The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Antique theft leaves Shias fuming

Hyderabad, April 14: The theft of an antique alam — sacred battle standard — from the Aza Khana Zehra, a Shia place of worship in the old city, has sent waves of anger and shock through the community.

The thieves, who entered the building early on Saturday after scaling the wall, took away the 15-kg antique but left the cloth covering it and other things in a corner of a mosque inside the complex.

Shoukat Ali Najaf, a prominent figure among Shias in the city, termed the theft a crime for material gain. “They took away the alam under the wrong impression that it was made of gold. It was made of five metals and had only (the) colour of gold. There was (a) necklace made of precious gems valued at Rs 3 lakh,” he said.

Police said the last ruler of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, had installed the alam at the Azha Khana Zehra in 1956 in memory of Bibi Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohammed.

The Nawab had donated the alam to the Azha Khana Zehra, a historic landmark he built for the Shia community in memory of his mother.

Andhra Pradesh home minister T. Devender Goud, who visited the Aza Khana Zehra yesterday morning, directed police officials to take immediate steps to recover the stolen antique and arrest the culprits. He also summoned a meeting of prominent leaders of the Shia community and senior police officials.

The early-morning theft came close on the heels of last week’s decision of the state police to disarm private security guards and even disallow them from wearing khaki. Now questions are being raised about the safety of several other antique alams kept in Khilwat palace and at various ashoorkhanas, where alams are kept, and especially the last Nizam’s private collection, valued at Rs 120 crore by a London-based antique dealer.

The Nizam’s trust will meet to discuss the security at 13 centres in the city where revered relics of the Shia community have been preserved.

“Some of the alams are so important and priceless that their value runs into crores of rupees,” Najaf said. Such alams include one belonging to Tipu Sultan. Among the antiques is a chaddar believed to be of Bibi Fatima.

Hyderabad city police commissioner M.V. Krishna Rao said there are models of Shia holy places at Najaf Ashraf, Karbala and Kazimain in gold kept at Khilwat palace. Their weight in pure gold ranges from 40 kg to 100 kg, he said. “I am worried about their safety. There are only four security guards.”

In view of the mounting tension, an additional police force has been deployed at Aza Khana Zehra. The police commissioner has formed 10 special teams while personnel from the central crime station were pressed into service to locate the stolen antique.

Members of the Nizam family, angered by the loss of the alam, have announced a reward of Rs 1 lakh to anyone who can provide information on the thieves.

The police are keeping a vigil at all strategic points in the old city to prevent any escalation of violence between Sunnis and Shias, who have always felt oppressed by the strong Sunni community in Hyderabad.

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