Archive for the ‘Contemporary Pakistan’ Category

Imran Khan’s Interview on CNN by Christian Amanpour

In his book ‘The First Afghan War 1838-1842’, J.A Norris quoted one of the relevant descriptions of the Afghan character. The quote from the Asiatic Journal states that the Afghans “are neither irritable nor implacable, but retain a long remembrance of injuries not retaliated: revenge is esteemed a duty.”  Norris emphasized that “we should remember this in all that we read about the First Afghan War.” There were two more Anglo-Afghan wars, a decade long Soviet occupation and now we are at the tail end of yet another inconclusive war between the Afghans and the NATO forces.  How much did the western world care to remember what Norris and many others had advised?

Most of the Afghans are ethnically Pashtuns or Pakhtuns. Apart from Afghanistan a large number of them live in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and even larger numbers live in the Federal Administered Tribal Area (FATA) a semi-independent region between the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. When it comes to foreign interventions, Pashtuns and non-Pashtun tribes of the region fiercely resist their enemy. But why is revenge their most powerful weapon to date? Part of the answer comes from their history, which is yet another avenue neglected by military and political strategists.

Since centuries the region is known to be a world where even tribal and family quarrels can easily turn into blood feuds giving birth to endless cycles of revenge.  Revenge is therefore, ingrained in Pashtunwali  (literally, the way of Pashtun), the unwritten moral and social code that predates Islam. The code has evolved through the centuries hence historical currents, along with socio-cultural forces, have gone in the shaping and making of the Pashtunwali.  Each new invasion and occupation, beginning from the Achaemenid kings of the Persian Empire to Alexander the Great and from the Moghuls and Nadir Shah of Iran to Runjeet Singh of Punjab, had only sharpened the vindictive instincts of a people who value independence above all.  So it is logical for revenge to replay its role with more vigor in the present Great Game between the new contenders. Each drone attack gives a new life to the resolve of revenge against the US army, and the bloodshed continues. Is there a way to put an end to the cycle of revenge?

Law of revenge – an eye for an eye – is engraved on Hammurabi’s code. It may have existed as a convention even earlier but so has the desire to erase it. There are only bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence scattered in mythology, folklore and literature to support the existence of such a desire. Greek trilogy Oresteia tells us that Goddess Athena succeeded in replacing it by law of mercy. In recent past Truth and Reconciliation Councils have been advocating forgiveness to resolve conflicts.  Imran Khan’s peace march to demonsterate solidarity with the drone victims by all means is the beginning of a process which might lead to the ending of drone attacks and the chain of revenge.  His march is also a reminder that Pashtunwali has another potent component- hospitality.  That is why even in the days of deadly drone attacks peace is not altogether disregarded. The elders of the tribes had welcomed the march, Americans refrained from bombing, the Talibans promised a safe passage; decades of war must have worked a change in their thinking. Khan’s mission was to draw world attention towards the heavy ‘collateral damage’ of civilian killings caused in Waziristan by American drone attacks. An investigative report prepared jointly by Stanford and New York Universities has already revealed harrowing accounts of the victims and  recommended a serious re-evaluation of current policy of target killings by drones. Participation of CodePinkLauren Booth  and Clive Smith  in the march is symbolic of the fact that American, British and Western people are equally against civilian killings.

Now that the United States is already in the process of withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan it is time to sit around the table and plan future relations. This calls for some degree of mutual trust between the participants – Americans, officials from Afghanistan and the Pakistan governments and  representatives of different tribes and militant groups. Once again we need to turn the pages of history to see how receptive Pashtunland is to peace. Surprisingly, non-violent religions Jainism and Buddhism had lasted here for centuries under the Mauryan and Kushan dynasties.

The fact that the largest Buddha images in the world are carved in the mountain walls of Bamiyan, that Buddha came to be represented in human form under the Kushans and that the most beautiful specimens of Buddhist art were sculpted in the Gandhara region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, proves that peace must have lasted long enough for all these accomplishments. History mostly highlights the mountain passes, large enough for armies to enter and exit, but again if one cares to look into its margins it shows the Silk Road that merchants frequented to barter their goods, exchange culture and enjoy exotic stories. So there is more in the region  than mere revenge and bloodshed. Today there are graveled roads waiting to welcome any messenger of peace and there are institutions, experienced in conflict resolution, ready to assist. Conflicts between tribes are solved by Jirga which is a body composed of the elders of the tribes who draw their authority from the people. Perhaps these can help in reconciliation, already there is a thinking that the institution of Jirga should be allowed a role in the present governance of Afghanistan. Why can’t it play its role in the global conflict that involves its people?

