Archive for the ‘Contemporary Pakistan’ Category

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!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »


Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy is an Academy Award and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker. Her recent films include SAVING FACE, TRANSGENDERS: PAKISTAN’S OPEN SECRET AND PAKISTAN’S TALIBAN GENERATION, which aired on PBS, Channel 4, CBC, SBS and Arte and was the recipient of theAlfred I Dupont Award as well as The Association for International Broadcasting award. Sharmeen has made over a dozen-multi award winning films in over 10 countries around the world and is the first non-American to be awarded the Livingston Award for best international reporting.  In 2012 Time Magazine included her in the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. (Read more on the link below)



Anoushka Kachelo, 24, resident of London, is perhaps the youngest woman, and first Pakistani, to walk the last degree to the North PoleAfter eight days of hauling over 55 kilos across about 50 miles of the frozen continent, Anoushka achieved her goal of reaching the Geographic North Pole at 7.10am (GMT), Sunday April 24, 2004. (Read more on the link below)



Zainab Imran, 15, was selected to participate in the relay next week in Nottingham by the British Council.  Volunteers from 20 countries were chosen to hold the torch and represent their country at a June 28 ceremony. The Olympic Games begins on July 27.

“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am very happy,” Zainab told reporters. “It is a great inspiration for all Pakistani youth and I will try to present a soft image of my country.” (Read more on the link below)



Read Full Post »

#PPP candidate #RajaParvezAshraf elected #Pakistan‘s new Prime Minister. http://dawn.com/2012/06/22/profile-raja-pervaiz-ashraf

Read Full Post »


 ‘Prime Minister of Pakistan Disqualified by the Supreme Court’ The news fits well in the story of Pakistan.

The story of Pakistan in fact is a story of many ironies – A country created for the Indian Muslims failed to maintain Islam as the binding force, as in 1971 its East Wing separated.  Pakistan failed with democracy but it succeeded in making atomic bombs.  It is the first Muslim country to possess nuclear arsenal; it is also notorious for selling its nuclear technology.  Since September 11, 2001 Pakistan remains a staunch ally of United States in its war against terrorism but it is also suspected of protecting Al Qaeda.  Foreign archaeologists continue to reconstruct its past in the ruins of its ancient cities while NATO forces bomb its region bordering Afghanistan.  Sufi saints, once hailed as the keepers of Islam, are being labeled un-Islamic as suicide bombers target their shrines.   Things are getting dangerous, slogans of nationalism are increasing in Balochistan.  There are talks of bifurcating Sindh on ethnic basis.  Should this be happening in the province, where least blood was shed during the Partition, where refugees from India were welcomed and accommodated, where Hindus were not driven out and where the largest Hindu population continues to live. The country is also facing war on several other fronts Islam versus Islam, judiciary versus executive, army versus civil governments. Today the Supreme Court has disqualified the Prime Minister and the federal cabinet is dissolved. On the external front US-Pakistan relations are deteriorating.  What next?

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts