On Saturday, the Ahmadiyyas, one of India’s smallest religious communities – they are estimated to number about 1,20,000, twice the number of Parsi-Zoroastrians in the country – held a ‘peace symposium’ in Mumbai, their first public event in the city.
The last time they held a major function in Mumbai – in May 2008 when they marked the centennial of the founding of their leadership, or ‘The Khilafat’– the celebrations were discreet.
For the Saturday event, invitations to the press were sent out almost two weeks in advance, but the event that was held eight years ago was almost secretive.
A member of the community said the celebrations were to end on May 27, but newspapers were informed about the event only on that day so that reports would appear only on the next day when the celebrations were over.
The reason for the secrecy is that some of their co-religionists consider them heretics.
Though there are just a few hundred Ahmadiyyas, or Ahmedis, in Mumbai, the community has had its own mosque in the city for a long time.
There are now plans to expand the mosque to include a convention centre, but the project has been delayed because the building has been included in the list of historically and architecturally important buildings.
The group, which was founded in the late 19th century, is one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world.
A religious teacher named Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who proclaimed himself as the messiah prophesised in the Semitic religions, starting preaching his beliefs in Qadian in Punjab.
For this reason, they are also called Qadianis.
After partition, while Qadian became part of India, most Ahmedis ended up in Pakistan, where they now face violence and state repression.
The Ahmadiyyas, like other Muslims, consider the Koran as their holy book and Mohammad as their leader, but their belief that Ahmad, too, was a prophet puts them in a dispute with other Muslims, who believe that the religion’s founder was the last in a line of prophets.
Another feature that distinguishes Ahmedis from their co-religionists is their belief that, apart from the common prophets of the Semitic religions, Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, Guru Nanak and Zoroaster are also important religious teachers.
In 1973, Pakistan, which was then ruled by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, declared the community as ‘non-Muslim’, denying them even the right to recite Kalma prayer, one of the central tenets of the Muslim religion.
Masarrat Ahmed, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a group based in Mumbai, said they face regular violence in that country. “Last month, five people from our community were killed in Pakistan and last year alone, around 110 people died,” said Ahmed.
In May 2010, two mosques belonging to the sect were attacked in Lahore, killing 86.
Indonesia, which also has a large Ahmadiyya population, is another country where there has been violent attacks against the community.
In India, they have not faced violence, though the late Islamic scholar, Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, had said that they faced discrimination, including boycott by mainstream sects and denial of burial space in Muslim graveyards.
For this reason, the community has its own cemetery in the city.
Missionary work at their mosques is done very inconspicuously.
There are also reports of families having to shift homes because of hostile neighbours.