Kashmiris have expressed their sorrow and outrage over a large fire that has seriously damaged the Peer Dastageer Sahib, a Sufi Muslim shrine that was revered by both Muslims and Hindus in this province long ruptured by sectarian violence.

Firefighters fought the blaze at the 350-year-old wooden shrine in the city of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir. The cause of the fire, which produced no casualties, is unknown. Relics inside the structure were reportedly saved by the firemen, while the building itself is too heavily damaged to restore – indeed the fire destroyed antique chandeliers and priceless wood carving panels.

“After morning prayers, [a] fire started from the rooftop of the shrine. We’re still trying to determine the cause,” police official Farooq Ahmad told reporters.

“The holy relic of the Sufi saint is safe and has been retrieved.”

But residents protested what they viewed as a slow response by the government to save the beloved shrine. The demonstrations turned violent as the crowd threw stones at police and damaged a fire vehicle. In response, police shot bullets into the air and fired tear gas to disperse the angry crowd, hurting at least six people.

The demonstration then widened in scale to include thousands of people who chanted slogans against India and demanded Kashmiri independence from New Delhi.

The shrine housed the relics of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jeelani, a 11th century Muslim saint who founded the Qadriya branch of Sufism.

Known as 'Ghaus-e-Azam' by Muslims and 'Kahnoow' by the Hindus, Jeelani is revered by both faiths in Kashmir.

Sufi Islam is regarded as a more tolerant form of the faith as deeply linked to mysticism, which makes it more agreeable to many Hindus.

Consequently, in Kashmir, Hindus and Sufi Muslims lived in relative harmony for centuries – indeed, both groups shared some of the same saints, like the Iranian-born Jeelani.

However, Sufism is rejected by some Islamic militants. In neighboring Pakistan, where Sufi is also quite popular, extremist Islamic hard-liners have attacked Sufi shrines in recent years.

“It’s a very disturbing picture that militants have extended their targets to shrines, which are symbols of popular Islam in Pakistan and are widely visited,” Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, told the New York Times.

“However, I don’t think the militants are succeeding – thousands of people still visit the shrines despite these attacks.”

Kashmir remains a bitter point of dispute between India, Pakistan and even China.
Pakistan controls the northwest part of Kashmir; India controls the central and southern portions; while China controls the northeast region.