The Hazratbal incident

The Prophet’s Hair and its theft – Kashmir 1963-1964

Though I recall seeing a glass hemisphere with an embedded strand of the prophet’s beard at the Topkapi palace in Istanbul, I was not aware of the huge furor created in 1963 when a similar strand of hair stored and worshipped at the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar, vanished. It was a case which hit the headlines of newspapers around the world and as you can imagine, faced intense world scrutiny, days of protests, riots and mass agitation as well as massive media coverage which followed. As one can imagine, it was the reason for a period of increasing anxiety in the mind of India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was a situation which required tact, diplomacy and the assistance of some good sleuthing to get to the root of the problem and find a solution. What did Nehru and his team do? A fascinating story, which not many will remember, so let me retell it.

1962 was a terrible year for India. The once friendly China had turned foe and invaded its NE frontiers, proving to be cause for disastrously negative morale and a decline to Prime minister Nehru’s standing as well as Defense minister VK Krishna Menon’s future. Menon was sacrificed at the political altar and faded away, and Nehru - no longer the colossus he once was sans his right-hand man Menon, much weakened and fragile. 1963 did not open well, the Colombo conference failed, as the armed forces of China and India faced each other separated by a 20 km DMZ, from the MacMahon line. As they faced off at the frontiers, Pakistan cozied up to China, making an already nervous India, wary. A potential Indian rapprochement and a ‘no war’ pact with Ayub suddenly soured when the Kashmir dispute was placed by Ayub, on the same table. When Pakistan later signed off disputed Kashmir areas to China, matters turned worse. Acharya Kriplanai, Nehru’s and Menon’s biggest critic, finally found himself voted to parliament and Congress suddenly saw factions within it plotting. Adding insult to injury, a no-confidence motion was mooted against Nehru (it failed) by the acerbic Kriplani. Poverty, the rising specter of communism (perhaps goaded on by China) and corruption occupied the news headlines. India’s fortunes were quite definitely trending south.

But the mists lifted towards the year end after a ‘syndicate meeting’ at Tirupati, when the Kamaraj plan was formulated for the rebuilding of the congress party from the grassroots. The situation corrected itself; shakeups took effect and Nehru appeared to have shored the rising waters. But at what personal cost? He was severely stressed, so much so that he had a minor heart attack in Jan 1964 forcing Lal Bahadur Shastri to step in and lighten Nehru’s administrative load. What could have led to it and what may have exacerbated his stress? It was, in my opinion, the event in Kashmir, which was - as they say proverbially, the one which broke the camel’s back, the Hazratbal case.

At that point of time, in Dec 1963, the political mood in Kashmir, Nehru’s home town, was far from good, Farooq Abdullah had been in prison for 11 months without trial, Pakistan was harping away on the situation across its borders and to bring it all to a crisis, something totally untoward happened. On 26th December, Prophet Muhammed’s hair, ensconced in a glass vial and held with great reverence at the Hazratbal shrine, vanished. Hell broke loose, break up of law and order in Kashmir quickly followed and Nehru as you can imagine, was aghast. His worst fears – communal violence was rearing its head, yet again. The next 14 days were to prove calamitous for the ageing prime minster.

Let us track the events in real-time and follow the course of events, as they transpired with rapidity, this time referring not only to Mullik’s memoirs, but also to another source which provides a differing but detailed aside. In the course of the retelling, I will also briefly introduce you to the man who represented Nehru and rode through the veritable eye of the storm – Venkata Viswanathan, then home secretary, the eyes and ears of Delhi, our man from Thrikkaderi in Palghat!

On many occasions, memories of my trip to Srinagar in the late 70’s flash by, and I must admit that tourism notwithstanding, many people there seemed wary about visitors from India, especially at the tourist locales. Whether it was the steady dose of misinformation beamed to them across the borders or whether they were overtly inconvenienced at that point was not clear to my young mind, we just let it pass and enjoyed the stay. The beauty of the hills at Gulmarg, our first sights and feel of real snow and our experience with horses and snow sleds, the Dal lake, lovely lasses with rosy cheeks, the Shalimar gardens as well as some fine food remained in our mind.

