Pakistan may search its identity in Cholistan
Pakistan’s identity not complete without reference to the civilisation that once developed and thrived on the banks of Hakra River
By Riaz Missen
January 21, 2008
The Saraiki department at the Islamia University of Bahawalpur is planning to launch M. Phil program that will definitely end up in Ph. D. A prominent poet-scholar Dr. Nasrullah Khan Nasir heads it. His journey to this prestigious post started in the late 1970’s when he became part of the movement against the merger of Bahawalpur State into Punjab.
The movement for Bahawalpur province was suppressed. The memory of military action against the protestors is still alive. A local daily carried out a special number. Akbar Malik has been awarded doctoral degree by History department on the subject. The merger divided the new and old settlers into two groups — the settlers supported the move while locals opposed it. Dr. Mussawar Bokhari believes that Saraiki nationalism draws strength from the anti-Punjab movement in Bahawalpur.
For the intelligentsia of Bahawalpur, if one cause was lost another had begun. Multanis, who were the first to console these dejected soules over the loss of their state, ‘advised’ them to join a movement to create a province out of Punjab while Saraiki, not the Sutlej should set the boundaries. They were not in favor of a militant struggle, as some ‘freedom fighters’ of Bahawalpur once planned. Rather, they would have to disperse and become part of the new system to make their voice stronger.
About four decades down the road, Bahawalpuri intelligentsia is well entrenched in the system. The people, who had dared Punjab’s wrath to retain their identity, are serving many state institutions in respectable positions. They don’t hide their intentions. They insist that Saraiki is the biggest language of Pakistan and preservation of the culture and identity of the people associated with this language is responsibility of the state.
Some believe that the restoration of Bahawalpur province is a dead idea and it is not in the capacity of the people of this region to carve out a province out of Punjab. Multanis have definitely to take the lead for the creation of new province keeping in mind that Saraiki identity is not complete without taking into consideration the history of Bahawalpur and the importance of the Hakra-Valley Civilisation that once flourished in the area now called Cholistan.
“Ganveri Wala (southwest of Derawar Fort) falls in the center of the two cities, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, associated with the Indus Valley civilization,” says Dr. Nasrullah Khan Nasir adding that it is the area where Hindu sacred books were written. Referring to the findings of the prominent archaeologist, Dr. Rafiq Mughul, Dr. Nasir insists that the center of the civilization associated with Indus Valley rested on the banks of Hakra.
Dr. Nasrullah is truly an academic figure now. His main field is research and he is doing the right job by occupying right chair. When he does not agree with his counterparts in Central Punjab and Sindh on the matter of linguistic and cultural identity, he seems to be insisting that Bahawalpur region contains the secret of Pakistan’s past. No consciously built identity, not only of Saraiki but also of the state of Pakistan, will be complete and credible without a reference to the Hakra civilization.
The leading figure of the movement for the restoration of Bahawalpur province has practically abandoned the idea to get rid of Lahore’s domination. Seth Ubaid-ur-Rahaman who had played a leading role in this movement is only able to live with his memories. So is the case with Malik Qamar, the high court lawyer. When the comrades of the movement for the restoration of Bahawalpur province have turned to bigger ideas, the people from lower-middle class fill the ranks of the organization. Neither the statements of the leadership of the organization are given importance by press nor any practical plan to achieve its ends has come to the open. Electoral politics is still a remote possibility for it.
Though the movement for the restoration of Bahawalpur is weak, the question is still alive. The Saraiki nationalists have strong reason to reject the idea. The population balance among the Saraiki and Punjabi settlers is almost equal. The consistent marshall laws have strengthened the hands of the settlers in terms of jobs and land and limited water resources. So, having a province will definitely result into the domination of the Punjabi settlers.
“It is out of question now. We stand for a bigger province on the basis of our claim of being Saraiki, like other ‘nations’ i.e. Punjabis, Sindhi, Balochs and Pukhtoons,” Ismail Dahir, member of Saraiki National Party (SNP) and practicing lawyer of Rahim Yar Khan says. To him a province comprising at least three divisions of Punjab i.e. Multan, DG Khan and Bahawalpur and DI Khan of NWFP, can help secure Saraiki identity and culture for the generations to come.
Shahzad Irfan’s father had been among the founders of Pakistan Saraiki Party (PSP) under the leadership of Barrister Taj Muhammad Langah, who had developed differences with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto vis-à-vis questions related with Saraiki identity. He is not so active on political front. Archeology is his passion now. Shahzad insists on a distinct if not different identity of Bahawalpur. “ Regionalism not nationalism will provide the way out,” he says.
