Dr Chaudhry Nasir Ahmad
Afsar Jalsa Salana (1999-2008)
I was given the responsibility of Afsar Jalsa Salana in 1999 after Abdul Baqi Arshad Sahib. We hosted Jalsa Salana in Islamabad until 2004, but the site was somewhat overcrowded and the number of attendees of Jalsa in those days was in the range of 22,000. So there was a need to move out from Islamabad.
In 2005 we held Jalsa Salana in the Rushmoor Arena, which was a hired facility. Jalsa Salana had outgrown Islamabad and we quickly felt the need for a much larger and more suitable location. Jalsa Salana UK 2005 taught us a number of things because in the arena there were no toilet facilities, drainage system or water supply; all these were hurdles. But Alhamdolillah – all praise be to Allah – we managed to hold Jalsa for one year there.
In the meantime, we were looking for a site to hold Jalsa Salana on, and in 2005 (I think it was around June-July when) a site came on the market. Nasser Khan Sahib and I went to see the site. It seemed like a decent place to host Jalsa Salana and so, we proposed it to Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa and we said that it was a site which could potentially be a permanent site for Jalsa Salana. Huzooraa very graciously accepted the proposal for the new Jalsa site, which costed approximately two million pounds. It was a 208-acre site which we acquired just before the Jalsa in 2005 which, as I said, was held in Rushmoor.
Immediately after Jalsa Salana in 2005, we started preparation on this location and invited council officers, local police and local parish councillors just to bring them on the same level and tell them what we were planning to do. Initially the response was very positive; even the council officers who attended that meeting said that we probably didn’t need any planning and that we would be able to use the site for our annual conventions, so long as the construction work was underground. They were familiar with our Jalsa Salana from when it was in Islamabad and thus, they all took it very positively.
We planned to install the drainage underground; that was the first step. The next step required us to lay underground electric cables and water pipes. As soon as we started that work, the neighbours did not like it and they objected to the council, so everybody got together again. We asked, “Where do we go from here?” It was suggested that we should apply for planning permission to hold the convention annually. Therefore, we went along with that and hired a company who prepared the paperwork and applied for planning permission on our behalf to the local council.
A group in the parish council were against it, and they opposed the application. Eventually the planning application was passed on to a committee, which had a certain number of councillors. We attended that meeting and in that meeting our agent presented our case for the Jalsa in Hadiqatul Mahdi, after which there was voting. I was given the chance to speak in that committee and I presented the fact that, permission or not, we were going to have the Jalsa on the site anyway – we would go ahead with our annual convention because we had already bought the site for this purpose. I said that even if we had to arrange everything within 28 days as the law stated, we would complete all construction work, install the drainage and rest of the infrastructure each year for Jalsa Salana and at the end of it, we would disassemble everything and empty the site. Thus, I said, it was the committee’s decision whether they were prepared to live with this kind of disruption each year or just one single disruption and forget about it once for all. And I think at that point, something sunk into the minds of the councillors and committee members, and when time came for casting the votes, the chairman’s vote was what turned the decision in our favour.
Alhamdolillah, that was a massive turning point and we got the permission we needed. So, we had the water flowing all around the site, the drainage installed everywhere and a tank to collect all the water. Similarly, we had the electricity cable going all the way around providing electricity everywhere. And these facilities were essential for Jalsa.
So once we had accomplished all necessary steps, we then held Jalsa Salana 2006 in Hadiqatul Mahdi. Well before the event, a situation arose where the local press began saying that thirty-thousand Muslims would be trespassing into their village, destroying the peace and quiet of their village, and transforming the atmosphere of the locality. That was what the headings said before Jalsa Salana, and after the Jalsa, the same newspapers had headings saying, we couldn’t even tell you had a convention here. There was no music or disturbance!
The weather was extremely pleasant. We managed to contain all the car parks inside the site and so, it was the perfect situation. The owner who sold us the land offered his services, and they continue to do so today. Hence, again, that was another turning point of the Jamaat’s history. The councillors were satisfied, the police authorities were satisfied and the local parish council was also happy. All those who objected to our convening the Jalsa came and congratulated us. And from there onwards, we have been holding Jalsa in Hadiqatul Mahdi.
That was only just one of the challenges. 2007 was the trouble year and that was because of torrential rain throughout the month of July, which in fact, caused major flooding in many parts of England. In terms of the weather, holding the Jalsa at the end of that month proved extremely challenging for us.
I remember the day of inauguration, we were walking in the mud towards the Jalsa site where the main marquee was and I felt extremely anxious, however, Huzoor-e-Anwaraa had no sign of worry.
The rain had already caused many problems since before the Jalsa, but the rain continued throughout the 3-day period. But, again, these hurdles taught us lessons for the future. That was the year when we started using hard surfaces for tracks and roads, and then we started putting flooring in the marquees. And from there onwards, it was one improvement after the other. Alhamdolillah, now, I feel that we have matured enough to have reached the situation where we can face any eventualities that may come, whether it is weather or otherwise – all praise is only due to Allah.
2003 was the first Jalsa of Khilafat-e-Khamisa, and that was in Islamabad – that was a new experience during a new Khilafat. I think we learnt a lot from that Jalsa. The attendance was quite high as well. From then onwards, I think we were in a position where we needed to improve the quality of the marquee and the size of the marquee. That was one of the challenges.
When I started duty as Afsar Jalsa Salana in Islamabad, the marquee’s width was around 40 metres but the length was 100 metres, so the vision was like a tunnel. The attendance was growing substantially and we were looking for a marquee which was wider than 40 metres. What we discovered was that anything above 40 metres wide was not available in the UK and it had to be ordered from Europe. So initially, I went to see Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh and informed him of the predicament. He very simply instructed us to go to Germany.
And so, we immediately contacted the Germany Jalsa administration and they cooperated by providing contact with a company who they also used for their Jalsa. Alhamdolillah, that year we had very competitive price for a 50 metres wide marquee. I think it was 2001 so I was a bit worried initially because I had in my mind the juggernauts that come from Europe, bringing the stuff in on the tiny roads of Islamabad and the vicinity. So I spoke to the sales manager of a Dutch company, Neptunus, and invited him to visit Islamabad before going for the contract. He came, had a thorough look at the site and said that it would be no problem at all.
This Dutch company brought their structure from Holland and put it up for us in Islamabad and we experienced a very smooth Jalsa. On Sunday that same sales manager came back to Islamabad and he suggested that if we wanted to continue then we should have a contract through a British company. I think there was an arrangement that anything below 40 metres, the UK had to provide to Europe and anything above 40 metres, Europe had to provide to the UK. He said that if we went through that company, it would be easier for them administratively. I replied that we had no objection in doing so, provided they reduced the price. He replied that we would get the same price for three years. That was quite encouraging, so we then went through our company to them and we continued to use their services.
Then, in 2007 or 2008, we changed the company from Neptunus to De Boer, which is another Dutch company, but they have a slightly larger stock. De Boer is the company that does the Farnborough Air Show. That’s normally ahead of us so they bring the structure there and shift it to Hadiqatul Mahdi. And it becomes a competitive price as well.
We will be able to host Jalsa Salana in Hadiqatul Mahdi for a significant period of time in the future as we are only using a third of the land owned by us, but, bearing in mind the rapid growth of Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya UK, there will be a time when we will have to look for a bigger site.