The furor started on the 27th of Dec 1963, as Khalil Ghanai, who had been sleeping at the Hazratbal mosque, built by emperor Shah Jehan, woke up, finished his ablutions and arrived at the main hall to start the morning prayers. As he did, he looked towards the hujra-e-khas or special chamber where the holy relic – Prophet Muhammad’s hair was kept, only to find the silver doors ajar. The inner doors which were locked (opened with three separate keys kept by the trustees) were open, the jamb sawn through at the bottom, and the cupboard where the relic was stored was also open, the box which housed the holy relic was on the floor, also open and the vial which contained the hair, was gone! Sacrilege!

Ghanai tore through the doors and across the street, to the chief trustee’s (AR Bande) home. Bande’s ancestors had been custodians of the hair since its arrival in Kashmir many years ago. Sometime in the 17th century (they say 1634), one Syed Abdullah fleeing Medina had brought this relic along and settled down in Adil Shah’s Bijapur. His son, in financial difficulties, sold it to a Kashmiri trader named Nooruddin Ashawari. At Lahore, the relic was seized by Aurangzeb from the trader, and the autocrat moved it to Ajmer while Ashawari succumbed to a broken heart (or TB), breathing his last with a request that he be buried with the relic.  Well, to cut the long story short, a chastened Aurangzeb finally sent the exhumed body and the hair for safekeeping in 1700 to the Bagh Sadiq Khan (later known as Hazratbal – prophets hair mosque) mosque built by Shah Jahan, at Srinagar. This revered locale virtually became a second Kaaba for the Kashmiri Mulims, after Mecca. The relic would be ceremoniously shown to the ecstatic public on ten occasions (termed a deedar - showing) every year. It was the most sacred object in the region and if news got out, there would be chaos and perhaps mayhem.

Ghanai and now Bande were beyond consternation, and the latter quickly collapsed in a swoon. In minutes the news hit the street and they swelled with people headed to the shrine, moaning and wailing, braving the terrible winter weather. Black flags came out, processions were organized and the rumor mills got right into action. Hindus and Sikhs were considered to be the cause by many of the illiterate, while others said it was all political. Some said it was Pakistan fomenting their cause, others agreed that this was becoming a tailormade situation for communal strife and disharmony, perhaps even large doses of violence. Others hinted of dark plots against Islam, and those against the ruling party swore it had to be the doing of ex Kashmir prime minister Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad who, losing his position in the Kamaraj plan, was trying to use the situation to come back to power. Just some months back he had managed to send Sheikh Abdullah, the lion of Kashmir, to prison! Many added that it could be the handiwork of Sheikh Abdullah, to come out of prison.

As mobs started to take revenge on Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed’s (he was away in Delhi) properties and vehicles in the snowbound valley, the police were heavy-handed in reaction, and the area went into a shutdown, a hartal. Mourning processions could be seen every day and the populace became restless all over the Kashmir valley, way beyond Srinagar and until Jammu. Confounding all this was the fact that the authoritarian Defense of India rules were in force, where the normal rules of the law were done away with, making it a police state. Political leaders supportive of Sheikh Abdullah quickly set up a Relic action committee, as Section 144 was imposed by the administration headed by Khwaja Shamsuddin (who grandly offered to sacrifice his eyes and even his own life if it could help in the recovery of the relic). Interestingly, the Hindus and Sikhs stood united with the Muslims on this issue and marched with them, holding Om flags while the Muslims carried green flags.

The missing 5” vial, opaque on one side and with a human hair inside - termed the Moi-e-Muqqadas (holy relic), had thus taken center stage! Will the Kashmiri’s lose their yearly chance of their deedar – a sight of the relic? Would Dec 20th when it was last seen by the public, be the last deedar?

The Delhi administration was galvanized into action. Meetings and correspondence marked the frantic scene in Delhi, Nehru though distressed and under the weather, was in the thick of things and quickly tasked Home secretary Venkata Viswanathan, IB chief BN Mullik and Home Minister G Nanda to rush to the scene and report. Sheikh Abdullah in jail sent an urgent missive to President S Radhakrishnan, hinting that a political conspiracy was behind it and that bold steps should be taken with urgency in order to stop further tragedy and apprehend the culprits.   

