LAHORE  - At an aastana in Shahdara, people huddle round a grave. Some of them recall how close they were to Naag Wali Sarkar, who had died about 20 years back. A woman, in her fifties, murmurs she had moments of intimacy with him and far from showing any sign of guilt, she visibly feel honoured in having that 'privilege'. She says that after she was plagued with a disease in her abdomen and after doctors had failed in curing her, she finally turned to Sarkar, who told her to take off her clothes so that he could cure it. Rumour has it that Sarkar who had died almost two decades ago is returning from heaven. Some say in his second coming, his appearance and face would be transformed. People in the vicinity reject him as a womanizer, though.

Unconditional acceptance to such unscrupulous elements remains the main reason why their business is still going on.

While there is no official figure, thousands of such faith healers, most commonly known as aamils, are found in almost every city. And when the package is all inclusive, it is hard to turn it down. Advertisements taken out in eveningers, walls, hoardings and even on some private TV channels are attractively flashed to reach the intended audience. Dada Bangali, who claims to be an expert of black-magic, can "help parents win over estranged children"; "bring the beloved on knees for the lover"; and reset floundering business" and what’s more in just 24 hours.

"Trust us to get rid of all your troubles: We do it in the name of God and 100 per cent free. Just dial ____", says another ad. Bangalan Aamna Bibi who has come from Bangladesh, can help you "get married to the person of your choice"; "enable you to conceive children"; and can break off a magic spell". And if she fails, she promises Rs5,00,000 in compensation.

With more and more rape cases of young girls being reported in the media, awareness might serve as the much-needed antidote. But since a decision to turn to a spirit-healer is a question of one's own inclination, there is very little the state or the authorities can do. All the more so when people associate faith-healers with God's messengers.

These decisions are subjective but the cost is tremendous.

Nabeela Sarwar, 28, is a nurse hailing from Uch Sharif who moved to Lahore after she was married to Javaid Saboor, a distant relative and an electrician by profession. The couple had been trying for a baby for many years. They had been to different doctors but of no avail. At last, they heard of Noori Saeen, a forty-year-old who had the power of working miracles. While the couple kept visiting his aastana every Thursday, one day he told Nabeela to come alone. As she gave him the fee, Saeen told her that her offering was not enough and that there was one more step that needed to be done. If she wanted a child, she should snuggle up into a blanket along with him as part of a ‘fertility treatment’, he told her. Nabeela refused but he forced her and raped her. Her husband went over to his aastana to confront him but found that he had packed up and gone.

Though there seem to be categories when it comes to the methodology, it would be naive to draw a line between any of them. Munawar Ali, another faith-healer based in Garhi Shahu who sees clients in his house, rejects being seen as an aamil.

"I'm only a spiritual person and help people in trouble," Munawar says. “You would not see any advert outside. I do not charge a fee. It is up to the people to donate whatever they feel like,” he says.

He also says although he does not practice black magic, others turn to it. "That is where the complications arise. Black magic entails a lot of risk not only for the aamil but also his client, if anything goes wrong in the process." he says.

"There are incantations which are read in the graveyard, sometimes with the blood of an animal to conjure up evil spirits so as to use them for whatever purpose he has in mind," he explains.

“I just recite certain Surahs of the Holy Quran given the nature of the problem,” he adds. This is despite the fact that his claims are no more different from those others of his ilk. People in the vicinity reject him as just another charlatan.

A beat policeman Muhammad Hussain at Garhi Shahu police station told The Nation that the business of aamils received a boost during the month of Ramazan. He told that a number of new healing centres opened up across the city because people associate Ramazan with a time for faith-healing.

“New centres have opened up in Ichra, Bhaati gate, Faisal Town and Shahdara and this time they are no more afraid of authorities. They have put up boards in the streets and markets, which indicate they are mushrooming.”

He told that their income may range from Rs50,000 to Rs300,000. He told that a few years back, Garhi Shahu used to be the hub of aamils but after a crackdown which led to many arrests and punishments, they vanished away. He pointed out dozens of places; all of them in the commercial area where Aamils had offices (Aastanas) and used to operate and which they had vacated to operate from underground.

Although after the operation in which five charlatans were arrested, others dispersed setting up secret offices around town. But now he says they are again out in the open for general public. Asked what role the police should be playing to control the affliction, the officer shrugs: "Do you think we can control them, when there is no specific law and worse when people themselves are willing to cross oceans to seek their help."

The catch is that these aamils can be apprehended under general law for forgery and fraud; no special law has been drafted to rein them in despite numerous cases of rape of young girls and beating people to death in order to exorcise them, explains Aleem Hussain, who is associated with Auqaf in Lahore.

He is of the view that acceptance for these elements come from society and unless it is stopped, they will continue to operate.