Pakistan’s history is not just about ‘glorious Muslims’

Pakistanis should not let the state erase the country’s diverse, multi-religious heritage

ByAmmara Ahmad
Pakistan’s history is not just about ‘glorious Muslims’

March 23 is recognised as Pakistan Day because of the Lahore Resolution, although the resolution to seek a separate country for Muslims was adopted on March 24, 1940. March 23 is significant for another reason, which Pakistan and especially Lahore should recognise. This is the day on which freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was hanged in Lahore.

Every year on this day, tributes and accolades on Bhagat Singh fill English newspapers. Over the past few years, there has been a movement led by peace activists from Pakistan and India to rename the spot — now a roundabout — where the freedom fighter was hanged as Bhagat Singh Chowk. Currently, it is called Shadman Chowk.

However, Pakistan’s establishment has long been criticised for expunging non-Muslims from pre-Partition history, deforming facts and presenting the Pakistan movement as the Freedom movement. A distorted, hateful and Islamist discourse is replacing history, with a few offering resistance.

In 2012, District Coordination Officer (Lahore) Noorul Amin Mengal had directed the City District Government to rename Shadman Chowk as Bhagat Singh Chowk because this is where Singh was hanged as a result of the Lahore Conspiracy Case. The spot had carried his name till 1947. This has been a demand since 2001, but a religious organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, picked up the issue and opposed it on the grounds that Bhagat Singh was a non-Muslim. The government gave in. Yet the fact is that the culture of undivided Punjab was a very different one from that has been taking shape after 1947 and it would be a shame to forget names simply because they don’t fit a certain religious profile.

Pakistanis — particularly those who admire cities like Lahore, Multan, Taxila and Karachi — should understand that what they admire today represents the cumulative efforts of different communities and individuals over thousands of years, and not just those of “glorious Muslims”. Otherwise, a bunch of goons will always be available to destroy boards, steal statues and rampage through anniversary ceremonies.

Lahore’s heart

Despite Islamabad becoming the national capital after Partition, Lahore was the cultural heart of undivided Punjab. Indeed Lahore still retains this unique position with regards to Pakistani culture and Lahore owes a huge debt to two philanthropists. One is Sir Ganga Ram and the other is Dyal Singh.

Sir Ganga Ram was a civil engineer who established a hydroelectric plant near the town known as Sahiwal today. He built it at his own cost and eventually earned millions by irrigating the barren lands there. Sir Ganga Ram helped design and build some of Lahore’s most iconic buildings, including the Lahore Museum, Aitchison College, National College of Arts, Lady Maclagan Girls High School, the chemistry department of the Government College Lahore, the Ganga Ram Hospital and of course the Ganga Ram Trust Building on the Mall Road, where Amrita Sher-Gil once lived (along with many others). The charity hospital he established, Ganga Ram Hospital, has given hope to millions of poor people. Before Partition, there was a statue of his on the Mall Road in Lahore. It was destroyed by the mob during Partition riots and was never restored.

Dyal Singh Majithia was a banker, activist and philanthropist who was educated in the West and became a leading proponent of Western education in the subcontinent. Born into a wealthy family, he increased his wealth by investing in key properties in and around Lahore, eventually to donate the biggest chunk to Dyal Singh Trust Society that now runs the Dyal Singh College and the Dyal Singh Trust Library in Lahore — again thousands of youngsters have benefitted from his charity.

From charity to creativity — Bhai Ram Singh was the architect of much of what is known as modern Lahore (of the post-Mughal heritage). He designed most of the buildings that Sir Ganga Ram built. He was a star pupil of Rudyard Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, who started what is known as the National College of Arts today.

Artist Amrita Sher-Gil moved to Lahore in August 1941 and started living at flat Number 23 in the Sir Ganga Ram Mansion with her husband. In those days, she could see the Lahore High Court from her home. Her husband set up a clinic on the ground floor. Amrita established her studio in the barsati and worked there all day. She held her first exhibition in Lahore, in 1937 (and her second posthumously at the same venue in 1941). The only painting by Sher-Gil that hangs in Lahore Museum, which she visited often, is the Veena Player. The city that she chose as her home has not one memorial named after her and the house she lived in is in a poor shape.

The famed writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, known for his short stories and contributions to Urdu literature, was born in Lahore and started writing under the penname, Mohsin Lahori. He moved to India after Partition. Amrita Pritam too spent her formative years in Lahore. It was in Lahore that she started writing and publishing her work. She was an avid member of the city’s pre-Partition culturati, which used to gather at Khushwant Singh’s home fortnightly.

The cosmopolitanism of Lahore attracted clusters of poets and writers like Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Intizar Hussain, Ahmed Faraz and Saadat Hasan Manto after Partition, often from smaller cities. Many of these figures used to assemble in the India Tea House, which renamed as the Pak Tea House after Partition. Eventually, Lahore became a centre for Pakistan’s Progressive Writers Movement.

Two years ago, Saadat Hasan Manto’s house called the Manto Mansion near Lahore’s Mall Road was up for sale because his daughters — now quite old themselves — needed to settle the shares in the property. Despite the daughters appealing to the government repeatedly, there was no attempt convert this house, where Manto wrote some of his most famous short stories, into a heritage site. The city that he used to prowl for inspiration at night does not have a single landmark named after him. Not only is the state failing to acknowledge figures like Manto, but seemingly deliberately removing them from the public memory.

Pakistan’s absolutist public discourse

The exclusion from public discourse is not limited to non-Muslims in Pakistan, though they of course suffer disproportionately. Most Muslim leaders who did not support the Partition of India yet had immense historical significance have been forgotten and are never mentioned in Pakistani textbooks. This includes Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, who was once hailed as Sher-e-Punjab and had the honour of restoring Lahore’s iconic Badshahi Mosque. (He was buried right next to it, opposite the grave of Allama Iqbal.) But unlike Iqbal who endorsed the idea of Pakistan and receives countless enthusiasts every year, Sir Hayat’s is a solitary grave.

Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as Bacha Khan or the Gandhi of the Frontier, is another such example. A deeply revered figure because of his philosophy of non-violence in the northern areas, he is virtually unknown in other parts of Pakistan — particularly Punjab, which became the front-runner for protecting the ever-evolving (or rather degenerating) “ideology of Pakistan”.

Now that Lahore has a “Tourist Bus Service” and programmes to restore the old city and many heritage sites like the Shahi Hammam, it is perhaps also time for it to recognise its diverse, multi-religious and multi-ethnic heritage.

It is ironic that all of Pakistan’s official tributes and accolades on March 23 are restricted to the Resolution that was not even adopted that day, while forgetting the man who gave up his life for freedom (Bhagat Singh) and to whom Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself paid a tribute twice during his address in the national assembly.

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