Identity check

In South Asia on 21. November 2010 at 19:07

Pakistan is a state located in the historic border region between the ancient Persian and Indian empires. It is also a place where historical trade routes passed. Goods, folks, ideas and armies traveled through this region and enriched (or ruined) those who benefitted from trade and knowledge. The country is itself divided in two parts on each side of the mighty river Indus. The river, from where one of the oldest human civilizations was founded, from where the philosophy of Hinduism derived its name, a river which waters the thousands and thousands of acres of fertile Punjabi and Sindhi land to feed those living around it, have these days shown its wrath by breaching its shores and ruining the homes of many millions of people. Not forgetting those suffering from the recent floods we can analyze the cultural significance the river have had for the subcontinent and what It means for Pakistan’s search for a identity.

On the western shores of the Indus it is a dominant Persian influenced culture and language which is in practice. The two biggest ethnic groups Pashtuns and Baluchis both have more in common and identify themselves more closely to Central Asians and Persia (even claimed by some Jewish historians to be of the 12 lost tribes) than the Indian subcontinent. On the other side there is a dominant Indian influenced culture and language in practice. The Kashmiris, Punjabis and Sindhis all share a common history with and identification with the northern plains of Indian lands. Not to forget the smaller Dardic ethnicities which live around the early springs of the river in the Himalayas. The latter is a minority and have a shared identity with the Persian, Indian, Turko-Mongol and Chinese traditions and cultures.

With the call for a separate homeland for subcontinental Muslims by the All India Muslim League led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah it was argued that Indian Muslims had a different culture and were in fact a different people from their Hindu counterparts. Jinnah originally a great advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity and a popular member of Ghandis Congress party went out from this fold in the 20s due to the arrogance from Nehru camp and the lack of foresight from this camp on the communal issues which dominated the 30s and 40s. Did Jinnah change his attitude from being a unitarian figure to be a separatist because of Congress arrogance? Answer is No. Jinnah was an able politician and diplomat, but a even more revered lawyer, he knew that to have legitimacy to demand a separate homeland from British India he would need to make a strong case.  A separate homeland for Indian Muslims needed a base, which became the religion. It is believed by Irfan Husain a senior writer for Dawn, that Jinnah used the claim for a separate homeland in order to get more influence (a prime ministerial slot) in a future joint Congress-Muslim League led government in a united India. Even as late as the cabinet mission in 1946 it is believed that Jinnah kept Pakistan as a way of getting a separate electorate for Indian Muslims and that he would compromise for a union. Congress did not like the idea and a year later British left the subcontinent creating two new nations.

Now it has to be noted that Jinnah was from a multi religious society and family which had influence from this kind of India. He surely believed in a closer cultural link for Indian Muslims with the subcontinent but the political situation back then did not make it easy to not fight for a separate homeland. Some would also say that the creation of Pakistan was a working accident and that Jinnah himself could not prepare a constitution and a clean path for the young nation as he lived barely 12 months after the creation of Pakistan. Ardeshir Cowasjee, the grand old man of Karachi says that Jinnah had a genuine concern for a marginalized, previous strong Indian Muslims community and that he wanted to legitimize his claim for separate electorate which ended in a demand for a separate homeland.

With the sudden death of the architect, other politicians got the chance to put their influence on Pakistan’s constitutional future. Most of the leaders during the 50s and 60s were quite secular and had a British mentality when it came to constitution and governance. But army involvement made it difficult to make a working constitution and a sustainable democracy. The beef with India over Kashmir put also aside the ideological purpose on the creation of Pakistan. But until the bloody civil war in 1971 it was a firm administrative support for a land for Indian Muslims. With the independence of Bangladesh the purpose soon withered away, it might already did when a big chunk of Indian Muslims still lived in the Union of India after the partition of British India. Pakistan therefore became a state without a identity from its very birth.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a secularist and his successor the pietistic General Zia ul-Haq both emphasized the importance of Muslim events in the history of subcontinent while pushing aside the great diversity of Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh history as irrelevant and as an opponent in the history books. The juvenile Ummayad general Mohammad bin Qasim who in the early 8th century invaded present day Pakistan from its southern shores up to the region of Multan, is considered a national hero (and for some extreme nationalists the original founder of Pakistan). The Afghan and Turkic plunderers and invaders Mohammad of Ghor and Mahmud Ghazni were described as heroes. This and tons of other events were put higher than the local Sufi saints, heroes and events which actually gave the region more value than these invaders. The tendencies have been that Arab and Turk invaders were good, while local Indo-Aryan cultures were bad simply because of religion. Such have continued to influence young Pakistanis till date, and such have infused the society with hatred towards those who derive from the mainstream.

