saeen had other sons, he bequeathed the gaddi to his grandson, Ghazi Ahmed Shah II. It was young Ghazi Ahmed who was Pir of Ranipur prior to Bagan Shah. But he too died, in a car accident in 2004, soon after inheriting the throne.
This article was originally published in the November 2018 edition of Newsline magazine.