What Punjab can do and what it has never done

Ayaz Amir, Friday, May 31, 2013
From Print Edition

Islamabad diary

Mystics and divines, poets and singers, men of enterprise and of daring, of quality and base instinct, the best dancing girls in the entire sub-continent, Punjab has given birth to them all. What, through some quirk of geography or history, it has never been able to produce is the able ruler.

Except of course for a single exception: for over 2000 years, from Alexander’s invasion to the Partition of British India in 1947, only one ruler of ability and distinction in its turbulent history, the great Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Apart from him, governors and vassals in plenty but no independent ruler, principally because Punjab was never an independent kingdom except when Ranjit Singh raised it to that status.

Afghan kings, kings of Turkish origin, Mughal emperors but only one Punjabi king. So while Punjab had other strong traditions, in agriculture, music, poetry, dancing, and, I daresay, the sycophantic arts which come so readily to subjugated people, the one tradition its superior classes lacked was that of leadership.

They knew best how to scrape and bow before authority. They were good at carrying out orders. But in 1947 history placed upon their shoulders the task of creating a nation and giving that nation a sense of direction. And they were not up to it, because nothing in their past had prepared them for this. True, Punjab’s elite classes, in alliance with the Urdu-speaking elites who had crossed over from India, managed to create order out of the chaos of Partition, a remarkable feat in itself. A country was thus born but something else as important proved elusive: the quest for nationhood.

Small wonder, misgiving arose from the very start, not everyone feeling that they were equal citizens of the new state, certainly not the people of East Pakistan who despite being in a majority felt excluded from decision-making. Baloch nationalists were unhappy, Pakhtun nationalists aggrieved, they who had been in the forefront of the struggle against the British. And winds of religiosity beat down upon the land, making what were still called minorities uneasy.

Jinnah had said that religion had no place in politics, the gist of his famous address to the Constituent Assembly just a few days before independence. But here something else was happening, religious rhetoric becoming more powerful even as political and economic performance lagged far behind.

Paranoia as regards India, an insecurity which sought relief in military alliances with the United States, an obsession with religious chest-thumping, truly bizarre in a Muslim majority country where Islam should have been the last thing in danger, or the least in need of artificial props – of such humours was concocted the doctrine that came to be hailed, and indeed flaunted, as the ideology of Pakistan.

The Baloch had no fear of India. For them Kashmir was a distant proposition. In Sindh where there was a large Hindu population, the people had no problem with India or Hinduism. Neither did the Pakhtuns have any mental problems with India, despite being very religious in their everyday outlook. In the tribal areas and in places like Swat there were Sikh and Hindu communities which felt safe and co-existed happily with their Muslim neighbours.

But it was altogether different with the official Punjabi mind and that of the Urdu-speaking elites where flourished the demons of fear and insecurity, more as a political tactic than a psychological necessity because it was a good way to keep the rest of the population in line. And because these classes dominated the upper echelons of the armed forces, the ethos of the services came also to be imbued by the same fears and compulsions.

Paradoxically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who should have been the most enlightened man of his generation fanned the flames of this anti-Indianism more than anyone else, perhaps calculating (although there can be other theories on this score) that beating the anti-India drum would best appeal to the Punjab masses. But when the wheel came full circle the movement against him in 1977 received its most powerful impetus in Punjab, and it was the Punjab bazaar and trading classes which bayed the loudest for his blood.

When Gen Zia went looking for allies against Bhutto he found the fiercest in Punjab. When President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the ISI sought to contain Benazir Bhutto in her first prime ministership they groomed a champion in the form of one Mian Nawaz Sharif, a scion of Punjab. The fateful enterprises promoted in the name of ‘jihad’ found some of their first votaries and loudest advocates in Punjab.

Land of the five rivers – what hast thou not wrought? From thy bosom arising Guru Nanak and Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain and Waris Shah, Iqbal and Faiz and Munir Niazi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Kundan Lal Saigal, Rafi and Noor Jahan, not to forget the great Sir Ganga Ram who had no equal when it came to giving, and Shaheed Bhagat Singh and his companions who had no equals when it came to laying down their lives in the cause of freedom. At the same time, land of our fathers, home to so much nonsense at the altar of faith and righteousness.

Pakistan today is largely what Punjab, for good or ill, has made it. Indian Punjab is a small part of India. Pakistani Punjab encompasses the best and worst of Pakistan. The social conservatism on display in our midst, the mental backwardness, the narrowness of outlook, the triumph of hypocrisy, the destruction of national education, the muddling up of national priorities, the temples erected to the false gods of national security – so much of this, alas, can be traced to the incapacities of Punjab.

Perhaps Ranjit Singh was an aberration, a historic anomaly – out of the mould and thus one of a kind.

Our Punjab certainly has nothing in common with his kingdom. In his army found service men of all races and religions. There were Mussalman battalions in his army and his head of artillery was Mian Ghausa, just as his principal wazir was from the Faqirkhana family of Lahore. And his favourite wife was a Muslim, Bibi Gulbahar Begam.

The PML-N has been in power in Islamabad twice before but in different circumstances, Nawaz Sharif not quite his own man in his first incarnation and, despite his huge majority, an unsure man in his second. He now comes as someone who has seen and experienced a great deal. So can he make a difference? Disavowing his past, does he have it in him to write a fresh history of Punjab?

Another thing to remember about the Lion of Punjab (the only lion, others all fake and imitations) is that he knew how to handle his Afghan problem. He defeated the Afghans and took Peshawar from them. Peshawar was part of the Sikh dominions annexed by the British. So if Peshawar and its environs are a part of Pakistan today it is because of that earlier Sikh conquest, half-forgotten in the mists of time. As Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan go prattling about talking to the Taliban they could do worse than study the Maharajah’s approach to the Afghans.

So can we get our historical compasses right? For over 2000 years on the soil of what is Pakistan today no independent realm or kingdom existed except two: the kingdom of Lahore and the state of Pakistan. The first was a success, a well-run entity, at least as long as the Maharajah was alive; the second is the shambles that we have made over the last 65 years.

Now there comes an opportunity to redeem our past. Question is, can the new rulers of Pakistan be half as good as their most illustrious predecessor, the one and only King of Punjab?

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