It’s about time global makes room for local in the process of peace. It is also expected of representatives of the tribal world to move a step forward and follow certain global norms and who can be the most effective representative of the region than Khan. Hailing from the Burki tribe, long settled in Punjab, he has returned to his ancestral troubled region of Waziristan to nurse its wounds. He has already written a travel book on the region and  he now plans to demonstrate against the drone policy in front of the United Nations. Though Khan was barred from marching in Waziristan but he has shown the road that leads there. Hopefully, the World will see the troubled region beyond the blazing images of drone attacks and will register the positives of the tribal society. Women are inconspicuous in that society which is a shame but there are seeds of democracy.  Jirga, at the moment addresses the grievance of each individual involved. Pashtunwali looms large over these indigenous courtrooms, it stresses on community consensus and expects decisions to be unanimous.  The system goes beyond the western concept of democracy.  To explain this I can only borrow the words of Nelson Mandela – the words he used while describing the tribal system of justice practiced in his native land:

“Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.”

Hopefully women in this part of the world will rise above the status of minority.

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The recent violence in Karachi and the rest of the country reminds me of an alarming day in November 2007.

The General had declared a state of emergency in the country. There could have been a coup to oust him; a counter coup could have followed to restore him. People feared more bomb blasts, even a nuclear holocaust. I and my husband were cutting short our trip and driving down Drigh Road to the airport to leave for New York.

Memories of Drigh Road came rushing to me, competing with its traffic chaos. General Ayub Khan, Chou En Lai, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jacqueline Kennedy appeared in a flash as I passed by Gora Qabiristan. Somewhere close to it, waiting with the school children to welcome foreign dignitaries, I too had waved at them. Soon we reached the Embassy Inn.  There used to be a driving school where its building stands now.  As a teenager I had secretly enrolled myself for driving lessons. During those days my greatest fear was running into the car of my eldest brother against whose wishes I was learning to drive. How the dangers have multiplied.

On the morning of May 12, 2007 after a few hours of sleep, Nicholas Schmidle, a young American writer, had walked onto the roof of the Embassy Inn to have a look down over the city. Two years later he described in his book what he saw of Drigh Road, “The main road connecting the downtown area to the airport was empty… Gas stations had switched off the pumps and closed so that rioters couldn’t burn them down. Convenience stores, office buildings, and even the lobby of the Embassy Inn had draped thick curtains over the windows to prevent bricks from crashing through.” What Schmidle saw was just the beginning of trouble.

May 12 was a day of public and political unrest. A few months earlier, in March 2007, the government of General Pervez Musharraf had suspended the Chief Justice, Chaudhary Iftikhar. This had caused great resentment in the public and a countrywide Lawyer’s Movement was launched to restore the Chief Justice. The movement was gaining momentum and thousands were expected to welcome the Justice as he was scheduled to visit the city. Musharraf and his partners feared this massive crowd and hence the resistance which resulted in many deaths of the citizens. By November, things were out of control and Musharraf was left with no choice but to impose the Emergency to suppress the protests.

Thus it was ironic in those hostile moments to spot, out of all the places, the Friendship House. Located across from the Embassy Inn, during its heyday in the Cold War years, it was the House where friends of the Soviet Union were welcomed. It was also a great source of books on Russian writing, especially the Marxist-Leninist literature. Russian movies shown in its lawn were a great attraction for the intellectual class of Karachi. I remember the advertisement for a film called ‘Cranes are Flying’.

One evening I saw Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the well-known poet and his wife Alice standing at the gate of the Friendship House and receiving guests. Faiz was a recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize and I suppose an honorable member of the House. In a minute’s drive, we passed by the intersection of Shahrah-e-Quaideen and I looked for the P.E.C.H.S College from where I had graduated, it was no more visible. Once again Faiz appeared in my memory, walking in the corridors of the College. He was a regular visitor there, as Alice was an English teacher at the College. Across from the College was Khayyam Cinema that, on occasion, held students’ shows. It was at Khayyam where I saw Sophia Loren and William Holden in ‘The Key.’ I was too young to enjoy the movie but old enough to fall in love with Sophia Loren. Khayyam is no more there; the new building with the same name is now huddled with shops and offices, the roads around it crowded with trucks, taxis, and rickshaws.

At one point beyond the airport, Drigh Road converts to the highway that leads to Hyderabad and Mirpur Khas and my village, some 250 miles away from Karachi. Ah, those long journeys in the good old days when going to the village during each summer and winter vacation was a joyous occasion. Today, even reaching the airport was a punishing journey. I was tense, and so was the city. The car slowed down as we passed by Karsaz. “This is the site of the bomb blasts,” our driver informed us. It was only a month ago – a 139 people were killed and many more were injured.  Benazir was one of the survivors.

At a little distance from Karsaz is the Pakistan Air Force base, or PAF as it is commonly referred to. In its previous life, it was the RAF, or the Royal Air Force of British India. In 1927 when T.E. Lawrence worked in its Engine Repair Shop he found the environs dreary. “It is a desert, very like Arabia,” he complained in a letter. He was constantly reminded of what he was trying to erase from his memory. And yet this is where Lawrence the archaeologist, more known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ from David Lean’s epic film, had come to change his career. He had chosen to be an ordinary airman, a quieter career, to help run away from his fame. In the evenings he would go out to listen to the music of camel bells along Drigh Road, but that would bring back even more memories.