However, roads were blocked or breached due to incessant snowfall and air services to Srinagar had been disrupted. A phone connection remained, but it was quite fickle, breaking up often. Senior IB director Bakshi and another officer eventually reached Srinagar by the 30th, walking several miles through breached roads. Meanwhile, Pakistan was ramping up the rhetoric blaming India for the loss and instigating the public over the airwaves and a conflagration was looking imminent.

With the snowfall and fog preventing travel, Mullik and team managed to head out on an air force plane on the 31st December 1963, while Nehru announced on the radio that he was sending his top sleuth to Srinagar for the recovery of the relic. The low profile Mullik was aghast, worried about the unwelcome publicity, now he was both cornered and exposed. The Vickers Viscount found it impossible to penetrate the fog over Srinagar and instead landed at Jammu, but the local IAF station chief offered to take Mullik to Srinagar in a slower Dakota, managing the precarious landing with aplomb.

Mullik and Viswanathan, Delhi’s top men, were finally on terra firma (though not quite the dry land, but with a foot of snow cover) and sped through Srinagar, now virtually a ghost city, towards the guest house, with a local Thakur in tow. The main roads were full of people and processions, but the action committee had laid down strict rules and were seemingly in control…

Any investigation, usually centers around two or three main paths, finding out a motive, analyzing the modus operandi and checking for clues. Mullik and team found that this was not the first time the hair had been moved out surreptitiously and that private deedars were a distinct possibility. So, was it a case of it being taken out for such a reason? This could be a possibility, but why break the doors? Possibly done to make it look like a theft at the last movement when the capsule could not be returned in time?

What happened to the vial? Tossed away into the Dal lake? Mullik did a quick round of the Hazaratbal on the 1st and 2nd, the crowd outside were calm but restless. Looking at the crime scene, Mullik saw that the silver doors of the hujra-e-khas had been left in place, so it was not a theft for profit. It was definitely an inside job. The action committee were pushing for the arrest of Ghulam Bakshi Muhammad, but Mullik did not give in.

Next to come were strident demands for the release of Sheikh Abdullah. Propaganda machines had started to work overtime and anti-government undertones were obvious. Other Islamic countries started a demand for UN intervention and internationalization of the event. Pakistan and Azad Kashmir radio went on an overdrive, and Pakistan supporting groups in Kashmir ramped up their activities. Neither the Shamzuddin government which was paralyzed, nor the opposing Sadiq faction, were able to counter all this in any fashion. Without the return of the vial, the Moi-e-Muqaddas, there would be chaos.

Was this a Pakistan conspiracy? They stood to gain the most, with one action, they had brought the government to their knees. Did this had some connection to the earlier Kashmir conspiracy case, Maqbool Ghulani etc. which had led to the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah for his pro Pakistan leanings? It could not have just been the custodian family for this affected their bread winning treasure and standing in the community. Was it a simple private deedar which went wrong? Or was it the Sheikh or another politician playing a game which went out of control? The 3rd day of the New year dawned, with no developments and Sheikh Abdullah’s demands for his release hit the streets, his letter to the president and Nehru were now part of posters. Meanwhile, Pakistani agents snuck in and were upto their mischief inciting sectarian violence. The tinderbox was readying itself for an explosion.

Declining the proposal of Governor’s (Sadr-e-Riyasat – Karan Singh) rule, Mullik recommended that Venkata Viswanathan take charge of the political and the law and order part of the situation, temporarily. The unpopular Bakshi Muhamamd was asked to move out of the area as a precautionary measure.

Mullik was certain that this was a Pakistani ploy, and that Pir Maqbool Ghulani had engineered the conspiracy with the connivance of one of the custodians. But due to the rapidity of the discovery of the theft, the weather and the public reaction, the vial, the relic was surely still nearby and just had to be discovered. Reading the public demand, Mellick determined that the clamor seemed to be demanding the recovery of the relic with the supervision of Sheikh Abdullah, who should be released. He resolved that he would allow for the pressure to build up and keep an opening for the perpetrator to make amends by returning the relic stealthily, without fear of capture. All guards in the Hazratbal were withdrawn.

