Once upon a time...
By Khaled Ahmed
Acknowledged as the cultural capital of Pakistan, Lahore was long regarded as a tolerant city with a big heart. But the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team is the latest in a series of events that signal the beginning of the Talibanisation of Lahore. By Khaled Ahmed
The Sri Lankan cricket team playing in Lahore was attacked on March 3, injuring six team members and killing seven police personnel guarding the team. Twelve terrorists, riding rickshaws, surrounded the van bringing the Sri Lankans to Gaddafi Stadium and fired on it for 25 minutes and then made good their escape. They were armed with rockets, hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. The cricket series was called off and the shaken Sri Lankans went home.
This attack was one among many on Lahore and its culture. Recently, highly explosive crackers were placed near ice cream parlours to discourage men and women from sitting together. Then the crackers went off in front of Lahore’s theatres. Scores of English-medium co-educational schools and institutions were sent threatening messages saying bombs were planted inside their premises. Shops selling CDs on Lahore’s famous Hall Road were forced to make a bonfire of Indian films. The shopkeepers took the terrorists’ threats more seriously that they took the promise of security given by the state.
City with a heart
But things were different once. Lahore was known as a tolerant city with a big heart that set cultural trends. It published all the books and magazines that mattered in India and Burma. Jats and Rajputs belonging to Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities formed cross-communal “unionist” governments that disallowed entry into the province to both Congress and the Muslim League. It was a Mughal city with the pluralist stamp of Emperor Akbar who made Lahore the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1585 to 1598. The great Mughal king was here for 14 years.
Lahore is the city where the popular story of a quarrel between Akbar and his son Jahangir is said to have taken place and of course, Jahangir lies buried here as does his queen, Nur Jahan. The city also carries the mark of Shah Jahan, the great builder king. He built the most beautiful buildings in Lahore, then turned to Delhi and repeated the feat in Shahjahanabad. Aurangzeb turned eastward and the death of his brother Dara Shikoh sent Lahore into eclipse.
The tomb complex of Jahangir-Nur Jahan-Asaf Khan stands on one side of the city, Shalamar Gardens on the other. The tomb of Nadira Begum, the wife of Dara Shikoh is still popular with visitors as is the shrine of Mian Mir, the Muslim saint who laid the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Mian Mir is immortalised by Dara’s book on him. Another Nadira Begum was the courtesan Anarkali, whom Akbar presumably killed for seducing his son.
In her travel guide to Lahore, Pakistan’s well-known architect Yasmeen Lari writes that the city was founded by Lord Ram’s son Loh (or Luv) who gave the city his name. Alexander’s historians perhaps called it something else but that reference is missing. But it was after the 10th century AD that Lahore began its glorious journey. Malik Ayaz, a trusted aide of the great Muslim invader Mehmood Ghaznavi is supposed to have founded the city of Lahore after the Ghaznavid hordes defeated Hindu ruler Jaipal in 998 AD. The city gained in importance later as the capital of the conquered lands alternated between it and Delhi.
For north-western invaders, Lahore fell on the way to Delhi. It was ravaged many times till this routine gave it a character that set it apart from the rest of the cities of Punjab. It was tolerant to newcomers and amenable to their views if they were leveraged with coercion. But in the process, it acquired culture and an ability to adjust and assimilate.
Qutbuddin Aibak, famous for the Qutub Minar in Delhi, didn’t leave Lahore after he became king. One reason why he didn’t was the city’s rise to fame as the ‘Ghazni of India’ after the destruction of Ghazni in 1151 in what is now Afghanistan. Scholars and poets from as far away as Kashghar, Bokhara, Samarkand, Iraq, Khurasan and Herat, gathered in Lahore and made it a city of learning. Under Aibak, Lahore had more poets of Persian than any other Islamic city. The great mystic, Ali Hujviri Data Ganj Baksh, was already known as the spiritual father of the city. Poets like Masud Saad Salman had left behind a heritage of the written word, which was completed in Aibak’s time.