Automobiles have replaced the camels since long. The road itself has gone through many changes including its name. It is now called Shahrah-e-Faisal, and the PAF base is PAF Faisal – both named after Shah Faisal of Saudi Arabia. I am still used to calling it Drigh Road, its original  name and I am not the only one. Its traffic through the years has increased; its chaos has killed many people, and the dangers are multiplying. I dreaded a traffic jam, a sudden blockade of the road, the stoning and burning of the cars by angry protestors. What if we missed the flight, or worse yet, if the airport was closed and the flights cancelled. Our son and daughter made a frantic call from New York to check if we had made it to the airport. “We are almost there,” I lied.

Miraculously we did reach the airport and in another two hours, from the window of the airplane, I was gazing down at Pakistan’s troubled land. The view below was changing fast. The buildings were shrinking and the roads narrowed. On one side of the city huge clouds of black smoke floated.

But I had already drifted from the enflamed city. Writing notes for my article on Moen jo Daro, had taken me to the serene pastures of the past, when the land below bloomed with good harvest. The River running through the land had given birth to the largest civilization of the ancient world. It was also the most peaceful of civilizations, having lasted for seven centuries without a single war. The ruins of the 5000 year old metropolis have not revealed any military barracks, any prisons, or any weapons.

The story of Pakistan begins with the birth of that civilization.  But where will this narrative end? I still hope for the Karachi that Sir Charles Napier had hoped for on his departure from Karachi: “Thou shalt be the Glory of the East, would that happen I could come again to see you, Kurrachee, in your grandeur.”

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Rimsha Masih, an 11 year old Christian girl has been arrested on blasphemy charges. According to some reports, she is suffering from Down syndrome and is a minor, between the age of 11 and 16. Even if she is 18, it is laughable. Isn’t the law supposed to consider the maturity level of the accused? Even in criminal trials, the insanity defense has a place. At least in such cases where it is so easy to distinguish between maliciously framed charges and genuine, a speedy justice should be allowed to save the anguish of the innocent.

I am reminded of a Proclamation of Sir Charles Napier wherein he warned the men against killing their women in the name of honor. Those who violated will be lynched, he threatened, and that’s when the killings stopped. Proclamation was issued in 1844, a year after he had conquered Sindh. Such drastic measures, however cannot be expected in today’s explosive Pakistan. Salman Taseer, the powerful Governor of Punjab and Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister in Pakistan’s cabinet were assassinated just because they protested against the death sentence of a Christian woman charged with blasphemy. The woman still survives in prison. And languishing in another prison – the notorious Adiyala Jail – is Rimsha. The killer of Salman Taseer is also imprisoned in Adiyala.  Officials claim the girl has been kept in custody for her own security; one hopes that is true. However, there is some hope in the twist of fate that has lead the the cleric to custody. He is the mullah who had been inciting the neighborhood against the girl, ironically he has been charged with blasphemy. According to a witness, he had tampered with the evidence and added pages of Koran to make his case stronger. If this had happened in ancient times, people would have considered it God’s intervention to save the girl, there would have been no further proceedings. But here we have to wait and see what the man-made law has to say.

Persecution of minorities has been on the rise since the birth of militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, It is now taking a bizarre turn as Muslim minorities are being targeted. Since September 2011, there has been a chain of Shia killings in Balochistan and Northern areas.  In the latest incident, 21 Shias have been killed in Gilget-Baltistan. After the Shias, who is next on the hit-list?

Growing up in Sindh, Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan province had been a blessing for me, but visiting it after 17 long years in 2007 had been a nightmare. Let me begin with Karachi. Orhan Pamuk says his city, Istanbul, is drenched in Huzun, melancholy. I would say my city is haunted by macabre. Did it devour the minorities? Where are the Goans and the Anglo-Indians who walked on the streets of Saddar; the girls in dresses fluffed with can cans; teddy boys occasionally wearing tuxedos – they were the pioneers of rock bands. Christian men were doctors, teachers,clerks and railway and radio employees; their women worked as stenos, teachers, governesses and nurses, a few of them were doctors. In those days some of them looked as beautiful as Ava Gardner in ‘Bhowany Junction’ and many of them dressed as Ava. Even as a little girl, I knew it was the Christian community crowded around Capitol Cinema during the days when Ben-Hur was released. And what about the Parsi women in their colorfully bordered sarees worn in a distinct style strolling at the Old Clifton and shopping at Fashion Arcade and Ghulam Mohammad Bros on Elphinstone Street, now appropriately named Zaib-un-Nissa Street after Pakistan’s first woman editor who published Mirror and daringly wrote against martial law. I also remember an evening spotting my Burmese professor on Clifton road. Slim and effeminate, almost an Aung San Suu Kyi, she was in her signature lungi and blouse. I can even recall the colors, peach and cream, and I am sure she had a matching fresh flower pinned in her hair. Yes, there is still an Anglo-Burmese community in Karachi but like many other small communities it is invisible.