Karan Singh arrived on the 4th, and Viswanathan tried to persuade Sadiq to take over, but he would not till the relic was found. Well, miraculously or not, at 5pm, the vial with the hair found its way to the original location, the wooden box in the hujra-e-khas. Gleefully Mullik and team took it to the terrace and showed it to the crowds. At 6PM, Nehru was informed of the glad tidings.

Nehru intoned – ‘Mullik you have saved Kashmir for us’!!

Viswanathan took over and started the required counters, first contacts with the administrators and the radio station, the action committee, Shamsuddin etc. The timing could not have been better for the Pakistani meddling had started to bear fruit in distant East Pakistan. Khulna was witness to terrible sectarian violence and many Hindus were massacred. Thousands fled over the border to India. Being distant, it did not have any large impacts on Kashmir, which was still in the throes of rejoicing.

On the 6th, a stroke felled Nehru, the stress had taken its toll. But slowly and surely, he came out of it, making slow progress and the prognosis was not that bad.

Out on the streets a new question was being asked by the crowd, about the authenticity of the vial and the hair. Was it the original or a duplicate? Again, Pakistan tried to control the narrative, and goaded by accusations that this was a duplicate vial, the action committee which was holding the fort and was finding itself redundant with the discovery of the relic, found new legs to run. They demanded that they be involved in the re-certification, but Viswanathan would have none of it. He firmly laid down the ground rules – this was going to be an expert judicial process, not adhoc. Nevertheless, he agreed that it would be wise to ensure that the next pre-scheduled deedar on the 6th February be kept in the interest of the baying public.

The doors of the enclosure were sent for repair, the relic was locked up and sealed in a ‘Godrej’ safe, and after things had returned to a semblance of normalcy, Mullik and team returned to Delhi on the 14th to handle the related issues in East Bengal and Calcutta. Just imagine how tumultuous that fortnight had been! In the background, Pakistan tried to bring the subject up to the UN security council.

But once Mullik and Viswanathan left Srinagar, the action committee came back to the fore and started reiterating doubts about the authenticity of the hair. The situation quickly slid from bad to worse and within a week, Mullik and Viswanathan were back in Srinagar to tackle the issue. The action committee demanded a special deedar to authenticate the hair, but Viswanathan stood firm. It was precarious, to say the least for if the committee said it was dubious or a duplicate, Kashmir would be lost and Pakistan would win. Everything depended on the cooperation of the action committee and the result of a deedar. Out on a limb, the twosome was locked in private turmoil, what direction could they take? Local leaders who had supported them earlier, seemed to be leaning towards a special deedar.

It was a masterclass in situation management, and the quick actions mandated by Viswanathan and Mullik were to detain and arrest many of the potential trouble creators, bring in loads of real pilgrims, and made sure that the crowd waiting for the deedar on the 6th were as balanced as possible. For once Bakshi and Shamsuddin as well as the entire administration who abhorred violence, cooperated and by the 29th all actions as planned were completed.

But they erred in not informing Nehru, who not wanting to take chances, decided to send Lal Bahadur Shastri as his high-level deputy to the scene to ensure the conduct of a second deedar as a political compromise and to try and install Bakshi, replacing Shamsuddin. 

Backed into a corner, Mullik and Viswanathan convinced Shastri not to involve the action committee in the special deedar and to have only religious leaders carrying out the identification. The action committee agreed after they were allowed to choose the religious men for the new deedar event planned on Feb 3rd. As expected, the action committee kept Shastri, Mullik and Viswanathan on their toes, they did not deliver the advance list of holy men as promised. Finally, the committee and the 14 holy men in tow arrived on the 3rd at 130 pm, ready for the 3pm event at Hazratbal, the time fixed for the identification. The mosque and the area outdoors were packed and the crowd waited silently. After the holy oaths were taken, Bande narrated the provenance of the relic, the magistrate broke the seal on the ‘Godrej’ safe and Bade took out the vial containing the Moi-e-Muqqadas. He slowly held it to the eyes of each of the 14. 

Fakir Mirak Shah their leader peered at the vial, the nearly blind fakir squinted hard, paused and uttered “Haq’ (true!). 

Cries of ‘mabrook’ filled the air. The certification was done and the relic had been pronounced genuine. The 37-day old drama, which could rival any opera, finally called 'curtains' as the action committee quietly fled the scene. Nehru was informed of the joyous news and Shastri returned to Delhi. A normal deedar was held for the public on 6th as planned and some 60,000 attended the event.