Heroes like Mir Mannu and Mughlani Begum who stood up for its honour were cruelly betrayed. As the Mughal power declined in Delhi around the mid-1700s, Mir Mannu rose to power and decided to resist the invaders. After he met his end, his wife Mughlani Begum tried to hold on to Punjab but she too was betrayed by her own court and the surrounding principalities. Honour didn’t pay off. What worked for Lahore was flexibility of character. That is the character that the tribesmen of the rest of Pakistan didn’t like about Lahore after 1947.
The Lahore of pre-Partition days still arouses nostalgia. Writers like Som Anand have relived pre-Partition Lahore in their books. Literary memoirs of the city call Lahore of the early 20th century a ‘bride of the cities’ where poets and grammarians consorted in an environment of great enlightenment. ‘Foreigners’ like Agha Hashr, Imtiaz Ali Taj (his ancestors had shifted after the 1857 Revolt of Delhi like the great prose-writing traveller Muhammad Hussain Azad), and Patras Bokhari made Lahore their permanent home; Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishan Chandar were ‘introduced’ by Maulana Salahuddin, the editor of Adabi Dunya. Allama Iqbal and Allama Mashriqi arose to fame here, so did Zafar Ali Khan; Faiz Ahmed Faiz came down from Sialkot and “grew up” in Government College in the company of Soofi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassam and MD Taseer who taught at Islamia College. Lahore was Sadaat Hasan Manto’s city too.
But today’s nostalgia belongs exclusively to the Hindus and Sikhs who migrated to Delhi in 1947 but never really took to the city. Khushwant Singh, who lived in Lahore as a lawyer-apprentice in the years leading to Partition, saw that Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived in ‘separation’ while there existed a small community of ‘floaters’—individuals who fraternised across the communal divide. The RSS, the Arya Samajis and Mahasabais of Lahore perpetuated inter-communal hatred. The other side was represented by the Ahrar and other Khilafatist religious organisations. It was the Muslim League whose separatism sowed the seeds of the communal riots that came after 1947. In this environment, the people who were truly innocent of all communal prejudice were the communists—Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims—bound together in humanity.
The story of the Englishwoman Freda Bedi and her communist husband BPL Bedi in Model Town is still remembered. Intellectuals of the city visited them often at their socialist utopia. Among them was the great poet of Shahnama Islam, Hafeez Jalundhari, writer of Pakistan’s national anthem. Freda Bedi was one of the three Englishwomen who made Lahore their home, the other two being two sisters—Bilqis Taseer and Alys Faiz. Freda Bedi’s son Kabir, born in Lahore, was to become a Hollywood and Bombay actor. Bilqis’s son Salmaan Taseer became the governor of Lahore. Faiz Ahmad Faiz was the great Urdu poet after Iqbal. This year his family endowed a Faiz Museum in Model Town.
Taliban’s lengthening shadow
The 1941 census had recorded 700,000 people in the city of Lahore out of which 240,000 were Hindus and Sikhs, who owned much of the city’s wealth. There were entire areas in the city, like Chuna Mandi and Shah Alami, which were non-Muslim. Today the city’s population stands at 8 million. Its culture is dead under the heel of Talibanisation. It is a city of extremes, dominated by extremist views of the world; above all, it is ground zero of Pakistan’s India-driven nationalism and hated by the smaller provinces for ignoring their identities.
In Europe of the Enlightenment, culture ousted religion. In Lahore, religion has ousted culture. As scholars of the right and left engage in vituperative debate over globalisation, Lahore has become Talibanised. It is now a city of intolerance. The only cultural activity it favours these days is eating. It is a form of nihilism that is the only weapon available to it against the al-Qaeda. Lahore is getting ready for a final assimilation with the Islamic order, force-fed by the al-Qaeda through its tribal zealots and the Punjabi jihadi militias that the state used in the past as ‘non-state’ elements against its neighbours.