Rural Sindh is even more mottled. The Hindu community’s sub-divisions were distinguished by the colors and prints of the ghaghras, cholis and chunris that women wore. Upper and middle class ladies followed the trendiest fashion of the day. Hindus in Sindh are not divided by caste but by occupations -blacksmiths, shop keepers, shoemakers, sharecroppers and landlords; in the cities some of them owned ginning factories and cinema houses. One of them, from Omarkot, was Rana Chandra Singh, the member of the Sindh Assembly. Hindus in Sindh lived in harmony with each other and with the Muslim community. After Partition, most of them preferred to stay back in Pakistan. Today Sindh has the largest Hindu population of Pakistan and most of them are concentrated in my home district Tharparkar.

Sindh has not only sheltered its pre-Islamic population but even some of the pre-historic specimens. Tribes like shikaris (hunters) still live under its sky.  “The Shikari is neither Moslems nor Hindoos” writes the well-known orientalist Richard Burton in his Sindh and the Races that inhabit the Valley of the Indus. “They are very numerous about Omerkot and the Thurr, where they subsist by manual labour, agriculture and hunting. In these regions there is something remarkably wild and savage in their appearance.” The last I saw shikaris was in 1990. Oud is yet another ancient tribe, the survival of Oudki language in lower Sindh is similar to the survival of Brohi in pockets of Balochistan and Afghanistan, but as a specimen of Dravidian, it’s not as popular as Brohi is with the linguists and anthropologists.

During a visit to my ancestral village in 2007 I observed the younger generation of Oud women had discarded their traditional dress. “The bus driver will not allow us to board,” they told me. They were shy to speak Oudki, they had been mocked enough for speaking it. This is just another way a minority looses its distinct identity, through time and through social change, and this cannot be helped. Loosing minorities, nonetheless is loosing a part of our heritage and a part of the heterogeneous character of Pakistan. Much before its birth many races and religions had already merged on its land-Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians, Afghans,Turks, Buddhists and Jains. Not a single Jain now lives in Pakistan, you can meet them only on the pages of gazetteers and you can feel the aura of their non-violent spirit in their abandoned temples in Nagar Parkar. What was once a majority is not even a minority now. We must remember, what we call minorities today, their ancestors have lived and died here, their bones mingled with the soil on every inch of Pakistan.  Let’s not sift the dust and let’s not loose whoever is living now. Pakistan is still blessed with a variety of cultural, ethnic and linguistic groups  Step out of Sindh and you will come across many more. Recently in news were the Kalash, another endangered community.

The most encouraging fact in this grim situation is that the majority of Pakistanis, even the most religious Pakistanis, have a secular attitude. Imran Khan, Chairman, Tehreek-e-insaf, has been bold enough to ask the Supreme Court to take a suo motu notice of Shia killings. There is a group of lawyers who has filed the petition for the restoration of a Jain temple in Lahore and there are many more who are holding demonstrations in support of Rimsha. According to her lawyer she may be released on Friday (tomorrow). This should happen; the longer she stays in captivity the deeper will be the scars of the horrifying experience.

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Earth – Film. Dir. Deepa Mehta

“Few years after the Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan that they should divide their lunatics too in the way they had divided their other assets.  Hence the Hindu lunatics in Pakistani mental asylums were to be delivered to India and the Muslim lunatics in Indian asylums were to be transported to Pakistan.” These are the opening lines of “Toba Tek Singh,” written by Saadat Hasan Manto, the internationally known Urdu short story writer.  Manto, after his migration to Pakistan had even wondered whether his literary contributions belonged to India or Pakistan. (Today on Pakistan’s 65th birthday, Manto has been posthumously awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, the country’s highest civilian award).

“Azadi,” an English novel by Chaman Nahal opens in a middle class neighborhood of Sialkot.   It was June 3, 1947 and few families had gathered around a radio to hear the announcement of Partition.  And when Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy of India, makes the announcement in his sharp clipped accent, none of them understand his language but they feel ‘betrayed.’

Although exchange of population was not planned the communal riots such as the one in Nahal’s Sialkot started to erupt and forced  people to migrate to the countries of their respective religions.  More than ten million people moved in and out of the two countries, one million were killed,75000 women were dishonored and abducted and trainloads of dead bodies were exchanged.  One train with Muslim passengers was saved, ironically at the instigation of a corrupt Hindu bureaucrat and a Sikh prisoner, in Khushwant Singh’s novel “Train to Pakistan.”

Apart from Hindus and Muslims, Sikh community too migrated from Pakistan in large numbers, specially from the Punjab area.  And then there were other minorities, Christians and Parsis who were not affected directly but they could not remain insensitive to the carnage around them.  Bapsi Sidhwa was an eight year old Parsi girl, living in Lahore during Partition.  Many years later she wrote her novel “Ice Candy Man” based on her memories of Partition.  It was published as “Cracking India” in United States and was adapted by Deepa Mehta for her film “Earth.” If you want to see horrors of insanity during Partition and Aamir Khan in one of his best and unusual roles you should watch “Earth.”

Most of the Indians and Pakistanis know Partition through history text books and official records, but  the untold pain that millions of men and women were subjected to has come to them, in bits and pieces, through literature and films.  It has also come to them through many stories of victims and witnesses floating around them.  After the 50th anniversary of India’s independence and birth of Pakistan there have been some attempts to record such stories.  And truth can be more dramatic than fiction as these indeed have added passion to the cold facts collected in the official records. Wary of the statistics and the political chronicles of Partition, Historian K. K. Aziz had already asked “Where are the people? There is no social history.” Perhaps the answer can now be seeked in books such as “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India”(Duke University Press, 2000) by Urvashi Butalia and “The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan” (Yale Univeristy Press, 2007) by Yasmin Khan. Both focus on human tragedy and not on the bickerings of the politicians.  Hence both highlight smaller players, the ordinary people who had been sidelined in history.  On the Pakistani side oral history is also being preserved through exhibitions and videos by Citizens’ Archives, a multi-faceted organization initiated by a younger generation of Pakistanis.  Hopefully, this will turn into yet  another source where one could locate the records of ordinary people who played their roles in the big event.

Although this non-fiction material will be helpful in the greater understanding of the human component of Partition history.  But Pakistan is already 65 years old and is on the center stage of global politics.  Its story has moved forward and many tragedies have piled on the primordial tragedy of Partition-separation of East Pakistan, wars with India, military coups, execution and assassination of its elected prime ministers and its ongoing war on terrorism.  Each episode can be written with the blood of hundreds and thousands of innocent citizens but I am not suggesting to stitch together the smaller stories of the lives lost in order to tell the larger story of Pakistan, may their souls rest in peace.  However, as the World has come to know Pakistan through day-to-day reporting on its political, diplomatic and military fronts and have won many notorious titles- a failed state, a flawed state, a dysfunctional state, the most dangerous country in the world- I can only hope that some writer resolves to highlight some of its virtues as well.   After all  Greg Mortenson discovered a profound hospitality in its villages at the foot of K2.  Certainly there is a Pakistan that exists beyond the blazing images of suicide bombings, the story of that Pakistan needs to be told. So far experts may have well-studied the state of Pakistan but the nuances of its society are least understood and it does not require a nobel laureate to narrate those.  In fact when Sir V.S. Naipaul was served a cup of tea in Pakistan he complained of it being cold, served by a dirty servant in a stained cup. But Mortenson found Pakistan’s ‘three cups of tea’ worth to crown his story.  So that is yet another issue, so much depends on who tells the story!

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To compare the recent reopening of the Afghanistan route to the  US/NATO traffic with an event preceding the First Anglo-Afghan war sounds so hackneyed.  In its simplest sense it may be a repetition of history, a déjà vu; in a serious sense it may offer a lesson from history.  It is difficult to trace any particular similarities between the two episodes but surely the first time opening of the Indus route to the West was akin to letting in the ‘Trojan Horse’ and now Pakistan’s reluctant consent to re-open reminds me of Virgil’s quote “I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”

This time it was the magic word ‘sorry’ from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that finally convinced Pakistan to agree on opening the road.  In the past it took the scheming of a grand  but ‘highly objectionable’ strategy, as termed by Charles Metcalfe, who later explored Baluchistan.  However, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating spy dramas, rarely had I read the details of a story with such fascination. It began in the year 1830 when a ship arrived at Bombay, with a gift of five dray horses from the King of Great Britain to Maharaja Runjeet Singh, the Sikh ruler of Punjab.  The gift needed to be transported by River Indus by Alexander Burnes, who at that time held a political position in Kutch, the only territory of the British dominions in India that touched the Indus region.

Burnes’ mission was actually part of a larger plan that was prepared in response to the growing Russian influence in Central Asia since the beginning of nineteenth century.  In 1801 Russian hegemony began with the taking over of Georgia from Persia (Iran); by 1825 it succeeded in converting Ottoman Turkey into a submissive ally.  Britain’s ancient phobia that it might cross Hindukush-the dividing line between Central and West Asia-and occupy Afghanistan was revived.  There was yet another fear, expressed best in the words of Lord Ellenborough, that Russia might “secure Persia as a road to Indus.”