Peace returned to the valley.

Now my readers, what do you think really happened? Who stole the relic and how was it returned? Was it for real or was it a clever sleight of hand? It was a case which was debated extensively and analyzed by so many vested and not vested interests, but stood the test of time and religious scrutiny.

Nevertheless, was it a manipulation by the Sheikh and the action committee headed by Maulana Masoodi (who opposed Bakshi)? Did Bakshi Gulam Muhammad engineer it to prop himself or was there an independent foreign hand at play? Was it to overthrow the Shamsuddin government? Was it a private deedar gone wrong? All questions are still unanswered. On 17th Feb, Gulzarilal Nanda announced that three culprits had been booked for the theft – Abdul Rahim Bande - the relic’s keeper, Abdul Rashid a young fella who was seen running away after the relic was returned and Qadir Bhat largely unknown, but in some ways connected to Pakistan.

When Ved Mehta arrived at Srinagar a couple of years later to write an investigate piece on the affair for the New Yorker,  many members of the action committee were behind bars, including Masoodi, though Abdul Rahim Bande was free but in the grip of various police and legal formalities, but with no sight of an actual case where he could fight to clear his name or ever hold a deeder. Anyway, after a while the case against these three were dropped and all was forgotten, signaling that legal formalities would have created more problems.

Many on the street believed that this was engineered by Bakshi and that he had fled to Delhi before it was executed. Eventually, the Bakshi coterie returned only to live in hiding for it was commonplace that they were involved. Their plan was to create a commotion and strengthen their power with autocratic rule. Sheik Abdulla clearly mentioned that he did not want to be released in the middle of this commotion, it would not have been clever.

When Mehta talked to Nuruddin Bande who took over from AR Bande as the relics custodian, he was astonished to hear that there were actually many similar hair relics in Kashmir, in Kalshpur, Saoora, Andarwara, Islamabad and even one with a private collector. Mirak Shah, the virtually blind ascetic who identified the hair as authentic, told Mehta that the sample he identified generally looked fine and as he remembered it, but that his sureness was also based on a vision which came to him assuring him that it was an original.

A couple of months later, Sheikh Abdullah was released. Shamsuddin was replaced by GM Sadiq, Bhola Nath Mullik continued on, created the RAW, retired and became an ascetic, passing away in relative obscurity, mourned only by his IB juniors. The ever popular Hazratbal relic changed locations and was soon placed in a brand-new mosque, custom built for its purpose costing some 15 million rupees.

Dr Ryan Shaffer, an American researcher and expert who specializes on intelligence related matters, provides a tantalizing lead, in his recent paper on the subject, referring to the fiction “A mission to Pakistan” written by one of one of India’s greatest sleuths, IB’s joint director Maloy Krishna Dhar, Dhar  wrote thus in Chapter 43 page 514 - A veteran PIB hand, Jamanat was seconded to the ISI counter-intelligence unit in 1962. His contribution to the staging of theft of the holy hair relic of the Prophet (Hazrat Baal-pbuh) from a Srinagar shrine had led to a spontaneous revolt in the Vale of Kashmir. What the Indian’s later claimed to retrieve was a faked hair. New Delhi paid through its nose to make the ulemas agree on the genuineness of the retrieved hair. His singularly important services were recognized by a coveted national award. (Dhar adds in his acknowledgments that the book is based on research material collected painfully. Interestingly India’s ace sleuth in his fictional account is one Balls - Balu Nampoothiri!)

It may have been a figment of Dhar’s imagination; we will never know, for Dhar is no more, but it is a clear statement nonetheless, even if it is stated in a work of fiction. We may also never know the answer to the question - was Jamanat actually the elusive Qadir Bhat, the third culprit? Nevertheless, this is not an explosive revelation, since most people in Kashmir thought as much in those days and the story died a natural death as other news cycles took over.

Some even thought that the relic had been auctioned off to a buyer in the Middle East. Mullik added to the mystery and intrigue by writing – I cannot describe the process which led to its replacement at the place from which it had been removed on December 27. This was an intelligence operation, never to be disclosed.