It should be noted that local culture and stories have survived, but are being marginalized from time to time. The great Basant event is celebrated in Punjab when the spring arrives and the farmer collects the first harvest, is almost dying out. The Muslim, Hindus and Sikh farmers would all celebrate this event by festive, songs and markets during and before colonial rule. The religious extreme clergy although consider it a Hindu and Sikh tradition and by a stronger religious control over the state apparatus in the 80s it became a part of manifestos of the conservative political parties to eliminate such “un-Islamic” practices. Such parties have had power in Punjab province since the 80s.

Punjab, the biggest province in Pakistan shares a lot of Sikh history which is of important value for the nation and for the Sikhs around the globe. The spiritual founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev, a great philosopher and humanist was born in Nankana Sahab, now a district in Punjab province which contains a Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship). Annually several thousand Sikhs from across the border and from the diaspora in Europe and The Americas visit the many holy sites in Pakistani Punjab as a pilgrimage. Not only should these places be of importance for the Sikhs, it should also once again be a part of the cultural significance of Punjabis (and Pakistanis) of any faith. Before Guru Nanak, a Muslim Sufi saint named Fariduddin Ganjshakar was highly revered in Punjab. He is by historians claimed to be the father of the Punjabi language. His poetry and thoughts are even compiled into the holy book of the Sikhs. As Fariduddin enjoyed high status among not only Muslims but Hindus and Sikhs as well so did Guru Nanak among the Hindus and Muslims, his first companion and lifelong friend was a Muslim by the name Bhai Mardana. Poets from these three faiths have always managed to end the hatred and violence in turbulent times and united the people with simple poetic reflections, which contain more than thousand spiritual words.

Abdullah Shah, better known as Bulleh Shah is one of those humanists who were frontrunners for interfaith dialogue. Bulleh Shah in his poetry not only shunned the wealthy clergy (from any religion), but also spoke of greater rights for women and for the end of the caste system. Back then, the Muslim clergy especially saw on Sufis as Bulleh Shah as challengers to their authority. They shunned him and even considered him to be deviant. Today the clergy is using the same mans lyrics and poems to conclude their own hour’s long speeches with simple but more valuable poetry by Shah. Pakistans conservative clergy do use some chosen verses from these great poets, but only in order to promote their own interests, and those are not necessary interfaith dialogue. For Pakistan’s lost identity, people like Shah, Nanak and Farid are of higher value, than a youngster Arab general who invaded Sindh to promote his uncles political powers in Damascus.

Neither Hindu nor Muslim,
Sacrificing pride, let us sit together.
Neither Sunni nor Shia,
Let us walk the road of peace.
We are neither hungry nor replete,
Neither naked nor covered up.
Neither weeping nor laughing,
Neither ruined nor settled,
We are not sinners or pure and virtuous,
What is sin and what is virtue, this I do not know.
Says Bulleh Shah, one who attaches his self with the lord.
Gives up both Hindu and Muslim.

-Bulleh Shah

As with the Sufis and ascetics, the tolerant Mughal emperors are put aside to highlight the less tolerant emperors of the same dynasty. Zahiruddin Babur, the descendent of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane invaded the Indian subcontinent from his ancestral home in Ferghana valley in Central Asia at the same time as Guru Nanak lived (Babur is even mentioned in Sikh holy book). After conquering India from the Afghan Lodi dynasty Babur’s will to his son Humayun was to integrate with the Indians so his dynasty do not end up being a foreign one as the previous were. Such happened and Humayuns son Akbar became one of the greatest ruler ever to rule the subcontinent. Jalaluddin Akbar is still loved by the moderate creed in Pakistan and India, while both the purist Muslims and revived Hindu nationalists look on him as a deviant and an enemy. Akbar married to local princesses and thereby connected more with the natives. He even tried to melt all the practicing religions into one called Din-e-Ilahi proclaiming himself of being God’s manifesto. Although his courtiers did not took these acts seriously, his tolerance were of great benefit for them. He would often engage different religions in debates and would have interfaith representation in the top slots of the imperial administration. Pakistan, in search for a hero from this period chose Aurangzeb. A tyrant who enforced special tax on non muslims who were majority among the subjects. The emperor even forbade Sufi practices as qawwali music and the Hindu bhakti movement (actually practiced by interfaith groups). Hindu temples were destroyed on political ground to subdue rebel movements. The intolerant policies towards Hindus and Sikhs by his (more moderate compared to Aurangzeb) predecessors Shah Jahan and Jahanghir led to many revolts throughout the Mughal empire. Aurangzeb thus became the last of the great Mughals and a emperor not that much grieved for by his subjects on his demise.