Lord Edward Law Ellenborough, the President of the Board of Control of the East India Company, shared his fears with Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington and Prime Minister of Britain.  The Wellington government was already drifting towards unpopularity, due to its failure to defend the Greek cause against the Turks and making matters favorable for the Russians.  Ellenborough thus found no difficulty in convincing the Prime Minister and later the Court of Directors of the East India Company that Russian influence should be countered by marketing British merchandize in Central Asian markets. The shortest and the easiest route to those markets was through the Indus as it is now for the US and NATO supplies commuting  from Karachi to Kabul and Kandahar.

Indus traverses through Sindh, Bahawalpur and Punjab, of these three kingdoms Punjab was already on friendly terms with Britain,  Bahawalpur was not considered a problem, but Sindh seemed almost impenetrable. Its rulers had been following an isolationist policy, and fearing an outright denial to the British proposal, authorities in London decided to go disguised to prepare the initial report on the navigability of the Indus.  Information on the Indus region was essential to launch trade in Central Asia and much of the success of the plan depended on the skills of the escort of the horses hence the flamboyant Alexander Burnes was just the right choice. He was already familiar with the terrain of lower Sindh adjoining Kutch. He had served as an interpreter of the British officers in their dealings with the robbers of Tharparkar and had drafted a map of the Thar Desert.  With much  difficulty and delay, Burnes was finally allowed a meeting with Mir Murad Ali Talpur, the ruler of Sindh.  To his surprise he was received warmly and permission to sail through Indus was granted “His Highness addressed me by name; said I was his friend… as my brother had cured him of a dangerous disease.”  Burnes wrote in his travelogue “A Voyage on the The Indus.”

Burnes’ mission was accomplished; he delivered the horses to the Maharaja and proceeded to Kashmir.  His report on the Indus region was tempting enough, amongst the many resources of the land he had also described the display of Koh-i-Noor at the court of Lahore.  In 1832, Britain succeeded to get treaties to navigate Indus signed by the three kingdoms and the road to Afghanistan was eventually used for transporting goods, ammunition, an ill-fated ‘Army of Indus,’ an exiled Afghan King, and an ambitious Alexander Burnes riding by the side of the King.  Britain also succeeded in restoring Shah Shuja ul Daula on the throne of Kabul.  But the victory was short lived, the haughty Afghan tribes’ disapproval of a puppet king led to his murder; Alexander Burnes too was butchered in the bazaar of Kabul and The Army of Indus was annihilated  on its retreat through Afghan passes, it is now remembered as the ‘Army of Retribution.’

Today, on the same crossroads of history, when East and West are engaged in a renewed Great Game lets not overlook the little nuances that play a big role in larger human dramas. Dr. James Burnes may have found his patient an ‘Asiatic Tiberius’ but the Sindhi King had not forgotten his doctor and returned the favor.  Apology by Hillary Clinton may be a diplomatic gesture but even in the toughest code of Eastern ethics, where revenge and chivalry are regarded the highest virtues, forgiveness has a place too.  The Game is not yet over but it is certain that US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will not be as brutal.  It is also hoped that its aftermath will not be as combative (Britain conquered Sindh and Punjab soon after its failure in Afghanistan) though, according to Shuja Nawaz’s article in the AfPak Channel,  United States “longer term presence in Afghanistan is suspect, since those troops are believed by some to have been designated to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.”

The road is still blocked with crowds of protesters and the 9000 containers stuck there since its closure.  The formal US Pakistan Agreement, about to be signed, applies only to supplies that have not yet reached Pakistan. But the clutter needs to be cleared, perhaps this time through negotiations.

One of the  lessons learned from recent history is to have a long term policy for the AfPak region. The decade of 1980s had kept America fully involved in the region to resist against Soviet.  However, it abandoned the region as soon as the Soviet threat receded.  One of the outcomes of this abrupt departure was the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan.  This time it may be worse, Taliban may not be able to make a comeback but the country can plunge in a never ending civil war and chaos.  The repercussions of such a scenario will further enhance the political instability in Pakistan.  Hence a serious  dialogue with the Taliban before the withdrawal of the US/NATO forces is extremely important for a long-term engagement between US, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  India too could be invited at the negotiating table, as it is fully involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but that may be expecting too much.  All the partners in the Game need to define their roles in the post 2014 period.There will be  mutual mistrust in the negotiating room but a degree of respect for each other is required to clear the road further. Hillary Clinton’s gesture is symbolic, she has walked an extra mile, in all the cultures of that region, Muslim, Hindu, tribal and feudal if a woman approaches with a request it is not denied to her. Such are the subtle conventions of eastern cultures that we need to understand.

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The Great Bath of Moen jo Daro is the most known architectural features of the ancient city; it is also the most well-preserved public places.  Whether it was a spot to perform water cults or worship a water deity, we do not know, but the city’s close proximity to River Indus indicates that water indeed was held sacred in Indus Valley Civilization (2600-1900 BCE).  Indus was also revered by the ancient rishis as they dedicated hymns to it in Rig Veda, composed around 1500 BCE.  Water, in fact, remained sacred even after the advent of Islam, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689-1752) the saint and Sufi poet of Sindh, praises it in his Song of the Ocean (Sur Samoondi):

One who does not make offerings to water

And does not light diyas (lamps) to invoke

Should not hope for union with the beloved

Returning safe from the journey overseas.