Somewhere in his mind rests the doubt whether Bahawalpur can reach its destination — ending rule of Punjab — with the help of Multan. Reverting to the position of 1970, the time when One Unit was abolished is more practical idea rather than waging a struggle for the Saraiki province. “Bahawalpur’s question is as bigger as the question of Kashmir’s accession to either of the state, India and Pakistan,” he insists.
“Supreme Court of Pakistan can settle this question,” Shahzad Irfan says insisting that the merging of Bahawalpur into Punjab is illegal as per the provision of the One Unit Plan. He does not fail to identify the hand of the feudals of Punjab and Sindh in the degeneration of a princely state into just a division of Punjab province.
“We lost Sutlej, our lifeline, due to the Indus Basin Treaty but no political party is ready to take up our case as the region gets its water table down to the alarming levels,” he worries. “Nobody bothers when Punjab sacrifices Bahawalpur’s share of canal water to the benefit of the Sindhi farmers in the name of provincial harmony,” he adds.
Once Peoples Party raised hopes among Saraiki nationalists by addressing their linguistic concern. The Islamia University of Bahawalpur got a Saraiki department during 1990s as a result. Bahaudin Zikria University has also got a research center. Saraiki is being taught at college level. But the whole process has consumed a decade and a PTV station in Multan still remains a dream.
The twists and turns of history have proved that no political party in Pakistan can come up to the aspiration of the Saraiki people given the fascination of the elite with big provinces. Many initiatives of the Centre vis-à-vis economic development and national cohesion are in limbo due to entrenched positions the four dominant ethnic groups have taken vis-à-vis each other. And Bahawalpur’s case is even more complex. It can’t wait now. Identity is not a problem — thanks to Dr. Rafiq Mughul. The drying up of Sutlej River is the most pressing problem and growing rate of unemployment and failing agriculture the others.
It is true that there exists tension between the settlers, mainly having links with Central Punjab, and the agricultural belt running alongside the Sutlej River. The competition on jobs and land resources has entered into the political arena as well. The Jats and Arains look towards Lahore while the rest to everywhere. The traditional elite that has switched their loyalties between Karachi and Lahore is under immense pressure from the youth of the old communities to find a way out.
The situation is about to take an ugly turn as the traditional elite have become sensitive to security of their domain that has become under threat now. The conflict between Chaudharys of Gujrat and Makhdoom of Rahmiyar Khan is an example whereby the later became irritated at the former’s getting allotted land in Cholistan and seeing goodbye to their murids, who were tilling the land since centuries. The competition on Rescue 1122 posts in Bahawalpur is the recent development that has caused resentment among locals due to heavy-handed tactics of Tahir Bashir Cheema.
The way out is probably there. The new and old settlers will have to join hands. The land grabbing in the area will have to be stopped to save water for the old population. Livestock and tourism will yield more than bringing the desert under cultivation. The conservation of the Hakra belt is as essential as the optimal utilization of the water resources.
There needs to be a consensus on the issue of Sutlej River, which has been unjustifiably taken over by India through Indus Basin Treaty. It is essential to preserve the ecosystem on which the future of the region heavily depends. The water table is slipping down very fast. If Sutlej does not resume its strength, exodus of population from the agri belt will be the only result. Such a development has already taken place due to drying up of once a mighty river, Hakra.
About the domination of Lahore over Bahawalpur, it is true that Ranjit Singh had once aspired for it. The region was saved only due to the intervention of the English. What was not possible at that time became real after the creation of Pakistan. It is also true that the settlers favored the merger of the princely state into Punjab to the very much disappointment of the old population. The reckless allotment of lands has taken the share of water available to it besides reducing grazing space for the livestock of the indigenous tribes.
As far as the differences between new and old settlers are concerned, the stalemate persists since the merger of Bahawalpur State into Punjab. Where the militant groups of Central Punjab have found clients among new population, nationalism is getting stronger among the old. The worrisome aspect of the whole situation is that there is still no dialogue between the two groups.
The question whether the act of merger was legal is still there and it needs to be resolved as soon as possible. Punjab is the largest province of Pakistan. Dropping little bit weight will make it look smarter. Its image will certainly improve among the smaller provinces of the country
The growth of Saraiki nationalism has naturally raised concerns among settlers. They have responded with strengthening links with religious organizations. Militancy is on the rise in this part of the population. Restoring Bahawalpur province will certainly bring down nationalistic sentiments as well religious militancy in the area. The democratic process will soon bring forth Bahawalpur’s pluralist character, as was the case before the partition.