Abdul Baqi Arshad, Afsar Jalsa Salana (1992-1998)
It was a momentous and historic event for the UK Jamaat when we learnt at the Fajr prayer through a specially convened Amila meeting on the morning of 30 April 1984 that Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh was migrating to UK and would be arriving later that day. I was instructed by Amir Sahib to immediately fly to Amsterdam, Holland and had the honour to welcome Huzoorrh on behalf of the UK Jamaat and accompany him to London.
Soon after Huzoor’s arrival, it was felt necessary by the UK Jamaat to find a suitable place outside London, large enough to hold our Jalsa Salana and other events. As Secretary Jaidad for UK, I was instructed to look at various sites, which were referred to the Jamaat. A number of sites, among which was one in Midlands, were visited in the course of the next few months but none of them were suitable for our requirements.
In September 1984, we were advised that an approximately 25-acre site of an old residential boarding school was for sale through auction, situated in Tilford, Surrey and consisting of a number of timber-framed buildings. The site was inspected, and we felt that it suited our requirements. Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh was than requested to visit the site. After Huzoor’s inspection and approval, I was instructed by Huzoorrh to bid for it at the auction which was to be held on 18 September 1984 by a real-estate agent, Barnard Marcus.
I went to the auction, as directed, and with Huzoor’s special prayers, was successful in securing the site at for around £423,000. The site was named “Islamabad” by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh. Huzoorrh also spoke about the acquisition of this site in his Friday Sermon of 21 September 1984 where he stated that although, presently, this site seemed to be more than our needs, but our experience had shown that whenever we expanded our mosques, God Almighty soon made it insufficient for us. Therefore, Huzoorrh said, we had purchased this land with the prayer that we propagate Islam and to grow manifold so as to make even this place small for our needs, after which Allah would enable us to purchase a larger property.
After the site was acquired, the momentous task of renovating and refurbishing the buildings, which were in a considerable state of disrepair, was undertaken. With the help of Taj Din Sahib, Raja Munir Sahib and Akhtar Sahib (from East London) and along with the help and waqar-e-amal [voluntary labour] of volunteers from Khuddam and Ansar, we started to the enormous task of renovation.
The first caretaker was Rashid Khan Sahib of Midlands. In the first instance we renovated and furnished Huzoor’s personal residence and guesthouse in block N for temporary use as Private Secretary’s office, and the guesthouse as well as building block I for the Mosque. Later, in mid-1986, two builders and two carpenters, Aziz Sahib and Ahsan Sahib came from Pakistan to assist full time on the renovation and refurbishment. The residential blocks were converted, one-by-one, to a number of 1- and 2-bedroom flats to house the growing number of Waqifeen working in various departments of Jamaat.
The first UK Jalsa Salana was held in April 1985 amid severe weather conditions prevailing at the time. Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh appointed Chaudhry Hidayatullah Bangvi Sahib as Afsar Jalsa Salana and myself as his Naib [deputy]. After Chaudhry Sahib’s demise in 1991, I was appointed as Afsar Jalsa Salana. From 1986 onwards, the UK Jalsa Salana continued to be held at the end of July in the grounds of Islamabad. A printing press and a roti-plant were also added to meet the ever-increasing requirements of the Jamaat.
In late 1989 and early 1990, the local council, provoked by some neighbours’ complaints, questioned the use of the site and served us with an enforcement notice for change in planning permission. We therefore had to employ the services of a well-known city law firm – Messrs. Theodore Goddard – who were eventually able to overcome the local councils’ objections and obtain cancellation of the enforcement notice.
Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh wanted us to organise this first International event to be held in the UK on the traditions of Markaz, and therefore instructed me to obtain details of the Jalsa organisation and office bearers’ responsibilities from Wakil-e-A‘la , Chaudhry Hameedullah Sahib in Pakistan, who had experience as Afsar Jalsa Salana in Pakistan prior to Huzoor’s arrival in the UK; I was told to follow the same pattern. We, because of our lack of experience in hosting international events of this nature, were also fortunate to receive continuous guidance and instructions from Huzoorrh.
Later on in the subsequent years, the organisation of Jalsa undoubtedly improved tremendously; most of the work and waqar-e-amal was completed only a couple of months prior to Jalsa. Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya from various regions would go to Islamabad and do all the work – mostly painting, repairing barrack-roofs and other forms of maintenance.
A number of Jamaat members from Germany used to come to attend Jalsa Salana UK and would work alongside us with great perseverance and patience.
We also used to have a registration team, and as this was our first experience in many areas of the task, we experienced slow computer systems during those days, naturally causing long queues to form outside the registration marquee. At one Jalsa, I recall that we had recently changed the ID system and that caused a lot of chaos. There were long queues building up, particularly for those coming from Germany because we did not personally know most of them and had to use a special identification system. After complaints were made for undue registration delays, Amir Sahib Germany came specially to our assistance and helped in expediting registration of members from Germany Jamaat. Thus, the whole process started to move faster because he could identify most of the people. Generally, we used to start preparing for Jalsa at least three months before Jalsa Salana.
Just before the Jalsa Salana of 1991, Hidayatullah Bangvi Sahib fell ill. It used to be Huzoor’s practice that Huzoorrh would visit all the nizamats [departments] and ask questions about the various arrangements, and Afsar Jalsa Salana would accompany Huzoorrh along with other people who were part of the Jalsa organisation. On that occasion, I remember, because Bangvi Sahib was suffering from heart problems, Huzoorrh told him to stay seated in the car and not to walk. He was a bit reluctant because Huzoorrh was walking and he was following Huzoorrh in the car, but Huzoorrh instructed him to remain seated in the car. Immediately after that Jalsa, Bangvi Sahib passed away.
Huzoor then appointed me as Afsar Jalsa Salana, and I remained Afsar Jalsa Salana until 1998.
Throughout that period, the attendance grew significantly every year. The Jalsa conventions that started off from six or seven thousand in attendance, grew to an attendance of more than 20,000 by the last few Jalsas to be held in Islamabad. The car park facility, just like all other facilities, became insufficient. By 2004, we knew that Islamabad might not be able to hold the rapidly growing number of Jalsa guests and also, consequently, the swelling paraphernalia.
Then started the search for a larger place which resulted in the purchase of Hadiqatul Mahdi in Alton.