The Song describes the maritime trade of the Indus region but it also speaks of its tender side- the anxiety of the seafaring men who left for long journeys and the women who waited home for them. It was written thousands of years after the death of Indus Civilization and yet its verse strikes like a long lost sailor’s message in a bottle washed ashore and discovered in the ruins of an ancient Indus port town.

Indus continued to remain significant in many other ways.  It has been a trade route since ancient times; a boundary line of the Easternmost satrapy of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire and a retreat point of Alexander of Macedonia. Legend has it that the great conqueror had searched its waters for the famed Fountain of Youth.  In the early twentieth century Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer had looked for its source. At the sight of the Lion River, as it is called in Tibet, he made a resolve. “Though it costs me my life I will find some day thy source over yonder in the forbidden land.” In 1907, in his Himalayan journey, he finally discovered that source in Kailash, the highest peak of a Mountain range in Tibet. Indus continues to lure the West in the twenty first century as confirmed by Alice Albinia who “follows the river upstream, through two thousand miles of geography and back to a time five thousand years ago when a string of sophisticated cities grew on its banks.”

In the nineteenth century Britain realized Indus’ value as the shortest possible route to reach the Central Asian markets and compete with the Russian trade. Later it was utilized as the main supply route for British ammunition and army in the first Anglo-Afghan war (1938-1942). After its defeat, Britain felt the need to conquer the Indus region.  Sindh was already nicknamed ‘the Young Egypt.’ The river, its valley, the climate reminded the British officials of the Nile and its environs, Sindh had a desert too. Some of its inhabitants had Semitic features and some looked like the Egyptians and there were some blacks of African origins. Above all there were riches and they may have found these at par with Muhammad Ali Pasha’s Egypt.  Sindh’s neighbor Punjab, with five tributaries of Indus and an eccentric Maharaja possessing Koh-i-Noor diamond, was even richer. Considering the usefulness of their river, their richness and their strategic location near Afghanistan, it was natural for Indus land-Sindh and Punjab along with the little kingdom of Bahawalpur to fall victim to Britain’s colonial design and soon they were conquered.

Annexation of Indus’ kingdoms to Britain’s Indian Empire changed the age-old look of the region. With British law and education, clubs and cricket, roads and railways, buildings and gardens, prisons and zoo the cities were modernized. Changes came to the rural areas also and some of these were huge like the network of irrigation canals that bought immense water and changed the landscape. In 1899 the Governor of Bombay, William Baron Sandhurst, had inaugurated Jamrao, one of the famous irrigation canals in Sindh. Jamrao was the main artery to sustain agriculture through a network of its distributaries that brought water to a large part of barren lands of lower Sindh. One of these was dug from the little town of Jhalori, it ran parallel to our lands, and continued for many more miles westward. We call it Shaakh, literally branch; the Shaakh has bridges every five miles. The first bridge is located right across from our village.  The second bridge or the ten-mile bridge, as the people call it, intersects the road that leads on one side to the town of Jamesabad (now Kot Ghulam Mohammad Bhurgri) and on other to Mirpurkhas, the fifth largest city of Sindh. Running parallel with the Shaakh is the patri, the dirt road that completes its tenth mile from Jhalori to this intersection. The tract of land covered with a network of shaakhs and patris crisscrossing each other in lower Sindh is called the Barrage Land in contrast to the barren land of the lower Sindh.

In 1932, the largest barrage in Asia – the Sukkur Barrage – was constructed over Indus to harness its water for irrigation. The project was a blessing. ‘It had changed Sindh from a desert to a fertile land,’ bragged British officials.  In the long run, however, it caused imbalance in the natural setting and has rendered a large area waterlogged.

The water table under the site of Moen jo Daro has been rising too due to the increased paddy cultivation around the site which requires standing water and which came in enormous supply after the construction of the Barrage. According to one estimate, two thirds of the ancient city is submerged and further excavations are not possible due to waterlogging.  The Pakistan Department of Archaeology had therefore prepared a Master Plan suggesting means of lowering the rising water table and conserving the exposed structures. In 1973 the Master Plan was presented to UNESCO and hence a worldwide campaign called ‘Save Moen jo Daro,’ was launched.  Recently the Master Plan has been updated and the work continues.

Indus, undoubtedly, the water resource of the ancient civilization and modern Pakistan is now showing signs of exhaustion; the distribution of its water had been a source of trouble between India and Pakistan and its redistribution is a sensitive issue between the federal and provincial politics of Pakistan.


