Rajasthan’s Barmer and Jaisalmer districts share the border with Pakistan. They are so close that in 2010, after Pakistan installed mobile phone towers along the 270-km border, the Indian authorities struggled to prevent the use of Pakistani SIM cards in the district — the Pakistani mobile phone network has a penetration of 30-40 km into Indian territory.
It is not just mobile telephony, the views of clerics on the other side also impinge on the politics of the Thar area.
Barmer and Jaisalmer together have 400,000-500,000 Muslims, 90% of whom are Sindhi Muslims. And these people depend on Pir Pagaras or pious leaders across the border for both spiritual and electoral guidance."Sindhi Muslims have abiding faith in Pir Pagaras and respect their orders," says Ashraf Ali, president of the Muslim Intezaamiya committee, a local organisation working for the welfare of the minority community in western Rajasthan.
According to Ali, the Pir Pagaras in Pakistan convey their preference for a particular political party to an Indian counterpart, who in turn conveys it to the people.
“The party that makes the grade is the one which, in the opinion of the Pir Pagaras, will safeguard the interests of the Muslims,” says political commentator Shankarlal Dhariwal.
Currently, Gazi Fakir is the spiritual head of the community in Barmer and he passes on the Pir Pagaras’ diktat to the Muslim community here. And even though he has police cases against him, both the Congress and BJP try to woo Gazi Fakir as he controls the votes here.
Post-independence, until 2002, it was the Congress that had the vote of confidence of the Pir Pagaras, but in 2003 this changed. Muslims came out in support of the BJP candidates and they ended up winning six of the seven Barmer seats.
Political commentator Tejdan Charan attributes this to former Union foreign minister and BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s efforts to prioritise the needs of the Muslim community.
“During his tenure, the Thar Express (a weekly train between India and Pakistan) was announced,” said Charan. Singh also facilitated easier visa rules for those with relatives in Pakistan.
In the 2004 general elections, for the first time, Jaswant Singh’s son, Manvendra Singh, won the election by a margin of 272,000 votes. It is believed that Jaswant Singh’s meeting with the Pir Pagaras during his Pakistan visit was behind the BJP victory.
Realising the importance of their support, in the 2008 assembly polls, Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot made an effort to reach out to Gazi Fakir.
Fakir’s son Saleh Mohammed was given a Congress ticket and won the Pokhran assembly seat. Other members of his family have been appointed zila pramukh and panchayat samiti pradhan. Sure enough, in 2008, the Congress won 7 of the 9 assembly seats here.