But logically, it looks like the original vial was replaced by the thief and it does not look at all feasible for an identical vial, looking at its construction, to be reproduced locally in 3 days (Mullik arrived on the 1st and the vial was recovered on the 4th). With no travel or movement possible due to heavy snowfall on those 4 days, it looks implausible. In theory, the incoming dignitaries on the 4th could have brought in a copy manufactured by artisans in Delhi (but where did they get a sample to copy?), but all those are far-flung theories just like a possibility that the custodians had always kept a copy for exigencies, and it was used.

Regarding the special identification deedar, we can surmise that Nehru wanted to be sure no chances were taken and deputed Shastri, pulled out of his retirement, even if the competent combo of Viswanathan and Mullik were up to it and did what they felt was sufficient. The action committee supportive of Sheikh Abdullah certainly had to be persuaded and amply compensated and for that the negotiation skills and authority of Shastri, were paramount, if only to ensure that the action committee who had the control of the streets, did not utilize the situation and simply state that the vial and the relic was a fake, to embarrass both the central and state governments and spark of an uncontrollable crisis with Pakistan on the sidelines taking advantage of it.  That was certainly smart politics and a clever gambit from the suave politician Nehru always was!

I think I should now formally introduce the hazy character, Venkata Viswanathan. Born in Palghat, he was educated in Bangalore, London and Oxford, and had been an ICS officer from 1931. He held many posts in his life and was always firm, sometimes exceedingly so. Viswanathan’s aplomb in handling the Hazratbal situation as the home secretary, and keeping it contained was perhaps key during that critical phase. Ved Mehta gives examples with Venkat’s crisp and clear replies, quoting from a press conference in 1964. He had to contend not only with the political bigwigs but also machinations by Bhutto and Ayub in Pakistan, who were taking advantage of the situation, and hold fort at least until the last phase when Shastri arrived. Later on, in his political life, he became Kerala’s governor 1967-73 (the only time an IAS/ICS officer was appointed to his own state) and nearly precipitated a crisis, taking on EMS Namboothiripad.

Sheikh Abdullah was later deputed to Pakistan in May, with Nehru’s backing, to carry out discussions with Ayub Khan. The details of a potential Kashmir settlement which they discussed is not entirely clear but the talks collapsed when on the morning of 27th May, returning after a few days holiday at Dehra Dun, Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru succumbed to a massive heart attack and passed away.

After Nehru died, Bakshi Muhammad as the opposition leader was briefly arrested, Sheikh Abdulla was again incarcerated, and soon, Kashmir’s special status was removed. War clouds appeared, and in 1965, the pent-up emotions in the region boiled over into a full-fledged Indo-Pak war.

That was all a long time ago, and life goes on, as troubled as it always has, in the Vale of Kashmir, once heaven on earth, ever a bone of contention.….


Portrait of India – Ved Mehta
My years with Nehru Kashmir – BN Mullik
Indian Intelligence and the Mystery of Muhammad’s Hair – Ryan Shaffer (International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence – May 2020)
Mission to Pakistan: An Intelligence Agent in Pakistan – Maloy Krishna Dhar
My Life and Times - By Sayyid Mīr Qāsim

The 1964 Hazratbal Deedar on video 


Though relics have no official sanction in Islam, and the Prophet himself preached against worshipping anyone other than Allah, many followers folk to see an extensive collection of such items, including footprints and other items associated with him and located world over, each year.

The seesawing interplays between Bakshi, Nehru, Sheikh Abdullah, Shamsuddin and Sadiq is quite a bit of information and too difficult to integrate into this already long article, but it has some bearing to the way the theft was used by each party to gain political mileage, not to forget Pakistan.

Salman Rushdie wrote a fictional short story around this event, where the relic is discovered by Hashim, a moneylender, in the Dal lake. What happens next forms the crux of the finely woven tale.

What was quite fascinating for me was the fact that one of the better studies on this topic, is actually a section from a book written by Ved Mehta, travelling to Kashmir and listening to people, not seeing but seeing and observing India for all its beauty and sorrows, without the power of sight!

Pics – Hazratbal, VV, BNM & Relic Wiki and Google photos – acknowledged with thanks