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Aleph by Coke Studio-Sufi Music and Poetry


The old shrine and its rustic environs looked the same when I last visited it in 2007. Pallid walls topped with a fading green dome and a tattered flag, a few trees around it laden more with ribbons than leaves.  The ribbons were actually rags, reminders of wishes made.  Few women from the nearby villages were gathered around the grave; impoverished, as ever they looked richer in faith. The eldest of them recited a verse of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, one of the most revered saints and a Sufi poet buried in another shrine miles away and at that moment beyond her reach.

Far from the turbulent North West region bordering Afghanistan, Chand Maurya’s shrine is located in Sindh, the southern province of Pakistan.  Standing between the towns of Mirpurkhas and Jhalori, and just a mile away from my ancestral village, it is a spiritual sanctuary to many of its devotees from the nearby villages.  In contrast are spectacular and crowded shrines located closer to the cities.  At a distance of only one hundred miles from Chand Maurya is the city of Sehwan that houses the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander; near Hyderabad is Bhit Shah that still radiates with the poetry of Latif; in the heart of Lahore is Data Darbar and on the coast of Arabian Sea in Karachi is the shrine of Abdullah Shah, perhaps the first Muslim Saint of the Indian sub-continent.

Not too far back in times Pakistan’s landscape, especially the rural landscape of Sindh and Punjab was dotted more with shrines than with mosques.  Shrines are the hallmark of mystical Sufi Islam that prevails in most of the non-Arab Muslim World.  It has evolved with the flow of history, inheriting many traits of pre-Islamic faiths and acquiring a transnational character.

In March 2009 when Taliban bombed the shrine of Abdul Rehman Baba in Peshawar, the government of Afghanistan immediately announced to bear the expenses of the repairs of the shrine.  The devotion to saints continues to thrive beyond political boundaries even in these troubled times; a seventeenth century saint and mystic poet, Rehman Baba is revered throughout the Pakhtun land.

History of Islam in the Indian sub-continent begins in 711 C.E with the first Arab Muslim conquest of the Indian subcontinent.  Invading from the Arabian Seacoast, making Sindh the Gateway of Islam, these early conquerors did not force conversions but received a tax from the non-Muslims in lieu of military service. Even later in times and away from Sindh “The battles of Islam were won not by Muslim iconoclasts but by peaceful missionaries,” admits Khushwant Singh, a non-Muslim writer and historian. These peaceful missionaries had been trickling into Sindh even before its conquest; one of them was Abdullah Shah. Once when the much-desired land of Sindh was conquered it became a good testing ground for the early preachers to convince the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu population on a mass scale. Before reaching Delhi, for three centuries, Islam had already flourished and co-existed with the prevailing religions. Later with their message of justice and social equality these preachers were to win many converts in the caste divided society of India. With the passage of time they acquired the status of saints and structures came to be built to house their graves; each shrine was built according to the means of their devotees.

Given the history of Sindh and the early Islam in the region it is natural for the most original form of Sufism to survive in Sindh.  Sindh is the stronghold of Sufi Islam observes William Dalrymple in his op-ed article in The New York Times (Aug.16, 2010) writes:  “The good news is that Sufis, though mild, are also resilient. While the Wahhabis have become dominant in northern Pakistan ever since we chose to finance their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, things are different in Sindh Province in southern Pakistan. Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of the pluralist, composite culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam.”


In the segregated society of Pakistan where mosques, until three decades ago, had remained the premise of male domain, shrines had been spiritual sanctuaries for women since centuries.  Shrines represent the esoteric Islam, unlike militant Islam, this is marked with non-violence of Buddhism and Jainism and festivities of Hinduism.  Devotional songs and trance dance are a common sight at the shrines.  Devotees can be rich and poor, vagabonds and social outcastes, Muslims and Hindus, women and even transvestites. The militant Islamists, however, do not approve this face of Islam and its practices; they had warned the administrators of the Rehman Baba shrine to bar women from visiting it.  On the other hand poor economy and deteriorating conditions of the country in general is causing frustration and more and more women and men are calling on their saints.  Amongst the crowds are a large number of children being used by their destitute parents for begging.  These are the at-risk children most vulnerable to fall in the handsof a Taliban mullah.  Worse yet can happen if they are trained for a suicide-bombing mission for the very shrine that feeds them…Ah poverty.

Thankfully, the militant attacks so far have not been able to deter devotees from visiting shrines.  They continue to invoke their saints by means of vibrant music and dance, the tradition is old and is at the core of Sufi Islam. The provinces of Pakistan still abound in shrines and the numbers in Sindh are splendid. The largest necropolis of Asia located on Makli hill survives with more than a million graves and half of these are said to be of saints.  How many of these the militants can destroy? “The Taliban have antiaircraft weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and squads of suicide bombers. But the Sufis have drums. And history.” Writes Nicholas Schmidle in his article in the Smithsonian Museum. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Faith-and-Ecstasy.html?c=y&page=1

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