Category Archives: Culture
By Riaz Missen
In the deep countryside of Punjab, on the upper fringes of the Rohi (part of Thar), a village recently looked for a prayer-leader. The vacancy had emerged after the laborer/ mullah demanded either his salary should be increased or he must be relived from his duties so that he could take care of his growing livestock back in the nearby village. After failing to persuade him to stay, the villages contacted a nearby religious seminary and could avail an 18 years old Talib (student), who had learnt Quran by heart, for the job.
Out of the hundreds and thousands of mosques in the countryside of Punjab, only the Jamia mosques have regular Imams (prayer leaders). These mosques enjoy the distinction that group prayers are offered five times a day. Otherwise each hamlet has its own mosque where the people, mostly of older age, say prayers at suitable times. On Friday, they head for a ‘greater’ mosque to perform religious rites.
About the village I am talking about, it is situated in the green belt of Bahawalpur that constitutes the floodplain of the Sutlej River. Inhabited by the immigrants from Shikarpur (Sind), who had accompanied the Abbasids centuries back, the village has never hired an Imam on salary till half-a-decade back. A family of mullahs had been nominating one of its members to serve the community and collecting in return the bread two-times a day from the village.
I met the first employed prayer-leader, Maulvi Altaf, about five years back in a ‘smoker’s corner’ of the village. He belonged to the traditional family of the mullahs which I have mentioned earlier. He had not agreed on traditional arrangement and had come to the mosque only when the villagers agreed to pay him for his services in cash. His salary was half of the present one.
Soon Maulvi Altaf invented new ways to get his income increased. He undertook constructing a seminary and collecting animal hides. Having good voice he started practicing on the mosque’s loudspeaker the art of speech. The fact of the matter was that he had never attended any madarssah in his life.
On Eid days the maulvi would start early in the morning. His favorite job seemed to persuading people to spend in the ways of Allah and warning the people of hording wealth. After sometime, he started warning the people of burning fire for they did not offer their prayers regularly.
“Look, you are not a scholar. So don’t venture into the field of oratory,” I said and cautioned him about the excessive use of microphone. But my ‘advice’ did not fall on receptive ears. He would make long speeches in morning and night.
Soon, as understandably as one can imagine, the signs of resentment appeared. A team comprising youth formed undertook investigation whether the maulvi fulfilled the criteria of piety he had been suggesting to the common and ordinary folks so loudly. The results were widely shared and openly discussed. One day they held meeting with Maulvi Altaf and apprised him with evidences they had collected. The next day he did not come to the mosque and remains ‘absent’ till today.
Frankly speaking I have not personally met the present prayer-leader though have said funeral prayers for number of times behind him. I have not yet bothered to undo my confusion whether the person I have seen is the same who delivers sermons on Friday as well (I have also spotted there a fully grown bearded youth in the mosque as well). Probably the seminary has provided sermon-services as a matter of courtesy.
Whatever the case, I plan to secure a fatwa against a potter family of my village. Against the traditional practice of firing their earthen pots once in a year they are doing this job every month, surely under the market compulsions. Interestingly the village is not a market proper for their goods as few people now use the earthly devices to cook food or preserve water. The customers of the potter family are unknown: the send a truckload to the nearby city in the interior of the nearby desert. What the villagers consume, as well as the prayer leader, is dangerous gases which ‘bhatti’ emits regularly.
Through my keen observation during last two months, I have noticed that during the times the bhatti remains on fire my family suffers from asthmatic problems. I have concluded that the same is not due to seasonal variation but the polluters around me. The solution of my problem is not the doctor. Inviting attention of the health department can not provide an easy answer as well. I have decided to seek the help of a religious scholar instead.
I anticipate little bit ‘confusion’, if not embarrassment, on the side of the religious lot for environment does not usually fall in their purview though there is no dearth of brick-kilns and a sugar mill is fully operative in the areawhich hosted last year the president during his first-ever visit to Bahawalpur in the recent past. Being a journalist par excellence I assure the readers to share the story about the course I pass through while persuading a religious scholar to issue a decree against polluter and also to the extent the same proves effective in solving the problem my family is confronting.
Courtesy Weekly Pulse
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.