The modern Aurangzeb, General Zia ul-Haq made sure to highlight the intolerant emperors whiles the moderate ones were kept in shadow. It was important for Zia to show how religious one was and specially to be a purist as himself. Schoolbooks venerated Aurangzeb as a great and just emperor, while Sikh uprising led by the militarized Sikhs as Gurus Tegh Bahadur and Gobind Singh were criminalized. These Sikh armies were not fighting a Muslim ruler, rather they were joining hands with local Muslims and Hindus to fight the arrogance and intolerance from Delhi. In present day Pakistan some nationalists though portray Sikh and Hindu rebels to be an anti-Muslim movement. Despite the later Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh included former Mughal generals in his armies and even had officers from the Muslim Pathan tribes. In search for a identity, one can ask if not Ranjit Singh, Dara Shikoh (Aurangzeb’s tolerant brother) or Tegh Bahadur would be more relevant than Aurangzeb or his tyrant governors in Lahore.

The same case goes for the now war torn Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in the north western portions of Pakistan. A place where the Taliban insurgency have established two sovereign states, where the Americans now on daily basis bomb suspected targets in the tribal areas by UAV-planes controlled by pilots sitting safely across the globe in the US. A province torn between the radical Mullas who want to enforce their Sharia by promising speedy justice and a smaller moderate political elite who gets in touch with the public when election time comes near. This province fostered a great humanitarian and civil activist who is highly relevant to solve the Taliban problem once and for all. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan also known by his fellows as Bacha Khan or by Indian nationalists as the Frontier Ghandhi was born in the late 19th century and became almost hundred years of age. He spent half his life in jail, both British Indian and Pakistani ones. Khan tended to be a supporter of Ghandi and a united India just as Jinnah was in the 20s. While the British had cynically categorized the hundreds of ethnic groups in the empire as friendly, warrior, thieves, criminals and so on, they labeled the Pakhtuns/Pathans as warrior people and a people which did not fear death and was reluctant to change.

The British tried again and again to subdue the staunch Pathans but could not be able to disarm them. Even Winston Churchill as a young cadre was witness to the brutal British onslaught in the tribal areas. Bacha Khan on the other hand believed in a moderate Pathan, and he resolved to educate and “civilize” the Pathan by peaceful means. He would often go on long journeys by foot from his hometown in Charsadda (not far from Peshawar) to educate the people about the importance of schools and a non violent struggle against British. He soon established schools and a movement called Khudai Khidmatgar Movement, often called the Red Shirts (as the members wore red caps and shirts).British on the other hand wanted to provoke Pathans not to get one with Ghandis non violent struggle and put many hurdles for Bacha Khan. Without success as Bacha Khan managed to single handedly to tame the wild Pathan and open a new front in the British Indian Empire which screamed for self determination. History did not call for a united India and Bacha Khan were forced to accept Pakistan as a solution.

With increased popularity, Bacha Khan with leftist companions from all over the nation were convicted in fake trials and jailed several times. Even the socialist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto went against his co ideologists and allied himself with the islamists. Zulfiqar put among others Ajmal Khattak a great Pathan poet and member of Khudai Khidmatgar Movement and Wali Khan, the son of Bacha Khan on trial for allegedly being in collaboration with India. While this was not true, it is written in former president Ayub Khan’s diary that Bhutto until 1958 claimed to be an Indian, so he could get compensation from Delhi because he supposedly had to leave his property in India. Abdul Ghaffar Khan is a traitor in Pakistani books. For Pakistanis, the fierce Pathan and the “brave” and “pious” Mujahedeen (later Taliban) became a hero. Once again, it is time to check for the correct idol.

These examples, and hundreds and thousands of others are all waiting to be absorbed by the rusty federal departments to be a part of the national curriculum so youngsters gets real idols and heroes. And most importantly, so the aimless nation gets something to hold onto and be proud of it. It is to be noted that all of Pakistans provinces share one thing more in common through the centuries, that is interfaith tolerance and mutual benefit from trade. Last 50 years intolerance should not be allowed to destroy a centuries old tradition built along the Indus.

Pakistan is wandering these days with a constitution which says it’s an Islamic state despite Jinnah’s well known wishes for a secular state. The nation have a constitution which discriminates minorities by the draconian blasphemy laws, even though Jinnah himself addressed issues like caste, religion or creed for not being a business of the state. Even though Pakistan during the last 11 years have been ruled by a moderate and even secular leadership it has even failed to address the Hudood-ordinances from Zia’s period which discriminates half the nation’s population; the women. In such times, Bulleh Shahs tolerant poetry and Ghaffar Khans nonviolent struggle will help more than Aurangzeb’s ban on music or the idolization of Turk invaders simply because they were Muslims by faith.

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